Friday, May 18, 2007

whew, back in windhoek, but wait, school is postponed??

The Ministry of Education decided to extend our holiday-making until the 28th; however, I did not know that until I flew back from Malawi yesterday. Unfortunate. I could have made it to Zanzibar by now.
Sprinting from Cape Town to central Africa by public transportation was a bit hectic but I must say the trip went swimmingly. Tammer came out for three weeks for "a jol." Highlights included spending time at a Nigerian-run guesthouse where one hour was spent debating if one of the other guests had in fact been seen drinking a Coke that morning. Another guest warned the owner that he would phone the mayor's office when he was denied a candle to take a shower after the power was cut: "I want them to know that I am bathing now in darkness!"

Monday, April 23, 2007

ruacana falls

window of hope rice crispies day


Saturday, February 10, 2007

snack attack

America has a serious contender among junk food loving people in Namibia. To explain the diversity and quality of snack foods I was told me that these salty snacks were necessitated by having to live in the bush – thus biltong. But the profusion is actually incredible.
Here Frito-Lay is Simba – king of snacks. Potato chips that r-r-roar with Boerwors flavour! There’s also Fruit Chutney, Smoky Beef, Thyme Chicken, as well as the more staid Salt and Vinegar. Oddly, while Namibia is host to the world’s largest population of cheetahs in the world, Chester Cheetah and his dangerously cheesy habits are nowhere to be found. Instead, Simba the lion graces the packages for Cheese Puffs while an anonymous and slightly menacing harlequin clown does duties for Nik-Naks. Nik-Naks are like crack for kids – wrappers are torn open so that the every ounce of Real Cheese Flavour can be enjoyed. Slightly more down market from Nik-Naks are Twiggles whose packages boast a slightly drunk looking dragon and tomato sauce flavor. The demand is such for these puffs that people also make homemade corn puffs that are sold in unmarked body-bag size containers.
Potato chips or “crisps” are popular but nothing compares to “chips,” Namibian French Fries, which usually are eaten with a one liter Pineapple Fanta. People even talk about their “chips money,” which means “small change.” At most service stations you can get boiled eggs, fried fish fillets, fried chicken, different burgers and sausages as well as pies which are made of flaky crust with a savory meat inside. Then there are the various biltongs, from long tubes of droewors to chipped pieces of chili bites.
We also have lots of different chocolate bars. While M&Ms and Crunch bars are available in limited distribution, you’ll likely only find Kit Kat throughout the country. Plus, according to some volunteers “the M&Ms are not the same,” and some have even resorted to getting M&Ms shipped to them. I met a girl during training for the new group that was excited because the M&Ms website made it so she could custom design the colors of a 5lbs bag which she had received in Namibia. She also recited the production dates for the special commemorative peanut butter Halloween M&Ms. She ET’d before swearing-in.
Those with a sweet tooth are not to be disappointed though. There are lots of Cadbury products – even Kinder Eggs, the kind you might only find around Easter at home are available year round here. Another incongruous import are the multitude of Haribo gummy products which you can find most anywhere in the country. The popular PS Bar is a social food, a sort of conversation starter. It’s like those chalky valentines heart candies that say “Fax Me,” except that the wrapper on a PS Bar will pose a question like “True Love?” and the bar inside would have been printed “yes” and “no.” There are a multitude of questions and even allow you to write your own. It’s a pretty successful gimmick and I think it’s ahead of the more boring, static candy you can buy at home.
If you want to have something a little more healthy your options are often limited. Nuts are available most everywhere and you can often find sour milk-based drinks like Oshitaka or Oshikandela which are more filling and at least contain some vitamins. If you can find them Pita Snacks are good – baked pita chips doused in salt and artificial flavoring (basil pesto, sea salt, mediterranean herb etc). There are also different yogurt smoothie drinks you can buy, although I still prefer to open mine by pulling off the cover, whereas traditionally you’d sip it through a hole made in the bottom of the container, kinda like poking a Capri Sun through the bottom. Capri Sun is hard to find here but we do have Barney the dinosaur fruit juice though.
I think you could make a case for studying development based on a country’s snacking habits. First there is a move from basic sustenance to disposable income items like potato chips and french fries. Then there is a shift beyond that to making food choices based on nutrition. When you start seeing healthy snack food that is a sign that people are starting to making decisions about their eating and consumption patterns. However, these choices are complicated by the cost of more healthy snacks. As in America, the most unhealthy choices are also the cheapest calories you can buy. Corn sweeteners and lots of salt (as well as MSG) make them tempting and addictive. You can tell a lot about a country about what its snack aisle looks like. In Namibia it’s still a lot easier to get a potato chip sandwich than a salad but at least things are changing.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

First week back.

Nothing has changed much around Otjituuo. We now have cell phone service, it is very incongruous to see the words “Otjituuo” light up when my phone picks up reception. On Wednesday I had to go back to town to shepherd one of my former grade six students who I got admitted to a good school in town. While there had been consultations with his mother regarding him moving to town this had not produced the desired effect and he was standing in the courtyard at Otjituuo on Wednesday morning unsure of what to do.
I asked him what was going on. He told me that he had been in Grootfontein but didn’t know where the school was. I found that hard to believe. Why didn’t you ask someone I said. I tried to give him directions but realized that I needed to be present to make it work. We gathered up his things in a shopping bag, loose toiletries, the parts of a various uniforms which had been handed down through his family and relatives, as well as some laundry detergent. One of his mother’s relatives accompanied us in the combi to town. She didn’t speak any English so communication was minimal.
In town we went first to the school. The three of us made something of an odd appearance among the rest of the parents and staff – a pseudo family we provoked some wry conjectures I am sure. I waited patiently in the principal’s waiting room, after all it was the first week of school and there were many people who were trying to get their kids into school. Unlike in the US where pre-registration is required for school very few schools are able to successfully impress the importance of this on parents. While the town schools are certainly better on this account, there is still a lot of uncertainty about where children are going to attend school during the first weeks. The official tally of the school’s enrollment is not done until the fifteenth school day – which gives parents, especially in the villages, a lot of leeway on when to bring students. Of course this makes teaching and running the school very difficult as numbers keep changing. The ultimate result of the school’s final enrollment relates to the number of staff that are allocated by the government to the school – the official student-teacher ratio is supposedly in the high thirties, that is 1 teacher per 38 learners.
When I did get in to see the principal I could tell she was pretty harried at that point. Her school is as different from our village school as can be imagined, odd considering that it is only sixty kilometers away it seems like it belongs to a different world which in many ways it does. She had detailed folders with printed up class lists that she had obviously compiled before the school term. She radiated a sense of authority and punctiliousness -- in other words she conveyed exactly what a principal should convey.
She didn’t remember admitting our learner (the deal I told her had been that they were not able to find room for him in the hostel but had guaranteed him a place in grade seven). After finding his application which I had put in sometime in September last year she made good on her promise and found him space. I paid his school fees and also for the school’s official golf shirt (only to be worn on Thursdays with the regulation boys uniform shorts). Although Nicholas was a star in Otjituuo, taking the most coveted academic award at our school, Dux learner, for three years running, he is certainly going to be challenged. The school’s official language is English although Afrikaans is used a lot informally – something I did not realize -- and his skills in both are lacking.
I am afraid that he will become discouraged, after being the big fish for so long it will be difficult to compete with the other learners as well as being away from home. This is certainly the chance of a lifetime for him, his new primary school is among the best in Namibia and if he can succeed there his future will be a lot brighter than had he stayed in the village. That being said I have to wonder about the true value of his leaving what was familiar and comfortable. He will also now be surrounded by alcohol and underage sex which is more strictly overseen here than in town. Suddenly he finds himself with a lot more choices of what to do with himself than play soccer or computers in the afternoon. Not only is he not in the hostel but I realized he will be living in Blickiesdorp, which means “tin town” in Afrikaans, the informal settlement which is beyond the formal “location” where many of Grootfontein’s black people reside. Blickiesdorp is worse than any village I’ve seen as the poverty is so much more pronounced in an urban setting, lack of electricity, access to water and food is immediately noticeable.
I’m not sure if it was the right decision. Instead of trying to help him here in the village I have essentially outsourced that to Grootfontein’s primary schools, but that is not what bugs me about the situation. I am comfortable in the realization that if it does turn out to work he will be more than welcome to return. Hopefully the experiment will work out.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

the routine

Something I’ve learned in one year: pay attention to the day of the month. Teachers are paid on the 20th, other gov’t employees are paid the last Friday of the month. Peace Corps volunteers are paid every three months but only if a male baboon is spotted by the country director before the first harvest moon.
Right now we’re sort of at the end of the cycle – everyone is staying put in the village. I was the only one in the kombi to Grootfontein this morning. Great Fountain was more of a ghost town than normal. It was eerie.
Even the newspaper recognizes pay day’s special carnival atmosphere. A story might run, “Anticipating a repeat of last End of Month Weekend Windhoek police have reminded residents not to discharge their firearms as this poses various safety concerns and is generally disruptive.” End of Month weekend has the same connotation that Halloween does in the states.
Tonight the pensioners in the village get paid at 5pm. There’s been an assembly outside my place for about 11 hours now – it’s like a Herero tailgate. Tates and memes are lounging (men in lawn chairs from the China shop, women perched in the back of pickups in full-on traditional garb). Meat is being braai’d. Kids are running around beating each other with sticks. There’s even the make-shift mini-mart that operates out of the back of an old Southwest African Army troop transport. (It has a olive colored tent that extends off the side like a hotdog vendor in the states – under the tent you can buy xxl 2Pac and R. Kelly shirts as well as maize meal and Tafel lager.)
Not only are the elderly here but a class of “hangers-on” – people who want to get in on that sweet pension action. Otherwise the money finds its way to the unscrupulous vendor with the enticing wares. The guy in the truck follows the pension people around, setting up shop in order to take full advantage of the monetary windfall/immobility of his customers. There’s another wandering salesman here in Namibia who commutes the 300km between Omaruru and Grootfontein selling ice cream. I’m not sure why he picked that route but I’ve considered getting a hike from him and his yellow van with hand-painted Mickey Mouse.
Since I had nothing better to do (and why you shouldn’t do stuff on that rationale) I took a taxi to the local air strip this morning. That was my intent at least. There was some kind of cultural misunderstanding – but I didn’t realize this until the commander saluted the cab and we entered the army base. I spoke some Otjiherero to the guy in charge of the landing strip (he was the one wearing a mesh camo wife-beater) who directed us elsewhere. We ended up going back to town to find “the guy in charge of the airport.” This turned out to mean disturbing a man who was literally eating a bowl of porridge when I walked in. I tried to explain what it was exactly that I wanted and why I was in his living room. This was not the guy, nor did he know who I should talk to. Felt bad for bothering him but he wasn’t particularly surprised that I had somehow gotten my way into his house. Still don’t know who I’m supposed to talk to about the airport. Peri nawa.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


otjituuo's trash gets burned once a month. empty detergent boxes,beer bottles, sardine cans, discarded braids of synthetic hair it all gets torched . i've gotten over the mental prick you feel when you throw away a Coke bottle. it's also a habit to hold on to things. i have a shelf of empty bottles that are awaiting uses. if i don't scrounge it myself i makes sure it gets cleaned and left apart from the rest of the garbage. after i kept seeing familiar ex-products in the possession of learners (there's someone else in the village who buys laughing cow cheese?). it's funny, even my old valentine's cards turn up in kids notebooks. this caused me to realize i had parted with things that would be prized by the kids. i'm very cognizant of anything that i toss now. afterall, my learners put their scribble books into empty 3kg bags of macaroni and pop holes in discarded motor oil containers to make water bottles.
certainly the most artistic (and ingenious) is the wire car. these sculptures are usually a little over a foot in length. the kids use cut-up cans for wheels and the thick, ever-present wire that is used for fences, wash lines, holding up the satellite dish on the boys hostel. the cars themselves are often extremely intricate (there is the wire bakkie, the wire sedan, the wire tractor trailer). the best part is the working axles which are made with a discarded spool of thread. then that is connected to a long piece of wire which serves as a lead. this is the steering column. once the wire steering wheel is attached you have yourself a car. the car's motive force is foot power like on the flintstones. there isn't a more poignant image of africa than seeing out-of-school boys in their twenties with their head down "driving" around otjituuo.
recently the kids have started making paper sunglasses out of scrap paper that they find in the various dust bins around school. it's funny because they are completely taken by fads. just like rote learning they love to copy. it's like when i taught some of the kids how to put their middle finger through their hands and make it wiggle suddenly that was the cool thing to do. there was also the time during model school when one of the other teachers taught the kids how to make fart sounds with their armpits. other past fads include home-made tattoos ("Cool boy") made with Bic pens, pictures of prize-winning bulls drawn on the back of t-shirts, cutting all but one little tuft of hair which is twirled to a point, pasting on fake hair to make scrawny moustaches, drawn-on sideburns, etc.... I recently found some kids playing with my floss. I might have to go ahead and burn that before it goes in the bin next time, just so it doesn't become a fad.

Monday, November 06, 2006

donations, etc.

as the festive season comes around i've put a button on the site that lets you make donations (on the right panel). the money goes to me and then to the school. the most feasible way i could think of was to use paypal -- you have to sign up with them first if you want to give me money. the reality of donations here is that money is infinitely more useful than sending goods. books donated via m-bags from the us would be only exception to this rule. you can buy nearly everything in namibia that you can get back home. our neighbor south africa is america lite. here is a list of some of the things that i need funds for the school, listed in order of necessity:

100 china shop matresses (cost N$ 80 ~ US$12 each)
50 china shop blankets (cost N$150 ~ US$20 each)
1 new television set (cost N$3000 ~ US$400)
wood for tables/desks (cost N$750 ~ US$100)
100 lbs gravel (cost N$1000 ~ US$125)
2 basketball hoops (cost N$1000 ~ US$125)
assorted balls (cost N$1500 ~ US$200)

we have written to the ministry of education to try and obtain bed frames which would make the situation a little better but for right now there are many kids who have to sleep on the floor without any kind of bedding. of course none of this is sustainable but you'd be sure that the money went to people who really need it.