Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Note from Sheila

Hi Blog readers:
Caitlin has asked me to gather gently used running shoes, which the La Crosse running club will help collect, and she's asked me to secure 45 used copies of Things Fall Apart by Achebe. These will be used in the classrooms where she works with Namibian teachers.

If blog readers want to help purchase books or pay for shipping books and shoes, it would be great if you could send me any contributions toward this effort. I will send a box to Namibia sometime next month.

All your support and good wishes for Caitlin's work are greatly appreciated. Thank you and many blessings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

No News is Good News

It seems Namibia (and most of Africa, I suppose) is experiencing a bit of an energy/water crisis. The heavy rains we’ve been having have caused destructive flooding in many towns and villages which, I’ve been told, has contaminated many water sources and tampered with many people’s electricity. Though the water in Omaruru appears to be okay to drink when it is working (Omaruru water is actually the water that is bottled and sold in stores in Namibia), the electricity in town has been inconsistent as of late, making daily routine for those of us who have been blessed with a life of lights and power outlets a bit of a learning process. Needless to say, finding an internet connection has been that much more difficult, hence the lack of blog activity. I hear the rainy season will near its end come May, so hopefully I will be able to stay more connected. We shall see.

I had a surprise visit from my friendly Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) Waldo a few weeks ago. It was, of course, great to see him (Waldo is a pretty upbeat guy), but I was most excited about all the mail he delivered! For reasons unbeknownst to me and everyone else, it seems that sometimes the mail-gods smile upon me, and other times they keep my letters and packages for themselves (I’ve also sent out a few letters that I don’t think have reached their final destinations either…who knows). Apparently some of my mail had been routed through the Windhoek PC office and had been sitting there for weeks. But Waldo’s recent delivery made up for it, and I received an outpouring of positive energy from the states. So, many thanks go out to my mom, Cindy, Sam, Josh, Mark, Megan, Uncles Tim, Paul, and Dan, Grandma Gokey, Timmy, Ann, Kelly, Patrick, Danny, Molly, and John and Debbie Verity for thinking of me. You are appreciated:)

Thanks also to those who have emailed or commented on my blog. I think the semi-frequent activity on the blog may have fooled some of you into thinking I have this unbelievable internet connection that allows me to update as often as I choose to, which is not the case. Usually, I type up my entries on my computer at work during my lunch hour, and then save them to a floppy disk. When Omaruru has power I do get online, I send 3 or 4 different entries to my brother in an email and he posts them sporadically on the blog over the course of a week or two. So, if you’re feeling neglected because I haven’t responded to you, please don’t; I can probably count on two hands the number of personal emails I’ve written since being here. But know that, at one point or another, I did read yours and it did brighten my day:)

So, let's see, updates from Ruru. A few weekends ago, my roommate Wendy, our friend Rachel, four Grade 12 learners from the hostel and I climbed the Omaruru Mountain (I believe there’s a pic in my power point slides). Though not a strange activity for my roommate and me, this was uncharted territory for our fellow hikers which definitely made for a memorable day.

We started out at 5:30am so as to avoid as much of the afternoon heat as possible. The kids had come over the night before to make “fat cakes,” a traditional Namibian bread sort of like a donut, which we had for breakfast with tea before heading out. The base of the mountain is about 5km from the school so by the time we arrived, the early morning stars had receded and the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon. These kids had never done anything like this before, and they were unable to hide the apprehension they were feeling as we stood at the base. “It looks really high... won’t we fall off?” little Wendy, one of the learners, asked. I reassured her that we would take it slow and see how we felt once we got higher.

When I told my Namibian friends I was going hiking on Saturday morning, they were confused. As I explained previously, “hiking” refers to hitchhiking; very few people really hike mountains in Namibia. Perhaps because of this, the mountain has no trails to follow-- you pretty much just go up. As I was walking along and chatting with Joseph, another learner, I happened to glance down at his feet and, to my horror, saw that he was wearing flip flops! The early morning departure must have made me a little delusional because it completely slipped my mind to check the kids’ footwear. “Joseph!” I yelled, “You’re going to tear up your feet!” “It’s okay, miss,” he replied, laughing a bit. “I will wear them as far as I can and then I will carry them if they get in the way.” Granted, most young people here go without shoes and have developed a sort of leathery second skin on the bottoms of their feet, but this was not typical, sandy, friendly Namibian terrain. I checked the rest of the kids’ shoes, found that they were at least close toed and close healed and made Joseph promise to tell me if his feet started hurting.

As we began to move upwards, we were greeted by the screams of a rather large family of monkeys, who were no doubt confused as to who these strange creatures invading their home were. The kids assured us that the monkeys were harmless and would run away from us, and sure enough, the higher we got, the higher the monkeys went to move away from us until they had reached the top and moved to the other side.

The hike was difficult. The recent rains had made the mountain incredibly overgrown to the point where even if there had been a trail it would have disappeared underneath the foliage. The two boys who had shoes, Gabriel and Stephanus, decided that the best route for them was the most direct route, and they more or less ran straight up the mountain while the rest of us used a sort of switchback ascent and struggled to pull ourselves up and over the huge boulders and prickly bushes. We moved slowly, following a pattern of step, stop, look, step, and often tripping and falling over the hidden rocks and thick grass. The last time I hiked the mountain was in December after months without rain and though still difficult, the sandy terrain had allowed me to wear my Chacos without any problems. This time, the prickly bushes and trees that had taken over the mountain left my feet bleeding and my pants ripped, exposing my scraped up knees and legs. However, since Joseph was wearing shorts and at this point carrying his shoes, I kept quiet.

Overall, it was an excellent day. We reached the top and the kids ran around taking pictures with my camera and shouting to hear their voices echo in the valley below. The monkeys continued to torment us once at the top which made for some amusing exchanges. We finished off the last of the fat cakes and after a good rest we began our descent. The way down was done mostly on our bottoms and we reached the base at just before 11am, about a 4 hour hike. It was impossible not to see how proud these kids were of what they had just accomplished; though exhausted, they were loving life. “My father will never believe this,” little Wendy said to me as we walked home. “You’ve done more this morning than the rest of the kids at the hostel will probably do all day long,” I said. “All year long!” she corrected me.

I’ve been trying, to no avail, to find an easier way for me to post pictures besides burning them to a CD and sending them home. Hopefully we’ll figure something out soon, but for now, you will just have to trust me... the pictures are great.

(note from Nolan: I held this entry up for a while, so that Cait could get the photos to me, but we've been unable to do it digitally. If the entry seems a little old, that is why. So, she'll snail-mail me a CD with the photos on it, and I'll throw them on the blog when it arrives.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Dating Game

Getting hit on in Namibia is different than getting hit on in the US. In the states, there's generally a little flirting, and fair warning before any major moves are made. Even the really sketchy guys at least use a horrible pick-up line of some sort when approaching women. But here... there's no beating around the bush. Last week, the security guard at the post office came up to me and said, "I would like you to love me…" I'm still struggling to find an appropriate response to such a statement. On Valentine's Day, I received a bag of candy hearts, three random text messages from three random numbers proclaiming their love for me (I swear, my cell phone number must be written on bathroom walls or something), and an invite to watch soap operas at one man's house-although he had originally told me he was going to buy me a television set for Valentines Day, so I was a bit let down. Last Friday, I had a meeting scheduled with a teacher who, after about 20 minutes of discussing the obstacles he was facing in his classroom, turned the conversation to things more personal, and invited me for drinks to the makeshift dance club he runs from his house. This morning, a man picked me up on my walk to work and once we were riding along, asked if he could visit me at my house and then said, "Because I see you walking everyday and I feel that I love you." And a few weeks ago, a man came to my office in the middle of the work day (only slightly embarrassing) to ask for my mother's phone number in America so he could call her and ask for my hand in marriage. Yes, the marriage proposals are just as blunt. My co-workers think it's hilarious.

But yesterday, I got a new one. I was walking home, and a man began talking to me about the crazy weather we've been having. We conversed a bit in Afrikaans until I ran out of things I could say and he ran out of things to say that I could understand. We switched to English and began talking about the many different languages spoken in Africa, how I only speak one of them, and how he's traveled all over the world and can speak many foreign languages. We talked about our different travels for awhile, and I thought to myself, this guy seems pretty genuine. Until he began with the questions. It started innocently enough, with him asking about my boyfriend. I told him that my boyfriend was another volunteer and that we were very happy together (a response we were told to perfect during training). He went on to talk about how he was worried about me staying alone for two years. I explained that I had a roommate and that I felt very safe. Then he began talking about apartheid and how, since apartheid no longer exists, he believes there should be much more race mixing. Of course I agreed, which apparently gave him the wrong impression and the conversation quickly went from one level of uncomfortable to another, much higher level of uncomfortable. He stopped me on the middle of the bridge, grabbing my hand, and proceeded to invite me to live with him on his family farm in the north where I could "bear many beautiful mixed-race babies." I was a bit caught off guard by all of this because usually when a man proposes to me, he gets right to it. This was a sneak attack, so unfortunately, I had let my guard down a bit too much, and hadn't properly prepared my responses. I half expected him to get down on one knee right on the bridge, and my fear that he was moving in that direction left me temporarily speechless. After a few moments of stammering and trying hard not to completely lose it and hurt his feeling, I reverted back to old faithful and told him that I was actually married, and my husband wouldn't let me have two husbands. He persisted for about 20 more seconds, but he got over me quickly, and instead made me take his phone number and promise to contact him if I found a "white American girl who looks just like you" and would want to marry him. Pretty romantic, yeah?

So, if any of you single ladies are interested, there's an interesting, multilingual, open-minded Namibian waiting for your call in Omaruru:)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I am because of you

Living on your own in a foreign country, a person must absolutely be able to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive. Whether it be a ride into town or to a neighboring town to visit friends, tips on how to braai the best meat, trust when I'm trying to find reasonable prices for everything from postage to bananas, honesty when I'm committing some totally random cultural taboo I would never know about on my own, or just a friendly face on days when I'm feeling a bit low, I rely daily on the kindness of the people in my community, something I doubt they realize. And though I could be wrong, I think my naïveté has yet to be taken advantage of here in Namibia. I got a letter the other day from my friend Mark who is serving in the South, in which he wrote, "If I were Namibian, I would tell these innocent and trusting Americans that every night after dinner was a mandatory game of twister followed by a staring contest. Afterwards, I would take out a box and tell them to go to their room. They would believe anything I said." Either they can't see through our oh-so-smooth "act like a local" demeanor (…sarcasm, which, I realize, isn't always apparent on blogs), or Namibians must be some of the most patient people in the world.

I've never appreciated kindness more in my life. Most people I meet on the street greet me, but even when they don't, I still smile and wave at every single person I pass in hopes that they will smile back, remember me, and pass along the word to their friends that I'm a nice white volunteer and not a pretentious American here to judge them. When the locals greet me first, it makes my day. Even when the guys who sit on the corner whistle at me and yell, "Beautiful girl, beautiful girl!" --a maneuver that would typically invoke a dirty look and a middle finger in the US-- here, I smile and wave back, so happy that at least they're talking to me!

I hear a lot about Western ideals, and the idea of "I," and African ideals, and the idea of "we." It's unfair to say that one is better or worse than the other, they are simply different. Once you are a member of a community here, everyone around you feels some sort of responsibility for your well-being. What happens to one person, good or bad, happens to the entire community. People refer to their friends as brothers and sisters; regardless of blood relation, everyone is considered family. Though I haven't quite reached familial status yet, I have had people I've only known a few hours give me advice a person would only give a good friend, or tell me they were "worried" about me for one reason or another. People here have lives and are busy, just like people in the states, but offering a helping hand to a person in need takes precedence over all other things.

After having no stoves at our house for a few months, last week we somehow accumulated 4 stoves, none of which worked. I mentioned this at work, and my boss sent our office "handy-man" to my house in the middle of the work day, insisting he fix "at least one, if not all four!" On our walk to my house, my co-worker began asking me about life in America. Among other things, he was shocked to hear that there are poor people in the states (a common misconception). I explained to him that there are some people with a lot of money, but that many people are poor and that some are even homeless and have to live on the streets. This puzzled him, and when I asked him what was wrong, he said, "Well, if some people have a lot of money and big houses, why would they let other people live on the street? Don't they have room for them in their houses?" I didn't have an answer for him.

There is a philosophy here in Africa that translates to something like “I am because of you” or “I am because you are”. Very few here survive on their own. Whether foreigners like me or locals like my co-worker, most people here rely on the kindness of those around them; because one person is living, another person will live. Though perhaps not as discernible, the same philosophy is applicable to life in the US, as well. Most people I know who are successful have only become so with the help of those around them. Similarly, those same people have probably, at one point or another, had to rely on the generosity of strangers, and therefore owe some of that success to those strangers. Which makes me wonder: why don't we feel comfortable inviting strangers off the street into our homes? If all of us have survived only because of others, why do we knowingly allow so many around us to suffer because we are afraid of being taken advantage of? I understand that New York City is worlds away from Omaruru, Namibia in every respect, but something very distinct happened to our country that created a clear line between being generous, and putting oneself in a potentially dangerous situation. How we went from the "we" to the "I," I am unsure. All I know is I definitely get a lot of hard questions here in Africa:)

Note: February 27-March 5 is International Peace Corps Week. Today, March 1st, marks the beginning of my fourth month in Africa. So… happy holidays:)