Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Week 3: Classes, Internships, and Homestays Begin

Justine Goeke, Abi Dvorak, Eli Preisinger

Most of the students started an internship this week at different locations around Windhoek. The organizations vary according to our interests and goals for the future. The organizations deal with issues from HIV/AIDS to political development to education. Most organizations rely on foreign aid and work directly with local Namibians. While organizations in the U.S. and other westernized countries contribute, the aid contracts may end and leave organizations unfunded. Many students are struggling to gain more international aid for the organizations. Also, students this week attempted to meet with their internship supervisors to discuss goals and a project for the semester. Most of us are still negotiating our role at our placements and encountering cultural practices unfamiliar to us. We attempted to navigate our role as an intern, rather than as a foreigner imposing American ideologies. Even seemingly simple exchanges carry cultural weight that we may not anticipate or understand. Internships are a regular reminder of this reality.

In The Development Process - Southern Africa, we watched clips from the 1990s and contemporary commercials depicting Africa. Christian Children’s Fund, Red, and the One Campaign solicited foreign aid, while an interview of Angelina Jolie romanticized charity and travel abroad. The purpose of these commercials was not to educate, but they were produced with a distinct bias for consumption. Linda Raven led a discussion on the language we use to describe development. This class conversation paralleled the conflict in belief systems we have had over the importance in language in representing the way people think about ideas. While we regularly hear “First World / Third World” rhetoric, that dichotomy disempowers countries associated with the “Third World” label. We discussed descriptive accuracy’s power to confront these perceptions.

This week the group started our weekly language class with our teacher, Baby. We are learning Damara-Nama, which is a click language. It is important for us to learn key phrases in this language because we will be staying with Damara speaking people on our rural homestays and it will be nice to be able to communicate basic things in their language rather than expecting them to always use English. When we visit Damaraland we will encounter some of the language difficulties that we have already confronted through our Soweto and Urban homestays. Some students have experienced families that will not translate from their native languages and a few students have found this to be isolating. Even English in Namibia (called Namlish) can be confusing some of the time as this dialect has differing phrases and words than the English spoken in the United States.

In our history class, Racism and Resistance in Southern Africa and the United States, we touched on the role of history as a method of inquiry. Based on class conversations and readings, we discussed history as a narrative – rather than as an empirically based science. As students of history we bring our preconceptions and misconceptions to our understanding of history. In addition, writers of history impose their individual and collective paradigms. We discussed reading for contrast across a breadth of works as a remedy. From class, we went to the Owela National Museum. A member of the museum generously led a tour of the exhibits. While students learned meaningful material about the San, Hambi, Ovambo, Nama, Caprivi, Swana, and Damara peoples, the museum seemed to have been constructed by white historians for a white tourist audience. Depictions of native peoples objectified an experience removed from the reality of the museum. Inevitably, after the conversation about history as a narrative, students recognized the exhibits as a creation of history. As Romanus Shivoro, the history professor, explained, “Truth in history books is very very questionable.”

On Thursday we began our Urban Homestay. Living with families around Windhoek enabled us to experience profoundly different cultures and lifestyles. Many of us lived in family situations that we were unfamiliar with. In the United States, while there is a division of roles, we do not necessarily encounter husbands expecting to eat first and to be exempted from household chores. Girls in their homestays necessarily reminded themselves that gender constructs vary dramatically country to country and even household to household.

In addition, Namibia seems much less individualistic than the United States. Families seemed to know neighbors and extended family in the area very well. Some students encountered family friends that would walk in unannounced and act like family. In the Damara/Nama language there is no word for uncle, aunt or cousin; everyone is either referred to as brother or sister. Also families are always there for each other. Families seemed to travel for miles and miles for an engagement, a wedding, or a funeral.

Some of the challenges students faced were differences in food. For example, five students are vegetarians yet most Namibian households eat meat for nearly every meal. Even those of us who eat meat are not used to the type of meat served. For example, some families served spring bok, chicken livers, and gizzards. It was an exciting experience that we would not have gained living in the CGE house.

In our third week in Namibia, we continued to encounter cultural differences. We were constantly striving to learn from our diverse experiences.

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