December 14, 2000 - The Boston Phoenix: Truth be told, until the Peace Corps stationed my old college roommate Debbie there, I didn't know anything about Namibia

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Namibia: Peace Corps Namibia : The Peace Corps in Namibia: December 14, 2000 - The Boston Phoenix: Truth be told, until the Peace Corps stationed my old college roommate Debbie there, I didn't know anything about Namibia

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, August 15, 2003 - 10:24 am: Edit Post

Truth be told, until the Peace Corps stationed my old college roommate Debbie there, I didn't know anything about Namibia

Truth be told, until the Peace Corps stationed my old college roommate Debbie there, I didn't know anything about Namibia

Culture shock

Life at the bottom of the world means dancing with strangers, keeping your clothes ironed, and going to a lot of funerals

by Camille Dodero

In the African nation of Namibia, it's unsafe for a carload of females to pick up male hitchhikers -- even though hitchhiking is a major method of transportation here. So when we, three twentysomething girls, stop for an African woman waiting on the side of the road and an anonymous man pushes past her to stuff his bloodied friend into our back seat, I'm extremely nervous.

"I will take the woman," my friend Debbie orders, gesturing from her place in the driver's seat over to the matronly figure standing in the dirt.

"Huss-pee-tal!" the anonymous man rages back, ignoring Debbie's demand and squeezing in beside his semi-conscious companion. "Huss-pee-tal!" his sharp syllables repeat.

Speeding away, our vehicle scrambles for the nearest hospital, almost immediately reaching 160 kilometers per hour (100 miles per hour), and we veer into that nebulous zone between Good Samaritans and fools.

Namibia. The word evokes a curious state of nonplus: where's that?

Huddled at the bottom of the globe, pierced by the Tropic of Capricorn, and lapped on its left side by the Atlantic Ocean, Namibia sits northwest of the country of South Africa. Only 10 years old -- until l990 it was a South African colony called South West Africa -- the infant republic has one of the lowest international profiles of any sub-Saharan nation. Even when the mainstream media pay lip service to southern Africa's afflictions, Namibia isn't usually mentioned, even though it has its own morass of atrocities.

Truth be told, until the Peace Corps stationed my old college roommate Debbie there, I didn't know anything about it. So when Jen, another college roommate, and I decided to visit Debbie for two and a half weeks, I researched Namibia's history and found words like "neocolonialism," "apartheid," "guerrilla," and "warfare." I thought, Why haven't I heard more about this place?

For a few reasons. Partly because Namibia is a politically inert, savanna-patched desert with a relatively small population -- 1.7 million (about the size of Nebraska) as compared to South Africa's 39.4 million (about three million more than California). Because the numbers are smaller, the floodlights get shifted away from Namibia and over to Angola's bloodier fights, Zimbabwe's more virulent racial tensions, and Botswana's higher percentage of HIV-infected adults.

It's also partly because Namibia is -- and always has been -- culturally disconnected. Explored by the Dutch, colonized by the Germans, and then annexed to South Africa after World War I, the land Namibia occupies was controlled by various foreign slumlords. But even before brutal squatters ambushed the premises to hammer in their tyrannies, the terrain served as a battleground for cultural clashes: in the 19th century, migrating African tribes like the Hereros, the Nama, and the Damara butted heads and often went to war.

As a result, present-day Namibia has a completely fractured national identity. The country's nascent school curriculum encourages its students (here called learners) to be fluent in English. Afrikaners, the white oppressors of the apartheid era, still have a strong presence in the south. German influence marks places like Windhoek, Namibia's capital and largest city, and Swakopmund, a lily-white seaside resort town on the western coast. And most regional ethnic groups -- Herero, Ovambo, Damara, San -- remain divided from one another, despite any alliances formed under colonialism.

"I would not say I am a Namibian," says a 24-year-old Herero woman who lives in Namibia. "If you are a Ovambo, you say you are a Ovambo. If you are Herero, you say you are a Herero. [The word] `Namibian' does not explain."

But it does explain. Saying you're Namibian explains, at the very least, that you subsist in an environment where herds of cattle are bank accounts, coffins are furniture, and bodily fluids are venom. And it indicates that you live in a country where petty crime is merely a public nuisance, regarded much the way graffiti is in America. Identifying yourself as a Namibian also suggests that if your rental car were to moonlight as a mini-ambulance, you'd just be happy to be at the wheel of a rental car.

SO THIS IS AFRICA: Girls' Club members wait with Debbie, Jennifer, Uatuiihe, and Jen (seated)
Okakarara is the central Namibian town where Debbie has taught 11th-graders for the past 18 months. At mid-morning, cows, goats, and children stream across the paved main way. Modest houses crouch in rows, their yards spangled with stacks of tires, six-foot-high termite mounds, and chicken-coop wire. Heavyset women vending "fat cakes" -- doughnut and fried-dough hybrids -- dot the roadside with their iron pots.

Debbie lives down the street in a house that's considered a palace by Namibian standards -- a one-floor domicile with two bathrooms, running water, a television, a stove, electricity, a back yard, and a guest room. During the apartheid era, white folks resided in this neighborhood, but now, other than Debbie and her two British volunteer roommates, ivory skin is rare. "The whites left and broke the pool," Debbie complains. "Bastards."

Now that light skin is scarce in Okakarara, unfamiliar white faces tend to cause a commotion. Everywhere we go in the small town, Jen and I are treated like celebrities: people always stare, sometimes they want to talk with us, and sometimes they congregate around us. The few times I go walking alone, women and children come out of their houses to peek, spy, or converse. At one point, a train of six or seven kids trails 20 feet behind me. And every once in while, from just beyond my peripheral vision, I hear a young voice chirp, "Ocheeloombo." Debbie says it means "white thing."

So when Jen and I turn up at Debbie's secondary school for the first time, there is a similar public display, this time performed by gawking teenagers. Debbie ignores them and shepherds us to her morning faculty meeting, a 10-minute pre-game huddle that on this day has a cadre of 20 or so impeccably ironed and shined Namibian teachers clapping for Jen and me, two tired strangers in wrinkled clothes and running sneakers. (Only later do I discover our gaffe -- in Namibia, it doesn't matter whether an outfit matches or how frequently it's worn, as long as it's nice-looking and ironed. And yes, Namibians do own irons.)

After the assembly, Debbie passes us off to her colleague Jennifer Uatuiihe (pronounced "Y-too-yay"), a 26-year-old Herero woman with a husband and a young son. Jennifer is openly curious about us. How many siblings do we have? Are we married? What do Americans think of Namibia? I don't bother telling her that Americans don't think of Namibia.

In turn, Jennifer talks about her family. "I don't see my mother very much anymore," Jennifer says wistfully. "Things are difficult for her. She doesn't have enough cattle anymore. But I cannot help her. I do not want her to starve, but I must take care of my husband."

She appears to notice my quizzical expression. "See, if we [women] get married, we have to choose which way we go," she says, and explains that since her marriage, her in-laws have been her surrogate parents. "I could stop supporting my husband and go back to help my mother." She pauses. "But I would not do that."

Later I mention Jennifer's predicament to Debbie. I'm told that Jennifer has it good.

Namibians don't mince words. One morning Jennifer Uatuiihe chides me on my rumpled clothes by remarking, "Why don't you use an iron? You look like a mess." Twenty minutes into a conversation with a well-dressed man in a neatly ironed suit who introduces himself as a Namibian ministry worker, I'm informed that he prefers brunettes to blondes because "blondes just point at the size of my cock," while "brunettes just want to use it." (I'm a brunette, but ... no.)

The names of neighborhood watering holes are just as frank -- Peace Full Bar, Hot Stuff Bar, Hot Bar, Place of Joy Bar, Happy Life No. 1 Bar, Bar We Like. My first experience hanging out in a bar is in the central Namibian town of Omaruru, with a Peace Corps volunteer named Rebecca. Here, tiny neighborhood bars are called cuca shops -- "cuca" being the name of a once-popular Portuguese beer (pronounced "coo-ka," not "cucka"). The shop Rebecca frequents is a cement room, empty except for a few plastic chairs, two bass-thumping speakers, and a pool table. In the corner, behind a partition of iron mesh, the bartender hangs out selling bottles of domestic beer.

Namibia's drinking age is 18, but half the 20 faces bobbing to the Afro-beat music don't look that old. I make eye contact with a girl who has a gurgling baby strapped to her back while she swigs beer from a tall bottle. She smiles, skips over, and places her beer up to my mouth. Debbie has warned us not to refuse anything, so I take a few gulps.

"Dance with me," she pleads. I don't often dance in the States, but this is Africa -- so I dance. Scanning the room, I notice similar scenes: a shoeless woman embraces Debbie, while a wiry guy interlocks hands with Jen. I follow the baby-carrying girl's lead until a set of steely fingertips tugs at me. Turning around, I find a stern-looking guy beckoning.

"Are you married?" he asks. I say I'm not. He slides down from a stack of beer crates and squeezes my right hand. "Where are you from?" America. The girl with the baby notices she's lost her partner and playfully apprehends somebody else. "Can I have your address so that I can come and visit you?"

Another tap on the shoulder. It's a girl dressed in blue jeans who looks about 13. "He is no good," she warns. "Stay away from him. Come over here."

For the next hour, I feel like I'm at a square dance: I'm passed around the room from man to woman. I figure this is either a display of Namibian nightlife or a gush of hospitality -- until I notice a beer advertisement plastered on the clay wall. In the color poster, a goateed African man with tightly woven braids grins beside a shiny sports scar. Above him looms the slogan DRINK TAFEL -- LIVE THE GOOD LIFE. And in his arms is a smiling white woman.

Life here is different. When a toddler runs naked after tossing back two full beers, his parents giggle. When you summon a policeman for directions at night, sometimes he's too inebriated to be coherent. And when a married Ta-Te, the paternal head of a household, bids farewell to three female guests and his wife with "Good night, I am going to see my girlfriend," he is going to see his girlfriend.

There are simply no moral absolutes here, and that has consequences: Namibia's life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world, clocking in at 41 years.

"I'd never been to a funeral before I came here," remarks a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a teaching post in the south. "Now I go to them every week. Last week, my learner's 34-year-old aunt died. The weekend before, it was a double funeral for two kids in grade two."

After school one day, Jen and I are splayed out in Debbie's classroom when two girls enter, soliciting donations for the family of a 12th-grader who had died the previous evening. They tell Debbie the deceased girl's name.

"She died?" asks Debbie.

"Yes, miss. In a car accident."

Jen and I are shocked. Deb isn't really.

"That's the second learner I taught that died," she tells us after the girls leave. "You know, people die here all the time."

EN ROUTE to the Primary School, Ca-Baby looks back

In its November 9 issue, Rolling Stone asked Al Gore how the US should help Africa. "We have to avoid what is called `Afro-pessimism,' " he said, "because for every horror story -- and there are lots of 'em -- there are also less prominent success stories."

While the one-to-one ratio suggested in Gore's response struck me as unrealistic, I did come upon a few precursors of success in Namibia -- one of which is the Girls' Club at Debbie's secondary school. Spearheaded by Debbie, Jennifer Uatuiihe, and the school librarian, the Okakarara Girls' Club originated as a means of encouraging individuality among the 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade girls. A year and a half after the club's inception, its membership vacillates between 15 and 20. Such a small number might not seem impressive -- in America, it would barely merit a blurb in a community newspaper -- but as Jennifer Uatuiihe's own situation demonstrates, female empowerment is unheard-of here. It's an idea completely antithetical to Namibian culture.

During my stint in Okakarara, the secondary-school Girls' Club convenes on three separate occasions. At one of the gatherings, 10 girls with monikers like New-Girl, Ca-baby, and Gloria slouch at single desks, preparing an upcoming presentation for the primary-school girls. Calling the meeting into session, Debbie asks what topics the 11th-graders will discuss with their younger counterparts; somebody mentions AIDS.

"Did I show this to the Girls' Club?" Debbie asks, holding up a July issue of Newsweek. From it, she reads a boldface headline: "AIDS' DEVASTATING TOLL ON AFRICA'S YOUTH. Who is Africa's youth?"

"Us," 10 voices answer.

"Now if you read inside, it says that 20 percent of Namibian girls between the ages of 16 and 25 are infected," Debbie says. "If there are 10 girls here, how many of you have AIDS?"

Dead silence. A few heads drop. Gloria and New-Girl shift uncomfortably. Ca-Baby stops munching on her snack-size bag of Simba potato chips.

"If 20 percent of this room has AIDS, then how many? Two of you have HIV." She lets this settle in. "Look around, two of you have HIV."

"I don't have AIDS," pipes up Mberii, an 11th-grader with a head of braided cornrows.

"How do you know?"

"I had a test," Mberii responds softly.

The rest of the girls pretend to be distracted by something else -- the floor, the ceiling, the palm tree outside the classroom window. So, trying to draw them back in, Debbie changes the subject and asks who wants to read her primary-school speech aloud.

Mberii has hers out first, so she begins. "Today I will be talking about AIDS and our girls. Many girls don't even know why they have boyfriends. They think relationships are all about sex. Most of our girls are not using condoms, and they are having sex with many boys."

"They don't believe that HIV or AIDS exists," Mberii says, pausing to look up from her notebook. "But it does. We are putting a roadblock in front of our futures by not using condoms."

"If you get AIDS, you are going to feel lonely," she continues. "No one is going to like you. If you get HIV, you will get diarrhea and be vomiting all the time."

"Wait, please," Debbie interrupts. "Do you girls know how AIDS works in the body?" No answer. "This is very important." Debbie attempts to clarify that HIV isn't like the flu: victims won't know when they first get HIV, and there won't be an instantaneous bout of diarrhea or vomiting.

It's a thorough and accurate explanation, but one that isn't met with expressions of understanding. This is one of the major hurdles AIDS education faces here: culture. When people constantly see relatives and friends killed by car accidents and tuberculosis -- when they live near stores labeled "Normal Furniture" that depict paintings of coffins -- it's difficult to persuade them to use a piece of latex during intercourse because they might die from a disease that might not rear its poisonous head for 10 years. Ten years? Most don't assume they'll have that long to live. Often kids tell the Peace Corps volunteers, "But we're going to die anyway."

And since there's tremendous stigma, shame, and ignorance attached to the illness, most families don't admit -- or don't necessarily even know -- that their loved ones are dying from AIDS. The very nature of the disease allows something else, tuberculosis or pneumonia, to pound the nail into the coffin. So "They died from TB" or "They died from a heart attack" is a much more common refrain than "They died from AIDS."

Another problem with AIDS prevention here is that the disease is shrouded in misinformation. As Mberii mentions in her speech, some Africans think the disease doesn't exist, instead believing that AIDS is a scare-tactic fable designed to prevent Namibians from procreating. Look at this excerpt from The Golden Eye Post, a newsletter written by and published for the learners in the Ekulo Secondary School.

The Facts about HIV/AIDS written by Riki Robson, US Peace Corps

Q: I was told that the only cure for HIV/AIDS was to have sex with a virgin or a young child. Is this true?

A: This is absolutely NOT true. The only thing that you can do by sleeping with a virgin is risk infecting that person. This is just an ugly rumor that has been responsible for an increase in child rape and violence. Furthermore, no matter what anyone tells you -- AIDS cannot be cured by witch doctors or Western doctors. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS.

Halfway into my stay, Debbie, Jen, and I leave Okakarara to head up north. After six seemingly endless hours of driving through desolation, we reach Oshakati, an urban center approximately 50 kilometers away from the Angolan border, and meet up with four other Peace Corps volunteers at a restaurant and motel called Roche's. With two pool tables, lottery machines, and a bar area, Roche's is roughly the size of a suburban Howard Johnson's -- sufficient to make us feel that we're perched in the lap of luxury. At some point I notice that the television suspended in the room's corner is showing the film Buffalo 66 with Christina Ricci and Vincent Gallo -- a postcard from home.

For the first time since I've been in Africa, the setting feels comfortable enough to explore on my own, so I venture out into the opaque night. For no particular reason -- usually I'm not a smoker -- I've trucked a package of Virginia Slims to Africa; now I pluck it out of my backpack. I'm squatting on the ground and lighting the cigarette when I see a forest-green uniform emerge from the blackness.

The figure cradles a brown rifle. My heart thuds.

"Um, I'm sorry," I squeak. "I can go inside."

"No," he says slowly. "It is okay." A black beret caps his skull. He points the tip of his gun at my lit cigarette. Does he want me to put it out? Apparently not: he keeps pointing. Admittedly, I'm nervous, so my voice warbles when I offer him one. He accepts and lays it flat on his open palm.

And then he pets it, rubbing from filter to tobacco.

He catches me staring. "I never see smokes this long," he explains sheepishly.

My heart rate returns to normal. "Can I ask you something?"

"Yes, miss."

"Why do you have a gun?"

"To protect you," he says matter-of-factly.

"From what?"

He smirks at my naïveté. There are thieves around, he tells me. Ones that seek out rich white tourists like me, ones that will try to steal my belongings. Crime happens often in these parts, he warns, enough that Roche's needs 24-hour protection. He confesses that this is his second night on the job and he hasn't had to shoot anyone yet, but if he does, he's trained to aim for the legs.

Is he scared? He says no.

Then his walkie-talkie beckons. He slides my nicotine gift into his shirt pocket and then makes his way back into the darkness.

orthern Namibia is the Africa romanticized by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel -- majestic savannas, stick homesteads, donkey carts, brittle huts, wrinkled elephants, wily-tongued giraffes, and clustering zebras. It's also the Africa sketched by UNICEF reports -- little electricity or running water, naked babies, putrid latrines, and rank-smelling open markets. And it's the Africa bordering on war-torn Angola -- blue military fatigues, gun-toting grocery-store guards, and roadblocks ruled by temperamental rifle-slingers.

"I used to hear bombs and gunshots," recalls Kelly, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer who was placed in Odibo, a northern village less than a kilometer away from Angola. "But it didn't affect me because the people around me weren't affected."

For the past 25 years, intermittent civil war has addled Angola; occasionally the violence tumbles into Namibia. Last February was one of those occasions: UNITA, Angola's primary guerrilla group, attacked the village of Santa Clara, a location not too far from Kelly's residence. "That morning I heard more gunshots than usual," she remembers. "Later I saw people walking across the border in their pajamas."

Aware of the possibility that violence could continue to spill into this area, the Peace Corps evacuated any volunteers placed in this region. "Sure, we were moved," Kelly says, "but the people who live there, they can't just leave."

Camille Dodero can be reached at

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Story Source: The Boston Phoenix

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Namibia; PCVs in the Field - Namibia



By pissedoff ( - on Sunday, November 02, 2003 - 4:25 am: Edit Post

You have no idea of what you're talking about. You have made a huge generalisation of the few places you saw and during the very limited time you were here. You see I am Namibian, and I am disguted in the way you have portrayed this country having only been here for a visit. It's amazin how you think you can give your opinion as THE facts. Stop spreading untruths.

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