Welcome Letters from Volunteers

When I was in school in California in the ‘60s, it was common to talk about taking a course, or even majoring, in “underwater basket weaving” as if it were a total cop out – so easy that it was only for those who couldn’t withstand the pressure of “real” subjects. Trust me, basket weaving in Shambyu, Namibia, though not underwater (thank god!), is definitely not a cop out. In fact, it may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted.

But first, a bit of background. I am a health volunteer (HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention) living on the grounds of a Roman Catholic mission in rural Namibia, near the community health centre. One of the first people to invite me over was Sister Adelheidis, a German nun who has lived and worked here since 2002. As I was soon to find out, her personal charity is supporting the local basket weavers. She uses donations from friends in Germany to purchase baskets from the local women and has done so for years. In fact, Wednesday has turned into market day on the mission; anywhere from eight to over 20 women show up faithfully between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. to sell their wares in the nuns’ garden.

Being an only partially-reformed shopaholic and lover of all handicrafts, I asked what she did with all the baskets. Instead of answering, she ushered me into a catch-all room off the dining area and opened a huge, floor-to-ceiling closet. Baskets – literally hundreds of them in all sizes and shapes and patterns – tumbled out! As luck would have it, we’d just received our trimester allowance and, figuring I could eat cereal for dinner for weeks if need be, I spent a considerable portion of it right then and there.

My tiny, round room (I live in a concrete hut – separate kitchen and bathroom facilities are a short distance away, across a patch of sand) was soon wall to wall baskets. Obviously, however, due to both spatial and financial constraints, my purchases could in no way support the local basket weaving community. So when Sister told me she was due to retire in July 2008, I knew we (I!) had to do something. The picture of market day on the mission and no Sister there to buy baskets, was just too depressing. And, so, serendipitously, I fell into my first secondary Peace Corps project – finding a sustainable market for the local basket weavers.

In order to do this properly, I figured I needed to learn how to basket weave in order to understand the time, effort, and costs that go into the baskets and to be able to “sell the story,” along with the baskets. I also thought it would be a great way to really integrate, get some one-on-one language practice and provide a small, supplementary income for one of the weavers.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans … First of all, language. Magdalena, the spry, 67-year old basket weaver I chose to be my teacher, turned out to be a native Nyemba speaker, as are most of the weavers. So much for improving my Rushambyu! Next, income. We went along fine for a couple of months until one day, with the help of a translator, she made it known that we couldn’t have any more lessons because the women in her village were jealous and had stopped speaking to her! That was hard for me to understand – I’d meant so well. And I had looked forward to Magdalena’s Saturday morning visits whenever I was at site – we’d sit on the sand under a tree and weave, talk, and laugh (mainly at my lack of weaving ability!). I’d take pictures and provide a simple lunch; sometimes she’d bring a grandchild or two.

That said, if I’m really honest, I have to admit the timing was perfect – for stopping the lessons that is. I’d come to realize that basket weaving is truly an art – one I will never master! After several hours a morning for I don’t know how many Saturdays, I ended up with a small, flat basket – slightly larger than a coaster. It is almost perfect – thanks to the fact that Magdalena was a strict, proud teacher and would pull out most of my work and order me to do it again! But it is very small and when one considers the time involved, well, it’s priceless.

To be fair, the integration part worked wonderfully. I have been to Magdalena’s home twice and eaten mahangu (millet) porridge and mutete (a wild spinach-like green) with her and her extended family (the first time I was even offered a rooster!). We have come to know each other quite well and I consider her a friend. The fact that whenever she’s at the health centre and catches sight of me, her face lights up and she throws her arm around me, and tells me she feels the same way.

And, as for the secondary project part, well that has a happy ending too. With the help of the Namibia Craft Centre, we held a weeklong quality and design workshop for basket weavers in Shambyu last November and the craft centre has agreed to buy all the baskets that meet its standards. Best of all in terms of sustainability is that there is now a system in place whereby the weavers can sell directly to Christina and Agnes – two Namibian women who will come to the mission once a month and purchase the baskets directly and then grade and send them to the craft centre in Windhoek.

So this story definitely has a happy ending: Sister Adelheidis can retire knowing that her beloved basket weavers have a market and I have found other worthwhile projects to work on. I just hope that Magdalena will continue to visit me and that she and some of the other women will bring a very special basket or two to the mission now and again to offer to me first.

I have also sent baskets to a friend in California who sells them at fancy prices and sends the profit back to Namibia. That money is being used to pay for driving lessons for four young people from an HIV/AIDS awareness group I work with. But that’s another story …

—Kami Lee

Today when I was sitting in my room playing guitar I saw three pigs calmly walk past my window. I’m pretty used to seeing animals at Kahenge. I’ve had goats enter the classroom, seen donkeys eating at my trash pile and even found foot-long lizards in my bedroom! Donkeys, cattle, goats, little naked children, and even the stray chicken. These are all things I’m used to seeing. And now there are pigs roaming free.

My life in the Kavango region as an education Volunteer has been intense. Intense heat, intense insects and intense friendliness from the local people. During site visit my community decided to throw a welcoming party for me. They took out all of the stops, slaughtering a goat, performing a cultural dance, and presenting a performance from the school choir. My principal gave a speech thanking me for coming to the school and I even danced with some of the village’s elder women!

The beauty of the Kavango is what really gets me. From November to March it just POURS rain. The countryside becomes green everywhere. Farmers are plowing the earth to grow millet and maize. The small boys run around cracking whips at their cattle and goat herds, which are busy getting fat by eating the thick grass. On the weekends I like to take a walk along the Kavango River, which is about a kilometer from my house. All along the banks young girls are washing their clothes and men catch fish with reed baskets. And yes, there are crocodiles and hippos in the river. I’ve seen both personally.

I have found it to be a challenging experience to work in a Kavango school. On one hand, the principal, teachers, and community have been very friendly and supportive. My opinion is generally respected and consequently I’m able to exert power over school issues. However, there are really some problems at the school, notably, teacher absenteeism, run-down facilities, and corruption. Just in my first year of teaching I’ve observed the following: a teacher having an affair with a 10th-grade student, hostel workers stealing food and selling it, and teachers absent from school for weeks. Our students come from poor backgrounds. Many are unable to buy basic school supplies or pay their fees. I’m asked almost every day for food or money. All of these issues can become really wearing on a volunteer. How much is the volunteer expected to give? You begin to even grow cynical about the “true’” intentions of others.

Finally, to end on a high note, the students themselves are great to work with. They are very motivated and disciplined. They will become your best friends (if you let them). Even though they have so little, they very rarely complain.

I am very happy to be in the Kavango region. Its combination of local friendliness, beautiful scenery, and underdevelopment make it quite a unique place. I’m very satisfied with my placement and feel like I’m getting an immersive and important experience.

—Benjamin Sigrin

An Owambo wedding is a weeklong event, beginning with an announcement at church the Sunday before the ceremony. On the morning of the wedding, there is a ceremony at church, followed by a reception at the groom’s parents’ house and, a day later, a second reception at the bride’s parent’s house, usually in another village. Most people only go to the reception in their village. You don’t need an invitation – you just have to be acquainted with a relative or someone who is invited.

Everyone told me this wedding was going to be the biggest party of the year, and they weren’t kidding. I arrived at Tate Shilumbu’s house at about 10 a.m. The wedding party wasn’t expected to arrive until late afternoon, but already there were hundreds of people. Nine cattle and twice as many goats had been slaughtered, and huge pots were boiling with rice, pasta, and potatoes.

I can’t quite figure out what I’m supposed to be doing. Everybody else is bustling around the homestead, fetching water, cooking food, storing the soda in cool places. I’ve tried cooking, but I burn the food on the open fire; I’ve tried making potato salad, but I don’t include enough mayonnaise to the locals’ liking; I’ve tried serving people drinks, but I can’t seem to figure out who is entitled to which drinks, so I decide to wander.

I come across a group of six kukus, or old ladies, crammed across a couch in one of the rooms. When they see me, the ladies burst into joyous singing and dancing, and they invite me inside to join them. One of the kukus is trying to teach me how to dance. She is blowing a whistle on a triple beat and bouncing from one foot to the other. I can follow her dance, and I can blow the whistle to the correct beat, but I can’t perform both tasks simultaneously. The kukus take delight and laugh at my mistakes and become more jubilant, though I can’t decide if they’re celebrating the wedding or my errors.

Finally, the wedding party arrives. When the bride and groom arrive, everyone rushes outside to the gate to greet the newlyweds. There must be over a thousand people by now. Everybody is in a huge mob surrounding the bride and groom, singing, dancing, and blowing whistles. Women in the crowd give out a shrill, high pitched “lalalalalalalalala” cry that cannot be reproduced in text. It sounds like an Indian war cry you might hear on “Last of the Mohicans,” only it means the women are happy. They progress down the road in this manner, swinging horse tails and palm branches in the air. It’s a true celebration!

When they reach the house and all the singing, dancing, and “lalala” crying has died down, there is a presentation of gifts. I am now debating if I want a registry for my own wedding or if I want to be surprised by the hocus-pocus people bring like they do here. Although gifts seem random to the foreign eye, they are actually quite practical for a couple creating a new home in Namibia: an ax to cut down trees, a cauldron to cook over an open fire, a rake, broom, chairs … any home furnishings are completely acceptable gifts. Following the presentation of gifts, everyone moves into big circus-like tents that have been rented for the occasion, where good food and drinks are served. This continues for several hours until everyone is drunk and merry, at which point they make their way home.

I am happily invited to another wedding in just two weeks. I even received my own invitation, “Miss Perry and partner,” meaning I get first dibs on the food. Anyone who can get to Namibia in two weeks is welcome to be my plus one.

— Elise Perry

You can feel so alone when you haven’t left the village for quite some time. And when its 8:30 on a Saturday night and the family’s stereo, which is always tuned to Oshiwambo radio, is, for some strange reason, playing Phil Collins’ “Just One More Night,” it will make you feel much lonelier than you were before the song began. It always seems to be a song that will enhance your sad feelings, make you want to cry and think of the things that were once called home.

It’s found in the small things. I often question what legacy I will leave behind. Either way, there’s no turning back now. My perception has changed, as well as my beliefs; however, the young children I work with every day always manage to put a smile on my face.

The school was in shambles when I first arrived. There was no apparent leadership and everything was unorganized, from staff meetings to the bookshelf. Hey, this is Africa, I kept telling myself, and things continued as they were. I refused my underlying ambitions to surface. It wasn’t until, “Hey, this is home” when I desired to create something new. That was second term and five months into my service.

Let’s build a chicken coop. The idea was blossomed by a selfish desire: I wanted eggs. Eggs are difficult to get from town back to the village. You have to protect them as if you are the hen itself. It was difficult enough finding a lift. Some days I would be in four or five different cars, in the back of bakkies with 20 other people, or just waiting for a lift sometimes for three hours or more. The last thing I wanted was the responsibility of protecting six measly eggs.

I recognized the need for an afterschool program. I talked the “chicken house” idea over with a few of my most clever students. They gave me the confidence to take it a step further. I started the business club. I had never started a club before and had no real plans for the future. I just wanted eggs. Many students joined and, in no time, we were electing club representatives and finding new innovative ways of making money: saving to pay for the “chicken house.” The club grew popular and more students were wanting to join; teachers wanted to join.

It’s now in its second year. We have earned enough money to build the “chicken house” and have extra to pay for a trip to Etosha Game Park.

Today the club and I walked through the bush in the midday sun, crossed knee-deep waters, with our hoes slung over our shoulders. We were working in the village. “Sir, can you swim?” “Do you know how to hoe?” “Do you know how to drive a bike?” their curiosity would compel them to gently ask me. We worked hard, sweat dripping from our faces. We joked and laughed together. We had fun. A small girl on the homestead we were working at followed me around and couldn’t stop staring at me. I was her first oshilumbu (white person). Her fascination was evident and I was making her laugh.

On the way home, walking past the same homesteads I passed just hours earlier, the kids’ spirits were still filled with joy, as they slowly disappeared into the bush one by one on their way home. Soon I was all alone, walking my own path. I took pleasure in watching the sun melt into the distant horizon, highlighting the thunderheads behind me with a magnificent ruby orange. Small boys were bringing in their goat herds. The sounds of thunder made me chuckle as I remembered the time a whole herd of goats broke into Grade Five’s classroom to escape the night’s downpour. The goats ate the books and sprinkled the floor with their droppings.

I soon came to the pastor’s homestead. The lot was now vacant. It was a missed opportunity I regrettably failed to capitalize on. His pre-independence stories were rich and honest. Now he’s gone and so are the many stories I never found time to hear. Approaching my own home I was greeted by my dog Booty. Whenever I’m in sight, he runs straight toward me, wagging his tail. Today he was giving me one of his famous smiles that looks more like an angry growl. I was home.

It’s these small delights that have kept me above ground: frustrations are matched with unexpected simple pleasures. Both will surprise you and make you come alive.

— Jeremy Waldron

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