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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
And that is why I'm luckier than most.