Friday, February 10, 2006

Email from Amy, Yaaay!

Working in the library
This past week has been a busy week.
I've been trying to take stock at the library. I had no idea how much work running a library is. The library didn't have a very good organization system, so I'm trying to organize it better and I'm trying to put all of the records on computer (partially for my own convenience and partially in the hope that the school will one day have computers and I can write a program to let the learners search for books they want and for the library teacher to check books out.) I've probably spent a good 4-6 hours at the library each day this week on top of my teaching load, taking all of the books off the shelf, ordering them by their accession number, and typing the information into an Excel worksheet, plus I spent most of the weekend typing titles and authors, publishers and dates from the records that the library does have. I have a wonderful book that was put out by the VSO (the British organization that's like the Peace Corps.) It's called "Setting up and Running a School Library" and I would be lost without it. It's written for developing countries, so it deals with the problems that I have, things like not having enough book shelves, how to teach basic library skills (I have been trying to beat into the learners' heads that books go on the shelf with the pages facing in and the spine facing out), how to set up a card catalogue (which is my next big project), and how to fix books with limited supplies (I only have sellotape (scotch tape) and I don't want to put it on the books and end up ruining them.

I got several packages in the past 3 weeks.
I got photos and a DVD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which, being a little movie-deprived, I've watched about a hundred times this week) from my parents. I got a really wonderful package from my grandparents with a copy of Christianity Today that had an article by one of my profs from Wheaton in it. I've read the magazine cover to cover a couple of times. Their package also had Crystal Light and the packets from macaroni and cheese boxes (which I unfortunately have not been able to use yet because I ran out of pasta the day I got them.) I got a great letter from my cousin with a little lizard she made herself and I've gotten a few letters. On top of that, I got an M-bag with some great books for the library, which always makes me happy and Book Aid sent a nice packet with 10 brand new books in it. It has been a rainy season in my life. I only wish I could email you all more often and thank you.


I am almost out of groceries at my house.
I've gone three weeks without getting out of Anker because last weekend there was an athletic day that I had to scorekeep for. It was very exciting (I'll send photos one of these days) but I really need to get groceries today. That's why I had to go into town this weekend. I am down to oatmeal, a tiny bit of flour, sugar and oil, rice, beans, split peas, shelf stable milk, some eggs, butter, some spices, a few apples and carrots, and a bag of goat meat (from a goat I watched get slaughtered and butchered) that the headmaster's wife gave me. The chocolate I bought was gone after the first week. The pasta ran out a week ago at the same time as the tomato sauce. The biscuits are gone, as is the bread and the potatoes. I haven't gone hungry; I've just had to get more creative as the foods that I use most often disappeared. On Thursday for lunch I boiled rice, beans, rosemary, and apples together and I doused it in honey and butter. It was only a little funny tasting and I've decided that anything doused in enough butter and honey will taste at least decent. I have been eating a lot of a pea soup concoction that I invented, which is not too bad, and when I ran out of pasta, pancakes became my new food of choice. Still, I'm really excited about getting new food. I'm going to buy 4 chocolate bars and a kilo of pasta, just in case I don't get into town for 3 weeks again. (later addition to this email- I went to the store and for a while I thought I had forgotten my Debit card in Anker which really depressed me, because I only had N$100 (about $15) so I bought the neccessities- mainly bread, pasta and of course chocolate, but then I found my card, so I am going home with loads of food…it's all good.)

I have decided to hire someone to do my laundry for me.
I was strongly against it because I thought it was incredibly colonial for the rich white American to come into town and hire someone to clean up after her, but then I realized that that's my American culture showing through. The other teachers all have someone help them do their laundry and they thought it was bizarre that I washed it myself by hand. The truth is that Anjelica Christiaan, one of the elders at the church, told me that her friend needed work and I realized that it's giving someone a job and putting money back into the community. Also, I realized how back breaking it is to wash clothes by hand each week.

No school supplies
On Tuesday I read to the kindergarten, which was wonderful.
There are about 8 kindergarteners and I really like the kindergarten teacher. We read "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See" which is great for teaching colors. They sang me a song and then I tried to teach them a song. It was a good time. The kindergarten is in rather desperate need of supplies. At the moment they have chairs, tables, and a few Duplo blocks and that is literally it. There were some colouring books, but in a rather stupid move on my part (in my defense, it was soon after I got here and I didn't know how things worked yet) I let some of the learners borrow them and they coloured in them. I would love to get donations of toys, but I can't figure out how to get them shipped. The library can be stocked by sending M-bags, which are relatively cheap, but you can't send toys by M-bag and I think it could get to be quite expensive to send them. If you have any ideas, email me. Also, while I'm at it, if you have any connections with a computer or a copier company and could put in a good word for me when I write and ask for donations, I would be very much in your debt. We now have 3 broken computers, a broken printer, and a broken copier… all of them beyond my ability to fix. Some of them were actually donated already broken and the copier breaks with regularity every month or so for 3 weeks to a month, which is unfortunate since it is incredibly difficult to teach with no copier (I actually tried to hand write a worksheet once, but it was so much work that I gave up.)

I think I am learning more about myself here in Namibia.
Some of it is good; I never realized before how strong I could be and I'm starting to believe that a lot more is possible than I would have believed before. I'm also starting to see some truths about myself that I never let myself see before. It's like I'm living closer to the surface of my skin. I think that I had built up a nice wall to protect me from the truth about myself and somehow the isolation, or the lack of distractions, or the poverty is pulling it down and pulling me out of myself. I'm learning some about my selfishness. I think that maybe I could believe I was generous before because there was no one asking me for anything. Now everyone asks me for things because I'm the rich American. Learners ask me for money and food and pens, teachers ask me for supplies and sometimes money, I sometimes avoid going to the little store because there is a man who sits near there who always asks me to give him money (and makes rude, uncomfortable comments to me), and I realized the other day that I didn't want to share my masking tape with Mr. !Naruseb. I wanted to save my masking tape and I wanted to use it to mend the holes in the library windows. I realized how silly it is to be possessive of a little masking tape, especially my Namibian masking tape, which smells disturbingly like paint thinner, but it's not just masking tape. I don't want the learners looking over my shoulder as I type on the computer and I don't want the kids to play on my hammock (which is now somewhat broken.) I want to keep my things for myself. I've been memorizing the Sermon on the Mount and some sections cut pretty deep. "Give to the one who asks, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" really got to me the other night when I told Nadia and Kaliena, who had come to my door looking for money, that I wouldn't give them two dollars because it wouldn't be fair if I gave them money and not other learners. In a lot of ways I can't give because if I started down that road there would be no turning back. There are enough needs here to run through far more than my $275 a month and I can't starve myself so I can give each kid who asks me $1. And still, my attitude worries me, because I really do have enough masking tape and compared to many of the people in town I am rich and it concerns me how much I think about my things and how I can keep them for myself. I love the Sermon on the Mount, but sometimes it crushes me how petty I can be.

I want them to have everything
Sometimes I'm overwhelmed with emotions.
I was reading National Geographic the other day (since it's basically the only magazine in the library) and there was an article about Iraq. There was a man who wanted his daughters to go to school. "I want," he said, pausing to search for the words, "I want for them everything." And I couldn't help it. I started crying, because I knew how he felt. Sometimes I want my kids to do well so badly, I can taste it. I feel a little desperate when Pempella doesn't understand how to read a pie chart after I explain it 3 times or answers a multiple choice question with "false" because I don't know how to help her. I want them to have everything. I want them to have books and computers and high test scores and jobs and futures, but I really don't know how to make it happen sometimes. I worry that maybe I'm not a good enough teacher, maybe I don't plan my lessons well enough. I worry that maybe a Namibian teacher would do a better job because he or she would know how to explain things to the learners. I worry that few or none of my learners will pass their exams. These kids are clever enough, the problem is that most of my students don't speak English anywhere except the classroom. English didn't become the official language until the end of apartheid in 1991, so most of the children's parents don't even know how to speak it. They speak Damara (KhoeKhoe) or Afrikans. Also, most of these students never see a book other than a KhoeKhoe hymnal or a Bible until they go to school, and even then books are often rare (I have 10 science textbooks for my 37 7 th graders.) They aren't used to reading; it's an oral culture. They can read a paragraph and still be completely unable to answer basic questions about it. I want them to pass their exams, so that hopefully they'll end up in the 50% of Namibians who have jobs, but I don't know how to help a 7th grader who can't read. I gave a spelling test to my 6th graders and one answer I got for "porridge" was "bjm." I want for my kids everything, I just don't know how to do it. I want them to have supplies and books and computers. I want them to give American students a run for their money. Of course, I also want them to stop stealing library books and to let me take a nap at lunch time and to stop asking me for money, so really the more noble parts of my life come and go.

The sickness
On Thursday, in my seventh grade English class I was in the middle of a lesson about writing a friendly letter when one of my learners raised her hand and said, "Miss, Adolfine is crying."
Sure enough, Adolfine had her head down on the desk and was sobbing uncontrollably. Now, you have to understand, this is not that unusual. Emotions run high in seventh graders regardless of their nationality and once a week or so someone has a fight with a friend or gets insulted and ends up crying on their desk for most of the class period. I told the students to get to work and to stop staring at her and then I went over to her table. Adolfine sits at a table with a lot of boys and I was pretty sure they had said something to her, so I went over, ready to lay down some rules. "What happened here?" I asked, but no one knew, which is unusual since the kids are usually happy to tell on each other. "What's wrong?" I asked her, but she wasn't about to lift her head. Finally, one of my brighter learners, Sendrella, said, "Miss, she has the sickness." "Do you need to go to the clinic?" I asked, partially misunderstanding and partially wanting to misunderstand. "No, Miss" Sendrella said quietly, "She just found out she has the sickness." The sickness is one of the euphemisms for HIV/AIDs here. What do you do with that? What do you say, especially when your learners don't really understand your English? Do you know? Because I don't. I yelled at everyone to stop looking at her and to get to work and I must have been angrier than usual because they actually did what I told them to do. Then I just stood there and rubbed her back as she cried on the desk and tried to keep from crying myself. The longer I am here, the angrier I get at how unfair life is for these kids. A girl shouldn't have to deal with that in grade seven. She's really still just a kid. She should have the chance to make mistakes and not have to die of the consequences. I wanted to tell Adolfine that it was OK; that we could figure something out; that she still had a life to live and that maybe she could get on anti-retrovirals (Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa where a significant number of HIV infected people get anti-retrovirals. I think a little under 1/3 of infected people get the treatment here.) I wanted to tell her that she could talk to me, but I didn't have the language. She didn't understand. Sometimes I really don't know what to do.

Living Poor
I have been reading a book called Living Poor lately. It's the story of a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the 60's and some of it is still surprisingly relevant to my own experiences. He, for example, describes perfectly the anti-social feeling of not wanting to leave your house and go out into a town where you are constantly being watched and scrutinized (the other day I skipped church just because I just couldn't deal with the kids staring at me for the whole service.) This is the thing, though, I don't really feel poor. I mean, I have enough food to eat and I even have enough money to buy luxuries like chocolate, cheese, and fresh fruit. I have plenty of clothes to wear (when I do my laundry, anyway) and I have a very nice flat which I love. I have access to clean water in my house most of the time (every now and then I turn on the faucet and nothing but air comes out, but I keep an emergency stash and it's usually on again within the hour.) I have electricity almost all of the time and I have a very nice bed (with a nice mosquito net to keep me malaria-free.) I have good medical care and a quality education. Sure I have to deal with some minor annoyances (not having a telephone, creepy crawly things in my house, donkeys in my backyard eating the flowers) but in general I have a lot of things that many people in this world would love to be able to afford.

I've been thinking about poverty lately and what it means and I've got a few ideas.
I think being poor is about more than lacking money, although that is an important part of it. If it was just about lacking money, then maybe I could be called poor. I think it's about lacking power and influence. Maybe the reason I don't feel poor is that I will never lack power in the same way that some of my students lack power. Just being white, American, well-educated, and healthy (in the way that people can be healthy if they have always had access to good medical care, vaccines, fluoridated water, and enough calories) gives me power that these students don't have. I have options. I am here because I choose to be here (or, on my worse days, because I choose not to leave.) My learners, on the other hand, have to fight for their chance to have some influence in their lives. They have to work with an education system that does not have a good record of turning out well-educated graduates (more than half of the students in my region don't pass their 10 th grade exams, even with passing set at 30%, and most of these students simply drop out.) They have to live through hunger and hard work. They have to hope that they don't end up among the 26% of 20-29 year olds with Aids. They have to fight for any scrap of power that they have.

At first the realization that I have this kind of power made me profoundly uncomfortable. I think we all want to believe that we somehow deserve the good things in our lives; that we are somehow worthy of what is given to us. It is disconcerting to find that we are the undeserving recipients of an enormous amount of influence. In a lot of ways I think it is more disconcerting than it would be to find that we have undeservedly been short-changed all of our lives. It is hard to come to terms with grace. I think I wanted to give it back; to renounce that undeserved gift in some way. Maybe that's part of the reason why I joined the Peace Corps. I thought I could become poor, but you can't really become poor, you can only become impecunious.

After a while I realized that it was never a good goal to become poor in that way.
How can you renounce the knowledge of how to use the "space bar" on a computer? How can you renounce good health or education? And even if you could, how would it be a positive thing to do? How would it be helpful to anybody? Instead I began to realize that my job is to use that power and influence properly; as an ambassador. Not an ambassador of the US to the people of Namibia, which is what they pound into our heads in training (although I am definitely that too.) My main job is to be an ambassador for the people of Anker to the rest of the world. I am here to use the power that I have been undeserving given to protect and help these kids to the best of my ability. Just because my influence is undeserved doesn't mean that it comes without responsibilities. That's what I think now. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I still have a little of the profoundly evil notion of a "white burden" but I don't think they are quite the same thing. It's not that I feel like I have some responsibility to fix "those" people. I'm starting to feel a little like I'm one of them and I'm fighting for my own people.

I was reading through my letter and I realized that I sound kind of depressed.
I'm really not depressed, my life just has these crazy, roller coaster turns in it. Most of the time I'm pretty happy here and on some days I think that I really live in about the most wonderful place in the world. I was walking home from school the other day and I looked at my pretty little flat with the pink and yellow flowers and my laundry hanging from the line and my hammock and my green door and I though, I really live in Eden. Granted, it's an Eden where many of the children are functionally illiterate and where the high temperature of the day is often 101 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's still a beautiful and happy place.

Love note
I confiscated a love note in my sixth grade class the other day.
I had to keep from laughing in class because it was so sweet. I don't really remember what love notes were like in sixth grade because as I recall I spent most of my time trying to blend in with the paint, but I don't think they were that different except I think we had slightly better grammar. This is what the love note said, "I love you my beautiful girl Do you love me Say yes or no Saye yes. If you love me? I love you very much Dear Girls Good My Goodness If you not love me I will die. Ivan love Bernethe" and on the side there are two little hearts one labeled "my" and the other labeled "your" with an arrow pointed between them and the word love written above it. Ivan is one of my better students, but I'm really going to have to talk to him about punctuation.


I've still been reading a lot, but not as much as before. I only finished 3 1/2 books in the past three weeks- Living Poor, Bobos in Paradise, The Hobbit, and 1/2 of Lord Jim (man that book is dense- I have to take breaks regularly and read other stuff.)

So, that's my life.
I like it for the most part. I hope everything is going well in your neck of the woods. Sorry for the random craziness of this email, I patched it together from fragments I wrote over the past 3 weeks. Hope you're doing well. I am going to work on getting internet in my home in Anker, so hopefully I'll be able to keep in touch better. Take care of yourselves.

1 comment:

Amy Sauder said...

Amy, I loved reading your journal entry. I was up past midnight because I couldn't put it down. I am impressed, and thankful for your ability to so vividly share your experience with all of us.
Please write a book later, will you?
Cousin, Amy Alberts Sauder
Pine Island, MN