Monday, June 17, 2013

forward ever. backward never.

“Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious: To think that people had years and years, time to waste, so much time it dragged, and he was clinging to each second.” 

Now let me tie this scene to life here in Ndiyona. Feeling a bit confundo about how I might do that.?Now, I'm not about to have some unforgivable curse spelled on me to cause my death. But I couldn't have found a more fitting quote for the feelings that are certainly swirling around my head right now. Now would be the time for a pensieve, I'd say. 

As the days tick down to our eventual departure from Namibia, I'm making a concerted effort to embrace these moments. To not get emo. And to not take it all for granted.

Without further ado, here are the things I will cling to in my last few months in Ndiyona

The "bad boys" of my homeroom-9B
Albin, Herman, and Nicodemus. Unlike most of our learners, they don't live at school and they come from our village. When the bell rings, they run out of detention (thats where I like them) and they run to their homesteads where they are all without mothers and fathers, they are the caretakers, the elders of the family. They cook and care for their younger siblings and no one would have any idea that they lived the life of a caretaker if you didn't know them. From afar (ok and from pretty close up) they're the trouble makers, the typical class clown. At first I took a bit of a liking to them cause let's be honest (LBH) they made me laugh. I still have those moments as teacher when I cant really control myself. And then they became a bit of a disturbance. But then I got to know them. I didn't do what their other teachers do--I didn't ridicule them, I didn't dismiss them as the "lowly village boys"…nah, I saw some serious potential. They have a bit of spunk, their confidence, it all was unique for kids in Kavango. And slowly throughout my time here, I watched them grow up, from boys into young men. They still tell silly jokes and get in trouble all the time but now when they have a problem they come to me--their surrogate father. They tell me their problems at school with other kids, confide in me their problems with people at home, and now the kids who the teachers told me were "a lost cause" when I first arrived, are besting every exam they take. I give them advice on life, dealing with adults, and insight into Christian Science.  And they haven't lost their swag one bit. 

Village Life: star gazing. birthday party crashing and still receiving all the free meat and beer that we'd need. Instant coffee. Raisng 15 (+) dogs. Hitchhiking everywhere. Everyone knows you. Everyone respects you and calls you sir or madam. The twice a week shower. Free food at one's command.

Ntjamba. As a general rule, I like kids with a stutter. And kids from Angola. Ntjamba satisfies both of these requirements and thus theres little else I need to say. But I'm wordy, so here I go. No doubt, I will be relishing every time Ntjamba walks into my class and straight to my desk just to greet me and ask questions about my life, I'll relish sitting in the library with him after hours and reading Holes with him for the 13th time, or when he raises his hand for every question I have. 

Mashika and Prisca. The brightest and most inquisitive kids I have ever encountered. No doubt. The biggest challenge as a teach er in Namibia is lack of teaching aids. Not lack of text books or computers or books--though the deficit for all is quite severe. But I'm talking about real life teaching aids. In America, we completely take for granted how much learning takes place outside of the classroom. How most of what we know about human rights, government, the world, space, fantasy, critical thinking, comes from living and soaking in all that we are exposed to on a daily basis. The reality in the village is that one is not exposed to the intricacies of the justice system or the characteristics of a good leader. Thus as a teacher, there is an immense burden to fill this insurmountable gap of access to knowledge and information. But not with Prisca and Mashika. These are the two who get me out of bed each morning (I promise thats not literal) inspire me each week and made these two years so insanely rewarding. They ask the right questions. They think, they analyze, and they infer. They soak up every word that is spoken to them or read by them. They're humble but with unprecedented confidence. They have no qualms getting up and co-teaching a lesson, singing a song on command, or proclaiming that they embody why the future of Namibia is bright. Recently a team from the Minisry of Education came to observe some of my classes. They had to interrupt one of my lessons because they couldn't hold in their thoughts anymore. They had visited countless classes throughout the region. no one expresses themselves or gives them hope like these two did. It was a nice moment of validation to say the least.

The class conversations and anecdotes: the cold war, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, justice system, invitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, illuminati, love and dating, poverty. We hit all the loaded issues and for many of my kids these are the topics which are rarely discussed or even considered. So what do we do? We analyze, debate, and share all of our raw opinions and make them our own. Its indescribable to watch kids from grade 8 become men and women in grade 10 and seeing their opinions form and shape and mature.

My 9B class. Our class motto: "forward ever. backward never." Our class may be known as a bit cocky. And obviously its me, so my class is the most competitive and espouses the greatest class "pride". We say that B stands for BEST. And I have no qualms perpetuating that sentiment. Our kids in Kavango are consistently told that the futures are already determined--as hopeless. They're reminded that failure is common and expected. So its been a mission of mine--to spread that "mind over matter" message--believe in yourself--as thats the only way one can succeed. And succeed we do. Our class out performs all the others academically. And (more importantly) we won 120 Namibian dollars as the champions of the soccer tournament!

The profile of a Kavango kid: humble, soft-spoken, responsible, mature, respectful, opinionated. I will, no doubt, relish such a profile cause that can be a bit hard to come by in the States. And how, not only can you get a kid to do anything for you, but he or she will do so with a smile and think that its the highest honor. I will certainly relish these last few months with minions and assistants. 

Mangundu and Kashera. They will pull me into the back corner (or at least attempt to) during my lessons and just want to discuss life together. Now we do that, but just on our own time. While we discuss, they share cookies that they somehow procured cause they don't think I'm eating enough. And they ask if Sydney has a sister that they could potentially date. And then they inform me that I ought to "taste" a Namibian woman before I leave (preferably an older townie) and when I give them the schpeal on being faithful when in love, they look at me like they did when I first arrived--"who is this crazy white man?" Then when Mangundu sees a girl he wants to potentially woo, Kashera and I talk about becoming lawyers--which we inspired each other to pursue by the way. 

Kupi and his little idiosyncrasies. Like when he climbs a tree in search of the latest medicinal herb but realizes that a 40 year old obese man is not fit for such an act. And then he falls out. Or how he applies bug spray to his wounds so that insects wont "disturb" them. Or how he was the only one who refused to switch his watch back by one hour meaning he goes by a different time…compared to the rest of the nation.

Kavaghu, Mufenda, and Joseph: We've become cliquy among the teachers. Surprised? The young teachers banding together, calling everyone outside of the group "kuke le kele", them finally realizing that I'm more poor than they are.

The things that make me merely chuckle inside...alone: How my colleagues think that by speaking in an American accent, one inherently becomes a better teacher. Or how the biggest issue of the day is how much butter teachers are spreading on their bread during tea break, despite that one learner attempted to murder another while inside the school hostel. How teachers are instructed to spend more time constructing administrative files than actually teaching. Taking my contacts out in front of Namibians and the reaction I get. (Fake) laughing at the most corny jokes I've heard. When a teacher asks me to "organize" a white for them so that they too can join me in my quest to return to America.

Sydney: how I got to fall in love with a girl in the middle of nowhere,e around the world from home. And know her better than anyone I've ever known because of that. Relying on her as my family, friend, girlfriend, and partner: and how she fits each role…perfectly.

Every day that passes, it all becomes a bit more real. The longer I spend here, the more comfortable and settled I get, the closer it is to my departure date. So instead of wallowing in those emo moments, I'm left with one choice and thats to channel my main man Harry. Savor these moments. Appreciate how what I will always remember and miss about my life, is everyday,typical life for the people in my village. Yet, all I can do is cling to each second.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

a day in the life...

a pedestrian might only see an ordinary village
not even worth the time it'd take to pillage
but gaze closer and you'll see the opposite of strife
let me take you on a tour of my daily life

slipping out of my meth induced dream
almost time for school, it would seem
tintinnabulation, the siren did just ring
learners congregate in queues, mid-sing

trekking to school through deep sand and all
luckily, that learner did not just see me fall
fraternizing with my colleagues, my friends
while a learner approaches me with a problem to mend

all the while, village dogs peruse the school in search of food
except for kiara, the one who knows better than to be rude
she's made herself part of our school community
well, other than the time dedicated to drinking tea

then i reach my homeroom class, which is smothered in glacier blue
signs plastered: 'oh the places you'll go' and 'the things you'll do'
you can always count on one thing each morning
albin and oliver will reach school just after that bell does ring

a quick announcement and a birthday song
words of encouragement to inspire them for the whole day long
then off to their classes, my 9B learners pour out
individual greetings of 'morning sir' overcoming loud learner shouts

three classes of english, each and every day
catching up on my grammar so i know what to say
correcting 'me I' and writing formal letters
delving into Holes and the life of the Potters

memorable moments teaching these older kids of mine
(well, once they greet me and tell me they're fine…)
some are almost adults with kids of their own
and yet their jaws still drop when I tell them I've flown

so many times grammar lessons become debates
on female rights, the cold war--learners become irate
but its getting them excited and passionate about the world
and anticipating the results that are sure to be unfurled

you can always count on mashika to make a controversial statement
while khashera shies in the back insanely self-confident
then prisca provides the exact answer im looking for, no doubt
mangundu wanting one on one attention, if not, he'll pout

titus reads in his American accent, perhaps to mock
while shambi looks to his hand as if it were a clock
you can barely hear masoya's voice but his swag that matters
and if its in english, I can tolerate the endless chatter

but lest we not forget my mathematics classes, there are two
forty learners in each, rarely described as too few
the mission is to make math the cool thing to do
but coming from an american, its an easy thing to cue

the 9B's return to their home of glacier blue
welcome back i proclaim, 'I missed you too'
knowing these kids and how to make them chuckle
a corny joke is all it takes--like pretending to undo my buckle

checking homework and kids pleading for marks
you'd think i were a fish swimming among sharks
on that occasion that that homework is incomplete
a fat red zero and a commotion of shrieks, they'll meet

motivating learners to tackle algebra and angles galore
bruising competitions for sweets makes math part of their core
who would have thought id love teaching math?
fellow rat packers, ill be awaiting your wrath

posing a question, and hands reach high
moses is never wrong, i wouldn't be surprised if this boy can fly
my namesake and john, the youngest in the class
reminding them of their smarts always leads to their sass
max and limbu forgetting im not their friend
while muremi chills at his desk not realizing the lesson did end

in case you didnt hear the ring of the bell
school day is over, your body's in a swell
navigating past children, is that a parade?
nah, merely just a lunch rush that some would call a raid

stepping around goat droppings to reach my abode 
sometimes i go days without even seeing a road
this school sometimes seems like its own small world
couldn't imagine it any better even if it were self-swirled 

finally a chance to shower (splash my body with cold water)
peaking out my window, a goat was slaughtered
joseph and I indulge in our traditional cuisine
macaroni and mayo--and yet I've managed to stay lean

attempts at a nap often become moot
knocks at a door, perhaps Kupi bringing medicinal root
then a learner asking for a key to a room
one time, they even tripped over my broom!

but 'just like that', its time for afternoon study
all the kids return to school, somehow muddy
perhaps it was the rain storm that drenched us all
avoiding lightening a must, otherwise you'd die (and fall)

during this time, working with my kids one on one
therefore it becomes a bit more fun
no longer dressed in a tie, but my chelsea shirt
girls asking for extra help (or perhaps just to flirt)

then I procure T-Pain, the president of GLOW club
meet with the members, yes some kids got the snub
dramas, dances, and the infamous food competition
sporting their shirts to show their pride for our mission
becoming leaders while respecting them and you
candid talks with these kids is what we do
challenging norms when it comes to dates
a standing ovation for my speech on respecting your mate

after, my laptop comes out and chaos ensues
kids encircling my body, most are not wearing shoes
shouts of impressed kids with each letter I type
sadly, my typing skills are not worth the hype

then my head looks away and up towards the sky
puffy clouds that gushing red, thus a pleasureful sigh
before i know it, anna and mufenda procure me
head out the door that cant lock, no need for a key

we trapeze past learners with heads in books
past the tent for our bushmen (theres not even a nook)
we reach the ends of the school and the start of the gravel road
we peruse the streets, the four of us talking in code

trucks whiz by originating in zambia or the DRC
while were on our way to Timanyambi
the jukebox spits out the latest nam tune
sausage and beers under our only light, the moon
sharing stories from their homes and mine
ignoring the sight of racing baby swine
divulging a plan to move to america in a year
and yet I'm merely left with a sneer

my American girl, she does come by
I chase after her and Sabina's mid-cry
crocs in the river, pool at the sheebeen
even in forbidden forest, were always seeen
and its all cemented: ndiyona is home
which place wouldn't be when, with Kasiku, I get to roam?

but then, as most do, the day does end
in bed avoiding insects (I've learned to mend)
and finally a chance to think
soon this will end, in an eye's blink
cannot even imagine how much of this I'll miss
the life of absolute pure bliss.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ama kip kip

One year ago today--I missed hot showers. I never heard of Gotye or Babel. I was dateless for Valentines Day. I couldn't tell my kids apart. I still taught as if i were in an American classroom. I got annoyed when teachers interrupted my classes to "chat" or send a learner on some undisclosed errand. Talking to a villager made me feel "integrated." Greeting in the local language was my limit but only the beginning. Goats and pigs perusing the school grounds would result in a slight jaw drop. I cringed when a learner threw a rock at a dog. I wrote my sevens without a line crossing through. I wasn't a Harry Potter fan, per se. People would point and shout 'mukua' (white man) when I passed. I would spread myself thin. Talking with friends in the village seemed more like work than pleasure. I wasn't the poet type. I was afraid of heights. I could rarely wake up before 11am. I was an idealist. I thought that only keys could open doors. I spoke in 'political correct' terms when discussing cultural differences on dating. I forgave learners for coming late. I didn't believe in witchcraft. I rarely wore a hat. I focused on quality over quantity. I tried to understand "where a kid was coming from" to excuse their poor performance. International development seemed feasible. I didn't consider 'abnormal' an insult. I never saw an animal give birth. I was not very good at pool. This village--Ndiyona--while I loved it, was still this 'other' place.

And then time passed. And as each day did, things began to change. A lot. Quicker than anything has at any point of my life. Perhaps the reason I haven't been the most avid blogger is obvious. How do you blog about home? About your normal life? But then I realized that that doesn't make this any less blog worthy. 

Being back in America for Christmas resulted in some realizations being crashed upon me. While my life in Namibia is my life and my home right now, in a matter of 10 months, that will no longer be the case. Which is crazy. I'm left with one choice: appreciate every moment.

One year (and a half) later. I have a group of friends (Joseph, Natalia, Mufenda, Anna) in the village. And they're actually my friends. We don't discuss cultural relativism. We discuss who's been hooking up with who over sausage and beer at Timanyambi. And we play beer pong. And landmines. I throw small rocks at goats to rid them from our school yard. I am still not very good at pool. (Though I did beat a Nam…once). I can still only greet in the local language. I've witnessed the birth of my baby's puppies. And the birth of some (friendly?) bats. And (sadly) the birth of Kiara's stillborn puppies. I am sometimes that teacher that interrupts. I wake up slightly before 6am every morning. I learned to prioritize. I open my front door with a sharp stick or, if available, a knife. People no longer think of me as the 'rich white man' but I have (successfully?) built the reputation as the 'poorest' teacher at our school. I prefer to write in prose. I jump off bridges. Mumford and Gotye are Grammy award winners. I'm all about quality. I cross my sevens. I'm a realist with ideals. I sleep each night next time my HP book…and His Dark Materials. I know that a nation develops through local handwork and not AID. I don't accept kids' excuses unless its accompanied by a note from the hospital.  I still don't believe in witchcraft. My hat is my trademark. I know all of my kids' names, their personalities, and how to 'get to them.' Ndiyona is HOME. I walk around the village feeling like I'm surrounded by neighbors, friends, and kids and not 'others.'  Oh and I have 'plans' for V-tines.

Step in the circle if…..
As my loyal followers already know (though this number may have dwindled down to merely my mother) we have a GLOW club to discuss pretty much any pertinent issues facing our community relating to gender and leadership. So this is what we did just a few hours ago. A game called 'step in the circle if…' and learners are instructed to step in the circle if the statement is true.

Heres how it went:
Step in the circle if: you are in grade 10. Simple enough. Not too much controversy.

Step in the circle if: the man should share responsibility for his baby with the mother. and it was split. boys opposed and girls supporting.

Step in the circle if: the only purpose of dating is to have sex. Boys in. Girls out.
Step in the circle if: that attitude of boys is the reason so many Namibian relationships fail. Girls in. Boys out. 

Step in the circle if: Men are the most guilty of infidelity. Girls in. Boys out.

Step in the circle if: You would like to date an American. All the boys and girls go in.

Step in the circle if: You think an American would like to date you. All in again.

But this time I intervened. And as i alluded to, I love my kids too much to be 'politically correct' and we trust each other too much for that to be the case. So I said--heres the deal boys, if this is the attitude you have--that girls must bow down to the physical needs of their man, that dating has only a single purpose, an American girl would never date you. And thats the reality. And its not American women who would be opposed. Now its Namibian women as well. I pointed to the girls in the room who remained firm with their convictions--and told the boys how they (the girls) represent a changing cultural norm. And its time that their attitude shifted to fit this trend. The  most important thing, to me, is for my girls to have a male mentor who validates their female self-respect and thats exactly what they have.

Then I gave the kids a chance to share statements. They did so. Then they said STEP IN THE CIRCLE if you're a virgin. Ill stop there. 

One of my learners came up to me after and asked me about my relationship with Kasiku. (Before rumors go viral, thats Sydney's village name) He said how he wants to be able to greet his girlfriend with a kiss but thats just not normal in the village. Or go on dates. And neither is that. But I told him, just do it. For me and Syd, we've been able to not just preach what a relationship ought to look like...but show it. 

My register class. Register class is synonymous with homeroom and one of the two grade nine classes is mine. I painted the class glacier blue and despite some of Kiara's period blood littering the floor, the classroom is kinda the place to be at Ndiyona Combined School. My register kids (all 41 of them) greet me in the mornings and are there each afternoon and evening for mandatory 'study time.' So school is life in Ndiyona. All the more reason to fuse the role of teacher, father, and friend. I soon discovered how parental background and homelife are so crucial so a successful education. Reinforcing the skills learned at school are the only way to truly gain them. Thus we have had to transform Ndiyona from just a school to a school thats also home--where the kids who live right here can have the support and guidance they need.

A year ago, I taught kids, yet I was unsure of how 'to reach them', unsure of whether or not they even understand my thick American accent. And, as were taught to in America, I almost pitied my kids. When they told me they 'were hungry' I sympathized. I wondered whether Disney short stories were too 'advanced.' I accepted that class participation would be a thing of my past.

But that was last year.

This year Im teaching Grade 10 English and Grade 9 Mathematics. Grade 10 in Namibia is a BIG DEAL. The learners write a national exam at the end of the year that determines whether or not they are 'fit' to continue with their secondary education. Make or break for many of them. Unfortunately, many schools in Nam seek the short term approach and focus solely on Grade 10--which means afternoon, weekend, and holiday classes just for that 'crucial' year. This has forced me to mesh my 'ideal American school environment' with the realities of the Nam system of gearing learners toward a test. Its with this that I've learned to still enact my philosophy, instill critical thinking and creative skills, while making them useful and applicable in the Nam context. 

I know my kids' home situation, the village they come from, their friends, their 'go to excuse', their strengths, their weaknesses, how to make them laugh, how to make them get serious. Most of my kids live about 200 feet away from me. So my 'job' doesn't ever really end. But it makes me see my kids as just that--kids. Not as 'poor African children' but as just kids. When they tell me they're hungry, I just say "me too" and then we continue. When kids are late, they get a detention. Its that reinforced victimization that is the problem. Therefore the opposite serves to humanize them, establish mutual respect andaccountability and level the playing field.

In Nam schools, learners have so many responsibilities. The trust shown to learners is inspiring. Instead of being afraid to make kids run errands or take charge, I embrace it---for my register class we had an INTERVENTION (following a few days of bad behavior) and I appointed 5 captains (Moses, Hellena, Ms Mafuro, John, and Herman) to take the lead, take control when a teacher wasn't around, and report any problems to me. Its working. So far…

So here is how school is going: in English we started reading Harry Potter and I had to dispel the notion that a) Hogwarts exists b) they will get witched if they read the story at night and 3) this has something to do with the 'illuminati'. After squashing those rumors, we started reading and its become our afternoon activity. During the day, I saw jaws drop as I explained what in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers are. Though I don't know whats more shocking: that they didn't know it, how interested they were in it, or…that I even taught those topics in the first place. Now those once shy kids seek me out after school to read a wiki page on Hitler or Tupac or to have me correct every grammar mistake on their essay. Its that one on one support and respect that they needed. And thats what they have. 

And in Math, we've been playing 24. And all I will say is that my kids are getting better than me. The kids who I once got giddy over for finding the correct factors of 36 are now solving ratios, algebraic equations, and complex angles that even I had to reteach myself. The subject they once hated is the one they're chasing me down for to go over a problem, get extra help, or to mark their books. If you haven't caught on, Nam kids love when you mark their books. 

Shout out to some of my faves. No qualms.

most of you will never know the kids who changed my life. at least now you can know their names.

Shashipapo Moses: simply brilliant. and I call him out for that on a daily basis. Now he's starting to break out of his shell.

Matjayi Albin, Oliver, and Nicodemus: the commuters who reek havoc on the village but they laugh at my jokes so I like them. And underground smart boys, but I'm the only teacher who knows that. 

Mbamba Herman: were each other's confidantes. Had a major turn around. 

Marembo Prisca: believes that Nam will have a female president during our lifetime. Her. 

Mangundu Ndara: decided he wants to be my 'friend' this year. I obliged. Always calls me over during a lesson so we can 'chat'

Khashera John: my go to class debater. 

Mafuro Hildegard: confident and brilliant little lady. Deserves the 'Miss' before her name. 

Pedoka Johannes: lost both of his parents last year. Thriving. 

Ben Michelson: left for Rundu, but will always be my son.

Ndumba Hellena: our class captain. And a teen mother. 

Ntjamba Francisco: makes a stutter look good. 

Mashika Basilius: almost fluent in Spanish now and always outspoken.

Muremi Micheal: a true teacher's pet. We all need them.

Shirungu Barthasal: GLOW president aka T-Pain.

sometimes I forget that I've been here for so long and take all those 'weird' moments for granted. But some things will never be normal to me. I present to you…
You know you've been in Nam for awhile when you:
  • hitchhike to the nearest gas station for a romantic night out
  • your learners have nicer calculators than you
  • your nipple balloons after a precarious spider bite
  • hear the name Ghandi and you think they meant to say Ngandu
  • save canned meat for "special occasions"
  • can accurately calculate the length of pregnancy for village dogs
  • know which path to take home in order to avoid the common lightening strikes
  • come home to women you've never seen before dancing in your living room and merely greet them
  • consider the shack with a pool table to be a classy hang out spot
  • bathe in the river…while doing a few other things…
  • realize the only reason your sink is clogged is because of the inordinate number of beetles stuck in it
  • fall asleep on an elder woman during one of many hikes home
  • eat a few leaves to combat an upset stomach
  • barely flinch when you discover that two of your learners are getting married
I spend each night chilling with my colleagues at my house or theres after a crazy day with the kids. Eating popcorn and listening to Nam jams. They're just my friends and this is my life, my world. We joke about about the 'older' teachers at school or about some crazy kid. They treat Kiara, not like a village dog, but like a true American dog. Then we peruse around the village, mingling with others, and schmoozing until we get free food and drinks. And then they remind me how weird next year will be…

10 months left. Time to get off this computer.