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:)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You continue to amaze with each entry that I read. Thanks for sharing your experience, it's both humbling and enlightening. What an example you set for the rest of us!

Tim, Ann and kids

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are the shizzy. I'm so proud of you, it sounds like you are having an amazing one-of-a-kind experience. You are incredibly brave and I'm sure your time in Africa will give you some of your most precious memories. I can live vicariously through you...ah, my African memories are flooding back to me now... The closest I ever got to Africa was a planned trip to Morocco that didn't happen. You rule. Nuff said.
-Chris Mead

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was reading through your blog and wanted to tell you that your words are so inspiring. The African way of life seems so kind and giving and that is certainly something to admire. Your blog indeed is both humbling and enlightening. It makes us look deep into our own lives and seek more of a "we" perspective. I look up to you so much Caitlyn. Perhaps I will even join the Peace Corps someday down the road.

Hope you are well,

Bob Brinckman

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You paint a beautiful picture of the people there in Namibian. I wish people in the U.S. shared more.
I'm glad to hear of another American who believes in the power of sharing a simple smile.
Keep up the great work!

3:19 AM  
Blogger Randall said...

Very well written,Thanks for sharing..:)

8:25 AM  
OpenID wist said...

What an amazing blog. I just stumbled on it (though it is now several years after you posted) because I'm in the nomination stage for Sub-Saharan Africa, and I am hungry for more details on what life is like serving as a PCV there. Your blog is riveting. You are a talented writer. I'm glad the Peace Corps got a great person like you--for not just two, but three years!

6:44 AM  

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