Friday, April 25, 2014

Week 12: Reconnecting in Windhoek

By Matt Erbes and Hannah Corbin

This week we reunited as a group after spending a week on spring break. While it was difficult to come back to the formal class schedule after three weeks of traveling, listening to speakers, and seeing other parts of Southern Africa, it was still good to come back together and reconnect as a group. Reconnection and rebuilding were actually two concurrent themes of the week in our classes and activities. 

On Wednesday, the religion class visited the Dutch Reformed Church of Windhoek (DRC) near downtown. We got the chance to listen to Rev. Thijs van der Merwe, a pastor of the church [1]. He spoke to us about the Dutch Reformed Church’s theology during apartheid and how the church has attempted to reconnect with the people of Southern Africa since the fall of the apartheid regime. Reverend van der Merwe explained the justifications behind the DRC’s support of the apartheid regime through specific interpretations of the Bible which are now considered to be incorrect and unjust. It was interesting to hear the other side of the story regarding the theological implications of apartheid from someone raised and educated in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Rev. van der Merwe described how although the DRC has formally apologized for its actions during apartheid, it is still making efforts to integrate itself back into the religious community, which largely rejected its past theological viewpoints. It was easy to see how Rev. van der Merwe and other DRC members would want to be reconnected back into the rest of the community after being regarded as an illegitimate and pro-authoritarian institution which supported the injustice of apartheid by the rest of the South African religious community. One of the biggest challenges facing the DRC today is how to recognize its past and still be able to reconnect with people in the community without fear of stigma. 

Thursday afternoon, the students and staff of CGE loaded up into the buses and drove to the beautiful Nubuamis Hills Bed and Breakfast outside the city for a reconnection retreat. The purpose of this was for everyone to come together and reinforce the idea that part of our education here is intercultural experiences, and in order to be able to connect with people fully, one needs to step outside of their own cultural comfort zone and meet others halfway. The activities we did as a group ranged from jumping in different directions according to Romanus’ commands and acting out the roles of the different tribes of a fictional island, but all could be related back to being able to connect with people outside of one’s own cultural group. The retreat was helpful as a reminder that although we have been in Southern Africa for three months now, we are still foreigners who sometimes need to be reminded that cultural norms are different here from those in the U.S., and it also was an opportunity to reflect on what we had accomplished so far this semester individually and what challenges we have faced or continue to face. 

CGE students and staff with Dr. Robinson after her talk on 
political prisoners and preserving the memory of apartheid liberators. 
Though we focused on our intercultural relationships as a group, we were able to get several other American experiences this week through our speakers. In history this week, we were lucky enough to catch Dr. Deborah Robinson during her short time in Namibia. Dr. Robinson created the South African Political Prisoner Documentation Project in the United States during the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia [2].

According to her, the goal of the project was to “raise people’s consciousness about the system of apartheid and the continued racial and socio-economic oppression of people in southern Africa, educate the public about the plight of political prisoners, and be a catalyst for people to develop a personal attachment or bond with a particular political prisoner and his/her family.” The program made brass bracelets each with a name of a political prisoner printed on them and then distributed the bracelets with a twenty-six page informational booklet. Since the program's inception Dr. Robinson has developed relationships with the families of some of the prisoners, hoping to fill in gaps and create a more complete story of the plight of political prisoners. Her main concern was that their stories would become irrelevant for the generations that follow.

CGE students observing an exhibit at the new 
Namibian Independence Museum
While visiting Southern Africa, Dr. Robinson has held a few workshops with the youth hoping to gain a younger perspective on the role the history has played in the countries development. She felt the youth she worked with were very disconnected from the impacts and realities of apartheid. When she asked what we were taught about Southern Africa in school and we mentioned that our education on the matter pre-college was non-existent she was somewhat horrified. The gap and exclusion in the education system is concerning for two reasons. The first is that inadequate teaching of history eliminates the context of current social problems and the second is that it disconnects generations from one another. Dr. Robinson stressed the need to do something with the material she collected and was looking to young people to compile it in creative ways that would hopefully reach a broader audience and get youth active in preserving the stories of activists and fighters. Fortunately, shortly after Dr. Robinson’s talk we headed to the new Namibian Independence Museum whose sole focus is to trace Namibia’s history through colonization and apartheid and document the realities and people of each era. When we got there, a bus of young students was just leaving, which was a hopeful sight. 

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[1] Reverend Thijs van der Merwe pastor at Dutch Reform Church Windhoek; conversation on April 9, 2014 in Windhoek Namibia

[2] Dr. Deborah Robinson political activist and researcher; Conversation on April 10, 2014, Windhoek Namibia

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