Saturday, February 20, 2010

Messy Onesi

Pronounced as if you were consoling the famous Scottish loch monster - Oh nessie

Two weeks ago marked the start of after school training for athletics, which we would refer to as track and field. When classes finished for the day, almost the whole school could be found out on the sports field whether they were running or not, enticed by the novelty of something different than their regular walks home through the bush. Mr. Musilika, the teacher directing the show, would vainly try and round up the runners in each age bracket for the various events which include the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500, and 5000m. The young kids were completely uninhibited and eager to go, but as the age groups progressed, reluctancy to step up to the starting line began to seep into the collective mindset of the potential athletes as the fear of failure and the merciless teasing of their peers wrought havoc on their confidence. More than that though, was the complete and utter disorganization that seems to plague events of all kinds that occur in Namibia. Musilika would manage to corral a few of the 400m girls, but then while trying to find the other kids he knew to be strong runners, the original group would disperse and the gathering process would have to start again. Despite these setbacks, some training did get accomplished albeit with no warm up jogs, no equipment, and no formal coaching on running technique or strategy. The next day I brought my running shoes and managed to instill more enthusiasm in the masses by going on a longer run with a large group who were suddenly raring to go. It almost killed me though. I hadn't played soccer, juggled, or done anything active for almost two months, so I was later ruing the decision to go on a thirty minute run in the 100 degree heat without satisfactory hydration. I managed to run the whole way but probably could have been diagnosed with heat stroke and lactic acid overdose. Let me tell you, those kids smoked me! They are so amazingly fit that when they arrived back at school, well before me I might add, they continued doing a few more laps around the field! The fact that they are so tough must be that they grew up living, working, and playing in this constant heat, not to mention that their stringy muscular bodies carry them upwards of 10km every day as they walk to and from school. And most probably eat just one meal a day at dinner. Very Impressive. I survived the first day and now that I know how blazingly merciless the African sun can be at two in the afternoon, I have run a few more days since then with a marked improvement in my endurance and stamina. Less than one week of training was all we got before Musilka, who can be quite a spacey character, came to me on Friday afternoon at 1:30 (20 minutes before school ends and everyone goes home) with the information that Saturday is the zonal competition for schools in our region.

Me - This Saturday? (incredulous at the timing)
Musilika - Yes it must be (obviously, what's the big deal...?)
Me - You mean tomorrow? (still incredulous)
Musilika - Yes they changed the date and I just remembered today (his spaciness on display)
Me - But it's too late now, how will we get there? (the American way, bent on full preparation and precise planning)
Musilika - Ahh maybe I can ask Amputu (a fellow teacher with a pickup, but alas he is not available tomorrow)
Me - Maybe Meme Maha? (another teacher with a truck, but again, no luck)
Musilika - Well, I know some people in Tsandi who I can try to ask tomorrow in the morning (the string of hopeful ideas continues)
Me - Ok, so which learners can we take? Will we meet you there? (trying to formulate an orderly plan)
Musilika - Yeah just start walking to Tsandi in the morning and I think you will meet the learners on the way (the Namibian version of a plan)
Me - Ok see you tommorrow then (after a year plus in Africa, I have learned to go with the flow)

This is a very typical example of how things works in Namibia: last minute information, countless unknowns, and a lot that is left up to chance, yet it usually seems to work out in the end. We quickly told the learners before school ended, and the ones that wanted to go said they would walk the 8km to Tsandi in the morning and that some would be meeting at the school at 6am. I suggested 6:30, counting on the requisite lateness due to African Standard Time, and planned to meet them at 7. So the next morning I arrive at the school at 7 and of course no one is there yet. A few show up at 7:15 and we start the two hour walk to town. Along the way, more and more learners join our entourage and by the time we reached Tsandi, we had amassed 14 kids, which seemed like quite a good turn out considering the situation. The competition was to be held in Onesi which is a small 'town' about 30km from Tsandi. The idea behind the zonal competition was to invite the relatively nearby schools to a central location and send the qualifying runners on to Oshakati to the regional meet for all athletes from all four regions of Owamboland (Oshana, Oshikoto, Ohangwena, Omusati). Elamba is just one of many schools that were invited to the Onesi meet, which was one of several zonal meets for all schools in the Omusati region.

Musilika managed to convince one guy to drive all of us to and from Onesi for a fee of N$260, so we two teachers squeezed into the cab and the learners piled into the back of the pickup truck and perched themselves around the edges in a way that would make any American mother sick with worry. But that is how things are done here and, rest assured, we all arrived safely in Onesi around 10, late for only the first race, which fortunately, none of our kids were running. The 'track' at the school where these qualifying races were being run turned out to be no more than an overgrown field rife with dead plants, animal dung, bottles and other rubbish. What an ideal and pristine location! We quickly learned that several of the other schools weren't as resourceful as we were, as only half of those invited were able to make it. Apparently we were not the only ones informed at the last second. I assume you all have been to, or participated in, a junior high or high school track meet and maybe you are picturing that scene, only in Africa. That image is definitely as far as could be from a Namibian track meet at a rural village school.

No lanes and curved corners for the track - instead a few spectators stood at what seemed to be to the right distance and physically created the corner for runners to go around. Several runners got confused and were disqualified for going on the wrong side, several collisions and falls resulted when runners tried to turn the sharp corners too fast, and a few times the corner-marking spectators fled in fear when the older stronger faster boys came bearing down on them at full speed. I just had to laugh at how ridiculous those moments were.
No measurements were taken - the 'organizers' just estimated the distance of 100m by taking 100 long strides 4 times to form a large squarish space. Not exactly the Olympic-regulation-sized ovals we are used to. I have no idea how they measured the 5000m course.

No equipment whatsoever...
No starting gun - one guy was the designated starter and yelled "Ready?! On your marks! Go!" without any real consistency or rhythm, and oftentimes he didn't even check to make sure that all the runners were ready. I can't tell you how many false starts there were.
No starting line - they just cut a wavy line into the scrubby grass with hoes.
No starting blocks - instead the runners knelt behind that nonlinear line and tried to get a grip on the dusty ground.
No finish tape - they tied a bunch of skinny palm tree leave together to form a rope of sorts, but more often than not they forgot to hold it up for the finishing runners.
No megaphone to make announcements - the organizers just shouted results across the field and a few kids missed their races because they didn't know when they were starting.
No stopwatch - the top two runners from each heat, regardless of their times, moved on to a final heat which determined the two kids from each category that qualified to go to Oshakati.
No changing rooms or bathrooms - both activities took place behind distant bushes.
No running shoes or uniforms - running barefoot is the norm and they just wore whatever clothing they had that approximated loose lightweight apparel. Some kids had nothing, or forgot it at home, and chose to run in sweaters, long skirts, and even jeans!

But none of that mattered to the kids. They had a blast and so did I. I bought some bread and juice concentrate for our midday snack and we commandeered a bucket of unknown cleanliness from a neighboring school and mixed in water from the nearby church. Cups were created from plastic bottles cut in half with a rusty knife and we reveled in sticky orangey sweet happiness. I forgot my umbrella but braved the murderous sun to provide moral support and encouragement for my fledgling athletes. They were understandably exhausted after their races and I helped them deliriously navigate their way back to the shade tree. It was also a chance for us to see another community, as most of my learners had never been to Onesi even though it is only 30km away. We were able to walk through the 'downtown' which consists of a finitely countable set of shops and bars, and our conversations about what we saw were more free and open than classroom math lessons. Johannes Niilenge says to the others, "with sir you must talk English and also you must laugh in English!" When I asked if they get blisters he says, "oh! sir, when the ground is too hot, my feet are so hot!" Walking back from the shop, Sakaria Sheehama says, "sir, your English is ok, we understand you, but oh!, when your mother was here, no we can't understand." At the end of the day, we left in good spirits and even had six kids qualify for the larger regional meet. I will make sure to bring my camera next time as unfortunately I have no documentation to give a better sense to my wordy descriptions. The meet in Oshakati is happening next weekend, and although I'm predicting better facilities and hoping for a bit more organization, I'm sure it will be another memorable experience.

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