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.