Thursday, October 3, 2013

Week 6: Culture, Sand, and Camels

By Molly Hetzner and Caleb Rollins

We cannot escape culture. No matter where we live, culture deeply affects how we view the world. However, the hold that culture has on our perspectives often becomes clear only when encountering other cultures. This phenomenon has played a large role in our interactions with others on this trip, especially during the past week. Although we spent over half of our week traveling and sightseeing on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, we still had the opportunity to meet with several individuals who serve their community in various manners. These encounters led us to the conclusion that our culture and background can often blind us from viewing our culpability in the social injustices of our times. At the same time, our culture and background can help us develop and sustain relationships among family and community members. Through the art of self-reflection, we can decide the type of role that culture can ultimately play in our lives.

The first half of the week consisted of normal classes and internships before leaving for the coast early Thursday morning. On Wednesday, the religion class visited a local German Lutheran church where we met with a pastor.[1] Although it was extremely interesting to learn about what it is like to be a German-speaking congregation catering to a very small population in Windhoek, the most intriguing topic the pastor touched on was growing up as a white man in South Africa’s apartheid regime. The pastor mentioned he served in the apartheid army, fighting against who he was told were “terrorists.” Later, when he learned these “terrorists” were also called “freedom fighters,” he realized that what he knew to be right was now wrong. “It’s a growth process. I’ll never be the same as you who elected Barack Obama as your president,” he admitted, “but I’m 100% sure it’s the same on the other side as well.” Even though he now recognizes his participation in this unjust system, some of the prejudiced sentiments instilled by his culture remain. Likewise, he stresses that those who fought for liberation still hold negative preconceptions of their white peers. In our class discussion afterwards, we connected his individual cultural struggles to our readings from class, which referenced how both the apartheid and anti-apartheid proponents used quotes from the Bible to advocate their opinions. Their cultures of tyranny and liberation even influenced how they viewed the sacred text of their religion.

A group of students trekked through the 
Namib Desert on the backs of camels.
After a tough week of two classes, our group headed to the coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, where we indulged in the sightseeing life of a tourist. The beauty of this coastline became apparent as we climbed one of the tallest sand dunes in the world, unwound on the peaceful beaches of the chilly South Atlantic, rode camels in the Namib Desert, and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and food of local cafes. Still, we also attempted to do some learning by meeting with a handful of community leaders during our time on the Namibian coast.

CGE students enjoyed playing in the giant sandbox on the outskirts of 
Walvis Bay known as Dune 7.

One such leader, Manuel Ngaringombe of the Society for Family Health at the Walvis Bay Multi-purpose Centre, shed more light on the issue of culture inhibiting the fight for social justice. While the Society for Family Health helps to treat and prevent the spread of such health issues as HIV, AIDS, and malaria, it also combats the social ill of gender-based violence through male empowerment programs. In our conversation with Manuel we learned of the challenge of fighting for gender equity in a culture that promotes male superiority. Even the leader of these programs, Manuel, originally resisted the idea of male empowerment. He spoke of the difficulty of convincing a man to share equally with a women when their culture views these actions as emasculating and supportive of female dominance. Once again, we saw how culture can cause people to see their reality as the only reality and limit the possibility of positive social change.

The group outside of the Walvis Bay Multi-purpose Centre 
with our guide Thomas Ankhosi. 
Further similarities between our conversation with Manuel and our visit to the German Lutheran Church became evident when Manuel claimed, “You can use the Bible for anything.” [2]  He explained how Christian men can use the Bible to defend their dominance, while completely ignoring portions of the Bible that promote gender equity. As seen in our experience at the German Lutheran Church, culture has such power that it can even affect the lens that people use to view their religion. These encounters present a purely critical view of the influence of culture; however, the resiliency of culture can also help to preserve positive aspects of tradition.

Sammy (right) and her mother (left) showed us how to prepare 
the cornmeal for mahangu.

Upon arriving in Swakopmund, we met up with our tour guide Sammy.[3] She showed us around her hometown, the Mondesa Township, where she is now raising four children. She brought us to her mother’s house where our group got to experience an instance where culture can instill positive effects on people: the preparation of mahangu, a traditional Ovambo dish. The group witnessed mother and daughter working together to prepare the cornmeal, and each of us got to take our turn as well. This traditional recipe, along with all of the techniques and tricks, is passed down from generation to generation. It is incredible to think of how significant a role their culture has in their lives and how important the passing of traditions is to them. Watching a mother and daughter working together and seeing the future generation running around who will soon join their mother’s side in the preparation of this traditional food was truly remarkable and spoke to how culture can also serve to unite people.  

Thus, our shortened week of classes proved relaxing, as well as philosophically stimulating. Our interactions with various individuals this week led us to the realization that as people, we have an extremely difficult time changing our culturally-based lenses. This perspective can lead to the oppression of others as well as the continuation of positive traditional practices. Obviously holding a critical view of culture is a goal of this trip. While we can easily analyze the negative effects that culture has on others, self-reflecting on how our own culture limits our ability to change presents more of a challenge. Are we the terrorists fighting against freedom or are we the freedom fighters combatting oppression? Hopefully, the rest of this trip will provide us with more complete skills of self-reflection that will help us to use the power of culture to create unity and not division.  

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

[1] This pastor was happy to let us share his words, but he preferred to remain anonymous. Conversation on September 25, 2013.
[2] Manuel Ngaringombe is the Regional Manager of the Erongo Region of the Society for Family Health Namibia; conversation on September 27, 2013.
[3] Sammy is a tour guide for Mondesa Cultural Tours in Swakopmund; conversation on September 26, 2013. 

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