Friday, November 1, 2013

Week 8: Khorixas Rural Home Stay: Inroads to Insights

By Amanda Maisel & Cole Chernushin

Asphalt cools as the sun sets over a horizon of drought-stricken mopane and two young men walk side by side back to where they will rest tonight. Each boy’s sneakers kick the same rocks and carry the same dirt in each rubber crevice. For the moment, they tread on equal footing. Throughout the day, the road they travel bustles with cars of all kinds whisking travelers to and from town and other destinations. Tonight, this road hosts the easy sighs, the gentle breeze, and a collision of two radically different worlds. Tonight, it provides a place for meeting, understanding, and change. Throughout the course of a week spent on our rural home stay, this road both literally and figuratively connected each of our experiences with our host families.   

Three of our host Oumas (grandmas) at Pastor Oumas Lucia’s church service 
Sunday morning on one of the farms

On our rural home stays in Khorixas, each of us was afforded the unique opportunity to become totally immersed in the everyday life of a family whom, in all likelihood, we would otherwise have never had the chance to meet [1]. Living as a part of a family and learning about the way our host parents and siblings lived day to day allowed us to challenge many of our misconceptions about the universality of our own experiences and norms. While tokens of familiarity like the cell phone my Ouma (grandma) used to check in with Center for Global Education reminded me that the culture on the farm did not exist in isolation from my own in the United States, while other everyday occurrences like herding goats and shooing chickens out of the bedroom allowed me to see how what I considered as “normal” was completely arbitrary and particular to my own experience.

Being aware of our own cultures, we were each able to experience someone else’s fully and without mediation. This was what was uniquely rewarding for many of us; as opposed to learning about cultural norms as relics of history or as pesky impediments to “modern western development,” we were able to experience the values and practices of our families as a new set of norms to engage, celebrate, and ultimately be enriched by. This aspect of the home stay was also one of the most meaningful for the families themselves. On one occasion, as my host Ouma preached to a small congregation composed of other families from farms near by, she expressed her gratitude that we and other students in the past had chosen to come and stay with families in order to learn from them; she explained that in the past—pre-independence, under apartheid—it would have been unheard of that a group of students from America would chose to come to her home and want to learn about her language and religion, or even about simple things like the every day workings of the farm. For both the families and us, although we were coming from completely different intersections of experience, it was essential that we were meeting on a level plain. We were there to learn from our families in earnest without being blind to some of the real problems facing the region where they lived, but also without being blind to our own often invisible and distorting impositions of values and preferences.

Being on the farms and committing ourselves to learning from our families allowed many of us to make some important realizations about our prior expectations regarding development in the region. For many of us, the idea of staying on a farm without electricity or internal plumbing read at first as a kind of deprivation. While many of us struggled at first with new ways of cooking, going to the bathroom, keeping things cool in the midday sun, or taking a bath, it soon became clear that our families’ had their own very effective ways of accomplishing all these tasks, regardless of the absence of electricity and plumbing. While we would not be so bold as to leap to the conclusion that nobody on our farms would prefer to have a flushable toilet or an overhead light, we also realized the falseness of our original preconceptions that everyone on the farms would feel deprived of such things. When we spoke to the Regional Councilor of the Kunene Region where Khorixas is located, we heard a great deal about rural electrification projects and how many toilets had been installed that year [2]. With this information came the idea that those projects were the most needed and desired amongst the communities we were visiting. However, as our home stays went on it became clear that what we saw as a deprivation in need of development projects -like toilet installation- was merely the projection of our own preference, and that in reality the communities we lived among had different needs and priorities than we were immediately able to perceive. My host siblings and Ouma did not seem to see cooking over an open fire or using the water from the outdoor tap as a problem, and even visiting relatives from cities like Windhoek seemed, with few exceptions, to enjoy returning to this mode of living in which they had grown up. Upon talking to my family more and more it became clear that for many of them living without these things was a preference and not deprivation.  It also became obvious that the clear downside to living far out on the farms, more so than any other one factor, was not limited access to electricity or plumbing, but to education.

 (l-r) Cole, Moses (Cole’s home stay brother),
Rebecca, Amanda, Robert (Melissa’s home stay),
and Melissa dressed in traditional Herero and
Damara style at Ouma Lucia’s church
Though many of our home stay siblings were the same age as us, only a handful held secondary school diplomas, and some expressed how this fact had limited their career opportunities in the context of an increasingly encroaching globalized economy that often necessitates supplementary incomes to keep rural farms running. Given the current state of the Namibian economy, lacking such educational tools results in a severe lack of opportunity for many residents of the farmsteads. Many extended family members supplement their family’s income through work in Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, or Windhoek. However, lack of prior education limits their job opportunities to low wage work or none at all. Thus the limited access to education in the region perpetuates cycles of migration into urban areas with slim chances of real economic empowerment. The glaring gaps in access to education made us wonder if the region should focus more attention on building schoolhouses than on installing toilets.

After our week together, we were able to gain a more in depth perspective on the disparities between a community’s actual needs as opposed to those we project or assume exist. The road we all travel along as a global society often seems to the naked eye to be broken by borders. Walking side by side, for no matter how long grants individuals from distant lands, different languages, and unique customs the ability to communicate. Without such communication, establishing a global community could easily become a matter of imposition rather than productive dialogue. 

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[1] Each student spent a week in Khorixas (in the Kunene Region) in rural Namibia. 
[2] During our week in Khorixas we met with the Kunene Regional Councilor, Mr. S. I. !Gobs , about the local government’s development strategies and goals involving rural electrification and plumbing.

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