Sunday, September 29, 2013

Week 5: Making Global Connections

By Melissa Rink and Jenna Mattina

Upon our arrival in Windhoek, our group has been very focused on engaging in our classes, gaining as much as we can from readings and discussion, and reflecting upon our experiences. This week, each one of us stayed with host families around the Windhoek area. This “assignment” was simple - to establish a connection with these families. Or has this been our most difficult task thus far? It was not an extremely rigorous week academically, but we all agreed it has been the most demanding. At our homestays, we may have hesitated to ask or answer controversial questions in order to remain sensitive to cultural differences. We often try to avoid our obvious dissimilarities, but aren’t they inevitable? A critical piece of advice that we are not only discussing in class, but acquiring first-hand through our daily interactions, is the reality that differences are unavoidable. It can be valuable to acknowledge our distinct upbringings and learn about an entirely different perspective, all the while embracing our common humanity.

Dr. Mburumba Kerina, a cofounder of SWAPO, 
spoke to our History class about the Herero and Nama Genocide.
This commonality can be difficult to realize when people do not take the time to understand each other. We heard an example of this when Dr. Mburumba Kerina, a cofounder of The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), spoke to our history class about the genocide of the Herero and Nama people. He explained the atrocities of the concentration camps that were set up in Namibia, between 1904 and 1908, which ended up reducing the Herero population from 800,000 to 15,000 people. (1) Kerina spoke about how his personal experiences led to his passion of working towards justice for the Herero and Nama people. He shared with us that he was the first black to leave Namibia during the apartheid regime, when he received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Kerina was involved in the creation of the SWAPO party and worked for the liberation movement in Namibia while living in the United States.We enjoyed learning about Kerina’s role in shaping history and his participation in the struggle for justice.

While sharing his political involvement, Kerina would casually mention interactions that he had with renowned leaders of the twentieth century. Some of these included Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. Kerina described Malcolm X as just another friend, with whom he got coffee and discussed politics. (2) After reflecting upon his presentation, our group realized and discussed how Malcolm X was merely another person. In history, politics, and the media, we often create judgments about people based on the limited information that we see through the behaviors that they publicly exhibit. While a person may appear to be on a pedestal, it is inspiring to remember that that person wakes up each day with thoughts, emotions, and needs that may not be that dissimilar from our own. That person has developed relationships and has daily interactions with other people on a human-to-human level. We all share a powerful commonality simply by being a part of the human race.

This commonality proved to be a test during our homestays, where each of us spent time living with different families in various areas of Windhoek and Katutura. We all came away from our homestays with different experiences and reactions to these experiences. Some of our families delved into the political problems that Namibia currently faces, some actively engaged in church activities, others explored aspects of Namibian culture by seeing more of Windhoek. Other students had a more low key week spent just getting to know their host families. Regardless of how each of us spent our time with our host families, our main focus was to build a connection with the members of our families. Even those of us who dealt with a language barrier or exchanged differing fundamental values were able to leave our homestays having developed meaningful relationships.

Melissa and her host family enjoyed their time at Chinatown in Windhoek. 
They exchanged and learned about each other’s unique cultural backgrounds.
Even with this common bond, we still faced obvious differences. A common cultural discord that a few students had difficulty adjusting to was the evident display of gender roles in the house. As a group, our host parents showed larger levels of patriarchy than what we may be used to, with a few exceptions. Our host moms were responsible for preparing the meals and maintaining a clean house while our host dads were responsible for earning the majority of the money. Contrastingly, most of us grew up in households where our parents exhibited similar levels of dominance. They equally divided work, parenting responsibility, cooking, cleaning, and grilling. During our homestay reflection, we touched on this issue and it was enforced just how integrated these roles are in Namibian culture. Somewhat supporting these roles, local feminists argue that males and females were born physically different and therefore have distinct abilities that effectively contribute to society. In this way, males and females have different responsibilities in the household but are still viewed as equal. Although this may clash with what most of us are accustomed to, that does not mean it is wrong. Neither point of view is inferior to the other; they are simply different. It can be extremely worthwhile to engage in a discussion and learn about these unique ways of living.

Our group has become increasingly more aware that people we meet in Windhoek may vastly differ from us in ideology and life experiences;however, we can find powerful connections in our humanity. A few of us are partaking in internships where we are interacting and working with children. We have seen how hunger can cause distress or how a silly face can make two people, who are of different ages, genders, religions and nationalities, laugh. This laugh is universal and provides an example of how people coming from all ends of the earth can connect. The unfamiliar culture within our internships, classes, and homestays may initially appear intimidating, but the basic human connection can be easier than we think.

For more information about the CGE: Southern Africa semester abroad program, visit our website!

(1) Dr. Mburumba Kerina; Conversation on 19 Sept. 2013 in CGE House, Windhoek West.
(2) Dr. Mburumba Kerina; Conversation on 19 Sept. 2013 in CGE House, Windhoek West.

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