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,



  1. Wow. That is really, really interesting. I've never thought about it that way, but you're completely right about their lifestyle being different, but not better or worse. I suppose Save the Children ads don't really help that...

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  3. Amazing stories and great details of the events. I'm so proud of you and so enjoy the blogs. I love the one about hanging up your laundry to dry. I do remember the time I did the laundry and hung it on the clothes line to dry. Thanks for keeping us in the loop of your travels.
    Love you so much, G-Ma

  4. Griffin-that was amazing and you are certainly learning skills that will last a lifetime and beyond. Henry and I just read the post together and he cannot believe this event that happened. Thanks for sharing and giving me great content to share with Henry. We are both learning a lot. All the best and we look forward your posts!

  5. I thought that was a very interesting post and very insightful as to how we could actually provide aid. I think it is sad when people do not consider that the reason Africa is not better off today is because of history--like the slave trade and imperialism in the nineteenth century.