Written: 26 February 2017
Posted: 26 February 2017
I’m writing now, after so long, because my NEXT post (within a day or two) will ask you for your help for Penduka Village. It’s a big deal for Penduka. And I feel terribly guilty asking without giving. So …
In only three and a half months my group (#41) finishes our two year on site commitment and everybody in the group except me heads home. There are 23 of us left, I think. Eight went home early for lots of different reasons, including not wanting to but being forced to return by a health issue. A couple of us will stay for a few more months, up to six for one volunteer, but I plan to be here at least another year, probably two or more, or longer. I don’t yet know if I’ll be here at Penduka or move to another site. That decision won’t be made until May after we get to know the new group of volunteers arriving to “replace” my group. And my extension is not “for certain” yet. The Country Director for Peace Corps Namibia has to approve my request to extend, and it’s been delayed a few times for one reason or another.
Every day here at Penduka is a challenge in one way or another. I haven’t travelled much, partly because I’ve travelled a LOT in many places of the world in the past 45 years and I’m mostly interested in people and cultures, and there is plenty of that right here in Windhoek. Also, there isn’t someone I can travel with, personally, and I’m not a “group travel” type. I also feel that Penduka has been best served by my being around. As an older volunteer, the part of Peace Corps Service that is absolutely valid – giving people an opportunity to see parts of the world they may never have the opportunity to see again – is less important to me than the opportunity to use some of the decades of life experience I have to try and contribute something to people I have grown to love and admire.
Like virtually anything one admires, there is also a less positive side to life here. Some of what I see here in Namibia, and at Penduka, is fundamentally disturbing to me. The people in Namibia – not all but many or most – seem not to have the drive to “get ahead”, to better their lives. Discussions as to “why that is” go on for weeks, months, years, and there is no clear answer from anyone. Some of the causes listed by all of us striving to understand include: colonialism, a history of Apartheid, village/tribal histories and customs, largely rural backgrounds, the heat, the vast openness of a country twice the size of California with only about 2.4 million people (California has over 39 million – 32.5 times the population density), one of the largest income disparities (gaps) in the world, the fact that “all Africans are that way” (not an uncommon thought, but too general for my taste), and on, and on, and on. And I have to laugh (instead of crying) when I remember one person that suggested it was because of the way “Africans carry babies on their backs and the babies spend years only seeing about two inches in front of their faces.” They were serious. Sigh.
I don’t have a special outlook, and won’t explore it now, but that lack of drive, and what I see to be a general low ability to deal in concepts, is part of what Peace Corps tries to impact in the only way I have come to believe is possible – in day to day living with people, getting to know them, and maybe – just maybe – affecting one or two of them.
With the advantage of almost a couple of years of getting to know 31 people pretty well, a few of them very well, and making literally hundreds of acquaintances, I’ve been able to see that it is manifestly unreasonable to ask someone to change a lifetime of habits to move towards something they have absolutely no experience of. Penduka means “Wake Up” – and that’s what the founders of Penduka have been working for since it was founded. Opening someone’s mind is terribly difficult, as we all (or at least most of us) know. Here at Penduka, due to poor management practices for at least 10 years, the “culture” of the organization/village has become one that is very common in Namibia: distrust, assuming the worst, and thinking “management” is lying. That, combined with a sense of entitlement to just being given a decent living, not realizing it can be earned with individual effort, is the most serious and at times destructive problem here at Penduka specifically, and in Namibia as a whole. My time here has been an effort to try and do something about that, as have all of the other PCVs here.
I often think about what I would say to a group of older people at a recruiting event if I was a speaker at the event. This is likely to happen when I get back to the USA even temporarily. I have come to the conclusion that it is literally impossible to give anyone a summary picture of the 24 hour a day, two year, experience of living here Of course that is true of living almost anywhere else. I do think the combination of poverty, cultural differences and government realities makes it more difficult here than in many places. But Namibia is probably easier to adjust to than most other African countries. At least that’s what I’m told by people who have been living and working in Africa for three or four decades or more.
But I’m told by PCVs that have returned that re-adjusting to the USA is much harder than adjusting to being here. And that seems to be true for any of the 68 countries Peace Corps works in. I can believe it.
Last week, the third (only three!) tour group I’ve seen at Penduka from the United States came through. We have 6-10 groups a week through here mostly from Europe. The tour guide (Sawa) asks for me ever since his first US tour group almost two years ago. It was fun talking to people without an accent! And being able to just talk without concentrating on being succinct and deliberate in pronunciation takes a little adjusting in itself! But I thought about my daydreams of presenting to potential recruits. And it translated very well to the tour group.
I have a little advice for those of you in the USA who will welcome home a returned volunteer at some point. Give up trying to get a “whole” personal experience vicariously through your returned volunteer, and forgive them if they seem to drift off into thought and seem like they are struggling. The way of life over here is so dramatically different in so many ways there simply is no context for getting a quick (and accurate) “fix” on what it’s like. Sure, bits and pieces can be described if the person is really good at writing, or speaking, and the listener is really good at listening. But the totality? Experiencing some of the personal changes and experiences that came over two years from a 10 minute, or 10 hour, talk? I don’t think it can be done.
So – this time, no pictures. And I’m going to post this purely so I can get something posted and break my literary drought! Sheesh – Oct 30 was my last post? All I can say is that my life here is all consuming, more than anything I’ve ever done. Sure, I’m not great at writing or staying in touch anyway. And my sincere apologies to the many of you who haven’t heard from me personally in WAY too long. But I’m going to try and contact you soon.
I love it here, and it is very, very hard.
And a personal note to my daugher: I have your snake skin for your belt. Killed, skinned and tanned by your dad. It is beautiful. Now I just have to figure out how to get it to you!