Monday, December 7, 2009

after this my life is un-blog-able

A Peace Corps Volunteer cries two times during service: when he gets to site at the beginning, and when he leaves site at the end.

This is not true.

What is true is that you cry several times when you get to site. At the beginning you cry because you miss your family and friends. You cry because no one but the drunks and crazy people will talk to you instead of about you. You cry because you’re so stressed out in such a unique way that you can’t even identify what you are feeling and so you cry.

What else is true is that you cry in the middle. You cry in the middle when your colleague and friend died in a car crash. You cry when an orphan brings you a piece of birthday cake. You cry when you find out that one of your friends is positive and they’ve been hiding it from you. You cry when your learners cry. And you cry in the middle because you’re so stressed out in such a unique way that you can’t even identify what you are feeling and so you cry.

It is true that you cry at the end also. You cry because everything is beautiful and simple and sunny and you are about to leave. You cry because some of the problems are so big and the only way to help is to be present, but you are about to leave. You cry because you are going to miss your new family - ti ouma, ti oa, ti ausi – and you cannot think of a time that you will ever see them again. And, of course, you cry because you are so stressed out in such a unique way that you can’t even identify what you are feeling and so you cry.

As you can tell, I’m about to leave and I’m getting overly sentimental. I thought a long time about what I wanted to write for my last blog and I couldn’t think of anything that would convey the significance of what leaving here will mean to me. I had a lot of trouble when I first got here – one minute I was so overjoyed I would be crying from laughter, then the next minute I would be fuming and too angry to even talk. I thought I was developing bi-polar tendencies… or some other serious problem. It took me awhile to realize that it’s actually Khorixas that is bi-polar. It’s hard but let me give a fictional example that could only be true in Khorixas:

It’s the middle of dry season and it’s so dry that your eyeballs might as well be raisins. You’re walking the 20 minutes from the town to your flat and the wind is blowing so hard that you may blow away at any minute (because everything green that protects you from the wind has died many months before). The sole ATM in Khorixas has been out of money for the past two weeks and lentils are the only thing in your cabinet to eat. Children have been screaming “WHITE LADY” at you the whole walk and a dog tried to bite you. You can’t take it anymore so you duck into the “tuck shop” to get a relief from the sandblasting wind and children… just then, the kindly shop keeper gives you free homemade cake and ice cream, gives you a hug and tells you that you are the most beautiful daughter she never had.

See? Bi-polar. It’s a magic that this place has. And as you get used to it, it affects you less and less. In fact, the annoying things become trite because you know that even as the slobbering drunk is following you and yelling obscenities, some Ouma (grandma) is waiting around the corner to rescue you and invite you in for dinner.

I tell you this because, in preparing to leave, I’ve recaptured the bi-polar spirit. I love this place and its people with all my heart. My heart will break and I will cry when I leave. But at the same time, it has worn me out mentally and physically, so thoroughly, that I could not spend another month here.

So, for my last blog, I’ve decided to be random and bi-polar. I want to tell you some of the things that never fit into the other blogs but still make up my life here. I want to tell you some sad things and also some happy things. Take them each with the grain of salt and please try to understand that it is all a part of the magic of Khorixas, the place I love and need to leave.

Every morning I wake up in Khorixas, I have a sore throat. The place is so dry and the fan is blowing all night. It feels like the worst cold for the first ten minutes of everyday. It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even need coffee every morning. I’ve simply reduced my standards to: Warm Beverage. It doesn’t matter what, just that it’s warm and liquid.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we have a school assembly out front of our school. There’s no auditorium, there’s no roof, there’s no chairs. There’s just us, the sunshine and the flagpole. The learners line up according to grades: Grades 1 – 5 in the middle, Grades 6 and 7 as bookends at either side to be examples. The learners sing their magnificent harmonies. Then we pray. Then we raise the flag. There’s one 7th grade boy who raises the flag in the front of the learners everyday. Last year, it was Wynand. When he was finished he would turn from the flag, salute the teachers and then walk back to the 7th grade line. This year, his name is Sylvester. When Sylvester finishes raising the flag, he takes three steps, spins, stomps each foot once, salutes and then marches back to the 7th grade line. The 1st graders have become so enamored with this routine that they copy it every morning (with less coordination). Sylvester steps one, two, three. Sylvester’s army of first graders steps one, two, three. Sylvester spins and almost misses the one-eighty mark. Sylvester’s army of first graders spins and runs into each other. In unison, they all stomp, one, two. And lastly, the precise salute of Sylvester followed by the uncoordinated salute of a drunken sailor from Sylvester’s army of first graders. Watching this morning ritual used to be one of my favorite parts of Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But now, the teachers have started to crack down and the first grade army is kept still from many watchful eyes during the raising of the flag.

When I first moved into my flat at the school, there was a cockroach infestation. It was terrible. I kept the house so clean and still would find gigantic cockroach parties on my counter every morning. The apartments next to mine had the same problem. And the hostel. And most houses in Khorixas. I just couldn’t handle it. My solution, though, I’m so ashamed of… I asked for poison from America. Combat Platinum. I used the whole tube. No insect survived in the entire flat. Even a year later. Since then, we’ve only seen about 5 more cockroaches in the flat that promptly died after being there for more than 12 hours (or more quickly by Jill’s hand… or shoe, I should say). We’re probably getting cancer from living there. And the Namibian cockroach is evolving as we speak.

I really like spelling “organization” with and “s” instead of a “z”: Organisation. Also, when I speak, the words in my sentence don’t always come out in what most Americans would consider the correct order… or any order at all really. It’s like thought vomiting.

The Namibian Presidential elections were on November 27 and 28. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not allowed to express an opinion. My opinion, though, is that this is a very interesting time to be here.

When I first arrived at Eddie Bowe, there was no principal. My supervisor at the school was the Upper Primary Head of Department, Mrs. Xoagus. She is fantastic. Anytime I looked confused, she was by my side to explain. Anytime, I came to school looking homesick, she would give me a comforting hug. At school sporting events, when I looked thirsty, she would bring me a bottle of water. And when I suggested something, she listened. When I asked my girls’ club who they thought was a good role model for them, they said Mrs. Xoagus because she is in charge of the school, we respect her and she loves us. The Ministry of Education tried to appoint her as principal (a woman!) but she refused because she did not want to move from her job. Then the principal came at the beginning of this year. He is fantastic too, in different ways though. Throughout my second year, I needed Mrs. Xoagus less and less but she was still there whenever I did need her. In September, she was nominated to be in the parliament of Namibia if a certain political party wins a certain number of votes in the election. She accepted and had to retire her post at the school to campaign for the political party. It was sad to see her go but she was still around Khorixas, always wearing her party’s colors and smiling. Yesterday, I received news that she had an aneurism. She is currently in the ICU in Windhoek, slipping in and out of a comma. I had been saving a beautiful Oregon ornament to give to her as a Thank You gift. I sent it to the Windhoek hospital yesterday with her family. You shouldn’t save Thank You’s. If you pray, please pray. If you send out positive thoughts, please send out positive thoughts.

Mrs. Xoagus was named a Member of Parliament on December 2nd and on the night of December 3rd she passed away. She is deeply mourned by her friends and coworkers at Eddie Bowe and by me. I will miss her funeral but I can be sure that most of Khorixas will be there. She was a hardworking and dedicated teacher. She was a loving and caring mother to her sons. She was a fantastic boss and friend. She was a truly unique Damara woman.

When my mother and father were visiting, they rented a car. It’s tough to own a car in Namibia because you spend so much time wondering if it will be safe where you park it. For this reason, there are guards in most parking lots. You give them the thumbs up and they’ll watch your car for the small tip you give them when you leave. At one place we were parked there was no parking lot or parking lot guard. There was a man guarding the building though. I tried to ask the man if he would watch our car for us but he didn’t speak English (and we were in another region of Namibia where I couldn’t even fake knowing the local language). I attempted to mime “watch the car” and he said “yes” and we were golden. A perfectly normal exchange, or so I thought. Later, my mother was telling the story to a friend of mine and she said I was right up in the man’s face trying to communicate with him. I wasn’t invading his personal space. If he was American, I would’ve been though. This could be a problem. I apologize in advance.

My neighbor is also a teacher at my school. He smiles and laughs more than any other teacher at the school. He owns a dog that always threatens to bite strangers. It was uncomfortable when I was a stranger. My neighbor told me that until the dog became used to me, I just had to say the dog’s name over and over again to prevent it from biting. The dog’s name? Sorry. The dog is used to me now. But I can always tell when a stranger is in the area because I hear one of two things: 1) “Woof Woof woofwooofwooofwoof” and “AAAAaaaaauuuuggh” or 2) “Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorrysorrysorrysorry” and “phew”. I think this is my neighbor’s practical joke on the residents of Khorixas because I can hear him his house laughing.

My neighbor also has a tiny daughter named “Amai”, which is the Damara word for “Truth”. This leads to all sorts of strange sentences that make me sound profound: “Truth is being bad today”, “Truth looks beautiful” or “Truth is peeing on the sidewalk again”. One day my neighbor brought his daughter to the after-school study. He is also my neighbor at school because his classroom is directly next to the library. As I was working in the library, I heard Amai’s tiny voice mumbling in what I assumed to be Damara. Then her father would say, “what?” Then Amai’s tiny voice again. I took a peek to see that my neighbor was holding Amai in his arms and that as she mumbled she was pointing off in the distance, looking profoundly worried. Soon, my neighbor started to walk in the direction that Amai was pointing. Amai would then mumble something else and point in another direction. My neighbor would say “what?” and then wander in the other direction that Amai had pointed. Amai was only looking more and more worried and my neighbor was only wandering in circles. Soon, he saw me watching and confided in me: “I have NO idea what she is saying”. Oh, what a father will do for a daughter that he loves… After study, I found them on the other side of the school, Amai still fretfully mumbling and pointing, my neighbor still wandering in circles trying to appease her.

Last week, I shared some Swedish Fish that my brother brought from America with a colleague. She reacted as though I had given her gold.

My friend Erin visited in November. It was absolutely fantastic. During her visit, we went to the coast the see the giant sand dunes and some marine wildlife. We set sail early in the morning to see the sites with a few other tourists on an organised boat tour. The boat ride seemed magical right away. Just as we were leaving the dock, a seal jumped on our boat. And as we were cruising along the coast, giant pelicans were swooping alongside us. Our first mission of the morning was to find a pod of dolphins that had last been seen traveling north. We sped along for maybe half and hour enjoying the breeze and the birds and each other’s company. The skipper poured us some sherry (it was 9 in the morning. I love this country). Soon, we found the dolphins. They were almost on the beach, playing in the waves. Our boat got as close to them as possible. We could see them jumping clear out of the water. Then, we received the warning “Hold on!” We all peeled our eyes from the dolphins at the shore and looked out to the ocean. A giant wave (which only got more gigantic every time Erin and I told the story) was coming directly towards us. My first reaction was to put down my Sherry and assume the fetal position. Erin’s response was to hold onto the railing, kneel and grip her sherry tighter. Both of these responses were the correct response, as the boat soon dipped down under the wave and the water covered our heads. When we emerged from the water, I thought, “Shoot, I’m wet.” and “Wow, Erin didn’t spill her sherry.” Then, I found evidence of someone who’s response to a giant wave was not correct and it was this – continue holding your sherry with one hand, railing with the other and stand directly in the front of the boat. This was un-correct response because the man who assumed this position looked like he was in pain. Serious pain. And his shoe fell off… no wait, his shoe was still on and definitely pointing the wrong direction. Yes, that was a broken ankle. The man started wailing “Ouw, my fut!”(Translation, “Ow, my foot!”) while dramatically crawling up the bow of the boat (which only got more dramatic every time Erin and I told the story). Then Erin and I got to learn how fast a catamaran can actually get back to shore, how to set an ankle and that getting an ankle set in Africa is something I probably don’t ever want to experience. After all those life lessens and after the man was taken away to the Swakop hospital, we were taken back out to sea to spend some quality time with a Southern Right whale, while eating oysters and champagne (I still love this country)(but I am so safety conscious now).

At the end of every school term, the children leave about a week earlier than the teachers. Then, for the last week, the teachers finish marking their exams, putting together score reports and cleaning their classrooms. This week is usually my favorite and least favorite time of each term. It is my least favorite because I finish my work early (and this year, I even had less paper work than I did last year) and I get so bored. It is my favorite because without children around, the teachers turn into children. They yell and joke and fight and bring in hot plates to make food in the office. It’s like an End-of-Term we’re-All-Bored party. It’s fantastic. This year, in term three, because of elections (the schools were a polling stations for Khorixas) the school had to send the children home two weeks before the teachers would close the school. It’s almost the end of the two weeks now and the school has gone through many transformations of the boredom. Monday we were having a cookout and teaching Miss Jessica how to slaughter a donkey (gross). Wednesday the math teachers conspired to see how much work they could trick the two volunteer (me and my replacement) to do – they split the work in 4th and each took one-half and asked at separate times for me or my replacement to do a 4th of it. Of course, we fell for it and all the work was finished before tea break. Today, Mr. Aupindi, the grade 5 Science teacher, decided to raise the flag out front of the school. Since the children are gone, it lacked the flare that it normally has because of Sylvester’s marching and saluting and all of the children singing the national anthem. So, Mr. Aupindi, intent on recapturing the days of yore, took the flag from the principal’s office, saluted us all and marched outside to the flagpole. It only took a few seconds before we heard the tune “Namibia, land of the brave, freedom fight, we have won…” wafting in from the front yard. We looked out the window to see Mr. Aupindi alone, singing and raising the flag. Such pride. Such devotion. Such patriotism… Such silliness. I’m going to miss my friends.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Gangsta In Lace

2 November 2009

Two years ago today, I landed in Namibia. Woo hoo! Namiversary! Now though, most of Nam27 is looking forward instead of backwards. We’re all wondering where we’ll go next, if we’ll have a job, if we’ll get into graduate school, or if we’ll ever see our nam-homes again.

For the last part of October, I spent more time away from Khorixas than in it. I got called to Windhoek for the Peace Corps required Close of Service Medical. They basically just make sure we haven’t contracted some horrible disease in the past two years – which I haven’t… or at least they haven’t told me if I have. Same difference. Either way, it was nice to spend a week in Windhoek to finish a lot of things I needed to do on the internet. Unfortunately, I also spent the time going on Namibian-craft shopping sprees. My Peace Corps bank account is significantly smaller but I do have some beautiful new earrings and a shirt that says “Howzit?” so it was worth it.

After my COS medical, my brother came to visit Namibia. He rented a car and we drove to Swakopmund first. When I took my trip to Sossusvlei in August, I realized that I hate climbing sand dunes. I really love the view at the top of sand dunes but climbing them is one of my least favorite activities. So when my brother and I went to Swakop, I had a one sand dune limit. We climbed dune 7, took some picture and then went out to pizza. It was the perfect amount of sand climbing, if you ask me. The next day, we went out kayaking in the Atlantic to visit the seals and dolphins. It was really fun – we saw a lot of dolphin fins and played with a few seals. Afterwards, our guide drove up the broad side of a sand dune so that we could see the salt evaporation pools nearby to where we were kayaking (I bet if you google-earthed Walvis Bay you could see a pretty decent view of the same salt evaporation pools. The pools are pink because the salt-loving bacteria that live in them is also pink. Flamingos live nearby and eat the bacteria to get their pink color too. Interesting, huh?). After we took in the view at the top of the dune, our guide decided scare the bejeezes out of us and take the car down the not-so-broad side of the sand dune. Totally awesome! … after it was over :)

Later that same day, my brother and I took a self-guided tour of the desert. Outside of Swakop is an area called The Moonscape. It’s a really bizarre looking area that is completely beautiful (in a scarred-earth and complete-emptiness sort of way that Namibia really specializes in). Along the drive, I also got to see my first Welwitchia mirabilis!! A Welwitchia is a plant that some people call a living fossil because it grows for a thousand years or more. Khorixas actually used to be named “Welwitchia” because so many of the plants grow so close to the city – that’s why it’s strange that it took me two years to see one. They are specially adapted to live in the desert and are cone bearing plants. The plants grow only a few meters apart in patches in the desert. When you come across one of the patches, it looks like aliens with green tentacle are trying to break they’re way out of the sand. One of the last Welwitchias we saw on our drive is thought to be 1500 years old. In order to protect it, the Ministry of Tourism put up a fence around the plant and then built a viewing platform because it was so big!

After Swakop, we drove to Khorixas for some good ol’ Damara fun. The school choir gave us a nice long concert so that we could record their singing. After I go home, I’m going to miss hearing the learners sing so it is nice that I got most of their songs recorded. We also visited the squatters’ camp, almost got run over by a donkey cart (twice), and climbed the hill that that the cell phone tower is on top of. Visiting the orphanage with Jill was one of the most fun things we did. It’s hard not to have a good time when you’re hanging out with a group of kids that share and take care of each other and appreciate any small thing you do for them. We also had a lot of fun when the lady who does our wash came over with her kids (Tu-o and Emma and Katrina – all pictured numerous times in previous months). I wrote in a previous post about how Emma likes to make gang signs when she sees us on wash days. Emma is 7 and she is a tough cookie (who likes to wear ruffles) so my brother taught Emma to say “gangsta”. It’s probably the one of worst acts of cultural imperialism I’ve done in my time here but, at the same time, no one has ever said “gangsta” as cute as Emma does.

English: “Say ‘Gangsta’.”
Khoekhoegowab: “‘Gangsta’ mi re.”
Emma: “Gangsta!”

On Friday morning of my brother’s visit, we drove to Etosha Game Park. Before we even got to the first waterhole, there was an elephant directly on the side of the road just munching on a tree. Then, just a few more kilometers in, we saw a male lion taking a mid-morning nap by the side of the road. He got up long enough to move with the shade of the tree before he plopped down again to resume his laziness. However, in those few steps I think “OH MY GOSH” and “HOLY CRAP” were the only things said in the car. All in all, the trip to Etosha was very successful. We saw ostriches, oryx, kudu, giraffes, zebras, jackal, and thousands of springboks. Saturday morning we drove to the Cheetah Conservation Fund to see the work that they’re doing there. I’ve only been out to the CCF once before and all the cheetahs were lazy and hard to see. This time, I’m sure we saw every cheetah in the place. At one point in time, we joined up with another family and took a walking tour around some of the Cheetah enclosures. Cheetahs, like most cats, could generally care less if you are there or not. However, when we were taking this walking tour, the family that we were with had their small daughter with them. From across the enclosure, all the cheetahs focused in on this small girl and came running up to the fence at full speed. It was a bit creepy to have such a focused predator run at full speed directly towards us. Luckily there was a fence between predator and prey. One of the workers at the CCF explained that the cheetahs were so focused on the little girl because she was the same size as the prey they normally stalk in the wild. As we continued walking along the fence, the cheetahs kept pace with us, all the while staring at this little girl. The mother of the family finally put the little girl on top of her shoulders and the cheetahs lessened their intense stares. The little girl didn’t seem to be bothered too much by it but as a parent I don’t think I’d ever want to hear the phrase “the cheetahs are stalking your daughter”.

My brother flew out of Windhoek on Sunday morning and I hiked back to Khorixas. It was sad to see him go but I was glad that he got a good tour of Namibia in such a short amount of time. It was a payday weekend so everyone was crazy with money. There were hundreds of cars on the road but no one could seem to spare the time to stop and pick me up. I finally made it to Otjiwarongo late in the day but there wasn’t a taxi in the whole town going to Khorixas. I decided standing on the side of the road and looking helpless might score me a ride home. It didn’t. But luckily, as I was ease dropping on a conversation two people in parked cars were having, I heard “Khorixas” muttered. I was begging for a ride before I remember my dignity. Thankfully, they were really generous and allowed me to sit in the back of their bakkie the 200km to Khorixas for free. As it turns out, the driver is a good friend of the principal at my school so we’re all just one big happy family now. This stuff happens in America too, right?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dry Dunes and Dry Faucets


We had a school holiday in August that I’m just recovering from now. It was a lot of fun. I spent a few days in Okakarara with Peace Corps friends, I finally traveled to Sossusvlei and then I went Peace Corps group 27’s COS conference. COS? Close Of Service. Scary, Huh?

Let’s start with Sossusvlei: It’s a giant sand dune a few hours south of Windhoek. It’s actually a whole park full of sand dunes. Two Peace Corps friends and I decided we needed to see the famous dunes before we left Namibia in December. The only problem was that getting into and out of Sossusvlei is challenging. It’s hard to hitchhike there because only tourists go that way. Peace Corps volunteers who have tried to hitchhike have gotten stuck on the side of the road in the desert for a few days. And, the other option, renting a car can be a bit risky because regular four door sedans don’t fair well on the rough roads (renting four wheel drive vehicles is a little out of a PCVs budget… and by little, I mean a lot). So, the three of us went with the only other option: an organized tour.

To reassure us that we made the right decision, about two hours after our tour left Windhoek the combi hit a large rock in the road, punctured the fuel tank and broke the gearshift box. Why was this the right decision? Let me tell you. Because, in all of this vehicle chaos I didn’t have to worry about a single thing except what kind of sandwich to make while enjoying the view. Ahhh, the life of tourists. After this initial hiccup in transport, we had two more incidents of vehicle trouble: first, the tour group had to band together to push the combi out of sand drifts… a couple times… but it was fun so I barely noticed it was supposed to be work. And, second, we blew a tire. I do believe there was a roadside dance party during that event, however, so it doesn’t really count as traumatic either.

our camp

Other than combi trouble, the rest of the tour went off without a hitch. We had an awesome tour group, the camp we stayed at was beautiful and our tour guide was nice. At sunrise, we all climbed Dune 45. Dune 45 is 150m high and, according to a tour book, is called “Dune 45” because it’s 45km from Sesriem canyon and 45 dunes from Sossusvlei dune (300m high). Then, we toured Dead Vlei – a very interesting dry pan with very old trees. It’s such a strangely beautiful and quiet place. So strange, in fact, one of my PC friends and I decided it was the time to catch our new Facebook profile pictures… Unfortunately, we failed to realize how sweating our faces off is really an unfavorable aspect of pictures in the desert. Oh, well. Next, we spent some time hiking around in Sesriem Canyon (literally translated from Afrikaans to mean “six” um, “riems”. Well, just know it’s the length of rope they used to need to get water from the bottom to the top of the canyon). It became exciting in the bottom of the canyon when we decided to rock climb around a small puddle… I’m not a rock climber. Hell, I’m not even a pebble climber. I’m more likely to stub my toe than successfully walk around. But, I survived and I’m a more adventurous person for it.

take number 23

Our tour was three days and two nights. We arrived back in Windhoek just in time for our COS conference. Peace Corps did us a favor and put Nam27 in a really nice hotel in Windhoek for our two-day conference. There was a pool, a nice double bed, a refrigerator in my room and an electrical outlet adapter built right into the wall. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice those because I was too busy noticing the free buffet. I’m so ashamed. Anyway, our conference was short and sweet and sad. We chose our final days in Namibia, were given medical and administrative instructions for leaving the country and said goodbye to a few volunteers in our group that we may not see before they leave for America. We took our final group photos and then left for our last three months at site.

Nam27 Group shot

Side note: On the way back to site, I had a plush Peace Corps ride up to Otjiwarongo. Then, in Otjiwarongo, Jill and I got a taxi that was literally tied together so that it wouldn’t fly apart. In this taxi, a little girl peed us on. Yes, peed on. Not a little - a whole bladder’s worth. Then, we got charged 10 extra dollars each. Never join the Peace Corps.

When I got back to Khorixas, school had been in session for a week already. Four of my science fair learners had been in Windhoek for THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FAIR. I’m so proud. This year we only came home with participation certificates but it was one of the times in my life where I can honestly say I was just proud to be there. All I have to say is: never underestimate a kid because he lives in a tin shack! My learners are awesome.

I had approximately one day of quiet and then my replacement volunteer arrived. My school is so excited to have her here. It was just her site visit so she was only here for a week and then she’ll be back after her group’s Swearing In ceremony. The week got me thinking about my site visit in 2007. I looked up my blog posts from that week. It’s completely strange to read my posts from back then. Sometimes, when I think back on my thought processes from that time, I feel naïve and childish. I’ve learned so much.

Things I used to think were a big deal don’t really faze me anymore. For example, our water went out Tuesday in the nighttime and was out until Friday at 12pm. I didn’t feel like bathing on Tuesday night and figured I’d do it on Wednesday instead. So, when the water went out, I hadn’t bathed since Monday night. Jill had about 3 liters of drinking water and I had about 3 liters of drinking water and that was it. All this was only a minor problem until we remember that Wednesday was the national payday for all workers (except teachers, who get paid on the 20th of every month). Payday means that bills are due. This means that most people skip out on work sometime mid-morning to go get their money from the bank and pay their bills around town. As a result of it being payday, the Ministry of Works employees (who would have come to the school where I live to fix the water) were out on the town (hopefully) paying their bills and (probably not, because I have faith in them) getting drunk. Unfortunately, when we woke up on Wednesday morning, there was also no cell phone reception. This later affected the bank (though I’m unclear of how) and people were unable to get their money. So, Wednesday was a loss. Thursday, however, the bank and cell phones were back in working order. Woo! Unfortunately, this meant that the Ministry of Works employees were back out on the town (hopefully) paying their bills and (probably not, because I have faith in them) getting drunk.

So, there I was, on Thursday night, not having bathed since Monday, and I came to the very real possibility that I would not see water come out of my faucet until next Tuesday and this is why: Friday is basically a half day anyway and people would take off early from the Ministry of Works. Saturday and Sunday nobody works for the government. And Monday is a school holiday, so no one from the school would be around to call and bug the Ministry of Works guys to come out and fix the problem. Hence, Tuesday. This is where the differences between my 2007-self and my 2009-self came into play. I distinctly remember 2007-self having serious problems with water being out for 6 hours. And 2008-self complained bitterly every time the water went out. But 2009-self made it two days without really caring and only being mildly dehydrated. And then, 2009-self decided that 4 days without bathing was gross in this type of heat. So, as a perfectly normal solution, she paid some grade 6 boys in bouncy balls to go and fetch water for her. See, problem solved.

I could have made it till Tuesday. I really could have. There are more bouncy balls – I would’ve been fine. But as luck would have it, my neighbor went down the Ministry of Works and basically kidnapped a worker until he fixed the problem. So, Friday afternoon my clean 2009-self celebrated my faucet being turned back on. But, 2009-self doesn’t trust amenities anymore and she filled all her water bottles promptly.

All that is to say, nation-wide paydays are a bad decision. Oh, and two years is just enough time to make you a more patient and understanding person – even when it comes to the necessities of life, like water. Just chill out. It’s all going to happen sooner or later. Maybe ;)

Rubbish Again

For my last post, I had pictures. Unfortunately, the internet I was on was too slow to load them in the 30 minutes I bought. But today, I have all the time in the world (a.k.a. an hour). So here you go:

This is a picture of a side of the street in Khorixas. The sign says "No dumping of refuse", obviously, and behind all the refuse is my school's soccer field. My friend Heather took this picture.

This is the picture of the "Rubbish field" behind my house where the kids burn their trash. It may be my imagination... but I think the rubbish field is cleaner than the side of the street picture. Iiiiinteresting....This is a picture of one of the many rubbish bins around Khorixas. This one is unique in that is is only half full and has a bottom.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Its All Rubbish

August 26, 2009

Trashcans are an illusion in Khorixas. When I first moved here, I lived in town at the Ministry of Education volunteer house. For those of you loyal blog readers, you’ll remember what happened that ill-fated night in January 2008 when the volunteer house trashcan lost it’s life at the hands of a naïve young American with a tiny touch of pyromania. To this day, the deformed and twisted plastic remains can be found in Khorixas and, essentially, serve as a warning to new volunteers that they know nothing and probably shouldn’t assume they do.

But this story isn’t about that trashcan. It only begins there. I know I’ve described the difference between “Town” and “Location” in Namibia. But to summarize, town is, for the most part, nicer. For example, they have regular trash pick-up and the location does not. Last year, when I moved to the location, I did not know that the trash pick-up I had so quickly shunned in town and that trashcan I so quickly killed would be the only real trash-solutions I would see in Khorixas for the rest of my days here.

When I first moved to the school, I remember standing with a few of my teachers at the door of my new flat. We were talking about what would be the most beautiful way to decorate my windows, when it suddenly occurred to me: what will I do with my trash? So, I posed the questions. The hostel matron pretended she didn’t know English and just stared at me blankly (to this day, she still pretends she doesn’t know English. The ruse is up matron! I know you’re faking!). The first grade teacher giggled under her breath and said she’d let me borrow her curtains for my living room windows. And my supervisor said, “Weeellll, dear… I don’t know.”

She didn’t know. A Namibian didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my rubbish and here I was, trashcan shy after my last attempt at anonymous trash disposal, by means of fire, left to my own devises. My first attempt at disposing of my trash in the location was to take it out to the trashcan in the hostel yard. You see, all over Khorixas, there are brightly painted public trashcans. These trashcans stand on two legs that are planted into the dirt. Then the legs rise to the top of the trashcan, where there is a hinge that allows the can to swing back and forth. There is about foot or two of space under the swinging trashcan and one lone crossbar in that space that children can use as a way of climbing up to look inside. And as luck would have it, the hostel yard had one of these trashcans. It was a glimmer of hope. It was a solution to a smelly problem. It was something that just made sense, right? Wrong.

The first day I carried my little bag of trash out to that can, learners jumped eagerly by my side: What are you doing, Miss? What is that, Miss? Can we help, Miss? In the midst of chaos, I arrived at the trashcan to find it full of grass. Yes, dead yellow grass – like someone had mowed the field from heaven in “Gladiator” and stuck in our one trashcan. I don’t know why. There was grass everywhere; why should we cram our trashcan full of grass? Isn’t that something we can just leave on the ground? Or feed to the donkeys? Apparently not. So, what was I to do? I threw my trash on top of the pile. The trashcan swung lightly on its hinges, squeaking ever so slightly. It was one lone tied plastic bag sitting atop a mound of grass. It looked so forlorn, so lonely. It looked so… just then, the kids stole it and ran away!!! They stole my trash!

From afar, I cringed at the fun the kids were having with my rubbish. The running commentary in my head was more than I could bear: Eeew, don’t eat that!! Oh my gosh, is that my dental floss? Oh please, oh please, take that off your head!

It was too much; I went inside and decided something must be done immediately. For months after that I carried my trash to town when I did my shopping. In town, they had regular trash pickup. I would walk to town with a bag full of trash, dump it, and then, walk home with a bag full of groceries. Thankfully, Jill was understanding – what sort of weirdo carries their trash around? Her site-mate, that’s who. The worst was when I would forget to empty my bag before I went into the shop. Then, I would open my bag to put all the groceries in but it would already be full of rubbish. It all got to be too embarrassing. I needed a new solution.

It had been months and the hostel’s lone trashcan was still filled with grass. It was then that it occurred to me: the trashcan was just an illusion – no one was ever going to empty it. I considered this and decided I was ok with people going through my trash. The key was that they shouldn’t know it was mine. So began the short period of trash displacement. The plan was like this: I would walk trash to public rubbish bins that were less full than the hostel’s but still in a somewhat close vicinity. I would do this at odd hours of the day and night so that no one would follow me. Children could then pilfer through the small bags later taking the good things. And, finally, no one would be the wiser that the things had once belonged to me.

It worked well at first. The sun would just be glistening at the horizon, with me sneaking back to my flat in my pajamas empty handed. Sunday mornings were the best because everyone was at church. The closest, yet just distant enough, trashcan happened to be adjacent to a makeshift soccer field and was therefore dangerous at too many times each day. The next closest, yet distant enough for privacy, was missing it’s bottom. This was a problem because it felt like littering. I put the bag in the top. It fell out the bottom. What was the point? Then the next closest was just too far. I got lazy. It would be weeks between taking out the trash. Gross smells and cockroaches were the only things that could persuade me to take action. I needed a new plan.

The new plan was brought about by desperation. For, desperation was the only thing that could drive me back to the match. I was going to burn my trash again. I was shy at first. I used an old baking pan to burn the small plastic bags full of evidence that I had lived. I would burn them within the walls of my porch behind my house so that no one could see me. There were many months of this sort of secrecy. Then, one Saturday morning, I smelled fire from my house I looked out the window and there stood about 50 boys burning trash just beyond my back door. It was chore day for the boys and it was their responsibility to burn up their rubbish. Brilliant! Other burners! I was not alone.

Where the boys were burning there was, yet another, large mound of cut grass and just beyond that was a rocky field full of all sorts of rubbish that had been abandoned there. This was the perfect place to take my burning public. The rubbish field and I were happy for quite some time. I would take my trash there, to a small patch of dirt and burn it. It was gone and I didn’t have to go more than ten steps from my door. No learner would ever again wear my dental floss as a headdress or use hair from my brush as a ball. Mission accomplished.

Slowly at first, and then gaining in frequency and severity, the rubbish field and I started to have disputes. People would come by when I was trying to burn my trash and ask, “Jessica, what do you think you’re doing?” And I would say, “why, burning my rubbish, thank you.” To which they would say, “tsk.”

A seed of doubt grew in my mind. Was it unacceptable to burn here? Was I breaking some sort of unspoken rule about women burning trash in fields? I tried to forget it, but more and more people, while facing the self-explanatory flames, would ask, “Jessica, what do you think you are doing?” Couldn’t they see? Or was it a deeper problem?

Out of shame and self-doubt, my burnings became less frequent. I would only burn important things like letters, prescription information or address labels from boxes. The other trash, I would put in the rubbish field with the scattered rubbish left by other teachers who had not been burning. Milk boxes, chicken bones and carrot tops were ok to be left on the ground, I thought. It’s not littering, I reasoned, the goats will come and eat it, or children will come and take it to play with. My first year as a Peace Corps volunteer turned into my second as told myself still, it’s ok because other people are doing it.

But it wasn’t ok. I had let it continue too long. The burnings had dwindled to once a month or every other month. More and more rubbish was being left on the ground in the rubbish field. I left the rubbish atop the mound the boys used to burn their trash on chore day, but it just didn’t seem to atone for the sin like I hoped it would. I despaired. I couldn’t see the difference between a rubbish field and a regular street in Khorixas anymore. I fell deeper and deeper into a hole of loose garbage morals of my own making. Children would come to my door and offer to take my trash out… and I would let them! I could see them in the rubbish field taking the good parts and leaving the rest behind on the ground and I felt nothing buy apathy (and joy that my trash had been taken out). I couldn’t see the light from the bottom of the deep dark hole. Until, someone saved me.

This past weekend, I took my trash bag the ten steps to the rubbish field and started a back swing to launch it into the wasteland. Just before I let it fly into the air, a guard walked by. He was hired by the Ministry of Education to make sure the school is not broken into during the school holiday. He stopped and said, “Good morning.”
I let the trash hang by my side. “Good Morning,” I said.
“How are you?” the guard queried.
“Fine, thanks. And you?” I replied.
Which wasn’t at all weird because every person you pass in Namibia, ever, must says some semblance of these things to you and every other person they pass. But then there was a pause. Then the guard raised his eyebrows and pointed. His accusatory finger was not pointing at me but it would have been much less painful if it had been. It was instead pointing at the one and only hostel yard rubbish bin, the one that had been full of grass for so long. He said simply, “There.”
“Oh,” I said quietly and hung my head in disgrace.

I was too ashamed to walk to the rubbish bin then, so I simply went inside. The next day, I had gathered enough courage to try a second time to take my trash out to the hostel’s lone trashcan. When I was approaching, I could see that the top no longer sported a huge mound of grass. I had been too blind, too apathetic, to see that the trashcan had been emptied! Trashcans were not an illusion! People were starting to care about what to do with their garbage! It was the beginning of a new era in Khorixas, where the streets would be clean. The Ministry of Works would pick up trash all throughout Khorixas – there would be no distinction between Town and Location, between rich or poor! All trash would be equal! This was momentous.

I reached the trashcan full of joy and hope and gracefully tossed my tied plastic bag in. I felt satisfaction. I felt accomplishment… I felt something on my foot. I looked down and it was my little bag of trash. How…? What…? I tipped the trashcan on its hinges and peered in. At the bottom of the can, I saw my toes peeking back at me. There was no bottom. That was it. Just a can. No bottom. A tube to accelerate littering on the ground. A laugh in the face to someone trying to clean up the chaos. A step backwards in the grand scheme of garbage.

You see, I tell you this cautionary tale so that you can see the plight of those who want privacy in a developing country. I tell you this so that you can look down into your own trashcans and consider what would actually make a good toy for a child who needs less to be entertained than an American child. I tell you this so that you can feel a small sense of joy when the garbage truck drives to your house and takes your trash away so that you never have to see it again.

No, but seriously, with three months left I still don’t have anything to do with my garbage.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

One Lazy Day

August 18, 2009

Here’s a secret about my job: Sometimes I go to work and I do absolutely nothing.

Now, don’t go out and join the Peace Corps right now. There are a lot of days that I’m so busy that I don’t sit down all day and my throat goes numb from yelling. But today was one of those days where I do absolutely nothing. The only thing I was supposed to do was get the kids ready for the National Science Fair at the beginning of term 3 in September. The Kunene region is short a couple projects and our grade 7 learners were runners up at the regional science fair. They may need to be prepared to go, but I’m not sure. Then, for the National Science Fair, there are special boards and special papers and this and that and what what what… but the man who is organizing the fair was out of the office today. Don’t know when he’ll be back. Just gone. So, I did nothing.

The kids are taking their end-of-term exams now. The whole school is on lockdown. We’re supposed to be concentrating and studying and wrapping up the term. Unfortunately, my term is wrapped up. I’m finished. So, I did nothing.

Today was nice though. Yesterday was really hot. The heat made some clouds overnight and today was really cold and cloudy. I can feel rainy season coming earlier this year. I bet that means it’s going to get hotter faster too. But this morning was nice while the cold lasted. I don’t know what it is about cold, but things get quieter. The roosters don’t crow. The kids go inside before they yell. Dogs don’t bark. It’s strange and calming. This morning was nice.

This afternoon, I read a little and then I took a walk to town. My first errand was to fax a letter to Windhoek. I had to go to the Telecom shop – which is just a phone company building. To fax my letter, they called me back to an empty room with one table that had a fax machine sitting on top of it. Nothing else. One window. The woman who worked there was dialing in the Windhoek fax number and a man was standing next to her. He was reading my letter. I waved my hand in front of his face and said, “Sorry, sir, it’s private.” His expression was like I had just slapped him. He took a step back. The woman who worked in the shop looked worried. She said, “Sorry, miss, I was just reading the fax number!” When the fax machine printed out the paper saying Windhoek had received the fax, she turned her head and felt around the machine until she could grab the paper and hand it to me without looking at it. Ha! It’s no wonder those of us with western attitudes get such a bad rap – all professional-like… what’s the big deal? Chances are neither of them cared what my letter said or what to make of the information.

The next errand was to buy a stamp to mail a letter to one of my best American pen pals (thanks to those who write)(really. You = mail box bliss). When I walked into the post office, it was completely empty. I’ve never seen it completely empty. Normally, I walk in and have to wait 20 minutes to 2 hours before I get to the window. Then, I try to keep my sentences short and fast to ward off any old people trying to push their way to the window to collect their pension from the government. Then, I walk off dejected because old people are really a lot stronger and pushier than you would think. Anyway, today it was empty and while I was still standing in the doorway (marveling at the emptiness), the post worker said, “Hello, Jess”. I felt so loved, so accepted, so welcomed. I love the post. Not only can they tell Jill and me apart but also I have a nickname. Mmm, good day. It was like post office heaven.

The next errand was to buy more Namibian pumpkin and some apples from the grocery store. Whenever you buy produce at the grocery store you have to get it weighed in the produce section before you take it to register. Granted, the produce section in Khorixas is about the size as a bathroom. I was about to pick up some apples to make applesauce when the produce-weigher grabbed my elbow and led me to a box around the corner that was filled with apples. Cheaper apples. Yay, secret weigher info! The pumpkin is pre-weighed. Don’t know why.

I decided an impulse buy was in order for the day. So I settled on buying some sweets. I wanted something chewy, like gummy bears. So I went to the sweets section. I grabbed the candy that looked closet to gummy bears and threw it in my basket. Then, I had to pull it back out to take a closer look: On the front it said “the unreal world of MANHATTAN”. Just below that it had a picture of a kangaroo with eye shadow and long eyelashes. Her name was Kylie Kangaroo, the bag told me. She had her pouch open and inside it was a picture of the candy I was about to consume: little “gum babies”. The rest of the package was decorated with these “gum babies” of all different colors (red and yellow, black and white… and green) floating around. The babies were posed like chubby mummies; legs stick straight and arms folded over the body. But, alas, each baby had a broad smile and chubby cheeks, obviously to encourage you to eat it. Finally, the back had a picture of a cow head and it said, “Cow-moo-nicate with us…” with an address and phone number, in case you are not satisfied with your babies, you can send them back. Tell me American packaging is this weird and I just haven’t noticed before… right? Oh, baby.

I took my babies, pumpkin and apples up to the register to pay, but I didn’t make it before a pack of Grade 5 girls, each one buying one item: oil, sweets, cookies, soda… it was a good day in the land of Grade 5 girls (except the girl with oil still confuses me). The first girl stood proudly at the register. Her total came to N$6.95. Unfortunately, she only had a 5-dollar coin. She scooped her sweets off the counter and back into the store to reevaluate her choice. The second girl nudged her oil across the counter. The checker looked up the price and told the girl. The small girl pulled a huge bag out of her dress pocket and dumped it on the counter. Hundreds of 5-cent pieces scattered everywhere. The checker gave the small girl a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look and then gave me a kind look and told me to go to my own cash register, opened specifically for my needs. Yup, it was a good day in the grocery store.

I wandered home at a pace of a Namibian person 50 years my senior, chewing my gum babies. The yellow gum babies are the best tasting. Plus, the yellow color makes it hard to see their creepy smile. Chewing my gum babies and surrounded by Khorixas–location chaos, I marveled that so much could be accomplished in Khorixas town. It was like an up and coming metropolis. I was rounding the corner to the school hostel when one of my grade 6 learners stopped me by standing in my path. She stood staring at me and smiling. I had the last red gum baby stuck in my tooth and the wind was blowing pretty badly (a symptom of dry season) which makes my nose run uncontrollably, so my learner had a lot to be staring and smiling at. She finally said, as I was picking baby out of my teeth, “Oh, miss, you are so Beeaaauuutiful today.” I paused for a second to remember that sarcasm doesn’t exist in Grade 6 Namibian English. So I said, “Oh, thank you!” and made a mental note to give her a few extra stickers for being oblivious.

I made it home no worse for wear and with all my errands accomplished. So you see, Khorixas was nice to me today. Tomorrow I may not be so lucky. Which goes to show, you can have your baby and eat it too!

Actually, no baby eating. That’s weird.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The computers came this weekend!!!!! It’s been so many months waiting for our two computers to make their way across the Atlantic and to our humble little school.

If you don’t remember, when I was home for Christmas I raised money for my school to get computers. People gave money or bought crafts made by women in my community. It was super encouraging to be surrounded by such generosity! Then, at the beginning of this year, I ordered some computers from a donation company in Seattle. The money was used to refurbish the computers and ship them to Namibia (I got a great deal on shipping, by the way. Great deal!). And now, 8 months later, the computers are sitting in the office of Eddie Bowe Primary School. They could not have gone to a school that would appreciate them more. My colleagues are so excited to better their school and now they have the tools to do it.

Thank you for those of you who helped!