By WorldTeach Namibia volunteer Abigail Hahn, 2015
“Contrasting, beautiful Namibia.” This phrase is from the national anthem of the Republic of Namibia, where I lived for the last year. During my time in Namibia I found this to be one of the most apt descriptions of my life abroad and my beloved new home. One of the ways Namibia embodies this phrase is through its extremely varied landscapes and range of climates.
While in Namibia I was lucky enough to travel through much of this spectacular country and experience this variety. I climbed the largest sand dunes in the world in Sossusvlei and Swakopmund, felt the ocean spray of the Skeleton Coast, befriended cheetahs at The Cheetah Conservation Fund, and spotted seven lions and innumerable elephants, hyena, and oryx while visiting Etosha National Park. Namibia consists of mountain ranges, canyons, rivers, dry pans, savannas, bushveld, miles of coast, and the Namib and Kalahari deserts. I have witnessed months of cloudless skies without rain, storms that cause flooding, nights below freezing, and weeks of 110°F heat.
But it is not only on account of its geography and weather that Namibia embodies the notion of “contrasting, beautiful” so precisely. Although Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, it is home to more than 10 different ethnic groups. Beyond my travels, it was my interactions with the people of Namibia—my students, my colleagues and my host family—that made this year contrasting and beautiful.
I was placed at a small village school, Ediva Primary School, in Ovamboland, northern Namibia. My time at Ediva PS was wonderful, but it was not without its bumps. The first surprise I discovered was the language barrier. Despite the fact that the national language of Namibia is English, and almost all classes are taught in English, very few of my students understood me. Even many of the teachers at my school found it difficult to decipher my American accent. At first I felt limited in my ability to make an impact because of the language barrier; I only taught Grade 7 at my school because students in lower grades could not understand me. But over time I found that, despite not teaching all grades, there were ways to interact with all students at my school. I began reading stories to all grades and hosting movie nights to increase their exposure to English. I also became a member of planning committees for school and region-wide events. These endeavors allowed me to overcome the language barrier and bond with my community and school.
In addition, the fact that I taught only one group of students, while at first a source of frustration, ultimately provided some of my fondest memories. I got to know my Grade 7B class incredibly well because I taught them four subjects. Initially, Grade 7B could not understand basic directions I gave them. However, during the second school term, I made a joke and my entire class laughed. Seeing them understand and respond to my humor, I realized how well my students knew me. By my final term, we could have real conversations about school and Oshiwambo culture. I even enjoyed their high-pitched imitations of my attempts to speak Oshikwanyama— the local dialect. These are my proudest accomplishments as a teacher, and my favorite memories as a volunteer.
The more troubling contrast I witnessed during my time at Ediva was the noticeable difference in performance between students who lived in town and students in the village. Namibia achieved independence from South Africa and its apartheid system in 1990. In the mere 26 years since independence, Namibia has changed rapidly. My colleagues told me stories of how the nearest towns, now consisting of malls and fast food chains, were villages with thatched huts just 10 years ago. Namibia is a rapidly developing country. However, due to its dispersed population, there are pockets falling behind the rest of the country in terms of education and technology. When I spoke to students living in town, their English was at least 3 grade levels higher than my students from my village just 40km away. I found that a major reason for this dichotomy was my students’ lack of exposure to English through reading or the Internet. Because of these issues, our school decided to build a resource center for the benefit of our students. With the generosity of friends and family in the United States and community members in Namibia, this resource center has become a reality.
Last month we began building the resource center, which will serve Ediva’s students in multiple capacities. It will house a projector and screen for Information Computer classes. It will also act as a library for newly donated books and dictionaries. Finally, it will have open seating to function as a study space where students can work. My colleagues, students and I are thrilled and grateful for this new development, but we are continuing our fundraising efforts in hopes of fully furnishing the center with resources that will help to close the dramatic gap between the performance of town and village students. If you want to help brighten the future of my students, you can donate to Ediva via PayPal: http://paypal.me/EdivaPS
Despite the many superficial contrasts I found, shared values comprised the heart of my Namibian experience. What I learned abroad was that behind the veil of language barriers and foreign customs are the same community-oriented and altruistic values that I grew up with in the United States. Whether it was a colleague explaining the Namibian education system, a student telling me how to say a word in Oshikwanyama, or my host mother, Meme, teaching me to cultivate mahangu, my community welcomed me and provided more than I could ever give in return. My host family took me in as one of their own; I became, in Meme’s words, her “last born” and I can attest that she worried about me as if I were a helpless child— once almost starting an international incident because I was an hour late returning home. I think about familial moments, like sitting on a bed with my four host sisters, sharing stories and laughing about Meme scolding us for not being careful, and I realize that my American and Namibian families are no different. This is why my two families, American and Namibian, are coming together to celebrate Christmas in Namibia this month. I cannot think of an ending to my year that would be more contrasting or more beautiful.