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,



  1. Griffin, Great post! I love the details...especially the bar scenes. mom

  2. What a great read! Your writing is really engaging, and I enjoyed hearing bits and pieces about the culture there.

  3. love it..keep up the great work and the posts coming. super proud of you, uncle D.

  4. We love hearing all the details, thanks.
    You're doing great; stay strong. Rachel