Tuesday, June 15, 2010

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


  • 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,


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?"
"Can you bring Beyonce to our school?"


  1. Keep the updates coming...Dad...:)

  2. Griffin,

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog updates so I hope that, despite the frustrations of an unreliable internet service, you'll continue to share your teaching and cultural experiences with us on a regular basis.

    My aunt, who is a high school teacher, goes to Zambia with her students every summer and absolutely loves it there. Because she lives in Seattle I don't get to hear much about her adventures, but from the sound of it her interactions with all the warm-hearted Zambian people are the most memorable experiences of all. I particularly enjoyed reading your post about the truck drivers who cheered you along as you ran, and hope you will continue to meet some life-changing friends during your stay ('dunno how life-changing those truck drivers were, but I'm sure you catch my drift).

    You're a great writer, and I can't wait to read more! Take care to avoid those spiders-- ick.


  3. Oh, and by the way-- even I sometimes get scared when you raise your voice/act silly. ;)

  4. Griffin! It's Teresa!

    Hang in there Griffin! If anyone can do this, it's you! Oh and hopefully when I get to England and we're in the same time zone, we can talk more! Good luck, and watch out for those spiders!