Navigating Namibian cultural norms
Living overseas you learn just as much about your own culture as you do about the new one you’re living in. Luckily we had some sessions on cultural norms facilitated by Namibians during our first two months as Peace Corps trainees at PST (Pre-Service Training). I also have some good Namibian friends who look out for me here in Rundu to clue me in when I might be doing things that might be considered rude, impolite or just plain strange. Still, there are things that happen every day that are very different. Some of these differences can be a challenge to adapt to. Here are a few major differences:
- People asking for things. To keep and/or to borrow. I am asked on an almost daily basis for my phone, food, pants, water, pens, money, etc. “Give me that.” At this point my learners know my answer will be NO, but they still ask. My colleagues aren’t asked for things as much as me, as I think people will try to see what they can get away with with a foreigner. I do like that people share so much but I say no often times because I have to draw the line somewhere. Americans tend to have their own lawn mowers, shovels, etc., whereas here in Namibia everyone in the community just shares. It’s nice, but also tough if you’re the one with the object people want. And I don’t often hear a “please” which can make it a difficult request to swallow. It’s very normal for Namibians to give or lend their family and friends money. If you have extra, you are expected to help those in your family who don’t. It’s very kind, but can make it difficult for those who work to get ahead if they are supporting their extended family financially.
- Greetings are very important in Namibian culture. Some days if I was in a rush I would pass a colleague without saying hello. This is considered extremely rude, and if you did this repeatedly, the person would think you did not like them at all. In our meetings, most people greet every one individually, not just as a whole group. In person or via text, you should always ask how someone is before just getting to the meat of what you need. For example saying, “Can you give me those notes from yesterday” without first asking, “Hi, how are you?” is rude.
- On the importance of meat. Inviting people over for dinner and not serving meat is bad form. In Namibia they joke (sort of) that chicken is a vegetable and that a meal served without meat is not a meal at all.
- On your birthday it’s not necessarily expected that people buy you gifts or treat you to a meal. The usual expectation is that you provide food for all your colleagues to lunch or friends to a meal if it is your birthday. Namibian teachers get a double paycheck on their birthday month (Peace Corps Volunteers don’t) so that month they may be feeling more generous anyway. For my birthday Josh and I hosted dinner and I received some gifts from friends.
- Sharing. “In Africa we share.” This is very true. It’s considered incredibly rude to eat in front of someone else and not offer them some food. If you have, you help the have-nots. It’s expected. I realized how much this has now become a part of my life here when I recently saw a new volunteer eating 2 pieces of cake without offering any to the people in the room with her. SO RUDE! If you don’t want to share, you must eat when no one is around.
- Hanging up your underwear to dry outside after washing it. This is frowned upon in Namibia.
Things I’ve encountered that many Americans would consider odd or impolite:
- “Miss! You are getting FAT!” I’ve been told this a few times throughout the year when I know I’ve gained a few pounds. Eek, no American likes hearing that. In most parts of Namibia this would be considered a compliment. Getting fat = having money.
- Getting hit on very vocally in public by men. The pickup lines here are great, and men are very outward about trying to get you to be with them. When I walk around town by myself versus with Josh, it is two totally different experiences. Men will tell you they love you, they want to marry you, etc.
- Cell phone use is ubiquitous here. All adults I know have a cell phone and many even have smart phones. Most learners (students) have phones as well, although they are not permitted to have them at school. It’s very common for the teachers at my school to all be looking at and using their cell phones during meetings. Cell phones will ring and people will leave to answer them. It’s expensive to make a voice call here which might be the reason people answer any incoming call, even if they are facilitating a meeting. They don’t want to have to use up their airtime returning a call! It’s also common for people to call and not leave a message. This doesn’t cost them airtime, but leaving a message would. At home I would consider this rude.
- Breast feeding in public. This is extremely common and it’s usually too hot here to use a nursing blanket anyway. Josh says, “It distracted me at first when someone would bring a baby to a business training class, but now I am just used to it.” It does make you realize how natural this should be considered, and how much most Americans fear any nipple sighting.
- Being very late for meetings or appointments. The joke about “Africa time” is real. My Namibian friends have joked with me that I’ve really adapted to the culture – nowadays sometimes I’m later than them for parties! I bring books with me to wait for combis (minibus public transports), meetings and other events because usually without fail they will start late. The bell schedule at school does not allocate time for kids to get to class – classes tend to start and end late, 5-10 minutes. It has helped me to be more patient. “Time is money” doesn’t have the same meaning here as back home. It’s not rude to inconvenience others in this way, it’s expected.
- “Miss, what’s that on your face?” When you’re one of the few white faces the kids see every day, they notice every pimple, every blemish, every cold sore, every sunburn and when your face turns red from embarrassment. They’re not afraid to ask “What’s wrong with your nose, eyes, face, lip,” etc. I actually prefer people asking right away, instead of staring at the thing on my face and wondering what’s wrong. Once people know what it is, they tend to then stop staring.
- Gift giving. When you go to visit someone at their home or homestead, especially if it’s far away, you often come home with gifts! It is so nice to feel appreciated as a guest, instead of feeling like you need to buy the person a lot of things while staying with them. People do go out of their way to visit and spend time with you (travel takes long here), and that is really valued. I hope to take this part of Namibian culture back home with me.
- Prayer in public schools and at work meetings. It is common practice to begin a business or school meeting with a prayer. Namibia is a very Christian country and the expectation is that everyone is a Christian.
- The often complete lack of customer service. It’s not uncommon to go out to eat and have to really pester the waiter or waitress for a menu, the food, or a drink. You even sometimes have to repeatedly ask the staff for the bill at the end of your meal. This lack of service is found in other industries as well. If you go to a shop and ask for an item that is out of stock, they will just say “we don’t have it” or “it’s finished.” There is never an offer to order it for you or to call you when it comes in. If you’re at the cashier at the grocery store and they can’t find the price tag for your item, they’d rather you decide not to buy it then go look for the correct price for you. Going to the bank or Post Office is an awful, long process here. Also many stores won’t have change when you buy something – you must bring the exact amount of money for what it is you’re buying.
- Nose picking – Hey, we all do it. But Namibians seem more apt to do it in public than Americans. Also no one says “God Bless you” when you sneeze.
- Staring. When you have white skin this comes with the territory – people don’t often see a white person commonly and so they will stare at you. It can last a painfully long time. Usually though if you stare back for a long time, it will stop. Josh made girl twins cry once because of his white skin.
It’s a great big world out there! Observing and being immersed in a different culture has really made me aware of my own norms.