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Irene Harvley-Felder grew up in Sanford and graduated from Elon University in 2005 with a degree in English/Creative Writing. After graduation she worked briefly as a copy editor for The Education Center in Greensboro before joining the Peace Corps. She arrived in Namibia in November 2005, completed training in the town of Omaruru, and was sworn in as a Volunteer in January 2006. She is currently teaching at a primary school called Baumgartsbrunn, which is located 45km south of Windhoek. She will complete her Peace Corps Service in December of 2007. Irene can be contacted at: irenefelder@gmail.com

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September 26, 2007

She didn't know what she wanted

I Forget
I’ve been reading a lot of poems. These days, my mind is in a thousand places at once, and poems are gloriously short, two pages at most (if they‘re longer than that, I won‘t finish them). I walk into a room with a sense of purpose and immediately forget what I was looking for. I pick up something else that needs doing and get halfway through it before I think of something else that’s much more important, but as soon as I start that, a learner asks for help, and before I know it the day is finished. Only as I’m falling into bed, only as I’m drifting off to sleep do I remember all the things I meant to do in the first place. It seems that the stage following “Crotchety” is “Dementia.” What I’m trying to say is, these two years that for so long seemed endless are fast approaching an end, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

Coming back to school after the holiday, the way the children ran to the bakkie to hug me and welcome me home.

The man who appeared in the school yard at the end of second term. He likes to sleep against the outside wall of my classroom. When I talk to him--when anybody does--he just stares vacantly at something no one else can see. When I walk down to my classroom in the mornings, I see the bottoms of his boots at the corner of the building. The left sole has come off at the back and flaps like a mouth when he walks. No one knows where he came from.

The dream. When my Peace Corps group was in training two years ago, we stayed at a rest camp in Omaruru. The owners of the rest camp had just adopted the tiniest little baby girl I’d ever seen. We all used to take turns holding her and playing with her, and she never, ever cried. She just looked at us with eyes too old and too big for her sweet face. She’d been born prematurely to an alcoholic mother, and it was a miracle she‘d lived. I don’t even remember her name, but I have a recurring dream about her. I’m walking down the street in Omaruru and I see a small girl walking toward me, she looks about 5 years old, and she’s staring right at me with those same big black eyes like she knows exactly who I am. So I say, Excuse me, do I know you? And she says It’s me. I’m all grown up now.

My calendars. Last January I made two big calendars on chart paper, 6 months per sheet, and I write down everything I do during the week, from extracurricular activities to subject meetings. I also let the kids put their names and a sticker on their birthdates. There’s always a crowd studying the calendars at class changes and after school. The other day Priskilla and Seigried asked me what the big sticker on December 7 was for, and I told them it was the day I was going home. Miss Irene will go back for the holiday? Seigried asked, and I said yes. And then you teach us in grade 7 next year, said Priskilla, who is in grade 6 now. She turned around and smiled at me.

It’s so hard to describe how I feel, like I’m split in two. That’s not good enough. I would stay if I could? I would stay if I were a better person. There is so much left to do, so many things I wanted to do and didn’t, so many ideas I never had time, or courage, or motivation, or something, to carry out. I meant to teach them all to read, to count, to multiply, to be kind to each other, to take care of themselves. I meant to do so many more things than I actually did do, it seems like a cop-out to leave now, when I’m just beginning to learn these children, this country. It feels like I‘m giving up on them.

I teach Natural Science. In the textbook I found the average life expectancy for a Namibian in 2000 in a chapter about mammals. There was a chart comparing characteristics of elephants with characteristics of humans. In Namibia, elephants have a longer life expectancy than humans: they can live to be 60. In 2000, due to the high rate of HIV/AIDS, the average life expectancy for a Namibian was 43. And it’s getting lower.

The Reader Finds What She’s Looking For
I feel like I’ve come to the top of a hill and before me I see another hill as steep as the one I just climbed. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a great precipice with nothing but trepidation in my heart. I’m afraid that what I’ve gained will forever outweigh what I’ve given back. I don’t want to leave these children, but I do want to go home.

I like poems because you can always find one that says exactly what you were feeling but couldn’t put into words. I like them because you can read them again and again and they’re different every time, and because it doesn’t really matter what the writer was trying to say; the reader always finds what she’s looking for.

This piece is from The Bare Arms of Trees by John Tagliabue:
I think of the vastness and courage between this step and that step
Of the yearning and fear of the meeting, of the terrible desire held apart…
I think of the unseen love and the unknown thoughts that exist between tree and tree.”

This one is from The Feast by Robert Hass:
…She imagined setting it out artfully, the white meat,
the breads, the antipasto, the mushrooms and salad
arranged down the oak counter cleanly, and how they all came
as in a dance when she called them. She carved meat
and then she was crying. Then she was in darkness
crying. She didn’t know what she wanted.

Burning Trash and Eating Goat
Switching topics completely: In August, I had my first and only visitor from the States. Meredith and I have been friends since seventh grade. I was really looking forward to spending time with someone who knew me before I came to Namibia, back when I was relatively sane and didn’t do things like burn trash, eat goat, and be crotchety. I should say that Meredith has been to South Africa before, when she was in college, to do something with animal science. When her group arrived in Johannesburg, some thugs spotted them, followed them to Pretoria, and robbed them at gunpoint. Needless to say, she was not excited about her short layover in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, the fates conspired to make her miss her connecting flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek, and the next flight leaving was in the morning. Since she was afraid to leave the airport to go to a hotel, she spent the night at the bar. And then in the morning, she missed her new flight. And then she missed another flight. Thankfully, she finally made it to Windhoek, but ran into trouble there when the customs official wanted her to write down a physical address for the place she’d be visiting, which is my school, which does not have a physical address. (If you want to find it, you can darn well start driving on the road and you can drive and drive and drive and drive and if you come to a building, you’re here.) So I had to go in and help her out with a fake address…

We spent a few days at my school before the holiday started, and then took the bus overnight to Cape Town. The images I went to sleep to were dry, flat, Namibian bush, sandy riverbeds, and a sun sinking in a dusty sky. When I awoke, everything was a blur of green and rolling hills and there was drizzle, actual raindrops hitting the window, and lakes and rivers with water in them. It was truly amazing. I couldn’t stare hard enough at all the green, and above it the wet gray sky filled with clouds, real clouds! I woke Meredith up but she was not impressed, and she just went back to sleep. So while I continued to stare at all the green, I ate my breakfast, and then I ate part of hers.

Cape Town is Pretty
We arrived in Cape Town in the afternoon, passing first through the sprawl of the “informal settlements,” the tin and aluminum shacks and shebeens. The sheer size of it is overwhelming; it stretches on endlessly on the outskirts of that big, beautiful, metropolitan city with booming real estate and all of the Western amenities--movie theatres, malls, bars and restaurants. There are even settlements built into the lower slopes of the mountains, up above the posh apartments with views of the sea. This is beginning to sound like I dwelt on politics and the economy the entire time I was on vacation, and that is decidedly not true. With the exception of mocking the “township tours” offered by the hostel where we stayed, I took a long break from thinking about that stuff. (Perhaps they are entirely legitimate tours, and they certainly allow tourists to see how the majority live in South Africa, but for my side, I think they’re dumb. That township may not resemble your mama’s neighborhood, but it‘s still a neighborhood. It is not a zoo. I‘ll visit it when Damara families start turning up in the American suburbs to snap photos.)

In Cape Town, we did a lot of just wandering the streets. It was so wonderful to be in a real city. I had forgotten the sensation of being surrounded by so many people that one has no choice but to move with the crowd, a sensation I associate with cities like London and Istanbul, not with Namibia. We did do touristy things like visiting Victoria Wharf, walking in Kirstenbosch Gardens, hiking up Table Mountain (NOT as easy as it looks!), and taking the ferry to Robben Island, but my favorite thing was probably just wandering up and down Long Street, looking at menus at restaurants I couldn’t afford and sitting on the floors of second-hand bookshops. (Okay I take that back, maybe my number one favorite thing was the Wine Tour. It included a cheese tasting. I think that speaks for itself.) In all, we spent seven days in Cape Town before hopping on another bus to see the Garden Route.

The Man Who Does Not Like People
The Garden Route is a stretch of smaller towns and villages along the road from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, so called because of its verdant, almost tropical landscape (at least in the rainy season, which is August-September). Our first stop was Mossel Bay, but we were unimpressed and only stayed one night there before moving on to George, a larger town near the Swaartburg Pass. The hostel owner was a true character who claimed he “doesn’t like people,” but was actually quite a conversationalist. At first, he kept asking me questions about Peace Corps and whether or not I thought I’d made any kind of difference in my two years, and he was kind of getting under my skin. (I am, of course, allowed to ask myself these questions, but it gets old hearing them from other people.) But then he told us his life story and his curiosity began to make sense. He said he’d grown up in Zimbabwe and Swaziland with eight brothers and sisters, none of whom he keeps in contact with now, then lived for a short while in the Netherlands before coming back to South Africa to do volunteer work in a small village. He worked for seven years on a garden project, “doing everything by the book,“ which for him meant a structured process of starting the gardens himself, then teaching locals how to keep them up, then in the last years, turning the work over to them entirely. However, at the end of his seven years the project had failed utterly. The locals, according to him, proved themselves incapable of keeping a garden going even when provided with detailed instructions. He claimed that no matter how long a volunteer worked on a development project, it was never long enough to pull people away from the lives they grew up with and the things they found familiar. I was intrigued by his story; many people I meet are ready to question the validity of volunteer work but have no experience of their own to bring to the discussion. I still think a lot about what he said. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I also don’t claim to have any solid conclusions of my own yet.

Anyway, back to vacation. As he was talking, he was driving us through the Swaartburg Pass to the Cango Caves in the back of his bakkie. The pass through the mountains is breathtaking, an old, winding road on the edge of a cliff with only a low stone guard-rail between vehicles and the deep valley below. The day was overcast and cold, and the tops of the mountains disappeared in the clouds. The mountains there are so rounded and humped up at the bottom, they look like the toes of giant feet. On the other side of the pass, the land flattens out into farms for ostriches and cows and it’s impossibly green: Crayola green, Disney green. After about an hour we started to climb again until we reached the opening to the Cango Caves, which go deep into the rocky hillside.

We went on a “standard tour” of the caves with a guide whose English was so accented by his native Zulu, I could hardly understand a word he said, but it all sounded like music. The caves themselves were spectacular. We would walk a short distance through heavy silence and humidity and suddenly find ourselves in an enormous cavern, lit only with a single electric light, covered with stalagmites and stalactites. (My interest in caves comes from a childhood viewing of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was thrilling when I was 8, especially when they started to find dinosaurs. Also, I’d read somewhere that the San people used to live in these caves. But apparently I’d read wrong; as there is no water in the caves and they’re pitch black inside, only an idiot would try to live in them. The San people only sought shelter in the first cavern when it was cold or rainy.) An “adventure tour” of the caves was also offered, but neither Meredith nor the British girls with us were interested in scooting on their stomachs through dark, narrow passages for an hour, much to my disappointment. (Apparently, people occasionally get stuck.)

I Think I See Antarctica (I’m Wrong)
After George we went to a tiny place called Wilderness. I would hesitate even to call it a village, as it had only one shop, and this shop was too far away from our hostel to walk to. In Wilderness we hiked along a river to a waterfall. The trail was sort of treacherous, as it had fallen away in a lot of places and someone had attempted to replace it with wooden planks that were also beginning to fall away. The waterfall at the top was beautiful, but the best part was on the way back down when a bushbuck crossed the path right in front of me, and then was kind enough to chew on leaves right by the trail for a good ten minutes while we took pictures.

After Wilderness we went to Plettenberg Bay. We spent a whole day hiking around the peninsula, which really was treacherous. It was a cool, windy day, and on the eastern side of the peninsula we had lovely views of the city on the bay and not-so-lovely whiffs of eau de seal. When we reached the point, however, we met the wind full on. The waves were crashing furiously against the rocks, and there were seals playing in the whitecaps and seagulls riding the wind like paragliders. We stayed there for a while, looking south across the Indian Ocean, and feeling as though we’d truly come to the end of the world. Nothing but ocean lies between the point and Antarctica. I almost expected to see it, an icy, silver slab against the horizon, but I saw only waves.

Walking and scrambling across the wet, slick rocks on the western side, the wind was so strong it felt as though it might take the features right off my face. At one point, we ran into some other people standing on the rocks staring out at the sea. We followed their gaze just in time to sea the broad, blue back of a whale rise up out of the water, catch the glint of the sun, then go under again. We waited for a long time, hoping it would rise again, but it did not. I later read that “August marks the start of whale season, when Southern Right whales migrate to their mating and calving grounds off the southern coast of Africa. These aquatic mammals remain in African waters until about October, when they begin their long journey back to Antarctica” (Horizons).

No Wonder It’s A Wonder!
We left Plettenberg Bay in the evening and arrived in Port Elizabeth late, and then early the next morning hopped a plane to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It was a British Airlines flight, and of the 150 available seats, 11 were occupied. It’s tragic to think about what Mugabe is doing to his country, that a place hailed as one of the wonders of the world could be losing money because people are afraid to go there. Or maybe it was just an off day... We saw Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean and the Zambian side, and both were awe-inspiring. It‘s so strange to walk through land as dry and dusty as that of Namibia, the only vegetation a scattering of angry camel thorns, and then suddenly find the Zambeze River gushing into a place where the earth opens like a wound. The most peculiar thing about the falls is the sheer size of it; it isn’t just one waterfall, it’s a series of waterfalls all tumbling into a deep gorge. If you lock your eyes on one of the falls, the speed and strength of the water is so powerful it’s almost frightening.

Really Big Truck Mesmerizes Entire Country
Our time at the falls was cut short because I had to be back in Namibia for my Close of Service conference, so we hopped a bus the next day from Zambia to Windhoek. We had one final, bizarre adventure when we came to a large-ish town near the Zambian border and had to pull over and sit because the road was so crowded with people. There were people everywhere we looked, pushing and shoving to get closer to the road-side, all looking in the same direction. It wasn’t hard to see what they were looking at, but it was hard to understand it: at the far edge of the town, an enormous tractor-trailer truck was sitting in the middle of the road, not moving. It was the largest truck I’d ever seen; so enormous, in fact, that a group of men were working to cut down the power lines so that it could pass without running into them.

As they worked to cut the lines, the crowd grew more and more excited, and it began to bleed into the street. Eventually there were so many people in the street that it seemed the truck would not be able to pass even when the lines had been cut. Miraculously, when the lines were finally severed, people managed to avoid being hit by them as they fell, and then some policemen drove through the crowd and pushed all the people back to the roadside. Then the truck started up, but it was driving so slowly its movement seemed like a mirage. When it finally drove past us, I could see that it was the length of three normal-sized tractor-trailor trucks, and twice the height. A tiny plaque on the side said “mining equipment.” Later, when we were finally on our way again, a Zambian guy on the bus explained that the truck had traveled all the way from South Africa at 20 KMH to transport equipment needed to start a mine in Zambia. Its journey had been documented in all the papers, and people were flocking to the towns on the main road to see it. Like I said, bizarre.

After passing through the border, the bus drove overnight through the Caprivi and into the north. The deeper we went into Nambia, the more scorched the earth became. Once during the night, I awoke to see a cloud of smoke muting the bus headlights; the land all around us was ablaze in patches like the red-hot coals of a thousand dying campfires.

(NOTE: The contents of these e-mails are mine personally and do not reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of any institution or individual mentioned, including the U.S. Government, U.S. Peace Corps, the Government of Namibia, or its citizens. - Irene Harvley-Felder)