Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Week Nine: A Canvas of Understanding

By: Annie Dierberger

She had deep wrinkles that ran asymmetrically through her face like a thousand roads on a map, but the destination came together like a meticulous work of art. Each line etched into her skin seemed to hold a story or a memory that I desperately wanted to understand. Her eyes were lulled in the shape of half moons but held a sharp glint of youthfulness wherever she happened to look. Her name was Meme Albertina. She was the village headman, and yes, I had no idea what that meant and maybe I still don’t, but I thought of her like Yoda, full of wisdom and perfectly executed one liners. Now that last part I may have fabricated a bit, seeing that I actually had no idea what she was saying and it was evident from the start we had a language barrier. I spoke English, she spoke none. She spoke Oshiwambo, I knew how to say the How are you? and the word snake, making our conversation limited beyond the context of “the snake is good”, which it ultimately never is. The woman I am describing was my host mom for the week in the town of Outapi, a rural community about nine hours north of Windhoek. All of the students were living with various families and this was to be mine.

What inside the homestead looked like. Various huts for
different purposes surrounded by an endless maze of sticks.
After a few minutes of exchanging confused facial expressions and hand gestures, I ended up in a truck bumping along the gravel until a fenced off home came into view. Once inside the gate, I was given a tour around the homestead by one of the eldest daughters in the family who knew a few words of English. She led me outside the gate towards a tall circular enclosure of sticks and stopped just before to also show me where the pigs slept. To say it nicely, these pigs would not have been cast in the next Charlotte's web sequel as Wilbert. I saw them as beasts that wouldn’t hesitate to destroy me. My eyes stayed glued on the pigs until I was nudged by the daughter to indicate the bathroom beside them, which consisted of a pile of bricks in the shape of a triangle. I kept my face composed but I will readily admit that internally I was whispering, “oh dear god.” The next stop was the shower which was again an enclosed circle of sticks with a bucket inside. Now, at this point, I was extremely nervous that there wouldn’t be enough water for me to shower and that an eyoka (a snake) was going to bite me in the bathroom. I was out of element in a state of discomfort and I knew it, so I decided to do the only thing I could, which was to completely embrace it. To not only look at these lines that ran like roads on the face of my host mother but to travel them just as she had lived them.

Very quickly within the next couple of days I fell into a routine. I would wake up around 6:45am by either one of the children shouting, “Annie, wake up!” or a rooster sounding like it was violently choking. As I stumbled outside into the bright light one of the children would point to the shower and say, “Wash.” I not only learned that a bucket of water was more than enough for a shower, but doing so outside while peering over a fence into the dry abyss was wonderful. I loved being woken up to cold water and the smell of fire already circulating through the cool morning air. After the shower, I would make my way through the maze to the place where we ate our meals. My Meme would see me and say, “Wa­lelepo nawa?” which translates to “Good morning, How are you?”, to which I would reply, “Eeya, ove walelepo tuu?!” and then we would both exhaust ourselves with multiple “eeye’s”, which means “good” and is what I learned to be the key to the Oshiwambo language. When it doubt, just say eeye. People will either mockingly laugh or be extremely impressed with you, sometimes both.

As midday approached, so did the blazing heat. Almost every day the temperature would hit 100 degrees or higher. Shade became your close companion, and water was your new best friend. I was fortunate that my classmate Henrik lived close by, so most afternoons, we would meet up and endure the heat together. We would find a nice spot of shade that wasn’t overpopulated by donkeys and sip, no, chug on ice cold coke from one of the local shebeens.

Henrik, avoiding malaria at all costs.
When 6 o'clock approached, all of the neighboring children began running towards the soccer field for the nightly game. This, I got the impression, was my young host brother’s favorite part of the day. The goal posts were made up of two sticks with a line of cans strung together at the top and very rarely was there a goalie, if lucky a toddler sat distractedly inside the goalposts drawing pictures in the dirt. Some nights I played and other nights I preferred to just sit on the side and watch with amazement. The Namibian sunset would begin to fill the sky with a canvas of reds, oranges and yellows like something I had never seen before. The children would be laughing and doing hilarious after-goal dances and then there would be Henrik, passing out high fives and cheering enthusiastically in English like an elementary school gym teacher. The kids had no idea what he was saying but loved it anyway. Moments like these are what would bring tears to my eyes. Moments where we didn’t need a language to communicate because we had so many other things, things that didn’t need to be vocalized. As the sun completely vanished my host brothers and sisters held hands and walked home together, singing songs. It was a powerful connectedness of pure happiness and enjoyment of one another’s company.

At 8:00 pm the whole family would gather around the fire and watch enticingly as dinner was prepared. The little kids would climb on my lap and sing Amazing Grace repeatedly until flying into one of their own songs and dances. When we weren’t singing or dancing, I had my notebook out and was learning Oshiwambo from Tina, one of the eldest kids who was in school. I would write words or phrases, she would translate and then laugh at my pronunciation. Without any electricity or lights, the world would turn dark and to see my hand in front of my face I would take out my flashlight. There was one night when I took out my light to see where I was stepping and my grandmother looked at me and shook her head repeatedly. She then began speaking in Oshiwambo and pointing up to the bright stars that littered the sky magnificently. She kept pointing up to the stars and then took my flashlight and turned it off. We both smiled in understanding and looked up at the stars together.

Trying to make friends with the donkeys and not succeeding.
That night I sat studying everything like a priceless work of art, absorbing everything that I had grown to love so passionately in a week: the kids, their bright smiles as we played tag throughout the home, and how later they could help cook dinner or carry a baby on their backs with the strength of a teenager; my host mother, despite being at least seventy years old, dancing freely without care like she was a child again; the sky and all of its unity of contrast, completely defying everything we think we know in color and clouds; the stars and gazing up at them in awe, and an hour later realizing you are just as lost as you were before, and feeling content with that. During my rural homestay week, I have lived modestly in material but lavishly in everything else. It was a week that seemed like a year in what I saw and learned. I found richness in simplicity. I found love in silence. I found sacred art in normality. A picture that is worth a thousand words but remembered as a thousand moments.

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