Friday, December 5, 2008

Omwa hala okulesha?

It definitely does not seem like December, at my house in Okahandja, we have a little mini artificial Christmas tree twinkling in the corner of the sitting room. As I sit slathered in sweat, idly distracted by the Spanish soap opera on tv, it provides a strange contrast to my nostalgic associations with the holiday season that for 23 have been fully entrenched in the comforting notions of family, pets, fireplaces, Northwest weather, hot chocolate, and egg nog. Fortunately, I have discovered my new panacea: Oshikandela! My low moments are easily alleviated by the smooth hybrid mixture of yogurt, custard, milk, and sugar, which announces its arrival by injecting my tastebuds with one of the various curative flavors of ‘sweet’, banana, strawberry, or even guava. Although I find that my salivatory and gluttonary systems sometimes need a boost, it has been relatively smooth sailing through the foodscape of Namibian cuisine. Omuhaka (sausage), iihakautu (potatoes), omakaloni (macaroni), omayi (eggs), omboloto (bread), and obuta (butter) are staples of my homestay diet. My bread/butter lunches and meat/starch dinners are fairly bland and unproblematic save for the small slice of tin-can that I found in tonight’s sausage… Peace Corps has given us a spiffy cookbook compiled by other volunteers so I hope to provide some culinary reciprocation for my host meme. Maybe I’ll try my hand at some sweet potatoes or cranberries or stuffing or turkey, all of which I dearly missed as I sat alone eating canned ohi (fish) and oshithima (porridge) for my Thanksgiving dinner.
That thought brings me to the next big piece of news for today’s bloggable agenda: other than my deplorable Thanksgiving night, my weeklong visit to my permanent site in northwest Namibia gave me renewed energy and left me highly excited for my post-training adventures! On the 23rd Nov, all twenty trainees in Nam28 traveled north to pay a visit to our prospective schools and villages where we will be living and teaching after training ends in early January. I am replacing a volunteer who has taught math and science for the last two years at a tiny village school deep in the Namibian bush. There are only 13 teachers and about 300 learners (students) from grades 1 through 10 that convene for three terms a year in a ten-room school with the most basic of facilities and supplies. There is no electricity but there are desks, textbooks, and chalkboards all of which are in various states of disrepair. I spent the week marking (grading) and invigilating (proctoring) exams, as well as getting to know my new colleagues, the Namibian school system, the levels of the learners and a general feel for how difficult my assignment as a math teacher will be. On the spectrum of scholastic ability, the learners are all over the place, but the majority can be found in the middle to lower portions. One grade 8 math question that tripped up so many kids was, “What is the difference between 289 and 286?” to which many regrettably replied that ‘one number has a 9 and the other has a 6’ instead of doing the implied subtraction. It seems like many of the problems stem from trouble understanding English but also that basic math concepts are very shaky.
Knowing that teaching could prove to be very challenging and frustrating at times, I’m glad to have been placed in a homestead with a second Namibian family that is supercoolawesome. The traditional northern Namibian homestead is a fenced fort-like structure system that encloses several mud huts scattered throughout the mazy interior. I won’t actually be living in a hut like a true Owambo person but instead in a cement house that is situated amongst the food storage containers, the chicken roosts, the kitchen area, and the other sleeping huts. At first I was disappointed to have this ‘modern-style’ oven of a house in stark contrast to the rest of my family, but the intrinsic privacy will probably turn out to be a good thing. Next to my house, there is a smaller building for my kitchen and attached is the walled-in open-air showering square. There is a clean water tap inside the homestead but the nearest electricity outlet is about a two hour walk away in the small small town where most of the teachers live. The sunsets and stars were incredible. Bucket bathing outside naked as four different lightning storms flashed across the distant sky streaked with the sunset’s fire was an amazing experience. Apart from the separate living quarters, and the fact that I’m an oshilumbu (aka mzungu aka foreignwhiteperson), I really felt comfortable with the meme and the five children of the homestead. Only the oldest boy (maybe 20 years old) speaks English so my Oshiwambo will be superb in no time. There is a 7th grade girl and a 4th grade boy that go to my school but they were too shy to try out their English with me but they did join in on some soccer and also showed me how to dance like a frog! It’s the new funky chicken. The meme only speaks Oshikwaluudhi (yet another dialect of Oshiwambo meaning that my current instruction in Oshindonga is maybe 93% applicable) but we were able to communicate through my limited vocabulary, signing, writing words and pictures in the sand, and with the translating help of the son. She has a very happy soul and personality and was proud to show me around to the neighbors and her old old father who can’t see or hear yet talked to me in rapidfire Oshiwambo for about 20 minutes straight. I’m still laughing about it now. Everyone I met (the dancing memes, the old elder kukus, the local drunks, the school kids) was really happy to see me and gave me such awesome smiles. I can’t wait to go back.
At the end of the week I got a ride into the small town nearest my school. I stayed with a volunteer who lives there and who graciously showed me around town, the best places to buy groceries, and the Pizza Den, where a killer calzone made up for my lackluster dinner the night before.
The next day on the way back to Okahandja, I spent a fairly miserable 10 hours in a combi (bus) due to the cramped hot sweaty conditions but I did happen to see a few elephants and kudu on the side of the road. Hyperbolically, I wouldn’t have survived that ride without my book of crosswords so I am greatly indebted to my dear dear late Grandmother who sparked my interest in puzzles and games of all sorts. During the last few years, I’ve unfortunately had numerous encounters with death that have left me struggling to find the vocabulary that can aptly express my feelings. Death has that powerful and strangling force that can cripple my ability of meaningful thought and has such an ephemeral effect on my emotions. It’s difficult. I love you Grandma Jean.
Back from site visits, we are all busy preparing for model school where most of us will get to experience classroom style teaching for the first time. The paperwork and preparation definitely adds up with lesson plans, syllabi, binders, etc. etc. I’m nervous but also pretty excited to try out some of my creative ideas. My host sisters left yesterday for vacation to the coast so I think I’ll be a little lonely for the next month. But it will give me time to put together a juggling routine for the Peace Corps talent show that is coming up in a few weeks. I have a snazzy internet cell phone now so I can check email a lot more frequently and for a lot cheaper that internet cafes but it’s still tough to find time and energy to write these updates. If you can get your hands on an international phone card and feel so inclined, all incoming calls are free on my end so I would love to hear from you. Let me know and I can email you my phone number. Until inspiration and serendipity strike,

Ombili (Peace)
Love, Paka


K said...

An international phone card is definitely a good service when trying to contact family and friends who live far away.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paka!

Thanks for blogging, its really great to get a glimpse of your Peace Corps experience.

Things in Oregon have been (relatively) dry this fall. My daughter Ia and I have had a great fall blending research and babycare.

-Liz Stanhope

Alec said...

Reading your blog makes me jealous of your experiences...sounds somewhat like our initial experiences in Kenya. Happy New Year to you, and I hope you found some way to ring in the new year. We miss you dearly in PDX, and keep blogging. Your stories will provide great distraction from school work I should be getting done. Play safe.

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