Walking or running through the location always creates such a juxtaposition of challenging visual experiences for me. Sometimes you see a dog or two in a passing bakkie, poking their heads and tongues out of the window in all their glory, reminding you how small the world is and how animals act instinctually no matter what continent they live on. It gives me hope that one day people will be able to act similarly, seeing the uniqueness of each culture but never failing to see the humanity in us all that binds us to one another. We all like to stick our heads out a window once in a while, right? I finally ate donkey, one of the staple foods here in Damaraland, recently and found a puppy to share the time and scraps with. I think this was the first time I have held a puppy since coming to Namibia and it did my heart so much good.
And then there is the inevitable sadness factor of some of the animal’s living conditions. To see a small dog, whose ribs are protruding profoundly from its boney body, sleepily napping in front of a corrugated metal shack brings initial first world thoughts of anger and judgement. I come from a place of privilege where owning a dog is a choice and many people abuse this right by not taking care of their animals in the proper and respectful way by chaining them up outside or training them to be aggressive. After spending a few years volunteering at the Humane Society back home and seeing the worst of animal violence, I have to say that human beings can be atrocious examples of what it means to be a dominant species at the top of the food chain. I carry these knee-jerk reactions and judgements with me based on these experiences, though I know that they do not always apply, especially here in Namibia. What starts out as “How can this family let that dog starve so blatantly? The kids and chickens are running around the yard playing – they clearly have enough food to go around. Why would they own a dog if they cannot take care of it?” after some thought turns into “That dog is sleeping in front of this house because it has learned that this is the family who gives it scraps and meat bones when other people kick at it or throw rocks. This family probably did not choose to own the dog the same way that we do back in the U.S, but the dog chose to remain with a kind group of people who feed it the little bit of extra that they have.” It brings to mind one of the stories in the Bible that I heard about in childhood sermons in Roman Catholic Church (thanks, Mom) about donations to the church and the difference between giving all you have and simply giving a large tithe because you are wealthy. This is what many families here believe in – such an abundance of community and sharing with the person next to you, regardless if you know them well or not. The dog that gets the scraps of meat from the family that is donating all that they have is much more meaningful than the bowl of organic dog food that a dog back in the United States has. In order to not butcher it, I’ll just put the direct quote below.
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
How do you cite the Bible appropriately that would make an English teacher proud? I feel all of my schooling and education coming forth right now asking me to give a citation for the quotation above, but I can’t say that is something I have ever done. I am living in a mostly Christian country right now and have been feeling compelled to become more open-minded to the doctrine here in order to understand the mindset of the people I am surrounded by daily. Reasoning behind people’s motivations and behaviors has always been fascinating to me, as many times there is not an exact logic behind a feeling or decision – this furthers my personal belief in the need for an emotional side of human consciousness that is sometimes unexplainable, but is just as valuable to listen to as practicality. It ties directly into intuition and the value that I have placed upon my own, ensuring that I trust myself to make the right decisions. This is especially important in a new environment and culture when everything feels unfamiliar and fresh, but I still experience those gut impulses which help to guide my actions in a safe way. Do I take this car of tourists when I am hiking from one town to another? Do I trust that people in the world have mostly good intentions and are willing to do the right things? It is beginning to help guide and challenge my ways of thinking that have become so ingrained from living in the United States for 23 years. We are taught early on to never accept things from strangers (especially candy), to never go to someone’s house without getting to know them first and certainly do not take a drink from a stranger. These measures are, of course, put into place for good reason and caution is certainly an important part of growing up in a healthy and safe way in the States. But, so much is different here in Namibia, especially when it comes to social norms and cues, that it becomes important to make sure you are adapting to the culture as well as maintaining your personal boundaries and limitations. In the Damara culture, you do accept food and snacks from colleagues that you do not know (especially sweets) because everything is shared here. In order to become, and feel like, a part of the work place or a family, sometimes you take a piece of candy that you would not have normally eaten. You also go to people’s houses who you might not know that well, either because they are friends of your friends or they stop you on the gravel road as you are running past and invite you in for tea with their grandmother. Turning down an offer to have a drink bought for you here is sometimes seen as an insult to the purchaser, so the decision becomes a cultural paradigm that intersects with your own decisions and choices that you make for your well-being. It is an interesting, but important, learning curve to balance.
Speaking of drinks, my site mate and I had the opportunity to go out into the community of Donkerhoek yesterday with the Health Extension Workers from the hospital. This is a make-shift location of corrugated metal homes behind The Location where some of the most poverty-stricken in Khorixas live with no latrines, high unemployment rates and sometimes no water from the few taps available. The HEWs go into the communities every day, checking on the homes they are assigned to, making sure that ARVs are being taken and the people with TB are coming to the hospital for their treatments. They hold community meetings under “The Meeting Tree” and create home-made hand washing stations called “tippy-taps” right outside of people’s homes so that sanitation can slowly start to become more of a priority. Children as young as 8 hang out in the center of the community, selling the homemade liquor made by their parents. This process is dangerous for the home where the old oil drums slowly cook the alcohol, as the HEWs told us that if a match was lit near the fumes coming off of the barrels, an explosion was very probable. I felt like I was back in my home state, watching moonshine being made and hoping that there was not a meth lab nearby.
It is overwhelming to see so many basic needs in one place. How do you decide what thing should be focused on first? One person’s need is bound to be different from another’s – who says what is the most important aspect for a community? I am glad that there are people like the HEWs who have a better idea of what the first steps are and have already implemented some projects.
This past weekend I had planned to travel up North with my sitemates for a Trade Fair that was taking place and meet some of the other volunteers who have been up there for a while. Timing and planning in Namibia is a very, very different concept and things mostly do not end up going as planned. This was one of those situations as our ride fell through last minute, meaning that we would have to pay a pretty good amount of money to travel if we went. So instead, I opted for a weekend in Khorixas wandering around and seeing the town in a new light. I am glad that I made this decision as it helped me feel more integrated into my community and allowed me to meet more people who I feel more compatible with in terms of friendships.
On Saturday I went to one of my co-worker’s homes for a poige, which is basically a term for a barbeque in a big black pot that is common cookware in Namibia. You throw in whatever you have at home (always including meat, which is the staple food here) with vegetables, rice and spices, cooking it over an open fire for a few hours. It turns into a delicious concoction very similar to the stew I have been making about once a week. I am a big fan of minimalization, especially when it comes to cooking on a small stove with a lack of utensils. Anything I can throw into one pot and be done with, I am all for it. While we were waiting for the food, we were entertained by Kai, the two year old dancing prodigy. I have a few videos of him that I will have to send out in an email, as this website does not allow you to upload into blog posts. The sense of community bonding and “everyone is family” mindset never ceases to amaze me, as 5 or 6 people who had not been there all day showed up just as the food was being served. I’m beginning to think that there is some sort of sixth sense you acquire the longer you stay in Namibia that allows you to know exactly where to be in order to receive a plate.
We were feeling really adventurous this week in our culinary experiences. There is a new sit down restraunt (this is a big deal here, folks) close by to where I live in town that always has delicious food and is upping their game daily. They have a beautiful display case that is decorated with pieces of fruit and candles – their business strategy is slowly winning the town over as it is becoming a popular lunch spot. They have unique options for purchase, like an entire half of a pig head. Or for those who just don’t think they can handle that much pork, you can pick from the 12 or so pig ears that 6 pigs donated recently in different sizes and forms. My site mate decided this was going to happen for her lunch, so of course I got to take part in the meal as we share everything in Africa. The taste was great, but the cartilage was a bit much on the crunchy side with the rubbery texture of the little bit of meat on the ear. Sorry Poppa Mike, but I don’t think I would rank this on the top of my list of pig parts. I bet you could show them a thing or two about the butchering business, though!
On Sunday, we made tentative plans to drive out to a town a few kilometers from Khorixas and go swimming – something that I forgot how much I love and how quickly I got excited about the prospect of being in water. After a long morning and afternoon of this excursion not coming to fruition, we decide to picnic at the base of one of the biggest hills in our town and then hike up to the highest point for a splendid view of the mountains nearby. Totally worth the steep walk up the rocky terrain in flip-flops to catch the sun setting and see my town from a different perspective. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a switch up from the usual things that you see to gain a new appreciation for the environment you find yourself in.
I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are happy and healthy as you are reading this. I think of all of my family and friends often and sometimes that is the hardest part of being so far away. As happy as I am to be doing this work and experience this beautiful country, I miss the people who much of my identity was tied to. I guess that is part of the biggest work I am doing here, though, is to peel back the layers of who I am with other people and truly be alone in this. This is the only way to find the core of who I am and make decisions purely based on what I want in this new environment that challenges me in ways that I have never been challenged before. Despite the things I am missing, I am creating a new way of being for myself and doing exactly what I have wanted to do, the only thing I have been sure about in my life, for as long as I can remember.
I leave you with a quote from The Translator, the latest book I have checked out from the Public Library across from my place of work. I read this autobiography at just the right time when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the prospects I have set for myself and the first real time that I questioned “what on Earth am I even doing here?!”
“What can you do? You make friends, of course, and do what you can.”
Of course. Of course that is all you can do sometimes and that is plenty enough sometimes. What more is there to life than that?