Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Africa Time

If traveling has given me anything, it's given me this: the ability to float gently down the river of events-- to relinquish control. In Africa, the boat leaves when it's full. You might wait an hour; you might wait two weeks. If you spend that time tipping forward into the future, you sink. The best thing to do is just to sit on the boat and look around at the other humans who are sitting there with you. You might discover that you like the view. --from Somebody's Heart is Burning by Tanya Schaffer

I received a package last week that left the US January 19th and apparently arrived in Windhoek January 30th. That's right. My Christmas package of underwear and books and magazines and nail polish had been sitting in the Windhoek post office for over 6 months. Sounds impossible, right? Not quite. This, my friends, is what is known as "Africa time."

I've often wondered why Namibians even bother with timestamps. Everyone, aside from the newly arrived volunteer or tourist, is well aware of Africa time and therefore adjusts their plans accordingly. Africa time affects most things that have a timestamp on them. Work, meetings, appointments, school, school functions; all are prone to Africa time. Even things you would expect to happen on time rarely do. Building projects will run 3 to 6 months behind schedule, if not more. Meetings or parties will often be running so late that they will be cancelled at the absolute last minute, even if the more punctual attendees have been waiting for hours. Hikes that were supposed to leave at a certain time will be delayed by hours, sometimes even days. Even school, which starts every morning at 7am, is often held up by tardy teachers and learners. Everything is tentative. Things may happen now, but they seldom happen now now.

A few weeks ago, we had the "Mr. and Miss S.I. !Gobs" beauty pageant at the school, which I of course agreed to judge. I was told that the show would start at 19H00 sharp and that I should report for duty a little before then. At 19H30, I was just putting a piece of chicken on the braai for dinner. Some friends had arrived and we spent some time chatting and trading off braai duty. At about 20H00 I began to hear music and microphone feedback coming from the school hall—must be the sound check. A bit ahead of schedule, I thought! As it always does, the sound check began to lure the learners from their blocks and their homes in the location. By 20H30, we had finished our dinner and were doing the dishes when the senior girls stopped by. "Miss, we are waiting for you!" I'm sure, I thought. And just as I had suspected the audience was barely filing into the hall when I arrived. I took my seat at the judges' table and began making small talk with the fellow judges. At about 20H45, I went backstage to see what was keeping things. "Miss, we can't find contestant number 8 and contestant number 7 is refusing to go on stage!" one of my learners yelled. By this time the crowd was getting quite restless. After a bit of coercing, I was able to get contestant 7 out of the bathroom where she was hiding as well as convince the pageant organizers to scratch contestant 8. We rushed the willing participants on stage and by about a quarter after 9, over 2 hours after the show was supposed to start, all contestants were on stage and all judges and spectators were in their seats. The show wore on late into the night and just before 1AM, with half the audience gone and the other half, including some judges, sleeping in their chairs, S.I. !Gobs had their very own Mr. and Miss.

Sure, this event was organized by the kids and may have had a few understandable holes, but things organized by adults often times aren't any better. I was invited to a traditional Damara wedding a few months ago and I took Rachel as my date. We knew that there would be some pre-wedding festivities at the house, but that we were supposed to be at the church at noon for the ceremony. Neither Rachel nor I are all too familiar with Damara tradition, but we knew this wedding was as susceptible to Africa time as any other wedding in Namibia. At 11:45 we were still in town doing some last minute shopping. On any other planet, this may seem to be cutting it close; not on planet Namibia. I knew I had enough time to get home, get cleaned up, and make it to the church in the location within an hour, only a bit late. And indeed, by 12:30 Rachel and I were making our way to the church. Weddings in Namibia, as well as funerals, are huge gatherings. Most of the time since there is food served, you do need an invitation to attend the after party but since there's usually nothing much else going on in town, often times the whole community will turn out for a wedding or funeral church service. As we approached the church we noticed there were no cars and no people milling about, an unusual occurrence at a typical wedding ceremony. Perhaps we had the wrong time, I thought. I checked the invitation and found that we were nearly an hour late. "My dear," said Rachel, "this is Africa time." We sat alone in an empty church for another hour and finally, a mere two hours after the ceremony was scheduled to start, the wedding party arrived. Rachel and I had front row seats.

Africa time may be a bad habit to get in to. In the beginning I showed up on time for everything but just ended up waiting around worrying that I had gotten the wrong time or venue. But after nine months, I've adopted the laid back African attitude in most things I do. As a friend once advised me, "If someone tells you to be somewhere at a certain time, that's the time you begin to get ready. You know: bathe, select your outfit." Having lived the American way of life for 22 years, I haven't lost all track of time (for example, I still go to work everyday, I still complete all tasks I'm asked to do, I never miss a meeting or class I'm supposed to teach without giving notice of cancellation, etc.), but I'm definitely less focused on time limits than I was prior to Africa. Things get done when they get done. People move at their own pace, regardless of how quickly you are moving, and panicking about getting something done on time will only stress you out; generally if you are worried about time, you are the only one. It's better to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the world around you.

And no matter how late, it's always nice to receive packages. I'm enjoying the New Yorkers, Newsweeks, People Magazines and US Weekleys from December 2005 and January 2006 as if they were new. They made The Da Vinci Code into a movie? Who knew? Thanks, Cin:)

Friday, July 14, 2006


*I had a dream last night that my family arrived to visit me but that they failed the mandatory language test they were given at the airport and so they were forced back on the plane and back to America. I think the anxiety of going home in less than a month after close to a year in Africa is beginning to set in...

*Slaughtering a cow is really different than slaughtering a goat. I could talk about this fact for awhile.

*We currently have water, but with the water came a leaky pipe in our ceiling directly above the bathtub. Now bathing requires one to withstand Namibian water torture.

*Thanks to everyone who donated shoes. So far I’ve received four boxes, about 100 shoes. It’s been great, really great.

*If you are at all interested in helping out the schools, teachers, learners as well as the TRC in Omaruru, please check out the new link and post: Omaruru’s Wish List

*Happy birthday month, Katie and Kelli :)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Omaruru's Wish List

-4 computers
-Internet connection
-Printer/fax machine
-Copy machine
-Die-cut machine
-Laminating machine
-Books (textbooks, novels, etc.)
-School supplies (i.e. pens, pencils, paper, colored pencils, markers, binders, scissors, glue, erasers, etc. That list that all primary schools send home with your children… we need all those things.)
-Monetary donations to help organize workshops, pay for internet installation and usage, etc.

-Books and novels appropriate for grades 6-12 ESL learners
-Copy/fax machines
-Teaching supplies

Youth Centre:
-Coming soon. Please check back.

* If you have something you would like to donate that is not listed here, please feel free to contact my mother or me, but generally speaking we will take anything we can get. Remember, Namibia is a very young country; in many areas, we are basically starting from scratch. Every single donation, large or small, can be put to use here.
*All donations must be shipped to me in Omaruru. Small packages (less than 5lbs) generally cost about US$15 to ship airmail; large/heavy packages can get quite expensive. Shipping packages by boat or by M-bag (for book donations only) takes anywhere from 6-12 weeks but is much cheaper and may be preferable.
*Many necessities can be purchased in country or ordered from South Africa, so monetary donations to help purchase these and other resources are always accepted:)
*If interested in donating money, please specify how you would like your donation to be used. Otherwise, all monetary donations will go into the Omaruru TRC fund which helps fund the maintenance and upkeep of the TRC (such as: computer usage and maintenance fees, workshop fees, printer paper and toner, stationary, etc.).To give you an idea of what we're working with, currently our centre funds consist of loose change that fits into a small coffee tin... :)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The Himba tribe is a nomadic tribe in northern Namibia. Himbas are known for their traditional lifestyles. Because of the harsh and desolate environment in which they live, Himbas have been fairly secluded from life outside their own people and have therefore been relatively uninfluenced by advancements in society and societal trends.

Many of my good friends here are Himba or part Himba. Though they don't live traditional lifestyles anymore, the way in which they were raised from childbirth has equipped them with some unique skills. For example, Himbas can kill livestock with their bare hands. My learners shared this bit of knowledge with me when they were trying to explain to me just how serious these people are. My learners are known for their incredible imaginations and exaggeration skills (a.k.a. lying capabilities), so I of course did not believe this. I recently shared my disbelief with my Himba friends and in turn quickly learned why my learners also told me to never challenge a Himba. This morning they insisted on taking me to our office farm where, I kid you not, they tied a rope around a cow's neck and proceeded to strangle it with their bare hands.

I first heard about Himba wrestling a few months ago. Some friends were over for dinner and we were sharing stories from our childhood, all of us silently trying to figure out how we possibly could have lived such unbelievably different lives yet have ended up at the same place all together eating boerwurst and mashed potatoes. One friend began talking about the traditional Himba games he and his family partake in when everyone is together. Among the more interesting games was this Himba wrestling. Himba wrestling usually takes place between two Himbas who haven't seen one another in awhile-- it's almost a form of greeting that all Himbas are aware of and prepared for when they reunite. It's a bit like our American style of wrestling, though besides the "no kicking or punching" rule, there really aren't any restrictions on what you can and cannot do to your opponent. The whole objective of the wrestling is to toss your opponent onto his back in any way, shape or form. The more serious and skilled wrestlers are able to toss their opponent up and over their shoulder and onto his back, while those just wrestling for fun do more of a hip check and flip their opponent onto his back. All of my friends who were explaining this had at one point or another been seriously injured during a wrestling match, either breaking an arm or hurting their back or neck. In fact, usually wrestling continues until one party is too hurt to wrestle any longer.

They told us that such wrestling usually takes place deep in the bush where only tribes are present, but that occasionally some fool in town or at a shebeen will challenge a Himba and get tossed in front of a large crowd of people. When we asked if they'd ever wrestled a white person they laughed and said no, that Himbas are too skilled at wrestling to be seriously challenged by a non-Himba. PC always talks about the importance of crossing cultures-- of how in order to have a fulfilling service, it is essential that all PCVs try their best to immerse themselves in the culture and experience as many traditional aspects as possible. Most of us have done the funerals and the weddings and the traditional dinners, but this wrestling was a new possibility for us. My PCV friends were planning to come back to Omaruru in about a month anyway so we decided it would be fun to organize a Himba vs. PCV wrestling tournament. The Himbas were amused to say the least.

My friends and I were quite interested in this wrestling business but were having a hard time visualizing how it was possible. For one, most my Himba friends (along with many of my Namibian friends) are quite small. Most of them are less than 5'10'' and can't possibly weigh more than 60 or 70 kilos. Though Africa has taken its toll on my PCV friends, most of those planning to take part in the wrestling had a good 20 to 30 pounds on each Himba. How in the world they would be able to toss these healthy Americans was beyond me.

The weeks leading up to the event sparked much commotion throughout Omaruru. Random people would stop into my office to talk about it, one saying, "Your friends are not actually serious about this wrestling, are they? They will break their necks!" My learners were overly concerned about our safety as well, coming to me with these crazy and seemingly impossible stories about Himbas and their strength (the cow strangling being one of the stories). Over confident townspeople began randomly approaching the Himbas on the street to challenge them (a move that resulted in one non-Himba having to go to the hospital). So many people became interested and wanted to participate that at the last moment we allowed two late registrants from the Himba side: Omaruru's traffic cop as well as the Chief of Police.

The PCV wrestlers trained for about a month leading up to the main event. One PCV found small Himba children to train him (one of my Himba friends had told us that a Himba child would probably be the best competition for us PCVs); another began running with learners on his back and installed a pull-up bar in his house; while yet another, perhaps the most serious, resigned himself to a month-long diet of cheese alone, hoping to bulk up.

Alas, their efforts were to no avail. This past weekend marked the first ever "Ruru-palooza." Open to all interested parties and offering events such as beer pong, soccer, night clubbing, volleyball and all-day bootlegged DVD marathons and cake eating contests, Ruru-palooza's main event, Himba wrestling, drew competitors and spectators from far and wide to the Omaruru riverbed. We had hoped that holding the event late enough in the afternoon would allow the Himbas a sufficient amount of time to spend at the shebeen, ideally weakening their Himba strength, but our strategies proved fruitless and in the end the Peace Corps name was shamed. Some volunteers performed decently, tossing a few Himbas, but there is no question that had the Himbas been really fighting back, as opposed to trying to teach their opponents the correct moves in order to provide at least a bit of a challenge, all volunteers would have ended up with broken bones by the end of the day. The few moments when the Himbas were really trying their hardest left the volunteers flying through the air like rag dolls.

All in all, the weekend proved to be an enjoyable experience. Though all the volunteers departed feeling quite bruised and battered, fun was indeed had by all and I can see this becoming a semi-annual thing.

And if it makes anyone feel better, I did see the Himbas on Monday-- it could have been my imagination but few of them appeared to be limping… :)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


My closest Namibian friend is Rachel. I've wanted to write an entry about her for a while but I've found it hard to do her justice through writing. She's one of those people who, when trying to find words to describe, you find yourself saying, "You just have to meet her." One of a kind… I think that's it.

Rachel was born into exile in Angola in 1978. In 1978, a bloody war was being fought between the freedom fighters of Namibia and the occupying forces. Both of Rachel's parents were fighting for independence so Rachel, along with her brothers and cousins (who are more like siblings to her now), spent the first part of their lives in different refugee camps in Angola and Zambia. She was reunited with her parents shortly before independence and in 1990, she and her family came out of exile and settled in the border city of Rundu. Her mother took a job as a nurse and her father continued his work in the defense force up until his death in 1998.

Rachel has been a constant fixture at our house since day one. She is so different than most Namibians I have met that initially I was a bit unsure about her. However, I quickly learned that her crazy and off-the-wall personality was indeed genuine, and her loyalty towards us since the beginning has been unwavering. Rachel refers to me as her sister and to my roommates as "her people." When we walk through town together and people stare or yell things at me, she will yell back, "What?! Have you never seen a white person before?!" She brings traditional Oshiwambo foods to our house-- including spinach, porridge and mopane worms-- and as she cooks for us, she points to me and says, "But I know this one won't like any of this!" and then laughs at me as I politely take tiny bites of each. Her definition of privacy is worlds away from our American definition. Every evening, she bursts into our house and makes her rounds, hugging and kissing and punching each of us. Often I will be bathing and she will walk in, sit down on the toilet and begin some rant about her day or what so-and-so said to her (thankfully, my long friendship with Katie Murphy has desensitized me to such an invasion:) ). She understands my curiosity and agrees to accompany me to random functions or parties I'm invited to, even though I know she would never go if it weren't for me. She is loud and sassy and completely unafraid of challenging the norms, characteristics I find refreshing.

Recently, I was invited to spend a weekend with Rachel's family. As is true with most African families, Rachel's "family" consists of cousins and nieces and nephews, all of whom she calls her brothers and sisters. With no less than six people at any one time living in this three-bedroom house, Rachel's house is filled with activity. Kids and friends and dogs are running in and out so steadily that the doors literally remain open all through the day and night. Raising this clan of young people alone, Rachel's mother is this matriarchal figure so strong, she doesn't have to show any harshness to be respected by everyone in her house. The relationship between Rachel and her mother is anything but a traditional mother-daughter relationship. Her mother's absence from much of Rachel's childhood has created this unique, distant best friendship between the two women; almost as if they were sisters separated at birth. Rachel understands that her childhood, though extremely difficult, was the way it was for a definite reason. And though she could, she doesn't resent her mother whatsoever for the choices she made regarding her children; rather, Rachel seems to respect her mother for having to make such a difficult choice in order to fight for something she felt so strongly about. I know very few people who would be as understanding.

Though we have come from two completely different worlds, I'm often surprised to discover how many things Rachel and I have in common. Being born and raised in exile has set her apart from many people in Namibia, especially people living as far inland as Omaruru. Here, very few people can relate to her or understand where she has come from and why she is so different from them, and though I would never think to compare my past with hers, our solitariness here is similar. Like Rachel, very few people understand me and where I come from, or why I do certain things in a certain way. She and I are both outsiders of sorts, which seems to have led us to one another.

Last weekend, after spending the day with us a mutual friend of ours said to me, "She is so protective of you!" and for the first time, I realized how true that is. She observes everything I do, every person I speak to or new friend I make, and is honest and non-judgmental when she explains the often-confusing elements of Namibian culture that I would be completely oblivious to without her. When I first arrived here my words and actions were often misinterpreted to mean something completely different from what I had intended. Rachel would sit with me and say, "My dear, we Africans…," and go on to explain how different life is here, especially for women. Most nights I have a friend or two (not including the 10 or 15 hostel borders) stop by to visit me. When Rachel is there, she skeptically eyes them up and down and asks them streams of questions. She recognizes my frequent naïveté and without ever naming names or referring to specific events, she will say, "My dear, you love too much. Not all people are good people," and I know exactly what she is talking about. It's hard being a foreigner on your own in someone else's country. I think all too often we volunteers are so desperate for friendship and companionship that we open our lives to anyone who shows us any bit of kindness. Though there are indeed many good and genuine people in my life, some people are much more interested in the novelty of me than of actually getting to know me and establishing a true friendship with me, something I probably would have realized a little too late had it not been for Rachel. During training, PC told us over and over that service is often a very lonely and isolated time for many volunteers. Trying to integrate fully into a culture so incredibly different from your own is not an easy task, and trying to do so alone is perhaps what sends many volunteers home before their service is complete. I think that at the end of our two-year commitment, those PCVs who can say they have found just one true friend should consider themselves lucky. To be honest, I know that my overall experiences here would have been much more difficult without Rachel and I am not confident that I would have survived as well had she not been a part of my life. I feel quite fortunate to be able to call her my friend.

*This blog entry was written and published with Rachel's permission*