Thursday, October 2, 2008

Readings, Writings and Reflections

By Brett Hartmann, Alana Jordan, and Becky Nieber

This week was a good time for settling in at the house and rejoining each other in community after the home stay. That does not mean that it was easy. Most people found themselves reading for class, writing papers, and running to Pick-And-Pay to get groceries/essentials (Nesquick).

To be honest class readings dominated most of my (Brett) time this week. However, most of the readings kept my attention and caused me to dwell on various topics: the most interesting being religion.

For religion this week, the theme was African traditional religious beliefs. There was a large chunk from a book entitled African Religions and Philosophy by John Mbiti, in which he discussed the various African concepts of God before the missionaries came. Being a theology major, this obviously interested me. What I found surprising was Mbiti’s statement that, “In all [African] societies, without a single exception, people have a notion of God” (29). He later went on to say that, “Every African people recognizes God as One” (35). This information astonished me. It also led me to think about the role of missionaries a bit more. If the African people already had the notion of a God, what did the missionaries do?

First of all, I believe the word “missionary” has a horrible connotation now-a-days because people associate it with imperialism and forcing your beliefs on others. However, I am not going to deny that some of the missionaries back then might have done this. What makes me mad is that most missionaries laid claim to exclusive religious truth and considered African culture to be inferior. Instead of seeking to understand African culture and African concepts of God, most missionaries straight up told them what to believe, what type of worship style they should have (from a white culture), and rejected all other religious practices. In my opinion, this is not how religion should work. No one should lay claim to exclusive religious truth, which ostracizes everyone else who does not believe what you do. That is the type of “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality that accomplishes nothing of value. Instead we should all learn from each other.

Personally I believe that almost all religions have elements of truth in them. However, religions run into trouble when they try to claim exclusive truth. This causes conflict and has caused wars in the past. War and hatred should not be the goal of any religion. That is what I find so painful about the history of Africa. Religion was just one of the many reasons why the colonizers thought themselves superior to the African peoples. For example, just look at Kipling’s poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden.” This poem talks about how it is the white people’s burden to “civilize” the Philippines. Even though it was not written for Africa, similar ideas of imperialism and superiority can be applied to Africa. How could Christians think of themselves as better? How could Christianity later be used to justify the horrific apartheid regime?

The claim of exclusive religious truth along with a sense of cultural superiority led to the ignorance of the missionaries and the colonizers as to the greatness of African culture. Until recently in one of the churches (I don’t recall if it was Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican), the people were not allowed to use drums in their worship services! One of the best parts of African culture is the rhythm and beats provided in music. Why would someone deny them a cultural practice which would enrich the service that much more? Why is African culture less valuable than Western culture?

Still today people are fighting those same battles. In the worship services that I have attended, most of the songs were hymns and the services were not much different from traditional ones back home. Western culture with its “superior” religious beliefs and “civilized” ways came to Namibia and imposed its values upon it.

From religion to political science this week has been full of thought-provoking discussion. The legacies of apartheid and colonialism in Namibia cannot be more apparent than in the education system. In our political science class this week we discussed the current “criminal injustice,” as our teacher Urbanus Dax phrased it, of the education process that is occurring in Namibia. Up to 20 percent of first-graders in [Namibian] State schools- and in some cases even whole classes- have to repeat their first year of school.[1] This trend of national “setting up children for failure” has no simple solution.

After independence in 1990 the government decided upon English to be the national language and that all classes beginning in first grade would be taught in it; this was to unify a nation in verbal communication that currently had at least 15 different forms of language. Yet, as a group we observed that in first grade teachers that are not proficient in English teach the children in English; how does this make any sense? Furthermore, who are these kids able to go to for help learning English when their parents never fully grasped the language? I (Becky) know that trying to learn a second language is almost impossible for me but that to even start to understand another language I needed to fully understand my own language first; I need a sturdy foundation on which to build my comprehension of a second language. These kids are never given the chance to fully comprehend their mother tongue and even more so never given any credit to the fact that they can fluently speak more than three languages by the time they’re “failing” first grade.

Urbanus, not only our current teacher but a former primary school teacher and principal, spoke of his theory of education: teach from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the difficult, and from the concrete to the abstract.[2] If we apply this theory towards the Namibian education process it’s obvious that these are not built, and therefore, there is nothing to grow upon. This infuriated me. Under colonialism the government enforced a policy that led white people to succeed and blacks to fail; but it’s 18 years since independence and while the words of the policies my have changed the outcome has stayed fairly consistent.

There are people here that are trying their hardest to break this crashing cycle and I’m proud to say that I work right along side of one of these great people. Taura works with me at my internship location, Catholic Aids Action, as a volunteer choir group leader. Her dream of positively contributing to this nation is intoxicating, from the moment she and I first talked about her aspirations I’ve been hooked and eager to help anyway I can. The rest of the CGE students have gone under her spell almost as quickly. A majority of the students here are helping us plan and successfully run a fashion and culture show at the end of October. All profits will go towards the start up of Nurturing Grounds Centre in a village in the northern part of Namibia.

If I had encountered someone like Taura in the United States, with her passion and goal of building a center, I would have never thought the two of us could pull something like that off. Yet, being here and seeing the things that individuals contribute to the progress of this nation gives me hope that this is an attainable goal. She has filled me with a sense of purpose and determination while I’m here and I can only hope that it will continue to be with me after I’m gone.

Taura also planned a community picnic at the Parliament Gardens that a few of us attended this past Saturday that I helped coordinate. It was an opportunity to causally chat with not only Namibians but people from Germany and Finland as well. I felt very at ease at the picnic and loved the music that we made together. Taura brought her guitar and after an hour or so of singing in the group a man in the gardens joined us with his drum. I instantly felt a sense of community and warmth that I don’t feel as often as when I’m in the United States. It just made sense for him to join us through music, and there was no feeling of awkwardness between the new friends.

Since our arrival in August, the thing that I (Alana) have struggled with most is relating and justifying similarities and differences between African and American culture. It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions and frustrations as I have strived to understand Namibians within the context of their culture in relation to my own upbringing. Everyday, I have to take into account things that I never fully considered in the states. Throughout my stay, I am constantly reminded of the level of implications regarding my gender and my race. I now know what it is like to be the minority. I now know what it is like to be the only face in the crowd completely different. I am constantly stared at and judged either for being American, or mistaken to be an Afrikaner. The most awkward part of it is that (I feel that) all parties are aware of my foreign presence. I keep telling myself that I am getting use to it, but the truth of the matter is that you never get use to it. You adjust, but never get used to being the odd (wo)man out. It has come as a surprise to some Namibians that the States are not just the bright lights of L.A. and New York. All Americans do not hang out with celebrities. A few weeks ago, a group of college students from the University of Namibia hung out with us at the CGE house. One young woman was surprised to hear that I work and go to school. She didn’t think any of us (white Americans) held jobs. Trying not to judge why she would think such a thing, I was suddenly aware of how much we rely on information that we don’t see.

Although contained within the same world, Africa has its own set of realities. As Namibia has come a long way in its 18 years of independence, the level of inequality and government resistance is still profound. In class, we have been discussing the issue of Namibia’s progress to that of the States. How sound is the U.S. economically, spiritually, internationally, and financially? The U.S. may be in a better position than African nations as a whole. However, are we really better off? Or due to our nation’s age, are we just better at concealing the actual progress? The majority of Namibia’s issues stem from colonization, segregation practices, a lacking education system, and an unruly government. As participants in both the Namibian and American systems, we (students) have been debating how the system has influenced the people, how the people have influenced the system, and how many parallels exist within the States. It has been quite challenging in that we continuously have to critically analyze where we come from, and how that upbringing has molded our personalities and the way we perceive our current surroundings. It has been very difficult to come to terms with how much of the “facts” of where we grew up was the product of our own connotations and not necessarily “the best way.”

As much as I love Namibia, the people I have met, and my experience thus far, it has been a tiring process. I anticipated this experience being a life changing experience. I never considered how much my heritage and upbringing would be questioned. I did not anticipate that the path to self-discovery would entail uprooting everything familiar and putting things into context not as an American, but as a human being.

[1] “Education reform ‘making progress,’” Article from the Namibian, September 16, 2008.

[2] In Class September 16, 2008.

Photo Captions:

1. Melissa and Brett walking to Pick-n-Pay towards downtown Windhoek

2. Students working hard in political science class

3. Taura playing the guitar at the community picnic

4. Enjoying a Saturday afternoon at the community picnic in the Parliament Gardens

5. For History class this week we visited the Heroes Monument on the outskirts of Windhoek.

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