Author Archives: Lisa Shusko

About Lisa Shusko

English as a Second Language Peace Corps Volunteer

Back Home – The End of 2.5 Years Overseas

“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

The biggest adventure we ever planned for and one that we spent years saving for is now complete. We spent almost exactly 2.5 year overseas, 2 years volunteering with the Peace Corps and then 5 months traveling in 10 countries. I’m sad it’s over, but excited for adventures ahead.

Josh and I hope to blog more about our travels over the next few months as we settle back into American life. It was difficult to keep up with blogging while experiencing our new environments and we were on the go quite a bit.

While we were living and traveling overseas, I marveled, questioned and observed other cultures and ways of life. In doing this, I have been able notice many things that make me appreciate my own country and culture more than I did before. Here’s a short list:

Safe & clean drinkable water from the tap, dishwashers, high pressure faucets, vacuums, water fountains, steam mops, smoke free restaurants, hot showers, carpet, fixed prices, schistosomiasis-free bodies of water,free drinking water at restaurants,  super fast wifi, tissues, thick tissues, paper towels, ATMs everywhere, national parks, guardrails, clean(ish) air, ambulances, well-organized queues, metered taxis, school buses, public parks with swings, school buses, washers, dryers, garbage disposals, a hard work ethic, entrepreneurs, well ventilated sewage systems, free entertainment,  beautifully landscaped lawns, couches, public bathrooms, dog parks, garden stores, cash registers, concerts, sprinklers, sweater shavers, easy to find trash cans, western food, costumes, museums, bike lanes, cars with seatbelts, free water in restaurants, customer service, street cleaning, traffic laws and regulations, vans with passenger limits, coffee shops, hot showers, rooms with multiple power outlets, flush toilets, free trail hiking, pets with collars, water fountains, sidewalks, strollers, sewage systems, cashiers who can always make change, free bread at restaurants, paved roads with few potholes, street signs, street lights, appointments & reservations, toilet paper holders, street names, free toilet paper in public bathrooms, pens aplenty as if they grow on trees, well-marked hiking trails, “pack it in, pack it out”, public libraries, speed limits, servers who bring checks promptly, professional sports, credit card acceptance at all places, custom food orders, grass, baby car seats, pretty fences, drawers, garbage pick-up, hot showers, incredibly fast Internet, The Bill of Rights, free wifi everywhere, malaria and dengue fever-free mosquitoes, car pollution standards, theater plays, safe & efficient public transport, free soap in public bathrooms, recycling centers, tape dispensers, A/C, instant hot showers, freedom, free speech, our Declaration of Independence (when I taught a lesson on the 4th of July this always choked me up), choices, choices, choices, convenience and variety.

There were also many things that I remember that I DON’T like about American life. Our attachment to materialism, our rushed life, how we take things for granted. The USA has done things I’m proud of but many things I’m not proud of. Our country isn’t perfect. We are coming home at a time when mass shootings are at their height and we have presidential candidates who use hate as their platform to win.

When we were in a particular country and I’d marvel at the beautiful sites before us, I’d remark out loud “Oh! My! Gosh! So beautiful.” And locals would say in one way or another, “Yeah, but it’s just home.” I get it – we take for granted what’s always been right before our eyes.

My new resolve is try my best to see my home with new eyes for what it is – the privilege to live here, the beauty around us, the ease and abundance we have in our daily lives.

I know that from now on but especially this holiday season when I go to use the sink, open a cupboard or fridge toppling with food, sleep in my temperature controlled home, admire the aesthetics of mine and others homes, get in a safe car, throw my trash in a dustbin, throw my toilet paper in the toilet bowl, walk, bike or drive on a paved road, climb the safe stairs in a tall building, etc, etc., Etc,. I’ll be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones. That’s not to say everyone wants to switch places with us. Our complicated, distracted world is not for everyone.

We live daily with an abundance of riches and celebrations. And as we reenter the USA, I’ve got a whole new appreciation of them.

Happy Holidays from us to you!

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Leaving Africa

We leave Africa today and probably won’t be back for a long time.  😦

So many great things happened here in the two years we lived in Namibia, and the 8 countries we visited. So many firsts:
In Zambia, we swam at the top of Vic falls.
In Namibia, we climbed the oldest dunes in the world.
In all countries, we saw countless animals in the wild.
In Malawi, we swam in the bluest, clearest fresh water lake and jumped into a natural swimming pool at the end of our Mulanje hike.
In Tanzania, we climbed our highest mountain ever and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.
In South Africa, we “swam” with sharks.

But most of all:
In Namibia, we learned about a new culture, way of life and tried our best to adapt to it.
In Namibia, I learned to cope and grieve for my Dad’s passing.
In Namibia I was challenged daily as an educator and got a real glimpse into life as a learner and teacher in Rundu.

But best of all, in Namibia, we made some of our best American and Namibian friends.

There was a lot of hard stuff too that I haven’t forgotten.

I think back to my 2013 self, the Lisa who was hesitant to click YES and officially join Peace Corps because her assignment was in Africa. I was afraid of all I’d read, seen and heard.

I’m glad I said Yes and saw things for myself. If I had said no, none of these great things would have happened, all the great people I now get to call friends and family would just be strangers.

So during our last few hours here, my reflection is serving as a reminder to push myself always, in small ways and big. The rewards have far outweighed my fears.

Goodbye Africa. Thanks for all the gifts you gave me. I’m really gonna miss you. Hope to see you soon.

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Top 10 (not so obvious) most-used gear items we brought for our five month COS (Close of Service) trip

We’ve been “on the road” for more than two months now! It’s hard to believe we finished our Peace Corps service way back in July.

There were many things we had to get done at the end of our service, and packing for our COS (close of service) trip was one of them. Packing has never been easy for me. I always pack too much!

While Josh prefers to travel as lightly as possible, I have a hard time letting go of some items. I started out with a big pack, and as we went along I realized there were many things I wasn’t using. I left those belongings in the backpacker lodge’s free boxes.

Here’s our list of the 10 best items we brought along for this five month trip, aside from the obvious items you pack right away like a good camera, backpack, sunglasses,  water bottle, clothes, scarf (bring a scarf! keeps you warm, makes me feel more dressed up), bug spray, and for us, camping items, etc. Many of the same items we packed for Peace Corps we also brought on our COS trip.

  1. Katadyn water filter – In Namibia we were very fortunate that we could drink water right from the tap (we did, however, use the filter Peace Corps gave us most of the time). For the rest of our travels the water hasn’t been safe to drink in most places, so we use this water filter to make the water clean. We have a steri-pen as well to purify water but left that with our Peace Corps daughter. Bottled water adds up in price. This has saved us a lot of money.
  2. Platypus water bladder (2.5L) – To go along with the water filter, it would be a pain to pump water multiple times a day if we only had our single water bottles. When camping we also may not be able to be near a water source for a day or two, so we fill these handy platypuses and we’re set. We found the water bladders came in handy on our many hikes during our trip, as we used them as our hydration system with attached hoses. If you’re only concerned with one bottle a day, there are products like the life straw that would work well.
  3. Waterproof stuff sack and stuff sacks – When you travel, you are often in wet places with your phone and other electronics. We’ve used this floatable waterproof stuff sack to keep our belongings safe, to soak our foot in when a sea urchin attacks and as a basin to wash clothes. Stuff sacks are a great way to keep your clothing and gear organized.
  4. Battery packThis awesome gadget was given to us by our friends Mike and Christine when they came to visit, and it’s proven extremely useful. When we are traveling places where there won’t be electricity, or if the power goes out, which happens often in Southern Africa, this is able to power up both of our iPhones and give us a few more days of use. On a whim we also brought one of these handy car chargers and have used that quite a few times on long rides to charge our phones.
  5. Plug for sink – This flat rubber stopper is great for washing clothes in the sink as well as for filtering water and it works with all size drains.stop2
  6. Chico bag – My in-laws bought me this for my birthday and it has been such a great item on the road. I use it as a stuff sack when it’s in my backpack and when we go places for the day I prefer to use it over a purse. It’s super lightweight and has two big pockets on the side for water bottles. It can easily hold a lot of items (blanket, jacket, book, food) for a day trip.

    Sportin’ my Chico bag in Deadvlei

  7. Electricity adaptor set – We’re traversing two continents and multiple countries, and each has their own plug for charging. This set is pretty small and has worked everywhere so far.
  8. Luggage locks – These little locks have given me piece of mind when we leave our stuff in a hostel locker as well as on the road. I feel like they are good deterrent for thieves. We even used them to lock the zippers of our tent a few times.
  9. Hiking boots – If you are an active traveler, good footwear is important! I wear my chacos every day and they were one of the best thing I brought to Africa, but we have also hiked a lot and my boots from home were best for this activity. Good footwear and selection can be hard to find in Africa. These were a gift from my mom before we left for Peace Corps service. Thanks, Mom!
  10. Toilet paper and antibacterial alcohol hand sanitizer – I have toilet paper stuffed in every pocket of my jackets, and I always have some in my purse. Most toilets here don’t provide tissue. You never know when you might want to wash your hands, and it’s not always easy to find running water and soap in the same place. It’s important to stay as clean as possible on the road so you don’t get sick and ruin travel days!

Best Luxury Items: How you travel is a personal decision, and many of the items we brought above might be considered very luxurious to some. But in addition to the above, I love and consider my travel yoga mat that I use many days to be a luxury item I’m glad I brought. Working out and doing yoga is important to me, and it’s nice to have a cushion to protect me from the sand or dirt. I also brought my Asus transformer laptop. It’s great for travel – small and light. It serves as my entertainment (Kindle) and I play all my workout videos on there. It also allows us to easily update the blog.

As a side note, I’d bring as much crisp, new U.S. dollars as you’re willing to travel with. I cannot believe how many places have taken U.S. dollars as payment and it has helped us quite a lot when we’ve run out of local currency (ATMs not working has unfortunately been common on our travels!!). Cash is king!

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Reflections on Service – My Peace Corps Elevator Speech

We are more than a month into our five month Close of Service trip, it’s hard to believe! As time always does, particularly on vacation, it is absolutely flying right now.

I haven’t still quite come to terms with the fact that our Peace Corps service is over. I think in part because we are still in Africa, it feels as if we will return to Namibia after this holiday is over. Things are different in all African countries, but some customs and mannerisms are common throughout the southern part of this continent that have made us still feel comfortable this last month.

We’ve met many travelers over the course of this month and they have many great stories to tell. Some are traveling for several months or indefinitely. It has been interesting to hear their observations of the different countries we have visited. However, it has driven home the fact for me that the Peace Corps experience, or living overseas is genuinely unique. Had I been just a traveler in Namibia, even for an extended period of time, my perception of the local people would have been different. It reminded me of just how much you get to know a place in two years, but also how much we still don’t know or understand about our host country once we leave.

It can be easy to make snap judgements when visiting a place for a short time. First impressions can be lasting ones. After living in Namibia for 2 years, I think about this now as we have only been traveling in Botswana and Malawi, not living here and part of the community. I realize my impressions on vacation here are probably very starry-eyed. It’s hard to get the full picture. 

Some travelers make the effort to get to know local people, but most are not invested in a community for an extended period of time like a Peace Corps volunteer. An afternoon hiking with a local person or a day at the beach playing soccer with village kids can give some perspective, but doesn’t give the same depth as working with the same people day in and day out for two years. While there is so much value in just traveling, you get a deeper experience staying somewhere for a long tome. I found great value in the deep connections that we made over a long period of time in Namibia. While Peace Corps service was at times difficult and frustrating, the other side is that some of the work was incredibly rewarding. Engaging with people and learning about a place like we did is something that I will carry with me forever.

At dinner the other night, a fellow traveler asked us to give our elevator speech about our Peace Corps experience. While questions like that are difficult to field (How DO you sum up two years of your life, in just 10 seconds?), it was a good one to be asked because I know once we get home, not everyone will want to listen to me talk about my Peace Corps experience for hours at a time. Most people want short sound bites and not lengthy explanations.

My gut reaction, the speak-to-think extrovert that I am, was to say, “It was really really hard but I’m really glad I did it.” But that doesn’t give much of an idea about my experience. Josh’s answer was more thoughtful on the fly, “You will be more impacted by the experience than the impact that you will make.” And I agree with that absolutely. As a Peace Corps volunteer you get the unique opportunity to really see what life is like instead of just a short glimpse. You don’t just hear about the loss of host country’s loved ones, you attend the funerals of those family members. You don’t just learn about how people observe holiday in their country, you go home with them and are a guest to see their customs up close. You don’t just hear about people’s love stories, you are in their weddings or attend them. You leave truly getting a rich experience, an idea of the bigger picture. The good and the bad.

It’s hard not to sound cliché, but right now I think my answer would be, “You’ll never see the world the same way again. It gives you a whole new perspective.” Gaining that perspective at times was a painful process, but during our travels this last month I have missed my Namibian friends, learners and colleagues very much. I think of them and their lives and all the challenges that they face on a daily basis. I’m so glad that their friendship has changed my world view, and that I get to call them friends and not just acquaintances.

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The Top 3 Memories, Moments and Lessons of my Peace Corps Service

Yesterday we officially closed service! Our two years of Peace Corps service is now complete. It is a surreal feeling no longer being a Peace Corps Volunteer. We begin our COS trip by taking a 10 day vacation in Southern Namibia and then we go to Bostwana next.

I am down to the final three best memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps service. My last three points all have to do with people. Before we began this journey any Returned Peace Corps Volunteers we met shared that the people were the best part of their Peace Corps experience, and mine has been no exception.

#1 Josh

It was not difficult for me to come up with the #1 best memories, moments and lessons of this entire experience. Hands down, the best part of this experience has been sharing it with my very best friend.

Josh and I have had some of our best times and some of our worst times here in Namibia. Going through such a rich experience has brought us closer together. I can’t imagine having gone through this experience without Josh.

We worked as a team at home and here we did too, but we had to learn the new role each of us had to play. Problems arose here that didn’t at home, and together we came up with solutions.

We had picnics in the back of bakkies, we shared safaris together and we celebrated hot showers during holiday. We discussed the things that puzzled us about our host country and home country and formulated strong opinions on both.

I’ll always think of the 5k race we ran together in Rundu when I think of our Peace Corps service. At times we ran together, at times we needed to go on our own, but always, we could see each other, and we were cheering one another on. When the going got tough, we kept going.  In the end, we crossed the finish line together. Our Peace Corps experience was very much the same.

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Josh and I before the Rundu 5k

I have grown to appreciate Josh even more since being here. Living in a society where women are not treated equally, I value so much that my husband treats me as his equal.

“Happiness is only real when shared.” I don’t know if that is entirely true, but happiness certainly feels exponentially more fun to share it with your life partner. Only 7% of volunteers are married couples and I’m happy and proud to be in the 7%.

When the difficult task of reintegration begins, I know I’ll have Josh by my side to help navigate the murky waters. I’m so glad I get to take the best part of my Peace Corps service home with me.

#2 My Namibian Friends and Family

When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you hope and pray that you’ll meet some people in your host country who will want to make friends with you, the foreign weirdo. Lucky for me, I met some people who weren’t shy to make friends with this weirdo.

There are so many Namibians that we grew close to so it’s hard to single out people, but a few stand out for my service. My life is much richer for knowing these great Namibians and their families.

Our host family was so gracious in opening their home to us two years ago. They had never hosted Americans before and made us feel at home. We have wonderful memories of hanging out with them and their kids after long training days.

My friend Tanya is Portuguese-Namibian and I met her my first week at site. She has a heart of gold. She is the sole care taker for so many dogs and cats in Rundu. We’ve spent many great nights with her and her fiancé at Kavango River Lodge, out in Divundu and at braais in Rundu. We collaborated on projects to try and help my school to improve. I’m going to miss seeing her a lot.

Some women have grown up on different continents, with very different backgrounds and different skin color. They may appear to have nothing in common, but inside, their souls line up and speak the same language. Such is the case with my Namibian friends and colleagues Eve, Namkasa, Lucy and Hamutenya.  Our friendship was instant and real.

As Americans we see images of women in Africa on our tv screens and we begin to develop this idea in our head of the “strong, African woman.” At least I did. I have been so lucky to get to know four very strong Namibian African women.

My days and weeks these 2 years in Rundu were filled with great conversations with these women at Hungry Lion, my kitchen, Hamutenya’s house and lodges. Collectively these women have gone through some incredibly tough stuff and always manage to find the bright side of things. My friends are always striving to be better people.  They always want to learn.

Rundu-friends-photo

No Rico’s! Me with Eve, Hamutenya, Namakasa and Lucy

These ladies were the ones who checked on me to make sure I arrived places safely when I traveled, they were the ones who hugged me when I cried. They showed up at our flat with food to share in my grief when I returned from the USA to attend my dad’s funeral. They texted me when I was home in the USA and told me they missed me and wanted me to come back. They were a big reason I did. They were the ones who shared special American and Namibian holidays with me. They have been my family for 2 years and I am most sad to leave Namibia because it means I am leaving them.

Words do little justice to show my appreciation and gratefulness to all of them for being kind and for befriending this weird foreigner. When I didn’t know the right thing to do in a cultural setting, they guided me to make sure I didn’t offend anyone. When I didn’t understand something about Namibian culture, they gave me answers. It’s not easy to hear your culture or ways of doing things being questioned by an outsider, but they did it with such ease.

I know in my heart that our friendship isn’t restricted to geographical place, but I am so sad that I won’t be seeing them every day anymore. Even though our friendship will evolve, it will never be quite the same.

I will always, always remember the beautiful moments with these women. I know this is just the beginning of our friendship, and what a beautiful beginning it has been.

The two quotes I keep thinking of are “I am a part of all that I have met.” and “You’ll never feel at home again because you’ve loved people all over the world.” These women are with me forever. They give me a reason to smile wide when I think about Namibia.

#3 My Learners

Peace Corps is a weird thing. From the first Day I’ve arrived, people have asked when I was leaving. They know your time with them is limited.

“Miss, why don’t you just stay?’

I’ve been fielding this question for the last 6 months. It’s a hard question to answer.  We could stay longer – PCVs can extend their service for a year if wanted. And why not? I’ve got friends here, I’ve got a job. Why don’t I just stay? I usually tell them my mother wants me to come home. Wouldn’t your mother want you back home after being gone for 2 years? While that excuse is partly true, it makes people laugh instead of watching me fill up with tears. Needless to say, it’s hard to leave.

My learners surprised me. Every day. In good ways and bad. Upon arrival, I was so surprised with how much they knew about America. On some topics, more than me! On the contrary, I know most Americans (myself in 2012 included) couldn’t find Namibia on a map.

On good days we could appreciate our differences. On bad days our differences made us angry at one another.

My learners are good at languages. I am not. My learners are good at sharing. I wasn’t when I first got here – I’m much better now. My learners are good at inconsistency.  I am not. My learners are good at being flexible and forgiving.

I know some I will always keep in touch with.  Many inspired me. The ones who worked hard motivated me to wake up every day and try to teach them everything I could for the year I was their teacher. In some I saw small improvements, in some I saw absolutely none.

On any given day, my learners made me incredibly angry, depressed, sad, happy, fulfilled. A fellow PCV asked a group of us PCV teachers scattered throughout the country to describe our learners. Here were the adjectives given: Helpful, respectful, reserved, motivated, unfocused, loving, confused, surprising, talkative, angry, eager, thoughtful, aggressive, emotionally stunted, confused, eager, sweet, mischievous, distracted, earnest, generally teenagery, some are angels, some are stones, reserved, passive and submissive, easy-to-please, determined but easily distracted (and/or hungry/tired). As you can see, it’s hard to sum them up. I know kids in the USA probably have similar qualities.

prefects

With my Library Prefects

Reading my learners essays was tough these two years, and a way for me to get a real glimpse into what issues they were dealing with. My kids had to deal with a lot more hardship in their life than I ever had to deal with. Early marriage, HIV/AIDS, severe alcohol abuse, malaria, early death of family and peers, sever gender inequality. There’s no toys, games, community centers, pools, organized sports with weekly games, arts and crafts, running trails, etc. in our community to let kids blow off steam.

My learners don’t complain as much as I think I would if I had to deal with all that they did. They deal with hardship and adversity. Some walk an hour + to get to school. They aren’t obsessed with fairness and truth the way I have come to realize I am.

My learners had a knack for turning a bad day upside down, but also a way of turning a good day upside down. They inspired me, they frustrated me, they made me laugh, they made me cry, they made me mad. I will never be able to comprehend what some of them go through on a daily basis, but I am so grateful that they opened up to me when they did, and that I had the chance to teach them. I’ll never be the same because of their shared perspective.

One of the best things I received before leaving was an envelope full of letters from my learners. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • “You were always there for me when I was bored.”
  • “You gave me power to believe in vision.”
  • “You are the most determined teacher I know.”
  • “Don’t worry, I’ve mastered advice and advise, I know the difference now.”
  • Thanks to you I now use the phrase “Old fish go boil your head.”
  • “Miss don’t be selfish send a present from the USA.”
  • Pretty as a dove, Smart as a wizard, Nice as a strawberry
  • “You are the first foreign teacher that made me cry because you are leaving.”
  • “I love you more than my father, that’s for sure. “
  • “I enjoyed being part of your team.”
  • “Thank you for remembering my name.”
  • “No one can really say goodbye to a teacher, for they forever stay in the hearts of their students.”
  • “In our culture we do not say goodbye, but we say see you again. Thank you for the things you taught us and making us leaders of tomorrow.”
  • “Thank you for believing in me when no one else did.”
  • “You helped me to realise that life is what you make and never to let go.”
  • “I want to thank you for being my English teacher, even though you always taught each class, you never even skipped one period. Why couldn’t you give us one free period?”
  • The best thing to do when you miss us learners, is to relax, close your eyes, and you will see all the Noordgrens learners.”
  • “I won’t promise to come visit you because money is a problem, but I will try to do so.”
  • “Please have a baby and name it after me.”
  • “Miss even though some people say that you made them fail their math exams, you are still the best English teacher in Rundu.” (still trying to figure this one out lol).
  • “You made me discover there is more to myself than I did.”
  • “I just want you to know that you are going but your teachings will remain.”
  • “I hope you enjoyed all the dust in Rundu.”
  • “We’ll miss your laugh, jokes and last but not least, your undeniable support in everything we do.”
restaciletter

A sad face on a letter to me. That is one sad little guy!

I think my colleague put it best: “Naughty or nice, they
find a way into your heart.” I’ll miss my learners.

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Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of my Peace Corps Experience, Numbers 4 and 5

This last week I haven’t gone a day without crying as I slowly come to terms with the fact that our time here is about up. Last night was our goodbye braai and it was an incredibly special night to remember with thoughtful speeches and dancing.I’m down to 5 remaining memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps experience that I want to share. Please excuse any grammar errors as I am short on time and sleep. : )

#5 – Fulfilling Goal #3 – Sharing this journey with friends and family back home

There are three goals of the Peace Corps and our third goal is to share your experience and what your host country is like with friends and family back home. I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for being part of this incredible ride with us. How fun it has been for me to text you, blog, and share via FB about life here and catch up on news back home. Our interactions have meant a lot to me. On days when I was feeling low, you don’t know how fun it was to see messages from you on text, email or Facebook. You laughed with me, you were puzzled with me, you sympathized with me. Thank you.

Many of you went beyond just keeping up with us. Many of you sent us love in the mail. THANK YOU FOR THE BOOKS YOU SENT, especially Beth and Ziggy Cooper. You helped fill up our library. Thank you to those of you that sent packages, cards, words of encouragement. We really appreciate them all. Please know that all your gifts were used in our community and spread throughout. I shared the food you sent with friends and staff, I gave away the gifts you sent as prizes to my top learners and I used your school supplies in my class.

A huge thank you to those of you that visited. We are so lucky to call you friends and now we have many fun stories to enrich our already great friendship. We really enjoyed sharing our experience with you in person in Africa.

So many of you have been here with us when we would hear certain songs on the radio, saw signs that reminded us of you, met people with your same name, etc. Gentle reminders of home always made us smile. I know when we go home there will be many things that remind us of people and places in Namibia.

According to our blog stats (which I’m obsessed with) we had over 2,000 visitors to the blog this year alone! I hope you learned a bit about this beautiful place we’ve called home for the last 2 years. Now what you’ve seen from us these last 2 years is just that – two people’s perspective. It’s hard to capture all the heart, complications, spirit, frustrations and challenges of a nation in just 2 years of living and observing.

Taking you all on this journey with us has been one of the best parts. It took a big support network to get us to this point, and I thank you all for being interested in our journey.

#4 The NamFam and PCV friends

The fourth reason this journey has been so enriching and fulfilling has been sharing it with other Americans. Other PCVs are fascinating people. They’re fun, curious, innovative, crafty and just all around good people. PC tends to attract strong personalities.

When we first found out we were placed in Namibia, I found some Namibia RPCVs online and they said to us “Welcome to the NamFam!’ Peace Corps volunteers in Namibia refer to ourselves as the NamFam or NAMily.

More so than ever in my life, I’ve been part of this Peace Corps community that helps one another out often. We have to do things for each other because our transportation is limited and things don’t work the same in Namibia as they do at home. We pick up items for one another when we go to the capital or home to America to visit, we share lesson plans and we do errands for one another. I’ve never done so many favors for people, and I’ve never had so many people do favors for me.

We took the whole NAMily concept to another level when we became Peace Corps parents. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but Josh began referring to our fellow PCV Mary Grace as my little friend during PST, despite the fact that Mary Grace is eight inches taller than me. She is, however, 10 years and 15 years younger than Josh and I, respectively, so we started to take on a bit of a parental role with her once we heard she was being placed in a village not too far from our town. I believe Josh one day said “I feel like Mary Grace is like our daughter” and since Mary Grace seemed agreeable to having Peace Corps parents, our first Peace Corps daughter was born. Mary Grace calls us Onane and Otate (Mom and Dad in Rukwangali) and we simply call her “Daughter.”

I highly suggest to anyone on the fence about parenting to begin with a 22+ year old who lives in a village. They are fully functioning independent adults who are overjoyed when you feed them some cheese and salad. It has made my job so easy.

Mary Grace is one of the most considerate and thorough people I know. She helped me pass Rukwangali during our Pre-Service Training, and she has been a source of sanity for me while trying to navigate the difficulties of teaching in Namibia. She has had an extra level of environmental challenges living in a village during Peace Corps, and I’ve learned that she is one tough girl.  Knowing how hard she works motivates me to work harder.

Mary Grace is so smart, thoughtful, humble, motivated and fun. Even though I am her Onane, I learn so much from her, and she keeps us hip by letting us know the things that the young kids are into these days. We have shared some of our happiest and toughest Peace Corps memories together.

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Late night dance party in Rundu with our Peace Corps Daughter

Soon after Mary Grace came along others asked to join our NAMily and we agreed. Our other group 38 daughter Alyssa lives in the Erongo region of Namibia and we had two other Kavango children whose service was over in September of last year (group 36).

Also a part of our NamFam is JT, my female husband. She says things Josh would say when Josh isn’t around. She is our sister, and Mary Grace’s aunt. JT also lives in the same town as us, so we see one another quite a bit. We’ve collaborated on some projects together and when I had a bad day at school, I know I could count on JT to be up for a glass of wine at our place or Kavango River Lodge.

JT is a whiz at project management. I can hardly believe how much she can manage in her life, and this often includes reminding me of reports due to Peace Corps as well as making the most delicious hummus and salsa in Namibia (with her immersion blender she bought in Swakop which she’ll tell you for hours is the best purchase she made). She has been through some of the toughest personal challenges of anyone I know, and despite it all, is one of the most optimistic people I know. I know after I’ve hung out with JT that I’ll have sore cheeks from laughing and feel rejuvenated about life.

I admire the way she has truly integrated into our Rundu community. For the reasons I rely on her, I wish I could be like her. She is always well-oriented wherever she is, she is always on top of her game. She is honest when it isn’t easy, and she reads the census for fun.

JT was there when I found out the news that my Dad died, and she hugged me and got me through that traumatic time just as much as Josh did. When I was back in America during that time, doubting if Namibia was where we should return, I heard from her daily that she missed us, and things weren’t the same without us.  If I didn’t feel confident about having a good enough support network to come back to here, I don’t know if we would have come back. I’m so grateful we did come back to finish our service, and having people to support me and understand how difficult that was made all the difference. I am so glad we come back to finish our service.

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Getting a ride in an uncomfortable, slow car in Namibia. A common mode of transport.

When we had to leave the country for my dad’s funeral and my brother’s wedding, our NamFam put our minds at ease with taking care of things for us on the homefront.

So many of our weekends have been filled with great conversations, intense workouts, chocolate and wine with these two amazing women. They have been my rocks on bad days, our support system and a laugh when we need it. They’ve helped me work through cultural frustrations and sad anniversaries. We have camped together, hitch hiked, celebrated, brainstormed and collaborated.

They truly feel like family to us, and it is going to be a pretty big adjustment not texting one another 50-100 times a day. I’m going to miss these two like crazy.

I didn’t come to Peace Corps expecting to leave with great American friends, but I am so grateful we crossed paths.  As much as it’s sad to leave, I remind myself of how lucky I am we ever met. I look forward to hanging out in the USA or somewhere else in the world to laugh and remember the good stories of our time together as Americans in Namibia.

 

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Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of my Peace Corps Experience. Numbers 6-9

Last week we gathered with our Peace Corps group for the very last time. We shared stories, ate delicious large meals and talked about our excitement, sadness and anxiety concerning our imminent departure. We got back to our home in Rundu on Saturday, celebrated July 4th with some friends and then reality set in – the end is very near. 😦  We are scrambling to finish our lengthy to-do list and spend quality time with our Namibian friends and family as we close this chapter of our lives. We leave our site on July 14th to head to the capital for more medical tests and exit paperwork. Our last day as PCVs will be July 17th.

Continuing with my list, here are numbers 6-9 of the best memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps experience. Numbers 1-5 to follow in the next week. You can find 10-18 here.

#6 Getting better at saying No and disagreeing with people

Saying “no” has never been really comfortable for me. In Namibia I was forced to learn to say no to people. I couldn’t possibly help everyone who asked and I couldn’t possibly give everyone what they asked of me.

Living in a different culture (or sometimes your own!) you find there are many differences you have with people and you learn to become more comfortable with saying, “I believe in something different.” I’m glad I had a chance to live overseas this long and see for myself what I like about America’s values and what I don’t. For example, Namibia is still a country that is figuring out where its cultural gender norms lie. Speaking out at times to say that women shouldn’t be expected to be the sole cook or childcare giver in a household could often make me an outlier. Lucky for me I was usually with Josh and he could share his same sentiments which were often the most shocking to hear since he is a man.

It may sound trite, but I’ve worked hard on saying No when I really felt like it, and disagreeing with someone when they say something I don’t agree with.

#7  Cute babies, kids and our pets

In the U.S. I didn’t really interact with babies and kids as much as I do in Namibia. I have very fond memories of spending time with babies and kids here. Dancing with our host family’s kids in Okahandja, playing duck-duck-goose with the little kids at my school’s Kid’s Day, making faces at little kids on long combi rides, reading weekly to the primary children at our school and scaring little babies in the village with our white skin.

We tried to resist it all these years, but we became animal lovers in Namibia. They’ve helped make our time special. After a tough day, these furry faces really helped cheer us up.

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Hanging out with Baby Loide at Christmas 2013. She’s so adorable. We enjoyed staring at one another.

#8 Appreciating life more because death is so close here. Learning to slow down and not sweat the small stuff.

I’ll never forget when I heard about a baby dying and someone’s response was, “Well, at least they won’t have to suffer here on earth.” The child died from malaria I believe, not a long term illness. At home, we would struggle to think of anything positive in response to the death of a child. Many struggle in Namibia to provide enough food for their family. Suffering and extreme poverty make you see the world very differently. I’ve known children to pass away here as well as people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Most learners at my school only have one living or active parent. Being closer to death makes you appreciate daily life and big milestones even more.

#9 Growing a deep appreciation for all the opportunities and life I had growing up in America

Where we are from is a big part of who we are, but where we’ve been also defines us.

In America, if you want to become better at soccer? There’s camp for that. Interested in learning piano? Take some lessons. Bored? Go to a park or play with a toy. The opportunities we are given to develop ourselves in America are never-ending. At times it’s hard not to get down thinking about some of the talented people in Namibia who won’t have the resources to develop and grow to their full potential.

Children in America don’t have to worry about as many diseases, and it’s not likely you will know many people who have died before you turn five years old. Such is not the case here.

At home, learners get textbooks, a chair to sit in and a clean environment in which to learn. American kids have easy access to technology and books in local libraries. All Americans have access to clean water and most families have a giant cupboard overflowing with food. I never had to go to school or bed with an empty stomach.

As a woman at home I knew my rights and that a man had no right to touch me inappropriately. There are laws against it in Namibia, but it’s still common for minor girls to be coerced into having sex with older men. They often do this because the men will give them money for food, clothes, school fees and other things. Namibian women are fighting a long, hard battle.

Corruption is found in every country, but I  have seen it happen much more often here than I am accustomed to. Almost everyday, the newspapers report another story about corruption in the government. There’s corruption and nepotism in schools. There’s less of a system of meritocracy here.

While there are some things I would like to change about America, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer abroad has taught me to be an even more grateful person for where I was born. I had so many advantages given to me simply by growing up in the United States.

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