September 19, 2002 - The Oregonian: Volunteers bound for Namibia
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September 19, 2002 - The Oregonian: Volunteers bound for Namibia
Volunteers bound for Namibia
Read and comment on this story from the Oregonian on a group of volunteers headed for Namibia at:
Volunteers easing into new roles*
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Volunteers easing into new roles
JEN NEWLIN BELL
We are armed with mosquito nets, a South African field guide to snakes and other reptiles, 11 shots (so far) and a local-language dictionary. We are U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.
This spring I boarded a plane to Namibia with 21 other bright-faced Americans. We came toting malaria pills and wide-brimmed hats. We threw around words like "sustainability" and "grass roots."
We were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers in early August for a two-year term of service. We've just hauled our 80 pounds of luggage to this remote village, in the northwest corner of this desert land, in an attempt to "better" something.
Namibia is a subtle country -- one even my high school geography teacher would have to look in an atlas to find. It's a country where the word "independence" is fresh and round in people's mouths. A land where the residue of apartheid still lingers. A land that could use 22 do-gooders.
My husband, Dave, and I begged to be assigned to Africa when we applied to the Peace Corps two years ago. But we got Asia. Bangladesh, actually.
So we started perfecting our Bengali handwriting and researched how to properly tie a sari and avoid Bengal tigers.
But after the events last September, our Bangladesh assignment was canceled. Too much anti-American sentiment in the country, we were told.
We were to be reassigned. To Africa.
Our families relaxed. Namibia is Christian and democratic. Never appears in headlines. A safe place.
Dave's mom packed us a hefty lunch for the plane ride. We stuffed Powell's books and Starbucks coffee into unfilled corners of our bags. And left.
I came to learn simplicity. And teach people the skills to better their lives. To enjoy the children who cling to my limbs. And adore the red dirt that has stained my Birkenstocks.
Dave's here because he's dreamed of working with people in developing countries. And of sub-Saharan Africa.
"Idealistically I am here because I have been dealt an incredibly lucky hand in life, and I need to do all that I can to pass that luck on to others," he said.
I prepared myself for the bucket baths, pit latrines, paraffin lanterns and thatch roofs. But I didn't entirely prepare to be shunned as a woman. Or to see welts on children's hands from the beatings from their teachers. The endless AIDS funerals.
But that's why we're here. To educate. And to change.
The Peace Corps began in 1961 to promote cultural understanding and to assist developing countries in meeting their resource needs. Since then it has served 135 countries.
Our Namibia group will, ideally, be bettering the education system. We'll work on library projects, adult literacy, HIV/AIDS education, the reduction of corporal punishment in the classroom and the promotion of English, which is now Namibia's official language.
Reid Craig, a lanky, soft-eyed native Oregonian trainee who uses hand gestures with every conversation, applied to the Peace Corps after the events last September.
He's no stranger to good will. Or Africa. He spent a great deal of time in Zimbabwe, and when he's not working for the Multnomah County Library System, he's volunteering.
"Peace Corps is an opportunity to give what I have to offer and learn so many new things at the same time," Craig said.
But right now Craig is concerned with mastering his clicking language and the art of hand-washing his clothes. After all, it is still training.
Erika Riddle isn't learning a clicking language. She learning Otjiherero, one of the indigenous languages. Riddle's a hearty-laughing blonde from Centerville, Utah, who's had a Peace Corps application in her filing cabinet since she was 12 years old.
"I think (Peace Corps) is an incredible way to learn, grow, give and serve while actually being a part of a culture and way of life very different from my own," she said.
Marie Shokley is a 64-year old Virginian who has wanted to join the Peace Corps for 40 years. Robert Hite, who hails from Missouri, is perpetually emptying the Namibian sand from the cuffs of his pants. Katie Meyers, from California, jokingly studies a flashcard that reads, "The man was eaten by a lion."
But being here won't be all flashcards and sand-free khakis. Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Naturally, it has a way to go.
There are lingering racial and tribal tensions. And there are a new language and form of government to perfect.
The Namibians know that. And some think that the Peace Corps will help their country over its hurdles.
Simon Paasa Iipinge, from northern Namibia, said he's a product of the Peace Corps. When he was in high school, he learned English from a Peace Corps volunteer. He said it changed his life. And volunteers continue to change the lives of others.
Now Iipinge works for Peace Corps Namibia as a language and cross-cultural coordinator. Peace Corps Namibia employs about 25 people -- nurses, drivers, language trainers and staff. The staff oversees two incoming volunteer groups a year.
Lois Hobson, the new country director for Peace Corps Namibia, says the volunteers will help shape the future of the country.
"Peace Corps," she said, "is a wonderful experience for the volunteers -- for the challenges in the country, for the opportunity to develop as individuals and ambassadors, and to help our world." You can send mail to Jen Newlin Bell care of Peace Corps Namibia, P.O. Box 165, Opuwo, Namibia, Africa.
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