Sunday, July 15, 2007

Harry Potter, Windows, and 4 things Americans are wrong about (plus, what's the deal about HIV) (email from Amy)

hey everyone
I know I haven't written a long email for a while, so I wrote an extra long one this time. Enjoy.

I did a movie night on Friday. We made less money- only about N$80 (US $11) because unbeknownst to me the pensioners weren't getting their pensions until Saturday. But the kids still enjoyed the movie. We saw Madagasgar and Lord of the Rings- The Two Towers. The kids liked them a lot. They especially like Lord of the Rings, which has sort of surprised me.

I've figured out how I'm going to get the next Harry Potter book. In case you were unaware, it comes out soon soon. Next weekend I will be hitchiking to Windhoek (about 500 K away, aproximately a 6-7 hour drive) on a Friday after school. I'm hoping I can get there in one day because my only other option is to stay the night in Otjiwarongo. Then a bunch of us are going to the only bookstore offering it at midnight (I think that Jason might have convinced them to do that for us. Another of volunteers asked if they could buy the book at midnight and they were laughed out of the store.) and spend about 20% of my monthly salary.

The next day I hike back to Otjiwarongo before noon and then I hike back to Anker the next day. Nothing to it. Just a good 14 hour round trip on a weekend and, with the travel expenses (hitchiking isn't free in this country) about half a month's salary. Still, when else in my life do I get a chance to have an adventure like this, and what else is a living allowance for if not for skimping on the food budget for a month or two and buying a book (hey, at least I'll be getting my money's worth page-wise.) Who needs to eat when you can read :) By the way, I know I joke about not having enough money for food, but just to comfort those of you who worry about me, I'll be fine. I have enough saved up that I won't be spending the grocery money.

You have never seen creativity until youve seen a child play for an entire day with a pair of shorts and three coloured pencils. Jenefer was at my house because on Mondays her mother does my laundry. I was only there for an hour or two, but first the pair of shorts was a baby and she fed it with a coloured pencil, then she was ironing the shorts with the pencil, then the shorts became a car that she could push around with three coloured pencil passengers, then she used the coloured pencils as hoes to dig at the earth. And that was just in an hour or two. Most kids have only maybe one or two toys, but who needs toys when you have a whole world full of inanimate (and, occationally, animate) objects just waiting to be transformed by your imagination.

Another teacher got a computer this week. They buy them on an installment plan with the College of Open Learning. I think they end up paying some horrendous amount of interest, but for most of them computers would be horridly expensive anyway because of the double import (things are imported to South Africa and then imported again to Namibia) and because there isn't much competition, and because they'd have to go to Windhoek to get them and at least this way they have some technical support. Anyway, I was reminded again of why I hate Windows. Their copy of Windows is registered for the Middle East and Africa, not places that are known for their vast infrastructure, and yet the procedure for registering it is the same as in the States. It's ridiculous. If you don't want to register by internet (not really an option in Anker) you have to write down a 50 digit number code, then call a long distance number in South Africa, then get another 50 digit number code, then type that code in without making any mistakes. And on top of that, we discovered after making one attempt that the code changes every time you open the box, so you have to leave the computer on and open while you go to the pay phone and hope for no power outages. And if the phones lines are out (which they are a lot of the time) or if you don't have a calling card, or if any number of things prevent you from doing that, too bad for you. Ugh! It makes me want to rip my hair out and stuff it down the throat of whoever came up with this system.

4 Things I think I've learned about Americans while I've been here (when I say "Americans" I am making broad, unsubstantiated statements, but being in a different place gives you a little perspective and trust me, I used to top the list in a lot of these topics):

1. Americans believe that all (or most) problems can be fixed with money and they are wrong. To fix most problems you need some money, but it is by no means the most important aspect of problems and money is powerful and dangerous to use. I've seen a lot of problems that have money just thrown willy nilly at them and the end result is that you till have the problem, but now you also have a whole group of people who are living off the graft and inefficiency, who have a vested interest in making sure that the problem doesn't get fixed. And I'm not saying that money isn't important because I've asked for money before and sometimes it can do a lot of good and sometimes we have to work with the systems that we have, not with the ones that we wish we had, and sometimes a band-aid fix is the best you've got and even if a band-aid won't stop the massive hemorrhage, at least you aren't doing nothing, but still, money can do more harm than good and it seems like not a lot of people are ready to admit that.

2. Americans think the HIV pandemic is about sex and they are wrong. Truly, sex is only the thinnest icing on the cake, but it paints a picture that many Americans find uncomfortable. The HIV pandemic is really about gender inequality, racial and tribal prejudices, unfair work practices, illiteracy and lack of education, poverty, and unemployment. You probably think that I'm mincing words, but I'm not. The truth of the matter is that most people know that if they have unprotected sex they are at risk for HIV, but HIV is still being spread in Namibia, mostly by unprotected sex. If telling people to use condoms worked, then this problem would be fixed already. The HIV pandemic is in the wife who can't confront her husband about using a condom even though she knows he has multiple partners because women are supposed to be faithful and men aren't and she is supposed to accept whatever decision he makes about condoms. The HIV pandemic is in the 20 year old unemployed subsistence farmer who dropped out of school in the 7th grade and has two kids and a couple goats on overgrazed, drought-prone land and who doesn't see much reason why he should /want/ to live to old age. The HIV pandemic is in the man who has a job in a mine hundreds of kilometers away from his family, who sets up a second family out of lonliness. HIV is hardly about sex at all. HIV is about all the reasons for hopelessness.

3. Americans think that there is something noble about going to Africa to help the poor people over here and they are wrong. First of all, I think the people I've lived and worked with have been far more noble than I have. I came over here, messing up on all the cultural cues and making faux pas galore, and changing all sorts of stuff, being weird and emotional from the culture shock, and trying to do ridiculous things, and they fed me and helped me and tried to set me straight when I was wrong. And they did it from tiny, segregated cinder block boxes, tin shacks, and mud huts. The hard truth is that there are only a few things in life that are truly giving, and it doesn't matter that I'm in the Peace Corps in Africa, what I choose to do or not do is more or less the same as it would be in America. I think that there are only a few moments I can point to in these two years that have been truly generous, and they aren't huge or glamorous or anything. When I am tutoring a kid after school in maths and I ask the same question for the fifteenth time after demonstrating it five times and they still get it wrong- its in that moment I have a chance because I can choose to see it as my own failure to communicate properly or I can just get frustrated and yell. That's the moment-not because it's /so/ generous or whatever, because the things that we see as "generous" feed into our own need to be seen as giving- the truth is that you can only be generous when, right there, in that lonely second, when no one is looking and no one will know, if you will choose to side with your better angel.

4. Americans think that culture is all dancing and singing and they are wrong. Culture is about what a certain group of people collectivly tend to remember or ignore, believe or disbelieve, like or dislike, practice or not practice. Sure, dancing and singing can fall under culture, but so can a lot of other things. Culture can be the way you treat your family, or what you think is appropriate behaviour, or how you act towards your children, and it's not just "those people over there" who have culture. In some ways American culture seems sort of bizarre and unique to me now. The way Americans treat children wouldn't make sense to almost any Namibian and it just seems weird to me now. Well, thats about it. I don't know that I have much else to say.

I'm fine. Hope you're all well. Take care

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