Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kahenge Computer Project

Hello Everyone,

Finally my Peace Corps grant proposal was accepted. This means that people can donate money through the Peace Corps (making this both a legal charity and a tax-deductible donation for you) to support my project. Our goal in to raise about $4800 to purchase 14 computers, furniture, and other upgrades for the computer lab. This will means the lab will have 20 computers, truly able to serve Kahenge Combined School. I've been teaching learners and teachers how to use the computers since the beginning of this year. Of course, it is a slow process, but it is very rewarding for me. Their enthusiasm towards learning (if only they applied it to their other subjects!) is so motivating. I know that a lot of people care about Africa and want to help its people. Well, this is really a fantastic chance, if I can say so. You will directly be helping the development of education at an under-funded school. I can guarentee that your money will be well-used, unlike many other charities. If you are intersted in donating, take a look at a page that I recently set it:

This page contains all the information you need to know about the project and how to donate. Also my mother has taken the project under her wing. Please contact her if you have questions. As you know, I am hard to reach!

My mother's email:

Thanks for your consideration!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Night to Remember

It's been so long since I last updated. As you know, I can only use the Internet when I visit the Rundu, the regional city. But I'm finding fewer reasons to leave my village. This past month, more than ever, I've felt at home and at peace in Kahenge. Some of the Kwangali teachers have noticed this and joke with me that I am 'Kwanga-lizing'. I just say that I'm becoming an American Namibian.
It's really strange to leave my village now. I feel out of place. I try so hard, every day to integrate with my community and to mimic them, that it's not surprising how my own habits have changed. Probably one of the more distressing parts of this has been my slow slide into speaking 'Namlish', or the Namibian English dialect. I have started saying things like “I'm having a pen” and barely notice it. Or just saying “Yes” or “OK” as a greeting. When I first came to Namibia I felt an urge to correct people on these sorts of eccentricities, or what I considered horrible grammar. Certainly, I would not use them myself. Oh no. But its really hard when you hear it every day from everyone. And who doesn't want to fit in? I mean, isn't American English itself just a bastardization of British English?
The truth is, that a lot of these phrases come from a literal translation into English. For example, when you walk past someone, but don't want to stop and greet them, you say “Ewa” which means, as you might have guessed, means 'yes' or 'OK'. And if you want to say 'I have a pen' it is “Ame kwa kara pena”, where kwa kara, is in the present continuous (I think that's the right tense name ?) so it comes translated in English as 'I am having' instead of 'I have'. I'm also challenged a lot on my accent. It's kind of ridiculous to have learners tell me to my face that I speak English incorrectly. For example, say the word 'God'. I bet that when you said it, there was more 'A' sound than 'O' sound. There might even have been a smidgling of 'W'. Oh Gawd. Aren't we pronouncing this word wrong in the States? It should just be a short 'O' sound. Anyways, the end of all of this is that my speech has by now become horribly transformed, sometimes I sound Brittish, other times Robot-ish. And still I'm barely understood.
The computer lab is a tremendous success. Although it's been difficult to teach everyone from scratch, the enthusiasm is infectious. I've had crowds of 10 learners patiently leaning over my shoulder to watch me type some boring document. Breathless, they are eager to learn the secrets of the key manipulation. It's kind of like teaching a toddler how to open a candy bar-- they don't know how to open it, but they sure want to!
In my spare time I have been writing a grant proposal through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. Although we are thrilled with the 6 computers, expansion, in order to serve more learners, has always been the next step. It was a little hard for me at first to reconcile organizing donations where the previous computers had been purchased by the school. But in the end I see it like a fund-raiser. All schools need to raise funds and most schools cheerfully accept donations even though they could probably afford things themselves if they saved for several years. I think that many people want to help African children and African schools but don't know a good way to do it. When the grant proposal is finished it will include several measures to ensure that the money is spent transparently, efficiently and sustainably. And it's hard to argue with improving education in an impoverished country. Individuals would donate directly through the Peace Corps and online if they choose. The donations are for charity so it is also tax-deductible.
The school year here is almost finished. On Monday the 10th graders will leave the school and go home and await their test results which are announced just before Christmas. To celebrate and to say good bye, I threw a party at my house for my homeroom class (which is one of two 10th grade classes). To say that they were excited about this party would be the understatement of the decade. I heard about it every day, every hour, everywhere I went. The learners at the school have pretty tough lives in my opinion. They complain to me almost everyday about not being fed enough (they also say that the hostel cooks regularly steal food and then sell it). They don't sleep enough, they sleep 2 or 3 learners to a bed. They don't have any private space. So I thought I would it would be nice to give them something-- one night where they would feel special and actually have as much as they wanted to eat. I financed the whole thing, about $50. This went a long way-- I bought about 15lbs of chicken,6 lbs of spaghetti, and 4lbs of rice. We had a real feast that night. I have this image in my mind of smiling kids, sitting lazily in their chairs. Chicken grease is smeared all over their faces. One of the learners, Gabriel is outside, walking and jumping. His stomach is visibly distended. “Gabriel, why are you jumping and walking, you will become sick!” I told him. “Sir!” he replied “I want to make more room for the spaghetti!” We played cards games and MasterMind, which my mom sent over here. Snoop Dogg and bad Techno music are blaring out of my iPod. A lot of learners are standing outside of my yard with pitiful and jealous looks on their face. Inside the house there are a lot of mosquitoes but we are happy and full. It's all fine and good to be teaching learners science and to helping with the computers. But it's moments like these when I feel I am really doing my job here, which is making a difference in their lives. As one learner told, with complete sincerity. “Sir, I will never forget you or this night for the rest of my life.”

Here is a photo of me bungee-jumping in Zambia. The bridge is between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is 365 feet high

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Vacation in Zambia

Yesterday I got back from my 1 week vacation in Livingstone, Zambia, the home of Victoria Falls. There is a regular bus going from Namibia to Livingstone, but we missed it so we had to hitchhike. The first leg of the trip, from Rundu to the Zambian border was fine. When we got to the border we had to leave our ride and walk across from Namibia to the Zambian customs office-- a 500m gap claimed by neither country. I guess there aren't too many tourists that walk across, most drive with their rented Land Rovers with A/C so Zambians immediately flocked around us, eager to exchange their inflation-prone Kwacha for the more reliable Namibian Dollar. I didn't exchange any money, I had forgotten to look up the exchange rate before I left and was afraid of being ripped off. We left the customs office just in time to catch a Zambian bus to Livingstone, but not until 1) A taxi driver offered to take the 5 of us to Livingstone, a 2 hour drive, for $100 (the bus ride itself cost less than $10) and 2) The ticket agent demanded a bribe.

If you ever go to Livingstone I heartily recommend the hostel we stayed at: Jollyboys Hostel. The clean beds are $6 a night, the swimming pool is chilly but refreshing, and the gates are always open at night. I don't get paid very much in the Peace Corps, about $230 a month, but I also can't spend any money living at Kahenge except to buy food, so I was able to fund the entire trip on Peace Corps savings. In total I got chased by hippos while canoing down the Zambezi, went bungee jumping off the 360 foot bridge spanning the Victoria Falls gorge, had a full-day safari at Chobe National Park in Botswana, and spent a day white-water rafting on class V rapids on the Zambezi (the next class up, class VI is defined as impossible to cross with a raft!)

I've added a few pictures of Chobe and Victoria Falls and the Zambezi. My camera was broken a few months ago by falling into a pile of sand, so I can't take credit for them. They were taken by my good friend Alex Pompe who also went on the trip. Finally, apologies for the poor image quality: the Internet here is unbearably slow. About the pictures from Chobe: most of the pictures were taken from 10 feet away! In the afternoon we took a boat cruise and so were able to get really, really close. Before I went to any game parks in Africa I thought that seeing game would be a relatively rare thing: a few giraffes in a day, maybe a herd of springbok, or an elephant or lion on a lucky day. No. When you enter these game parks you will see animals everywhere. In Chobe at any point you could look around and, literally, could see more than one herd of Elephants. Hippos are constantly snorting and raising their heads above the water. We saw at least 3 crocodiles that were 15 feet long. It was a fantastic vacation, and I would be happy to answer any questions if you are planning one in the future. For now I have one weekend left until returning to school.

Summer in Namibia has begun to rear its vicious head. Since Namibia is in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed: coldest from May to July, and the hot rainy season from October to February. Each day has begun to feel a little hotter from the previous one and I am beginning to find excuses not to walk outside during the "scorcher" 11am-2pm. With the gathering of summer comes the final term of the school year. So far each term has had a distinct feel. The first term: confusing and chaotic, the second term everyone begins to hit their stride. Unfortunately, the third term is the worst. In the first week of October (one month into the term) the 10th and 12th graders take their national exams to determine if, respectively, they can go onto 11th and 12th grade or graduate high school. The test is obviously very important, but once the 10th and 12th graders take the test the rest of the school effectively shuts down.

This is probably one of the most baffling and frustrating things that I face as a teacher. I want to teach. I am perfectly willing to teach any student as much as they would want, but after a certain point the school is far too chaotic to get anything done. I can understand students not wanting to learn, but I have also seen teachers sitting outside or in the staffroom when they know they have classes. On Fridays, especially after break, it is pretty much impossible to get any serious learning done. Learners will be shouting, running around outside, 80% of the classrooms vacant of teachers. I have had learners hide in the classroom metal cabinet in order to avoid coming to the laboratory. And all of this has been before the 3rd term, when supposedly school is in full session. I cannot imagine what it will be like when there is a semi-legitimate excuse to stop school.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wooooooooo! Summer Break!!!

The second term of the school year finished on Friday, meaning that I have two weeks of vacation to enjoy. At the moment I am in Rundu, relaxing, eating hamburgers, and playing frisbee like crazy. On Wednesday I am going to catch a bus with a few friends to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world. Livingstone is also known as the 'adrenaline capital' of Southern Africa: bungee jumping, white-water rafting, great wildlife parks; It should be a lot of fun.

My birthday was two weeks ago and I got a lot of letters and emails and well-wishes. Thanks to everyone! Turning 24 and being in Africa, it was one of my best yet. On my birthday I went to a braai (barbeque)at my friends (Scott and Lindsey) house in Nkurenkuru. Half of the guests were Namibians that Scott and Lindsey know, the other half were Peace Corps Volunteers, so it was really a mixing of cultures.

An American would probably be confused about what happens at a Namibian braai. First of all, the meat. Same as America, there must be meat at any braai. But the host of the braai must supply everything: meat and other food and all beer. There's no such thing as BYOB. The guests should be able to eat as much as they want and they get to take as many left-overs home as they want or else they become offended! There isn't a butcher in Nkurenkuru, so we decided to buy a goat from a local farmer. A few of Lindsey's students were convinced to help us kill and prepare it. This time, my hands were completely clean! The learners were paid by getting to keep the goat's head and its hooves. The second thing about a braai is that each gender has well-defined roles. All of the women at the braai, even guests, were expected to be in the kitchen, preparing food, cleaning, and serving the men. The men only had to help cook the meat, drink beer, and relax. Not too taxing!

I had never eaten goat meat before coming to Namibia. I was at first a little hesitant, but I have come to see it as a very tasty and affordable option. The most tasty parts of the goat are, in no order: the liver, the stomach lining, intestines and head. The liver is tasty, the stomach is chewy but also good (weird texture!) But I balk at the intestines. While the women were boiling the intestines a mysterious smell began to spread through the house: thick, fetid, and, frankly, revolting. I had to evacuate. I know it is a delicacy, but if it literally smells like shit while cooking, what does it taste like? Maybe next. Finally, I've never seen someone eat the head; is it the jowls? Eye balls and brain? These are questions that I am still investigating.

The other food served at the braai were potato salad, baked beans, rice, and yisima, meaning maize porridge. Not too exotic, I suppose. This was a braai hosted by Americans, of course, but it was done with extensive consulting from Namibians so I think it was fairly authentic. A lot of people have asked what a Namibian birthday is like. I think it is subdued compared to an American birthday. Most Namibians don't have the ability to buy fancy birthday presents and I've never seen a cake of any kind in Namibia. At the end of the night everyone sang Happy Birthday, and then (not at my initiative), they passed around a cup and everyone had to put in a small amount of money.

A cornerstone of the Peace Corps Volunteers duties is to work on secondary projects, usually development or income-generating. Early in my service the school told me that they wanted a computer lab at the school. I was hesitant to bring computers to the school only through donations. Development through 'gifts from the sky' has had an awful track-record in Africa. It does not build African self-sufficiency, the recipients have no sense of having earned what they have been given, and perhaps most insidiously, it creates a system of dependence rather than self-reliance. Instead I have been working to convince the principal, teachers, and school board to purchase the computers themselves. Every year the school collects about $6000 from school fees paid by the learners. The government only pays the teachers' salaries, the school is expected to finance the rest: textbooks, supplies, maintenance, everything! I think you can imagine how far the $6000 must go.

Well. The first stage of the computer project is over! This past week the school decided to spend about $2000 to purchase 6 computers, a printer, and an Internet subscription from a local NGO. I feel really good about this. It is the embodiment of sustainability. It shows a local commitment to the project. Whatever else I do for these two years, however many blunders I make, I can at least point to the modest computer collection and know that I have made a difference.

Of course this brings up another point: How in the hell am I going to teach a class of 35 learners, all of whom have never touched a computer in their lives, with 6 computers!? Two steps forwards, one step back.



Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Few Photos

You can click on any of the photos for a larger version. By the way, this is Joe writing, so if I mess up any of the captions, my apologies.

Ben's training group, after their swearing-in ceremony

The Okavango River (the village of Kahenge is on the this river)

Hot and sweaty after a hard day of work

Looking past the school, to the savanna.

The courtyard of his school.

Some more classroom buildings.

Once again, the school yard and buildings.

With spirits high, Ben and his Peace Corps friend feel ready to change the world.

Namibia at sunset.

Ben's classroom.

The courtyard.

The savanna

The classroom

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Training, Tourists, and Witchcraft

It is now squarely the middle of the second term of the school year. I am almost 8 months into my service, which is sort of mind-blowing when I think about it. I have not been able to describe a lot of things that have happened recently. Two months ago I finished my first term and then went to the Peace Corps “Reconnect” conference, which is basically them asking “Are you ok? Still alive? Why don't you come into town for some training and a clean room and free food?” Once you're a Peace Corps Volunteer it's pretty difficult to pass that sort of thing up. By the end of the week I was well fed and somewhat trained and realized that there was not a lot left that the Peace Corps can give me, except to keep the quarterly paychecks coming. Which actually they forgot to do last time and I ended up stranded at a friend's house house with about $5 in my pocket for a week.

After the conference I had about a month of vacation. I went on a 10 day tour of Namibia with some other volunteers and a few random tourists. It was awesome! Namibia is such a beautiful country. We saw a whirlwind's worth of Namibia: The famous Etosha game park, the Namib desert and dunes, the ocean, rock paintings, and even had a face-to-face encounter with the elusive Desert Elephant which has to go days without water as it walks from oasis to oasis. I wish I had pictures to show you! But I dropped my camera in a sand dune and now it is broken. It was really interesting to tour with the other tourists, fresh from the 1st world. I guess it is a mark of how far I have come. They were hesitant where I am now confident. They easily fell for the crap that they hawk to tourists on the streets of Windhoek. The dynamic of encountering Namibians as servants to a mostly white elite was very strange. Lastly, it was comforting to sink into the role of a tourist and not be “The eccentric American teacher from Kahenge.”

It is now winter in Namibia. I didn't realize that it could actually get cold over here, but it is maybe 40 degrees in the mornings. The learners still come to school at sunrise but since we switched for daylight's savings they are now an hour early. They like to make small fires to keep warm. They don't have enough gloves to go around so friends will each wear one glove to write with, the other hand is jammed into their pocket. It hasn't rained since March. At morning the sky is mostly clear but by nighttime the dust from the trucks is 10 feet high. The dust makes for some great sunsets. Lastly, the leaves on the trees fall off over here too! I know this is a small detail but I did not at all expect it.

Cultural Note: Witchcraft
Witchcraft in Namibia is serious business. Even though I approach the subject with skepticism or even in jest, I would say that most Namibians I have met legitimately believe in the existence of witches and the power of their magic. There are good and bad witches, although most have sinister motives. The power of witches are diverse, they can do everything from healing or cursing people, they can enlarge or diminish the size of sexual organs. They can cast a spell so that when you shake your boss's hand you will be promoted the next day. People are very forthcoming with 'evidence'. There is the story (myth?) of the witch who was shoplifting food from the OK Foods Supermarket. When the police shot at her leg to stop her, the leg turned into a snake and she ran away! She eventually escaped.

It is really interesting to discuss these topics with Namibians, actually it is difficult to keep a straight face. They will admit of course that the witch's power lies in your own admittance of belief, but many fully believe, Christian or not. Of course there are many traditional healers that similarly use magic. It seems reasonable to me that people might actually be healed by these people through the power of belief. Although, most healers are also able to cure HIV/AIDS.

The power of witches comes from incantations that require material components. The power of the component correlates with it's life force. For example, if your goal is to enlarge a client's penis, then plant materials might be sufficient. Anything more powerful and you will require animal flesh. The most powerful spells require human blood or organs. There is a word in Rukwangali, Kakorora, meaning “Cutter of Body Parts” A Kakorora is a type of mercenary that will wait in the forest and capture and kill a hapless victim, then sell the body parts to a witch. I was very concerned about this at first because I frequently walk in the forest. But, rest assured, white-person body parts are useless to the witches. Whew! There was recently a story in the newspaper about a man who was arrested by the police while serenely walking down the road. A briefcase he was carrying was full of severed human limbs!!

Well, that's about all from over here. Please, keep those letter coming! Actually they have stopped coming in recent days. I promise to be a faithful, diligent, and prodigious pen-pal. Please, your letters make my day.



Tuesday, June 19, 2007

March 30 Approaching End of First Term

March 30, 2007
Today I attended meeting with the school board and management that was 6 hours long! The entire meeting was conducted in Rukwangali which meant that I followed about 1/1000th of the meeting. I mostly stared out the window and watched the learners play soccer and the newborn goats bleat. The topic of the meeting was an investigation of a supposed affair between a teacher and one of his 15-year-old students. It is a taboo thing for sexual love to exist between teachers and students, yet it seems to always be happening in Namibia. At worst, the teacher will be fired from Kahenge (though not blacklisted from teaching). He may be kept; ironically, he is one of our best teachers. He will definitely not be arrested or go to jail.

I'm not sure what to make of it all. It is an act I find morally repugnant, yet as each day passes, I find it--along with similar cultural differences--less shocking. I have to be very tactful about my comments and not distance myself from others. It is a trait I am cultivating. Not to be angry when teachers will not show up at the school for a week straight, when learners cheat in front of my eyes, or any sort of obvious corruption. It might be an immoral act in my opinion, but it's not worth the soft power I would lose to take a hard stance.

Otherwise, and as usual, life is pretty good. Last week, Independence Weekend, I got 5 days off and visited some friends in the Kavango. Turns out, I was not the only person with the same idea--there were 17 people sleeping on the floor in their small house! Some highlights of the weekend: catching up on gossip, seeing a lion at close range, and also laughing for pretty much 5 days straight. Some downers: someone was sick every night we were there (you just get used to it in Africa), and sleeping on the floor for 4 nights and probably getting less than 4 hours of sleep every night. One thing you can say about the Peace Corps is that it is hardly dull and rarely comfortable. In a very gratifying way, those rare moments of comfort or companionship (or good food) become greatly treasured.

Today I went for a run for the first time that I have been at Kahenge. Maybe it seems insignificant from afar, but it took a tremendous will to start myself running. When I first came to Kahenge I was stared at constantly. Children would peek into my windows, they would follow me from afar; adults would just unabashedly stare! It got to the point where I would do whatever I could to not stand out, to try to be invisible. And that meant, definitely, not running. But today I made myself run. First, I put on my shoes, and then I stretched, and then I took one step out the door. And then I ran. Wouldn't you know, it wasn't nearly as embarrassing as I dreaded it would be. Yes, I was stared at. Some children ran with me part of the way, and at one point I even had to run around a herd of cattle standing in the road. It went so well that I think I will try it again tomorrow.

The first trimester is almost over. The learners will have their finals in two weeks. I have high hopes for the second term. Hopefully, my students will start passing my tests and asking questions in class. I have a lot of projects I want to start as well; such as, finding computers so that Kahenge will have a computer lab, encouraging students to use the library (it is locked pretty much every day) and to get more books. I will apply for many grants and shower Kahenge with money, self-sustaining community projects, and perhaps even teach the students a thing or two.

During the holiday between the 1st and 2nd terms, we are called back to the capital to attend a "Reconnect" workshop. They say if you make it to Reconnect, you will last for two years. Almost there! It will be really good to see all of the other volunteers that I haven't seen for 3 months, to recharge batteries, and to stock up on essential consumer goods: movies, fast food, and candy. Can I make it for 2 years? I think so. The challenge now is not surviving, but thriving; to create a sustainable world that I can sanely live in.

Last week a learner at Kahenge was eaten by a crocodile. He was swimming across the river to fetch a dugout canoe when the beast got him. His friends watched him being dragged under but could do nothing. The government is trying to catch and kill it, but so far no luck. He is probably gone for ever. People seemed shocked when they heard the news but not nearly as shocked as I was (or you probably were). Animal attack is just a danger of living out here, I guess, whether it is by crocodile, or snake or elephant.

After Reconnect, I am going on a ten day trip of Namibia through a tour company called "Crazy Kudu Wild Dog."