Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Principal's Return from "A Different World"

At the beginning of this week, Mr. Kamati, the principal of my school, returned after a month-long trip to China. Mr. Kamati was selected as one of two Namibian principals to go to a training with principals from all over Africa. It was quite an honor to be chosen for this experience.
I have been looking forward to meeting him since I got here, and to hear about his experience abroad. It was fascinating to hear about his time in China.

Mr. Kamati had never left Namibia, and had never been on an airplane. Can you imagine leaving your home for the first time (in your 30's) and traveling to (of all places) China?
He shared with the learners at morning devotion on Monday that he had "Been to a different world."

One of the most touching aspects of his retelling of the trip began with a welcome to the new face in the room (me). He shared with the other teachers how important it is to learn from me while I'm here. He discussed the shame he felt not knowing about computers in China. He talked about how far behind Namibia is with technology, and that the teachers must utilize me as best as they can in my remaining weeks here. It was encouraging to hear this message, but it also saddened me at the same time. I thought of the embarrassment he probably felt around colleagues who knew more about the basic functions of the computer, and it fueled my lessons for the day to work toward my learners not having to endure the same embarrassment and shame due to lack of computer knowledge.

Later that day, Mr. Kamati came to check in with me in the lab. We talked about my lessons so far, the learners, the teachers, and just general conversation about Okahao and Namibia. I offered to get him up to speed with some one-on-one lessons in my remaining weeks. He was excited about this idea, and began asking me some questions. Now that the Internet is working, we were able to access his email, for the very first time. Someone had helped him set up an account in China, and he was expecting a reference letter from a colleague at the university where the training took place. There aren't words to explain the excitement of helping someone check and receive an email for the first time! He was so happy to receive his letter and have the ability to send a message immediately to thank the colleague and wish them well. It is amazing that basic understanding I take for granted can be so useful to someone without knowledge of computers and the Internet.

As many of us receive more emails than we want in a day, it can be hard to relate to this excitement. However, it made me really appreciate the brilliance of such an overlooked technology in my daily life. It is incredible, when you really think about it, that you can send messages from anywhere, at any time, with very little effort. I am learning to be grateful for computers and the Internet and all the ways they help to keep us connected to those that we love.

Modern Conveniences I Take for Granted

There is so much I take for granted in the USA. Convenience and efficiency are the norm and expectation, and it’s not until I found myself without access to many of these that I realized the impact they have on my life. Just a brief list of things that come to mind:

Can opener: We were lucky enough to have one here at the house, but it recently broke. I went around to ask the other teachers if anyone had one I could borrow, and many just laughed at me, if they even knew what it was. The answer was a resounding “no”, and all said that they just use a knife. Well, I knew I bought that Leatherman multi-tool knife for a reason before I came here, so I’m slowly becoming an expert at opening cans with a knife. Yes, hardcore, I know.

Washing machines and dryers: I do not have either, and I haven’t seen or heard of anyone having anything remotely close. I have been hand washing clothes about once every week and a half or so. This might be the most exhausting task I have encountered. You have to really wash them by hand to get them clean, rinse out all of the soap, wring them out, and hang them to dry. While it’s difficult, there is something extremely gratifying about the end result. Since I have to work so hard just to get my clothes clean, I have started to think twice about what it really means to be dirty, and let clothes go much longer without being washed than I would at home.

Hot water: I am very lucky that I have hot water. Many homes in Namibia do not, and most of the other volunteers go without hot water. While I do have access to hot water, it does not come out of the shower hot right away. We have to turn the hot water heater on, and allow the water to warm up for about an hour or so. I’ve learned to plan ahead when it comes to showering, and if I need a shower within the hour, I deal with the cold water.

These are just a few examples of what many in Namibia go without in their daily lives. I'm extremely lucky to have water and electricity, and not all homes have even these basic utilities. It makes me realize how much I have access to at home, and also that a lot of it is not necessary. I feel that with so much excess of this and that that make our lives easier, move things faster, we are often going at such a fast pace, or so accustomed to things being easy, and we don't even stop to appreciate all that we do have.

Transport in Namibia

Namibia is a country twice the size of Texas but with 2 million people within its borders. Not many of the people have cars, but there are many ways to get around and definitely a lot of ground to cover.

In order to get around Namibia, you have to hike, take a taxi, or ride in a kombi (a large bus or mini-van), or a bakki (a pick-up truck). The taxis are just people who own cars and people pay them for rides. Petrol is expensive, so even if someone gives you a ride and it’s not their profession, you should contribute some money to help cover the costs.

The ride into the nearest town is a 40-minute drive, and fortunately there is a hike station just down the road. I do not have a hard time finding a taxi, but the challenge is finding a full enough taxi. If the car is not full – meaning at least four people in the back of the car and sometimes two people in the passenger seat. If they are not full, they will drive around, and drive around, and drive around – until they have a full car. Only then, can you leave!

The government provided transport for all of the volunteers to Tsumeb, the location for our mid-service retreat. We were taking a kombi there, and told to arrive in Oshakati to meet the driver by no later than 7:30 AM. The other volunteer in my town, Salif, and I met at 6:15 AM to make sure we had plenty of time. Of course our driver scoured Okahao for a good 25 minutes before leaving the town.

Unsurprisingly, our transport was late. We arrived in Oshakati at 7:30 AM, and did not get a ride until 10:00 AM. This is how transportation in Namibia works…they will get there when they get there. There is no rush, and they will always be there “now”. There are three ways to say “now” in Namibia…”now”, “now now”, and “now now now”. Each now represents more urgency, so you learn that if someone says “now”, it could mean sometime later that evening, or maybe even tomorrow morning.

Our driver came for us and we were met by a handful of the other volunteers that had already been picked up. We headed to Ondangwa to pick up the remaining four volunteers. Along the way, we stopped and ran whatever errands the drivers felt like – getting some more credit for their phones, or maybe a cool drink – and also picked up more and more passengers, until quickly, our kombi was just about at capacity.
We tried to tell the driver, “We have 12 total passengers! We need to leave room!” But it didn’t seem to sink in.

Finally, we arrived in Ondangwa and as we predicted, there was no room. The driver had to call a friend with a bakki (pick-up truck) to come to get all of the luggage from the various passengers, and then try to make room for the rest of the group. Of course, we eventually all fit and made it to Tsumeb.

On our way back, it was very similar. We were originally scheduled to live at 8 AM…this quickly became 11 AM and we were finally picked up at 1 PM.

The inconvenience and cramped quarters in the taxis, combis, or bakkis, make me appreciate the ease of our transportation at home. While it can be long, hot, and aggravating, it’s also fun. You learn to just go with the flow as you have no control over the driver or the situation. If you are late, you are late! If a four-hour trip takes six or seven, that is how long it takes. It is pretty liberating to just let go of control and let someone else be in the driver’s seat.