Post Title: 018_Sometimes, It Is Overwhelming
Written Date: 19 -20 March 2016
Posted Date: 20 March 2016
Somehow, that is the only title that is possible. Saturday evening of last week I was overwhelmed. Again, last evening, my heart was so full I yearned for someone to talk to, to share with, so I wrote to my blog audience, reaching out to anyone who reads this.
Many (most?) Peace Corps Volunteers have moments where the effort and strangeness, and struggles, seem worthwhile. Some, however, get almost no sense of fulfillment while they are in service simply due to their site specifics. Unfortunately, some also can’t see the “good stuff” through the filter of the differing cultures, and things simply not going well – and there are a LOT of things that just don’t go well. In Namibia, right now, there are a lot of my group mates that have serious doubts if they are making any difference at all. The Peace Corps web site is full of stories from PCVs that only realize the impact they have many, many years later with a chance encounter, or a long term friendship. I’m fortunate here in that even though the difficulties are very present, occasionally days occur where it all seems so much more than just worthwhile. Yesterday was one of those days.
Saturday (yesterday – actually the last two weeks – more on that in a later blog) has left me swelling with an appreciation for this country, for the people I am getting to know, and for the potential of humans that can scarcely be felt in its entirety, much less expressed. I am no writer, but I’ll do my best.
What appears below was written on Saturday night in a fog of emotional overwhelm. I’ve edited it a bit, and I recognize but don’t apologize for the raw emotional content. It may not be professional, or skillfully phrased, but it came from my state at the time – and I’m carefully retaining the feelings and memories to draw from when things aren’t as good. I’ll need them.
——————–(Below is from Saturday evening) ——————–
This morning I took the three women that run Penduka (actually two of them, plus Vistorina, a 30 year old woman who is standing in for Liina while Liina is on vacation) to a “farmer’s market/flea market” called the Green Market. It coincidentally celebrated its twelfth anniversary, today. It has an interesting background that is held once a week on Saturdays, 08 :00-12:00 in Windhoek. (Google “Green Market Windhoek” for more information).
Penduka will start putting some of our artisan products at the market in two weeks. (The market is closed next week – Easter). It was amazing to see an ordinary thing like deciding to be at a local market being studied by Namibian women who are finding out they actually have some power in life over their own lives, and their welfare. They were very, very interested in the various booths, and surprised that one of the vendors, a white guy, vending compost (really good stuff) would GIVE them 10 kilos just because he wanted them to try it out, knowing that if Penduka ordered in bulk it would be a good sale. The women found they were an organization that others wanted to do business with and spoke with them as equals. That’s not true all the time, but it is available and is happening more often.
The woman who heads up the market, Inga (she started it 12 years ago), was very happy to spend as much time with them as they needed. Turns out (again) that Penduka was there 10 years ago- and only sold vegetables. Inga knows of Penduka and was very, very happy that we were considering returning. Penduka was not only welcomed into a limited space market, but was offered a BEAUTIFUL and large spot for our display. The women managers are entranced, and they will be successful I am sure.
Riding back, they were talking about business – planning the displays, laughing at things happening at work, and comparing notes on how they could best improve production. Most of it was in Oshiwambo and I only caught a few words. They know that’s OK with me, and they shifted into English often when it was relevant.
I got back, and an hour later was picked up by a Namibian business associate, becoming a friend, and taken to a meeting of the Katutura Youth Group. “Youth” in Namibia is defined as 18-35 (really!) and when you get to know the country it makes sense. Most of the 20 or so people there (very mixed male/female) were 25-30, with a few outliers in either direction. In the USA kids of 18 are legally adults, and think they should be treated as such. If we encouraged 25 years olds to learn something more about themselves, by and large they would take offense at us assuming they were something less than full fledged knowledgeable adults. Here, the group started with a series of exercises designed to help them learn to speak up, and to have confidence in their questions. I could write pages about the three hours I spent there, two of which were spent with me talking about the United States, my life, and thoughts on what makes a person happy at my “pensioner” age of 66. And answering questions – dozens and dozens of them.
I was amazed at the high quality of the questions. I half expected questions about Hollywood glitz, being a pilot and some such. But their questions were (a few samples): “What do black people in America think about Africa?”, “How did you feel when you were 30 about your career choices?”, “Please tell me about your life as a father, where is your daughter’s mother, and why aren’t you married, now?”, and the final question was the only one about my acting work in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t anything like “did you meet or know <famous actor>”, it was “How did acting fit into a career full of engineering, business, and lots of other things? What did you learn from acting that was useful?”
One on of the most common themes was their amazement at the social/family structures in the USA. One of them simply could not imagine making a decision that was counter to what his parents recommended – and he was over 30. The family, and community, plays a much, much stronger role in the fabric of the society than it does in the USA. There are some really great aspects to that culturally, and (like everything) there is another face to that Janus. There are some drawbacks to the strong family affiliations that keep people, and the society, from moving forward – or even deciding what “forward” means. It precludes change to some degree.
These folks are very, very bright and anxious to play a part in life that will help Namibia. I was impressed, and I told them so. If they keep going, and DO something rather than waiting for it to happen, Namibia will be fine. Who knows, maybe in 200 years it will be another USA. Hmmm – that is simultaneously a wonderful and horrible thought. I uttered a phrase while I was answering questions that I’d never said before, but on retrospect it works really well for how I feel. “I am very proud of the effort and dedication it took for the people of the United States to get to where we are now. But I am not at all proud of the state the country is in at this moment.” Sure, I could write for days on this topic, as could most of you (from differing viewpoints), but that is a pretty good summary of where I am. I will say that the people at this meeting were universally very relieved and happy that I didn’t support Trump. (If the PC reads this, we did not prolong that discussion – no politics!) They are astounded, everyone I’ve met is, that we would even consider him. ‘nuff said.
One moment that will stick with me forever – no exaggeration – was very personal. At the very beginning of the program, the leader (my friend) asked everyone to go around the circle and say their name, what is their vision for themselves, and to tell us about the thing they had experienced that made them the most proud to be Namibian. After my two hours working with them, he went around the room again and asked them each to name one thing they had learned, today. Some of them drew from our conversations, and some from other things that happened in their meeting. One young woman said “Remember the question you asked at the beginning about being proud to be a Namibian? I need to change my answer. The single most important moment like that for me, in my life up to now, is him (pointing at me). His love and dedication to Namibia makes me very proud to be Namibian.” Wow. Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been a prelude to this work, here. The group asked me to come back and participate with them anytime I wanted (remember, I’m 66, and this is a youth group!), and they hoped I came often. I will go often.
This story is about the incredible opportunities to share, to help willing and enthusiastic people learn how to do just a little bit better for themselves and for their society, not because I know how to do it better, but because I’m simply willing to share experiences, failures, and successes over a lifetime with them so they can make their own decisions in their own complicated and varied lives to come. And these are “kids” from Katutura, one of the poorest areas in Namibia.
I found myself wishing my daughter had been at the youth group meeting – I know she would have enjoyed the company of the young people, and I think she would have been proud of (and maybe a little surprised at) her dad. I don’t mean this as a point of pride for me – it just wouldn’t have been that well received if I hadn’t felt truly humbled and flawed, and at the same time recognizing that 66 years does (can) provide a lifetime of experience that it is possible to pass on to someone. I wish I’d been able to do a better job of that with her than I could do at the time.
Unfortunately, I have no photos of the group. I may be able to get one when I go their meetings again.
One of my dearest friends/relatives has disagreed with me saying “people are the same”, claiming he/she doesn’t agree with that. In my opinion, this is not a disagreement, he/she is simply wrong. People express it differently, have different life experiences, have different values, have different LOTS of stuff, but fundamentally everyone in every culture I’ve ever worked with (and there are a lot) has been concerned for their choices, their families, and making the most of their lives. Not all of their conclusions are the same as mine, and many of their beliefs are very detrimental to MY way of life, but they are doing all they can to “get there” the ways they understand. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work, fight if necessary, to preserve our way of life. Some of my more hawkish friends hear my views as me being a flaming liberal, or a pacifist, or unrealistic, very naive about the world, or something equally unflattering They are wrong about me, but seldom ask what values I do live by or what I do believe.
My job, any Peace Corps Volunteer’s job, is to integrate into the community so that you can have meaningful conversations with people from another culture, and make your own experience and education available to them so they can improve themselves – not the way I think is best, but the ways they want to do it. We do, of course, hope to also open their minds to possibilities they may not even realize exist. It’s hard to make choices when your choices are very limited by your experience or conditions, or economic realities, or religion (a very significant force here). We can help to let them at least know about other ways of living, if they and their governments are willing for them to learn and grow. Some aren’t. If we can just offer that, and work to help them understand that the United States culture is not homogeneous, that not everyone lives the live of a Hollywood Star, and not everyone is homeless. Nor does the United States know best all of the time. The people here are astounded at the photos they see of homeless people in urban areas – they just don’t see how that could be possible. They need to be told that the very freedoms that make it possible to succeed make it possible to fail devastatingly. After encouraging them to DO something, to make a choice and commit to that choice not to just let it happen to them, I reminded them that there was no guarantee it would work out well. They were told about the point in my life when I was the CEO of my own company, and six months later was driving SuperShuttle in San Francisco to stay busy and earn at least a little bit of money.
I told them that I believe what works is to take whatever you have and decide to do what you can with it, as best as you can. They got it, at least for the moment. And I was (god forbid) accused of being “wise”, a left handed compliment when you are 66! I still, and often, feel inordinately inadequate. More now than before I got here. But I welcome the humility – I need it.
I got home feeling already so full of life and people I could hardly handle it, and was saying hello to my “family” here (they NOTICE when I’m gone, and it feels really nice when I return), when I remarked that more of the women here than usual were dressed in traditional outfits for dancing (these are cultural dances they do for some tour groups coming through Penduka). There was a BIG group of dancers tonight, and I watched this time. It was a terrific show. I simply could not stop smiling – these were my friends, and they were happy, actively and excitedly happy, to be dancing.
(I’m having a LOT of trouble uploading the Dancing video – internet here is really bad. Stay tuned and I’ll keep trying. This is a still. )
Shortly after I got back to my home after the dancing, out my front door a group of people were celebrating quietly but joyously. They clearly knew each other well – about 30 Namibians, almost all Oshiwambo. It was so nice, and sunset so beautiful, that I grabbed my camera and went outside offering to take their picture and send it to them. We ended up taking many pictures, and I was invited to dine with them at their braai (barbeque) celebrating the wedding party’s participation in a wedding (bride and groom hosted the party) three months earlier. I had a very traditional Oshiwambo dinner with absolutely delightful people. Lots of meats, Mopane worms, Mahangu bap, salad (small), Namibian spinach (including the obligatory sand) and South African Boerewors (sausages). One of the guests was a lecturer at UNAM (University of Namibia) in technology, and he and I are going to collaborate to bring his students to Penduka for Job Assist (intern) work improving the technologies here. I almost didn’t go out and introduce myself.
Forrest Gump had it right – life is like a box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get until you bite into it. (My apologies for undoubtedly misquoting it) Sounds maudlin if you want it to, but it’s true, and it’s wonderful. Cliff Osmond, my old acting teacher who unfortunately passed away about three years ago, said it best: “All of life, the good and the bad, all of it is there all the time all around you. It’s a matter of what you choose to pay attention to.” Rest in Peace Cliff – and thank you for that perspective.
Yes, there are days when I am so frustrated at my inability to “get through”, or to understand, that I feel completely inadequate, and I am occasionally despondent. But I never feel I’ve made a mistake coming here. Days like yesterday are woefully unavailable to many Peace Corps Volunteers during their service just due to the circumstances of their site or their own inabilities to experience what there is to pay attention to. I am very fortunate and very grateful – days like yesterday (and today, and tomorrow…) make it all worthwhile, even when they are not as much fun as today.
So I sit here typing away, will edit this in the morning (ed: yup, that’s now), and am looking forward to a night’s sleep with more peace and appreciation than I’ve felt in a long time.
It is interesting to realize that I am much closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, and I rejoice in feeling like I’m going to “go out” having felt really, really good about something I took on.
4 thoughts on “018_Sometimes, It Is Overwhelming”
Thank you, Gail, and it is definitely changing me. One of the most challenging, and rewarding, things is to begin to understand how the perceptions we have about ourselves can be so misleading. It is always difficult to even see outside of our own perceptions to get a different perspective. That is true for everyone, but it easier to identify when I work with these people who are, at least, interested in discovering different ways to see themselves. It is still very difficult even when they want it.
Andy, you truly are making a difference. Living and working with these wonderful people gives them so much insight into things they couldn’t possibly know. Your dedication and sincerity and yes, your age and experience, seem to be soaked up by the people you meet. As much as this is an outstanding experience for you, it is even more outstanding for those people whose lives you touch so dearly. We miss you very much back here but know how important your work is there. Continue to leave your mark. Bev
Hi Bev (and Steve!) – thanks for the comment. “Soak Up” is a very apt term. But it’s like a sponge – often they will float, or repel water, before they absorb some. And then some types absorb a lot quickly, and others only let it in a very little bit at a time. Some are so old and dried out that they crumble before they learn to soak up any moisture. So it is with people, myself included.
Behavior change comes very slowly here. They will sit in a class, or in a mentoring session, or in an informal talk, and nod and be excited, and give every indication of having “gotten” something, including talking about it with others in the group. But…
One of the exercises I am using in my classes for the Sr. Management and the Supervisors is to have them name, out loud, ONE thing from the previous topic that they remember after the slide is taken down. No visual cues. For some of them, it is very difficult to do that. It’s like trying to train yourself to lift up one corner of your upper lip, the side you don’t usually lift up! You’ve simply never used the muscles that way, or even thought about it. And you stare in the mirror, and try, and simply can’t make the muscles do what you want. Then, every once in a while, you see the lip twitch and you begin to associate the feeling with some level of control over that specific muscle. More on the challenges in another post.
I”m just thankful that in my particular position, with my particular life experience, having some feeling of impact comes to me with some regularity. That is not true for some of my PCV group mates, and I anguish for them. I”m not the only one with good experiences, of course, and I try to notice (and comment, as in this blog entry) when they are available. All too often they are not and we PCVs find ourselves on a long, dusty, hot and dry road between satisfactions.
Andy, You are definitely making a difference. The experience is also making a difference on you.