I’m back after 3 weeks of traveling! I’m planning on posting a couple blog entries to get you all caught up.
In early March, CGE loaded up the van and drove 9 hours to the Northern Omusati region, close to the border with Angola. Each of us lived with a different family on a “homestead” for the week, getting picked up each day to travel around the region and listen to various speakers. My family consisted of Meme Saraphina, one of the toughest and hardworking ladies I have ever met; Kristof, a 16 year old boy who showed me the ropes around the place and kept me very very active; and Angula, a darling 3 year old boy whose antics kept me constantly amused. Their father lives and works in Swakopmund and only comes home occasionally, but I got to talk with him on the phone once. My homestead was about a 7 minute walk from the road, surrounded by fields of maize and mahanghu (millet). The house, which was more like a compound, was fenced with sticks and the open air rooms were defined by smaller fences. My room, like the others, was a hut made of mud bricks and thatched with grass. There were huts for storing, huts for sleeping, huts without walls for shade and relaxation, and huts for cooking.
On a typical day, I would wake up around 6:30, hear the crowing of roosters, watch the sun rise over the baobabs, and drink a cup of coffee and eat some bread with peanut butter. CGE gave our families a supplementary box of food, so we ate a mixture of traditional and pre-packaged foods. Then I would walk to the road and wait for the CGE van to pick me up for our day of activities. In the afternoon, I would arrive home around 4 and socialize in the shade with whatever neighbors were visiting. Afterwards, we would all go to the fields and “cultivate”. This primarily referred to hoeing and weeding rows and rows of their fields. I took awhile to get the hang of it and they found my poor attempts hilarious. After cultivating, the sun would begin to set and I would don my “mosquito proof clothes” and go with Kristof to collect the goats. Animals are turned loose onto the roads in the morning and brought back to their pens in the evening. This is to prevent them from running loose in the fields and eating all the people-food! So it was a common sight to see donkeys, goats, and cattle roaming the roads everywhere in the North. Once we returned home, we would sit by the fire and cook oshifema– a thick porridge made from water and millet flour, and either chicken stew, fish, or spinach. Promptly after the dishes were cleaned we would go to sleep, usually around 8:30 or 9.
Going to bed early was completely find with me as each day presented itself with many physical and mental challenges. It was considerably hotter in the North than it was in Windhoek. Additionally, there were no toilet facilities, you just found a place to go in the fields. Water was collected from a nearby pond, a fact I did not realize until I had been drinking it for half the week– we were advised by CGE not to drink pond water, so I lucked out by not getting sick. Bathing was done using buckets outside, which was surprisingly invigorating and refreshing.
My experience with my homestay changed my opinion on a lot of things. The culture was very open and positive, I did not hear a single complaint from anyone the entire time I was there, even though there was tons of hard work to be done daily. Neighbors and family frequently stopped in to visit and lend a helping hand, or take a jug of the Marula juice my Meme made. The culture, like many other non-American cultures I have encountered, really focuses on politely greeting everyone you meet, which helped me feel welcome and accepted. In addition, one of my friends observed that people in the North seemed more satisfied with their lives than many people in the United States because they work all day to produce food for themselves and their families. They also follow the patterns of the sun, rising and sleeping as it rises and falls and resting during the hottest part of the day. This is potentially more rewarding and fulfilling lifestyle than spending days indoors securing profits for a company that you may not even believe in. There was also much less noticeable inequality, everyone has land to cultivate and some animals to raise and eat. It is no wonder that many people in Windhoek talk fondly about life in the North and want to return. Windhoek is seen by many people as a place for work and education only, and the North is the place where people hope to raise a family and retire.
After my time in the North, I realized why tribalism is such a large issue in Namibia. The area where we stayed was almost entirely Ovambo and Oshiwambo was the language spoken everywhere, even in schools and on billboards. The people I met identified as being Ovambo first, and Namibian second. This sentiment obviously poses problems of national and political unity.
Lastly, despite the positive attitudes of my family, I still witnessed the affects of extreme poverty. Most children I met were very small for their age, and most did not have proper shoes or clothes. And there was no “clean” drinking water, or sanitation services, or electricity. In the eyes of the Millennium Development Goals, my family was severely underdeveloped, yet they still led a happy and full life. It made me realize how easy it is to generalize poverty and turn it into statistics, without understanding the other factors contributing to a person’s well-being, or understanding the lifestyles that have been in place for generations. It also made me realize how difficult it would be for an international development organization to come into the region and “modernize” because of differences in the community structures, a huge lack of English, and a lack of understanding of traditional practices and values. And why spend money to create water taps when each family has access to ponds that provide them with plenty of water that does not make them sick?
Overall, my homestay experience was both rewarding and challenging. It altered my perspective on rural life, development plans, and how we view poverty. I also learned to appreciate being disconnected from the world I am used to with cell phones and laptops, and take time to appreciate sunsets, stars, and a variety of (somewhat terrifying) bug life!