Thursday, April 22, 2010

Okahao Afternoon

A friend of mine called me Tuesday afternoon telling me he was in town and wanted to meet up. Elvis is currently living in Windhoek but his job has him travelling around the country. He grew up in a homestead in a rural area near to Okahao and was looking forward to touring the area. He said it had been over ten years since he'd gone deep into the bush where he spent his childhood. After a couple of beer at a local shebeen, Elvis, his cousin Shiimi (who, coincidentally is my favourite taxi driver and one of my favourite Okahao residents) and I drove deep into the bush down rural dirt roads, through oshanas and standing water, as Elvis recounted tales and stories from his childhood relating to the different structures, trees, bushes and termite mounds that we passed.

Elvis told me the history of a dirt road that was built as a personal driveway for a minister “puppet” during the liberation struggle who was known especially for his cruelty and punishment of the people in the area. He forbid anyone to use this road, aside from himself and his personal guests. Those found driving or walking on his road (off to the side in the bush and grasses was fine, so long as you were not on the road) would be punished, often by means of beating or humiliation. The cruel minister met his demise when locals had finally had enough and planted a bomb along the road. His cruelty, lavishness and self-importance had made him an easy target for liberation fighters. Of course, after his death, he was replaced by another minister, but it was a moral victory for the oppressed Ovambos of the area.

We were stopped by some kukus (old women) who were collecting money for their parish so we sat and chatted with them along the roadside, sharing caterpillars and discussing how Okahao has changed. They were family friends of Elvis – who they know by his Ovambo name Hamutenya, meaning sunshine – and shared old stories of his childhood.

I waded through the Oshanas (stagnant flood/rain water) with Shiimi to collect omavo, which are beautiful water lilies that, below the surface of the mud produce tubers or “ground nuts” that, when cooked are similar to a sweet potato. The omavo became my favourite last year, when the floods were really bad. They filled the oshanas on both sides of the main road, creating a beautiful freshwater meadow of purple and white.

Then Elvis let me shoot his gun. Unfortunately guns are quite common, especially in rural areas, for protection from both people and animals. I've become desensitized to them, as every security guard at every atm and many stores in Oshakati and other towns, openly carries a rifle to dissuade any funny business. I have always wanted to shoot a gun. Not at anything in particular, just to experience it. I thought I would be so cool, but was surprised at how nervous I was. It was heavy, and I felt this frightening power holding onto it with both hands. It was louder than I expected, and had more of a kickback than I anticipated – reminding me of the story my dad told me of his first hunting trip in northern Canada, from which he returned with a prize caribou and a black eye. After two shots I handed Elvis back his gun, satisfied..and collected my shells as souvenirs.

We stopped at a collection of shebeens about 5km outside of Okahao where we stopped for drinks and socialised. People are always surprised to see a white person in rural northern areas, and even more surprised when I greet and try to converse with them in Oshivambo. So between us showing up in a car, buying a round of drinks, and my skin colour, we attracted quite a bit of attention and interest. We shared some drinks, miscommunications and laughs. I politely refused a vulgar marriage proposal, bought two pairs of earrings off of a big meme who introduced herself to me only as “Big Mama Africa” and we were on our way again.

We concluded the afternoon with a turn through the location in Okahao and discussing the original buildings and infrastructure, most of which is now decrepit and crumbling. I was told of one of the first self-made developers, Tate Etombo, in Okahao who made the first (of only two) two-story building in Okahao. Etombo in Oshivambo means testicles, a nickname which he gave himself to signify power or force, not unlike the saying back home “he's got balls”. He took pride in the fact that he was not educated but had made a name for himself just by doing. He designed and built the two-story building by himself, without a construction background, which explains the now sagging outer staircase and crumbling walls. Tate testicles is no longer in business for himself – that I am aware of – and most of his projects are left abandoned and in disrepair in the town.

The evening finished with a dinner of butternut, rice and potato salad for me – meat only for my Namibian comrades, then I returned home just in time for a night of Star Wars episode 3 with the neighbouring children.

That evening, as the kids were swinging metal poles as their imaginary light sabres and I was watching the sun illuminate the silhouettes of the palms and baobabs on the horizon I found myself so at peace and content with myself and my surroundings. When it comes down to it, my nightly reflections are not about examinations, timetables and vocational and cultural frustrations but instead on the magic that happens when I surrender to the beauty, history and fascinating wonder that embraces me around every corner.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Exam Woes

I hate this. ... What am I doing here? ... What the hell is wrong with everyone?! These is just a selection of my most..diplomatically-phrased thoughts that have been lingering torturously in the forefront of my mind the past few weeks as the first term of the school year coughed and choked to an end, and the exam period sputtered labourously into effect. At the end of last year I was excited to embark upon a second year, drunk on my misguided notions that I had mastered the northern Namibian school system and that this year would be a breeze. In truth however, apart from having a little bit more understanding of the Ovambo culture and language, I've found many aspects of this year more difficult and frustrating than last. This first term exam period has been no exception. In fact, it would not be a drastic exaggeration to say that the past few weeks may have been the most frustrating, exhausting, and maddening conglomerate of responsibilities and events that I can remember.

The real fun started exactly two weeks ago when, in a last-minute staff meeting about nothing in particular, I raised the question of when term exams were set to start. “That is a good question” is the response I was given. And the topic was closed. After pushing the topic the next day I was instructed that, as a member of the timetable committee (one of my largest mistakes of the year thus far) I should set up the timetable immediately, with exams to begin the following Thursday. It was the Thursday before Easter weekend, which meant that it was the last school day of the week and we did not reconvene until Tuesday. Which gave me two days to gather information for all of the subject papers to be written from my colleagues, concoct and type up a timetable, have it checked over, approved and distributed. That may sound reasonable by the standards back home, but keep in mind that this is not back home, and nothing that involves more than two steps here runs seamlessly. Also, many subjects write multiple papers of varying lengths and compositions, so for a class taking nine different subjects they may write between ten and eighteen exam papers. I should bring your attention to the word committee, which suggests more than one individual appointed to a specific function. Not so in this case. That said, I was so proud of myself when, on Tuesday morning, I presented my principal with a draft of the timetable, posted it and distributed it around the staffroom and asked all teachers to check it over for any conflicts. Nothing was brought to my attention, so, after multiple friendly reminders and warnings to the staff I had it approved, finalised and distributed to all of the 19 classes in our school. Exams were commencing in two days. My work was done. I felt like a rockstar for overcoming this mini solo effort with minimal overall frustration. I was a fool. Beginning early Wednesday I had multiple colleagues with multiple problems multiple times a day coming to me about the timetable with inquiries, pleas, judgements and criticisms. Some changes took a quick flick of a pen, others required me to completely reinvent the wheel and restructure the entire timetable. Eventually I got to the point where if a colleague even looked like they were thinking of approaching me I advised them to reconsider. Some of my colleagues were taken by surprise with my blunt refusals to consider their complaints, and vocalised this in both English and Oshiwambo behind my back in front of my face in the staffroom. I couldn't afford to care. I had over 400 exams to mark and didn't have the time, energy or patience to play host to their issues.

Today is the last day of exams and I couldn't be more relieved. There are three days following this in which teachers are to complete their marking and begin creating their class reports. As of yesterday I have finished my marking but, in the name of self-preservation, I will not let on to that and instead will act as if I am marking to the last minute, like everyone else. There is a static stack of miscellaneous papers on my desk that, if anyone asks, is my unfinished marking. Also, in the name of self-preservation, I am seriously contemplating tendering my resignation to the timetable committee, effective immediately; and in my spare time am sadistically plotting my revenge for the poor soul in charge of the term 2 timetable.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Easter Weekend

This past Easter weekend I hiked with some friends to Rundu, a town in north east Namibia on the Kunene river immediately south of the Angolan border. We were lucky and caught a ride with a car for the 3-hour drive South to Tsumeb and then caught a kombi (an oversized van filled with an impossibly large number of impossibly small seats) north through Grootfontein to Rundu for another 4-hour drive. We were fortunate to have had such luck finding our hikes, and managed to make it to Rundu before dark. We met Kevin at his school, and then toured around the town before stopping at a lodge overlooking the river for dinner. I had a delicious kudu steak with chips and salad.
The next morning we shopped for camping food and goods throughout town and then hiked with a kombi two hours out of Rundu to Divundu. We waited for an hour at the local gas station to be picked up by the camp site Ngepi where we were staying. We rode in the back of a pickup to camp in the dark for the next thirty minutes. Riding in the back of pickups is one of my favourite experiences in Namibia. It feels free. Standing up, resting my hands on the hood, while the homesteads, sand, palms and oshanas fly by. My hair flying around my face like a mane, flies pelleting my face like litte kamikaze pilots.
We arrived at the camp in pitch blackness and found Alana and Tomas fighting with the fire, attempting to boil water. As we set up our tents, Imms, Rachel's boyfriend from Ogongo, had the fire blazing in no time. After enjoying a dinner of pasta, and what we thought was a near-hippo encounter from the river, less than 5 meters away, we made our way to the lodge bar and had some drinks with the locals and tourists there. I saw my first bush baby, swinging from a tree at eye-level in one of the outdoor toilets (all ablution facilities were outdoor there, and were absolutely exotic and beautiful with trees and flowers and shrubbery – little toilet oases). The bush baby is now my new favourite animal. It sprung between trees right in front of my face and it took all my restraint not to reach out, grab him and wear him on my shoulder like a new-age Namibian pirate.
The next morning we went on a boat ride up the river where we saw some illusive hippos in the weeds, taunting us by remaining frustratingly only partially visible. The river is beautiful and bordered by so many shades of green, in sharp contrast to the white starkness of the sandy central north. Something about being on the river was so calming to me; all my life I have lived near a body of water, and these past two years I have missed it.
Unfortunately, the long weekend was not long enough, when you factor in a day of travel time each way. On Monday Rachel, Imms and I made our way back to Ovamboland and I arrived back at home around 5pm. No turkey dinners or egg-hunts, but I had a very satisfying Easter holiday with my Namibian family.