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Opuwo! (“The end” in Otjiherero) October 15, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Communication, Cows, Culture, Eh?, Home and away, Ovitoto, VSO.

It was time to make my final visit to Ovitoto a few weeks back. I had this nagging feeling that there was something really important that I’d forgotten to do. I also hadn’t heard from Tjono in weeks. No matter which phone I called in the village, I either found the line disconnected, or received a response of “Oh, Tjono…. He is not here,…. He is in the place” (where “the place” really is often depends on who you are talking to, but all I knew was that he was not where he should have been, on the end of the phone to me).


Having set up a last minute meeting with the Regional Councillor, so that he can meet my replacement and that I can say cheerio, we made the immediate decision to drive up that day and take our chances with having the room to stay at the school and that everyone we needed to meet would be there. I felt pretty groggy as I took the turn-off on to the gravel road to Ovitoto, trying to give my successor a crash-course in Herero customs and greetings, whilst choking on the dust that blew in through the broken cover of my friend’s Jeep I was borrowing.


As we pulled up at the ECO-C, Tjono was there, half-naked (a normal state for him when I arrive, for some reason) but expecting us at least. I had allowed three days for this final visit, to show the new girl around, introduce her to important and helpful people and so on. By mid-afternoon, we had covered the highlights of the area, and sat to wait for the Regional Councillor. Typically no one at his office knew where he was exactly, nor did they think he would come back for our meeting. They were right – he didn’t. We sat and waited and he didn’t turn up or answer his mobile phone.


“Eer, yeah, this is pretty standard for Ovitoto I’m afraid”, I try explaining to the new girl, who is taking it all in her stride. I do get the feeling that she is wondering exactly what I have been doing for the last year in this quiet dusty little community.


We trundled back to the room at the school at sunset. I was finding it a little strange to be sharing my Ovitoto with someone, and even more odd to be sharing the room at the school with someone as well. I have my own way of being in Ovitoto. I like the peace and quiet. I like to relax in the room. I like to go and chill outside with the kids, but only when I feel like it. I realised just how set in my ways I have become, and how hard I found it to adjust to another person being there. Not that there is anything wrong with my successor at all: she’s fab, but it is difficult to explain certain things and there were some important messages that I wasn’t sure how to relate to her.


 The children were quite overexcited by the presence of another shilumbu, and of the fire-engine-red Jeep I’m driving; small faces keep popping up at every window and little hand grip hold of us whenever we venture outside. Rather upsettingly, the children have taken on the Namibian habit that upsets me so much, of jabbing a hand out, demanding “Give me one dollar”. Only a rare cheeky kid has ever done this to me in Ovitoto, but on this visit, they were making a chorus out of it. This expectation that so many tourists fulfil of handing out spare change to kids that ask is encouraging a terrible mindset of complacency and the “gimme gimme” culture, and I was actually almost embarrassed that the children were behaving like this just because I was accompanied by the new girl.


That night, I developed the full-blown flu, not helped by the dry and dusty air. The following morning, I wasn’t sure whether my sinus would explode first before my scratchy throat caused me to cough up a lung. Depressed that I was sick, and worried that if I got any worse, I wouldn’t be able to drive us home, I set about finishing everything up that I could think of so that we could head back to Windhoek in the afternoon. Firstly, we headed to the ECO-C, where the new girl and Tjono could be acquainted, I could explain the objectives, aims and developments of the centre for one last time, and show off all the work we had achieved over the last year. It was strange to see how naturally ideas about recycling human waste, building shacks so they face north and the fatness of cattle have become to me. I realised how easily I can communicate with Tjono now, whilst the new girl and Tjono struggled to understand each other’s accents. I noticed how I knew every inch of the centre, what it once was and what it will be after I have gone. I realised how hard I must have worked for this whole place to make so much sense to me now, in comparison to when I arrived and everything felt it was upside down.


There wasn’t much time to reminisce however, as it was time to take the finally-purchased TV and VD player up to the school, which I had bought using the money that my parent’s church, St James’ of West Hampstead, had so kindly donated. We had been asked to come up during morning break, which of course caused a lot of energetic screaming, tugging and pushing from the sea of small children, just desperate to hold my hand or pull on my hair. As soon as I took out my camera, the situation escalated, with children fighting each other to get in the shot: “Take me one photo, Miss Isabella!”. Before I got crushed by the overzealous kids, another child ran around the yard ringing a bell, marking the end of play.


In order to formally accept the television set, the Principal arranged that a presentation would be made in front of the learners by their classrooms, just like they had when I delivered the books that my parents had brought over a few weeks before. All the children lined up in their classes, as the teachers stood on a concrete platform outside the classrooms. It took a while to get everyone quiet and for all the teachers to arrive from the staff room. Mr Kazombiaze, the Life Science teacher with whom I have enjoyed working with over the last year, introduced my arrival, explaining that it was time for me to leave, but before I do, I have brought them something. He then handed over to Mr Katuvesiruena, the school Principal. He shared some very heart-felt words about my work with the school over the year, about how I am a part of their family and will be forever remembered for all my work and help in my time here and about how the donation reflects the good nature of the community from which I come. He continued to explain to the children about how important it is to understand people from other places, as we are now part of a Global Village, and that my community back home and the Ovitoto community are now one community together, linked by the work I have succeeded with. I was even more touched by the fact he remembered that my name is Isabella and not Elizabeth.

It would be hard to share with you all of the warming and kind words that were shared with me by both Katuvesiruena and Kazombiaze, as Namibians do talk a lot at these type of events, given the chance. The bottom line however was that they are incredibly grateful for the TV, that they have appreciated the work I have done as much as I have enjoyed doing it, and that I really struggled to make my little thank-you-and-goodbye speech without my voice cracking and a tear creeping down my cheek.


Mr Kazombiaze then ordered the children to sing for me. They promptly burst into an Otjiherero song about education, followed by their school’s anthem, and finished with the Namibian National Anthem, which I joined in for the bits that I knew. It is terribly cliché to say, but there is something very moving about being sung to by children, particularly as they made their harmonies and sung in the round, so that waves of sounds undulated from the crowd of purple shirts and black faces. As the crowd dispersed and the children disappeared off to class, a few of them began a round of “We love you”, which just about finished the moment.


I was strangely distracted as I packed up the room for the last time and drove out of the school gates. I stopped off to see some friends at the Regional Councillor’s Office. There was a common question asked to me at each goodbye: “When are you coming back?”. No one seemed to grasp the fact that I was going home, for good. Whilst this leaving process is so hard and I would love to come back one day, I know it will never be the same, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be able to afford to for a few years. I tried to reassure them that the new girl is the new me, and to try not to call her Isabella, even if she is an oshilumbu.


Tjono wanted a lift to see his family in Windhoek so I went back past the ECO-C to collect him. As he packed up his stuff and switched off his little radio that was crackling out some Herero music, I wandered around the centre, trying to think what else I had to do before I left. Everything was more or less in place. I looked over to the vegetable gardens that I had worked so hard on planting a few weeks before, and noticed that the mealie and pumpkins are already sprouting through. I think it will be a good harvest this season, and have made the new girl promise to send me photos when it is fully grown.


Fluey and a little feverish, I drove out of the village towards the main road. There was no big farewell, or really anyone around on this hot and dusty afternoon. I noticed my successor kept glancing at me throughout the whole journey, as if expecting me to have a wee cry. Tjono and I had our last little disagreement, as he gave me very Namibian directions from the highway to his sister’s house in the township (“ah, it is in that place. Do you know that place? Oh it is near there. No, here.”). There was much excitement as we arrived at her house (I blame the bright red shiny Jeep), and I gave Tjono a quick hug before he got sucked into his family, and we drove off.


As I pulled in to my driveway back in Windhoek, I felt more dusty and full of flu-fog than sad to have visited the village for that one last time. I actually felt more frustrated and miserable that I was sick again, and had to cut my last ever visit to Ovitoto short. Whilst I’m sure the community did eventually notice my efforts and hard work, and they did enjoy the activities and workshops that I put together for them, tis their way to acknowledge this silently, barely noticeable to the untrained eye. If I had no faith in what I do, I would have thought the community were as indifferent to my departure as they were to my arrival. It has often been a thankless job, with little feedback on how my work or the project is perceived. They surely were not an easy bunch to work with, and I do despair sometimes over what the future holds for them, little neglected Ovitoto. However I am also optimistic that something good will come out of it, that I helped plant the seeds of something that will grow to a full harvest.



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