Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lesson Learned: Sometimes Things Don't Always Work Out As You Hoped They Would, And That's OK

I made the decision on Sunday, September 20, 2009, thought about it on Monday and worked up the courage to tell our training manager Linda on Tuesday morning after our regular assembly of announcements and song. After almost six weeks of Peace Corps training, I’m coming home. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you thought they would and if anything has taught me that that’s OK, this experience has. I have been applying, packing and talking about the Peace Corps since June 2008 and couldn’t wait to leave back in August. I was hardly nervous and never ambivalent about my decision to leave the comforts of home and give Peace Corps my all. Maybe because there was so much unknown ahead of me that I didn’t have much to be unsure about was what made it a little easier. So for the first time in my life, I put my faith in the “unknown” and it led me across the pond to begin training as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I won’t recreate my time during the training as it’s mostly all chronicled in this blog and emails to friends and family; but I will say that no matter how prepared you might think you are, or how much you have read about the PC experience – NOTHING prepares you, nothing can. The constant emotional roller coaster that I personally experienced during my time in Namibia with very little sleep was too much for me to bear. My “highs” were extremely high and my “lows” were very low and going from one to another was exhausting both physically and mentally. So, after careful consideration and a variety of culminating circumstances during my time here I made the decision to officially resign from my Peace Corps training and return to the good ole’ USA. I’m surprisingly very comfortable with my decision which means I made the right one. Before I left on this journey I didn’t think my pride would allow me to quit – but having been here for a little while I realize that I’m not quitting. I tried something new and it didn’t work out – but the main point is I TRIED. I’m just proud of myself for trying because thousands of people never even get this far.

I spent the last four days in Windhoek undergoing a thorough medical evaluation to ensure I was healthy enough to reenter the states. I had my teeth cleaned at the dentist, three vials of blood drawn for various tests, two exit interviews and a physical at a local doctor’s office where my doctor was dressed in complete safari gear. I was finally cleared to leave on Friday, flew out of Windhoek at 9pm last night and nine hours later I’m on a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. In about an hour I will board another nine hour flight to Atlanta and then back to the Bluegrass. I have mixed emotions about returning home, but in the end I know it’s the right decision.
Thank you so much to everyone who supported me during this crazy journey. I certainly couldn’t have done it without you. To those of you who posted comments on the blog, sent me emails, wrote me letters, mailed me packages, called or texted – words can’t describe how much it meant to me.

Finally, a parting note to my fellow trainees in Peace Corps Group 30 (aka The Dirty Thirty):

Thank you so much. People on the outside might wonder how you can possibly make such great friends in such a short amount of time, but as we all know it’s absolutely possible. Having worked in campaigns for several years I’ve always said that you make the best of friends while working in the trenches and I’ve found this applies to Peace Corps as well. Good luck Group 30! I know each and every one of you will make a wonderful impact on the communities you will begin serving in October. I’ll be thinking about you all on October 16th as you swear in as official PCVs. Just remember that no matter what situation you are faced with - keep your heads up, smiles on, and exude confidence even when you’re unsure. I can’t wait to follow your blogs and send you mail! Thank you again for your friendship, shoulders to cry on and the ever present venting sessions while walking to Spar. Enjoy the rest of your time in Namibia and may you all be safe and healthy during the next two years. Best of luck!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Site Visit

There are many things to report to you from my one week at site so in an effort to convey my experiences so they make some sort of sense – I’ll break it up. Hope it makes sense!
* My Site and Assignment - I have just returned from my one week visit at the permanent site assigned to me on September 8th. My site is located in a small rural village just outside of Okakarara (in case you wanted to glance at a map of Namibia) about 2 hours north of Okahandja. The name of the village is Ongombombonde and it is home to approximately 2,000 people, 1,000 of whom are children. My village is about 7km away from the nearest town with a bank, post office and a convenient type store for basic groceries. For anything else, I would have to travel 110km to the nearest city, Otjiwarango. The village schools in this area are Waterberg Primary & Secondary Schools. I am assigned to Waterberg Primary to teach fifth grade English and sixth and seventh grade BIS (Basic Information Science), which basically means I will be teaching the kids the basics of how to use a library and computers. Don’t worry, I haven’t been assigned to teach these kids how to build a network – just the basics as in “this is a mouse” “this is how to open and save a file in Microsoft Word.” The school just received a donation of 20 refurbished computers from a German charity and there are rumors that the internet is not far behind. Teaching HIV/AIDS awareness to the children is also a project I have been assigned, however I’m not certain how I am to go about it just yet. More to learn on that over the next few months.
*Hostel Living – This is a new concept that I was not prepared for. I guess the brief explanation we received from PC staff just wasn’t enough for me to formulate a true picture in my mind of what this exactly meant. There are approximately 500 primary school students (grade 1-7) and of those, a little over 400 live in a hostel on the school grounds. For most of the students, their families live too far away to walk back and forth to school every day so they live at the school in the hostel. The children live in accommodations that I can only equate to something a smidge nicer than what I would envision a concentration camp to be like. The concrete rooms house up to eight children and they all share a communal bathroom (separate for boys and girls). While there are metal bed frames provided in each of the rooms the children are responsible for their own mattress – many of which do not own one. This leaves many children to sleep on the metal lattice frame of the bed with only a small blanket. Some simply slept on the floor – sadly more comfortable than the metal frame. The children are woken up at 5:30am every morning, then they are fed breakfast in the dining hall before school begins at 7am. School ends at 1pm when the kids report to lunch and then they are just able to play, wander around the village, etc. There are supervisory teachers that rotate duty but in my opinion the kids were completely without supervision when they weren’t in class or eating. The teacher will bang on the metal tub to ring the kids in for dinner around 6pm and then the children seem to wander into their bedrooms for some rest around 8:30 or 9pm. The children only go home one weekend per month to see their families, other than that – they are living at the hostel 24/7 with no organized activities outside of the school day.
*Welcome Ceremony – Monday morning was my first day of school at Waterberg. I started the day at the daily 6:40am staff meeting where I was introduced to all of the teachers and welcomed by the HOD (Head of Department). Following the meeting, we walked to the Monday morning school assembly which I soon found out had turned into a welcoming ceremony for me. The children were all lined up and singing traditional Otjiherero songs. Some children held up homemade pictures of the US and Namibian flags while others had made signs saying “Welcome to Waterberg Primary Miss Amy.” I was introduced to the entire student body and then was treated to more dancing and welcome songs. Then I was asked to address the students, which I did surprisingly at ease. For the rest of the week, I shadowed the current PCV at Waterberg who will be leaving in December.
*My Housing at Site – The PC has started a new version of training with our group. This means that in addition to living with the host family I have been living with for over a month now, when I move to my permanent site in Ongombombonde I will again live with a new host family from October-December (including Christmas). From what I can gather, finding a home in my village that met PC safety and security requirements was a bit of a task given that most are tin shacks. I did get a chance to meet my house family, albeit briefly, and see the home. Without running the risk of offending anyone, I’ll just leave it as it was an extremely uncomfortable and bizarre experience and cannot imagine living there. My gut feeling just tells me something is off. However, after December I get to move into a private one bedroom flat with a private kitchen and bathroom, which is actually quite livable. The only kicker is, the flat is located on the school premises about 50 yards from the kids dining hall and 100 yards from the kids hostel, meaning I can hear the kids all of the time, and they are always around. You can’t step out the front door without kids being all around and they were constantly knocking on the door or stopping by to visit. So, very little privacy and alone time. I’m just not sure living and working at the same place is a healthy option for me. We’ll see. I just have to figure out how to make it through the homestay requirement first.
*Hiking back to Okahandja – I’m proud to say I safely made it back to Okahandja! As part of our training, we were tasked with finding our own way back to our training town. For many this involved trains and several car changes, so I found myself pretty lucky to be sharing a car with another PC trainee and two local women for my two hour ride that only cost me about $14 US. Five of us crammed into a car the size of a VW bug with no air-conditioning wasn’t ideal but I arrived safely so that’s all that mattered. This way of transportation is going to take some getting used to. Essentially there are very few “registered” taxis or combies (bus). Gypsy cabs (which basically mean anyone who owns a car and wants to charge you to take you somewhere but is not registered) are everywhere and are discouraged by the PC but really the only way to get from a village to a major town. Hiking is something I would NEVER do in the United States but it seems to be the only way to get out of the village or nearest town. I’m just not totally comfortable with the safety aspect of it yet, but seasoned PCVs say it becomes normal after you’ve done it a few times and you just have to be smart about it.
*Sleep – I’m beginning to think that the mefloquine malaria medicine is starting to take a toll on my body. The vivid dreams I can handle (although many of them are about being at home and when I wake up in Okahandja it can be a bit sad), but one side-effect is insomnia which I think I’m suffering from a little bit. I’m always exhausted but I can rarely sleep a few hours without waking up. It’s become quite normal for me to go to bed at 9:30pm and wake up at 12am, 1:30am, 4:00am, and 6:00am – which then I just lay awake in bed until I have to get up at 7am. My first few weeks in Namibia I was sleeping like a baby, but now I can barely muster up 4 hours of sleep in a row.

That about brings you up to speed I think. For now I’m back in Okahandja for more training until mid-October. We have a language test this Friday to ascertain our level of conversation skills thus far and will be debriefing from our site visits. Overall, I had a pretty decent site visit and am excited to hear the stories of the other trainees. I’d be lying if I told you everything was great and I didn’t have any concerns or doubts, but those are just some things I need to think through this week and figure out if I can really handle it.
**PS – To those of you who have asked about sending mail and packages from this point forward let’s just hold on these items for now. Mail is taking a little longer than expected (3-4 weeks) and in that time I could be at a different location. So hold those letters and packages until further notice and most of all, THANK YOU for sending anything!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cultural Cooking Day - Saturday, September 5th

Saturday was cultural cooking day for our training. All of the trainees, trainers and host families came together and cooked traditional Namibian dishes from different areas of the country. Our Otjiherero group made homemade bread cooked in a pot in a hole in the ground and cooked all the parts of a sheep, including the head! I took part and scraped the charred hair of the sheep off of the head and a hoof – I think. Other groups cooked traditional fish and beef dishes, porridge, breads, stews and fresh chicken. We watched (and some trainees helped) as they took the live chickens out of the box, held them still over a large brick and cut their heads right off. Their feathers were then plucked and then they were cooked up for us to eat. Freshest chicken I’ve ever had – but definitely not for the faint of heart. My favorite dish was the “fatcakes” – think funnel cakes without the powdered sugar. Yum!! Enjoy the pics!

*Note – the traditional dress of the women that you see in most of the pictures of the ladies with the hats that look to be like cattle horns are that of the Otjiherero women. The Otjiherero culture is largely based around cattle farming, which explains the traditional hats for the women.

Trip to Windhoek - September 5th

Go Cats!! I’m there in spirit! The past two days have been pretty busy with some early mornings. It’s finally the weekend so I have a little time to rest before training starts up again on Monday. On Friday, we were able to get out of Okahandja for the day and go to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. About ¼ of the population of the country lives in Windhoek (appx. 500,000) so it was a bustling city filled with a westernized restaurants and shops. We started the day with a visit to the American Cultural Center where a cardboard cutout of Obama greeted us and there we received a presentation on the dangers and prevalence of malaria right after I got another Hep A vaccine. We left there mid-morning to go visit the Peace Corps office where I received my first mail from the states!!! Two packages to be exact – one from Mom & Dad and one from Teen. Yay!!! Who knew a two-week old US Weekly could be such a hot commodity around here. I loved all of the goodies – thank you!!

Following a brief tour of the PC office, we broke into our regional groups and set out to see where we will “hike” from in Windhoek to get to our permanent site (which we don’t know yet, but will find out this week – all I know is that I will be in the Otjozonjupa region north of Windhoek). Needless to say this was an experience all to itself and I’m certain I cannot put into words what this was like. Our “hike point” in Windhoek is at the SWAPO (South Western Africa Political Organization) headquarters. Our bus pulled up to drop us off and it was an immediate attraction to those living around the SWAPO HQ in tents. Come to find out, these people are basically living there in protest and have been for years. They are called “children of the liberation” which means many of them are orphans who lost their parents because they were killed while fighting for Namibian independence. Many of them have set up permanent camp at these offices trying to obtain reparations from the government. Very sad scene. So on to the hike point – this is just a small area where cars for hire wait for people like me and others to come when we need rides out of the city to a specific area of the country. Taxis are too expensive to go far routes and the cars for hire are the suggested mode of transport for us. Basically – if you own a car, you can make a living out of this work. Not sure how this will all go once I have to do this by myself but it’s a tried and true method used by current PCVs so we’ll give it a whirl otherwise I’ll never get to leave my site.

After visiting the hike point we took taxis to something a bit familiar to home – the mall!!! Our main objective was to purchase cell phones – check, and eat some good food – check! My parents have my cell phone number so if you’d like to call me (incoming calls and texts to me are FREE but it is too expensive to call home unless it’s necessary) give my parents a call or send them an email to get the number. I would love to call and text everyone but keep in mind we’re being paid based on the typical lifestyle of the Namibian family (currently we’re being paid about $2.67 US per day). Starting on Sunday, September 6th we’ll be 6 hours ahead of the US. The food was great – cheeseburger, fries, coca-cola light and a chocolate milkshake! Amazing what a cell phone and western style food can do for moral around here. Cheers!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Host Family Pics in Okahandja - The Kamayovas

Ujama and Junior

Front of the house

the whole family - notice the hat i gave Gerhard!

Our backyard

Menthos (8), Junior (2), Ujama (7)


Written on September 1st

Tjike?!! (How are you?) Things are going OK here in Namibia. The Peace Corps does everything they can to prepare you for the ups and downs that we will all experience during this service, but honestly nothing can really prepare you. I’ve definitely had some ups and downs lately but am trying to just take it one day at a time and focus on the small victories like being able to say my name in Otjiherero (Owami Amy) or finally understanding what my host brothers and sister are asking me (still working on this one). But let me just say, this is hard. Learning a completely new language that isn’t based off of anything you’ve ever learned before in your life is a bit intimidating and quite frustrating at times. French actually seems easy to me now. Otjiherero is another story all to itself. Add moving in with a Namibian family that you don’t know at all and you’ve got yourself one constantly awkward situation.

We endure four hours of language training every morning starting at 8:15 and if you let this get you down it can impact your entire day – so it went on Monday for me. A bit of homesickness, frustration with the language and reading emails from home left me sobbing like a loony person at the internet café in front of my computer. But I had a good night with my host family, got a good night’s rest and today was much better.
Now that I have moved in with my host family – The Kamajovas – I have a bit of a different schedule than before when all of the trainees were living together dorm style. Here’s what a typical day looks like for now:

7:00am – Alarm goes off and almost simultaneously Menthos (brother, 8) knocks on my door to wake me up. Get ready for training.
7:20am – Eat a bowl of cornflakes with the kids.
7:30am – Menthos and Ujama (sister, 7) walk me half way to the training center.
7:50am – I arrive at the training center to meet all of the other trainees to begin our day.
8:00am – Announcements/Assembly/National Anthems (I’m a pro at the Namibian National Anthem now – small victory to celebrate)
8:15am – Language Class
10:30am – Break time
11:00-1:00pm – Language Class continues
1:00-2:30pm – Lunch/walk to town/internet café/post office/Spar (the local grocery store)
2:30pm – 4:00 – Medical/Cultural/Technical Training
4:00pm – Break
4:30-5:30pm – More Medical/Cultural/Technical Training
5:30pm or 6pm – Walk home
6:00pm – Study, hang out with the family
7:00pm – Dinner (in front of the TV, usually watching Lorenzo’s Wife, a soap opera)
8:00pm – Watch the local news
8:30pm – Take a bath, get ready for bed
9:00pm – Read, journal, study
9:30pm – Lights out. I’m tired.

A few more things to share…..

Now that I am living with the Kamajovas I am being exposed to more typical Namibian dishes, specifically from the Otjiherero culture since that’s the language I’m learning and that is the Kamayova’s culture. For the most part, I have enjoyed everything. Meat and porridge is a big part of their diet. Their porridge is very similar to our grits without any taste. It is very inexpensive here and is very filling so it’s included in a lot of meals. If we don’t have porridge, we’ll have macaroni or rice. Last night we had spinach over porridge and tonight we had fish mixed with white beans in a red sauce served over rice. For lunch, I introduced them to the good ole American style PB&J. It’s easy to pack to training everyday and never spoils which is essential since we don’t have a refrigerator (we only have a freezer – so everything including the milk goes in the freezer). The first day she made me a PB&J she actually included butter on the bread as well which made for an especially fatty sandwich but it was fine. They put butter on EVERYTHING here. And not the lowfat low salt kind either. Everything is full fat, full cream. I’ve since made sure that butter doesn’t go on those sandwiches anymore. So as far as my lunches go during the week, usually a PB&J or tomato and cheese sandwich coupled with an apple and a few lemon crème cookies.

Big Brother Africa
I thought some of you might think this was funny. On September 7th Big Brother Africa returns to the TV here. Apparently this will be season 4. It’s almost exactly like the one in the States, but here they chose 14 people from 14 different African countries (Namibia being one of them) to participate. Everyone here is really excited so I’m sure I’ll get a chance to watch at home.

Michael Jackson, KFC, and the E! Network
On the first night I moved in with the Kamajovas several things happened that made me question whether or not I really was in Namibia.

1. First question from a visiting family member – “So what do you think about Michael Jackson? Do you think that doctor killed him?” These people LOVE their MJ and since I’ve been here I’ve watched the E! True Hollywood Story and the “Man in the Mirror” movie. They just can’t get enough.

2. As my host “mom” Karii (who I now call Sister, because we realized we are the same age) was showing me around the kitchen, she opened up the cabinet where the cups and mugs live and what stared at me – three KFC coffee mugs. Her sister was also wearing a KFC polo shirt. Congratulations Yum! Brands – you’ve made it in Namibia and it made me feel right at home.

3. So my host family rocks and they have Dish tv which means they get A LOT of channels – and one of them is E! network. Yay! I don’t watch it a lot because I’m so busy – but it does come in handy when I need a dose of home. Never in a million years did I think I would be watching “Kendra” on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Namibia.

Washing My Clothes
Well, it happened. And the back of my wrists were sore the next day but I have clean clothes! In case you ever find yourself without a washing machine or a laundry mat here’s how you can survive:
Fill a large basin with water from the hose outside.
Dump in laundry detergent – apparently you can never have enough.
Wash your “whites” first.
Take the fabric, pull it tight between your hands with your fingers in a fist towards the sky. Rub your fabric over the lower part of your wrist and knuckles until they are red and raw. Repeat with the rest of your clothes. (Karii laughed at me most of the way through, telling me I wasn’t doing it right. At least my clothes smell good)
Fill another basin with water and add fabric softener.
Take the clean clothes, wring out and place in the second basin.
Let them soak, wring out and hang ‘em up on the line to dry in the Namibian sun for everyone to see.

I guess that about sums up what’s been going on here. On Friday, we’ll go to Windhoek (the capital) for a tour and visit the Peace Corps Office. It will be nice to get out of Okahandja for a bit. On Saturday, all of the trainees and our host families will get together for a Namibian cooking extravaganza. Each language group and their families will be cooking dishes native to their culture. Will be sure to write and share some pictures from that event when I can!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Just Got Real

It just got real. Last night, we had an informational session with trainees and host families all together. This was the first time meeting the families that will host us for the next 8 weeks. I think I scored! I have a host mother (Evelyne), host father (Gerhard) and three host siblings Usama (girl, 7yrs), Menthos (boy, 8) and Junior (boy, 2). I only got to meet my mother tonight but she was awesome. In the fifteen minutes we spoke I learned that she has her own business and works out of the home. From what I can gather she wholesales beauty and hair products and some clothing from South Africa to stores in Namibia. My father works for DeBeers diamonds if I heard her correctly! I will have my own bedroom and bathroom at their house and will walk about 25 minutes to the training center every morning. I will eat breakfast with the family; my mother will pack my lunch and then I will return home in the evenings to eat dinner with the family. She seems very laid back and eager to please. This is their first time hosting a volunteer so they are really excited. And – they have a dog!!!! A “fluffy” one to be exact so that should be fun. The homestay is part of the cultural exchange during our training. During the homestay, our family is responsible for teaching us basic lifeskills for Namibian life, such as: cooking (we have to learn how to cook a minimum of 4 Namibian dishes, bake bread and make fat cakes), how to wash clothes by hand, practice our language skills, and how to light a gas stove and a paraffin lantern. My mother told me that we will watch the news every night so I can hear the language and learn about what’s going on in Namibia, and then we might watch a “soapie” together – Namibian soap operas!

I will admit walking into the room filled with the Namibian families was a bit scary tonight. We have been confined in our bubble of training here at the center for the last week and now we have to leave our roommates and move into a house with people we don’t know at all and from a completely difference culture. Our hands were sweating and stomachs filled with butterflies until our host mothers hugged us like their long lost children. Now we are all excited for the next part of this training! While still a little weirded out about moving into their home, it’s nice to know I am being welcomed with open arms. Once I have pictures of my host family I will be sure to post them!