Thursday, January 23, 2014

Namibia 2014: Project Tangi

Hi everyone!

My life has change drastically since my 2010 teaching adventures in Namibia - I've graduated from Harvard, lived in Korea and the UK and settled down working at LinkedIn in San Francisco - but one thing has remained the same: my love for the school that I taught at.

That's why I'm excited to present to you Project Tangi, my effort to raise money to build a library at Erkki Tauya Junior Secondary School (where I taught in 2010)! Join me as I run the 2014 Boston Marathon in honor of a community that changed my life.

Donate here and read more here!

Thanks for your time and effort!

Griffin

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pictures!


Goats! My house is the red building in the back (it's also partly a church office, my house is less than half of the building).


Walking to my house! School is behind me, the village church in front and my house to the left (you can't see it). Notice the donkey. Livestock roam freely everywhere.


Laundry day! It usually takes me about 2 hours to do a week's load of laundry(dry time not included).


Some of my students!


A picture of people from a Himba village that I visited with other WorldTeach Volunteers. Himba people are said to be the most 'primitive' people left in Southern Africa. They were featured for such reasons in the recent American movie, Babies.

Sunrise pictures of one of my classrooms.


Another classroom picture!


Sign for my school.


Students gathering for the morning assembly in front of the office (the building on the left).


Gravel road that goes to the highway. This road lies in between my school and house.


My house! I live in a guest house as part of a church complex, so my house is only the last door on the right and about half the length of this building.


My school! There are three 'blocks' and 11 classrooms for the 300 students at the school.


Sunrise picture on the walk to town through the bush at 6am.


A grade 8 learner!


I like this picture a lot, I think it says quite a bit about this grade 7 learner named Titus Samuel. He's a feisty but extremely intelligent guy.


The school cultural group lining up to perform at the school's spelling competition.


This small sampling doesn't really do justice to everything that's been going on here and the 700+ pictures I've taken so far, though I hope you enjoy nonetheless! Also, I've been thinking a lot recently about how much pictures can de-contextualize and imbue entirely new meanings to a foreign culture, so please don't take what you're seeing through my Western-influence perspective of photography as a true representation of life here. I'd like to think of the pictures that I've taken as more of a way of sharing what I've learned but by no means is it a perfect way of telling the stories or shedding true light on life here.

All Best,

Griffin


Monday, July 12, 2010

Excuses, Excuses

Sorry that I haven't been able to post recently, things have been quite busy and the internet card for my computer has been on the fritz. For now, take this as a formal promise that I will have a real post up either tonight or tomorrow.

Thanks everyone for reading!

All Best,

Griffin

Thursday, July 1, 2010

“Let me put this down on your level so y'all can understand me. ”

Last Friday two vans full of American missionaries overwhelmed Nakayale Combined School with their dominance. They towered over the few dilapidated cars parked in the school's sand lot and even consumed the office building with their sheer massiveness. Like celebrities pulling up to a homeless shelter in a Rolls Royce, my fellow Americans pressed their faces against the jet-black tinted windows, waved at their admirers and royally awaited a sensational welcoming committee and spectacular red carpet event to properly greet them in their juxtaposed Western palaces. To the soundtrack of a 'downright precious' school of three hundred African students singing, clapping, hooting and hollering, the first visitor stomped out of the van, dug his feet into the sand and looked out over the school yard as if he, at that moment, was the first white man to set foot in the 'new world'. With a beer belly hanging over his belt, sport-style sunglasses covering his eyes and a digital camera the size of his Texas home hanging around his neck he gestured his hand toward the vans so as to say 'it is safe'.


School stopped at one o'clock so that the group of 15 or so missionaries could give their haphazardly organized presentation. Of the many disturbingly insensitive activities the group had planned for the school was one particular lesson on hygiene and hand washing. “Now, y'all, how many times a day should y'all wash your hands?” a large woman in pink sunglasses boomed out over the crowd of perplexed, straight faced students and staff.


“Once a day!” one of my colleagues shouted out excitedly.

“No, you're wrong!” our Texas visitor shouted back. You should wash your hands after every meal to prevent germs from spreading!”


I was stunned and fuming, but things only got worse when buckets of glitter were distributed out around the school yard.


“Y'all are going to put this glitter into your hands and shake hands with the person next to you to demonstrate how germs spread. Just like this glitter, germs can easily go from one student to the next and make everyone very, very sick!” the overweight health expert explained.


Utterly confused and lost in translation the students began throwing the glitter into the wind and onto each other. “Erkki, do you understand these people?” I asked quietly to one of my grade 9 learners. He shrugged, smiled and smeared some glitter into another student's hair. Clearly that was a 'no'.


“Now, just like germs spreading all around and making our bodies dirty, you all have seened (sinned) and have seen (sin) in all of your hearts,” the group's pastor interjected. “To get rid of y'all's seen we are now gonna recite a prayer to God,” he continued. “If y'all understand me now say 'Hoo-ha!'” he yelled, thrusting one fist into the air and throwing his body wildly. The school yard was silent save the sounds of wind churning sand and leaves. Not skipping a beat, he continued with, “That's okay y'all. Let me put this down on your level so y'all can understand me. Repeat after me.”


My mouth dropped.


After a quick translation into Oshiwambo (the native language of Namibia) by one of the teachers, the crowd quickly fell into this man's hands, repeating aloud his strong words of prayer with robotic precision.


The only consolation for this car wreck of a two hour 'presentation' were bags of candy and soccer balls that the group had brought from America though even the gifts turned into a culturally confused spectacle. Students rushed the visitors ferociously (as any kids would do) as our lovely Texas guests snapped pictures of the crazed swarms of African children.


“This is not good.” one Grade 10 learner said to me. “These people will now bring back these pictures to America and all Americans will be thinking 'African children are poor, starving and crazy'”


She took the words out of my mouth.


This group's ignorance and purchasing power had successfully turned an entire school into a ring of circus show performers. Our 'visitors' were able to snap all of the pictures they wanted for their Facebook albums, play soccer with the learners, hug them, kiss them, tell them that even though they are dirty and smelly on the outside they still have 'inner beauty' and then, after not having accomplished a single thing at the school besides leaving hundreds of candy wrappers in the sand, leave on their own time. Like so much of the foreign 'aid' Africa receives it was nothing more than a misguided, completely temporary and utterly unhelpful dump of wealth and Western superiority.


In any other context the overzealous religiosity of the event would have caused me the greatest grief, yet last week it was the purely ethnocentric actions of the group that had me appalled. I say ethnocentric because I truly don't believe the culturally skewed divide between Africa and America is presently racist so much as it is ethnocentric. The dichotomy seems to be a matter of cultural superiority complexes and self-righteous agendas hallmarked by many visiting Americans and Westerners alike. I fully understand the historically racist underpinnings of the situation here, though when observing our guests last Friday I did not see them treating the school students and staff as inferior black people so much as inferior Africans. Underdevelopment and low standards of living somehow, in these Americans' minds, makes the people of Africa primitive, less human and therefore inferior. Though the issue may then seem to be one of primitivism versus. modernity I feel that it is more an issue of being able to correctly characterize and grasp the innate differences of how different cultures live. To illustrate my point I often like to use an analogy to food science. Nutritionists are stunned by the diversity of 'healthy' diets around the world, from the saturated fat-laden eating habits of Inuits to the olive-oil championing Mediterranean diet and Indian vegetarianism. Many of these populations are found to have similarly positive health outlooks despite the immense differences in their diets. One 'correct' human diet is almost impossible to nail down because it most likely doesn't exist. The same applies to cultural issues. Our modern American style of living is as right as it is wrong, just as the way of living in Africa is. What suits one culture may not necessarily suit the next. Force feeding olive oil and hummus to Inuits won't make them better people. For me and any other Westerner visiting Africa I feel that is extraordinarily easy to fall into the habit of preaching the superior style of living in the West. The impossibly challenging thing to do, though, is to accept that the way I have been living for almost twenty years may not be the only correct way of living. There are a multitude of truths across oceans and even so, much of the human condition is still ultimately universal.


Such thoughts poured over into my teaching this week and really pushed me to view my classes from the perspective of a Namibian. I realized how extremely disorienting it must be to have an exuberant American teaching in an unusually loud voice, to only understand 50-80% of what he is saying and all the while be sitting in front of some foreign computer machine that you've never used in your life. My thoughts of bringing Internet to the school, having my students type letters to Barack Obama and essentially learn the computer from the ground up in two months thus became void. My stay here and the work I'm doing is not about bringing my students to an acceptable American level of computer knowledge, it is about understanding how my students will truly interact with computers in the African context and allowing them to grow into a level of understanding that suits their needs here. If it takes three weeks to learn how to use a mouse, so be it. I'd rather be tailoring my classes to my students than to my own semi-ignorantly crafted conceptions of the class.


That being said, teaching has been going extremely well. Informal polling I did at the beginning of my stay at the school showed me that less than a quarter of my students had ever used a computer before my class. Many students struggled to hold the mouse (there were many hands shaking with fear when we first started using the computer mice) and to grasp the concept of the computer desktop. Now, as I've promised my students, I have been getting to school every day at 7AM (an hour before school starts, I'm usually the first teacher to get to school), opening the lab during break time and staying after school almost always holding back hordes of students waiting to use the computers. There are often more than forty kids in the lab of twenty computers and usually many more students waiting to fill any vacant seats. The work is exhausting not only because I'm teaching something I've never taught in a place I've never been but also because to be effective as a teacher here I am constantly forced to place myself in the shoes of another person. That, I know, is a skill I will carry with me for a very long time.

All Best,


Griffin.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

“Please tell Griffin that I do not love him, but I do like him.”

“Is that a white man washing his clothes by hand?” the faces of passersby seemed to ask as I sat in front of my house squatted down over a tub of sand-soaked clothes drenched in cold, soapy water. “You better believe it,” I answered with a silent smile. I was pretty confident that I looked supremely local whilst washing my clothes by hand last Wednesday, though I soon realized that doing an entire load of laundry by hand is much different than washing one sweater in the same fashion like I had done at home. Pinning clothes to a wire of hair-like thickness in the Namibian wind while shooing off goats and chickens was nothing less than a battle for me, almost every piece of clothing that I put up came crashing back down into the dirt.


Since Wednesday was a school holiday (African children day, commemorating African children who had died in the past in the stray bullets of war), I dubbed it my own special cleaning and acquainting day. I spent much of the morning cleaning my clothes (dirtying, rather) and tidying my house. That afternoon I made my first trip to town by 'footing' (before I had only been driven by other teachers and such). It takes about 45 minutes to walk into the tiny village (that is here considered a large city) of Outapi from my house. The village has a few bars, banks, restaurants, an open market, a pharmacy, two grocery stores and some other assorted shops strewn about. Lacking even a modern traffic light, Outapi is, at its heart, not much more than a two-street town. That being said, speaking to Outapi's size, it puts the village of Onakayale (where I live) to shame. Walking into Onakayale most Americans would be hard pressed to even call it a neighborhood. Since land in Namibia is extremely plentiful, the many rustic huts and few modern homes of Onakayale are spread so far apart from each other that the trees and grasses are more definitive of the village than the actual buildings that compile it. After buying a few groceries in Outapi and catching up with another WorldTeach volunteer I headed back to my house to cook, clean and relax. The walk home was shortened by the kindness of an Onakayale villager who picked me up halfway through the walk and gave me my first pseudo-hitchhiking experience (hitchhiking is a very popular way of getting around here, people with cars are almost obligated to pick up people walking and take them to their destinations). Thursday and Friday were hectic teaching days and successfully closed my first week of teaching here. I was thoroughly exhausted, though not tired enough to say no to a weekend of travel and adventure.


Last weekend I headed to Ondangwa, a town considerably larger than Outapi about 150 KM from my village, where a handful of other WorldTeach volunteers were planning to convene for a weekend of fun. Friday after school I walked to Outapi to meet up with a traveling buddy (another WorldTeach volunteer who works in Outapi) and then together we started in on our travel adventure. After hailing a taxi we were ready to get going, though the driver had a much different agenda. Whereas in the United States taxis head off to the passenger's destination as soon as he/she closes the door, taxis here do not leave until all of the seats are filled. Thus, we spent the next 20 minutes searching for two more passengers to fill out the five-seater sedan. After two locals had hopped in we spent another 20 minutes zigzagging across the town and stopping at various stores and houses to let our fellow passengers in and out to pick things up and drop things off. Finally, after much waiting, we were on our way.


The next hour and a half was filled with bumpy Namibian roads, dodging cows and goats on the highway, and an incessantly skipping CD of African beats. I was pretty excited to finally reach our destination of Ondangwa, seeing familiar faces was the perfect cure for barreling down a landscape of such unfamiliarity. The total fare for the taxi ride was about $8 U.S., though readers must remember that while the price is cheap, passengers here really do get what they pay for.


That night the four other volunteers and myself shared our common and not-so-common experiences over a delicious, freshly cooked vegetable stew. A few hours later we headed out with one volunteer's local friends and stopped at a bar, a hotel and later a club for some real Namibian socializing. The bar was less of a bar and more of just someone's garage that had been retrofitted to accommodate a few people. We ducked out of there pretty quickly and then headed to a somewhat upscale hotel where I became the center of attention for a group of audacious Namibian women. Upon seeing that I was talking to a female volunteer the group of women (numbering about 5) pointedly asked her (my volunteer friend) if she was my girlfriend. “No,” my volunteer friend politely responded. She then made the mistake of telling the group her name.


“Samantha!” they yelled at her. “Come here! We want to talk to you about Griffin!”

“Is he your husband?” one asked.

“No, but he has a very serious girlfriend in America,” Samantha lied, trying to save my skin.

“Well that doesn't matter,” one of the women answered. “Please just let Griffin know that I do not love him but I do like him.”


After battling to quiet the group down we finally gave up and retired to the hotel lobby for a few minutes, returning a few minutes later to an even more rowdy scene. A few drunken Namibian men started pretending that they were professional boxers in the middle of a heated match, and that an advertisement poster was their opponent. They took turns animatedly jousting the poster until it fell to the ground and the entire hotel bar audience roared with applause and excitement. Even though I was happily talking to a Namibian friend I had met the week before in Outapi, we took the boxing match as our cue and headed off to a dance club. We then pushed our way through a massive crowd of club patrons and after a bit of struggling were able to make it into the club and finally be at ease after being stuck in a number of rather curious situations. Upon hearing our favorite American jams we couldn't resist letting loose but found ourselves awkwardly bopping to the Namibian dance tunes. As such, there was an interesting dichotomy in the club with our group being the only white clientele. Regardless, we had an awesome time blowing off steam from our very intense first week of teaching.


Early Saturday morning we arose in all of our tired stupor, lazily slipped out the door and headed to a bar to meet a friend/local. Yes, I did say that we went to a bar. Namibian bars are the center of all social activity, even at 10AM on a Saturday. Jackie, our Namibian tour guide and an Ondangwa resident, then swept us away to a traditional Namibian wedding ceremony, or at least part of it. Namibian weddings often consume multiple days for their festivities and involve many elaborate traditional celebrations. The party we witnessed included a processional of family and friends joining the wife and husband at the wife's house where the wife picked up the her belongings. Every Namibian wife is allowed to only bring one suitcase of clothes and personal items from her current home as the new husband is expected to provide everything else that the she would need. Waiting at the wife's house is an enormous party filled with traditional foods (lots of meat), drinks and party goers. After only an hour or so of small talk and good eats the entire party gets up and follows the bride and groom to their new home. The exiting ceremony is accompanied by guns blazing, women howling and well wishing to the new couple. Though we were clearly the misplaced wedding crashers, the entire experience was an entertaining spectacle.


Saturday night we caught another taxi and headed slightly north of Ondangwa to the town of Eenhana where two of the five of us are living and working for the summer. After all of the craziness that was Friday night we decided to keep a low profile. We made a delicious home cooked meal, built a fire and went to bed pretty early.


On Sunday morning Anna (the volunteer who is working in Outapi) and I headed to the center of Eenhana to catch a taxi back to Outapi. We had a relatively event free taxi ride for about an hour until we had to switch cabs in a town called Oshakati. As soon as our taxi driver slowed down at the gas station where all of the vacant cabs were waiting the car was swarmed with drivers interested in our business, as if Anna and I were two celebrities pulling up to an award ceremony. They pounded on the windows demanding to know where we wanted to go. Anna and I agreed not to say anything to the drivers until we exited the car, though that pact quickly flew out of mind when we got out and were completely overwhelmed by cab drivers yelling at us and grabbing our bags so as to force us to choose their cab and give them our business. We finally settled on a cab driver, though as we were sitting in his car some other drivers started yelling at us saying that our chosen driver was not even a real cab driver. I hoped that they were wrong, though tried to console myself by thinking that in all reality none of the 'drivers' were 'real drivers'. None of the taxis are even marked as taxis, we had essentially just gotten in the car with a random Namibian man and waited to go. After two more passengers entered and the five-seater was filled we wondered why the cab driver was still looking for passengers. He quickly wandered off and a few very long and curious minutes later he shoved another passenger into the back row with Anna and myself and yet another passenger in the front to sit on the center console. We thus had seven people in a Toyota Carolla flying down the highway on the way to Outapi. In true Namibian style, though, the flying could only last for so long. As soon as Anna and I were the only passengers left in the car the driver stopped at the next closest town, kicked us out of his car and packed our bags in another taxi headed for Outapi, one that was already full. We were yet again cramped four-to-a-row in the back seat of a tiny sedan. A rule of thumb here is if the driver can't find a full car of people to go to your destination they simply won't go.


The immense stress, confusion and overall insanity of my weekend trip transformed my bug-infested village home into an oasis of comfort. On Sunday afternoon I was wanting nothing more than to take a nap in my sleeping bag in my own house. Being away from Onakayale taught me very quickly where my home and heart are in Namibia as well as to cherish and appreciate the level of comfort (which in actuality may only be rather miniscule) that I have attained within the last two weeks in Onkayale. Sunday was the first time that I felt truly at home in Onakayale. That night I invited two of my co-workers over for an 'American' dinner. I made a slow-roasted (it cooked for about three hours) vegetable sauce with peppers, onions, tomatoes, some local vegetables, apples and a slew of spices that we ate over spaghetti. It was wonderfully relaxing to spend quiet time in my house. Our dinner conversation circled mostly on American education and other U.S. oddities. We laughed at my passport picture (it was taken five years ago when I was much heavier and had shoulder-length hair) and I created quite a spectacle by 'showing and telling' my contact lenses, something neither of them had ever seen or heard about (the next day at school one of the teachers asked “Griffin are you having those crazy devices in your eyes?”). I was glad to have opened my home, though having seen my English-speaking volunteer friends only hours before I realized that the language barrier makes conversing with Namibians even more difficult than I had previously thought. It's clear that most of the people in my village usually understand about 70-80% of what I say (at best) and even if they clearly have no idea what I am saying they won't ask me to repeat or clarify (the same goes for my students, which poses an even greater challenge). Socializing is a definite challenge in that regard, I sometimes feel like I'm freak-show spectacle trapped in a zoo, though I know with practice and more time spent here I will free myself of that feeling.


Packing patience is the best advice I've gotten about living here in Namibia. Everything is slow, running late and generally not carrying any sense of urgency. Such a pace of living even shows through in the Namibian use of the English word 'now'. Here, saying that something will happen 'now' is like giving a completely indefinite time frame. It may happen in a week but more than likely it just won't happen at all. Saying 'now now' means that the event in question will happen probably today, maybe within the next few hours. 'Now now now' is the only phrase that even remotely relates to the American conception of 'now'. 'Now now now' means that something will happen at this very moment, but even then nobody's rushing.


That being said it is now now now time for me to get back to grading assignments for my 300 students. Thanks for reading and putting up with my rather infrequent updates!


All Best,


Griffin

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Mr. Gaffney, What is Your Dog's Surname?"

NOTES:

  • Sorry for a delayed post, things have been quite busy! Also, there won't be pictures for a while as my internet connection is extremely slow and unreliable.
  • The pictures I put up a few posts ago of my school aren't actually of the school I'm working at. I was mistaken in thinking that I would be working at Nakayale Primary School when in reality I am actually working at Nakayale Combined School (grades 7-10)
  • Lastly, I'm not living with a host family, the plans fell through before I got to my village. I am living alone now in an apartment/guest house owned by the local church.

“Yeah, and after just one week of training I am going to be dropped off alone in a random African village to teach for the whole summer!” I explained to my friends when describing this summer's journey, intentionally eliciting shocked and emotionally charged responses by posing the situation as both grave and utterly horrifying. Now, sitting alone on a bed under a mosquito net, I can not help but to laugh at my former self. Talking the talk is quite a bit different than walking the walk.

“We are here,” said the government driver with whom I had spent 10 hours driving from Namibia's largest city, Windhoek, to the country's desolate Northern regions. In retrospect it was a pretty grueling 10 hours though my sheer excitement and nervousness threw almost all of my discomfort out the window and into the intense African sun. At around 7:30AM this past Friday seven WorldTeach volunteers and I climbed into two trucks filled with all of our belongings for the trek to our Northern work sites. It only takes a few minutes to get out of the small city of Windhoek and into the vast expanse of Namibian nothingness. From 8:00AM to the time I arrived at 5:30PM the only towns I saw were the two in which we stopped for gas. The rest of the time was filled with untouched land as far as the eye could see, something that I found to be eerily refreshing. One-by-one volunteers hopped out of the cars and walked into their new village lives until just one volunteer and myself remained. From that point we split up and headed our own ways leaving just myself and the driver heading to my new home. When I finally arrived at my house my school's principal was patiently waiting for me. “Wa tokelwapo meme (Good evening miss/woman)!” I greeted excitedly. I had a few fleeting minutes of comfort with her and another teacher (who was also awaiting my arrival) and then my door closed, the sun fell and I was alone, sort of. Over the next few hours I spent time with my new co-worker, Wilhelmina, and met some new friends at a local bar as well as a Peace Corp volunteer who also works at my school. At 11PM, after the initial fervor had faded I walked into my new home and was truly alone. That is when shit got real.

My tainted lens of enthusiasm quickly fell to the ground and the truth of my situation flooded my field of vision. All of my senses were heightened and tuned into the new sights and sounds of my African home. Spiders the size of my hand crawled up and down the walls as if my new residence was a haunted house, ants danced at my feet sizing up their new neighbor, and I could hear mice scurrying and laughing at me somewhere in the house. I knew I had really lost the game at that point, Africa 1, Griffin 0. I wanted to cry, yell, call my mom and snuggle with my dog and a stuffed animal all at once. The entire night I distracted myself with unpacking, tidying my house, hanging a mosquito net and desperately seeking anything that could help me to try and forget what was actually happening. I sat in bed until 3AM when my eyes finally closed themselves from exhaustion.

The next morning I called my principal to meet with her at school and discuss my responsibilities, expectations and schedule for the next two months. I foolishly adhered to our 10AM meeting time even though I knew in the back of my mind that to a Namibian 10AM more likely means 10:30 or 11:00. We then spent a few hours working, looking over the school's computer lab and then waited for another teacher to come pick us up and take us to town to buy food. Waiting in the scorching 'winter' sun my principal caught my questioning glares towards the goats roaming freely down the highway. “America is not having the goat?” she asked. “Not exactly,” I said, contemplating how in a land of 'otherized' people I was now the 'other'. We hopped into the bed of a 'bakke' (pickup truck) and flew down the highway into town. Knowing that my refrigerator, freezer and stove/oven were not working I purchased only peanut butter, bread, apples and a good deal of cleaning supplies. That night I spent six hours disinfecting my house, cleaning up bugs, dead bats and years of cooking stains. Even so I still didn't feel at ease in the least bit.

On Sunday I headed to school with my co-worker Wilhelmina and spent the large part of the day cleaning, reorganizing, re-working and bringing back to life the computer lab where I would be teaching the next day. That night I worked on lesson plans for the class and prepared myself for my new students (learners, as they are called here). My task here is to take under my belt the school's 300 students (of grades 7,8,9 and 10) as well as the fifteen staff members in a computer/technology overhaul. With my schedule now I see each class of students (there are 11 classes in total) twice a week during and after school hours and teach the staff about 15 times per week. My curriculum is entirely invented and implemented by me, though it is loosely in line with what the Namibian government wishes to (but is currently struggling to) teach its people about computers.

Monday, my first day at school, was entirely whirlwind. School loosely started at 7:45AM with an assembly of about 1/3 of the school (as many of the students walk for over an hour to get to school arriving late for the other 2/3 of students is quite normal). I felt like I was in a zoo with hundreds of eager, curious and excited eyes staring me down. I had a great time meeting my new co-workers who quickly took me in as their family and I later taught two classes of 7th graders, one class of 8th graders twice, two more classes of 8th graders and two classes of teachers. Our first lesson covered the rules of my classroom, my expectations for students, parts of the computer and even a Powerpoint presentation that I made with pictures of my house, family and Portland.My students gawked at the sight of Portland's buildings, trees and even more so my house and family. In response to the picture of my 'kuku' (grandmother) students shouted “She is only looking maybe 40 years old!” To the picture of my mom coddling our dog buddy they cringed with disgust (dogs here are strictly wild, outdoor animals) and the picture of our house elicited sheer bewilderment and disbelief. “This cannot be your house, it is too large for only four persons!” many exclaimed. In most situations I must say, though, students here are quite timid and shy. During class time it takes quite a bit to get them actively participating.

Across the board things at school aren't perfect, though. As I said, many students walk for hours to get to school, sometimes after having harvested corn/millet in the wee hours of the morning, stay at school from 8AM until 4PM and then promptly get back to manual labor in the afternoon. In Namibia there is no break for lunch because students don't eat during the day. Some kids bring money to buy fried dough and fish from village cooks in the school yard, others bring snacks from home, but most do not eat. All students wear a uniform, though most uniforms are falling apart at best. School buildings have busted out windows, most lack doors and many are falling apart, literally. What gets me the most, though, is how the students smell. I assume that most students don't have running water/showers at home, so most of them come with a olfactory element. Education here is 'old school'. By and large students copy down sentences from blackboards and are blinded by an overemphasis of memorization rather than conceptualization etc. Corporal punishment is often a norm, though it is not a key factor of life at my school (thankfully). To me it seems that students are afraid of teachers. Some of my mannerisms and habits (like raising my voice or being silly) that would be taken as a joke in America seem moderately terrifying to students here. While lining my students up for class two talkative students that in America I would have completely overlooked got a good smack on the head from the vice principal as he walked by. “Mr. Gaffney, these students not paying attention!” he shouted my way.

I'm not sure when, if ever, I will feel at home here over two short months. I am happy, healthy and truly having a great time but there are so many truths of Namibian life that constantly remind me how foreign I am and how I am just barely beginning to skim the surface of understanding the people around me. During my first class I gave students small slips of paper and instructed them to write their names and a question for me. Most learners were overwhelmed with the freedom of being able to ask a teacher anything they wanted to ask but were nonetheless eager to ask away. Of all 200 responses I have read insofar my favorite comes from a student named Matango. Her question reads: “Mr. Gaffney, I am wondering what is the surname of your dog?” Matango's question made me laugh sincerely for the first time since coming to Namibia and reminded me that on a cultural journey like mine sharing time and space on a small scale is infinitely more powerful than seeking to understand the experience as a whole. Two months may not be long enough to feel at home but is far too long of a time to spend ignoring the small steps with my head in the clouds.


All Best,

Griffin

P.S. Some other 'Questions for Mr. Gaffney' that I have enjoyed include:

"Aren't you afraid that your dog will eat you in the night time?"
and
"Can you bring Beyonce to our school?"

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"You usually greet before you take pictures"

Slums of Windhoek, Namibia.

Namibian dance troop.

A goat head at an open air market that I
visited today in the slums of Windhoek, Namibia.

Thoughts

Ongaipi
(ohn-gae-pee) is the the most common greeting used here in Namibia. In Oshiwambo (a native language of Namibia) 'ongaipi' roughly translates to 'How's it going?' but in practice means quite a bit more. In Namibia, greetings and introductions are extremely important. I, for example, greeted a store owner at an open air market today by saying, "May I please take some pictures of your store and your work?" Forgetting that I had not greeted him with a traditional Namibian 'ongaipi' he quickly shot back, "You usually greet before you take pictures." Regardless, I got some amazing snapshots of his sewing and stitching work.

From what I've seen insofar, life here is very slowly paced and personal. A good illustration of this is waiting in line at the store. Not only does it usually take about 2-3 times longer to get through the line at a grocery store, but people literally stand so close to you in the queue that their breath makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand in slight confusion. That being said, the people here are extremely friendly, welcoming and warmhearted. Smiles are to be had in almost all situations, though most faces I see are gawking back at me, confused at the mass of American tourists inundating the city. In such a small city just a few of us being here gives way to a pretty large and entertaining spectacle for the natives.

Happenings

As of yet there has been quite a bit of work going on for us WorldTeach volunteers. Most of our days have been filled with morning to night teaching, cultural and language training. During our free time we usually head into downtown Windhoek (we are currently residing in West Windhoek) or hang out at the hostel, though after dark we've been instructed to stay at the hostel (which is guarded by gates and electric fences) because being mugged or harassed is close to a guarantee at night (for tourists, that is).

This morning we toured the entire city of Windhoek, from the slums to the Hollywood-Hills emulating wealthy sections of the town. Being in the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods was like a small glimpse into a world that I have never before seen. It almost felt like I was living in a 'Save the Children' commercial. Festering smells of human waste were sometimes inescapable and almost all homes and businesses were made of recycled cars, shipping containers and other such materials. Most residents were more than surprised to see a large group of wealthy, white Americans walking through their once Apartheid-stricken neighborhood. The tone was welcoming, though, not resentful. I confirmed this with some Namibian friends who we had met at a party (a 'Braii,' which is a traditional Namibian barbecue) the night before and who joined us on our tour and later gave me the Oshiwambo name of Tangi (tahn-gee (gee like geese)), which means 'Thank You'.

From that point we toured an open air market where I played casual games of soccer with passing children, met a group of women at a hair salon who asked for my hand in marriage and as described above, made a fool of myself for forgetting to say a proper greeting to a man making clothes. Amongst the dried caterpillars, fruits, vegetables and textiles was an extremely large selection of fresh cut meat. Entire goats and other animals laid on tables being slain in front of customers, chopped up and cooked for hundreds of excited and hungry Sunday morning passersby.

Tonight at the hostel we were joined by a traditional Namibian dance group. I spent about half of the performance trying to figure out how to recored video on my camera but was completely unsuccessful and will have to leave readers with just a picture and the vote of confidence that the performance was quite possibly one of the most stunning and beautiful things I've seen, though not for the technical aspects. The cultural newness and vividness of experiencing such a performance in Africa made it moving and exciting.

I plan to keep updating when and if I have time over the coming weeks and hope to have even more time to be able to post not only what is happening here but also my thoughts and understandings about the happenings.

So are the days here during orientation. We spend a lot of time working and preparing for the adventures that are to come, but for now we're somewhat stuck in a somewhat liminal stage. Next Friday I'll finally be heading to a small and rural town called Outapi. I'll be spending the rest of my summer there, so I'm pretty excited for Friday to come so I can finally settle in. Outapi is about 7 hours driving away from Windhoek.

All Best.