Tag Archives: Peace Corps

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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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.

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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.

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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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Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of Peace Corps. Numbers 10-18

This week we gather with our Peace Corps group, Group 38, in Windhoek for our Close of Service Conference. It is basically the graduation ceremony for all Peace Corps groups. We will have some sessions on reintegrating back to America, job searching and reflecting on our service. We’re being put up in a nice hotel (thanks American tax payers!) and breakfast and dinner are included for the 2.5 day conference. Josh and I will stay til the end of the week to do all our required medical tests. The last time our entire group was together was our Mid-Service conference, and before that for our Re-connect (6 months into service) and our 2 month Pre-Service Training.

We get back to Rundu on Saturday, we have one last full week of work and then our last days of work are July 13th. On July 14  we come back down to Windhoek for all the last minute paperwork, etc. and then on July 17 we officially become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).

Here are my best memories, moments and lessons of my Peace Corps experience, Numbers 10-18. You can find Numbers 19-24 here and Numbers 25-30 here.

#10 Sharing holidays with my Namibian friends – Fulfilling Goal # 2

It’s been so exciting to share holidays with my Namibian friends, family and learners. Thanksgiving, Christmas in the village, 4th of July, bachelorette parties, the list goes on and on. I loved explaining the kinds of food Americans eat and how we celebrate each holiday.

I’ll never forget what my friend Kazao said at our Thanksgiving celebration last year. “I couldn’t go to America so America came to me. I’m the lucky one for having been chosen.” This made me tear up – this is one of the reasons the Peace Corps exists – cultural exchange. It’s been one of the most gratifying parts of my service, learning about how Namibians live and sharing what real life is like in America.

thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2014 hosted by JT and Queen (fellow PCVs in Rundu)

#11 Hearing my learners say Lisa-isms outside school

Some days you really wonder if anything you’re saying is getting through to your kids. But then some days you overhear some kids say things to one another and you know that some have been listening.

One day at volleyball practice I heard one player say to the other “Stop being an oompa-loompa!!” In the upper level grades here in Namibia learners are broken into “High Level” and “Ordinary Level” but I always called my grade 11s Extraordinary Level. I overheard one of my learners tell a higher level learner once “Oh, extraordinary level is actually better than higher level!”

Hearing little things like this always made me smile.

#12 Surprising people in our small community

I love city living, and while I’ve missed the amenities and anonymity I had in Denver, I have enjoyed living in a small community. As one of the few Americans in Rundu and Namibia, walking around town I often feel like a celebrity.

There are white people in Namibia. Most white people tend to stick together. I’m friends with both black and white people in Namibia. Most white people in our town have cars. PCVs can’t afford cars and aren’t allowed to drive. Consequently, we meet a lot of people walking all over our communities. Where I go running, I am on a trail that white people have little reason to be on.

When I am out with my Namibian friends in town we will get funny looks from people in our community. On my most recent trip to Windhoek with the volleyball team, my learners commented that the people in the mall were staring at us. They said to me “these white people are wondering what you’re doing with us.” The effects of apartheid are still felt here.

I’ve never been in a position where I felt like I was breaking down barriers a little bit, and it feels good.

#13 Changed, fresh perspective

Living overseas has changed the way I see the world. I’ll never view things through the same lense again, and I have Namibia to thank for that.  Former PC Director Anthony Williams once said  “Peace corps service isn’t a moment. Service is a mindset.” It’s true on so many levels.

Learning not to take things too seriously, remembering what matters most in life – being healthy, having enough food to eat, and having close friends and family. Living among people who have to deal with death from a very young age, and often, who don’t have enough food to eat, will change the way you see the world. I knew this existed before I came here, but now I have faces and names to attach to such circumstances. These are people in my community.

My colleagues always are grateful to wake up, and also think the afterlife will be a great thing, too. You have to do your best to let things roll off. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of getting old, especially in the developing world.

I read once that if there’s anything Americans are scared of, it’s inconvenience. I think this is true. I’ve had to shift and adjust myself to get used to being inconvenienced in Namibia. Uncomfortable combi rides, long lines at any store, not getting what you want often, cold showers, things not going as planned, frequent water and power outages, no electricity at all (for many in Namibia, not us), inefficient or traditional housing situations, dealing with very hot or cold temperatures with no A/C or heat, personal space not being respected and my cultural boundaries being pushed daily. I’ve grown a deeper appreciation of the USA, but also a deeper criticism for some things about my culture too now.

Experiencing all these things first hand has changed the way I see things. I’m a different person for it.

church

Being introduced at church for 20 minutes for Village Christmas 2013. One of my most unforgettable moments of our time in Namibia. Thanks to my friend Lucy and her family for hosting us.

#14 Finding new hobbies

Part of being a Peace Corps volunteer is learning how to be flexible and adjust to your new surroundings. Josh and I have always been big hikers, but since the mountains aren’t within a 20 minute drive like they are in Colorado, we found new ways to spend our alone and together time.

I got into workout videos and baking cakes. In Namibia I’m regarded as a decent cook!  Josh got into different man crafts. Together we discovered birding, sundowners and safari rides.

#15 Facing and Overcoming challenges. Truly getting out of my comfort zone.

I’m not a natural-born teacher. Living overseas isn’t easy, and working through challenges every day could get exhausting. However, learning to find ways to deal with difficulties and (sometimes) overcoming them gave me great satisfaction. You don’t have to leave your home country for this to occur, but it adds an extra layer of satisfaction to deal with specific problems here that don’t arise at home.

#16 Teaching 

I’ve never been an expert in my career. I’m a generalist, and while being the jack of all trades, master of nothing can be a good thing I have always wanted to be a master at something. In Namibia I am actually an expert at something – English! It’s been new for me to be the go-to person for all answers on anything, and I’ve enjoyed it. Learners and colleagues alike come to me often for random questions they have about English.

My classes were big and they were often loud. However, sometimes when I would read to my learners, it would get so quiet. You could hear a pin drop. There were other times when I would say something that really grabbed their attention and I could see all 50 faces looking at me. Though those days felt few and far between, they were very, very good days that I’ll always remember. Working in the library you can see how much books can transform people.

I’ve really enjoyed having a multi-dimensional job. I’ve grown professionally and personally from teaching. While Peace Corps can be frustrating, you could never say it’s boring. I’ve had some really boring jobs. This is by far the most interesting.

#17 Being in my friend Shikongo’s wedding and attending 2 other weddings

I felt incredibly honored to be in my friend Shikongo’s wedding. Josh and I got to observe and participate in Vambo wedding traditions. We were treated like family the whole weekend and danced and celebrated with all friends and family. It was a really special day.

#18 Admiring the beauty of nature in its finest state here in Africa

Seeing animals in the wild, watching mama elephants protect their young, seeing giraffes drink at a watering hole, watching wild dogs hunt, snakes in classrooms (can’t say I enjoyed this), seeing lizards all over, hearing frogs lull us to sleep with their croaks at night, the trees, seeing Chameleons. Africa does not disappoint with the nature-gazing you can enjoy.

wedding

My friend Shikongo’s wedding

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The successes and challenges of the Namibian education system

Living and working overseas can sometimes feel like being on a roller coaster with no harness. With more than 1,000 learners at the school where we also live, many days can feel like stimulation overload. I’m the type of person who loves change and can handle a lack of routine, but at times, life in Namibia has certainly pushed me to my limits. Living abroad in London I did not feel the same way. I think if you’re used to developed world living, the developing world can be a real challenge.

One of the lessons I taught my classes last year was on giving directions. I asked my learners to write down very detailed step-by-step directions for sweeping a room, to act as if you were explaining how to do that task to an alien. Often times when I sit down to blog, I think of explaining life this way because while many things unite humanity, there are certainly things that are very different about life in Namibia. It’s hard to know where to begin. The schools and the education system are certainly no exception.

No education system is perfect, and America has its challenges as well. Namibia is a very young country, both in years and demographics. According to the 2011 Namibia Population and Housing Census Main Report, the median age of people in Namibia is 21, but in Kavango Region the median age is 18, meaning that exactly half of the population is younger than 18 in our region.

Teachers are paid well in Namibia, and it is a highly sought-after job.  Due to a teacher shortage, HOD’s (head of department) and principals also have classes to teach, in addition to all their administrative work.

Kids at all schools wear uniforms, public (government) or private. There is no separation of church and state here – prayers and religious songs are common at schools. It’s very uncommon to meet a non-Christian in Namibia.

In many ways it is impressive how far Namibia has come in the 25 years since independence. The infrastructure is more developed than in many African countries with paved roads and clinics and schools.

It’s impossible to explain everything about the school system, but I’ll do my best to highlight the biggest points in this post.

The Ministry of Education sets the curriculum and exams. The school year runs from January to December. There are 195 scheduled days of instruction. We have three breaks: one from mid-April to mid-May, one for two weeks in August and one from early December to mid-January (Namibia’s summer/holiday break).

School begins at 7:10 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. There is tea break during the school day from 9:50 a.m. – 10:20 a.m.

There are eight classes a day and each class is 40 minutes long. On Wednesdays my school has a 9th period to make up for the assembly we have first period on Mondays. At assemblies there are announcements, prayers, words of wisdom and songs. Double periods are more common among older learners.

The subjects are similar to what we have at home. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed about math in secondary school is that they teach elements of geometry, algebra and algebra 2 each year in a general math class. Most schools have afternoon study from 2:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. where learners are expected to do their homework and study.

Muke

Certificates are really important in the Namibian education system. And there’s nothing too fancy you can wear to give them out!

There will always be challenges. Here are some of the good things about the Namibian education system that I’ve noticed:

  • Being innovative – Namcol, Namibian College of Open Learning, offers distance learning. This is especially good for people who live far away from town. Technology is making education more available and affordable for people all over the world.
  • Free – Education is free for grades 1-7 and grades 8-12 may soon follow. Currently grades 8-12 must pay school fees, but there are programs available for those who can’t. School fees range from $N100-$N400 per year depending on what school you want to attend.
  • Diversity – In my school at least, there are kids from tribes all over Namibia. Learning from other students with a totally different background from you can be a real asset.
  • Equal – All citizens are allowed to attend school, regardless of color, tribe and economic status.
  • High standards – While the syllabus and scheme of work seem too large and overwhelming to me, the goals that are set are good ones. If my learners could master everything on the syllabus, they would be in excellent shape.
  • Teacher benefits – In addition to a high salary, teachers get the opportunity to further their education by taking study-leave or attending workshops. Teachers are also eligible to receive mortgage subsidies, free housing and bush stipends (for positions in rural areas). The teacher’s union is also active and strong.
  • Variety -I was impressed with how many subjects you can take at school in Namibia. Entrepreneurship, home economics, physical science, math, physics, life skills, business information science, moral and religious education, geography, English, accounting, and many foreign languages! Most Namibians are very good at mastering more than one languages and most of my learners speak at least three. Learners at my school can take Afrikaans and Portuguese.

Here are some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced and noticed as an educator here. I’ve discussed many of these challenges with Namibian and American colleagues:

  • An extremely large syllabus to cover – If you take a look at the English syllabus for upper secondary grade levels, you’ll see how lengthy it is. It’s safe to say it’s impossible to cover all this material, in a comprehensive manner, in two terms. The first two terms of school here are meant to cover the syllabus, and then the third term is meant for “revision” or review to prepare learners for the Term 3 exam which counts most.
  • An extremely long exam schedule – Exams are the last three weeks of every term. No instruction goes on during that time, at least in Kavango Region, and learners take about one exam each day. Teachers have to invigilate (proctor) exams daily and mark all the exams (no scantrons here).  In my opinion the exams aren’t always proofread well and often have mistakes that make answering some questions very confusing, even for native English speakers! Many classes have more than one exam. English has 3 exams- reading and directed writing, listening comprehension and writing. Last year I marked 660 exams each term. English isn’t like marking math and reading essays takes a long time. By the end of the three weeks, we are exhausted and so are the learners. Out of the 39 weeks of school each year, our learners have exams for nine of them. That leaves only 30 weeks for instruction.
  • The grade 10 and 12 exams – The goal for all schools and learners is to pass the grade 10 exam. The grade 10 exam is sort of like the SAT except with a lot more bad consequences for failing it. Learners at Namibian schools can choose specialties, or “tracks.” Except that here there aren’t any tracks that don’t involve a future with college academics. For example: one track is for Science and Bio and another track is for Development Studies and History. My American high school was set up for learners who wanted to go to college as well as those who didn’t want to go to college. Shop classes were a track learners could take in my high school. We all aren’t meant to go to college. Consequently, on average at each school at least half of all learners fail the grade 10 exam. If that happens, their option is to then go to Namcol and take the exam again. If they fail again, there are few options left. Those that pass the grade 10 exam then prepare for the grade 12 exam which determines if learners will be accepted to college. The exams are on a point system and more than 25 points is passing. Failing the grade 10 or grade 12 exam here feels like a bit of a death sentence. Even people who hire domestic workers want someone with a grade 12 education. Colleges look almost strictly at your exam points. For a student like me who wasn’t a good test taker and relied on my report card performance, extra-curriculars and good behavior to help me get into a college, it feels unfair.  In Namibia, you could miss school all term, show up for the exam, pass highly and pass the grade. Grades in class only factor into the third term grade, not the first two terms.
  • Trying to learn while not having basic needs met – One day we went to lunch with the United States chargé d’affaires to Namibia. He asked me what the biggest challenge was for me as a teacher. My response was teaching learners whose basic needs aren’t being met. In a town with more high-income people, there are some learners at my school whose day-to-day needs are met and exceeded. But there are also many who are hungry, who come from unstable families and who must face sad, stressful problems. Many young kids here are forced to raise their younger siblings after a parent dies. Half of the learners of my school are considered OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Children) which means they have one or less living parent. Many schools in Namibia are hostel schools and I’ve heard learners complain that the food served there is “not enough.” In addition to schoolwork, most of my learners do all the chores in their family’s house. Learners in the village are expected to herd cattle and perform other chores such as fetching water. It’s hard to maintain my frustration at learners for not being motivated or for not doing homework when I put myself in their shoes. I probably wouldn’t be very motivated either if I was hungry and dealing with many problems. Unlike America where most communities provide multiple recreational resources for kids, in Rundu there’s no good place for young people to go. Most kids don’t have toys here. Being a teenager isn’t easy, and there’s very little ways to blow off steam. Unplanned pregnancy and alcoholism are big problems among teenagers.
  • NamSept-Dec 593

    Me with my grade 11’s last year. These learners are now in grade 12.

  • Lack of resources  – Learners and teachers alike aren’t guaranteed textbooks, classrooms, chairs to sit in, desks, paper, printer ink or other common education resources. Our classrooms are in desperate need of repair. One of my colleagues has 20 desks and chairs in his classroom when he has an average class size of 50 learners. Learners are responsible for getting their own notebooks and must have a notebook for every class. All their work goes in there (essays, tests, notes) unless you’re lucky and have a copy machine at your school so you can print out separate test sheets. When teachers mark, they have hundreds of these notebooks sitting on their desk. In my classes last year three learners shared one textbook. This year I didn’t even bother to hand textbooks out – it wasn’t worth the hassle. Most schools offer biology and physics but have no equipment to do experiments. This year I didn’t have a register class (homeroom) so every time I had class I had to hunt for an open classroom. There isn’t always one available so then my choices are to teach in the library where there are not enough chairs or to teach under a tree. There are no buses here – Kids walk or taxi to school and many walk over an hour to get here and most haven’t eaten breakfast. It’s very difficult to teach when what you would consider to be basic resources aren’t available.
  • Absenteeism – Absenteeism is a problem on both sides – the learners and the teachers. Learners are absent all the time for a variety of reasons. It’s extremely rare to have a day in class when every learner is present. In my grade 11 register class one of my learners was absent 63 days in the school year. That’s an entire term of school that he missed! Teachers can be absent physically or mentally. Teachers are given the opportunity to take “study leave” which means that if they are enrolled for either a teaching diploma (a person can teach if they passed grade 12 without a university degree) or graduate degree, they are permitted to miss school to study. If they are teaching learners in grade 5 or above, their learners sit there with no teacher (substitute teachers sometimes exist here, but only for grades 1-4). The same situation happens when they attend workshops during the school year. Some teachers will try to get other teachers to provide work each day for their classes, and while that is good, there is nothing that can take the place of a real teacher. At many schools teachers will show up but won’t teach. They may be in class marking or doing other things around school or town.
  • Paperwork – Being a teacher in Namibia means dealing with a lot of paperwork. Teachers are expected to have three files: a resource file, an administration file and a preparation file. Teachers are expected to have a scheme of work which is like a road map of your lessons for the whole year. Lesson plans are due every Monday for that week of classes. The preparation forms are cumbersome and take a bit of time. It feels overwhelming to fill these out when you’re teaching more than five different classes – that would be 25 forms to hand in each week. I know teachers at home deal with a lot of paperwork as well.
  • Different learning levels combined in one class – I have students with learning disabilities in my classes. I have some 18-22 year old 9th graders. I have learners in my class who don’t speak English at all. I have very intelligent learners who must be absolutely bored in my class. Learners are able to fail a grade level twice and then they are usually passed onto the next grade, despite the fact that they haven’t mastered the material. I have learners this year repeating with me from last year and they don’t try very hard – they know the odds that they’ll be held back another year is low. The passing rate in Namibia is 40% for English, and 30% for all other subjects. All classes after grade 5 are taught in English.
  • Lack of Discipline and Overcrowded Schools – If you violate a school rule here, it’s not structured as to what the consequences will be, if any. In Namibia it depends on the school and the principal as to what kind of discipline program is in place. Some have standards in place, other schools have none at all. A detention system is difficult to implement if all teachers aren’t on board. My school was built for 400 learners and we have over 1,000. With a school like mine that is well over capacity, keeping all learners in order so teaching can take place is challenging. If you want to separate kids who talk too much in class, it’s nearly impossible because there aren’t enough desks. Kids are sitting on top of desks. Since many kids aren’t disciplined at home that carries over into school. Gender norms here aren’t like America –  I struggle most to get my male learners to respect me. There are so many distractions that happen in any given day, in any class. While classes are 40 minutes, it often feels like I get only 20 minutes of instruction.

Learning to be a teacher in a totally different environment with these difficulties has been challenging. I’m lucky I had good colleagues to help me. Now that we are at the end of service, looking back I’m really glad I was a teacher in Namibia. I had never worked with youth as closely before in my life. While my learners challenged me, enraged me, they also really inspired me and some made me a better person. I’m really looking forward to seeing what some of my learners and motivated colleagues will do in Namibia.

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