038 One unfulfilled desire…

8 May 2021

Oddly enough, it was a Spanish language PBS film, watched in Africa, that reconnected me to my failure to achieve a long held desire. Since I first lived in a country other than the USA, 48 years ago, I’ve wanted to be fluent in another language.

Mind you, saying “I’ve wanted to be …” is kind of like saying “I’d like to be an author” and it pretty much bypasses the work required to get there. In all honesty, I haven’t applied the effort I’ve felt was necessary to achieve this desire. Ever. Disappointingly, when I came to admit that to myself just before coming to Africa after having lived, worked, or traveled in 45 other countries, lack of effort has only been one of the more minor problems, here.

I was able to get along on a day to day basis in German when I was living in Germany. I had all of the incentives and positive reinforcement needed. I recall very clearly going into a jewelry store in Bitburg, Germany, and haltingly managing to communicate with the owner in German as I shopped for some kind of jewelry. I did all of the right things, plowing ahead even though I knew I was butchering the syntax and grammar. I needed to make mistakes to learn, and I made plenty.

For some reason, early on in life, I learned that being embarrassed about not knowing is simply not productive and creates a lot more social interaction problems than it seems to solve, and actually serves no purpose. So I struggled, waved my hands a lot, laughed at myself and got frustrated with myself, and managed to often get the extremely helpful shop owner to offer the correct German word for what I was trying to say and could only allude to. I tried, I did try, and walked out feeling like I had not done well but had learned something, and felt good about at least trying.

 Then – the memorable thing happened that has lived with me the rest of my life – about 45 years of it since then. As I left the store, I waved with a smile on my face and said “Auf Wiedersehen.” The shop owner smiled, waved back, and said in perfect, accent -free American English “Good bye, my friend. And thank you for working to learn our language.”

What an amazing gift, to just work with me and give me the space to screw up over and over and over, without being condescending or impatient. Sometime when I am trying to communicate with someone and I am having a hard time understanding them, or they are struggling to understand me, I remember that store owner and try to live up to the model he embodied.

Here in Africa, I’ve had many, many chances to relive that lesson. Namibia’s official language is English. But the language makeup of the country is quite varied and complex. Just for fun, I’m going to give you some of the WAY too simplistic explanations for the language landscape in my adopted home.

The official national language of Namibia is English because if any one of the native languages was chosen it would cause internal problems with the others saying “why not me?”, plus English gave Namibia an advantage in international affairs which is an advantage of significance and is especially important for a new country trying to make their way in the big, bad world at large. But it is MUCH more complicated than that. If you are interested see the scholarly paper “A Critical Analysis of Namibia’s English-Only Language Policy” (https://www.lingref.com › cpp › acal › paper2574)

So here I am, a native English speaker, in a country that has one of the most complex language landscapes in the world. Here’s what I mean:

  1. About 50% of the small Namibian population of roughly 2.4 million is Owambo. Other ethnic groups include Kavango (9.3%), Damara (7.5%), Herero (7.5%), white (6.4%), Nama (4.8%) Caprivian (3.7%), San (2.9%), and Basters (2.5%).
  2. Oshiwambo (the language spoken by the Owambo people ) has seven major dialects, only two of which have a written form. But anyone that speaks an Oshiwambo language can pretty much get along in any of the other dialects – but it’s not as straightforward as it might seem (of course).
  3. Expand that basic principle of distinctly different dialects within a language group, and the most commonly quoted number of different languages within Namibia is roughly 30, the least I’ve seen being 13, and the most being almost 40 – depending on how you count a language as being different “enough”.
  4. Now recall that the population is only about 2.4 million, with 30 different languages.

When I first arrived in 2015 as a Peace Corps Volunteer I felt deficient and uncomfortable with my inability to understand sometimes. PLUS, the American Accent is rare here, and is difficult for many Namibians to understand. (Of course the tendency to TALK LOUDER IF THE ACCENT IS DIFFICULT is prevalent! And amusing.) Only after being here in Namibia for a while did I come to understand that even the Namibian people have trouble understanding each other! I didn’t feel quite so bad, then.

My first two months in the country, during “Pre Service Training”, I was given instruction in Afrikaans. I was not a star pupil but managed too do well enough on the post-training language test to “graduate”. My examiner (Patrick – a Peace Corps Namibia employee who has become a friend) was dutifully asking me to explain (in Afrikaans) some useful conversational topics such as explaining what color my pants were, how to get to the post office, and how to tell a taxi driver to slow down. Pretty rudimentary. Then he asked me to explain what it was like to fly a fighter airplane! OMG! In the years since, we have chuckled over that one many times.

At my first posting I was working with 32 disadvantaged women in a single village from a number of different ethnic groups. I tried speaking Afrikaans, but only two of them spoke Afrikaans, and they didn’t want to! Afrikaans is unpopular in some areas of Namibia due to it being the language of Apartheid. Lots of trauma and associations there.

So – I took advantage of the Peace Corps policy of reimbursing language training and hired one of the local women to help me learn Oshiwambo – specifically the Oukwanyama dialect. I launched into it enthusiastically and would ask various women during the day things in Oshiwambo hoping to continue to learn more. But for some reason I was having real trouble with it. I would get the pronunciation of a word down, then say it to someone else and they would look baffled, and uncomprehending, and tell me “no, no – that word should be <whatever>”.  I would then lose confidence. Only later was I told that they (in a “fun” way – not maliciously) were messing with me and having a ball doing it! If I said it properly in the Oukwanyama dialect, the Ondonga dialect speakers would claim not to understand and clarify how it should be said. And vice-versa. Of course I didn’t understand it was six of one, half a dozen of the other to them. I’ve come to understand it was a sign that they liked me and had a ball messing with the American! A good bonding and social integration activity, but useless for learning a language.

All of that contributed to our fun, but detracted from my ability to learn the damn language! Rats.

So two years later I move to Oranjemund where the predominant language is Afrikaans (of course – two years after my Afrikaans lessons with no practice) but almost everyone speaks English. I have made lots of friends here, and the Afrikaaners want me to learn more Afrikaans, my Owambo friends want me to learn Owambo, my closest friend is Ovaherero, my domestic who has become literally a friend is Damara, and speaks Nama, and I still haven’t learned to deal gracefully with the “clicks” that are part of the !Kung/KhoeKhoe (or whatever) languages that the US viewer became familiar with in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” Those clicks are no big deal here – just a part of the language. But my tongue rebels. If you want a good example of daily use of the click language(s), watch the short, interesting, video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CblldKTrLM, plus you will have the added benefit of knowing how to trap a porcupine, in case the opportunity arises!

PLUS – everyone (almost) speaks English. So … I haven’t yet learned to fluently speak another language. Doesn’t look good for the future at this stage. Sigh…

And for those who want to give me a different excuse, no – it isn’t because I’m old. Really.

Please “follow” this blog (button at the bottom right corner of your screen). I’m working to get better at it (but ONLY in English!) and it really helps to know people are reading it!

031 – Why Africa?

(Mostly written in March, 2020, this was “pre-COVID”, “pre-Election”, “pre-California Fires”, etc.. The first half of this was written before most of 2020 had (thankfully) disappeared into history. 2020 pretty much sucked looking back from mid-November 2020. There are a few updates at the end of this post.)

One month from today (ed: “today” is 15 March 2020) I will have been in Namibia for 5 years. Over four years in the “bubble” of the Peace Corps, and for over half a year as an American ex-pat in Namibia. The practicalities of living here – buying property, a car, and (required) registration as a Namibian tax payer (though one with zero income!) – can obscure my love of my USA home – Sausalito, California. I have called Sausalito home for many, many years and will probably have lived there more there anywhere else, ever, when I stop counting. I will continue to return to Sausalito, and the USA, as long as I live – most likely. But then “life is what happens while we make other plans”. (attrib: various)

Yet here I am in Africa. Many people ask why, and I understand the curiosity. I’ve asked it of myself, and tried to come up with answers for others.

As the saying goes: “It’s complicated.” I can’t begin to make a list – But I’m going to try and express some aspects of what makes me continue to return here to Africa, and particularly to Namibia and Oranjemund. Most likely, I’ll fail. I have no delusions of being a writer, and extremely talented writers have tried to describe Africa, it’s soul, problems, joys, and realities. So I’m doing this mostly for me. Hopefully you’ll find it at least passably interesting.

Having returned to the USA only twice since April 2015, three things continue to stand out to me about North America. They are separate and distinct, and reliably consistent from personal visits, from talking with friends and family there while I am here, and from friends here who go there to visit and share their own impressions.

But before I get into those things, let’s first acknowledge that the USA isn’t one thing – it isn’t homogeneous. There are people living in my country (the USA) who suffer deeply from poverty, social marginalization, and a myriad of other causes that are deeply disturbing and serve to define their opportunities in very real ways. Saying “Things just work” (#1 below) can be portrayed as laughably naïve when applied to neighbourhoods in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or New York, or Dallas – just anywhere really. It is also unavoidably referential (see #2 below). Ultimately, I can’t begin to defend what I’m saying below as “truth” – it is expressed from my experience. That experience is woefully inadequate in many areas, and deeper than some in others. But it is my experience. As I said: “It’s complicated.”

  1. I like the way things just “work” in the USA.
    Until you’ve lived somewhere that doesn’t assume things work, it’s hard to describe. Of course it isn’t consistent –rolling blackouts, water shortages, people being late to meetings, internet failing, being able to get fast food or set an appointment, etc. all happen everywhere, but they are much, much more reliable in the USA than in the parts of Africa I have experience with personally (which is a miniscule part of the continent), or some knowledge of through my African friends, here. .
  1. With rare exceptions, American citizens – particularly (but not exclusively) those of us with middle or upper level economic conditions – have absolutely no idea how much we take for granted.
    Citizens of the USA are incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities we have. Yes, there are very serious problems and issues – and they matter.
  1. Finally (and most provocatively), I simply do not miss the USA.
    My daughter and friends, yes I miss them. But the rest of it I just don’t miss. I don’t dislike it, I just don’t miss it. I know that is repetitive, but it is a profoundly significant differentiation. I’ll enjoy it when I got back again to visit, but I don’t miss it. Sure, there is some temporary pleasure in not being forced to deal with the political polarization that is so ubiquitous now, but “this too shall pass”. I fear this particular period is going to do some real damage to my country, and to the world, from which we won’t recover for decades, and we certainly won’t recover to what it was like “before”. Frankly that could be a good thing. It all depends on what we (the citizens of the USA) decide to do moving forward. I wish I was more optimistic.

That being said, why is Africa my “Home is where the heart is” choice?

(From this point on, I’m writing on 8 November 2020 just after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election (pending the ubiquitous legal cases that follow Trump around like fruit flies, or more appropriately like jackals following a hyena).
Frankly I am REALLY happy to have been outside of the USA in the last year.

In either late February or early March, a friend at the U.S. Embassy here in Namibia called me and asked if I wanted a seat on the last airplane the Embassy had arranged to evacuate U.S. Citizens back to North America before the COVID lockdowns. I replied something like “Thank you for thinking of me buried away here in the isolated southern tip of Namibia, but ARE YOU CRAZY? I’M STAYING RIGHT HERE!”

Oranjemund, particularly, has been one of the safest areas in the world from COVID because it is so isolated here (check out Oranjemund on any map or Google Earth). Yes, we’ve had cases but nothing like the majority of the rest of the world, and particularly not like the USA. And being here forced the politics in the USA to be available from a distance – a distinction for which I felt incredibly thankful this year. (Not that Namibia doesn’t have its political challenges – but that’s for another day and another blog entry.)

Aside from COVID and U.S. politics, why do I like Africa? Things here are a bit more – fundamental. Literally yesterday I was walking out my kitchen door and just happened to see the faucets on my kitchen sink. They are old (ca. 1950’s when the house was built), and nothing like the up to date faucets in most middle class homes in the USA, but they deliver fresh, clean (and hot) water pretty reliably – at least they do here in Oranjemund which is a very unusual Namibian town. Not at all the norm. My small two bedroom house is adequate, not “fancy”, and I am comfortable. For me, that’s enough, and preferred.

Countless people have tried to describe Africa, and Namibia, and Oranjemund, for many, many years and they are MUCH more eloquent than me. My contribution to the endless (and growing) volumes of “Africology” can only come from my limited experience. I am moved, literally to tears occasionally, by the enthusiasm of Africans of all skin colors that shows up in dance and singing at the slightest excuse. I am equally distressed at the poverty and lack of education of such large parts of the population. I continue have a growing understanding of the rich history that I knew nothing of in my western education. I revel in slowly, slowly making good friends with whom I can share conversations from astoundingly different backgrounds but a shared commitment to seeking and understanding the others’ experiences. I constantly am challenged by the realities of being in the 2.7% of the Namibian population that is white and realizing that racism as it is known in the USA is not as big an issue here, but Tribalism – social stresses between different cultures of non-white (and white, but we don’t call it tribalism) cultures – is a HUGE problem here. To the best of my knowledge (and I’ve looked into it), I’m the only American (North, South or Central) in the southern half of Namibia – an area roughly the same size as California. It used to be weird, but now I feel much more like “just a Namibian among many”. And I like that.

I can go on, and on – and hope to in my future blogs. In short, I am content here in Namibia, and enormously grateful for being able to live an interesting, challenging, and to a small degree contributory life here as I go through my ‘70s. I couldn’t be happier, or more challenged.

I’ve generally been really crappy about blogging, but some current decisions and plans cause me to make a renewed pledge to myself to blog more. You won’t see a lot of images, this isn’t a travelogue, but rather will be presented with a bit of exploration of my own path through some interesting choices and environments at this point in my life. If I’m able to carry it off, you will see some extensive travel experiences (and images) when (if?) I start a long trip I am planning for next year which will include a brief return to the USA. But more on that, later.

See you again soon on the pages of this blog.

I love to video chat by the way and would be thrilled if want to catch up even if it’s been years. If you don’t know me and just want to chat about Africa, or whatever, contact me and we’ll set it up.

I plan to start hosting a TED Circle for conversations about “stuff that matters” (specific topics to be determined). Let me know if you’re interested in good conversation and meeting some new people.