Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stretch Zones

By Cameron Ingram, Brittany Nivens, and Danielle Veal

This week was a time of personal growth for all of us. We Continued our urban home stays with families in the city, and the only times that we saw each other were for classes or on our way to our internships in the kombi with Passat.

For me (Brittany) it felt like we were exploring Namibia as individuals, as opposed to be being a group of 24 American students. My particular home stay is with a family in Dorado Park, a neighborhood that was established post independence (1990) so my neighborhood is a very diverse middle class neighborhood. Prior to that black Africans typically lived in Katutura, the Coloureds, or people historically of German and black African descent, lived in Khomasdal and white Africans resided in the city. It has been a unique experience for me as an African American student because this is the first time that I have been in the “majority group,” appearance wise at least—the moment we begin to speak everyone can tell that we are not Namibian so we still feel like outsiders in a cultural sense. Surprisingly it’s not a new feeling. In my experience, there have been many times in the United States where I cannot necessarily identify with people who have the same skin color as me because we come from completely different backgrounds.

My experience with my internship has been amazing. Despite feelings of at first, of not knowing exactly where I fit into the picture, things have gone well. Over the weekend I took a little break from family time to go to my internship. An event was being held in the community to educate students and their parents about AIDS. The emphasis of the program was more on loving yourself and making the best decisions for you to stay healthy. I ended up doing an impromptu skit where I was in a relationship and my partner was pressuring me to have sex. I am not much of an actor but I really enjoyed performing. The forum was open to everyone so it was a different experience for me to be talking about an “adult” subject with children. But the reality of the situation is that roughly 20% of the population in Southern Africa has AIDS. That is 1 out of every 5 people and a lot of those people are children so you can’t afford to not talk about it with them. I wish that there was more dialogue on AIDS in the states especially with young adults because that is the demographic that is seeing the largest increase in cases.

As we sat in our first politics class one of the students announced that the Human Rights organization he is interning at was having a press conference about mass graves that they found near the border between Angola and Namibia. So we picked up everything and went in the middle of class, escorted by our professor. The unconventional learning style is one of the things that I appreciate most about this program. I mean, when could I do that in America? A child here said to me if you tell me something I may forget it but if you show me I will never forget it, and I think the same is true for us. We will never forget the things that we have experienced or seen in Namibia, but whether we will use the knowledge that we have gained is a different story. Perhaps that is the challenge that is now before us?

My (Cameron’s) homestay was spent in Katutura. My family was not a conventional patriarchal family. I had a mom, Hileni, a 16 year old niece, Pandu, an 18 year old nephew, Israel, and a 5 month old sister, Kadeshi. To be honest I was very nervous about my homestay. I’m pretty introverted and the idea of invading someone else’s house for ten days, not knowing a whole lot about their culture, what they were going to feed me, or what they expected to learn from me, was terrifying. Much to my delight I had an amazing time. Living in Katutura I had to deal with being a racial minority. This is one of the uncomfortable situations I’ve experienced while living in Namibia. Growing up in rural Maine I’ve never had to think about my race or ethnicity, as the majority of the population is white. So, the tables have turned and now I am the one getting the stares and hearing the whispers after I walk by, as I was the only white person in my area in Katutura. At times it is frustrating and I feel like an outsider, but I have come to realize that it is a good learning experience to be out of my comfort zone and for once not be the racial majority. Being the minority forces you to think about race issues from a new perspective, one that you cannot understand if you’ve been the majority all your life. While the colonial era has ended in Namibia its legacy lives on through the segregated nature of the different townships in Namibia. When talking with Pandu about her school she mentioned how the students self-segregate themselves according to their ethnicities, for instance, she is Ovambo and all of her friends are also of Ovambo origins.

This brought me back to some of the issues we have been grappling with in our classes, specifically combating racism, and how to address the inequalities resulting from the German and South African colonialism. How do you bring together a country that for the past 100 years has had to deal with being mistreated by colonial powers and have been treated as second-class citizens in their own native land? I unfortunately do not have an answer for this. Luckily for me, I have knowledgeable professors (two of them Namibian) that are giving us the opportunity to learn more about the unique history and culture of this country. The similarities between my own history and that of Namibia’s are striking, and the self-reflection that it has sparked has taken me by surprise. As an American I am reminded of our own history and how we treated the Native Americans when we first came across the Atlantic. For instance, the Germans practically exterminated the Herero population (one of the oldest tribes of Namibia) after they had tricked them out of their land and took their cattle. Is that not what we did with the Native Americans after we came across the Atlantic? The last thing I was expecting to be reminded of when learning about the history of Namibia was the history of the United States. Which goes to show that when traveling abroad one should not come with too many expectations. What I have learned in my short time here is to expect the unexpected (cheesy I know) and just go with the flow.

Being far away from my (Danielle’s) family and not being able to communicate with them has made me a little more homesick that I thought I would be. However, the urban home stay has really helped me deal with the feelings of loneliness and separation that I began to feel. The family that I am staying with for my 10-day home stay (which I have decided to extend for a longer visit) is full of such wonderful people. My Mom and Dad are Eddy and Michelle Williams. I have two host sisters, Marshall (18) and Micheddy (12), and a little host brother, Franco (10). Over the past week, they have made sure that my every need was taken care of. I have slept, eaten, and danced more that I ever have before, which is a pretty good life in my opinion. I've been very comfortable with my family from the very beginning, laughing and joking with my little siblings from the first day on. I was even able to cook a traditional southern-style dinner for my family, full of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, corn, and cornbread. They loved it!

When given the opportunity to stay longer on the home stay, or return to the house with 24 other American students, I quickly opted to remain with my family. I figure I will only get this chance once and living with a Namibian family is my way to truly submerge myself in the culture and learn first-hand how the people live everyday.

Although my home stay experience has mostly been good times and laughter, I have also been challenged in some ways since arriving. My first challenge was deciding when it was appropriate to ask all the many questions I have wanted to ask since arriving in Namibia. A part of me wanted to jump right in with questions of politics and HIV/AIDS in Namibia, but the other part just didn’t feel it was appropriate when I only knew the family for a few hours. That was another reason that I decided to extend my home stay because now I feel comfortable enough to ask questions without feeling like the timing or context is inappropriate. Another conflict I dealt with was feeling that I may have been overstaying my welcome. I am currently sleeping in my home stay sister’s room and she is sleeping in another room while I am there. Sometimes I feel that maybe I am interrupting the routine of things in the household, and that it would benefit the family more if I were to just return to the CGE house. This bothered me so much that I asked me home stay sister Marshall how she felt about me staying longer, and she reassured me that I could stay as long as I wanted and that I was not interrupting her at all.

This experience has also allowed me to gain a Namibian perspective on HIV/AIDS. While doing a strategic listening project for my Development class, I learned that the youth in Namibia recognize that the disease is a major problem, and would like to get involved with the fight against it. One thing that I found surprising is that some girls feel that even if they did want to get involved, they don’t believe that there are many outlets for them to actively participate in any movements. I am not sure if this is true, but if it is, I think that the youth should have a much larger role in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Even though this is the last week with my home stay family, I am positive I will keep in touch with them while I am here in Namibia. I have already promised my little home stay brother and sister that they can come to our house in Windhoek one weekend and swim in the backyard. And I know that when I get tired of living with 24 Americans, they would definitely have me back.

This past week proved challenging to many students but at the same time gave us the opportunity to enter into our “stretch zones”. We were tested on how well you can react to those uncomfortable questions and stares or how well your digestive system can handle unfamiliar culinary dishes that many families served throughout the week.

Picture Captions:

1) History discussion outside of University of Namibia
2) Cameron and her little sister Kadeshi
Danielle and her home stay family

1 comment:

smithsan said...

South Africa occupied the German colony of South-West Africa during World War I and administered it as a mandate until after World War II, when it annexed the territory.
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