Monday, November 24, 2008


After living and working for so long in a developing country, it’s easy to get discouraged. And after getting involved with countless projects and watching them fail time after time, one starts to wonder if there’s any point. While I could point to some small accomplishments by the end of my second year, my Peace Corps service was filled with far more trials and errors than success stories. And that is the nature of the beast. Hopefully, if we try 100 different projects in 100 different ways, something will stick, something will work and someone will benefit. However, with so many failures under my belt, the beginning of this third year left me wondering if there was any real benefit to me being here.

And just when you begin to doubt, out comes the sun.

This year, in the rural northern region of this desolate country, I stumbled upon the most inspirational and hopeful project that I have witnessed at work in Namibia. Oonte OVC Organisation is a non-profit organization based in Ondangwa that serves the neediest of this country—orphans and other vulnerable children (OVC). Oonte’s goal is to reach out to children and provide them with spiritual, physical and psycho-social support. Oonte is involved in numerous projects. They offer after school programs for children that focus on health, personal hygiene, goal setting and leadership. They have a feeding program that allows them to offer the children three meals a week, one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. For most of the children, this is the only meal they eat on those days. Oonte provides skills training in trades such as glass making and construction for vulnerable young adults. At the site, they have a large garden where the children learn how to harvest food and take care of animals. Oonte also makes house visits to the most vulnerable households to check on the living situations of the children and to see where they can offer help. The support offered by Oonte is support that these needy children could not find anywhere else in their lives.

Some of Oonte's regulars

Small kids with big watering cans, working in Oonte's garden

The heart behind Oonte is Ms. Petrine Shiimi, or meme Petrina as she is known by nearly everyone in this community (meme is Oshiwambo for mother). A teacher and businesswoman by trade, in 2004 meme Petrina found herself troubled by the growing number of orphans in Ondangwa. With a population of just over 2 million people, Namibia has just under 200,000 registered orphans, 60% of whom live in the northern regions of the country. Now bear in mind, when I say “registered orphan” I mean that this child was able to provide his or her parents’ death certificate(s) as well as his or her own birth certificate to government authorities, in order to be entered into the official OVC database. It goes without saying that the majority of children in any circumstance would not be able to come up with these documents on their own. So, on top of the 200,000 registered orphans, we have even more unregistered children who have lost one or both parents, as well as thousands of children who, though one or both parents may still be alive, are nevertheless living in very vulnerable environments. That’s a lot of need.

Maria (an Oonte volunteer), meme Petrina, me, Albertina (another volunteer), and my colleague Jay

Meme Petrina and her husband have taken in and provided care for countless children throughout the years, but in 2004 she could see the need for something more growing in the community around her. So in December, she decided to throw a Christmas party for the children of Ondangwa. Collecting donations from local businesses, she was able to offer a small Christmas meal to more than 300 children. Saddened to know that this was the only way these children would be celebrating the holiday, meme Petrina decided to do more. She rented out an old, abandoned building, filled it with toys and educational materials, and opened it as a day centre for children. She decided to call it “Oonte,” which in Oshiwambo means the rays of the sun, as she sees it her mission in life to bring rays of sun and hope to needy children. And over the past 5 years, meme Petrina has done just that. Saying that she has saved hundreds of lives would not be an overstatement.

Cooking for the children in Oonte's "kitchen"

The children, trying to find some shade to enjoy their meal

I was introduced to meme Petrina by one of my Peace Corps supervisors. When I told her that I would be in Ondangwa all year and would love to help where I could, she gave me a long hug and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “We need your help,” she said.

I started coming to Oonte whenever I could spare time, usually on random weekday afternoons and on the weekends. Along with two young Namibian girls who were volunteering at Oonte, I helped organize boys and girls clubs as well as a young achievers club. In clubs, we talked about puberty and sexual violence and the importance of making healthy relationships with one another, and we taught the kids about planning for their futures, setting goals and how to work towards those goals. The kids were great and had so much energy. All of them came from destructive environments where they had never been given the opportunity to discuss these important things. Their questions were often times heartbreaking, but were honest, and I was encouraged by their drive to learn. After helping to get the ball rolling, after a month or so I left the clubs to the Namibian volunteers to facilitate, and today they are the most popular activities offered at Oonte.

With the Young Achievers Club at my farewell party

With a fellow PCV, I worked to organize weekend workshops on HIV/AIDS education as well as children’s rights. It was fun to see the kids in this environment. They felt so important, like they had been invited to a very professional meeting, and they participated openly and honestly. In the health trainings, we were able to separate the boys and girls and talk with them about puberty and sexual health, something very few of them had ever been given the opportunity to discuss with adults before. While sessions with the older girls focused on more serious issues such as when is it sex and when is it rape, the younger girls could not get past topics like puberty and menstruation (none of the younger girls had gotten their periods yet, and many of them were convinced I was lying to them about what was coming in their near future). While it was encouraging to know I was providing them with important information about their own bodies and lives, it was also saddening to see how neglect had sheltered them and placed many of them in dangerous situations.

Meme Petrina handing out certificates (and hugs) at a weekend workshop

Today, nearing the end of 2008, Oonte has registered over 500 OVC. Over 500 children between the ages of 0 and 24 are receiving care from Oonte. While I think it’s fair to say that all of these children come from troubled homes, not all of them are orphans. Some of them live with one parent, and others live with a grandmother or other extended family. However, there are some who live in the most vulnerable of ways you can imagine: child-headed households. In Namibia, a child-headed household is defined as one that is led by a child under the age of 18. This child takes on the responsibilities usually carried out by parents, including providing care for any other children in the house. Some of these houses are led by children in their late teens, but others are led by children as young as 10-years old. Imagine a child the age of 10 carrying out all the responsibilities of running a house, including cooking for his or her siblings, cleaning and upkeep of the homestead, as well as finding some way to provide food and other essentials for his or her siblings. One of the services provided by Oonte is house visits to these child-headed households. Oonte was lucky enough to receive a handful of unexpected monetary donations this year. With that money we bought food bundles, consisting of bread, soup mix, dry porridge, cooking oil, pasta noodles, soap, toilet paper and candles and matches, and delivered the bundles to these child-headed households. Because we were never sure when such deliveries would be possible, the children were to ration these provisions and make them last as long as possible. Sometimes during these visits we would find the kids left with a little porridge or cooking oil, but often we would find that they hadn’t eaten a real meal in days.

Thomas and his brothers, happily receiving a food bundle

Thomas' kitchen

Even when there isn’t money, meme Petrina makes a point to visit these households regularly, just to check on their health and their current living situation, and to spend some time with them. As far as I'm aware, she is the only adult who has contact with these children.

Working with these children has to be the saddest work I have ever done in my life. The conditions that they are living in are unbelievable. Many of them sleep outside or on the ground in old, weathered huts that are on the brink of crumbling down on them. None of them have shoes or proper clothes or access to running water. Some of the houses face harassment and danger by people looking to take advantage of them, especially the houses headed by young girls. None of the children have any idea where their next meal will come from, or of when it will come. They are truly in survival mode.

Elifas and his baby brother

Elifas' outdoor kitchen. You can see where he cooks on the fire.

The house where Elifas and his siblings used to sleep. It crumbled during the recent rainy season. Oonte was able to build them a new structure which they now use as a bedroom.

Yet when they see us coming up to their homestead, their faces light up. They run to meme Petrina and hold on to her for extra long hugs, and as I watch this encounter I think it’s probably unlikely that these children have been hugged by anyone since meme’s last visit to see them. As we walk with the kids around the homesteads, meme asks them about their school or how things are going for them, and she checks them over for any visible signs of sickness or abuse. We check their sleeping areas and their cooking areas, both of which give a good indication of how they are coping without adults around to look after them. And after a short chat, we leave them and watch them wave and call out goodbye as we drive away.

These house visits are my hardest days. I don’t think there is anything sadder in the world than this.

Giovanni and his small brother-- the youngest child-headed household

Small kids, grateful for small things

How these children still have hope is beyond me; few could have survived in those circumstances. Yet they are surviving, and I know for a fact that it is in no small part due to meme Petrina and Oonte’s care. The food bundles do help them, but I think it’s more than that. The kids know that it’s not always possible for us to come with gifts of food. I think more than anything, these visits remind them that the world hasn’t completely forgotten them, and they are able to find some comfort in that.

Though meme Petrina does get some funding from UNICEF, there is simply not enough to cater for the many needs of such a large number of young people. So much of what meme Petrina does for these children comes out of her own pocket, and while that has worked thus far, the growing number of children coming to Oonte or seeking Oonte’s services means that it won’t be long before her personal funds will run out. And I’m not really sure what more we can do. Oonte has worked very hard this year to fundraise and find grants that fit their projects, but fundraising is never easy, especially in Africa where everyone is wary of trusting these small, community-based projects led by local people. It’s frustrating to watch because in my opinion, there is simply no project in Namibia more worthy of funding than Oonte. I have never seen such a successful grassroots project at work like this before. Everything that Oonte gets goes directly to the children. Their work is truly felt by the neediest of this community, which is more than I can say for any other NGO I’ve seen working or been involved with in Namibia. I know that Oonte will succeed with their vision because I know that as long as children are suffering, meme Petrina will never give up. I just wish things would come a bit easier for her.

Some happy kids at Oonte

I’ve wanted to write about Oonte for a long time, but I struggled to find the correct words to describe what this organization is doing for needy children in Ondangwa. Even re-reading what I wrote now, it sounds hokey and exaggerated and too good to be true. At least that’s what the cynic in me would probably think if I were reading this at my home or office desk in America. I know Oonte will survive on its own, and we have some very exciting projects coming in the future that I think will really benefit the organization as a whole, so my only real goal in writing this is to expose more people to this amazing project. Working with these people has added so much happiness to my life this year, I figure a blog entry is the least I can do.

If extending for third year meant giving me the opportunity to meet people like meme Petrina, then that alone made this year absolutely worth it. Knowing that this project exists gives me hope for Namibia’s future. And if it took me three years to find a project as promising as Oonte, that means that it is possible that more projects of this nature are at work in the rural, forgotten corners of this vast country. It’s something I try to remind myself when I begin to doubt.

I’m sad to be saying goodbye to meme Petrina and the beautiful children of Oonte, but I know it’s not forever—I couldn’t forget these people if I tried. As my contract is coming to an end, I’m thankful that I’m leaving Namibia with the memory of this noble organization so fresh in my mind. Sometimes the sadness of life here gets so overwhelming that it stomps out any optimism you may be clinging to, which is why finding a project like Oonte is so valuable. The benefit of me staying for a third year was not so much what I could give this country before leaving, but rather what this country would send me home with. Becoming part of Oonte’s world renewed my faith in the strength and compassion of the Namibian people. And that is what I will go home remembering.

And that is why I'm luckier than most.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Did!

I have been awake for more than 30 hours now, but I couldn’t feel better. I will never forget last night or the early hours of this morning. The election coverage was translated into 5 languages on Namibian radio alone, and people throughout the country spent the night listening and waiting. We received the official results at about 6am in Namibia, and Namibians began rejoicing alongside those of you in America, as well as so many others around the world. My phone has been flooded with congratulatory calls and text messages from Namibians and other friends all over the world. And as I walked through the village today, everyone stopped me, huge smiles on their faces, so excited to talk to me about this historic day. Today I felt proud to be an American, something I haven't felt in a long time.

Well done, America. You've made the world proud. After spending the past four years in a political depression, today I am feeling so happy and hopeful :)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Family Life

Mealtime in Owamboland is a unique experience. I was aware of culturally appropriate etiquette before this year, but living with a family has forced me to once again familiarize myself with all those random cultural norms that I know someone told me about during my training, but that I had long since pushed to the back of my mind. Cooking and eating in my own house is one thing, but cooking and eating with my family requires me to bone up on what things, words, actions, etc. are (and definitely aren’t) culturally appropriate during meals.

I eat dinner with my family, not every night but once in awhile. Yes, we do have the occasional frog or mopane worm with our meals (and yes, I gulp them down like the rest of them) but our evening provisions generally do not stray from the norm: oshifima (traditional porridge that gets pounded into meal from mahangu plants), omboga (traditional fresh spinach) or ekaka (traditional dry spinach), either ondjuhwa (chicken) or ohi (fish), and some kind of sauce. Depending on the season, there also may be some type of vegetable like pumpkin or beans. But oshifima is the staple. Ever night, regardless of the season, it’s there. My 17-year old host sister never lets a meal pass without exclaiming, “Oshifima again?!” Complaining of her dinner options is, it seems, every 17-year old girl’s right of passage.

I’ll be honest: oshifima is not my favorite food. Aside from the fact that it’s pounded fresh from the field and is riddled with dirt and sand, it sinks to the bottom of my stomach like a rock and fills me up after only a few bites. However, probably the first rule of eating etiquette in Namibia is that when offered, you never refuse food. If someone offers you food, it means that that food is being taken from the mouth of someone who is probably more in need of it than you are, and it is therefore, understandably, quite rude to turn away this offering. My dislike of oshifima gets compounded by the fact that when served, I’m not given a measly helping; my plate comes complete with a heaping serving of the stiff porridge. But since I know what it takes for my family to offer this, I accept it graciously and eat until my stomach swells.

Unless it’s exceedingly cold (which is rare in Owamboland) we eat our evening meals outside around the fire. Meals always begin with a washing of the hands, and a bowl of water along with a cup are passed around to do so. Sometimes someone pours water over my hands to wash them, and sometimes I do it myself. Then we sit, sometimes we pray (last week we prayed for an Obama victory), and the eating begins.

We eat with our hands on the homestead, no forks or spoons or any of that nonsense. Surprisingly, there is actually some technique required when eating traditional food sans utensils. It can be perfected, but it requires close observation of host family or friends (read: constant scolding and correction by the same people). Oshifima is to be eaten with the right hand only. The left hand is used in the bathroom, the right is used at the table. Eeno. A piece of oshifima is broken off and rolled into a small ball. Using one’s thumb to make a small indentation in the ball, it is then used to scoop up some meat or fish or spinach or whatever, then dipped into the sauce and plopped into one’s mouth. This process is performed rapidly and requires some agility as a slip up anywhere will result in the ball plopping, instead, on the ground, your leg, your shirt, or some other unintended destination, making the dogs happy and everyone else laugh at your blunder. Silly oshilumbu.

There are a number of other arbitrary cultural rules that are to be observed during mealtime in Nam: no singing, no smelling of food, no passing of food or drink behind another person’s back. Additionally, when offering homemade food or drink to a visitor, the chef, in the presence of the visitor, is supposed to taste whatever is being offered before handing it to the guest, as a sign that the offering is of good quality. However, on my homestead there are no senior males. The girls who do the cooking are between 15 and 21-years old (and as a rule, like to disobey their cultural norms as much as possible) and the boys are all under the age of 17. My meme and her sister-in-law are the only adults who live on the homestead full time, so the flow and attitude of the house is largely dictated by the young women. Hence… we don’t really follow most of those traditional rules. Most nights, Akon is playing from my ipod in the kitchen and my younger sister has turned the logs surrounding the fire into a catwalk and is outside practicing her model strut. When my tate is home or the eldest son is visiting things are a bit more rigid around the house, but with the girls it’s pretty lax.

I try to either make something for my family every week or bring something home to contribute to the meals, though I will admit that some weeks my schedule does get away from me. But I attempt to make up for that with quality. My aim is to bring home things that offer some variety to our standard meals: fruits like mangos or paw paw or watermelon cause excitement at the homestead and are served as the dessert course of our meals. If I make something, I try to get creative: homemade banana bread or pizza or sugar cookies with powdered sugar icing that I dye with blue or green food coloring. Portions are usually based on seniority, with the oldest getting the best picks, followed by those in their higher levels at school, followed by the small kids. But whether it’s one cookie or five, everyone appreciates the change up these gifts offer their standard fare.

My American family ate dinner together every night at 6pm. In fact, missing dinner was one of about three completely random things that guaranteed a grounding from my mother (not folding the family’s laundry was another sure-fire way to get locked in, though I think I was the only one of the three of us who ever got that punishment). Though my American family and my Owambo family differ in nearly every way you could imagine, the evening dinner ritual seems one commonality that links the two families. And even though it does seem a bit hokey (do families really do this anymore?), this evening tradition is one that I really appreciate. Every night when I walk home through the bush, thousands of fires are lighted on homesteads all around me as families gather to cook together. For some reason, I find that comforting. That soft glow that lights the path on my walk home will be, oddly enough, one of the things I think I will remember years after I leave this continent.

Food means more here than it does in the states. Here, it’s offered as a sign of welcome. In Owambo culture, guests visiting a homestead for the first time are at least supposed to be offered drink, if not food or an entire meal. When my mother and my friend Cindy visited my homestead, my meme and sisters spent an entire day preparing a full traditional meal for them. Preparing a meal this size requires a lot of work and is therefore only done on special occasions. It is such a treat that that evening both of my sisters set places for themselves and enjoyed the meal with us, taking advantage of this rare opportunity.

As my time in Namibia begins to end, I’m thinking often about how thankful I am for the many unique and lovely experiences I’ve had here. Living in a traditional manner with a local family is certainly near the top of that list.

At the end of my first two years here, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the different cultures in Namibia. But it wasn’t until this year, as I was completely immersed in this culture, that I truly appreciated and learned from the differences between myself and Namibians.

And though I would hardly call my American-ness a “culture,” I do hope my family learned something from me as well. If nothing more, they have certainly recognized the value of things such as homemade pizza with goat meat and feta cheese, 80’s-themed dance parties while working in the fields, and fingernail painting sleepovers. Now if that isn’t positive cultural exchange, I don’t know what is.