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*


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