Uapanduka! kora? October 16, 2006Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Eco-goodness, Namibia.
Wow. I’m a busy bee at the moment. I’m just about to depart on a 4 day conference/workshop on desertification with our donors, the UNDP GEF (United Nations Development Programme Global Environmental Fund): 3 days at Henties Bay, which is on the coast, and I’m super excited as I will finally be able to check out the surf situation – hurrah. And then we’ll travel to Gobabeb, at a desert research centre in the middle of the Namib Desert, where we’ll spend the night. So exciting. Although I am very aware that all the other donor recipient NGOs will be there too, and I am likely to be the youngest and least experienced of the bunch, which I find rather daunting. I am fully prepared to embarrass myself in front of the group. Watch this space for mishaps.
But before I go, I thought I would share with you my last week’s activities…
Cow pats trodden in: 19. Deadly spiders killed: 1 (it was it or me!). Words learnt in Otjiherero: 44 (get me!). Number of times was laughed at for mispronouncing newly learnt Otjiherero words: 23. Males offended by making eye contact: 7.
After just one day back at work after my week up north, I get sent off for my first stint in the bush on my own. I was driving up to Ovitoto with my boss, the conservancy where our project is running, and left. As previously mentioned, Ovitoto is rural, very rural, and extremely underdeveloped. I was staying in the main village, Okandjira, which is the largest out of the 19 villages in the region, with two ‘shops’, a health clinic, a school and the Regional Councillor’s Office, where I was based. The roads aren’t paved, dust and real tumbleweed (!!) roll through the streets, and cows and goats roam freely (hence the number of pats trodden in – doh!).I was working with our Field Officer, Milly – a charming and very sweet local Herero girl, who I plagued with questions during my stay and got to teach me Otjiherero. I was supervising a Community Savings training workshop for my first two days. Not so easy when it is all conducted in Otjiherero, which I should mention has no resemblance to any language I have ever encountered. It also isn’t so easy when everyone, including the trainer, arrive over two hours late. The people don’t have a great sense of time-keeping, and it’s near impossible to get them to stick to appointments. After the workshop, I went to get feedback from the small group of trainees, which wasn’t so easy as they insisted on the trainer, Ndwezu, being present. Transparency and openness is really important to them, but this also means that I won’t get honest constructive criticism out of them. Apparently the training was flawless, they know everything, they wouldn’t do anything to improve it, which I know is crap, simply because the training was only half completed due to tardiness. The only problem they had was with the food we provided for lunch. Sandwiches are just not acceptable, and they expect a proper cooked meal. This is perfectly feasible but it was amazing how much importance they placed on food during training. Despite the fact that the training we offer is free and potentially positively life-improving, they seem to expect us to bribe them with food for attending. I had a long debate with them about this, trying to find out what they wanted to eat instead, but getting a straight answer is near impossible. Their attitude was quite astonishing in that they seem to think that they are doing us a favour by turning up (late!), when we want it to be a joint effort with full participation and initiative from both sides. This is just the tip of the iceberg of internal local politics of development.
They did however use this opportunity to interrogate me. They all pretended to know nothing about the project, which has been running for 9 months already, and expected me to know everything, which I don’t, as I am still very new. This was further complicated as they insisted that Ndwezu acted as translator, even though they all speak English. This was all a big game of ‘Let’s play with the new white girl’, and questions became even more aggressive when they found out I was unmarried and childless. In defence, I adopted the role of shifty politician, deflecting questions I didn’t know the answer to, being entirely non-committal about things I wasn’t sure about, and overly confident about the things I did as a way of covering up my ignorance. My boss later confirmed that I dealt with the situation perfectly, which is a relief as it could have gone terribly. The rest of work was pretty easy. Milly is great to work with, so we got on with sorting out issues down at the ECO-C, sorting out the training we’re running next month and generally learning about important issues in Ovitoto. The project has been at a bit of a standstill for a while, mainly due to the death earlier this year of our partner organisation’s founder, Dr Tjitendero, who was a key figure in the fight of Independence and also from Ovitoto, hence the reason for working there. The people were very moved by his death, and things ground to a halt. However, things are finally moving forward, and I can proudly say that I am partly responsible for this, which is hugely satisfying, despite the massive work load. November is going to be an insanely busy time, but terribly exciting. Yey!
The Ovitoto people are all really friendly, but are also looking to see what they can get out of me, so I tried to stay subtly alert. They also are very up front in their manner, making orders instead of questions, and not flowering their sentences with pleases and thank yous like us Brits. It’s quite hard to accept this and not get offended by their perceived rudeness, which is always accompanied by a huge bright smile. I was staying at the hostel at the school, in a little basic apartment on the campus. Hostels here act kind of like boarding for kids who live too far to commute, but without the luxuries known of boarding school back home. Kids as young as 6 are left to their own devices, and go weeks without seeing their parents, and certainly do not have the loco parentis molly-coddling of British boarding schools. But they have a real family community, with older kids looking after the younger ones. And they do all seem happy. They have no toys, wear ripped clothes and play in the dust with big smiles on their faces.And they sure were excited by the new ‘whitey’ in town. The first night, I had about 45 kids sitting outside my room, staring at me. The second night, a group of 20 kids (about 8-11 years old) just started singing for me, with such spirit and rhythm. They sang for about an hour, with impromptu harmonies, dancing and solos. I was really quite moved by this performance, as you would never find this at home. Communication was limited, so I attempted a round of the hokie-cokie, which I don’t think they really got. I also attempted a round of ‘Head-shoulders-knees-and-toes’ in both English and Otjiherero (it didn’t really work in the latter), which they tried but ended up falling about the ground laughing. They were hugely fascinated by my hair, all wanting to stroke it, pull and check my roots to see where it was attached, as they refused to believe that it grows naturally – any women out here with straight hair have extensions glued or sewn in. These casual evenings however did lead to my noticing something quite alarming. One boy showed me that he had a metal needle through his ear lobe. He then took it out, passed it to another boy who then pierced his own ear with it. Who then took it out and passed it to another boy who did the same. In an area where HIV infection is around 30%, alarm bell started ringing, and I did the best I could to explain to them that they shouldn’t be doing that. They did stop, but I am still worried, and the next day explained the situation to Milly, who is working on an HIV and AIDS programme at the school. I just hope that the kids understand the dangers involved. It is hardly the ‘sharing needles’ issue that you would normally relate to kids and HIV. I will definitely be following that up on my return.The kids have the cute gene over here. With their big smiles, nervous giggling and enthusiasm, they are a total pleasure to have around. Although I do find it strange that I was treated with automatic respect yet also like an exotic zoo creature just for the colour of my skin. Skin colour has such relevance here, and it will take a long time before I am accepted as anything else than ‘the white girl’, and even longer before I understand the intricacies and subtle (and blatantly unsubtle) reasoning and assumptions made because of it.