In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Namibia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Namibia.
Outside of Namibia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Namibia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Namibia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Overview of Diversity in Namibia
The Peace Corps staff in Namibia recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Namibia has made great strides in gender equity in the government and the private sector. Women hold ministerial portfolios and senior-level government and private sector posts. However, less educated women at the lower ends of the socioeconomic scale tend to have less authority and control over income, spending, and reproductive health. This situation is driven as much by the lingering pattern of migratory labor (i.e., adult males working away from the homestead) as by tradition. Thus, many rural communities do not have much experience with women who take on professional roles, remain unmarried, and live away from their families. Because of the differences in cultural norms for women and men, female Volunteers may receive unwanted sexual attention and need to practice discretion in public (e.g., not smoking or drinking).
“At break time, the male and female teachers generally do not hang out together. I generally choose to hang out with the male teachers because they make me feel more welcome, they translate more, and the conversation is usually friendly, with light joking. Also, more of the men are educated and know English, and the women often lack confidence in their English skills.”
“Most of the social life in town centers takes place in the bars. However, there are not many women at the bars, and as a teacher, it would not be appropriate for me to go alone. I’ve asked, ‘Where do the women spend their Friday and Saturday nights?’ The answer is generally ‘at home’—cooking, washing, and taking care of the kids. Also, it’s more appropriate for women to drink in the privacy of their own homes.”
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Stereotypical notions of Americans often exclude people of color. Therefore, Volunteers of color often are identified by their cultural heritage or are simply ignored in a setting where most Volunteers conform to the “blond-haired and blue-eyed” stereotype. In addition, you may feel isolated in your training group if there are few other minority trainees.
African Americans may face higher expectations for their performance, especially in acquiring language and adapting to local norms. Asian Americans are often grouped with Chinese regardless of their actual background and face stereotypes resulting from Namibia’s current involvement with Asian countries or the presence of Asian merchants in the community. All groups are affected by the impact of popular culture on perceptions of minority groups.
“One thing I’ve experienced is surprise, stares, and stereotypes because of my Asian features. It’s pretty easy to pick out the word oshilumbu (white or foreigner), and even more grating is the word China. I never respond to it, but I do know that people are talking about me, and I’ve encountered some pretty vocal disbelief about my true origin in America. I go up and down with ignoring comments, being annoyed, or laughing about them. There is one stereotype that cracks me up: My Meme told me that I needn’t be afraid when I walk around Oshakati because ‘everyone thinks you know karate.’ Though I still look out for botsotsos (thieves), that stereotype gives me an advantage, I guess.”
“To Namibians, living in America is such a dream, and they feel some sort of connection with African Americans. But all the Volunteers they have had here have been of European descent, so they ask me questions about African Americans and seem fascinated with the concept.”
“I try to understand how oshilumbu should be translated. In general, people say it means white. My learners would probably tell you I’m oshilumbu, which is a surprise to me, having spent the last quarter-plus century calling myself black. Once I got over the shock, I couldn’t help feeling offended. I guess it goes back to the days when one of the worst taunts for a young math-and-science geek was accusing her of trying to act white.”
“There is an uncomfortable way Afrikaners treat me as a white person. I was on a school athletics trip, and we stopped at a service station. The owner saw me standing in line to buy a cool drink. He motioned for me to come to the back. He chatted with me for a bit, was incredibly friendly, and gave me a cool drink. Afterward, the other teachers asked me what he wanted. It makes it hard to fit in with my community and let them know that I’m one of them when Afrikaners single me out like that.”
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Senior Volunteers will find their age an asset in the Namibian context. They will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. On the other hand, they will be in a distinct minority within the Volunteer population and could find themselves feeling isolated, looked up to, or ignored. Seniors are often accustomed to a greater degree of independence and freedom of movement than the Peace Corps’ program focus and safety and security practices allow. Pre-service training can be particularly stressful for seniors, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality has been the topic of much heated debate in Namibia. Human rights proponents argue that the Constitution protects individuals regardless of sexual orientation, while others argue that homosexual behavior is unnatural and, as such, should be deemed criminal. Homosexual or bisexual Volunteers may discover they cannot be open about their sexual orientation in their community. In addition, they may serve for two years without meeting another gay or bisexual Volunteer. Peace Corps/Namibia is committed to ensuring that staff members understand the particular support needs of homosexual and bisexual Volunteers.
“The Peace Corps book they sent us when we were still in the States mentioned that one thing homosexual Volunteers might have to face was never coming out to their communities. That didn’t really seem to be a problem: I don’t go up to random acquaintances and say, ‘Hey, I’m a lesbian you know.’ One day, I was with my host parents when we saw some old friends of theirs. They had gone through life at the same pace, and both families had three sons of about the same ages. Tate then said, ‘Now we have a daughter.’ So now I have another family. If one day I’m lucky enough to find a woman and do the family thing, I wonder which would be worse: never mentioning her when I write to Meme and Tate or telling them about her and losing this new family.”
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Churches play a vital role in the life of most rural communities in Namibia. As such, they are social as well as religious institutions, and you will find them to be a source of information and support regarding community events and practices. Community members frequently ask Volunteers about their religious affiliation and may expect them to attend a community church. Volunteers not in the practice of attending Christian churches may be challenged to explain a decision not to attend.
“I remember distinctly my site visit and the question, ‘Are you Lutheran or Catholic?’ I simply don’t practice organized religion, and so any questions on that order make me uncomfortable for fear of offending someone or being judged negatively. Morning devotion every day at school has been nothing but awkward, and I still find it difficult to talk about and share my religious beliefs with Namibians.”
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Namibia, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. While it is not uncommon to meet Namibians who have lost a limb in war, Namibia has very little infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities. That being said, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of serving in Namibia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Namibia staff will work with disabled individuals to make reasonable accommodations to enable them to serve safely and effectively.