Sunday, August 20, 2006

Cait in Wisconsin

Cait is back in the states for my wedding, and the first Sunday she is back, she got her article published in the La Crosse Tribune, check it out.

Cait's Article


--here's the much longer, uncut version--

Contrasting and Beautiful:
The Namibia Brad and Angelina Didn’t Show You

I awake each morning to the laughter and commotion of the school children in Omaruru, Namibia. Each night, I fall asleep to the same sounds. I walk the 3 kilometers from the hostel where I live to my office every morning, and I’m bombarded with greetings: “Goeie môre, Ms. Lin! Hoe gaan dit?” Of at least 25 distinct languages or major dialects spoken here, I can speak one, Afrikaans, and the children laugh at me as I try to do so. Children here sing constantly, in perfect harmony and for no reason at all. The school choir practices in the yard outside my bedroom window until late into the night, their voices often singing me to sleep.

I’ve been in Namibia over ten months, though it feels like much longer. I can already tell that this country, these people, have affected my life in profound ways that I cannot quite explain. I am one of 58 United States Peace Corps Volunteers in the 25th group to serve in Namibia. My daily life here is humbling. I live in a modest two bedroom flat with one roommate. Some days we have running water and electricity, some days we don’t. We share a refrigerator, a stove and a kitchen table. We have a bathtub in which we take bucket baths. I have my own bed and I sleep under a mosquito net. I live very comfortably in Namibian standards.

They call Namibia “The Land of the Brave.” The majority of this country rest between two of the world’s largest deserts, much of which is home to species of plants and wildlife that exist nowhere else in the world. As a society, Namibia is on the brink of taking off which makes volunteering here at this moment all the more exciting. Towns are beginning to form and turn into cities. Communication is slowly getting easier. A stable government is taking shape and the economy is gradually moving forward. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to believe that Namibia has been an independent nation for just sixteen short years. Once you are on the inside, however, things do feel different. Sixteen years ago Namibians were living under the rule of apartheid, the aftermath of which is palpable. The undercurrent of racism is still present and still affects the daily lives of all people here, including my own. As a result of apartheid, the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor is greater in Namibia than in any other country in the world. Very few are living without want.

Many people here are wary of outsiders, and understandably so. This country suffered a great deal at the hands of outsiders and one could never expect them to forget that. However, once you’ve won their hearts they are some of the most loyal neighbors a person could hope to have in life. With only 1.8 million people and a landmass the size of California two times over, I often feel like everybody in Namibia knows everybody else. I certainly didn’t go unnoticed when I moved in. I have had more people tell me or others that they are going to look out for me over the next two years than I could name. Once people realized I was a volunteer, I was offered everything under the sun--free transportation and places to stay, emergency cell phone numbers, tips on where to buy the cheapest toilet paper or best cup of tea--anything to make my stay more comfortable. When people discovered that I had come from America, my popularity skyrocketed. People here, especially young people, are infatuated with the idea of “America.” The school children are constantly asking me, “What do Americans think of Namibia?” I don’t know how to tell them that most don’t.

UNAIDS suggests that an estimated 60% of the 40 million HIV-positive people in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa with Southern Africa remaining the epicenter of the global AIDS epidemic. It is often said that if you are not infected you are absolutely affected. Like so many of its Sub-Saharan neighbors, Namibia is a country plagued by AIDS. An estimated 25% of the population is HIV-positive. With the first cases of AIDS reported in Namibia as recently as 1986, the past 20 years have seen a phenomenal rate of growth of those infected with the virus. In 2000, one out of every four deaths was a result of AIDS. The majority of people infected are those between the ages of 25 and 45, typically the most active members of society. Biological as well as cultural, sociological and economic factors make women twice as likely to contract HIV as men. Because of this, the number of children orphaned as a result of AIDS is staggering and continues to grow each year. By 2005, more than 100,000 Namibian children had lost at least their mother to AIDS. While this number seems large, it is small in comparison to the number of orphans Namibia will have in years to come: it is estimated that by 2010, nearly 150,000 children will be motherless. Even more troubling is the growing number of children themselves infected with HIV, with 15,000 infected by 2004. In a country of less than 2 million people, one can easily see how AIDS touches every person’s life in Namibia.

Actions have been taken to address the many problems that come along with a society heavily affected by HIV and AIDS. Namibia was the first African country to endorse the Convention on the Rights of a Child and to complete a national Plan of Action for Children, both of which aim to attend to the growing number of orphans and vulnerable children in Namibia. The government of Namibia has developed a National Strategic Plan on HIV with the overall goal being to lower the incidence of HIV infection to below the epidemic threshold by 2009. Community based health centers have been established to provide community members with accurate information regarding HIV and AIDS. More recently, HIV/AIDS topics have been integrated into select school subjects, such as the sciences, with the hope of promoting awareness among the youth. And a national policy on HIV and AIDS for the education sector has been developed and is being instituted in most educational facilities, including primary schools, the purpose being to reach children before they become sexually active. Though these initiatives create hope for the future, progress is slow and a tremendous amount of damage has already been done. While the Ministry of Health and Social Services along with the Ministry of Defense, the US Embassy, USAID, the Center for Disease Control, numerous non-governmental and faith-based organizations, as well as organizations like Peace Corps are all diligently working to combat the AIDS epidemic in Namibia and throughout Africa, the numbers continue to climb and the necessary resources and funds needed to make any serious changes are nowhere to be found. It is unfortunate, but I do not believe that what is happening in Africa could happen on any other continent in the world and be tolerated by the rest of society to the extent to which it is tolerated here.

Of the 58 volunteers in Nam25, 44 of us are working in the many areas of education. As a Primary Teacher Trainer, I work at a local Teacher’s Resource Centre assessing the needs of teachers in my region and doing what I can to help meet those needs. Though my job varies day to day, my primary goal over the next two years is to improve the English skills of the teachers in my area by offering literacy, phonics and English workshops, team teaching in the classroom, and serving as a point of contact between the schools and the Ministry of Education. My TRC services nearly 30 schools in five different towns. Besides educational support, my TRC offers teachers access to concrete resources to help improve their classrooms, including teaching aids, copy and fax machines, sample exam papers and syllabi, a library and much more. With the recent donation of three computers by two Namibian companies, our computer lab is beginning to come together. One of my tasks over the next two years is to create a fully functional computer lab, complete with an Internet connection, and offer computer classes to local educators and community members, most of whom have never touched a computer. In order to do this however, we must acquire at least 4 more computers or the funds to do so, a daunting goal that we will only attain through the help of outside sources.

Since independence, Namibians have taken great strides in the field of education. However, much work and much help is still needed before one could say that the system of education is stable here. As I walk through classrooms and sit down with Namibian teachers, I see and hear the same frustrations that many teachers in the US express; only here, those frustrations are overwhelming. Learner’s struggle to focus, not because it’s a nice day outside or because they stayed up too late watching television, but because their desk or chair is falling apart or because they haven’t eaten a solid meal in days. Being one of the few tangible avenues available to distribute accurate information regarding the AIDS epidemic, education here is invaluable. However, the impact of HIV and AIDS on education overall in Namibia is immense. Many young people are without parents. The lack of parental involvement is yet another burden for teachers who are faced daily with the task of trying to convince their learners that their life has value, and that it is worth their time to invest in an education. Because of the high number of HIV-positive adults, many adolescents live in homes with significant emotional and financial stress, factors that greatly affect one’s ability and desire to learn. The Government of Namibia estimates that roughly 1 in 7 teachers in Namibia are infected with HIV. Their work as educators is often seriously compromised by extended periods of illness, and their eventual surrender to the disease will leave many schools without qualified teachers. Along with AIDS, poverty also weighs heavily on education in Namibia. Most public schools lack the money needed to outfit their building and classrooms with some of the most basic amenities, such as books and desks. Even in the more well off school districts there is an extreme shortage of human and economic resources, making it nearly impossible for teachers to meet the varying needs of their learners. A good number of learners who do succeed in their schooling often times go on to study in South Africa or Europe, leaving many holes in the workforce in Namibia. And the cycle continues.

My purpose in writing this is not to give the idea that life in Namibia is bleak, because that is most certainly not the case. This is a proud country with a great deal of potential. Young people dominate Namibia, with over 50% of the entire population being under the age of 20. When I sit and talk with the young people in my town, I can hear the idealism in their voices. Though many of them have suffered unbelievable hardships in their young lives, their spirits are strong and resilient. Seeing them smile and hearing them laugh, and realizing that they have genuine hope that their futures will be brighter than their pasts has truly changed my life and the way I look at the world. These are motivated and confident individuals who are dedicated to working towards solutions. They recognize that AIDS, poverty and gender equality are all serious problems in Namibia, but they are committed to making positive change happen. It comforts me to know that the future of this country rests in their hands.

The problems that face Namibia are no doubt similar to problems most young nations faced in their early stages of development. However, it seems to me that all of Africa is crying out for attention but that few are listening, a problem I am not sure all nations have encountered equally throughout their stages of development. Peace Corps has been active in Namibia since the earliest days, first sending volunteers over just six months after independence. Since then, Peace Corps has worked side by side with Namibians to promote education in its many forms. Through direct teaching as well as fieldwork like my own, volunteers have assisted in the effort to improve education, but have often relied on contributions from outside sources. The impact that donors from Namibia and around the world have had on the people of this country is immeasurable; I doubt those individual donors realize the great role they have played in the development of this society.

You cannot come to Namibia and not be changed. These people have a way of crawling inside your heart and exploding. Each night, I am witness to an amazing African sunset preceding a night sky unlike skies I feel could exist anywhere else in the world. And every single time it rains there’s a rainbow. The people of Namibia have opened their lives and their hearts to me; a strange girl who is unmarried and without children, who runs even though she’s not being chased, who still cannot watch as her dinner is slaughtered, who clumsily stumbles over their language. These people have, without question, taken me in like family. It troubles me to know that I will probably never be able to repay any of this.

I realize that for one reason or another, most people reading this will probably never set foot inside these borders to see any of these things. I also realize that many people will simply skim over this article and continue on with their lives, never giving a second thought to the parallel lives lived on this side of the globe. However, I hope that those who do read this will feel compelled to contribute in some fashion to the people of Namibia. Every little bit helps, and please believe me no contribution goes unnoticed or unappreciated. But if nothing more, I hope this at least gets people talking about Namibia and really examining the role that we all play as citizens of the world. If it is true that “all eyes are on Africa,” then I hope the rest of the world knows that all the eyes of Africa are on them. It is easy to be an observer in life, but the truth is we are all capable of doing and giving more than we let ourselves believe. So ask yourself: Are you doing your part?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

One of the more interesting aspects of my life here is hitchhiking, or “hiking.” As I’ve mentioned previously, hiking is the primary mode of transportation for volunteers as well as the good majority of Namibians. Not many of us have cars so traveling requires us to rely on strangers headed in the same direction.

Though seemingly random and a bit crazy, hiking is in fact a somewhat organized activity. Most towns and villages have a designated “hike point” or two where people looking for a ride will sit and wait. Drivers looking to make some money will stop at the hike point, usually located on the edge of the town or village, and will yell out the town or the direction they are heading towards. Then it’s sort of a scramble as those heading that way will negotiate prices with the driver until an agreement is reached and all parties are happy. Most distances have fixed prices that are more or less non-negotiable, but if a hiker is stuck with little cash he or she may be shown mercy by a generous driver.

There are three types of cars that dominate the Namibian roadways: combis, bakkies, and the Volkswagen Chico Golf. Combis are like VW vans and aside from the train, are the closest thing to public transportation we have here. Usually based in a large city and sometimes requiring an appointment, combis are commercial vehicles that can be seen traveling throughout Namibia, usually packed full of people and often towing a trailer filled with luggage behind them. As I’ve mentioned before, bakkies are the equivalent of our pick-up trucks. Because we have many dirt roads here, bakkies are the vehicle of choice for people who are on the road frequently for work or pleasure. Typically used to transport animals, open bakkies usually have an iron fence around the edges, and hikers usually ride standing up holding on to the fence. Closed bakkies are perfect for picking up hikers because the driver can cram up to 20 people (people often wearing large, consuming traditional dress, mind you) in the back and make quite a profit. The most popular car in Namibia, however, has to be the Chico: a tiny four-door car that sort of looks like a miniature wind-up car (also the kind of car I slept in my first night in Cape Town). While there are some fancy cars in Nam-- walking around Windhoek you’re bound to see plenty of Audis and BMWs-- most vehicles interested in picking up hikers are rather run down. It is not uncommon to take a hike in a Chico whose door is falling off or whose floor is missing. And because the cars are usually filled far beyond capacity, hiking often exposes a person to some rather pungent smells. “It stings the nostrils…”

Hiking from a hike point usually means you will pay for your hike, especially if you are a white person carrying the trademark volunteer backpack, though there are ways around this. Hike points are often located at service stations, and those looking for rides will just sit and wait for different cars to pull up to them. The more ambitious hiker, however, may actually walk up to cars while they’re refueling, and with lots of smiles and bad Afrikaans will flat out ask for a ride. Because license plates in Namibia are labeled with the town in which the car is registered, it’s pretty simple to find a car going in the direction you want to go. Usually if the driver can tell that you don’t have horns and are probably not going to rob him, he will oblige. And because he wasn’t planning on picking up a hiker, the ride is sometimes free. Another way to catch a cheap and often free hike is to walk along the highway and flag down passing cars, similar to what hitchhikers in the states do. I’m not partial to doing this by myself, but I hear a lot of the guys in my group do it and it seems to work quite well for them.

I got my first real taste of Africa time when I began hiking. Drivers leave when they are ready. If you’re lucky enough to catch someone going your way who either already has a full car or isn’t looking to make very much money, you will get a straight hike from point a to point b. This, however, rarely happens. For one, I’m not really sure there’s such a thing as a “full car.” The more full the driver can get his car, the more money he will make. Drivers will do whatever they can to fill their cars. They will make turns at hike points far out of their way just to check for hikers. It is not uncommon to ride with a child or young learner on your lap as young people are charged different rates and therefore do not warrant an entire seat to themselves. Most hikers have bags, and cars may or may not have trunks, so usually we are wedged in between one another and our belongings, trying to make as much space available as possible. And if the driver is unable to fill his car… well, you just might not be traveling that day. I once waited four hours for a combi to leave just to find out that the driver decided not to travel that day because he couldn’t fill the van, leaving me and my fellow travelers stuck in the middle of nowhere with no hikes in sight. Hiking requires an inordinate amount of patience and an internal reminder to breathe deeply and go with the flow.

Traveling a good distance from your home site usually requires multiple hikes, which is where things can get tricky. If you are only able to find a hike halfway to your destination point, and if that hike is slow to leave (a very common occurrence), hikers run the risk of ending up in the middle of nowhere, in between their starting and ending point, late in the afternoon or early evening, which is often a difficult time to find reliable and safe hikes. Thankfully we have volunteers in most towns on the main roads, so it’s usually not a problem to find somewhere to crash for a night. However, this is not the case for all hikers; it isn’t uncommon to pass a hike point late at night and see multiple people camped out and sleeping (no fun in the winter months).

Hiking also occurs in town. Since most of Omaruru knows where I live and where I work, if a car passes me going in the same direction that I’m walking I will often be offered a hike. There seems to be an unspoken etiquette here in Africa that if you’re headed in the same direction as someone walking, you should stop and at least offer them a ride. It is quite rare for me to make it all the way from the hostel to my office and back without meeting an opportunity for a hike. Even taxis, who are always looking to make a profit, seem to have a hard time passing me on my walk. I like walking and usually turn down these offers, but on days when I have a lot to carry or when the sun is blazing down on me or the rain is falling in sheets, I’m thankful for the kindness of these people.

Finding reliable transportation is a universal problem for volunteers. Because my job involves work at many rural schools throughout my region, and since my office has no vehicle, I’m often required to hike. Though I would choose a safe, reliable form of transport any day over a random hike, hiking does help put us foreigners at the level of the communities we serve. Instead of being chauffeured around in a nice vehicle, PCVs wait their turn, in the sun and in the rain, alongside everyone else looking to get a ride. Aside from when I’ve hiked with another volunteer, I have never been at a hike point or taken a hike with another white person. White people have cars; black people hike. Similarly, white people rarely stop for hikers; black people do. People are often confused to see me waiting at a hike point, which sparks conversation immediately. When people hear who I am and where I want to go, they are overly helpful, flagging down cars and negotiating prices for me. I once had a man give a driver the 3rd degree about his driving record and the importance of getting me to my destination safely. Afterwards, he insisted on getting my cell phone number and promised to call and check in every hour, saying, “Don’t worry, I got the driver’s license and registration numbers in case anything goes wrong. If I don’t hear from you tonight, I will call the police.” Needless to say, the driver was scared out of his mind; he dropped me at the door of the house I was staying at, carried my bags for me and charged me far less than he could have. A little Namibian intimidation goes a long way.

Some of the craziest and most entertaining stories I’ve heard from fellow PCVs since being at site have involved hikes. Indeed, some of the best stories I have involve hikes I’ve taken at one time or another. It seems almost anything can happen while hiking. I’ve had conversations about everything from American and global politics to the extent of my dowry. I’ve met people who could be characters in movies and heard stories that often leave me wondering, “Where in the hell am I?” I’ve seen fist fights break out and once shared the back of a bakkie with an old ouma who yelled and screamed the entire two hour ride while she continually beat her husband with a stick. I’ve been in more near accidents that I’d care to remember and have helped patch a flat tire and change a car’s oil on two separate occasions (both firsts for me). I have ridden many hours in the back of different bakkies (both open and closed), and have shared hikes with many different kinds of livestock and poultry. Some volunteers have ridden in the cabs and backs of loreys (semi-trucks); some have ridden long distances on farm equipment. The frequent hiker will inevitably end up in a car he or she will wish they hadn’t gotten into but will only realize so after the hike is well on its way. Tears are often shed and threats exchanged, but I’ve seen similar occurrences on many bus and taxi rides in the states. And when things get really bad and I feel as if I’m about to loose it, I take a deep breath and remind myself, “If I survive this, it will be a great story that nobody back home will believe.” That usually helps a bit.

10 days… :)