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.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Huis is Naby die Kantoor!

“Are there lights in Keetmanshoop?” my mother probed.

I replied, “Well, there are street lights and I live next to the hospital and a mining training college that has flood lights and…”

“Tam,” she then politely interrupted, “can you see all the stars throughout the sky like you could in Khorixas?”

“Yes,” I unhesitatingly answered.

“Then," she directed, "you don’t have lights in Keetmanshoop.”

“Oh,” I humbly conceded.

Though a more established town, Keetmanshoop and Khorixas have many similarities. I am still in a fairly isolated environment, without many unnatural obstructions like artificial lights, as my mother so keenly points out, and with many soil-eroded dirt roads. Keetmanshoop, with a larger population, has more available resources. There are actual bank branches (not one meager satellite office/room), two large grocery stores (and many little butcheries and tuck shops), and extended operating hours for services (everything does not close at 17h00). It still cannot be classified as a “city,” though, and there are many conveniences that I must still forego. In other words, no KFC! (big sigh, I’m serious, big sigh)

Four neighborhoods, in addition to the “central business district-CBD” (their terminology, not mine), comprise the town of Keetmanshoop. I live in Kronlein, located southwest of the CBD. Kronlein was the area reserved for Coloureds (not classified as black, not classified as white) during apartheid. To the north of Kronlein is Tseiblaagte, the area where the Nama people were located during apartheid (the Nama people are very light-skinned Africans whose ancestors are from one of the earliest tribes on record in Namibia). Close to the CBD is the newer residential area of Noordhoek. And east of the CBD is Westdene, a well-developed residential area that accommodated whites during the apartheid-era. With the exception of Tseiblaagte, most areas and schools are now integrated. Almost all of my colleagues are from this area and attended school during the segregation period. The school pictured with me and the nun, for example, used to be called the Roman Catholic Coloured School (now Don Bosco Primary School), when the manager of the Teachers’ Resource Centre was a student there. There is a private school, Keetmanshoop Private School, that opened in 1994, after the end of apartheid, which I believe is 100% white.

Afrikaans is the predominant language spoken in this area; although, Nama (the same as the Damara language of Khoekhoegowab, with the four distinctive clicks, spoken in Khorixas) is also spoken. I have spent a few weekends with colleagues who have been helping me practice both. I find it funny when I am being corrected, but I just keep repeating the same error because of the fact that certain sounds/pronunciations simply do not exist in the English language. I’ll get it; it just takes time, practice, and patience.

My home is quaint, with many new country-style wood furnishings (I'll post pix later). I also have a good deal of privacy (almost too private) because my house is enclosed in a gated area and I do not have any housemates. What is even more exciting is that my home is a stone’s throw away from the learning centre I was sent here to manage. This is a good thing because Keetmanshoop records the country’s hottest temperatures during the summer (NOW). I am warned, though, that Keetmanshoop also records the country’s coldest temperatures in the winter (my fleece and velvet blankets are waiting in the closet).

I feel very safe here; although, on one of my school visits last week, I witnessed my first fight, complete with a young boy armed with a steak knife, yes, a steak knife. Fighting with knives is reportedly a common practice around here. I am told that it is mainly around the shebeens (bars), usually at nights and on weekends, and mainly in the Tseiblaagte neighborhood (although none of those criteria were met for the fight I saw - it was at a school, during the day, in Kronlein). My impression is that the children are fairly bored; it’s a bigger town so not everyone knows everyone; there are not many social and cultural outlets; and they get into trouble because they are fairly disengaged in their schooling. Everyone seemed drawn to the commotion, probably because they are also bored and looking for excitement, however false and misguided. I was disturbed that I was one of the few adults in the masses that was actually trying to diffuse the situation and disperse the crowd. Even the security guard seemed unaware of exactly what to do, so she just did nothing.

“A child in sport is a child out of court,” read the back of a t-shirt worn by a teacher pictured with a few of his learners at this weekend’s athletics tournament. I somewhat agree. Organized sports and arts programs are constructive ways of channeling the energy, competitive spirit, and creative/expressive talents of children. I was glad to see so many competitors and spectators at the event (even though the busted bleachers made me feel like any minute I would fall through).Ooh, and I even learned a few school chants/cheers in Afrikaans. “Es lekker om de Suiderlig de vies” (It’s good to be from Suiderlig HS) (Too bad I didn’t learn how to spell it).

Keetmanshoop is some of the same and a lot of the new. Still dusty, still hot, still dependent on the sounds of birds and laughing children to alert me to the start of the day. But much bigger, more challenges, and more opportunities to make an impact. I miss the familiar and loving faces of the community I served in Khorixas, but each new experience is welcomed.
The title is an attempt to say, "My house is near the office." in Afrikaans.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Big Packdown – Part 2

It’s pack and upack time again. On Monday, 1 February, I moved out of Khorixas, my home of the past 12 months, and I relocated to a home in Keetmanshoop, another, albeit larger, town in Namibia. As I drove out of Khorixas, I was quiet and was not able to keep back a few of the tears. The year was eventful and I have a lot of memories to hold dear and close.

Keetmanshoop is located in the south of Namibia in the region of Karas; while Khorixas is located in the Northwestern region of Kunene. The full 1000km trip, with stops and meetings, took about 13 hours. We departed Khorixas at 8:30am and arrived at my new place at 9:30pm. As such, I haven’t actually seen Keetmanshoop yet because it was dark when we arrived.

Packing was interesting. Unlike my trip TO Namibia in December 2008 and my study abroad experience in 1993/94, I CANNOT carry all of my current belongings all-by-myself (see my post on packing). I arrived in Namibia with simply a duffle bag; a large suitcase, a small suitcase, and a backpack, so about 3.5 bags. As shown in the photo, I now have at least twice that many bags and all kind of extra knick-knacks. My possessions have definitely grown over the year.
A few big items that I have now that I did not have when arriving in 2008 are:

* A Standing fan (the heat in the desert is a bit wicked)
* A Night/Reading Light (although I didn’t really use it because I was usually too lazy to turn off the overhead light AND it attracted bugs closer to me)
* a Big Blanket (it actually does get cold during the winter nights – ask my mother and my girlie, Denise)
* a Toddler Tub (yes, for me. Laugh if you like. I have no running hot water and sometimes a soak, even partial body, is necessary)
* Books and Files (textbooks, country guides, academic records, centre documents)

I also packed consumables (pasta, canned food, oatmeal, spices), cleaning supplies, insecticides, and toiletries (big Costco bottles of vitamins I’ve never used and why do I have 10 bottles of hand sanitizer?) that will relieve the bulk once they’re used up. Oh, and I also have a small suitcase entirely full of items for the Centre and schools. So that doesn’t really count either.

My packing also felt out-of-control because I have expanded my clothing wardrobe over the past 12 months – dresses, skirts, blouses, pants, shoes. I honestly do not know how I have like 30 pairs of socks. Underwear, yes, but socks? Some clothes do not fit any more (yes, a little “freshman 15” – all in the hips and thighs); others, I simply do not wear; while still others, mom sent to me from the States and I have yet to actually wear them. Accordingly, I donated a bag of clothes to the Catholic church in Khorixas and passed others on to friends of similar size. I’ll deal with my shoe-collection later.

Luckily I had a bakkie (pick-up truck) to transport me to Keetmanshoop and I was the only passenger, so I kept all the big items. I can donate the blanket, fan, light, and toddler tub before leaving Namibia. My mini-library of books and files will definitely remain with me for future reference and research.

The trip wasn’t really that bad. I learned more about Herero culture (I think I’ll do more research and write a post about various marriage rituals and customs in the country), I shared with the driving, and no one blinked at the amount of luggage I brought.

And my new home is nice. I have running hot water, which I’ll soon use to wash my hair. I’ll miss my housemate and actually having a housemate, though. I’m by myself in this house. And I’ll miss the TV, universal DVD-player, and satellite dish from Khorixas. BUT, I guess I’ll make do.
By the way, I did NOT pack the baby in the suitcase pictured in the photo.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

The ethnic group “depicted” in this 1980 cult South African movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy" actually does still exist. The San, or Bushmen, are a nomadic people whose customs and beliefs (not necessarily those of the movie, however) have stood the test of time and colonialism. They live primarily in the deserts and farmlands of Southern Africa and are not really integrated into mainstream society. There are at least a few projects that are aimed at formally educating San children with textbooks and classes. I have to explore just how these projects work and accordingly, the impact of such interventions on their cultural heritage.

One of the more focused and enthusiastic grade 11 learners from the Centre failed to report to school at the beginning of the year. I asked the principal and a few teachers what happened to him. They explained that his mother is San and they believe that the learner could not afford the school fees (about US$120 for the entire year, including room and board) and uniform. He never approached school staff for help, though. Last year, they noticed his tattered clothing and rallied teacher support to get him a decent uniform. This year, he simply did not appear.

I was very concerned because this learner was always polite and respectful, and he appeared to be content. He was also making above-average progress in mathematics. What’s more is that he was a senior. I wanted him to not miss out on a high school diploma. We checked around over the course of the week and I found him only on the morning of my departure.

After speaking with him, he admitted that the problem was financial. I asked him to write a letter introducing himself and his goals, and articulating what he needed to make it through the year. I left him with four exercise books and a few pens. I also gave his teacher about US$25 to buy him the appropriate school uniform. He was elected to the Learners Resource Council(LRC) and needed a special shirt. The amount would be more than enough and could also buy additional undergarments and school supplies.

The costs that could make or break this child and other similar children’s opportunities are extremely minimal. I may start a tertiary school scholarship fund for at least one learner from Khorixas each year. If you would like to support this initiative, please let me know.

Whose Standards?

Namibian newspapers over the past few weeks have been filled with stories about education. There’s one theme of stories that center on overcrowded schools and enrolment dilemmas. And there’s another theme of stories around the standardized test scores results and the abysmal performances throughout the country.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, learners in grades 10 and 12 are required to pass nationally-standardized tests in order to move forward. Less than half of the learners actually make the mark. In my town of Khorixas, there are two schools with grade 10 learners. Of the cumulative 135 grade 10 learners, only 27 scored high enough to be passed to grade 11.

The computer centre can also attest to the fact that many learners are seriously struggling, at least in mathematics. Of around 400 learners in grades 5 -12 that have taken an adaptive mathematics assessment/placement test in Khorixas, 95% have scored on a grade 2 level, according to international standards. While some of the issues may relate to language and contextual challenges, an observation of the learners’ responses to some basic mathematics questions confirms that they simply do not have a firm grasp of the fundamentals.

The case for standardization is strong but when less than half the population actually meet the standard, a full and comprehensive reform is necessary. The curriculum, teacher training, teachers, school administrators, parents, regional and national Ministry leaders, and learner attitude all need attention. The upside is that Namibia as a functioning democracy-for-all is merely 20 years old (March 2010) and is developing rapidly. The school system is still an evolutionary work. It should be interesting to see how this new nation and its children are performing in the next ten(10) years.

See the Namibian Institute for Educational Development (NiED) website (www.nied.edu.na) for more information.