Sunday, February 24, 2008

Water, water everywhere...

After two years of a severe drought, the prayers of the Namibian people have been heeded in an overwhelming fashion. People are saying that God finally answered, but he forgot to turn off the tap. It has rained every single day for the past two weeks, and when I say rain I mean RAIN-- sheets of rain that crash down onto our tin roofs and tear branches from trees and uproot bushes. Rain so strong it knocks over goats and cattle, killing many with it's shear force. And as the rain continues to fall, the water situation continues to worsen. Almost everyday I walk to town, I find myself wandering through people’s homesteads and mahangu fields, trying to find new ways in as the usual paths are under knee-deep oshanas by now. The oshanas completely surround the school where I’m teaching, so twice a day all 400 learners and 13 teachers remove their shoes, hike up their trousers and skirts and wade through the water. The oshanas are home to millions of tiny, newly hatched frogs (as well as water snakes) that set off in a hopping fury when pedestrians approach them, resulting in thousands of squishy frog pancakes that cover the ground (as one volunteer duly noted, the only thing worse than feeling a frog squish beneath your sandal is trapping a frog in between your sandal and your foot... and then feeling it squish). Never ones to miss an opportunity to find humor in a seemingly humorless situation, the learners have taken to pelting one another with frogs as the masses pass through the water. This inevitably leads to someone falling into the muddy water while trying to dodge a frog attack, and almost everyday I have at least one child come to class dripping wet. “No more frog throwing!” I say. They just laugh.

Every elder I speak with tells me that this is the worst flooding they have seen in their lifetime (i.e. at least the last 90 years). "Omeya!" they say. Too much water. The floods are a result of both heavy rain, as well as the opening of flooded dams in Angola just 40km away, which is what caused the water to rise so quickly here in the north. The Global Disaster Alert System has reported that at least 23 people have died thus far. More than 50 schools have halted teaching due to an overwhelming drop in learner attendance. Thousands of cattle and livestock have been killed by the heavy downpour. Unwilling to leave their cattle—their livelihood—behind, many cattle herders have found themselves trapped by high waters deep in their villages, essentially cut off from the rest of the country. Government helicopters made special trips yesterday, delivering food and other basic supplies to the herders in these isolated areas. Hundreds of thousands of people in the rural villages have been displaced, forced from their homes and work places due to rising water levels. There are three major towns in my area – Ondangwa, Oshakati and Ongwediva. These three towns, about 10 - 20km from one another, represent the urban centre of the north. Like the villages that surround this area, all three of these towns have been hit hard by flooding. Businesses that are depended on by thousands of people have been forced to close, and many roads leading into and out of the towns have been washed away. Ondangwa, Oshakati and Ongwediva have all set up evacuation centres for flood victims who have been displaced, but the demand for accommodation has become overwhelming. With more and more people being evacuated, these centres are becoming less and less inhabitable. The Namibian is reporting that two children died at the evacuation centres last week due to suspected intestinal illnesses. These three towns are connected by a series of small bridges, which are swelling under the pressure of the rising waters passing beneath them. Many fear that these bridges will collapse, essentially cutting off the towns and evacuation centres from the outside world. The situation is dire, and unfortunately I’ve heard the worst of the rain is still to come…

Jay (my co-PCVL in the north) and I spent the whole of last week visiting the volunteers whose villages have been hardest hit by the floods. While our own sites have been affected, we were shocked at the high water levels we found deep in the villages. As devastating as it all is, these rural communities have united together. The one or two bakkies that attempt to pass through the water squeeze as many passengers in the back as possible. The brave souls who go into town always make their journey known before hand, so those left behind can place orders or make requests. People hold one another’s hands as they walk together through the high, treacherous waters, and small children ride the shoulders of their escorts. As the usual roads and paths are flooded, we had to stop often to ask local people which ways were easiest to pass through. Every where we went, local people would volunteer to ride along and accompany us through the floods, sometimes staying with us for more than 6hrs of driving, giving us directions and readying themselves to push when we found ourselves sinking.

So, for the time being we're all just waiting; waiting for the rain to stop falling, the oshanas to dry up. There isn't much more we can do, other than wait. And be careful what we pray for.

Here are some pictures from the last few weeks...

That is not a usual body of water-- it is a flooded oshana. Oshana means an open pan of dry land, but due to the heavy rains, most oshanas have filled up like this one. People have to cross through these daily. This one in particular was up to my knees at its deepest.

School kids, who are coping

More than 50 schools throughout the north have closed, due to flooding in the school yards and classrooms. Even at schools that have remained opened, such as the ones pictured here, attendance has dropped as the children, especially the small ones, are unable to safely cross the oshanas to get to their schools.

A flooded village

Many shops have been forced to close due to rising water levels

The "Peace Beast"; our durable transport for the week

It was inevitable

The dirt roads become like quicksand with all this water.
After tempting fate one too many times,
the oshana gods had their way with us.

Our rescue: a bakkie filled with memes who didn't hesitate to hike up their skirts, jump in the water and help us push our bakkie out. And then their bakkie stuck, so we pushed them out. And then another bakkie came and it got stuck also, so we helped push them out. It was a long day.

There is a fairly large oshana directy in front of my school, and the only way to get in or out of school is to pass through. These brave little souls always do it with a smile.

My sisters, crossing a very deep oshana near our house

From The Namibian. Poor guy

Friday, February 08, 2008

A week... and some months

After a two-month hiatus from PC life, I’m back in Namibia, at a new site and taking on a new job. A lot has happened over the past two months, and while I don’t intend on detailing everything, I thought a smattering of thoughts and photos would be a good way to start off the blogging of 2008. So, here are the past few months, in a nutshell…:

November – December:

• I had a few farewell parties before I left Omaruru. My TRC farewell came complete with a drama that starred one of my colleagues acting as me, running around the office barefoot drinking a juice box and speaking fast Namlish. I never knew I was so easily impersonated. I also had a farewell with my grade 3 English class, which entailed lots of singing and dancing and cookies. A truly perfect day.

Grade 3's, Omaruru

My final farewell party was with some friends and colleagues at my house. And what is a Namibian farewell without a goat slaughter, right? The hostel kids try to act so tough, like “city” kids, but lay an animal carcass in front of them and they go crazy: arms elbow-deep in the body cavity, sifting through organs and intestines like pros.

Dinner, Omaruru

• I participated in the Pre-Service Training for Group 27, who arrived in November 2007. It was really interesting to see my two years come around full circle. As I listened to the trainees voice their questions and anxieties and hopes for the next two years, I was surprised at how clearly I remembered feeling the same way just two years ago. Whether fun or not, time really does fly.

• From mid-November til mid-December, I backpacked overland with two good PC friends. To briefly recap... We began by hitchhiking north through Namibia’s Caprivi Region to Victoria Falls in Livingston, Zambia. After a few fun-filled days (and lots of cheap Chinese takeout; comfort food found throughout Africa) at the falls, we took a bus to Lusaka, the capital city, followed the next day by another, more… tumultuous bus ride to Chipata, the border town. We stopped in Chipata for a few days before heading to the lovely Cape Maclear, Malawi. We spent almost a week at Cape Maclear, hanging out on the great Lake Malawi and resting up on the beach before boarding the Ihlala Ferry, which took us on a very unique three day journey up Lake Malawi, to Nkhata Bay. After a few days with the Rastafarians at Nkhata Bay, we headed further north, crossing the border into Tanzania where we spent only one day at Mbeya, eating more Chinese takeout and waiting for the train to arrive. From there, we took the train (either 2 or 3 days… I can’t remember) over to Dar es Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania.

Victoria Falls, Zambia side

Throwing kids, Lake Malawi

Ilala Ferry, Nhkata Bay

Having done a bit of research in Mbeya, we decided it was best to hurry over to the airport immediately upon arriving in Dar, so as to a) avoid the chaos of the capital city, and b) hop on a quick and inexpensive flight over to the island of Zanzibar. (Point of note: if anyone is considering this trip, do check the prices. When we went, a flight from Dar to Zanzibar was just about the same price as the ferry ride over, not to mention 3hrs shorter). On Zanzibar we stayed just outside of Stone Town in an area the locals call “BuBuBu.” We spent a few days on the white beaches of Zanzibar, eating cheap street food and practicing Swahili, before the three of us boarded our transatlantic flights back to America, just in time for the holidays. It was an unforgettable trip, but not for the faint at heart. This way of traveling is definitely a great way to see the countries and move around with the locals and mingle with the diverse crowd of individuals who travel through Africa, but it is exhausting and can be risky, and while I had a great time, I would never travel this way through Africa again. If any of you and interested in trying, heed this advice: rent your own car.

Volleyball, Cape Maclear

Women collecting shellfish, Zanzibar

The weary travelers, somewhere

• To get to America from Zanzibar, I had to take FIVE flights (a total of 37 flying hours mixed in with a few layovers here and there), and found myself being hassled by airport officials throughout my travels. Upon landing in the states, the customs officials seemed unnerved at the sight of my over-stamped passport, my WHO card filled with immunizations, and my raggedy appearance. So they confiscated my carry-on peanut butter. “Better safe than sorry,” they told me. Seriously?

• When I was home, while in the midst of a classic Midwestern winter, many people commented on how tan I looked.

• I saw Van Morrison perform live in Minneapolis. Hard to top that.

• One of our presents from Santa this year was Green Bay Packer tickets, so my family and I made the trek up to lovely Lambeau Field for the Packers vs. Lions game on December 28. It was cold, but not cold enough (for Wisconsin-ites anyway) to pass on the chance to see Brett Favre in action. And also to cheer for our "friend" Mason.

Frozen Tundra, Green Bay

January 2008:
• I discovered YouTube. And wasted many hours trying to catch up.

• Campaign fever seemed to be affecting everyone in the states, and on a spur of the moment decision, two friends and my mother and my mother’s friend and I all decided to road trip down to Lansing, Iowa for the caucus. It was like a Civics lesson come alive, and let me tell you, if you weren’t an Obama supporter before that night—after sitting in this room in small-town America, listening to first time voters and union people and old, old farmers talk about their fathers who worked in steel mills and their own lives through the depression and the world wars, and to hear them all talk about how this is the time for change—by the end of the night, everyone was displaying their ‘Obama 08’ stickers proudly.

Joe Biden's brother caucusing, Iowa

• I went ice fishing with my brother. It was a first for me, and much more enjoyable than I had anticipated. Though quite cold.

• I bought 14 new books while I was home. So far I’ve read 4.

• Upon returning to Namibia, I took on a new job as a Gender and Development (GAD) Assistant/Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL), and I moved to a new city. I am now living on a traditional homestead with an Owambo family in Ondangwa, the far north of Namibia, and I work out of the regional Peace Corps office. My homestead is about a 20-30 minute walk—on winding, sandy paths, through pokey bushes and random streams and cattle and oshanas and mahangu fields—from town into the bush. There are about 172 paths one can take from my homestead to the town, and every time I walk to town, I attempt to take a different way so as to better acquaint myself with my new “neighborhood.” I get lost a lot.

My homestead, Ondangwa

• When I returned to Namibia, and it’s scorching-desert summer, my friends and colleagues were shocked at how white I was.

• My current living situation is the embodiment of the dichotomy that is life in Namibia. While Ondangwa is at least three times the population of Omaruru, complete with 3 grocery stores, a few clothing stores and even a KFC, my homestead has no plumbing (only an outdoor tap and pit latrine), and infrequent, unpredictable electricity.

• S.I. !Gobs only passed 8 out of 97 grade 12 learners in 2007.

• Since the name ‘Caitlin’ sort of sounds like ‘Catherine,’ and the Oshiwambo translation of the name ‘Catherine’ is ‘Catrina,’ most of my Owambo friends and colleagues have always referred to me as Catrina. The only difference in Owamboland is that, as you may guess, since pretty much everyone is Owambo, everyone calls me Catrina. This is further aided by the fact that my family hosted a Peace Corps Volunteer a few years ago whose name was also Catrina (or some variation). So not only do they call me Catrina, but so do numerous people in town who see me and figure that the old Catrina has returned (people constantly tell me that we look alike, but that could mean nothing more than that we’re both white and both female). And since I respond when anyone hollers out: “Catrina! Wu uhala po, meme!” we’re all just rolling with it.

• While I do like my new site and my family, I miss Omaruru more than I expected to.

• The northern regions of Namibia have been experiencing horrible flooding due to excessive rain fall over the past few weeks. The flooding covers over 450 square miles, and has taken out bridges and roads throughout Owamboland. People drown daily, and the rain continues to fall. According to The Namibian, 44 primary schools have stopped classes with an additional 37 schools affected because children cannot wade through the high waters, and 4000 heads of cattle and 1800 goats have been killed. Some homes and business are entirely under water, and thousands of people have been flooded into their villages, unable to leave to buy food and necessary supplies. After two years without a drop of rain, this devastating downpour as of late seems almost biblical.

• My 60-year old meme doesn’t speak any English. As I’m still fumbling to become conversational in Oshindonga, exchanges between the two of us usually don’t go much further than: “Hello. How are you? I am fine. How was your day? Mine was fine, I was at the school. It is very hot/rainy. Let’s go watch television.” Every night, my two sisters and my meme and I (and usually some random cousins and nieces and aunties and friends and dogs I’ve never seen before) sit down to watch Second Chance—El Cuerpo del Deseo—our twice-dubbed Spanish soap-opera. It’s quite intense, complete with overly-dramatic facial expressions and thunderous, consequential music; features which do not require a 1st language knowledge of English to understand. Every night after Second Chance we watch WWE-Smackdown-Raw-Wrestle Mania, or whatever it’s called. While my meme enjoys El Cuerpo del Deseo like the rest of us, American WWE is her absolute favorite show. So our evening bonding consists of Spanish melodramas followed by quality time with the Undertaker, Rick Flair and Batista.

• I ate a frog last week. Intentionally.

• Living in the north of Namibia is like living in a different country, and while I do miss Omaruru, I am happy to move away from the strong legacy of apartheid that permeates the south of this country.

• I had a snake in my house the first week I was living there. I’d been keeping my doors open during the days so that my host family felt comfortable entering. Then one day, I saw something slithering out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough, it was a long, thing, green and yellow monster. Now, while I do pride myself on overcoming my fears of any sort of bug or lizard or rodent, snakes are something I just haven’t warmed to. As soon as I saw it slithering along my floor, I began screaming, “Snake! Snake!” My 13-year old host sister ran in, rock in hand, and proceeded to smash the snake to pieces. “I don’t like snakes,” I told her afterwards, trying to explain my cowardice. “Me neither!” she exclaimed. “I don’t like them at all. Not even a little. I’m also very afraid. Very afraid.” Funny… our “very afraids” look very different. And when I told my meme about the snake, she too expressed her deep fear of snakes. In fact, once word of the snake had spread, everyone in my family came by my house to talk about it and to share their own snake-anxieties. “It’s my greatest fear, Catrina,” said my auntie. However, since the snake, I’ve been vigilant about quickly closing my door behind me, yet I’ve noticed that my family continues to leave their doors open, even after nightfall, which tells me that either their lying about their snake-phobias, or my host family is much tougher than I am. I’m going to guess it’s the latter.

So I guess that’s about all. I’m still working on getting into a routine at my new site, but I’m hopeful that this will be another rewarding year. I hope everyone is well, including my friends from Nam25 who are in the process of settling back into life stateside. Namibia misses you! Take care, stay in touch. Kala po nawa!

Sunset behind my school, Ondangwa