Saturday, November 28, 2009

Esiku Lyokupandula

My learners have finished taking their yearend exams and the only thing left to do before I go on vacation is to grade approximately 500 pages of math answers! I'm not very eager to get started but it's not because of the quantity. I'm reluctant to start because marking wrong answer after wrong answer is bound to be depressing and will tell me exactly how ineffective I was at teaching these learners. Judging from their performance on the exams from the previous two terms, it will not be pretty. However, it's not all gloom doom and despair. I might not have been able to make every learner understand how to simplify fractions or how to plot grid coordinates, but there were a few instances that made me feel like my presence here is actually doing some good. A couple of teachers have commented that the learners in grade seven are 'free' with me, meaning that they aren't afraid to come ask me questions and don't hesitate to speak their broken, but improving, English. One example - I was looking at an encyclopedia of the human body with Festus and Hosea and there was an x-ray drawing of a pregnant woman and baby.

Hosea - "But how does the baby eat food?"
Me - "There is a tube called the umbilical cord, like a pipe, that brings food from the mom to the baby. The mom eats and some of the food also goes to the baby."
Festus - "now what happened if I put food here? (pointing to his belly button)"
Me - "(laughing) ah no you cannot eat like that"

Marumani, the English teacher who I like the most, actually said that he wished I could teach English to grade six and seven because the current teachers are not doing a good job and that he could see a definite improvement with the grade sevens who I spend the most time with. Another instance was during after school study when I talked with the learners about the What When Where Why of preparing for exams. I really wanted them to study and do well on their finals so I tried to give them some guidelines about effective studying habits. They seemed interested and were very willing to give some ideas and answers which is a big difference from the start of the year when and were hesitant to participate in class and they couldn't understand my American English (I have since developed a highly Namibian stylized accent). So it was encouraging even though it probably too little too late. This year I don't think I did as much as I could. I plead guilty with the excuse that I was trying to find my feet as a first time teacher, but now that I have developed my teaching style and know my learners next year I have no excuse. I'm writing it here for everyone to see so that you can hold me to it and not let me wimp out. Besides teaching math, I also teach Life Skills which is a class that doesn't really count towards a grade but is an opportunity to address other issues in life: HIV/AIDS, relationships, study habits, how to use a condom, how to take a test, etc. This year I didn't do much except letting the kids go to the library to read which was good because none of the other teachers have anything to do with the library besides going there to sleep when they should be teaching. Next year I want to utilize the Life Skills time more wisely and actually do some activities with the aim of imparting my knowledge and experience. Four girls at my school got pregnant this year and dropped out so I feel that I should do a little more than just teaching math.

Apart from school, I am quite comfortable in the village and am learning where some of my learners live. Most homesteads in the village have the same basic setup with an outer fence made from largish logs dug vertically into the ground enclosing a mazelike series of fenced areas. In the larger open spaces are the huts for sleeping and storage. These huts are constructed completely with natural organic materials. The walls are bricks made from dried mud and the roof is a pyramid made from saplings tied together with palm fronds and then covered with intricately woven grass. It's amazing how watertight they can make it! Another area of the homestead is called omashisha named after the large containers woven from strips of tree bark and branches which are used for storing flour. The elugo (kitchen) is an open space with some huts for storing food, and maybe a hut for cooking when it's raining. The oshithima (porridge) eaten with every meal is cooked in a pot that rests on top of three bricks that are arranged in a circular formation around an open fire. The oshithima is eaten with the right hand and dipped in the side dish which varies from night to night: oshigali (crushed beans), omboga (spinach), catfish, or the favorite of every Namibian, meat (beef, goat, pork, chicken). Another section of the house is the oshini for which there is no real English translation because do you know any English speakers who pound their homegrown grain into flour by hand? The oshini is an area with several 8-inch-deep cylindrical holes formed and hardened in the ground. The mahangu (millet) is systematically poured into the holes and is then pounded over and over with a heavy branch in a mortar and pestle style. The rhythmic pounding can be a solo job or a team effort but either way it is not an easy task. I've tried my hand at it a few times and it left me with much admiration for all the Owambo daughters and mothers who do this on almost a daily basis. The grain is periodically sifted with flat baskets woven from palm fronds in a process that sorts out the sufficiently-pounded flour from the flour that still has a ways to go. This is just one step in the year long cultivation process which converts latent seeds into nourishing sustenance: hoeing, ploughing with donkey power, sowing, weeding, hoping the rains are enough so that the plants can grow but not too much that they drown, protecting the crops from marauding birds and goats, harvesting, removing the grain from the stalks by beating them with branches, pounding the grain into flour, burning the stalks and clearing the fields for next year. And all that just for some millet flour!

I wish I had pictures to go along with my descriptions but my camera has finally kicked the electronic bucket after five years of trusty service. I will once again refer you to my buddy Greg's blog and his awesome photography:

The last few months, I have been staying in the village more often on the weekends. I've been trying to visit with my learners outside of the classroom setting, so my host sister Mwingona has taken me to other homesteads in the village. Most of them are quite similar to the homestead where I live, but you can get a sense of the comparative wealth depending on the presence of cement buildings, a water tap, plastic chairs, or more accurately by Namibian standards, the number of cattle and goats. It has been really neat to see where my learners live and to get a glimpse of what their home life is like. Alina in grade seven lives about an hour's walk away with her grandparents on a relatively large homestead house. We played jumprope, cards, and ondota (a game similar to jacks). A couple weekends ago she came to visit me at my homestead so I showed her a bunch of pictures of friends and family in America. She kept mistaking my mom for my sister, so Mom you should take that as a compliment! Asser in grade nine lives with his mom, siblings, and cousins. It is a smaller homestead with not many luxuries but they do have papaya trees and brought one for us to eat both times I went to visit! One day he had asked me to come visit and the plan was to go visit Monica and Rautia who live another couple miles away. He didn't openly tell me, but secretly I think Asser wants one of them to be his girlfriend. They are all great kids and are at the top of grade nine. Unfortunately Asser wasn't at home when I came to visit because apparently some crotchety old neighbor lost his donkey and sent him to go retrieve it from where it had wandered, probably about 5 miles away. So instead I went with Asser's older sister (not my learner) who took me to visit the two girls. Rautia lives with her parents and younger brother and cooked us some nice oshithima and chicken for lunch. Rautia is the best learner in math but pretty shy and is reluctant to speak English with me even when I try to ask questions and start conversation. I hope she opens up a little more next year. After lunch Rautia walked with us to Monica's house which was quite a stark contrast. Apparently Monica's mother worked in Windhoek, the capital, for several years as a nurse and only moved back to the north two years ago. She must have done well with her profession because the house is much different than the rest of the village: the outer fence is made with painted white bricks, there is a garden with flowers, the buildings are all cement and completely furnished, and she drives a fancy SUV. But they still brew oshikundu (a traditional drink made from millet) so we sat inside and drank chatted for a while before the two girls walked me home.

Another learner I've seen a few times on the weekends is Kristofina in grade seven. She is probably my favorite learner at Elamba Combined School, and wouldn't you know it, she's transferring to another school next year. She lives her Grandma and is the oldest child at the house which means she is in charge of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the small kids. I will really miss having her in class but I can't really blame her because some of the other teachers have made her cry (refer to a previous blog entry about my wonderful colleagues). Anyway, Kristofina is excellent in both math and English and has the best smile which she flashes at me all throughout the day. She is an avid reader and isn't afraid to ask me questions about words she doesn't know. Basically she is an ideal student because she is curious and wants to learn, she can make intuitive mental leaps, she is diligent about her homework, and she is an all-around friendly person. I am sad she is leaving, but she promised to come visit me.

I am spending more time with my learners now because in the village I have no friends and sitting around the homestead can get boring. I am friendly with the neighbors and they are friendly with me but I wouldn't say I have friends my age with similar interests and similar values. It's always nice to chat with some old kuku (grandma) or drink omalovu (traditional sorghum beer) with meme, but I can't talk to them about stuff most 24 year old American guys talk about. So when I need a break from the village (even though the low key daily life is enviable) I have some close friends in the PC volunteer community that I can visit. Halloween weekend I traveled to Ondangwa and hung out all day at a water park with some friends where we lubricated our esophagi, grilled hamburgers, and snuck into the waterslide after it got dark. Then last weekend, Greg and I hitchhiked to Rundu (about 8 hours away in NE Namibia) for a Thanksgiving party. On the way there we got picked up by six supermodels from Norway (seriously no joke) who took us to Tsumeb where we got picked up by an old Afrikaaner (white person whose first language is Afrikaans) who gave us a lift to Otavi where we ran into another volunteer, Kaitilin, who helped us all get a ride in the back of a truck the rest of the way. And all for free! In Rundu there is a former volunteer who married a local woman and now lives in Namibia and owns a lodge. Every year he cooks up a feast of turkey and gravy and hosts any current volunteers who want to come, providing they bring the other necessary Thanksgiving side dishes. In all there were about 30 volunteers and we gorged on stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn bread, green beans, and mashed potatoes. It was an excellent meal and it was great to visit another part of the country and some other friends who I never see because they live so far away. Leaving early Sunday morning, Greg and I caught a ride with an Afrikaner truck driver until Tsumeb and then made an unwise snap decision to take a free ride not realizing how cramped and uncomfortable the back of the truck would be. We survived though and celebrated with ice cream. Happy Thanksgiving by the way!

This weekend I am away from the village again, but this time not by choice. The voting for the national election concludes today and Peace Corps management decreed that all volunteers would be safer clustered together rather than spread around at their respective sites. There have been a few violent encounters between RDP and SWAPO supporters (the two main political parties in Owamboland where I live) but I felt perfectly safe in my village. Better safe than sorry though, so five of us have been bunkered down in Outapi, riding out the political storm, entertaining ourselves with pirated movies and TV shows, scrabble games, The Legend of Zelda, juggling, and enjoying American foods that are most certainly not porridge.

It's been a nice break but I'm going home this afternoon. It's just a N$14 taxi ride to Tsandi and then a N$7 for the last 8 kilometers into the village. Then there is less than two weeks until I trek to South Africa to meet my mom and sister! I hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving and gave thanks for family, friends, and all the amenities America can offer.

Mucho amor, Paka

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