Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Week Fourteen: Coming Home

By: Rachel Briegel

Today I decided to go into town, both to do some last minute souvenir shopping for friends and family and, more importantly, to figure out how I am ever going to leave this incredible country, and the people I’ve come to know as my Namibian family. With some money, a book, and my journal in tow, I headed to one of my favorite areas of Windhoek, The Craft Center. Here I perused the shops and made some purchases before settling into a café to think over the upcoming week, our last here in Windhoek.

As I nibbled on the piece of carrot cake I’d ordered for my breakfast, I looked over the balcony of the café at this lovely city I’ve become so familiar with. I thought about the handful of people I recognized on my short stroll through the shops, of the woman who greeted me with a “Wa la le po nawa” and smiled as I responded with an “Eyeh”. I thought of how I hailed a taxi to cross the city, something three months ago I would have been completely uncomfortable doing; of the blanket of heat that stuck to my body, once so foreign, now a familiar companion despite my constant state of sunburn. Slowly, my mind starts to withdraw deeper into itself, and my fork pauses midway through the soft cake.

Before I came on this trip, I was told by various friends and family members that I would have predicable bouts of homesickness- that I would look at a map and see how far from home I was and panic. Looking back, I realize that never happened to me. It’s probably for a combination of reasons, but besides feeling so at home in Windhoek, I think it’s because I just haven’t had time to be homesick. Ever since we got off the plane in Johannesburg, we have been constantly learning and engaging with this community. I’ve been on rooftops discussing Southern Africa’s history, in churches that stood up for social change (and against it), and in communities where whole neighborhoods share a single water pump. I’ve felt my eyes sting with tears listening to children sing about Universal Children’s Rights, and an activist for HIV/Aids survivors discussing the inhuman acts committed against these people. I’ve been on top of mountains and waterfalls, and frolicked through oceans and sand dunes. For these three short months I’ve felt more fulfilled that perhaps the past twenty years. My whole world view has changed, and I feel as if Namibia has molded me into a completely new person.

I thought I was very privileged to not have to battle homesickness while on my trip, but recently I’ve found out I had prejudged myself. Just a few nights ago I wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t sleep so I started walking around the house. I ended up on our balcony looking up at the dark sky speckled with stars, and suddenly sank to the floor clutching the railing, overwhelmed with emotion, wondering how I was ever going to leave this place? I had finally gotten hit with homesickness, but it was for a home I hadn’t even left yet.

A group selfie with some of the gang in front of Parliament.
This morning I had purposely set off by myself in the hopes of thinking through these things, and although I am normally a fairly independent person, it was very strange being alone in this cafe. For the past three months I have been constantly surrounded by a group of intelligent, compassionate, and extremely thoughtful individuals. I can’t quite remember what my first impressions of them were, but thinking back before I knew any of them, my only hopes were that they would be kind, and interested in the things I was interested in. My hopes have been tremendously exceeded. With this small group I have witnessed both human tragedies, and some of the most beautiful sights in the world. Together we have cried and raged, laughed and danced. We have shared our inner demons, and future aspirations. Because of these people, their wise observations and our late night conversations under the stars, I have become a better and stronger person. Undeniably, another reason I’ve become so painfully homesick for Namibia is that when I leave 5 Simpson St., I will also have to leave behind these wonderful individuals.

Despite these troubling thoughts, I know I must return home. It would be selfish to remain in this country, where I have learned an immense amount and contributed only slightly. Namibia does not need me here as much as I wish it did. I have learned throughout this semester that the best way I can help this country, any area of the world that has a terrible history of oppression, is to return home and tell my friends, my family, and my classmates about all I have learned and seen. And I know I will not be alone with this quest, as I will have six very good friends off in their separate areas of America spreading the same message.

Our home for the semester.
I quickly finish scribbling my thoughts in my journal as the waitress comes to pick up my plate with the messy remains of the carrot cake. Getting up to pay the bill, I smile genuinely as I am now able to see not just my present state of bliss, but my entire future much more clearly. With a new found resolve and heavy bags of souvenirs, I return back to my home at 5 Simpson St. ready to fully embrace this final week of the semester that changed my life. 
To my dear friends, and others who might be struggling to figure out how to conduct their lives in this harsh world we live in, I’d like to end our semester’s blog with a quote from Maya Angelou: “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

Just keep on keeping on, kids.


Week Thirteen: Finding an Antidote to Hopelessness

By: Emily Campbell

Three months ago, we sat in a large Methodist Church in the center of Cape Town, transfixed by the words of Reverend Alan Storey. The insights he shared have stuck with our group throughout our time in Southern Africa and this week, his idea that we are “addicted to hope,” ran through my head again and again. Right now, I feel pretty hopeless. Every time I read a headline, I seem to lose faith in the world we live in. Terrorist attacks in Paris, civilians taken hostage at a hotel in Mali, dozens of American governors refusing to accept Syrian refugees, people denying the existence of racism on college campuses, and close to home for many of us, the shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. The world didn’t give me much to be hopeful about this week.

As all of these events continue to fill my newsfeed and consume my time as I read about them. I have felt stagnant. I’ve spent the semester learning about social change, about development, racism, and resistance. And yet I couldn’t seem to find any way that what I’ve learned here could create meaningful change in a world that seems so broken.  Maybe Alan Storey was right. I am addicted to hope, and without it, I struggle to see any path to progress. 

On Tuesday, we had our final development class in which we read “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” a speech Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in April, 1967. The speech seemed incredibly relevant to our present day situation. And instead of giving me hope, the speech only seemed to further push me into the spiral of hopelessness. Why, nearly 50 years after Dr. King so poignantly warned us about “being on the wrong side of a revolution,” do we continue to make the same mistakes? King wrote, “this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges.” When I read this, I wasn’t thinking of Vietnam. I was thinking of each of the headlines I’d read that morning and asking myself why we aren’t moving forward. 

As my knowledge of South African and Namibian history has grown, I’ve learned about two countries that have made a lot of progress in only a few decades. Both countries have grown significantly since freeing themselves of apartheid rule in the early nineties. But as we’ve learned how much things have changed, we’ve also learned how little things have actually changed. Both nations exist in a state of “economic apartheid.” While racially biased laws are no longer in place, little has been done to change the economic situation of formally oppressed people. As such, I could probably replace the term “formally oppressed people” with the phrase “historically and presently oppressed people.” I want to take the title “Rainbow Nation” at face value, but my time in Southern Africa has shown me how similar Namibia, South Africa, and the United States are in their inability to truly establish racial and economic equality.  

Annie and I attempt to overcome hopelessness by working with
a coalition that seeks an end to gender-based violence.
[Designs by Annie Dierberger]
In my search to rediscover hope, I sought out local activists. Annie and I began volunteering with Women’s Solidarity Namibia, an organization that we visited for class a few weeks earlier. They’re currently preparing for 16 Days of Activism, a worldwide event that draws attention to gender-based and sexual violence. We designed promotional materials and prepared a newsletter for the organization. As I did research for their newsletter, I read statistic after statistic that told me that gender-based violence both in Southern Africa and worldwide is not dissipating, but rather growing in its prevalence. Despite the hard work of people the world over, this devastating problem continues to worsen. Reading these statistics slowly chipped away at the hope I held in a system of grassroots activism. 

And so as we sat in development, discussing Dr. King’s speech, current events, and the inevitable reality that soon we’ll be boarding a plane back to the United States, I reflected on my inabilities to see the positive in a world that seems to continually highlight the negative. But, as they have every other time I’ve dramatically claimed the world is falling apart, my classmates reminded me that this world is not hopeless. For every heartbreaking headline I read and every racist post I saw on Facebook, there was a headline about activists promoting justice and change, a classmate who had chosen to take action where they saw injustice in our world. Women’s Solidarity Namibia may not have ended gender-based violence, but through a staff of two people, they have managed to provide shelter to survivors of violence, to educate men and women alike about preventing violence, and to lobby in parliament for legal change. Small things like these began to pour some light into the darkness that had consumed my worldview. Maybe these people are clinging to the hope I seem to have lost or maybe they too feel a little hopeless, but have refused to let their hopeless justify inaction. Ultimately, I don’t think being addicted to hope is a bad thing. Without hope, we may all end up in that spiral of hopelessness and inaction in which I have felt trapped. 

We attempt to overcome hopelessness by standing with
protesters back home, even when we’re 12,000 miles away. 
I had intended to end this blog post with a hopeful and somewhat cheesy story of finding hope in a broken world. But instead, I’d like to end it with a call to action. If you’re feeling hopeless, do not succumb to the darkness in the world around you, but find hope through action, through surrounding yourself with people who truly seek to address the problems they see. March with Black Lives Matter. Write your representatives about taking in Syrian refugees. Design promotional material for an NGO about which you feel passionate. Allow yourself to occasionally wallow in hopelessness, but do not let it trap you. As Gertrude Stein once said “the artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Whatever your antidote may be, it’s time to start pursuing it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Week Twelve: Here and Now

By: Amanda Knipple

To start out the week, we had our Community Meeting on Sunday evening. Grace and I were this week’s community leaders and we (okay well, mostly I) requested that everyone come dressed as a political figure of their choice. This combined some of my favorite things about our group: our knowledge of and willingness to discuss politics, and of course our sense of humor. With very short notice and very limited wardrobes, our group pulled together a lovely hodge-podge of political figures. It’s been a running joke among our group that I’ll be running for president in 2044 so we all laughed when Grace showed up dressed like me.

Left to right: Former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter
and George W. Bush, Future President Amanda Knipple.
We’ve reached that point in the semester where we’re beginning to look towards home. Obligations call us away from Windhoek as we busy ourselves with picking next semester’s classes and housing, and as we try to apply for spring or summer jobs in the ever competitive US job market. It’s a struggle to remember to be present in the here and the now when life so constantly demands that you keep moving forward. Among the barrage of 'what’s next for you', there lies the pressure to constantly know where life is taking you and what your next step is. But there’s a beauty in not knowing and a peace in admitting that you don’t need to know right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, but I am convinced that this trip has changed the way I see it, and the way that I approach it. I’ve had all my power taken away while at the mercy of my rural homestay parents, in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by a language that I don’t speak. I’ve seen problems that have no easy solutions, as well as well-meaning solutions that not even begin to address the true problems. I’ve learned that it’s not always my place to have an answer. I’ve become content with not knowing.

One of the highlights of this week was a panel that our lovely internship teacher Linda put together for us. She searched all over Windhoek for Americans that are living and working here and rounded them up so they could tell us their stories. What they had to say really solidified the idea that there is no right or wrong way to go about living your life. Everybody on that panel had a different story, took a different path, and wound up doing amazing things over the course of their life (and are still going!) Sometimes a normal course of action won’t be the one that fits into your life. It’s okay to chase that outrageous dream you have. It’s okay to not go down the road that you are expected to. It’s okay to not know what’s next, because you still have now.

It’s a topic that has come up a few times before this: being present in what you’ve been given and not taking things for granted.  We all know how lucky we are just to be here.  It’s an opportunity that we will most likely never have again. Many of us don’t know what we’re doing next. Of course, we could probably tell you what classes we’re taking next semester, and that we plan to graduate college, but that’s probably about it. We have issues that we care about, and I can tell you that we’re all passionate people, but the paths that we are going to embark on are still a mystery.
But that’s okay.

In 2044, you might see me running for president. Maybe I’ll be married with kids. Maybe I’ll follow the lead of the panelists and work overseas somewhere. The world is full of possibilities and I’m glad that we’re choosing not to limit ourselves. Let me tell you, this group is going to do amazing things. They’re change makers.

But for now, we can’t focus on that. We can’t lose sight of the small amount of time that we have left together. There are projects to finish, conversations to be had, places to go, and jokes to be made. Windhoek will be here forever, but we won’t. In the wise (or not so wise-you decide) words of our resident philosopher/advisor Attila: “this is the future.”  With only three weeks left, I plan on living out every moment and not letting anything go to waste. Next semester can wait. The rest of my life doesn’t have to be planned. I’m content to just pass the time with these amazing people that I’m surrounded with.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Week Eleven: Living an Ethical Life in an Inherently Broken World

By: Grace Corbin

We were on our way to an organic farm for Development class, discussing the pros and cons of genetically modified food versus organic food when somehow we came upon the topic of knowing when we are doing the ‘right’ thing. Then Linda reminded us of an idea she had previously shared. She talked about the inevitable obligation that we have to certain institutions in the world. Linda told us of a time when she was reading a book about CEOs. The book explained how CEOs really want to do the right thing, but they are bound by law to make a profit for their shareholders. She thought, ‘who are these shareholders that need all of this money?’ Then later she logged onto her IRA account and realized that she was a shareholder. Being the curious and mindful person that she is, she called her IRA company to try and figure out where her money is and what she’s supporting. Later in the conversation she asked her friendly agent, “So, how do I save for retirement and sleep well at night?” And the agent responded, “Oh, honey, that’s the question of the century!”

We spent a morning at Graceland Farms learning about
organic farming for our Development class.
Isn’t that funny? We do our best to try and do the right thing to find out that unseen evils are undermining us. How do we live a TRULY ethical life today, in our inherently broken word, with systems that run on greed? The answer is, simply, we don’t. We cannot live a truly ethical life because we are broken humans living in a broken, messed up world—but we can try our best.

I have been struggling with my faith immensely for a couple of years. There are many different reasons behind that, but part of it has been due to the inaction of the church on social issues. Currently, things are looking up and the church body I ascribe to in the United States is addressing more and more social issues, but it seems Namibia is still seeing a lack of action from the Christian Church on social issues.

My belief in the inaction of the church on social issues was confirmed by a Lutheran pastor in the area, Mr. Gurirab. He spoke to our religion class about the church and social change in Namibia. He talked about how Christianity in Namibia has led people to look more toward salvation and less toward issues in the world. The church doesn’t say a word about socio-economic issues, the 1904-1908 Herero genocide, distribution of wealth, or any issues. He believes church leaders have been quiet due to their involvement in the government. Why do people who are a part of the government not speak up against injustice? Because they are afraid of what the government will do if they have workers who decide to speak about their opposing viewpoints. I don’t want to blame the people, I am blaming the system because it’s run on greed, made to help people who have the most and oppress those that have little. I genuinely believe that most people in the world are trying to do what they believe is the right thing, but they are caught in a system that does not always allow that.

In this world where there is so much violence, hate, fear, and greed, sometimes it’s hard to find all the good things people are doing in their lives in the name of social justice. However, even in the middle of this broken system, people are finding ways to fight for justice. For a Development class earlier in the week we went to an organization called Women’s Solidarity. This organization, established in 1989, is a place for women in Namibia to have a voice on women’s issues. The organization focuses a lot on gender-based violence. The woman in charge, Rosa, would like to make the new house they moved into a place where teen mothers could come and stay if they are in need of a caring environment to live. Women’s Solidarity is not the only organization working for social justice in Namibia; there are many. Another institution working for change and innovation is the Habitat Research and Development Center. The Center takes recycled materials from around Windhoek and creates infrastructure, and practical everyday items with the things they collect. The things that they create are ingenious. They have tires, foam, bottles, and sandbags for walls, pop cans for doors, milk cartons for light fixtures and many other cool innovations. The Center truly utilizes creativity and uses scrap in a creative way to make something useful.

Those are only two examples of the many organizations and people working for change in Namibia. And organizations like that are all around the world. These two organizations are good examples for us. We cannot possibly live a blameless life, because we are human—but we can fight for what we believe in and oppose the systems that operate on greed.

"Scrap can be useful" sign found at the Habitat Research
and Development Center in Windhoek.
When Linda had finished her story, we all sat in silence, contemplating our role in this world and how we can live a better life. My head kept spinning back to the question of morality and the inability to truly live an ethical life. I was becoming more and more pessimistic about the future every second, but then I stopped and took a deep breath and took in my surroundings. We, a class of seven students from around the United States, were going to an organic farm to learn about how people are making good in this harsh world. And I realized that all of us in the car really care about the world and people. So I had a spark of optimism knowing that there are more people in the world, just like us, young, curious, creative youth who are trying to learn to make the world better than it was yesterday. And you know what? I believe we truly are the generation that can change the world.

Week Ten: On Remembering the Dead

By: J. D. Mechelke

Out-Right Namibia's Trans Day of Remembrance 2015
I’m glad I had Annie and Amanda with me. Do you know that feeling right before walking into a room of people who, because you are so different, could judge you so easily? Well, think of that coupled with a little bloating and you’ll know how I felt before we walked up to the gate of Out-Right Namibia during a Saturday night where we were going to memorialize the trans individuals that had died that year in Namibia.

Between the three of us, no one had planned, when we woke up today, to taxi to Windhoek North to be part of this event. At least Amanda and I had planned on going to see the new Hunger Games movie with the rest of the gang. But, as my mother would say, “You got a hair up your butt son! You’re just like your father.” My dad and I have a reputation for getting these big ideas that we follow at all costs. Although an idea to attend a Trans Day of Remembrance event shouldn’t seem like a “big idea,” I’d been struggling a lot recently with my mental health. Lately taking a shower seemed like a “big idea.” Maybe that was also a part of why I felt so intimidated by the group that evening (though I don’t think that can help explain the bloated part). Somehow, even in the heat of this country, my spirits had gone cold. My depression was keeping me in bed during the day while my anxiety was keeping me up at night.

As I stood intimidated before pushing the gate aside, I grabbed Annie and Amanda’s hands. Their palms warmed my cold fingers. We signed a check-in sheet. In addition to our name was our gender/sex and sexual orientation: mine as gay intersex male. We were the only white people in the complex. A situation that was surprisingly uncommon even in a capital city in an African state. I had introduced my two friends to some of the people in this community that had made me feel loved. Some of the bravest people I have ever met were all in eyeshot.

We stood, we sat. We sang, we cried. We ate, we drank. We talked, we observed in silence. We named the dead, and we dared to tell why the dead are dead. The time we spent together prompted my memories of a particular service in the liturgical calendar: All Saints Day. All Saints is a service, speaking from a Lutheran perspective, where we honor those who have died during the past year, and those in the more distant past who we had loved, naming them all as saints. In the services liturgy we hear, “Loved ones now resting in you, who guided us, nurtured and cared for us; ancestors who worked and traveled, lived and died that we might be who we are, where we are—your precious children in this community of believers.”1 How wonderful and how scandalous to remember trans people of color in Namibia who have died not just by name but by the title of saint.

Later that night I was crying on the porch of the CGEE house. I was overwhelmed by a lot of things, but mostly by the courage of the saints that we had named a few hours ago. Too often when we talk about social change and promoting social justice we’re really concerned about immediate action. Even if it’s social analysis, we feel we got to get to work now. While there are probably good reasons for this feeling, I think we sometimes miss something in pure secular work for social change that the religious world can help us with. That is, remembering the dead, and remembering why the dead are dead.

This statement of remembering “why the dead are dead,” is something that has still been ruminating in my mind since I heard it from Pastor Alan Storey a few months back in Cape Town. Storey talked about how we are so many times “addicted to hope!” We forget how important it is to mourn and memorialize. I agree with the Pastor’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that much can happen when we are devoid of all hope.

Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the U.S. that was eventually assassinated, once said, “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.” Yes, mourning the dead and allowing ourselves to feel complete despair against the answers to why they are dead is required. But if we stay eloping in that state of mourning forever, life will no longer be worth living. We have to let ourselves stand and sit, sing and cry, eat and drink, speak and be silent. Though we can’t live on hope, we have to keep its flames alive if we are ever going to avenge the injustices that killed our friends. Never forget the dead. But even more important, never forget why you are living.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Week Nine: A Canvas of Understanding

By: Annie Dierberger

She had deep wrinkles that ran asymmetrically through her face like a thousand roads on a map, but the destination came together like a meticulous work of art. Each line etched into her skin seemed to hold a story or a memory that I desperately wanted to understand. Her eyes were lulled in the shape of half moons but held a sharp glint of youthfulness wherever she happened to look. Her name was Meme Albertina. She was the village headman, and yes, I had no idea what that meant and maybe I still don’t, but I thought of her like Yoda, full of wisdom and perfectly executed one liners. Now that last part I may have fabricated a bit, seeing that I actually had no idea what she was saying and it was evident from the start we had a language barrier. I spoke English, she spoke none. She spoke Oshiwambo, I knew how to say the How are you? and the word snake, making our conversation limited beyond the context of “the snake is good”, which it ultimately never is. The woman I am describing was my host mom for the week in the town of Outapi, a rural community about nine hours north of Windhoek. All of the students were living with various families and this was to be mine.

What inside the homestead looked like. Various huts for
different purposes surrounded by an endless maze of sticks.
After a few minutes of exchanging confused facial expressions and hand gestures, I ended up in a truck bumping along the gravel until a fenced off home came into view. Once inside the gate, I was given a tour around the homestead by one of the eldest daughters in the family who knew a few words of English. She led me outside the gate towards a tall circular enclosure of sticks and stopped just before to also show me where the pigs slept. To say it nicely, these pigs would not have been cast in the next Charlotte's web sequel as Wilbert. I saw them as beasts that wouldn’t hesitate to destroy me. My eyes stayed glued on the pigs until I was nudged by the daughter to indicate the bathroom beside them, which consisted of a pile of bricks in the shape of a triangle. I kept my face composed but I will readily admit that internally I was whispering, “oh dear god.” The next stop was the shower which was again an enclosed circle of sticks with a bucket inside. Now, at this point, I was extremely nervous that there wouldn’t be enough water for me to shower and that an eyoka (a snake) was going to bite me in the bathroom. I was out of element in a state of discomfort and I knew it, so I decided to do the only thing I could, which was to completely embrace it. To not only look at these lines that ran like roads on the face of my host mother but to travel them just as she had lived them.

Very quickly within the next couple of days I fell into a routine. I would wake up around 6:45am by either one of the children shouting, “Annie, wake up!” or a rooster sounding like it was violently choking. As I stumbled outside into the bright light one of the children would point to the shower and say, “Wash.” I not only learned that a bucket of water was more than enough for a shower, but doing so outside while peering over a fence into the dry abyss was wonderful. I loved being woken up to cold water and the smell of fire already circulating through the cool morning air. After the shower, I would make my way through the maze to the place where we ate our meals. My Meme would see me and say, “Wa­lelepo nawa?” which translates to “Good morning, How are you?”, to which I would reply, “Eeya, ove walelepo tuu?!” and then we would both exhaust ourselves with multiple “eeye’s”, which means “good” and is what I learned to be the key to the Oshiwambo language. When it doubt, just say eeye. People will either mockingly laugh or be extremely impressed with you, sometimes both.

As midday approached, so did the blazing heat. Almost every day the temperature would hit 100 degrees or higher. Shade became your close companion, and water was your new best friend. I was fortunate that my classmate Henrik lived close by, so most afternoons, we would meet up and endure the heat together. We would find a nice spot of shade that wasn’t overpopulated by donkeys and sip, no, chug on ice cold coke from one of the local shebeens.

Henrik, avoiding malaria at all costs.
When 6 o'clock approached, all of the neighboring children began running towards the soccer field for the nightly game. This, I got the impression, was my young host brother’s favorite part of the day. The goal posts were made up of two sticks with a line of cans strung together at the top and very rarely was there a goalie, if lucky a toddler sat distractedly inside the goalposts drawing pictures in the dirt. Some nights I played and other nights I preferred to just sit on the side and watch with amazement. The Namibian sunset would begin to fill the sky with a canvas of reds, oranges and yellows like something I had never seen before. The children would be laughing and doing hilarious after-goal dances and then there would be Henrik, passing out high fives and cheering enthusiastically in English like an elementary school gym teacher. The kids had no idea what he was saying but loved it anyway. Moments like these are what would bring tears to my eyes. Moments where we didn’t need a language to communicate because we had so many other things, things that didn’t need to be vocalized. As the sun completely vanished my host brothers and sisters held hands and walked home together, singing songs. It was a powerful connectedness of pure happiness and enjoyment of one another’s company.

At 8:00 pm the whole family would gather around the fire and watch enticingly as dinner was prepared. The little kids would climb on my lap and sing Amazing Grace repeatedly until flying into one of their own songs and dances. When we weren’t singing or dancing, I had my notebook out and was learning Oshiwambo from Tina, one of the eldest kids who was in school. I would write words or phrases, she would translate and then laugh at my pronunciation. Without any electricity or lights, the world would turn dark and to see my hand in front of my face I would take out my flashlight. There was one night when I took out my light to see where I was stepping and my grandmother looked at me and shook her head repeatedly. She then began speaking in Oshiwambo and pointing up to the bright stars that littered the sky magnificently. She kept pointing up to the stars and then took my flashlight and turned it off. We both smiled in understanding and looked up at the stars together.

Trying to make friends with the donkeys and not succeeding.
That night I sat studying everything like a priceless work of art, absorbing everything that I had grown to love so passionately in a week: the kids, their bright smiles as we played tag throughout the home, and how later they could help cook dinner or carry a baby on their backs with the strength of a teenager; my host mother, despite being at least seventy years old, dancing freely without care like she was a child again; the sky and all of its unity of contrast, completely defying everything we think we know in color and clouds; the stars and gazing up at them in awe, and an hour later realizing you are just as lost as you were before, and feeling content with that. During my rural homestay week, I have lived modestly in material but lavishly in everything else. It was a week that seemed like a year in what I saw and learned. I found richness in simplicity. I found love in silence. I found sacred art in normality. A picture that is worth a thousand words but remembered as a thousand moments.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Week Eight: Fitting in

By: Henrik Weber

Ah yes, the mid-semester weeks. The novelty of Windhoek has subsided, and the normal routine of morning class and afternoon reading has returned full force. Possibly the most noteworthy event of the week is that our beloved inflatable shark, Seymour, popped and had to be laid to rest. People fail to get excited about weeks like this as the anticipation of our trip to the North continues to overshadow the daily experiences we have here. As we reach the second half of the semester, our comfort in the local community has developed more thoroughly. 12,000 miles from home, we are able to find our way around and freely explore unknown places. Friends have been made. Relationships have formed. And that has left me in an interesting place. How do I, or any of us, fit in here?

Amanda and Seymour relaxing
in the pool in Windhoek.
We often venture out of the gates to the CGEE house to some local businesses. We go to get chocolate at Tom Thumb, pizza at the Crazy Crust Inn, beer at the Cardboard Box, and for about everything else we take a hike over to Pick’n’Pay. The sense of security in the neighborhood is nice and having a known familiar setting allows for us to embraces fully the Windhoek West culture. The more we feel like we live here the harder some questions become. What is my role in this community? How do we continue to care for this place after we leave? As we get to belong to this community, it forces me to consider my place in the world. 

One of my favorite parts of class here has been our guest speakers. This week we had one speaker who sparked lots of questions within me. Herbert Jauch, is an activist currently working with issues of income inequality in Namibia. He is also the former director of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI), the place where I am doing my internship. We have read articles by him for class before and I have read lots of his papers and reports for work. He came to talk to us advocating for different anti-poverty measures. Many of us liked his ideas and were very supportive, but he makes me wonder if this is my place. We have spent much of the semester learning about how colonialism and the influence of Western ideas have negatively affected Namibia. When is it appropriate for us to step back and say 'this is not my role as an American' and when is appropriated for us to step forward and say 'as a well educated community member who cares, I stand for this'? I feel simultaneously as if I belong and as if I am an outsider.

Henrik and a friend in Windhoek.
It is nice to get out and interact
with the locals.
Where do we fit in? In a short time, we will be back at our home universities. We fit in there. We currently fit in at the Cardboard Box and the Crazy Crust Inn. But more than the physical location, where do our ideas fit in? How do we share our experiences to create a positive impact? At this point, I realize that these are all questions without answers, but these are the questions I think about. Even with no answer, just taking the time to think about them provides a certain level of understanding.

With our new understanding of ourselves, of the world, of poverty, and of each person’s place in the global community, choosing how to think is key. We are still outsiders here, but at times it is easy to forget. Now, as we prepare to spend three weeks on the road in the rural north, at Etosha National Park, and over spring break, our comfort zone will again be pushed. Part of what the trip is about is, as a group, talking about the unanswerable questions. Pushing each other to think in new ways is a positive for everyone. Figuring out life in Windhoek, in the US, and on the road remains a challenge, but it is not meant to be easy. I am grateful to the group for being with me through these struggles of self and struggles of fitting in.

So here we sit. From our house in Windhoek, we look out over a few block radius we consider to be our home. We learn much from our classes and even more from our adventures. Yet, we still know it is incurably temporary. We won’t stay at 5 Simpson Street forever. But the lessons we learn, the experiences we have and the bonds we make are sure to last us a lifetime.