For most of my adolescent life, I have been categorized as a person who enjoys leading a minimalistic life. It is not very often that I purchase things for myself, and when I am engaging in the traumatizing act of shopping, it is only out of a dire necessity. Once every year or so, the anxiety and OCD that seems to run in my family takes hold (quite strongly) and seeps into the back of my mind with the mantra “it is time to purge”. I remember when I was younger and the time came to pick a weekend, blast 95.1 FM and go through every. single. pile that I owned, making three categories:
1) The keep pile. This was inevitably the smallest, least mass occupying of the three. My mindset has always been that the more material possessions I have, the more stress it will cause me. In some ways, this is certainly accurate, but I take it to a whole new level (ie: not owning a cutting board until my site mate left and I inherited hers. Are you happy now, Christine?)
2) The “save” pile. There are certain things that my Mom would not allow me to throw away, for fear that all of the memories and fond moments associated with these things would instantly vanish. She has fondly tucked these away in her attic, only to be unearthed when I figure out where my next solid place in life will be. Sorry Mom, looks like it will be a while..
3) The donate pile. This was always the largest of the piles, as I could not rationalize a need to keep so many items when there were an infinite number of people who had nothing and could use it better. Although my ideologies of donations and charitable work has shifted greatly since being in the Peace Corps, I still believe certain organizations that donate or sell certain items to those in need are lifesaving and for the betterment of humanity.
Needless to say, it has been exactly a year since I swore into Peace Corps Namibia and came to my site – so unknowing, with so much to learn about my town and its intricacies. About the time that I learned my Mom had purchased her ticket to come visit me, that old familiar itch began to creep its way into the forefront of my mind. I started looking around at all of the things I had brought (two suitcases and a hiking backpack worth of clothes, toiletries and lifesaving essentials – isn’t that what two rolls of duct tape and a gallon sized plastic bag full of batteries is called?) and I knew it was time. Time to purge, time to give to others, and time to send my Mom home with one of my suitcases of things. I do not want to leave Namibia with more than my large hiking backpack and a few other small backpacks and bags, as this will make my COS travels much more possible and comfortable.
My first thought, after the initial panicked looking around my one room in displeasure seceded, was how interesting it is that so many of our ideologies and human components stay with us no matter how our environments and the people around us shift and change. Even thought I am living with less than most Americans do on a daily basis, it still feels like too much, especially when I look around at the different ways that people in the world live and move in their respective cultures. My lack of interest in material possessions has only increased 10-fold since living in Namibia, so I decided to make a short list of all of the things that I consider a necessity in my life and for my service, as well as why certain things are not needed and what can be used in place of them (items that have multiple purposes are the best thing to happen since sliced bread). Especially if there are any future volunteers currently reading, I want to ease some of the anxiety that you inevitably feel when you are packing for your service and feeling as though you are missing something huge. Take a deep breath and relax – even if you do forget something important, there is not much that you cannot purchase in the bigger towns.
- A small pour-over filter for coffee – this was gifted to me by Dana and I think of her every time I use it. Less waste, since there are no paper filters involved, and it will be passed down when I leave next year to another caffeine-needy volunteer.
- A hand coffee grinder – getting bags of beans in a package has to be one of my favorite things to receive. The hand grinder, practical in its lack of electrical or battery components, allows the coffee that I have to taste the freshest, even though it took two months to travel overseas to me.
- Work clothes – I brought way too many pairs of clothes. Most of what I am sending back is clothing, because I had no idea what kind of modesty I would need here or what kind of weather I would be dealing with (the answer is not much and all kinds, respectively). Having 3 pairs of pants and 6 or so tops would have been plenty to make different outfits last for 2 weeks before recycling the same one.
- A journal – having a ritual of morning coffee and journaling has become a meditation in diligence and habit. So much goes on in a single day here that I know I will never remember it all (even if I did have a good memory, there would still be no chance), and to be able to look back on my experiences through the lense of myself in that time is something I will cherish.
- Laptop – the lack of computers and internet in Namibia makes it very difficult to keep up with the Peace Corps emails, information and VRF reporting tools unless you have your own personal “computer machine” as some of the Meme’s call them here. Whether it is for research on how to run an HIV support group or for watching endless hours of The Blacklist, a laptop is a necessary component of your PC service.
- Adaptability – the need for this is at the absolute top of my list. Whether it is to shift your cultural dialogue so that you can understand, on a deeper level, what is going on around you, or to find ways to remind yourself that you are not as insane as sometimes you think you are, the willingness to mold and shape yourself differently every day is imperative.
- Thick Skin – Comments that are often considered rude and unnecessary are quite common place here. I have heard people call a volunteer fat to her face, thinking this is just a simple observation and nothing harmful. I have heard some of the most lewd comments be made about myself or another person in a language that people forget I am understanding more of every day. To realize that nothing offensive is made by certain statements, especially in the Damara tribe, is to understand more about cultural imperative and closeness of relationships.
- A yoga mat – I have found that, even though I was given a mat when I got to site by another volunteer, I enjoy practicing yoga outside of my front yard on the cement pavement or in the sand. A mat just seems frivolous and unnecessary when its sole purpose seems to be to show me just how dirty my feet are.
- Cups and glasses – Aside from one coffee mug that I was given as a gift before coming to Khorixas, the rest of my drinking glasses have been made through the stress-relieving practice of burning old Savannah bottles and cutting the tops off with fire. It allows me to feel like I am making a small contribution to the grandiose waste that occurs here by recycling something instead of purchasing something new. Also, old mason jars (pickle jars, olive jars, jelly jars) make wonderful glassware. People even pay good money for them in craft stores in America.
- Trash bags – Reusing all of the empty plastic rice and macaroni bags is enough to keep a pile in my flat, with no need to get plastic grocery bags from the store. They charge .20 cents per bag, so I am not only saving resources but a bit of money also.
- Time Management – This is something that often does not exist here. A meeting that is scheduled for 8:00 will likely start at 10:00, on a good day, and the rescheduling of events will happen 1,000 times during your service. Encourage people to do better and foster more accurate timeliness, but give up the need for perfection and regulation early and the stress levels will stay lower than heart attack inducing.
- Lackadaisical Attitudes regarding Harassment – “/husa, au te re, au te re!” * “mmm, you are too beautiful. You must be my wife.” * “Give me your number. I said, give me your number. You can’t refuse me.” * “My size! Hey, my size!” * “I am coming with you. Can I run with you?” In order to combat any of this unwanted attention or blatant disrespect of your personal boundaries and safety, you must stand up for yourself early and often. Men here are not used to women confronting them for their vile and disgusting comments, and are only encouraged by the seeming lack of attention it gets them. Standing up for yourself by speaking in the local language and telling them what they are doing is disrespectful is about the only time I have heard men here keep silent.
Obviously these lists shift with each person and what they deem most important in their lives. However, I see tremendous waste occurring almost constantly, not just here in Namibia, but all over the world. Until a greater number of people give up chasing the “American Dream” and filling their lives with material possessions instead of experiences and memories, we will continue to live in a world where things are more important than human relationships and understanding. Take a small step to reducing your waste in a world that so desperately needs to recover from the burden of humanity and connect with someone instead of buying that new flatscreen TV.