Monday, November 21, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Monday, November 7, 2011
Finally, I can truly say I am a Peace Corps Volunteer! After eight weeks of training on language, technical lessons on education, health, security issues, cross cultural discussions, Namibia Group 34 was sworn in on Thursday, October 20th.
The last few weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST) seemed to be the first time here in Namibia that time went by at its true pace. As I may have said in previous updates, the first few days of my Peace Corps experience seemed like months. I think the comments you would get from anyone in Group 34 about the end of PST concern the excitement of officially becoming a PCV along with the reality check that will be on our own and without the social comfort of our new American friends.
One of the final obstacles of PST was a final Language Proficiency Interview. Because I am so awesome, I had already passed an LPI earlier in PST with a score of Intermediate Low. I ended up scoring an Intermediate High, one of 8 out of the 38 in our group that scored in this bracket, which was the highest for the group. That said, I must admit that Afrikaans is the easiest of the 7 languages groups taught in our PST group. The most difficult, I’m told, is Khoekhoe Goewab, which is a “click” language. I’m happy with how I scored on the PST but I’m barely conversant in Afrikaans and still have a tough time understanding people. Hopefully I’ll start becoming more conversational as time goes on here in Rehoboth.
The actual Swearing In Ceremony was a fairly formal event. In terms of preparing for the event itself, we had practiced our swearing in oath several times before along with a Namibian song that was dubbed our “PST Anthem”. The song, “M’sombia Kamule”, ended up sounding god-awful compared to the performances from the incredibly talented Okahandja Youth Choir. The formality I referred to earlier pertains to the minutes long greeting each speaker would make before they delved into their speeches: “Greetings and welcome to Her Excellency Wanda Nesbitt (U.S. Ambassador to Nam), Country Director Gilbert Collins, Police Chief of Okahandja...in absentia, His Worship the Mayor of Okahandja, colleagues from the fraternity of education and development organizations…” and so on and so on (ed. note: this is apparently the norm in Namibia at any event). From there, our Training Manager made some remarks about us and then presented us to the Country Director who also made some comments. The highlight of Gilbert’s remarks for me was when he was mentioning the diverse educational and professional backgrounds we all came from and after saying a couple jobs people in my group had held, he finished with the heavy hitter, “Congressional Intern”. Amazingly, I’m the only PCV among my group who had worked on the Hill. My buddy Kirby nudged me and I had a big old Georgia Democrat grin on my face. From there, we said our oath, read by the Ambassador, to serve the communities and people of Namibia to the best of our abilities, officially making us Peace Corps Volunteers. The Ambassador had some nice remarks about the importance of the PC in Namibia and how we are the ambassadors representing the U.S. in our respective communities. Our keynote speaker was a Regional Education Director. Her comments echoed most of what Gilbert and Ambassador Nesbitt had already said but also spoke about how in our service we should not expect to change things overnight and that we should relish the small achievements and not dwell on the roadblocks we will face. Most of y’all had probably considered me officially in the Peace Corps for quite awhile now (or not, if you have a low opinion of me), but that was the moment we went from PC Trainee to PC Volunteer. And in a move reminiscent of Will Davis and Jamie Germano standing up at our Marist graduation when family is supposed to rise when their student walks across the stage and my BU friends inserting my name into nearly every song, a couple of my PC buddies instead of saying their own name at the beginning of the oath said “I, Sam Kelly...” Therefore, I’m triply sworn in as a PCV.
Afterwards there was a small reception for all those in attendance. I said goodbye to my host mom in Okahandja who told me the house will be quiet without me and that she will miss me. She sent me off with some biltong, which is delicious African jerky. Ceteris paribus, I’ll be spending Christmas with them in Windhoek (ed. note: apparently not. I talked to my host mom who said that the engagement we were going to celebrate along with Christmas has been postponed). I said goodbye to my new PC friends and headed off in my principal’s bakkie to Rehoboth. The next time Group 34 will all be together will be for our weeklong “Reconnect Training” at the beginning of December. I’m told this is not only a helpful final training event but also a rowdy get together for the PCVs as we haven’t seen each other in almost two months. Don’t worry Debby, we’re safely tucked away in a conference center outside Windhoek where we can’t get into too much trouble.
That’s all for the end of PST and Swearing In. I’ve got more reliable internet access now in Rehoboth and I’ll try to get up pictures and send out another update at the end of the week. Lastly, if anyone wants to just go ahead and set up a blog for me, you’d be really cool and the handful of inquiring minds would thank you (ed. note: Wynne Kelly put da team on his back duuu!)
Goeiemore, goeiemiddag, or goeienaand! (depending on what time of day you are reading this)
This update begins in the sprawling metropolis of Rehoboth, Namibia. Actually, despite my sarcasm, Rehoboth is not all that small and is probably the 15th or so biggest town in Namibia. As I said in a previous update, Rehoboth is the historical home of the Baster ethnicity, which is a specific group of Namibian coloureds. I’ll tell more about the Basters as I learn.
I’m actually wrapping up my visit at my homestay, sick. Other than picking up a Namibian flu, I had a very enjoyable and productive site visit in Rehoboth. From the PC supervisor workshop in Okahandja where we all met our principals, we drove down through Windhoek to Rehoboth. I met and ate with my host family on Friday, who I will stay with for the first 6 weeks of my service. On Saturday, I watched the All Blacks beat France in the Rugby World Cup with my future PC roommate and principal at his home. That evening, I went to a fundraising event where students were recognized for raising money for the school. There were also dance performances and skits from student groups. My principal introduced me to the whole school community and asked me to say a few words as well. The crowd applauded when I greeted them in Afrikaans and later in the event I had the honor of putting medals on the top three fundraising students. On Sunday, my host dad took me to a local soccer game, which provided a good chance to relax with some Namibians. The soccer was obviously not incredibly high quality but I found that wearing a Chelsea shirt was a good conversation piece as it seems most Namibians follow Premier League and Champions League avidly. My host family also took me by a lake resort about 7 kms outside of Rehoboth. It’s set up on a beautiful lake created by a damn surrounded by rolling savannas. Apparently there is also some wildlife on the grounds like giraffe and kudus, which I look forward to checking out.
My school (Rehoboth Primary School) is very nice and seemingly well run and organized. The grounds are kept very clean and there are several new buildings that were funded by donations from German, Namibian, and American companies. Included in these new facilities is a basketball court. So far my duties will be teaching upper primary (grades 5-7) and a couple of computer classes. I think I’ll also help set up a basketball team/town league and hopefully help with other sports (like rugby) as well. As I learn more about my school when we actually get to site, I’ll report more then.
To get back to Okahandja, a volunteer from a nearby town and I caught a ride with one the teachers from my school to Windhoek. In Windhoek, we fortuitously met up with 2 other volunteers also traveling from the south and got a ride for the 4 of us back to Okahandja in a taxi. Back in Okahandja, we all met up at bar in town and regaled each other with stories from our respective sites. What I’ve learned thus far is that the Peace Corps experience can vary incredibly, even within one country. My experience will be extremely different from volunteers who will be in northern Namibia. The north, I’m told, is much more densely populated, holding about at least half the population in a quarter of the country’s land. But, volunteers will tend to be in rural areas, possibly without electricity. I, on the other hand, will live in reasonably accommodated government teacher housing with a shower, refrigerator and freezer and work at a school with free, uncapped wifi. I believe I will also buy, with a Peace Corps stipend, a bike to ride to school. Many of you probably think I’ll be living the life but there are still hardships such as no Waffle Houses within thousands of miles.
The following week after site visit, we observed and then taught lessons at local schools. I went to a different school than I had gone to for the initial observations. I’m glad for that, as now I’ve seen three very different Namibian schools. Five Rand Primary is a much smaller school than Nau Aib Primary or Rehoboth Primary. There is only one class per grade and only seven or eight teachers on staff. I taught four lessons total, two of which were double periods. Overall, I think I did pretty well. The learners (I believe I have already told y’all how we are supposed to call students “learners”) are pretty well behaved even though we were told they didn’t practice corporal punishment at Five Rand. The lessons I taught ended up being review grammar lessons for the students but I still think I did well to elaborate on concepts like passive voice, conjunctions, and adverbs. I was anxious to teach but now that they are out of the way, I am excited (and more comfortable) for the prospect of teaching everyday. New challenges await in Rehoboth me aside from just giving lessons: learning names, giving marks, and coaching.
9/6 – 9/19
Since my last update I’ve pretty much completely settled in at my home stay house and continued with PC training and Afrikaans lessons. This past week went by relatively quickly which I hope is an indication of time to come as the first few days in Namibia seemed like months. The sessions are still long and exhausting but this week we will be observing actual lessons at schools in the area. I’ll give a summary of that next week.
So probably the worst part about being in such poor communication with yall is that I forget what all has happened. I’ll try to weave together some stories and thoughts from the past few days.
As I said last time, I now have a Namibian cell phone. I believe the official make and model is a Nokia POS Some volunteers got all fancy and got phones with internet but I decided to keep it simple as all I really plan on using it for is SMSing and receiving calls from the States (Debby did call me and it worked very well – free for me but probably a pretty penny for her).
Probably some of the most interesting things I’ve done/seen happened this past Sunday, September 11th (I must say, it was a bit of a surreal way for me to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – I did not see a single American that day). I had known for a week or so that we were going to Catholic Mass at my host family’s parish, St. Peter Claver Church. My host mom, host sister, and I walked there for 9 AM service. As we walked up, there was singing coming from inside the church worthy of a documentary on African music. The women inside who were singing were dressed in traditional Herero garb, which is essentially big Victorian hoop dresses and headdresses that are meant to look like cattle horns. Quite a sight. Mass itself was a brief three hours with lots of singing (the coolest part about the singing was that I’d say only about half the songs are scripted or planned – whenever there is time in the mass when it’s quiet, someone would start to sing a song and everyone would follow suit and sing that song. When the priest needed to speak, for instance during the Eucharist portion, he’d make a time-out motion with his hands). I’d heard that mass was long but apparently I got lucky and happened to attend the mass where they celebrated the feast of St. Peter Claver (who, I learned, was a Spanish priest who served African slaves in Spain) and confirmed a couple teenage girls. Most of the service was in Afrikaans, including all the readings. But in his homily, the priest gives a summary of the gospel reading in English and KKG (a Namibian click language). It was a great sermon about forgiveness and stress. One interesting thing I noticed: less than half of the congregation receives communion. My host mom didn’t receive so I wasn’t about to march on up there and get some body and blood (did I mention I was the only white person?). I’ll have to ask her about that.
As I said last time, my host mom’s sister is getting married. The marriage was announced at church and immediately following mass, the female members of the groom’s family but a white veil over her face and hustled her into a car. After going home to change into more casual clothes, we met them a couple blocks from my host mom’s mother’s house. From there, the groom’s family led the bride to be to the house, singing and dancing. When we arrived at the house, the men hung up a white flag to show that this household had an upcoming wedding. Still singing, they led the bride to a room where she is supposed to stay for a week, alone. My extended host family was then responsible for feeding the groom’s family. Oddly enough, I ate first, as I guess I am always the guest of honor. The meal was chicken, pumpkin mash, and rice – all cooked in traditional pots over an open fire. It was probably the best meal I’ve had in Namibia. Almost as soon as everyone had finished eating, the groom’s family left. I was soon told that we were now going to their house. After more singing, dancing, and flag-hanging, we ate cake and drank beer at the groom’s family’s house. All in all, I was in awe of the whole day – it reflected the hospitality and family bonding that are characteristic of my Namibian life so far. The next step in the wedding process is slaughtering a cow. Yes, that happened.
All in all, it was an incredibly interesting procedure. The groom’s family gave the cow to the bride’s family as a kind of dowry and only the bride’s family is meant to eat it. When I walked up to the house and saw the cow tied to a pole in the backyard, I knew I was about to see some real African life. I’ll spare y’all the literally gory details, but suffice to say once the cow was lassoed, its life came to an end by way of several men and a surprisingly small knife. We ate the meat, cooked in the pots in a variety of ways, for the rest of the weekend.
The wedding itself was surprisingly similar to a conventional American wedding. It was at a picturesquely African hotel or lodge-type establishment. I was told that having a wedding at a place like that is more typical of white Namibians than black Namibians and this may have something to do with the fact that the groom’s father is the mayor of Okahandja. So the uniqueness of this Namibian wedding laid outside the ceremony and the reception e.g. the cow slaughtering. The next day, we returned to my host grandmother’s house where the event of the day was officially passing over the bride to the groom’s family. Everyone is ushered out of the house except for the elders of each family while they “negotiate” the terms of the marriage. I’m told this is largely a formality and there was nothing really to negotiate, rather they are just fulfilling traditional requirements. This Saturday also provided a chance for those outside the family and/or not invited to the wedding to greet the newlyweds and celebrate their marriage. Luckily for me, three other PC trainees were staying with friends of my host mom so they were able to come hang out as well. All in all, it was a fun (but tiring) weekend filled with eating and celebrating. It was quite the experience but I’m glad to be on the other side of the weekend as it was a very busy time for my host family.
On to my own news: today (the day before I send this email out), we found out our site assignment for the next two years! I am to be stationed in a relatively big town called Rehoboth in the middle of the country. It is about a three hour drive from Okahandja and even shorter from the capital city of Windhoek. There are three PCVs there now and I am slated to live with another Education Volunteer, after another six-week stay with a host family. We will be going on our site visits at the end of this week and I am of course excited to see what’s it like. My assignment is an upper primary English teacher (5-7 grades) and I’ll also probably work with computer training for teachers and hopefully coach some sports as well. I’m sure many of you will be googling/wiki’ing Rehoboth and find out more than I know now but I do know it’s significance in Namibia is that it is a hub for an ethnicity called “Basters” – coloreds (again, socially acceptable in Namibia and South Africa) who came from South Africa a couple hundred years ago.
I’ve neglected/forgot to go into detail about observing school lessons last week but I’m going to briefly summarize because I’d rather send out a truncated email than wait another week. The primary school I visited all week had surprisingly nice facilities but lacked resources as far as textbooks and teaching materials go. For example, there are about 40 learners to a class and the teachers and the books rotate classrooms. So 4 students are sharing 1 book at different times. Although we did not see it, there was certainly evidence of corporal punishment in the form of pieces of garden hose or things of that sort on desks and teachers occasionally made comments about doing or not doing such and such or the learners will be beaten. The good news is that I’ve heard when PCVs successfully implement non-violent discipline strategies at their school, corporal punishment tends to fade away. The students are incredibly respectful, probably because of the beatings, and stand and greet every time an adult enters the room. You could tell they were very excited to have American visitors. On Fridays in Namibia, teachers tend not to teach/go to their classes at all so I had a few classes where I was responsible for watching the class. In some classes, we played “hangman” as a spelling lesson and in another, a teacher actually helped me to facilitate an English lesson where learners talked about what they saw on a poster – which was awesome. In the last lesson of the day with a 6th grade class I had been with earlier in the day, I taught them the American national anthem. They ate it up. I wrote the lyrics on the board and they wrote it into their notebooks and I helped them learn the tune. It was probably the first and last time I sang the Star Spangled Banner by myself. Another PCT who was at my school told me that in one class she was supervising, the learners practically begged her to teach them something. All clichés aside, it was an eye-opening experience for the value of education.
I realize this update was all over the place but I hope at least a little of it was understandable. Sometimes time drags here yet it can also fly by. Four weeks in Namibia feels like months. All in all, I’m doing very well here. Probably not losing the weight most of y’all thought I would but I guess that’s a good thing? I really appreciate any emails and I’m sorry if I don’t respond to them now but please know how much they mean to me. Once I get settled at site or get steady internet, I will be wheeling and dealing emails. Also, finally got some snail mail so keep the letters coming.
9/1 – 9/5
On September 1st, we moved in with our host families. I live in two-bedroom house in a neighborhood of Okahandja called “Smarties” with my mom host mom and one of her two daughters (the youngest is staying with grandmother). When I asked why it was called that, I laughed when my host mom told me it was because the colorful houses look like the candy of the same name. The houses are indeed all different pastel colors, about the same boxed-size as ours, and the neighborhood is latticed with unpaved, dirt roads. All the houses have fences with barbed wire and most have dogs of some sort. One thing we have learned is that America is very unique in its “dog culture”; dogs here are not pets but parts of one’s alarm system.
The food my host mom has cooked so far has been pretty standard Namibian fare: meat with a starch of some sort. The food is pretty salty and oily as well but very tasty. The staple starch is called porridge (also called “pap”) and is a boiled mash of maize that is very similar to grits. I’ve only had it with a kind of lamb gravy on top but my host cousin told me several other different variations to expect. The host families make several accommodations for us trainees. Namibians don’t usually eat vegetables with their meals but they are asked by PC staff to throw some greens and oranges on our plates for nutrition. Also, Namibians don’t usually eat breakfast so my host mom is always asking me what I want to eat in the mornings. Coffee makers are non-existent. Some other trainees tell me that their families have French presses but no such luck at my house. I don’t mind the instant coffee too much as I still need it in the morning.
The way that I hang out with my family aside from meals is watching “soapies” – primetime soap operas. The current saga on NBC (not our NBC, y’all can figure out what it stands for) is “India – A Love Story”: a Mexican soap opera set in India and Brazil dubbed in American English. It is terrible. Conversation in the house during this time is limited to talking about how ridiculous the plot is. Unfortunately my host family is not really in to sports but I can occasionally watch a sports channel to catch some rugby. The Rugby World Cup is coming up in a few days and Namibia indeed has a team. They have never won a game in WC play and apparently only whites and coloureds care (please note: “coloureds” is a socially acceptable term dating back to the classifications from apartheid). Hopefully I will get to watch as the All Blacks cruise to victory in New Zealand.
On Saturday we piled into a bus to the capital city of Windhoek on a little field trip. We went to the mall to get cell phones. I got the worst/cheapest phone I’ve had since my first phone in Marist days. It looks like something you’d expect to see Poot buying at a gas station in The Wire. Some trainees got internet phones but you won’t be seeing me update my facebook status every 10 minutes (ed. note: until I got to site where I have internet at my school!). I’m having a little trouble activating it but hopefully I’ll figure it out soon. The mall was incredibly nice with a ridiculous amount of white people. After a couple hours at the mall we went and saw some real Namibia.
Our first stop after the mall was the historical monument in Namibia – Heroes Acre. It honors the heroes and heroines of the Namibian struggle for independence against the Germans and South Africa. The layout is a wide path of stairs, with heroes’ graves to the left and right, leading to a statue of a soldier that represents a tomb of unknown soldiers. At the top, we were treated to an incredible view of Windhoek and the surrounding mountains. After Heroes Acre, we went to the Old Location graveyard, which honors a 1959 massacre that killed about 100 people who refused to evacuate their homes so that a white neighborhood could be built there.
We then went through a couple open markets where they sell traditional foods and cook meat you can buy off the grill. In one of these markets, the main business is bars known as “shabeens”. They are basically tin shacks that serve alcohol at all hours of the day. We’re told these are found all over Namibia and are a pretty big problem. In these markets, we also saw “kapana”, where men grill all kinds of fresh meat to be bought and ate on the spot. Some trainees were a little put off by the flies swarming around the raw meat but I of course ate a piece. The last leg of our journey through Windhoek was down Evelyn Street, which runs through the slums of Windhoek and is peppered with bars and shabeens.
On Sunday, my host family went to Windhoek for back to school shopping for the girls and left me behind with another family that is also hosting a fellow trainee, Giovanni. They took us to a pair of soccer games where two local teams faced off against a top Namibian team called Black Africa FC. Apparently Black Africa won the Namibian Premier League last year so I guess we saw the best Namibian team? It was great to watch some live soccer and I hope I can see more games in the future.
So I’ve got a little time to myself as we transition from the conference we’ve been staying at to our host families for the next 6-7 weeks and I thought I’d write a broad email to fill in anyone who is interested. I don’t think I’m going to have the time or internet resources to blog so this will have to do. (editor’s note: until now!)
We arrived in Namibia after roughly 50 hours of traveling (that may an aggressive estimate but it sure as hell felt like that). The time spent in JFK and the Frankfurt airport did not fly by. I managed to sleep a little on both flights but not nearly as much as I did when I flew to New Zealand back in the day. We touched down at about 5 AM to flat darkness for miles and it was COLD. By the time we went through customs and got our bags, it was light outside and a little warmer. Current PC Volunteers and Staff met us at the airport, singing songs and waving a PC banner (ed. note: it’s funny to think about how we had no idea who this people were and now I could tell you who every single person was). We then were given our stipend for the next 2 weeks of “walk around money” (I haven’t felt the need to spend much money as our meals are provided and we are able to bootleg some internet from next door every now and then, but some people are going to be tightening their proverbial belts next week as they’ve spent entirely too much money). They put us on a coach bus that went 45 minutes west to Windhoek and then about an hour and a half north to Okahandja, where we are training for the next couple months. We got settled at the conference center we’re staying at and then began introduction and orientation sessions. We are all pretty exhausted and I think I fell asleep at about 7 PM Namibia time.
Most of the staff is Namibian and every week we get a new set of a couple Resource PC Volunteers to hang out with us. People who can answer most of our questions surround us but I’d say 75% of the time our questions are met with “it depends” (ed. note: so true now that I’m at site). We’ve fallen into a schedule that includes sessions on medical issues (vaccinations every other day and Malaria medication every week), technical (in my case, English education), language (for me, Afrikaans), etc. We open every day with Namibian or South African songs along with the Namibian and American national anthem. Breakfast at the center is at 7:30 AM which means most of us get up a little before 7 – quite the change from my “roll out of bed whenever I want” regimen in DC. We do have some time to ourselves, which people use to walk around town, read, journal, or generally hang out. There are some low mountains that look over Okahandja that we’ve hiked a couple times. The second time we did this hike, we were guided by a handful of kids who knew the path well and led us at an unreasonable pace…without shoes. Pictures to come from this excursion.
The PC experience is about to get a little more real when we move in with our host families. Till now, 38 Americans have been hanging out and going to class. Now we’re going to be on our own for half the day with a Namibian family that has adopted each of us as one of their own.
In terms of the people I’m with, we are Peace Corps Namibia Group 34. There are people from all over the country, mostly recent college grads like myself but also two 40+ folks and two married couples. I think the breakdown of assignments is 30 Education Volunteers and 8 SEED Volunteers (Business). There’s nobody from Georgia or Boston but a few with DC/Maryland connections and one other SAE. In the short time we’ve all known each other, I think I’ve been pegged as overly competitive and willing to eat large amounts of any food.
That’s all I can really think of for now. I’m sure there are stories or aspects about my experience thus far that I have forgotten.