Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"A man cannot undo his past. Can a zebra wipe away their stripes?" -Namibian Proverb

I came to Namibia to be a teacher. To help those in need, to learn about an unfamiliar culture, and to experience life as a volunteer educator. Little did I know that I would find my place as a learner, being taught the toughest lesson I ever could learn.

Namibia has shown me amazing things- beauty, devastation, power, poverty, strength, simplicity and resilience. Namibia has introduced me to a culture bound together by some of the hardest working people I have ever met- people who care about their traditions, communities, who work tirelessly doing backbreaking work to live a simple and humble life. Men, women and children who rely on the land to get by, who pray for rain, who tend to livestock, who carry on in circumstances that are unimaginable to most of us from the US. All without muttering the slightest complaint.

When I was just arriving here, someone said to me, "you will never go hungry in Namibia". And this has been true, both literally and figuratively. I have been shown a great magnitude of hospitality here. People have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, teach me about the way things work in this place, to ask questions, and just simply share space and time. I have never been around so many people who are happy and eager to cook for you, share meals, and invite you to their homes. It is really quite wonderful and so unfamiliar, as we are so accustomed to privacy and lives of solitude.

The smells, sounds, and tastes of Namibia warm my heart. The smell of the open fire at the market (I even secretly like the smell of the meat being braaid), the sweet scent of fresh marulas falling from the trees, and the smell of fat cakes and fish being fried in the mornings on my walk to work are incredible. The sound of the birds out back that wake me up every morning, and the donkeys walking down my street every afternoon always have me asking, "is this real life?" The absence of sound is also really magical- there are no cars driving by, no planes flying overhead, no trains or radio advertisements blasting in my face. The silence is beautiful. The music is always right on the money- full of energy and passion and always, it just sounds so right. The taste of a fresh guava or mango just picked from your neighbor's tree is enough to put a smile on your face, even on the worst of days.

One of my favorite things about being here is the way that every scene is like a vision into eternity. This place is so, so big and empty, that when you look out into the Savannah, you really have no perception at all as to how small you are, how big this land is, how far things are... it takes my breath away. The night sky here is the same- with no light pollution, the stars and the moon are as big as can be. It is a reminder of how little we are in this big world, but in the best way possible. I wish there were better words to explain the way that this landscape escapes reality- the magnitude, depth and size are simply astonishing.

I never would have thought that I would become an expert at washing clothes by hand. Nor did I ever imagine myself being okay with being covered in dirt, constantly. I never thought I would be comfortable sleeping amongst giant wall spiders, lizards, mosquitoes and beetles the size of my pinkie. Giving up personal space has been manageable. Being the only one in the room not speaking Oshikwanyama, being the only white girl for miles... not the worst thing in the world. Never really knowing what is going on... it's all a part of life here.

There are a lot of things that have become so normal to me since coming here that I hardly ever think to write about them anymore. A few examples: Seeing a young girl, maybe ten, carrying a 50lb bag of rice on her head. A little boy, maybe seven or eight, tending to a herd of forty steer. A perfect sunrise and sunset just about every day. Cramming six people plus bags into a five person car, hitchhiking everywhere and never doubting that the person driving you is a trustworthy individual,  oh- and the other five people that you are crammed into that tiny car with? They are all eating hot dogs, fried fish and french fries. And the woman next to you is breast feeding her baby. It is also somewhat normal now to expect that just a "hello" is never really just a hello, because it will turn into a formal greeting (again, a time consuming exchange). Listening to people speak in their native language (hai ti!) is mesmerizing. I love the vocal intonations and the sounds- "ooh, my dear"!

Something that I really love here is actually the lack of choices to make- like when I get in the shower in the morning, I don't even have to choose if I want the water to be hot or cold- it is cold, and I don't have to think about it. When I go to the supermarket to buy orange juice, there it is. There is no "pulp", "less pulp", "pulp plus antioxidants", "super pulp"- nope, just orange juice. Simple, easy, super. While yes, there is a luxury in choice, the lack thereof is also pretty awesome.

I still miss a few things from home- like laundromats, online shopping, grass, coffee to go, sushi, the subway, Forever21, tofu, and certain vegetables that I just can't manage to find anywhere here. I have forgotten about using Instagram/being attached to my cell phone, using US dollars, screens on windows, or wanting air conditioning.

There are a few things that still sometimes catch me off guard- like the fact that it is 110 degrees every day, yet I am the only one carrying a bottle of water. What is everyone else drinking, you ask? Well everyone here carries two liter bottles of coke or fanta. Long car ride? Grab a 2L. Long walk? Grab a 2L. Cans and 20oz bottles are simply out of the question. The soda, and the mayonnaise covered everything usually freak me out. In the supermarket, they sell mayo in a 20kilo container. I can't hardly lift it. A "salad" to Namibians is various pastas and cut up hot dogs tossed in mayo. A vegetarian's nightmare, to say the least.

Namibians have a very different perception of time than I am accustomed to, as I had been advised. I know this, and am aware of it, yet sometimes I am just so flabbergasted by how patient/ not in a hurry people are that I just want to explode. A short story: last week, Ted and I had to take a combi (van) from Oshakati to Windhoek. The ride is about eight hours, so people generally leave early in the day to arrive in the capital before dark. Assuming this was going to be the case, we got to Oshakati around 8:00am and got our names on a list for the next ride leaving. I was feeling a bit restless, anxious, whatever... so we waited. Two hours went by, and we were still three people short of leaving (the drivers only leave when the vehicle has filled up). I guess the driver could sense my restlessness, as he came up to me and said, "don't worry meme, we are going now". Well, at 12:30pm, our combi finally left- yes, FOUR HOURS later. Now, clearly, is not the same "now" that we know back in the states. We didn't arrive in the capital until after 9:00pm that night.

Anyway, as I started by saying, I came here to be a teacher. I ended up being a learner- and that toughest lesson I had to learn is how to ask for help. This is something I have never been good at, maybe even refused to do. When I left the states, I guess I had been wearing my "tough face" for far too long. I have experienced quite a lot of hardship in the last few years, and through it all, have forced myself to keep pushing forward- grin and bear it, if you will. I didn't want to accept the fact that I was "damaged", or even accept the attention that my struggles would bring. Suppress, suppress, suppress. That's just what I do. I was so concerned with caring for others that I often forgot to look after myself and really assess my own needs. I knew I wanted to pursue a job in the world of service, which is how I ended up here. I was foolish to think that in leaving my problems/issues behind in the states that they would not follow me here. I didn't come here looking for a new start or a second chance, but I was sure hoping for the opportunity to heal through helping others. Needless to say, my mental and physical health have been seriously compromised since coming here. I am at the point now that if I don't get the help I need, the damage I am causing to my body could follow me for the rest of my life. I know that there is no "good time" for illness or distress, but I couldn't think of a worse time to be experiencing this kind of disaster. Because I am not myself, I am not able to fully experience life here, nor can I give everything I want to to my students. I am devastated to say that my time in Namibia is coming to a close because I am tired, and my depression has finally won the battle. I will be returning to the US within the next week.

I need help, and the help I need is not available here. I want more than anything to stay here and live in the moment here and be a good teacher. Leaving this country early is a nightmare to me. I am heartbroken. I love it here, as I have expressed. I wish things could be different, and I wish the timing of this crisis were different. Making the decision to leave has taken a great deal of courage, and it has been exhausting. Admitting that I need help has been equally as tiresome. I hope that I am ready to change and accept the help I need so that I can pick up the pieces and move on with my life. In all honesty, though, I am scared to death of what comes next upon my return home. Facing my fears- staring them dead in the face is something I have been avoiding for far too long.

Namibia has given more more than I could have asked for, even in my short time here. Had I never come to this beautiful country or taken this challenging job, I may have never been forced to seek the help I need and start to take care of myself. I have learned more about myself and my capabilities/flaws in the last three months than maybe in the last three years. I have also been reminded of what an amazing and compassionate man my husband is, that my family has my back, and who is a real friend back at home. It is in these great times of need that we figure out who is important in our lives, and who just complicates them. I am thankful for this lesson, too.
It is unfortunate that the circumstances are as such, as I have always dreamed of doing what I am doing now. Don't get me wrong, life here hasn't been a cake walk besides my depression- teaching is more challenging than I could have imagined, failing students and unreasonable living conditions for the kids haunt me every day... but I have been given a life-changing opportunity here and I will forever be grateful for it.

Namibia has been a true gift- a chance for change, self-reflection, and hopefully, self-improvement in the coming months. I know that the challenges I will face back at home are just as great as the ones I see here, but I am eager to overcome them- keep learning, growing, changing.
I am saddened to think that my time here is being cut short- there was so much more that I wanted to do, see, give, share... I gave up a lot to make this journey possible, and I am disappointed that I will not get to finish it in the way I had envisioned.

Namibia has introduced me to some amazing people- good people, caring people, genuine people. People full of life, hope, and passion. In many ways, this country has reminded me that there are still plenty of good-hearted souls in the world. I have also been reminded that my problems of luxury back at home are really nothing I can ever complain about again. We have so much and are so fortunate, yet often manage to overlook the simplest of pleasures.

I am grateful to everyone who encouraged me to chase my dreams and come here. The people who cheered me on, motivated me, shared their love with me. My fellow volunteers who have inspired me in so many ways. My Field Director, who has shown me more compassion and kindness than I ever could expect in a boss. The reward was found in the risk I took to do what felt right in my heart. This is not the end of my life of service, but only the beginning. I am learning that in order for me to help others in the way I want to, I must first heal and help myself. Learning expands great souls, for sure.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


I planned this super awesome lesson for my grade 8 ESL class yesterday. We had spent the whole week working on the Present Simple Tense- my kids were finally starting to understand that we use this tense to explain routine (...every morning, I wash my hair), or states/condition (I am happy).

To give them a break from boring lessons, I wanted to give them a chance to work on something creative. I planned to have them create and write a postcard to a friend to tell them about what they are doing on a made up trip- this was going to be a great way to make sure they had a firm grasp on the routine part of this grammar lesson. So, I spent about 20 minutes explaining to the kids what a postcard is, what it looks like- how it has a picture of where you are writing from on one side, and a letter from you on the other, why we send them, etc.

After about 20 minutes, my kids were still looking at me like I was an alien, so I knew something was up. I was exhausted from explaining this concept in what felt like a million different ways, but I just couldn't figure out what the problem was. I even drew a postcard of my own and showed them again what it should look like. I asked again if anyone had any questions, and a boy in the back said, "Miss, we don't understand." Well, duh. I got that part.

So, me, being a silly girl to assume anything, thought they knew the vocabulary word vacation. I said, "Well, think about a vacation. Like a trip, you know?" Still...  nothing. Thirty two sets of eyes staring at me, expressing nothing. Then, it hit me. No one knew the word vacation, because they use British English here... they call it HOLIDAY. As soon as I said holiday, they all went, "oooooohhhhh" in unison.

Then, I proceeded to ask how many of them had been on a holiday or a trip before? And two raised their hands. And then I knew that my lesson was nothing short of a total bomb.

Thank you, Friday, for coming today.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Honoring the King... and Being a Celebrity

On Saturday, Ted and I attended a commemorative festival, honoring the life and legacy of the last Ovambo King, Mandume. We traveled for about forty minutes towards Angola in the back of a pickup to another village called Ohmedi, which was hosting the celebration. It was supposed to be an all day event with lots of speakers, cultural performances, and a lesson in the history of this man and his impact on the Ovambo people.

A bit about the last King:

Mandume Ya Ndemufayo (1894 - 6 February 1917) was the last king of the Kwanyama, a subset of the Ovambo people of southern Angola and northern Namibia. Ndemufayo took over the Kwanyama kingdom in 1911 and his reign lasted until 1917 when he died. Ndemufayo is honoured as a national hero in both Angola and Namibia.

No European colonizer challenged the well-organized and well-armed Ovambo kingdoms until 1915 and the beginning of World War I which coincided with a massive local drought. During the battle of Omongwa, Ndemufayo and the Kwanyama's resisted a Portuguese attack for three days. Simultaneously, the South African forces peacefully conquered the portion of the Kwanyama kingdom formerly located in German South West Africa. Due to heavy losses, Ndemufayo was forced to relocate the Kwanyama capital to the area of South West Africa. In February 1917, after Ndemufayo refused to submit to South African control, he died in battle against the South Africans. The cause of his death is disputed; South African records show his death from machine-gun fire, while oral and popular history described his death as suicide. Tales here tell that the king took his own life before he could officially be killed by his opponents- a true hero to most Ovambo.

We were dropped off at a bar in Ohmedi, and then realized that the grounds that were hosting the event were about 2.5k from where we were dropped... so we started walking down a dusty road in the mid day sun. As you can imagine, I am filthy, already. Anyway, we were really happy to have been scooped up by a nice couple who was also driving to the event, so we didn't have to walk the whole way.

We arrived to find at least a couple thousand people at the celebration, which in this country, is A LOT of people. There was even security at the event- metal detectors and all! They had tents set up, a PA system, and a stage with some important looking people sitting on it. Well, this was all lovely. Everyone was dressed in their traditional attire- the women in their pink and black dresses, the men in their red and white button-up shirts with leopard print on the shoulders. It was a bit hard to listen to the speaker, as everything was in Oshikwanyama, and of course, I can't understand a word. Things got weird though, really, really weird.

It turns out that this was definitely not a "whites friendly" event, as Ted and I were the only white people in the crowd. People were literally turning around in their seats to stare at us. Kids were walking up to us and just stopping and staring, not saying a word. This was really awkward, to say the least. We were there to learn, but ended up being followed by paparazzi... literally people taking out their cameras and trying to sneak photos of us standing in the crowd. It was insane. At one point, a random man came over and put his arm around me while his buddy snapped a shot. I can only imagine the look on my face in that photograph.

A bunch of schools sent their kids there to participate in the cultural performances. We got to see a couple of these, which were energetic, vibrant, and beautiful. Some of the kids from Ted's school were there to dance and sing in their traditional attire/songs/language.

One really cool and interesting thing that happened was that the PRESIDENT! was there and he gave a speech! The president was just sitting up on the stage the whole time with some of the other Parliament members- can you imagine what security would be like at an event of this nature in the states? It was so bizarre to us, and so awesome to have the opportunity to see him like that. Well, it was, until he started going on about "freedom from the white men" and things of this sort... we got really uncomfortable, and didn't want anyone to think we were Afrikaners, so we headed out.

We began our trek down the same dusty road that we came in on, and so many cars and pickup trucks drove right by us. We couldn't hitch a ride until we were almost back to the main road. It appeared that everyone was still on their white man hating binge, so no ride for us Oshilumbus waking down the road. It sucked.

We got back to our village, dazed, confused, shocked, exhausted... the heat was really intense all day on Saturday and we were just beat. So, we got dropped off by our taxi driver in town and started walking home. As we were walking down the sandy road to our school gate (and home), someone threw rocks at us. We turned around to see who did it, and there were three men sitting out back at one of the houses, but they all pretended they didn't see us staring at them.

It was a long day, to say the least. But, we learned a lot, we were reminded of how powerful ignorance can be, and we were given a reminder that we are a minority.

Sometimes, we need to be reminded of what it feels like to be a minority, to be mistreated for the color of your skin, whatever- so that when we return home, we can fight for the people who are in shoes similar to the ones we are in right now. You really can't understand what it is like to be hated for no reason than the color of your skin until it happens to you. Then, you can fully empathize with the people who suffer in this way, every day. We are definitely breaking down racial walls in being here. It is tiring, but it is powerful.

Like I have mentioned before, most days, I wish I had a guide to walk around with me and tell me what the hell is going on. I usually have no idea.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Candilicious Kisses

Whew! I had a really nice birthday weekend. It has been tough to get back into the swing of things this week.

On Thursday night, I was able to Skype with my cousin and my grandmother, which was much needed. As most of you know, back home I usually talk to my grandma every Sunday. Since I arrived in Namibia at the end of December, I hadn’t been able to call her even once! So… as you might imagine, it was a great gift to be able to finally talk with her this week and hear her voice, finally.

On Friday, I got to talk with my dad and my sister, which also made me feel a bit closer to home. Hearing about normal things going on out there is always pleasant and refreshing! I received a lot of nice messages from friends back home, which I really appreciated. At school, I told my grade 8 English class that it was my birthday, so I used it as an opportunity to learn about what kids do here to celebrate their birthdays. I told them about how Americans eat a lot of cake, have a party, receive gifts, usually share a special meal, and have one candle for each year on their cake while singing the birthday song. Interestingly, their traditions are pretty similar- they eat cake, sing a birthday song in Oshikwanyama, use it as an excuse to have a party… except they also kill cows and “special chickens”, drink homemade beer, and oh, when it is your birthday, apparently it is YOU who is supposed to give out treats, not your friends giving them to you. I received a bunch of hilarious cards from some of my kids, here are some of my favorite lines from them:

“candilicious kisses on your smooth cheeks, stay blessed!”

“Your laughter and assistance that you gave us unconditionally is a lesson we will always treasure”

“Hi sweetiepie Jessilito, I wish you a happy birthday and hundreds of decades on the earth!”

Sweet, random, and awesome. Friday night we had a make-your-own ice cream sundae party at our house, which was just super. Ted and I made vegetarian chili, two cakes, sugar cookies, and homemade ice cream for our guests! We had about a dozen fellow volunteers come by- some of whom travelled between three and eight (yes, eight) hours to come and celebrate with us. I was feeling so special to see that some of them were willing to travel so far just for my party! Then I got to thinking about how some friends back home used to complain about me living “too far” away in NYC… these girls jumped on the opportunity to travel and come see all of us. Anyway, it was awesome. Some of our local friends came too, as well as a Peace Corp Volunteer who is working in the area. It was so nice to see everyone and catch up, as Ted and I hadn’t seen any of the other volunteers since we arrived at our site last month. Everyone camped out for the night, shared some laughs and some cider, and all in all, had a good time. I got some sweet gifts- red bell peppers ( I am too poor to buy them for myself, so one of the girls got me some!), a kombucha culture, and some South African wine!

Saturday we met up with everyone in Ongwediva, a small town outside of Oshakati (where we do our shopping each week). We went to a water park called Benny’s, which was oddly located in the middle of nowhere next to a shopping mall. They have a few outdoor bars, a pool, and a restaurant. We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and then things got interesting. At around five, Ted and I left to go and grab a bite to eat, as well as do our grocery shopping for the week ahead. We got a bunch of food at the supermarket, and found a pizza place (sort of like a pizza hut) to grab a pizza. As we were finishing eating, I took out my wallet to put aside money for the two cab rides we still had ahead of us. After a near panic attack, between the two of us, we had exactly enough for the ride with four Namibian dollars to spare (fifty cents at home). We had no debit cards or any other way of getting money, so this was a near disaster. The sun was starting to set and the weather was turning bad, so we hitched a ride to our hike point to get back to Omungwelume. We were just arriving as a black wall of a storm was coming in. In the distance, it looked like a wall of rain was about to hit us- well, it wasn’t rain. It turned out to be a giant sand storm. We had to just stand there with our groceries and wait it out. The wind and sand combination was so bad that you could hardly keep your eyes open. There were hardly any cars on the road, and there were about ten other people who were also impatiently waiting for a ride home. I was starting to think that for the first time, we were going to be ­­­­­­stranded in the middle of nowhere in the dark with no money.

Well, suddenly, a car pulled up really fast and a guy jumped out. He called for the two white people to come over and get in (hmmmm….) and to our pleasant surprise, it was one of my colleagues and his friends that just so happened to be passing by and heading back to our village. What a relief. So we get dropped off at the gate at our school’s property after dark, and the gate is locked. It is a “home weekend”, so none of the students are there. We are yelling, honking, waiting… and there is no guard to be found. We realize that the only way to get to our house is to climb the fence. Ted goes over first, and I pass him all of the groceries. I’m really not looking forward to climbing this thing, so I’m avoiding it and letting time pass. I’m literally half way over the fence when I hear someone calling for me to wait… and there comes the guard! Just in time to save me quite a lot of trouble and a broken leg or two.

Needless to say, we got home just fine. It was quite a hassle, though.

The rest of the weekend was quite calm, compared to the festivities of Friday night and the complications on Saturday.

The first signs of life have emerged in our garden bed, which has given me a lot of hope and motivation today. The fact that any seeds want to grow in this awful, hot and dry sand is amazing. So far, the zucchini have germinated! We are waiting on the beets, carrots, tomatoes, hot peppers, and melons, but hey, anything is amazing at this rate.
Things are okay at school, I am still having a lot of issues with kids just not understanding what the hell I'm talking about, talking while I'm talking... high school stuff I guess. I gave a quiz in my Geography class on Friday about clouds, for example. We have been studying clouds for more than a week, so I gave a wrap-up quiz to be sure that everyone is on task and keeping up with the material. Just clouds, what the types are, how we identify them, things like that. WELL, I get the quizzes back, and there are answers about parasites, math equations, and soil composition. No words. Sometimes, I just have no words. And that is where I'm at today.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Quarter Life Reflections

"Wow, I can't believe that you are willing to give up a year of your life to go and live in Namibia."

I can't tell you how many times I heard this before coming here in December. Give up: as in, you mean, I am erasing a year of my life that I could have otherwise had? As in, there is something else I should be doing? Give up, as in the value of this experience is not worth anything substantial?
At this point in time, I am feeling really thankful and fortunate to be right where I am. In saying that, I should mention that I have also been doing a lot of reflecting on this comment. How can one possibly measure the value of an experience such as the one I'm in the middle of? How can I measure the success of my time here?

Since I am starting a new year this week, I of course have been spending a lot of time thinking about where I have been, where I am now, and where I'm headed next. My time here in Namibia so far has been interesting. Every day, I am faced with enormous challenges, small successes, and if I'm lucky, a few moments of peace. I reflect constantly on whether or not the work I am doing is making any difference in the long run- is the impact that I will leave behind going to be sustainable? Am I really improving or assisting in the development of these kids, their community, or my school?

While my time here is focused on improving the lives of my learners through education, mentoring and companionship, I am beginning to realize just how much this job is changing me. I am learning, growing, and expanding in ways that I never could have imagined. I don't think I could find an experience of this magnitude back at home- every day I am pushed mentally and physically, my patience and empathy is tested, and I can only dream of the better person I might be if I keep working at this level for the whole year. The experience so far has been challenging for me- I am generally very hard on myself- usually super critical, a bit on the negative side, and I often act on emotion rather than rational thinking. My duties here are forcing me to think outside of my comfort zone. My kids' day depends on my mood. Their improvements depend on my passion and patience. The list can go on and on. I guess what I am trying to say is that my focus and determination will directly effect the people around me, more than ever.

I think I am settling in to the routine. Maybe my kids are starting to get used to my funny accent. Maybe the other residents in my village are starting to think of me as a part of the community, rather than a charity. I'm less surprised when we run out of water or have no power. I have to be hopeful. While every day throws me a new curveball, I now know that I can at least expect it.

On turning 25...
I always dreamed to live and serve abroad. I've always had a passion for people and finding ways to make their lives better. I always wanted to challenge myself in ways that most people are not interested in doing. Now that I am really here, really doing what I've wanted to... the feeling is overwhelming. Most days, I still don't believe that this is real life. The hardest part is not being able to share these moments with the people I love. While yes, I love to write, I am finding it impossible to capture the smells, sounds, size, and magnitude of the things around me. I wish I could bottle all of these things up and send them home!
I'm feeling really quite fortunate to have found a soulmate, friend, and companion in my lovely husband, Ted. While he is facing the same challenges, he manages to find patience to share with me. I know that had it not been for him, I probably would not be sitting here writing to you from Namibia. I'm so thankful to know that every day when I get home, he is waiting with open arms to talk through our day, share successes and failures, and of course, try to make me laugh. He's the best listener I know, and I'm excited to be sharing my new year as a Guggenheim.

My goal for the new year: to restore and rebuild my self-confidence. To honestly believe in my own capabilities and worth. To share as much love as I can, and to be more positive.

"LEARNING EXPANDS GREAT SOULS" is a Namibian proverb, the title of my blog, and my inspiration while serving here. While I was hired as a teacher, I know my greater purpose here is to be a learner- to find new passion, grow as a better human being, to find love, and gain the strength to keep moving forward and keep serving others in this big old world we live in. This journey is only the beginning...