The Art of Giving [or not] in Service

 

“Let me claim that Africa and I kept company for a while and then parted ways, as if we were both party to relations with a failed outcome.  Or say I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of a rare disease, from which I have no managed a full recovery.  Maybe I’ll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I’ll insist I was only a captive witness.”

– Orleanna Price in The Poisonwood Bible

 

After recently finishing The Martian and relating almost every single word that Andy Weird brilliantly crafted into a magical story, I began a new book that has been sitting patiently waiting for me on my “bookshelf.”  (Aka, the industrial looking countertop that most of my daily possessions reside).

 

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The Poisonwood Bible has long been a Peace Corps volunteer favorite, matched with gasps when a seasoned RPCV hears that you have not only failed to read it, but you have never heard of it.  So a few months ago when I was in the southern part of the country working on a collaboration with a fellow volunteer, I was able to grab it and bring it back to Khorixas to join my pile of other yet-to-be-read books.  One of my favorite parts of being a volunteer is the culture of borrowing and exchanging books, ideas and items after you are finished with them – it keeps products circulating and being used over and over again, instead of simply throwing them away after one volunteer is finished with it.

 

After reading only the first chapter, I knew this would be an important novel in regards to my attitude surrounding my service and living in Namibia.  The story is told in a successive narrative of each of the Price family members sharing their experiences and perspectives about their new home in the Congo, thanks to the patriarch of the family’s missionary work to start a church in a small village.  Although I am not a missionary (hard to believe, right?) I am relating greatly to each of the characters in their individual journey through their year-long resettlement into a foreign land.  I decided to share some of the most profound passages of the book I have read so far and relating them to my own experiences at the halfway mark.  Time goes by, whether we like it or not, and I have now been living in Khorixas for a year – the time that the Price family would be leaving to go back to America, I have one more year to sort through my projects and reflect for the way forward.  Cheers to one more year!

 

“We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.”

“Getting here with even the bare minimum was a trial.  Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean.  Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more.  Why, we were dismayed by this bad news!  Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport?”

 

Packing for the Peace Corps is a nightmare – everyone who has a blog (well, almost everyone) has a packing list that differs from the next person.  It is stressful, it is tedious and it is exhausting.  While trying to pack for two years of your life, you are wondering if what you are bringing is helpful or if you will just give it away after your service, unused and wasted.  Everyone does it wrong – you forget important things, you pack way too much of an unnecessary item and you go over the allowed weight from the airlines.  But the great part about that, is you are already forming a new group of people who are looking out for you from day one.  We all pitched in to make sure we got the important things across international waters: one volunteer only had one bag and checked another volunteer’s bag so that her bags could be shuffled and brought onboard; I stuffed a fellow PCV’s toiletry bag and a pair of shoes into the cramped space of my suitcase so he could take one suitcase as a carry on; many in my group waited around till the last person was through the baggage check to make sure we didn’t need to stuff someone else’s things into our own.  If you are in a tight situation, PCVs are who you want to have your back.  Even the ones that you just met in Philadelphia the day before.  And hey, whatever you forgot, you can damn sure get a replacement here.  The struggle looks so minuscule in comparison, but at the time it feels like the most important thing in the world to get right.

 

The things that we take away from this experience will mostly be non-tangible.  And that is the way it should be.  Spending 27 months in a new country brings time for reflection of what really matters, and souvenirs are not one of them.  The memories, the people we have met, the meetings that we have attended alone, the relationships we formed throughout our service are what stay with us permanently.  For better or for worse, like some twisted 2 year marriage that we know has its finality.  And maybe one or two makalani nuts and Himba bracelets will make their way into our bags.

 

“Little regimens of children lurked by the doorways, apparently for the express purpose of accosting foreign missionaries.  The minute they saw our white skin they’d rush at us, begging in French: “Cadeau, cadeau?”  I held up my two hands to illustrate the total and complete lack of gifts I had brought for the African children.”

“The families that would not darken the door of the church, which by the way doesn’t have any door, did manage to join us for the picnic.  Naturally, since brought most of the food.  They seem to think we are Santa Claus, the way the children come around begging us for food and things every single day – and us as poor as church mice!”

 

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Many (not all, thankfully) children here in Namibia are taught to beg of foreigners and white-skinned people from a very young age.  Not a day goes by in my town where I am walking to the store or through the location and I hear a parent whisper to their small child (who is just learning to speak) to ask me for money.  This ideology is so engrained into the culture here that when I have asked local friends why they do this, they merely shrug their shoulders and say that it is just what they have always done.  They are taught that white skin = rich, and richness is to be shared and given out in a charity form.  This has no doubt been passed down from colonial times when missionaries DID come to Namibia and hand out sweets, dollar coins and bibles.  The collective conscious of these dependency-inducing events has prevailed prolifically and will not cease anytime soon, but most volunteers work to bring understanding to their communities that we are not here as charity workers to give things away.  I have had countless conversations with children, telling them that it is disrespectful to run up to any white person they see and beg for money, which works about as well as Donald Trump’s toupee does at fooling people into thinking it is his real hair.  Couple this with the fact that many tourists come through Khorixas to stop by our grocery store for supplies on their way to the major Kunene environmental attractions and do oblige the children with money or sweets because they do not know any better.  It happens in America all the time, and of course it happens here as well with the media mass-blasting images of “poor, starving African children” to really get the guilt trip to settle in.  Who can be blamed?  No one, really.  But it is a collective effort by PCVs to create sustainability, and not simply give away a dollar coin that will only serve to provide for one day.

 

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Food is another big topic amongst community members.  Many locals have told me that if I do not serve food at a meeting, no one will show up.  Although this has remained to be somewhat true (the attendance at meetings and events that serve food vs. those that do not is unfathomable) I have also proved them wrong in many ways.  I have held groups where no food was given and the only reward was the satisfaction that the community would come together in a better, more positive way.  I have maintained Girl’s Club and TADAH Club with no other promise than fun, education and an open heart and mind.  I have started a garden where there is no upfront reward, only the hope that things grow in this desolate land with time and hard work put in.  Food and outside resources might be what most people in my community see me and my fellow PCVs as, but I am slowly showing them that neither is necessary to enact a real and substantial (how ever small) change.

 

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“Men sit on buckets and stare at whatsoever passes by.  The usual bypasser is a woman sauntering slowly down the road with bundles upon bundles balanced on her head.  These women are pillars of wonder, defying gravity while wearing the ho-hum aspect of perfect tedium.  They can sit, stand, talk, shake a stick at a drunk man, reach around their backs to fetch forth a baby to nurse, all without dropping their piled-high bundles upon bundles.  They are like ballet dances entirely unaware they are on stage.  I cannot take my eyes from them.”

 

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Although I live in, what is considered here, a town rather than a village, and this sight is not nearly as common to see, this passage speaks volumes to me about the gender relationships between men and women here in Namibia.  Women are the absolute pillars of the family – they cook, clean, take care of children and cater to the husband’s every whim.  They engage in this balancing act from the time they are very young, as I have written about before with children raising other children.  Oftentimes the mother leaves the youngest to be tended by an older child, forcing that child to grow up very early.  Even if this does not happen, the child (if she is a girl, that is) is expected to take care of the household chores that the mother is unable or does not want to do.  With this balance comes understanding from other women in the community, as they too are engaged in the same strenuous activities as well as profound respect from me.  And when you do see the odd town woman carrying a 20 kg bag of maize meal on her head, it is impossible to not gaze in wonder at her incredible strength and tenacity.

 

“We do see vestigial signs of automobiles in our village, but they resemble the signs of life you would dig up in a graveyard if you were inclined to that pastime.  Which is to say: parts dead and rusted, scattered around and used not for transportation but for anything but.  On a walk one day with Our Father he pointed out for his daughters’ edification a carburetor air-filter lid boiling a family’s dinner over a cookfire, and a Jeep muffler being put to use by six boys at once, as a drum.”

 

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This is an extreme exaggeration for my town, as many community members own cars, but the relation of the use of old parts of cars and machinery was too tantalizing to ignore.  There are so many parts of one machine that now belong in another machine that it is difficult to count.  Old sheets of iron are used as homes for the informal settlements behind the hills of Khorixas.  Pieces of car parts are used to create outhouses in the yards of homes in the location.  Donkey carts are sometimes made entirely out of old car-ends and metal pipes to hold the reigns of the donkeys and horses.  Old wire hangers are bent and molded into toy cars with handles and hats for children to play with, hopefully not stabbing one another or hurting themselves in the process.  The reusing of materials that do not work in their original form, but are perfectly good to be taken apart and used elsewhere, is a practice that is becoming “hip and trendy” in the U.S. recently, with the rise of DIY projects and renewable resources finally coming into the limelight.

 

“He is reliable in the following way: if they say he is coming on Monday, it will be Thursday, Friday, or not at all.”

 

Of the many relatable passages in The Poisonwood Bible, I believe this will be the most unanimously relatable for all volunteers.  The reliability of anything in Namibia is up for grabs at any moment in time.  From meetings scheduled with highly appointed officials, to when dinner will actually happen when you are invited to a braai at 6 pm (answer is at least 10 pm), to when people will actually show up to work, the only thing reliable is that the answer will change daily.  “African time” is a phrase that many people here use to excuse lateness or even missing appointments entirely, and you can either embrace it and keep adapting to a new state of mind or be driven absolutely insane by the complete opposition of American “must be 5 minutes early to be on time” mentality.  I will have accomplished one of my goals if by the end of my service I am able to somehow marry the two ideologies, with respecting my colleagues and those around me by being on time, while also not stressing as hard as I used to with work responsibilities and deadlines.  There has to be a balance somewhere.

 

“Still, the Underdowns insisted that our mission last no more than one year – not enough time for going plumb crazy but only partway, I guess, even if things went poorly.”

 

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Committing yourself to 27 months of service is a tough pill to swallow when you think about how much will change over the two years that you are gone: friends will get engaged, they will get married and have babies, family members will get sick and pass away.  All the while, you are doing your best to work hard, every day, for something that feels extremely unappreciated much of the time.  It will challenge your every motive of why you are continuing to persevere and push forward, when you know all of the things that you love and care about are thousands of miles away from your grasp.  It is the hardest thing I have found during my stay here in Khorixas, especially after a day when working within the community proves to be less than fulfilling, for both myself and my community.

This in itself is enough to make a PCV give up and call it quits.  It is enough to give someone interesting coping mechanisms that others might deem bizarre or, well, crazy.  I believe that two years is both plenty of time to integrate and get to know your community while simultaneously never being enough to get to the deeply rooted complexities of every person and family you encounter.  However, I think that Peace Corps has done an excellent job of knowing the appropriate length of time to allow a volunteer to serve without sending them over the deep end with culturally appropriate conduct and and potentially failed projects.

 

“One woman who came trying to sell us her handmade baskets looked in our door and spied our scissors and asked right flat out if she could have them!  Imagine having the nerve.”

It is extremely common place for adults to ask one another for things within my community.  There is no shame, no apprehension, no quietness about calling out to someone walking in the street “give to me ______ (whatever it is that they want that they can see that another person has)”.  I have spoken about this before, with the culture of giving and allowing others to share in something that you have in excess (or maybe not, in many cases) and never thinking twice about it.  This is something that I have had a year to think about and wonder if my preconceived ideologies were selfish – to have something of my own and not share it with others, like everyone else does.  I have adapted in some ways, where I unconsciously share what I have with my friends and those that I feel close to (peeling off a segment of orange for myself, then one for my friend, then one for myself..) but still do not oblige those who only come to me to ask for things.  I do not feel affronted and caught off guard as I once did, but still do not believe in the dependency that this creates for people to rely on others instead of themselves.  There are some parts of culture that remain with you, despite the currents of a new one sweeping many other aspects away.  I am remaining rooted in the importance of my values but remaining open to new possibilities and the opportunity to continually adapt.  Privileged does not begin to explain how I feel about my service and the work that I have been able to accomplish thus far.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Giving [or not] in Service

  1. Alex,
    You are amazing. You open yourself to something few people would. I loved reading the Poisonwood Bible and liked knowing how PCVs relate to it. When I was a child I read everything I could get my hands on about Albert Schweitzer and the then Belgian Congo. But I did not become a missionary or volunteer in a foreign place. Blessings on your continued service.

  2. Wonderful reflections, Alex; thanks for sharing. Your final thoughts on trying to balance generosity with sustainable change without turning into an unregistered – and hungry and underdressed – charity really resonates with me. Appreciation, too, is a tricky one in a culture where the words for ‘thank you’ don’t get used much.

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