Written: 3 March 2017
Posted: 4 March 2017
I have a relative who disagrees with me when I say my experience is that every person, regardless of culture or country, is, at a fundamental level, the same. But I still maintain that is true. Sure, sometimes you have to look really deeply to see past the cultures, religious beliefs, personal characteristics, and other “stuff” to see the similarities, but they are there. We all just have different ways of dealing with life.
And death. The similarities are easier to see when tragedy and grief are involved, somehow.
Wednesday evening of last week, the son of one of the women here at Penduka was murdered. Thursday morning I went with the women here to her home. It’s not the same everywhere in the USA of course, but in the world I grew up in grief was contained. There was some veneer of control at least, and usually a deep surface obscuring the raw emotion below.
My father was a minister/pastor, and at funerals and such events he was always the one with words that were expected to be spoken. I never got to know him as an adult, he passed away many, many years ago. I have always been sad to realize my memories of him are of being intellectually compassionate, but not ever being able to just “connect” with him or my mother. Somehow he, and she, seemed able to do that with the people in his congregations, but I don’t recall being part of that kind of emotional connectedness within the family.When I tell that to my friends here, they have a hard time understanding it. Family, community, is integral to their existence in a way I am just barely beginning to comprehend. And when a close part of that existence is suddenly taken away …
Lydia, the mother, was more openly suffering from agonizing grief than anyone I’ve ever been around, or even known about. Maybe it was just the first time for me to be around someone that open with their grief but it is more common than I have personally experienced in my own cultural life. So I can’t say it is something unique to Namibians, or Africans, or any particular group. But the rawness of “experience” I see around me every day here has impacted me deeply. There was absolutely no attempt to contain the grief, and those who love her were there strictly for support as she did what she had to do – virtually fall apart emotionally, losing awareness of physical circumstances, appearance, or any semblance of control for at least a few hours on Thursday morning. Wailing and weeping not as a ritual show, but as the expression of the unbelievable pain she was feeling. And the family was just … there. Holding her, just being with her. I have never seen such raw emotion and grief in a human being. I think it would be impossible to be in the presence of such honesty and exposed vulnerability and not be moved to tears. I had absolutely no idea how to be of “use”, and more importantly I realized the most, and best, thing possible was to just be there. I’ve known that about supporting someone for a long time – but not like I understood it Thursday morning.
Later, I was standing in her kitchen listening to her colleagues from work, over 20 women and one man other than me, sitting and standing in the living room singing hymns and just being there. Even from another room, simply being in the presence of the grief the mother was feeling. As I looked at the faces of these women I have grown to know, and to love, in the past 21 months, I saw them each move from quiet awareness, through tears of sadness, to recovery and back again as their own thoughts moved through their consciousness. I could see them imagining their own families, their own children (for me, my daughter), their own frailties, and their own lives somehow being in the position that Lydia was in. Some of the women are in their 20s, some in their 60s, and all ages in between. Each in their own thoughts, flowing in a stream through whatever feeling was engulfing them in their own experience of the mother’s grief. The hymns were all in Oshiwambo, and I only understood a random word or two, but I understood the meanings clearly.
Even without the language, and with a totally different background, skin color, gender, and family situation, I was part of them in a way that I can’t describe. I learn so much from seeing the people here just experience living honestly. It was in stark opposition to the reality of the work world in which I know most of them almost exclusively. Some of them can be bitingly petty in their complaining about work, or each other, or Penduka Management, or any of the other things that people invariably manifest in real life. They are just like people anywhere – different in different situations.
For some reason, I found myself noting the specific conditions of the kitchen, which was really an alcove off of the “living room” – the main room in the house of three rooms. Unlike every other home within a 100-200 meter radius, this home had brick walls. The roof/ceiling was zinc plated corrugated sheet metal, but every other home was entirely made of those same metal sheets – walls, roof/ceiling … everything. Lydia (the mother) had worked hard her entire life and managed to save enough to have a really nice place to live compared to her neighbors. The faux-wood linoleum counters were worn through to white, and cut through as only decades can accomplish by occasionally letting the knife go too far in cutting the meat, or the bread. Only family living can do that to a kitchen. The walls had been painted countless times and in places had chipped so you could see layer on layer of old paint. The joints between the walls and deep corrugations of the ceiling/roof were filled with plaster, or grout, or caulking, that had broken out in places. I knew that what she experienced when it rained was the same as in my home – the sound of every rain drop hitting the roof that is only 2 or 3 millimeters from the ceiling since they were both the same sheet of metal. And when it rained hard (as it is now, as I write this), the sound is loud to the point you can’t hear someone talking next to you. The floor was an uneasy combination of poured concrete, tile, and linoleum that was uneven from the result of years of repairs as inexpensively as possible. The stamped metal sink, like the sink in my home, was the same as in almost every home I have seen here – utilitarian and highly functional. Many homes don’t even have a sink. All the washing is done in a pail outside by the community water faucet. Lydia even has running water in a single spigot over the sink – a luxury in Katutura.
Yet everything was clean – the kind of worn clean that comes from daily care. Even though poor, these people take pride in their homes and in the way they live their lives.
At one point, one of the family members walked around with a picture of the deceased son and let everyone look at, and hold, the image of her son Lydia kept on the wall in her room. It was very moving.
I had no idea what the expectations were for the cultural rituals when we showed up. I simply appeared at the home, and the women, my friends from Penduka and the family members, gently showed me what was expected in as loving a way as I have ever experienced, and often without sharing a common language. The expectations of a man’s behavior are usually very different from the expectations of a woman. Apparently not so in this kind of situation. I have rarely felt so accepted in spite of my differences as in this home of sadness.
The experience of living with a community in an entirely different culture, becoming part of it to whatever degree is possible, is one of the most valuable things a Peace Corps Volunteer can ever experience. I’m sure it varies by community, by individual, and by geography and culture. But at its core, there is so much to be learned.
If I can look back and feel like I’ve been able to give to this community even 10% of what I’ve gotten from them, I will feel fortunate, and useful.
Thursday morning was a very important memory and experience in two years’ worth of valuable experiences. I am in tears as I relive it for these inadequate notes, and I will always be immensely grateful for the opportunity to experience being welcomed into it by Lydia and her community and family.
It is almost anticlimactic to the story, but I felt you needed to have some experience of the Katutura community.
Each of these shelters/homes is made entirely of corrugated zinc coated metal. Over 200,000 people live in these homes, and a very small percentage of them have water in the home, electricity, or even indoor toilets. Most homes in Katutura share a pit latrine for a group of homes in the area. The houses go as far as the eye can see – this is a very, very small percentage of them. And this is within 1 kilometer of the entrance to Penduka where I live. I’ve been going up and down the streets for so long, almost always in taxis, that some of the residents have begun to recognize me and wave when I drive by.Grey hair and a white face are unusual here, and people notice, particularly the children.