Becca White was the Grinnell Corps Namibia fellow for 2000-2001.
Becca White's Reports
Becca White, Grinnell Corps: Namibia 2000-01
Report 1Becca White
I have not written my promised four-month report. There was a conference at the station during my fourth month, and I was occupied with other duties. Grinnell, at the time, seemed like another world. I extend my apologies to those who have been expecting this and appreciation to those who have allowed me to give what I can, when I can (two months late, long-live Grinnell extensions!)
When I was trying to formulate my thought on paper, I found these journals that I had been keeping all along. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them. If you have any questions fell free to contact me at my Grinnell e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be more than happy to hear from you.
Zero-Zero. Dr. Joh Henschel is the first to serve. What an unfamiliar sensation to be playing volleyball against my boss. How different he is from the man I saw earlier today during the meeting. Both intense situations, but a competitive edge is uncovered on the court, along with a powerful and effective serve.
"People, people, we can get this back. Don't let them get another point." Rauna is in charge of keeping staff morale up and her team on their toes. She calls out the score at every serve. She keeps us informed on the court just like when she hands out our invoices (and the latest gossip) from the Windhoek office at the end of the month. Six-eight. Our serve. High-fives all around.
First to me then to Snake who spikes it. Well-calculated plan of action and efficient execution. The weather three times a day. The collection of insect data three times a week. The Welwitschia once a month. Snake knows what is going on, when to take action, and when it is out of bounds. Everyone listens. Eleven all.
The interns and volunteers shift from one team to the other. They fill important gaps in teams. Their intense energy gets the ball going, but it is up to everyone to get the thing over the net for it to mean anything. Twelve-thirteen.
Petra has been here for four months and will be here for two more. She calls out - "Have no fear, just play" - so when the ball comes straight for her head, she just hits it back. Her !nara plants are beginning to germinate, after months of hard work and pre-dawn measurements. Now to write the masters thesis. Game point.
No mercy is the name of the game.
When I was living in Madagascar, I was easily spotted because of my pale skin. When I walked in the market, collecting my food for the week, women would reach out for me, calling out the best prices, wanting to be visited by the rich white woman. Spend your francs here, Vazah. My tomatoes are the freshest.
Vazah is what we are named there. The foreign one. The one that doesn't belong. As I walk home with my baskets laden with supplies, men whisper it under their breath - Psst, Vazah, come home with me? - Children look in my baskets - Vazah, give us a gift - Mothers hold their babies to my eye level to learn their newest word - Vazah. After a few weeks the women's voices now welcomed me into their stalls - Vazah, I knew you would come today. Come and see what I have saved for you. I have wonderful things to show you.
Now I am in Namibia. And when I stand in the street, no one calls to me. I am assumed to belong in this country is some strange and colonial way. As people pass, they just silently look at me. It is this silence that pierces the soul. There is no chance for an interaction. It seems that history has cut the connection. So when the crazy old man comes up to our group, he passes by my friends, black and white, to grab and try to break the hand of the white woman. I tried to scream out, but I couldn't find my voice.
You know that scene in Casablanca when the Germans start to sing their national anthem, and everyone else starts to sing the French national anthem? I thought of that moment when we were in the bar together. When we walked in the group of German men looked up and took note of our arrival. Three Namibians with three foreigners. Then they started to sing German drinking songs. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't be the great resistance leader who started directing the band. I couldn't be like the French girlfriend who joined in crying. I could not even be like Rick and look on from a distance, confident in his own convictions and keeping the hell out of the conflict. All I could do was look down at my drink and wait for them to finish.
Unintentional Intentional Community
We have all come here to work for the DRFN. Living together was just an added perk. When it was introduced to the station and my own caravan at the SLUMS (Single Living Units for Mastor's Students), I was reminded of my friend Nora, and her intentional communities course she took in our second year at Grinnell. Everyone was so excited to start their own community, together we are better than when we are alone. Making a safe haven in a not-so perfect world around us.
At first, I was swept up into the idea of living as a group. We all have our own caravan, but share a bathroom, kitchen, and communal living area. We cook together, talk after work, and everyone has a dish day. Yes, take anything off my shelf you may need. Are you walking up to the station? I'll go with you. What do we do today?
I had been accepted into a new family. Everything belongs to everyone, ranging from rice to soap to your time and energy. I was quickly coming to grips with the fact that if I wanted to live a certain way I had to support the entire SLUMS staff (ranging from three to fifteen) to live at my same standard of living. If you want a cookie, everyone wants a cookie. I started to eat cookies in my caravan.
Everyone was warning me to bring lots of books, since Gobabeb was so lonely. When I hit month three here, I realized I had not been alone for more than 2 hours since I had arrived in Namibia. When work gets frustrating, it is devastating to come home to unexpected guests, invited by someone else, or not invited at all, who, out of cultural tradition, expect food, beer, and entertainment. Far from rejuvenated, I began to shut down.
But then, I am surrounded by people who have many of the same struggles as I do, who have lived incredible lives, who will go on to do incredible things. Every night I hear stories, some true, some lies, most exaggerated. It is a fine line to live in a community where you have to pull out to completely refresh, especially when that community has a Namibian core. I am still learning how to make the best of it - After all you can't please all the people all the time!
Nevertheless, when someone asked me where I was from the other day at the market, I responded, without hesitation, I am from Gobabeb. Home, sweet home.
The bird in the bathroom-
There is a nest in our bathroom. The mother bird flew in through the open window and past me when I was taking my first shower at the station. I followed her out into the sink-room, wet and soapy. I crawled up onto the counter and watched in awe as her movements on the mass of twigs triggered the cries of her three newly hatched offspring. Still blind, these revolting little creatures lifted their heads and screamed out for nourishment. Rauna walked in to find me in this state of disbelief, balancing between shampoo bottles and bars of soap. She laughed and shook her head, stripping for her own shower. Every month, she tells me, there is a new brood. She turns the water on, leaving me with a film of soap on my skin for the rest of the day.
So, I watched them, for an entire month, grow. They became noisier, bigger, and cuter. One morning, during one of my daily peeks into their home, I found that the nest was empty. One by one the chicks appeared from behind the cabinets, from under the toilets, and from inside my slippers. These small brown finches were spreading their wings and meticulously grooming their newfound feathers. The next morning they were gone. They had found their freedom and taken a chance at surviving in the harsh reality of the Namibia desert. I shall never know if they will win at Darwin's game of Russian Roulette. All I know is that for a few sweet weeks they lived in the shelter of a half-empty Neutrogena conditioner bottle and under the caring eye of a two-legged stranger who wanted them to stay forever.
I sit with Rauna and Snake every Saturday that we are in the station while they do their laundry. I have finished mine earlier that morning in the washing machine at the station. My culture requires that I remain as dependent on as much technology as humanly possible. But as I hang out my own shirts to dry, Rauna and Snake pull out the large galvanized tub and OMO washing powder - great for cold water washing. I situate myself in front of them as they fill the buckets and submerge themselves elbow deep into the thick suds.
I ask them questions about Namibian politics, cultural taboos, and cooking techniques. Rauna comments that Snake uses too much soap and Snake sprays her with water from the hose I just turned on. The sun bakes our skin along with our clothing Snake drinks straight from the hose. Lekker, he says - the Afrikaans word for sweet. The good rain this year has filled the aquifer and the saline water is buried again.
It is a strange sight to see your clothes become colorful prayer flags in the strong eastern wind. I never thought that doing your laundry could be so informative. It is hard to keep your secrets for long when your underwear is in plain view of your co-workers. You have the choice of washing your laundry sparkling clean or letting your stained clothes dry in hidden places. I have had to do a little of both.
It is the foggy season now. You can smell the fog coming the night before. When we walk down from the station, we make bets as to how heavy the fog will be when we wake-up. On fog days we can sleep late, protected from the relentless heat, by millions of water droplets. Sleep that is only interrupted to pull up the covers against the dropping temperature. The last time Mary was down, we woke up early to be in the field before the sun became too intense. As she walked to the car, we pointed out the window at the approaching wave of fog. "I knew it was coming," she said biting into her apple. "I slept like the dead last night."
There are big screens up all over the park to collect the water that comes from these fogs. Water that is so pure, you have to add salt to it for human consumption. Water with the potential to help everyone in the river gain a few more liters of water. Most of the animals and plants in the area have adapted to use these fog events to survive. Drinking drops of their bodies, absorbing through their shallow roots, stretching high to reach up into the fallen clouds.
We seem to need this saturation as much as the other organisms. When the air in the SLUMS becomes saturated with frustration, bent-up anger, and general fatigue, the fog allows us to sleep late and stay hidden for a few mornings a week.
When Mary calls to speak with us, we tell her there was fog this morning. Pleased, she asks how long it lasted. Not long enough. No, it never does, but it will be back again soon.
Before I left for Namibia, my brother gave me a compass. When I unwrapped the package, he quickly said to my quizzical face - So you will always have direction in life, and especially this next year with your fellowship. I just laughed then, but I am grateful now.
I am reminded of Professor Gale's house on Tenth Avenue. Years ago, Gale, then head of the Physics department, became a father and as his children grew he tiled a compass into the floor of his front hall. His children played between the north and the south, hung their oats to the east, and opened the doors to the west. He wanted direction; for his children, for himself.
So now I pull my own compass out of my bag as Kristina and I look for direction together. She has come for a six-month stay here as an intern and we are looking at the vegetation of the ephemeral Kuiseb River together. The past intern has left us with instructions as to where he left off. Instructions that seemed so simple at the station as we flipped through the blue binder. But the application in the field is a different story. We wonder around looking for trees that have been marked, fight with the Acacia thorns (and lose most of the battles) and argue over which way is true North.
This mirrors what my job is here at the station. I am picking up the pieces after people have left, not really knowing the history of a project or what has been done before. I stumble across things everyday that have been put aside and forgotten years ago and desperately needed months ago. I seem to get the picture a bit too late - every time. The station itself is growing and changing in ways that I am not familiar with. It is a struggle to keep up with the changing infrastructure that seems to be growing out of control over the aging buildings. And why am I doing this? What is my direction? Am I here to help Namibia? Impossible. To help the DRFN? Overwhelming. To help myself? Becoming more dubious every day. All I come home with are bleeding scratches.
It is difficult to build a compass in the sand. The dunes are shifting every night. They don't move by much, just enough to shift your perspective and bury your tracks. So you have to try and find a fixed point that is anchored somewhere else. For some, they are guided by their work, others by the community they find here. At the moment, my magnetic North is pulling me towards my family and friends, a hemisphere away. But it changes everyday, and sometimes, on a good day, I find myself on the amp, and it is where I want to be.
Are you fine?
Am I fine? AM I FINE? Well, let us see...I have been at the station since power came on at 6:00 and I will be up until it goes off at 11:00. No one seems to remember that I told them there is only one computer that had internet access, and now the network is frozen. I am out of fresh vegetables and I think I will have to make a meal out of canned corn and tuna for my dinner. People have surrounded me for eight solid days now and I find myself going to the bathroom just to be alone. No, Amand, I will not write your emails for you like a personal secretary. Four years of college, and the skill that seems to be the most essential to this position is that I can type fast. I have been asked to make 450 "quick" copies, and the machine broke down after 234. I have not been able to look at my email for days much less respond, and now I have been chased down and asked to produce two dozen biscuits for tea. Fifteen members of the Southern Africa Developing Community have decided to develop their own community in our outdoor living room, and I must host them until 3:00 am when I ask them to leave so I can get a few hours of sleep to avoid swerving off the road when I drive them to the airport. No, no NO...say this five times before bed and maybe when I wake up I will be able to form some realistic limits. By the way, the Ongwadiva College of Education called and asked to come tomorrow with 78 students for a day visit. They said they were sorry for not booking in advance, but can you still take them? Oh...I guess so.
Things I have learned
I have learned to make one tomato last three meals. I have learned to love the bitter smell of the match after you light it. I have learned to climb dune in a skirt. I have learned to show no fear when addressing a bus of 60 school kids. I have learned how to shift with my left hand. I have learned to take readings for a first-order weather station. I have learned how to run a computer network. I have learned what it means to work for an NGO. I have learned how to catch a scorpion on the ground, and how to recognize one in the night sky. I have learned how to drive to the top of a dune, and how to get back down again. I have learned that training is best, but not always necessary. I have learned to cook a bowl of maize meal that would make an African man want to marry me. I have learned to throw a dart so it hits the bull.
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