Wednesday, February 28, 2007

This Life Is Lekker, by Cindy

After an amazing trip visiting Kat in December, I wanted to share a little about our experiences. I have been back in the US for a while now and debated about how to write about our many typically African experiences. Cage diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa, sand boarding in the most amazing sand dunes in the world, seeing the African Big 5, walking with lions, white water rafting in the Zambezi and seeing a baby crocodile 50 feet from the boat after we had just all been in the water, were all amazing experiences. However, I figured you could read about all those stories in travel magazines. So here are a few stories that might not make it into to National Geographic.

The first week of my trip I accompanied Kat and her Peace Corps friends on a long road trip to Cape Town. It was great to meet all the people that Kat has become so close with over the past year. My jet lag gave me an excuse to sit and listen to their conversations without having to participate much. I heard many stories of the day to day Namibian life and culture that they speak so matter-of-factly about. I overheard conversations about funny things the learners say and do, sad commentary of the realities of life in poverty, and the latest dramas of the twice dubbed over Spanish soap opera (that those who had electricity and access to a tv were able to see). I was surprised how well they knew each other and how comfortable they were around each other. In many ways, it was as if they became a tight nit family in such a short time because of the unfamiliar situations they went through together.

One night in Swakopmund, we met up with a couple of Kat’s Namibian friends and went to a Sheeben (tiny bar that is actually more like someone’s house that sells beer). On our way over there, we found out that the power was out in the whole city and by the time we got there, we found out that the power was out in all of Namibia! Surprisingly, everyone just lit a few candles and kept on like normal. When the power came back on, we headed over to a concert that started in true “African time” at 2:30am. We had many interesting conversations, but when they started calling me the blind one because of my glasses, I realized how poverty affects every aspect of life. I have never thought of my glasses as a luxury, but it iss now clear that in Namibia unless you are in fact blind, glasses are a luxury.

It was so interesting to do things with Namibians that they might do ordinarily in the everyday life. I quickly learned that there was not personal space like we are used to. Anything that anyone had was shared with everyone around. People that we didn’t know were sharing their beers with us and ours with them. Three or four Namibians were all sharing the same cigarette and we were all sharing the endless supply of raisins/nuts that someone brought with them. It was in the Sheeben that I first saw a Namibian open a bottle of beer with his teeth. It was amazing – he opened it with his teeth with more ease than I can open one with a bottle opener!

It is hard to explain the poverty we saw there. We saw many houses made out of nothing but a couple of tin planks. I kept thinking that the only places that I have seen anything like this were in Ghost towns, but in Namibia, this is where people eat, sleep, and live everyday – no electricity, no running water, just dirt floors and tin roofs. The most amazing thing was to see the pride people take in their homes, even though they live in the some of the worst conditions in the world. People were actually sweeping their floors. Yes, their dirt floors. I can’t imagine that they ever thought they were finished or how they felt like they accomplished anything, but it just goes to show the spirit in the people.

I don’t think about race much in the US, but in Namibia, I couldn’t help it. The most surprising thing that I learned on the trip was that there is still so much racism in Namibia. The affects of ending apartheid just over a decade ago are apparent everywhere. In addition to “We reserve the right to refuse service” signs at almost all of the restaurants, stores, and places of business, I couldn’t help but notice that all the workers were black and all the customers and owners were white. It was such a strange dynamic between the haves and have nots. After only two weeks in Namibia, I could feel a difference when we went to Zimbabwe. I found myself relieved that there were black people with us as customers. I know Kat has said this many times, but for the first time, I really did feel the color of my skin.

What I learned most on this trip was how much I still don’t know about Namibian life and culture. I have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the unique, kind, and struggling people that we can all learn from and benefit from. In a country of up to 60% unemployment, the people’s spirit has to be their biggest asset and I truly felt their kindness and positive spirit. I now understand that when Kat says that you have to be there to understand it, I know that the realities are beyond my wildest dreams.

Friday, February 09, 2007

In the heat of the moment...

Waking up in Namibia is like waking up on the edge of the earth. In the veld, the deep bush, for as far as you can see… you can see. Aside from the raggedy shrubs, the merciless acacia trees and a whole lot of sand (a desert, in fact), there is very little in between you and the horizon. No towns, no houses, no people—you could walk for days and never see another living human being (if you think I’m exaggerating, ask my family). Often, if I stare long enough at the horizon I really do feel that if I began walking, it wouldn’t be long before I was standing at the end of the world. Or, perhaps that I could walk for eternity and never reach the end of anything… I get the two confused.

The awe inspired by this infinite abyss has been magnified in recent weeks. The rains have come late in Namibia. I remember the rains of last year and how powerful and destructive they were, but that seems like a distant dream these days. In Omaruru, we have been without rain since before Thanksgiving. Because I can stand on my patio and see to the end of the world, I can see that it is raining in the villages surrounding Omaruru, but my small town has not received one drop of rain in nearly two months. That’s a long time in the desert. During these summer months, it’s even more brutal. Everyone says this is the hottest they can ever remember it being in Namibia, though people here often say silly things so who knows if that’s true. But I can tell you that personally, this is the hottest climate I have ever experienced in my life. There has not been a single day in the past few weeks where the midday high has been less than 40°C (about 105°F)-- most days, it gets even hotter than that. Thanks to Ruru’s beautiful blue and cloudless skies, by 11H00 the sun is already blazing down and nearing it’s peak heat, and by 15H00 the streets and school grounds are quiet because everyone is shut indoors, lying on their beds with wet towels draped across their foreheads and backs. I have a fan which, when the electricity is running, I turn on full blast and lie in front of, trying my best to keep still, but none of the hostel kids have one. It would be quite evil of me to forbid the kids from sharing in my cool breeze, but unfortunately that just leaves me with a room full of sweaty teenagers. Not pleasant for anyone, but this way we can suffer together.

People have referred to Namibia as “the land God created in anger.” While I have nothing but love for this country, I’d be lying if I said that such a description wasn’t fitting. I think that the stark beauty of Namibia is really what is so alluring about this country, as it seems no other place in the world resembles this place. But the terrain here is harsh, and the uninterrupted heat as of late has made it even harsher. The lack of rain has caused the earth to fry. The sand and dirt are so hot that the kids run across in their bare feet screaming like maniacs, or try to hitch rides on the backs of bigger kids. Thorns from the thirsty acacias have sprinkled themselves all over the ground and poke their way through my sandals and feet (the kids’ feet are like leather and are undisturbed by such pokey things). Plants and bushes have shriveled up and died even here in notoriously-green Omaruru, where the underground water source buried beneath our riverbed helps keep the plant life looking fresh and alive much longer than most places in Nam. In past years, this kind of heat has brought with it rain and, in turn, the famed Omaruru River which provided a cool escape from the high temperatures. Unfortunately, no rain means no river means no escape for us.

Athletics (Namibia’s term for track and field) were postponed for a few weeks because the ground was too hot and too hard to run on. The school finally decided that if we waited for the rains, we may miss out on the athletic season all together so the kids have begun to train and compete. Though they love to run and do so willingly, evenings after practice leave us with many dehydrated kids, convulsing because of the lack of water and nutritious food they get during the day. We have had a few spaghetti dinners at my house for the big runners, and we are pretty diligent about collecting old bottles and freezing what water we can to provide the kids with something to drink at practice, but our efforts could never compensate for the overwhelming effects of this heat. Yesterday, I had to take one of my learners to the hospital because he was bleeding from his nose and mouth. I was pretty sure it was some combination of dehydration and heat stroke, which indeed it turned out to be, but with a hospital full of such cases (and many more extreme cases than ours), he was just given a shot of penicillin and we were sent on our way. My cure-all for dehydration is Fanta Orange, so I took him home and loaded him up with the delicious, syrupy soda along with some saltine crackers. Within an hour, he was up running around and laughing with the others. Kids are resilient.

Just as the rain brings with it a colorful array of creepy crawlies, so to does the lack of rain. Fire ants have taken over the paths of Omaruru. Unafraid of being washed away by the rains, the ants have built their huge ant mounds and disrupted the way of life for those of us who commute into town daily. If you were to stand still for a few seconds (which no one does as that would be offering up the flesh of your feet and legs to the ants) and watch the ground, it would appear to be shifting and moving ever so slightly. Look a little closer and you will discover that it’s not the ground that is moving, but rather a blanket of fire ants creating the optical illusion. It is impossible these days to walk slowly, calmly down the streets. Now, it’s more of a jumping, skipping, half-running and high knees-ing lunatic-type dance that we all perform, trying (always unsuccessfully) to keep the ants from attacking our feet and running up our legs. Letting your guard down for even a second finds your feet literally covered with the evil creatures. Now, you may be thinking, “C’mon now, ants? She must be weak… ants can’t be that bad.” And I don’t blame you for having such thoughts. However, if it helps prove my case at all, out of all the nightmare-inducing bugs and beasts I’ve encountered during my time in Namibia, the fire ants are the ones I loathe the most. I’d prefer to walk through a river of mambas than a river of fire ants. Ok, maybe not a river of mambas but a river of non-deadly snakes for sure. I have actual scars on my feet from where the ants have bitten me. It’s been so bad lately that I’ve resorted to walking the loooong way home—to the end of town, across the bridge and around the school fence—as opposed to cutting through the dry riverbed and the bush and then jumping the back fence of the school. Though this route adds a good 20 scorching minutes onto my usual walk, it’s preferable considering the alternative. 30 minutes in the sun allows me to avoid the fleet of ants that inhabit the riverbed and bushes surrounding the hostel. Once I arrive on the hostel grounds, I can usually hop-skip-and jump my way home with only a few non-fatal stings.

During the winter season, I wrote a lot about how unbelievably cold it was here. Spending the extra 15 minutes in the morning boiling water so it was warm enough to bathe in was a pain, but I’ve decided I definitely prefer that to what I have now. You would think we would look forward to the summer, and that our cold-water-only option would be refreshing after a long day in the heat. Unfortunately, there is no such option. For one, we lose water a lot more in the summer than in the winter. Because so many more people are running the town’s water (including the white people with luscious lawns that require 24/7 sprinkler systems), the water finishes much faster than during the winter. However, when we do have water, it’s almost too hot to do anything with. The pipes that run from our geyser to the house sit baking in the sun all day long (as does the geyser itself). Because of this, the first 5 or so minutes that the water is running, waiting for the cooler to kick in and do its job, the faucet spews out nothing but scalding hot liquid. Because I don’t like wasting, I rarely run the water for so long. This, however, leaves me in a predicament. While I’ve come to expect the extra few steps required to do my daily business here (i.e. bathing, laundry, travel…), the summer’s effect on my bathing routine has been much harder to cope with than the winter’s. In the winter, I had the option of boiling water to reach my desired temperature. Though it was a hassle, it was nevertheless an option. I don’t have such an option anymore. I could run the water for 10 minutes before filling the tub, but that would leave me guilt-ridden for days while having to watch my parched kids run in the sun. I could fill the tub with hot water and let it sit for a few hours and hope it would cool, but that sort of puts a disruption on my day. So lately, I’ve gone back to good old fashioned bucket bathing. It’s far too hot to actually lie down in the bath water, so in the evenings (when the pipes have escaped the sun’s blaze for a few hours), I hop in and do my business using a sponge and one of our laundry buckets. Never completely clean, but I gave up caring about such things long, long ago. :)

I’ve been hearing about the extremely cold weather many of you stateside have been experiencing lately. As my brother and I swap text messages discussing the weather here and there, I’m left wondering what is better: -25°, where your nose hairs and eyelashes freeze the minute you step out of your house, or 110° desert-heat, day after day, where it’s actually possible to fry an egg on the sand. So for those of you who are cursing the cold in the Midwest right now, just remember that on the other side of the globe, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some young African kids who would trade places with you in a heartbeat. Then again, they’ve never had to walk to school through two feet of the snow, feel their fingers and nose go numb due to the cold, or dig their car out of a snow mound and then spend hours chipping away at the ice on their windshield.

Like I said, it’s a toss up. :)

...then again, when you live in a place where the sun sets just like this every evening, I never struggle to find at least one thing that I'm grateful for at the end of the day. Though it may seem hard to find now, I know that the same is true for all of you in "God's country." :)

Lekker naweek!
(Enjoy the weekend!)