Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Witch One?

My friend was recently involved in a witching. As the story was first explained to me in a mixture of Afrikaans and English, it seemed that he was the one who was witched. However, upon further discussion, I discovered that he merely took part in a witching, but was not witched himself. No need to worry :)

Witchcraft is no joke here. It’s a traditional belief, assumed by most everyone to be true, that has been around forever it seems. Whether I’ve heard stories or witnessed it myself, strange and unexplainable things do occur here and often times, the only answer people can give you is “witching.” Even people who say they don’t believe in witchcraft use it to fall back on or as a last resort. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe in it myself but I don’t mess around with it either.

A traditional healer, or witchdoctor, is an actual profession here. People make a living listening to other people’s problems, and doing what they can to solve them. It’s African therapy. In the classified section of the country-wide newspaper, The Namibian, there are countless listings for witchdoctors seeking to heal this or that problem. In most towns and villages, you can easily locate a witchdoctor or two. Some healers have other jobs and practice their witchcraft secretly, but many are totally open about their work; if you take a walk through the location, you can easily find yourself a healer, as many of them post signs in their yard advertising their services. Some witchdoctors specialize in certain areas (health, money, etc.) but most you can consult regarding anything that is troubling you. If someone experiences a period of bad luck, they will visit a witchdoctor to counteract what they assume is a bad spell that has been put upon them. People also visit witchdoctors to “witch” someone else who they dislike for one reason or another, which seems to me to be when things can get dangerous. No one can prove how witchdoctors go about fulfilling their requests, but, as I said, strange things do happen here; people are involved in accidents or go missing, and it simply becomes common belief that they were witched. We even hear about witching at my school. After a stream of thefts from my house, my learners as well as some colleagues agreed that my house must be witched and I should visit a witchdoctor for advice. I am much quicker to blame the sticky hands of my small learners than a bad spell being cast upon me, but it was hard to ignore these claims. These are educated individuals, many of whom do not live traditional lives anymore, but after all other options were explored, witchcraft, they told me, was the only alternative explanation.

During training, 3 friends and I visited a traditional healer in the location just to learn more about this element of Namibian culture. We had to communicate using Afrikaans and English through an interpreter who then translated it to Khoe Khoe for him. Because the translating took a bit of time, the doctor didn’t realize until some time had passed that we were just there to ask questions and that we had no money and no interest in witching anyone. Once he did realize this, however, he became quite angry with us. He started screaming things at us in KKG and flailing his hands about. The shack that he lived in was made of tin. In the summer time, with the hot Omaruru sun heating the tin throughout the day, the insides of these shacks get unbelievably hot. As our visit with this man wore on and he got more and more upset, that heat seemed to skyrocket. All of us began to sweat profusely and continually reach for our Nalgene bottles, the liquid contents of which were near boiling at this point. The atmosphere finally got so unbearable that one of my colleagues had to get up and leave because she couldn’t breathe. The rest of us tried our best to apologize to the angry man as we followed her out. I’m not sure what happened in that shack that day. It may have just been the African heat and our imaginations running wild with dehydration, or it may have been something a bit less explicable… whatever happened, it was definitely strange. Whether witchcraft is real or not I’m not sure, but I don’t care to explore it any further than I already have.

Witchdoctors are responsible for many traditional beliefs in Namibia and around Africa. We’ve all heard the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, but there are many more beliefs just as strange and just as dangerous but that are being perpetuated by traditional healers. People just want answers to their problems; answers to why something is happening to them or to someone they care about. I’m not positive, but I don’t think witchdoctors ever say, “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.” They seem to have solutions for everything, even things we outside the witching world would consider unsolvable or incurable.

Last week my friend (and Himba wrestler) *Johannes came into my office to visit with me and we started talking about witchcraft. Apparently a few days earlier, his youngest brother (also the reigning champion of Himba wrestling) fell victim to witching. As the story goes, that Friday late at night, their oldest brother had been woken by dogs barking outside his house. When he got out of bed, he saw two naked ladies running away from his house. Strange, he thought, but coma not strange enough to lose any more sleep over it. He went back to bed and the next morning, he and Johannes left to do business in a neighboring town, leaving their youngest brother home alone (don’t be too concerned; he’s a 21-year old Himba man who’s built like a house). That night, as the youngest brother slept, the two witches appeared again. Casting some sort of spell over him to keep him asleep, they made two small incisions on his chest and stole some of his blood. Because things like human blood are used in different spells, witches have to attain many of their necessary resources by stealing. They do not intend to witch that person, just to borrow some of their bodily fluids. He awoke the next morning to find the small cuts on his chest (which I have seen… they are real), and realized what had happened. Thankful I suppose that he hadn’t been witched himself, he and his brothers said nothing to their witchy neighbor, and life has continued on normally since then.

Needless to say, I just try my best to not upset anyone, especially those people I know practice witchcraft. Johannes works to reassure me, saying that he has never known of anyone who has tried to witch a white person, but he has warned me that my long, white-person hair could be something witchdoctors may covet for their spells… I’ve been wearing more ponytails lately.

Happy Halloween! :)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Cait's Photos

Cait's photos, posted by Nolan: So, I got an email from Cait the other day, with two photos attached and this message, "just upgraded my comp and its running faster than ever-- a very exciting time at my office:) i will try to send some pics just now." Apparently the speed was an illusion; it took her about 15 minutes to send me each photo, each in it's own email...so this little set represents a lot of work. Hopefully she'll keep sending them :) Anyway, here are Cait's photos with captions she included.


One of the random games the kids here have made up. The object is to fill, dump and refill the tin with sand as many times possible while dodging a wadded-up ball of plastic bags being thrown at you from either side. If you are hit, you are out and your total tins filled are tallied and added to overall score.

Though innocent looking, the kids here are incredibly competitive. This is the beginning of a rumble between the two girls' teams which I had to break up

Oh, how the boredom sparks such creativity. Here are some small kids in town who made their own high jump practice equipment using bamboo stalks

More high jump practice

The backdrop of our lovely little town. You can see the mountain, referred to in Afrikaans by locals as the "koppie," from many many miles away. It's how you know you are approaching Ruru.

Hiking the koppie and trying to decide the best possible route to use

My dear friend Rachel looking a little weary as we hike. She has yet to attempt the hike with us again :)

Little Wendy, a learner, scaling the mountain. She screamed the entire way.

And a view of the town of Omaruru from atop the mountain.

We are only in the beginning of our dry months here now and it's amazing to look back at how green it was when this was taken, mid-February, compared to how it looks now. This is the view of Omaruru's surrounding areas.

Two learners, Wendy and Gabriel, posing for a picture at the top of the mountain

The mopane worm, traditional food of the Owambo tribe. These are lovely little worms that have shades of pink and purple and even a bit of glitter and are found all over the trees in Omaruru during the rainy season. During the hike we gathered some and took them home to eat. Yum.

This is hostel where I live, taken from outside the school grounds. And that looks like donkey poo on the ground. The donkeys come into the school quite frequently and the learners ride them around the school grounds. It's a strange thing.

One of the holes I jump through when I leave the hostel. (sorry guys, I don't know why this won't load correctly, but if you click on it you can see the whole image-N.)

A typical Saturday afternoon at my house includes riveting (and often hilarious) games of Scrabble...

...and always laundry. Here, Marcus demonstrates typical washing technique.

This pic was taken from my patio. On the weekends, our yard fills with learners doing their wash.

One of our grade 12 learners, Mattie, retrieving his shoes from the roof of our house. The learners are religious about washing their shoes, trying desperately to keep them white in the African dust. After washing, they put them on our roof to dry so that no one will steal them. Many mornings, my wake up call comes at 5:30am when the boys are running across our tin roof collecting their shoes.

Some kids posing for a picture in town.

Spectators at a soccer game in the location. This day, in a game versus a private school in our circuit, we were fortunate enough to use the private, and well-maintained, soccer field...

...but most days, it's pick-up soccer games on the dirt field in the location.

More soccer

Himba wrestling! Here's Nelson getting tossed by the traffic cop.

And Mark struggling against my co-worker and friend Jeremia; part-time Himba wrestler, full-time District Literacy Officer.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Long Road Home

I'm not sure what was more of a challenge: traveling back to America for the wedding, or returning to Namibia. Part of the reason I haven't written anything in so long is because it's been sort of difficult for me to wrap my brain around the drastic difference between my life in America-- the lives of Americans in general-- and my life and the lives of everyone here. Throughout my service, I've learned to take things in stride, to gaan met die stroom (go with the flow) and try not to let emotions overwhelm me. However, moving between these two worlds, it seems nearly impossible to not feel some guilt. I am well aware of the differences between myself and Namibians, but after living here for a year in more or less the same conditions as most of my colleagues and friends, the similarities between "them" and "me" seemed more tangible than the differences, which, to be honest, became more and more hard to see as time went on.

Going home changed all that.

My life in America is incredibly blessed. Granted, many people were much nicer and much more accommodating of me than they probably would have been had I just been visiting from college (you know who you are:) ), but aside from a painless dress fitting and a couple of minor errands, I had few worries when I was home. I am comfortable with my life here, but if I said that I wasn't missing or wanting certain things I would be lying. My "wants" could never compare to the needs of many people I know, but they are still present. One can survive without electricity or running water, but to "want" such essential amenities is both humbling and eye-opening. Eating porridge day after day, though filling and satisfying, does leave something to be desired as far as food consumption goes. And though adventurous, walking along the road for hours in the blazing sun waiting for a hike does, after a few months, lose its appeal.

Going home fulfilled my most basic wants. For example:
• I wanted to watch an American football game. I watched the Packers lose preseason to the Bengals.
• I wanted to drink margaritas and eat Mexican food. My family and I ate at two great Mexican restaurants while I was home, not including an emergency run to Qdoba on State St.
• I wanted to spend time on the river. I went kayaking with my mother in her new tandem kayak and drank root beer floats with my brother in Riverside Park.
• I wanted to spend good, quality family time with my mom, my brothers and my new sister. Not only did we go bar hopping on State St. after the wedding, still dressed to the nines in our wedding attire (oh so classy), but the wedding gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by nearly everyone I care most about in the world.
• I wanted to find fun gifts for my friends and my learners here. I came back with an entire suitcase filled with presents, including three Game Boys which my kids have not gone a single day without playing. I have yet to decide if introducing things like Game Boys was a good idea.
• I wanted to do my laundry with a washing machine. I have never seen washing machine water get so cloudy.
• I wanted to get people talking about Namibia. I think that happened.

Being home allowed me to eat lots of good food and never feel hungry or guilty. Here, meal time gets a bit tricky. For example, I never leave food on my plate, especially if I eat in front of my kids (which I try to refrain from). If possible, I will eat in my office or in my room when the kids are away because trying to deal with them when food is around is difficult. The idea of "leftovers" is really a foreign concept to many people here, particularly the kids. How could there ever be more than enough food? There has to be someone who is still hungry. Though when cooking at my house we usually cook enough for a few extras (visitors, sick kids, kids who miss or are banished from meal time, kids who plant their feet until we feed them, etc.), our excess—something that has been toned down drastically since arriving in Africa—never goes unnoticed. My kids reprimand me for throwing away orange peels and apple cores (which they eat, seeds and all), and they collect the throw-away bones from any type of meat we cook and proceed to crack them open and suck the marrow from them. Yes, it's as gross as it sounds, but it's food to them. Nothing goes to waste here.

While I was home, I took long, hot, unrushed showers until I felt truly clean AND I brushed my hair for the first time in months. No matter what they say, absolutely everyone I know would choose hot running water over lukewarm bath water. Even those who consider themselves completely happy and acclimated here (me being one of those people), jump at the opportunity for a shower. My standards for what can be considered "clean" have lowered considerably. Bathing is, indeed, nothing more than sitting in your own filth. Walking around all day in the sand and the dirt and the sun, that layer of filth grows and that bath water darkens. Bucket bathing (which just means standing up and pouring water over your body, as opposed to laying in the water), helps rinse most the dirt away, but thoroughly cleaning one's hair, especially hair like mine, is next to impossible. Lately, because of circumstances beyond our control, we have been turning our water off with the hopes of postponing the inevitable demise of our bathroom. Our Namibian-water torture dripping ceiling, which I mentioned previously, has stopped messing around and has actually caused the ceiling panel to pull away from the wooden boards holding it up. As we wait for it to be repaired (which probably won't happen until it collapses), the ceiling is slanting down towards the bathtub, and the water that was once dripping through the ceiling is now running down the ceiling panel and directly onto the bather. I'm pretty sure there's a family of something living in the ceiling and I'm just waiting for the day when the ceiling collapses and I find myself sharing my bath with a gaggle of lizards or something. Because of this, my bathing routine lately has been get in, get out, get on with it. Total cleanliness is no longer an attainable goal.

I guess I've been tripping over the extreme differences between my life here and my life there since I've been back. Some of the differences, like showers to baths, are comical. But many are difficult; most too difficult to even write about or talk about. Knowing the homes that many of my kids had to go to over holiday, and hearing many of their stories coming back; and then comparing that with my own life over holiday…. it's challenging for me to get a handle on how I can move so easily between these two worlds that are so fundamentally different from one another. That, and how most people I know here will never truly know the ease with which many in this world live.

So, it's been a transition to say the least, but I'm feeling better. I presented a Reading Comprehension workshop along with another TRC PCV to primary school teachers last week and it was a hit. A lot of my work this year was leading up to the workshop, so I feel a small sense of accomplishment. Hopefully some of the strategies I introduced will find their way into classrooms here. Exams are about to start which means the kids (and the teachers and the schools overall) are totally nuts and out of their minds. It's been a bit of a circus around the office and at home, but it's all part of the experience.

Now that I got this first post back out of the way and out of my head, I will work on some more amusing entries. Nolan has about 1000 pictures that he's working on posting. I will work harder at keeping pictures more up to date.

Thanks to everyone who was so great to me while I was visiting and to everyone who continues to be supportive of me here. I hope this entry finds you all happy and healthy.