Monday, April 4, 2011

Rural Home Stay: Expectations and Reality

Authors: Amanda, Lee, Katie McGonagle
Week 8: 7-13 March

Throughout the semester, one of the most anticipated experiences was the rural home stay. Going into the homestay, each of us had a lot of expectations including our own visions of what ‘rural’ entailed. Many of us were expecting “traditional” housing, food, and family structures, among other things. We expected a lack of access to many modern amenities such as running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. However, what we found was very different from our expectations. It turns out that ‘rural’ does not always translate to ‘traditional.’ Students found a complex melding of the traditional and modern. Here are some of the student’s perspectives on their different experiences:

Katie’s Perspective: Housing

Driving to the North I was ecstatic—I couldn’t wait for my rural home stay! I spent most of the ride dreaming about what life would be like at my home stay—how different it would be from my life at home. After all, when have I ever lived in a hut? However, as we started to drop people off on Tuesday, I realized that my expectations may have been unrealistic. Most of the other students were being dropped off at houses similar to any that you would find in Katutura. At this, I started to question why I had assumed that ‘rural’ meant ‘traditional.’ Later, after being dropped off with at what seemed to be an open field, my host brother stopped me to warn me that they still lived in traditional housing. My heart skipped—I was actually going to get the experience (above: traditional kitchen) that I had romanticized and built up for myself.

However, it was much more complicated than that. My home stay house was comprised of a series of 13 traditional-style huts and 4 larger brick houses. All of these structures were surrounded by a series of fences made of tree branches and mahangu stalks. The fences divided the homestead into a series of areas which different members of the family inhabited. Although there were so many huts, around half of the people sleeping quarters and the kitchen (which included and stove, oven, and refrigerator) were located in the brick houses. This stark contrast of two seemingly different ways of life existing within the same home made me realize that life in rural Namibia is not monotone or static—it is fluid and is influenced by both local traditions and more western-influenced lifestyles.

Amanda’s Perspective: Food

Another aspect of the intersectionality of the ideas of “traditional and modern” presented itself through our experiences with food. For many of the students, food has been a form of comfort and enjoyment in an environment that we are somewhat unfamiliar with. Chips—French fries—from Tom Thumb have turned into the new college food alternative for Wings or Dominoes Pizza. The food at my home stay was a mix of food that I was used to and food that was foreign to me. Also, when I got there, I was shown the kitchen in the house complete with stove, oven, and microwave, and then shown the traditional, outdoor kitchen complete with stones, wood and fire. An example of the melding of traditional and modern through food was displayed in the first night of my home stay. We had plain spaghetti with fish (cooked on the stove indoors) that still had all the bones and head intact—a scene from the movie A Christmas Story flashed before me: “It’s smiling at me!" (right: modern kitchen)

On the last night of my home stay, my host mother made me a traditional feast using both the modern and traditional kitchens. Oshithema (made out of mahangu) and traditional chicken was served. Before we started eating at the table with plates and forks, my host mother offered me rice as an alternative to oshithema. When I assured her that I wanted to experience dinner the traditional way, she took out a woven platter, plopped the oshithema onto it and put the plates and forks away. She proceeded to bring us outside to sit on the ground in the traditional kitchen. I was told that traditionally you eat the food with your right hand, the youngest gets the food last, and they must not take meat themselves but should instead wait to have an elder present them with meat. Also, never put your hand on the ground! I was told that in a traditional setting you would be physically punished because it is disrespectful. I found that the food is still bound by many aspects of traditional life as well as contributed to with modern cooking techniques.

Lee’s Perspective: Family Structure

Our rural home stays in the North were a significant learning experience in the dichotomies of expectation versus reality and traditional versus modern. Our preparation was infused with warnings about just how different our lives would be for the week we were with our families. So, even though a mind free from preconceived notions and unjustified expectations was encouraged, our anticipation made them inevitable. Personally, I was expecting a home rigidly defined by traditional gender roles, with perhaps a male who called the shots and a subservient female who listened. Traditional, in my mind, seemed to be defined by the idea of father-figure who worked outside the home, as well as a mother-figure who stayed at home to look after children and household chores.
(left: brick houses)

However, my initial expectations were (as should have been obvious) wrong. Because of migrant labor that keeps my host dad in Windhoek most of the time, my host mom jumped into the role of “head of household.” I have to wonder whether her assertiveness would have been overshadowed had her husband lived in the house. The idea of a traditional household arrangement was also challenged by my host mother’s paid job outside of the home—one that left her housework and children to the care of a live-in “helper.” Certainly my initial expectations were proven wrong by the reality of my home stay as I learned to recognize the prevailing contrast between traditional and modern ways of life.

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