The ideas and thoughts expressed within this blog are not the views or opinions of WorldTeach nor the Namibia Ministry of Education, but rather my personal views.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

African Ubuntu

“The Apartheid Museum is depressing. I can’t see how people go there.” These are the words of a South African with whom I was dining last year. (I should note that from the early 1900s until 1990, Namibia was a colony of South Africa, was then called Southwest Africa, and also suffered through apartheid laws and policies.)

Just as I can in many parts of the United States of America, I note that the subject of race and discussions of segregation and racial abuse are overwhelmingly avoided in both South Africa and Namibia. I have had a few frank talks with my fellow countrymen and with locals in each of the other two countries, but by and large, in the year 2010, most people I observe (in peron or via various media outlets) find the notion of race-based discrimination fairly idiotic and not worthy of discussion. In many instances, past atrocities committed in the name of race, specifically “white” violence against “Blacks,” are so perverse and out of the realm of current imagination that many fail to believe such inhumanity ever existed at all.

We are INDIVIDUALS, part of the human race, right? This is great, logical, and shows progress in each nation; but, it is a completely opposite way of thinking for many, and flips history on its head. It also fails to produce sensitivity to the realities of the impacts of past racial oppression (educational inequities, ghettoization, disproportionate incarceration rates of certain groups, self-hate, political apathy, hatred and distrust of others, struggles for a sense of belonging, and the list goes on and on.) Without understanding and acknowledging our history, we can never truly move forward and have a real sense of togetherness.

I am glad we are thinking and acting a little more like humans with sense now; but, I must ask, How does logic all of a sudden just appear and become the new status quo of a generation? In the United States, attending a mob lynching of a Black man was once an acceptable family affair for some Southern Whites. Violence against Blacks for the crime of simply being Black was legal within the lifetime of many of us still participating in this grand life experiment. And now, everything is fine? And we should equalize white racism with black racism? In the countries I mention, Blacks never spent hundreds of years oppressing and brutally breaking the spirit of Whites in the name of Black superiority or Black domination. The reverse, however, can be said about Whites. All racism needs to end, but different forms of racism and the different roots of racism must be understood in order to effectively deal with it. Otherwise, the potential for resentment to brew is high.

I recently finished reading, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I also recently watched the movie, “In My Country,” a fictional story revolving around actual trials of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an entity created to help address apartheid-era crimes and suffering after the fall of apartheid. Many elements of each piece stood out at me and I took notes on more than a few occasions.

The notion of “ubuntu” was a key element of the movie and I believe of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ubuntu can be described as an “African” ideology/philosophy that encourages compassion, forgiveness, and a sense of oneness. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the spirit of “Ubuntu,” perpetrators of crimes committed during apartheid were offered the opportunity to fully disclose the details of their actions and were made to face their victims and also hear their victims’ stories. If the crime was deemed to be “politically motivated,” the perpetrator was given full amnesty for their crimes and was “forgiven.”

The label, “African,” also stood out both in the book and in the movie. In the book, the term “African” was used by Mandela to refer to Blacks. Distinctions such as “Whites,” “Indians,” and “Coloured” were used to describe non-Blacks, seemingly regardless of their country of birth or family history. In the movie, however, a white journalist/writer in post-apartheid South Africa referred to herself as “African,” especially in pushing forward the African philosophy and seemingly propagandist agenda of Ubuntu. As “Africans,” she said, “we forgive.” It seemed a rather convenient identity to have once the tables of power had turned.

The controversy around amnesty for criminals was definitely present. At a press conference in the movie, one journalist asked that since the majority of the victims were Black, if it could be said that Blacks had a special capacity for forgiveness. After the question, another cynical journalist commented that it could rather be said that Whites had a special capacity to get away with murder.

In his book, Mandela spoke of having private meetings with government officials to discuss a peace plan while he was incarcerated in Pollsmoor Prison. He didn’t even tell his close friends and fellow leaders about his intentions. In my first opinion and admittedly without conducting much research, these meetings seem to be where the concept of Ubuntu truly gained its power and growth in contemporary South Africa.

Outside of the prison all around the country, people were upset, violence was on the rise, and justice was sought as an accompaniment to future freedom. Post-apartheid South Africa could have been extremely bloody and unpleasant for all involved, with Blacks seeking revenge, reparations, and other compensation for their inferior treatment under apartheid law. I’m just an under-informed American observing after the facts, but Mandela’s release, the exoneration of other political prisoners, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission all seemed like strategic and necessary tools in saving lives and attempting to keep South Africa from being burned to the ground. The approach of full disclosure and accompanying amnesty, however, seemed contrived. What is even more sad is that Black-on-Black crime still seems to be a problem. Where are the compassion, forgiveness, and “ubuntu” in that?

We can and will get along, but it must be done honestly. I do hope we get to genuine understanding and interracial harmony; but, I do not want it under false pretenses or with a sense of conscious or unconscious denial. We must visit the “depressing” museums, engage in the awkward discussions, see the images that haunt the minds of our brothers and sisters, and find ways to help individuals relieve the silent deadweights and emotional burdens of our racist and torturous pasts. Schools and governments must do their part to educate. And we must continue to educate ourselves. The Long Walk to Freedom has not yet ended In any of Our Countries.

Oh, and I do believe that race is a social construct that has less to do with biology and exact science and more to do with politics. Because of how and how long notions of race have been perpetuated around the world, however, I believe that it will take quite a while to completely change our ways of thinking about it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why Are You Here?: 2009 in Review

My 12 months as an education volunteer for WorldTeach Namibia has definitely increased my focus on questions and challenges related to policies and contracts governing foreign investment in education. In addition to my association with WorldTeach, I regularly interact with many other foreign aid organizations, mainly through the volunteers sent to actualize their missions. My housemates during the 2009 year were members of the United Kingdom’s Voluntary Service Organization (VSO) and Nigeria’s Technical Aid Corps(TAC). In my town, there are also members of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Peace Corps Volunteers, and VSO members from Kenya and Canada, to name a few. Based on our conversations, my observations, and my general interest, I often wonder how the organizations began their relationship with the host government, what specific mission and outcomes they have or hope to see, and why particular individuals have selected and been selected to join.

While I envision that there are different types of partnerships and missions that guide foreign-sponsored projects, I am somewhat concerned about those that do not appear to have a clear capacity-building component or structure. I have seen at least two volunteer-led projects completely stop once the volunteer departed the country. This seems a bit absurd. Yes, a few individuals benefit from the expertise or leadership that was provided by the volunteer during his/her service; but, this is a short-term fix, and I would argue that it is not a “fix” at all.

These issues appear to be product of incomplete or improperly managed policies and contracts, on the side of the host country government or the foreign sponsor, or both. I would like to explore these theories further over the next few years, hopefully through a doctoral program that can offer the appropriate tools, mentorships, and critical analysis for and of my findings/propositions. In the meantime, I am working closely with my partner organizations to train future project managers, formally document guidelines and operations manuals, and constructively dialogue about my concerns.

The above said, I decided to accept the invitation to continue volunteering in Namibia beyond my initial 12-month contract. I also decided that I will not continue “volunteering” for long; I extended my contract for only six more months. A full-time paid position with the Namibia Ministry of Education may soon be created for which I am aptly suited, however. The position would take responsibility for planning, overseeing, and evaluating computer-based learning centres focused on mathematics and science around the country. Currently, this comprehensive job is simply an additional duty for an employee with other primary duties with which the job must compete. As such, the centres are not getting the full attention they need and deserve to optimally function. It is not likely, though, the job will not likely be created before mid-year.

This week, I officially began work on my extended contract in service to the Namibia Ministry of Education. I have already “left” the “stewardship” of the Kunene Region Directorate and am now in the hands of the national office, more specifically the Directorate of Research, Science, and Technology. For the next 6 months, the national office will be responsible for my living allowance, housing, transportation, and other basic needs.

I felt the difference immediately upon my return to Namibia last week. A driver was there to meet me at the airport and shuttle me to a hotel they secured for my stay in Windhoek – meals included. And I had a direct cool and comfortable ride, not a hike or stuffy van, back to Khorixas. They still need to get their act together regarding my next assignment, though. I’ll either be in the northeastern region of Caprivi (in the town of Katima Mulilo) or in the southern region of Karas (in the town of Keetmanshoop).

In Katima Mulilo, my goal would be to help document, expand, and strengthen the current work of the centre in operation. In Keetmanshoop, my goal would be to reopen the centre, that has been closed for over six months, by marketing the centre’s potential and getting key parties to invest their time and energies in the centre’s planning and operations.

Over the next three weeks in Khorixas, I am focused on being a supportive observer, helping only when asked. I will try my best to not initiate any project-related tasks, such as developing marketing materials/letters, selecting learners, or registering learners. Not taking charge will be extremely difficult; however, I need to know that the individual assigned to run the Centre can actually do it without me. I will also refine the operations manual I authored, and I will gather and review data to evaluate the learners who were registered in the Centre in 2009.

Non-Rewarding Travel

I suppose that nothing in life comes free. I utilized frequent flyer miles to get back to Namibia this month and my experience was yet another adventure for the blog and for future gasp-inducing tale-sharing. My flights were all classified as “Reward Travel,” but I found many of the “rewards” questionable.

I spent a total of 32 hours in the air and an additional 12+ hours in five different airports over my three day “Reward Travel” journey back to Namibia. I left Los Angeles International Airport on the morning of Tuesday, 5 January and arrived at Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windoek, Namibia on the evening of Thursday, 7 January.

Ten(10) Lessons I Learned

1. Do everything you can to NOT have a center or middle seat during such a long flight. Call the airline each day and beg if you think it will help your case.

2. Use (your mother’s) additional miles to get BUSINESS CLASS accommodations when the trip is this long. The benefits on the plane make the flights bearable and the benefits extend to the airports, cushioning the wait time between flights.

3. Singapore Changi Airport is the bomb! FREE mints, FREE movie theaters, FREE game zones, FREE internet, rooftop swimming pool, (butterfly, orchid, cactus) gardens and clean areas for relaxation(including FREE chair massages), FREE city shuttle and arranged tours (though my wait was not long enough to take it), and more.

4. Ask a flight attendance to tell you the actual contents of the Japanese appetizer mixer bowl served with the in-flight lunch plate BEFORE you ingest it all.

5. Always keep airsick bags in your purse (probably related to lesson #4 above)

6. Each time the drink cart passes, request boxed juices, even if you are not thirsty, to build a ready arsenal to “unparch” yourself when you finally wake up, the lights are off, everyone is sleeping, and you don’t want to risk annoying the mess out of all the other passengers (and stewards) with call-buttons, lights, and conversations (although the unparching can lead to a potty trip, which will wake everyone up anyway).

7. The "succulent sandwiches" on the light meals menu for Singapore Airlines are actually quite succulent, namely the curry chicken and the tuna. Two thumbs up for fresh potato bread!

8. Two mini-pints of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia may not be the best closer to the four-course, in-flight, Japanese dinner, with the mystery seafoods.

9. Singapore Airlines serves ice cream! (cautions noted in lesson #8 above)

10. Try to smile and take cheap comfort in the fact that the year is not 1510 and your intercontinental, overseas travel is not available solely by donkey(land) and boat(sea).

Nevertheless, when I reached Windhoek, Namibia, I stayed in my hotel and slept for the good majority of three straight days, only rising to tend to my most basic needs. I had another 4.5-hour drive to reach my house in Khorixas, Namibia on day four….It will take a while to get back into a regular sleep-wake-work schedule.