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!

035 On the Move! (again)

28 April 2021

As this is being written, I’m listening to my Spotify playlist “ADG African” (ID “TekhneGuy”, or you might see “agarrison71”) – you are welcome to share it if you like.

Today I start making serious plans for travel, departing Namibia on 29 May for at least three months, possibly much longer. I’m going back to my USA home in the San Francisco Bay area and visit my daughter and small family there for the first couple of months. I’ll also be clearing out my boat “Inspiration” that has been stored out of the water since April 2015 with everything I own (that’s not in Africa) aboard. Most likely, unless my daughter has other desires for the boat she lived on often as a small girl, I will sell the boat that was my home for the vast majority of 25 years before I left for Africa in 2015. End of an era, moving on, etc.

I feel a renewed sense of purpose now that my Residence Permit for Namibia is approved and I have a flight ticket for the trip. It feels odd to get a one-way ticket. In Early August, I’ll leave the SF Bay area, and take the California Zephyr Railway to Chicago, then hop my way across the eastern USA visiting some very good friends – ending up in Bethesda, Maryland, sometime in mid-late August. From there – I don’t know what will happen. I’ll either go back to Namibia or keep travelling. I’ll keep you posted on this website.

It feels good to be writing on WITWIA again – and I think there will be more consistency now. Not only do I have more of a sense of purpose, but I’ve joined with two very good friends in a “writer’s group” to encourage each other and hold each other accountable for our commitments to the small group. My commitments to the group fold nicely into my intention to write for WITWIA much more often, so I intend for you “dear reader” (that sounds so quaint!) to have more to see on WITWIA from this point forward.

I think WITWIA will end up being a combination travelblog, personal blog, and (hopefully) somewhat provocative view of life as I see it. There is a certain freedom in being 71 that lets me speak up a bit more freely than I’ve felt comfortable with for most of my life. I’m sure I’ll write more on that at some point. And yes, I’ll start including pictures and videos at some point! Hang in there.

There is a page “Ideas for future blogs” on the home page that lists what I’ve come up with for topics at this point. Most of the ideas are quite old, but still relevant. If you have something you’d like to see me talk about, please leave a note on that page.

The  site is pretty rudimentary at this point. I plan to improve it as time moves on: for instance letting you “like” or “upvote” one of the topics on the Ideas page so I can address the most popular ones. Until I get that working, feel free to tell me what you would like to see in the comments box on the Ideas page.

It would be great if you “follow” this blog with the button in the lower right corner. I look forward to staying in touch as travel plans develop over the next year.

033 – And another thing

Written: 2 January 2021

I am really struggling. Big time. I want to post more on this blog – the really way down deep kind of want. But it clearly hasn’t happened as yet. And it’s me. – nothing but me – that gets in the way.

Fundamentally (I think) the desire to make WITWIA.COM something much better than it currently is comes from wanting to connect with people who read it – by and large my friends, past friends, and acquaintances. It is not only great whenever I do talk or write with you, but it avoids the pernicious guilt I feel by NOT doing it! I have emails that are months old and still highlighted for me to reply. I’m so sorry.

While there are no reliable statistics easily at hand, I’m pretty sure (that is sarcasm) I’m not the only one that doesn’t stay in touch as much as I’d like. It’s not very consoling to be part of a crowd, however.

Also, maybe I can make a few new friends from people that bump into this blog and feel like responding because they relate to something here and want to connect, themselves. That would be really nice, and consider yourself encouraged if you fall into that category.

Getting started as a “writer” is hard or I’d do it better. (Doh) And at this stage in my life I want to continue to gain new skills, to take on the unusual (to me). I want to decide to change and do something about it, not just talk about it. Having a tendency to be judgmental, I am especially adroit at turning that tendency against myself which makes this whole process more complicated and slows it down.

And – as I am doing right now (damn it!) – I get immersed in rabbit holes very easily. Having a facile mind makes life in general very interesting, and also creates real hurdles to being expressive AND succinct. I’ve never been great at reining it in.

My imagination says this is already boring, but I’m going to persist and edit this down – it remains to be seen whether or not this sentence makes it through the revisions. But I WILL get it out, today! I can’t improve unless there is something “out there” to improve!

Part of the block that shows up about writing is that I have so MUCH to say! It all gets jammed up and ends up getting in the way of letting anything through. But others do it, so I will too. HOW is the operative question.

When my daughter was about 10-12 years old, maybe younger – I took her to the local library in Venice California and attended a lecture from Ray Bradbury who lived nearby to our great fortune. One of the things I remember him saying was that writing doesn’t get easier, he just wanted it very much and basically got addicted to writing. And he was GOOD at it! There’s probably something to pay attention to there. (‘Ya think?”) He always claimed he wrote 1000 words a day since he was twelve. (point of reference, this blog posting is 1194 words – I counted just before I published it. Well, MS Word counted.) I thought that was a LOT – until I Googled “how many words per day to good writers write?” Sheesh! Yes, I have set a goal – but I’m not tellin’! Announcing it makes it about performance or promises and I just want to change my skills and interests.

A friend who is a writer (professional) recently told me to start by being clear on what I wanted to say. That seems to be very useful advice – we’ll see how well it works on this first blog since he mentioned it. (Thanks, Roger. Let me know.)

At any rate – here goes, again. At least I’m going to put this “out there” and worry about getting it right later. Please forgive my ineptitude and encourage me anyway!

The challenge of writing would come up anywhere – it’s not unique to my experiences of being in Africa. Living in this small town is a lot like living in a small town anywhere except with more sand, oryx, jackals, ostriches and hyenas in decreasing order of exposure. But they are all here – plus a lot more. While I could write years’ worth of daily blogs about living in Africa, my purpose at this point is to talk about who I’m becoming, what I’m planning, and how writing fits into it.

Of course one of the reasons I want to develop this blog, and my skills in writing, is to add interest and purpose to my proposed trip starting some time in 2021. Details (such as they are) in a future blog. But I plan/hope to take freighters, trains, and avoid aircraft whenever possible. Airliners go too fast and too high to see what’s going on around me. At 71 I’m hoping to depart on a “voyage of discovery”, and of celebration. I mean what the hell – I can, so why wouldn’t I?

Very few goals have been established for this proposed trip, but one of them is to spend a month or two in California and see a lot more of my daughter. (No worries kiddo, not every day and not for a solid two months!) But when I leave I want my boat off of my life’s plate. I lived aboard that 42 foot (13 meter) sailboat for the vast majority of 25 years, and it worked really well for me. But that life is behind me. All of my “stuff” (For some fun, google “George Carlin on stuff”.) is stored on the boat and is inconsequential except for memorabilia and heritage materials I want to give to my daughter. I have everything I need here at my two bedroom home in Oranjemund. Actually more than I need.

There is a practical interest in writing also. It is strangely not difficult for me to “admit” (state is more accurate) that I’m getting older and my body just won’t do what it used to do. Writing seems a logical choice for staying engaged and challenged, and is within my physical limitations – at least at this point! And I’m hardly the first one to think of this! Lots of precedents. If “they” can do it, so can I.

So – I’m off, and you’re invited to go with me as I plan, dream, think, possibly grieve at appropriate moments, and generally try to make sense of my place in the world as I live in it now. Don’t forget there are 30+ posts before this one with a bit of history (albeit poorly documented) of my almost six years in Namibia so far. I have hopes for the next six years, or more.

Please do “Follow” (button on the lower right) and you’ll get an email when I post a new blog – and ONLY when I post a new blog.

Final note: if there is a particular subject you want me to write about, please add it to the list on the IDEAS page (see the menu at the top). Or just comment on this page – I’d love to hear from you.