Cultural Appropriation and Conforming to the Norms (..Sometimes)

It has been requested by someone in my family whom I respect greatly that I write about the cultural differences and experiences that I have on a regular basis.  I have touched on it in previous posts, but I think this came at the perfect time in my service to allow me to process some of the things that I have been struggling with.  Thanks for making the suggestion, Uncle Zen – you are an inspiration in what it means to be a hard worker and the kind of successful person that I would like to be one day.  I will also mix in some of the updates and things I have been doing for the last month or so, since I haven’t been in touch with too many people.  Busy times call for being away from technology – just the way I like it.  And now I am also giving you the best of the video world with our Damarican experience of Khorixas, a visual representation of my everyday life and adventures.  Enjoy all the aspects I am supplying here, folks.

  1.  The amount of respect that is deemed necessary to give to a person who is your elder.  When it comes to speaking, the utmost respect is expected to be given to anyone who has been on this Earth for longer than you have been.  This includes the way you greet them, the eye contact that you make (not too much or for too long, as it might come off in an aggressive way) and even the words themselves that you choose to speak.  It is considered very rude and inappropriate to disagree with an elder, even if you are disagreeing respectfully and speaking what you know to be the truth.  There are many roundabout ways that you are, instead, supposed to utilize to get your point across without blatantly telling the person that you disagree with them or they are wrong.  This can lead to a new appreciation for tactfully presenting yourself and your points of view, as well as give light to a very traditional mentality that I feel many people in the United States used to follow more rigorously.  When I was young, I was certainly taught to respect my elders, but more important than that was my parents instilling in me to respect everyone and their beliefs, whether they were similar to mine or not.  I hold that close to my heart and in my mindset all the time, as no one should be held on a pedestal or thought that their opinions are more important than others.

As the weather turns increasingly hotter and gives me less motivation to go outside into the blazing sun, I am finding more and more interesting creatures in and around my home, thinking they can escape from the heat that I am also hiding from.  Little do they know that my flat incubates quite a bit of heat during the day and most of them end up dying a sad death on my floor, followed by me either leaving them until my site mate comes over and can execute a removal plan or shooing them down the stairs into the yard of the Ministry of Youth.  Both actions usually begin with a lot more yelling from my end than I have ever done in my life as most of the bugs and creatures I encounter are significantly bigger than my previous Americanized versions (see photos below for reference points).

Praying mantis spider?
Praying mantis spider?
You can't see how big this scorpion is, but that dude was the size of my hand. Blurry night time picture on top of that.
You can’t see how big this scorpion is, but that dude was the size of my hand. Blurry night time picture on top of that.

2.  The patience needed in order to get people to understand why you do things a certain way, based on your culture:  This is something that I still struggle with on a daily basis.  I try to put myself in other people’s positions as often as I can to fully grasp why they act a certain way, why they chose one action over another and why they react very differently than what I am used to, and I have a fun time trying to explain why we get dressed up for Halloween and give out sweets to kids or why we say “bless you” when someone sneezes.  Often times, explaining the logic behind something helps me to rethink the preconceived notions and ideologies that I have held without pretense or understanding of why – and isn’t that such an interesting thing to discover?  Finding out what we do based on our experiences and who we are at our core versus what we have done due to the collective conscious of our family and the culture that we were born into.  It really helps to define what is important at a basic level and to examine what we are composed of.

Along the lines of cultural ideologies, my site mate and I decided that we wanted to put on a Halloween Health Camp for some of the learners in our community.  We invited a few of the volunteers who are close in proximity to us to engage the kids in understanding (at a deeper level) what HIV is, how it is transmitted, the effects of stigma on the vitalization of the virus and ways that people can live health lives even if they are diagnosed or born with HIV.  These kids gave some pretty insightful opinions of what it is like to be a youth in Namibia, where the word HIV is thrown around from the time you can first start hearing and speaking, but without a concrete foundation of what it all means.  I think that the camp was really important for them to feel as though they had a safe place to bring their questions that they did not feel comfortable asking to their parents or teachers.  Since it was a Halloween themed event, of course we had a costume day on Saturday (which the kids rocked) and we watched a Halloween movie (due to a lack of obtaining A Nightmare Before Christmas, we watched Hotel Transylvania – equally as awesome).  The other volunteers who co-facilitated did an amazing job of bringing a unique aspect of themselves that was integral to the success of the camp and I was thrilled to be able to show them around the place that I now call home.  And to top it all off, we threw an adult Halloween Party later that evening at a local shebeen in town where we encouraged our community members to show up dressed in costume and dance to American music from our DJ friend.  It was a great way to encourage the third Goal of Peace Corps by bringing our traditions and celebrations to Namibia while being able to share the holiday with American friends and Khorixas friends.

Halloween and Gail's birthday, as she reminded us of every day that week ;)
Halloween and Gail’s birthday, as she reminded us of every day that week 😉
Brownie from the U.S, frosting from Texas and ice cream from Khorixas to make the perfect birthday cake.
Brownie from the U.S, frosting from Texas and ice cream from Khorixas to make the perfect birthday cake.
Beer flights of delicious beer in home-made glasses.. priceless.
Beer flights of delicious beer in home-made glasses.. priceless.
Look at these kids and their badass costumes! Fake fangs and blood to boot.
Look at these kids and their badass costumes! Fake fangs and blood to boot.

3.  Learning the correct ways to deal with a Namibian business or conduct yourself professionally with important stakeholders:  I have been in many situations throughout my life where I have had to appropriately address someone who would have been offended by my leaving out his title.  I have also been a manager who has had to contact other managers or higher ups in a company and go about requesting a favor or dealing with business transactions in a special way in order to maintain positive relationships with the aforementioned people.  Here in Namibia, the professional prerequisites exist to a monumental degree, with formal request letters needing to be sent to all parties involved for something minuscule and seemingly inconsequential.  It is still a work in progress for me to take the proper steps, which also take much more time than I would like them to, in order to get things done the right way with the necessary components.  Yet again, Namibia is teaching me patience and strengthening my ability to understand that sustainable change only comes from the inside and following the procedures the way that my colleagues and community exhibit.

Sharing the hammock with some kids who do not know whether to laugh at it, run away from it or just sit on it.
Sharing the hammock with some kids who do not know whether to laugh at it, run away from it or just sit on it.  Also, was asked if I was eating butter out of my re-used Rama container.. I thought my family sent him for a minute.
Casual slaughtering of three sheep in my front yard.
Casual slaughtering of three sheep in my front yard.

4.  Dealing with proposals gracefully and tactfully.  This is one of the topics that I find the most bi-polar, in terms of my emotional roller coaster experience, in my world.  There comes a sad point in every girl’s life, no matter where you are in the world, that many men (and lets be honest, some women) will view you as nothing more than an object – no consideration that you are a being with thoughts, feelings and articulate sentence structures.  Here in Namibia, that realization comes all too soon for the young girls that I have met and they learn to react or cave in on themselves at a very early age.  I find myself doing it sometimes when I choose to debate in my mind about whether or not I want to go on a run in the evening, preparing my body and mind for what I will encounter and the words that I will hear from the many people that I pass by.  I notice myself doing it when I brace myself at the approach of a man, regardless of knowing what their intentions are.  I am faced with making a difficult choice, always, on whether or not it is important to stand up for myself fully when I am being harassed, how it will affect my status in the community and whether or not my safety will be impacted based on the decision that I make and the way that I choose to react.  Its not to say that there have not been a few teaching moments, where I really felt like I made someone think differently (if only for that brief point in time) but for the most part, I have to save my sanity and do my best to not become emotionally invested in the outcome of a proposal and the person who is making it.  I am still working on being more tactful in my responses and know that fighting fire with fire is never going to solve anything.  Compassion becomes the ultimate weapon.

This weekend, my site mate and I were able to make it to the Damara Festival in Okombahe as well as visit the volunteers from the newest group that was sworn in recently.  It feels odd to not be the youngest group anymore and makes me realize just how quickly my service will continue to fly by me.  The weekend was full of exploring a new place, cooking some absolutely delicious meals and speaking a lot of elementary Khoekhoe to all of the Damara people from all over Namibia.  It is so refreshing to find other volunteers who share my love for making good food and the bond that goes into cooking with what we have and making a meal out of the local ingredients (with a few spices sent from the States, of course).  Stereotypical food pictures to follow:

Pasta with an olive oil sauce, tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil and balsamic reduction green beans.
Pasta with an olive oil sauce, tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil and balsamic reduction green beans.
Mexican food.  Need I say more?  Of course I will - homemade tortillas, spiced beans, rice with onions peppers and carrots and homemade salsas for topping.
Mexican food. Need I say more? Of course I do – homemade tortillas, spiced beans, rice with onions peppers and carrots and homemade salsas for topping.
Avocado and napoles (yes.. cactus deliciousness) salsa for the green variety, regular tomato, onion and fresh jalapeno red salsa.  To die for.
Avocado and napoles (yes.. cactus deliciousness) salsa for the green variety, regular tomato, onion and fresh jalapeno red salsa. To die for.

Alright, enough of the food adventures for now and back to culture.  The festival was interesting to watch, as it incorporated new musicians with a Meme fashion show alongside the placing of the ceremonial wreath on the grave sites of the Damara Kings.  It was a great example of traditional culture being incorporated with new ideas of entertainment and facilitation of Westernized programming.  There was a large stage set up in the middle of the field where the festival was taking place that held about 15 concert-sized speakers for the bands to perform.  It was quite a surprise to see all of the hard work that was clearly put in for decorating and creating this venue in a village that is quite a bit smaller than Khorixas.

Dancing in front of the ceremonial stage.
Dancing in front of the ceremonial stage.
Placing of the wreath on the graves of the Damara Kings.
Placing of the wreath on the graves of the Damara Kings.
Beautiful Okombahe.
Beautiful Okombahe at sunset.  I’m now taking bets for how many sunset photos I will have accrued by the end of my service.

This is not meant to be a disrespect or discredit to Namibia or my service in any way.  I am merely attempting to show all sides of the difficulties of adapting into a new culture from the perspective of someone who considers themselves extremely flexible and able to withstand quite a bit of pressure when it comes to foreign experiences.  It is my intention to fully respect all cultures in Namibia as well as my own through processing the beautiful, sustaining moments as well as the frustrating, take a step back moments.  It is only through this dichotomy of life that I hope I share all of the important occurrences with you all and the learning that comes out of experiencing something fully and with no filter.

Last but not least, a PSA that there is another way for you to explore the world I am living in with more detail than I ever thought would be possible for my life in the Peace Corps.  For those of you who I am friends with on Facebook, you have already seen the link to our embarassingly hilarious YouTube channel that will feature different topics and Damara sayings, for your viewing pleasure.  My site mate and I have had a great time making them so far and editing them together, so here is the link to the first episode while we piece together the next addition.  Thanks for keeping up with my life in the Peace Corps and all of the love and support I have received from everyone during the last six months.

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2 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation and Conforming to the Norms (..Sometimes)

  1. Such a fun post! 😀 The plates in your food pics look very much like my old ikea plates! 🙂 Thank you for writting all of your entries. It allows us a glimpse into this amazing culture that you’re adapting to. It so unreal!

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