Life at a WorldTeach Site: Omatjete, Namibia
With WorldTeach volunteers serving in 16 countries around the world, the sites that volunteers live and work in vary widely. While each WorldTeach volunteer site and experience is unique, all volunteers have the chance to challenge themselves and engage with new people, a new culture, and a new place. Elizabeth Skurdahl has been serving in Namibia since December 2013 and has been placed in the town of Omatjete. Read on to learn about her unique site in Namibia…
Omatjete is a moderately big village, being that it is on the main road to Omaruru and only an hour or so away by bakkie. It is also a hike point for some of the more outlying villages, so a lot of people pass through here. Besides teachers, most other inhabitants of Omatjete-proper work in the few shops, the two shebeens (bars), the police station, the clinic, the water bureau, or the Traditional Authority. Everyone else lives and works on farms in the bush surrounding Omatjete. Clusters of farms might even have their own “village” name, but they are all still really considered part of Omatjete.
Teachers are actually some of the highest paid people in the village. The government provides housing for the teachers like the brick and concrete house that I live in. There are other brick and concrete houses in the village, usually belonging to retired teachers or those who could afford to build their own brick homes.
Most others (especially on the farms) live in small, one-room houses made of tin. Some still live in traditional houses made of dried dung or mud (I am told these are quite warm but not particularly pleasant when it rains). About half of the learners in school live in houses like this on farms in the surrounding area and walk to school each morning.
The other half of the learners live too far away to walk to school, so they stay in the school’s hostel. Omatjete Primary School has an unofficial community hostel, which means it is not sponsored by the government and thus has to come up with its own funds to pay for the kids’ food and for the wages of the hostel staff (two women and one man to look after 150 learners – incredible!). An official hostel building has not yet been built, so the kids sleep in two converted classrooms filled with bunk beds donated by a previous WorldTeach volunteer (one room for girls, another for boys).
For meals the kids eat porridge, which is made from ground maize that is boiled and cooked down. It kind of looks like mashed potatoes when it’s ready to eat, except it is much stickier and has a much grainier consistency. Porridge is a huge part of the diet here, and people often use it as a utensil to scoop up meat and gravy that has been poured over it. The hostel kids get porridge for 4 meals a day (breakfast, tea, lunch, and dinner). Sometimes they put sugar on top of it, but they LOVE to pour these packets of drink mix on top of it. You know like the powder you would use to make Cool-Aid or Gatorade? As far as I can tell, the packets are full of powder similar to this. They come in different flavors and make the porridge turn bright orange, or electric blue, or deep purple. And of course they turn the kids’ mouths and fingers these colors too 🙂 On Sundays they get meat for lunch in addition to their porridge.
Omatjete is lucky in that it has pretty reliable electricity, although if a storm blows through (as it often does during the rainy season), there is a good chance the electricity will go out. This has happened a good number of times since I have been here. A steady supply of candles and a good flashlight fixes that problem pretty easily, though. People don’t pay for water and electricity like we do in the US – as in, a bill doesn’t arrive in the mail or your email inbox. Instead, people go to the local Kontant Winkel (a small grocery story) and buy electricity credit, like you would on a prepaid cell phone. You then enter a code printed on the receipt into an electricity box inside your house, and voila, electricity! If you run out of credit, your electricity shuts off – time to run to the store to buy more!
But just because you have electricity doesn’t mean you have a washer and dryer. No sir, handwashing is the name of the game! I am slowly getting better at this (washing sheets and towels is still incredibly difficult and I end up soaking wet haha). Line drying here is super effective though – the hot sun and slight breeze will dry everything in just a couple of hours – it’s pretty amazing.
Another interesting aspect of life in Omatjete (and in Namibia in general), is the practice of free grazing. Goats, sheep, cows, chickens – all have free range to go where they will and eat where it pleases them. Just this afternoon I was surprised by a big group of donkeys braying outside the library window, and it is commonplace to see a herd of goats wander through my front yard. Farmers do have pens for their animals (known as kraals), and occasionally they do round their livestock up. Every so often a neighbor will tell me he is going to go collect his cattle – I am still mystified about how they actually find them all when the animals can wander around so freely. (I have tried to explain to the kids about how we don’t let animals graze like this is in the US – they just don’t get why not. They ask me if maybe I should talk to the farmers to convince them to let the animals go outside of the fences.)
Wondering how people get around? Walking, mostly. Bakkies (trucks) if you have to get to town. But one of the most common methods of transport, especially to get from the farm to Omatjete-proper, is to go by donkey cart. This is a small, two-wheeled cart that can seat 2-4 people (or more if the learners are reckless, ha) and is pulled by 2-4 donkeys, depending on the size of the cart. I have yet to catch a ride in one of these, but I sure hope I am able to in the future!
There are lots of “rivers” in Namibia, but the vast majority of them are dry. In fact, you drive over many such dry rivers on the way from Omatjete to Omaruru. During the rainy season, if it rains REALLY hard, these rivers might start to flow again above ground. I saw one small river in Omatjete start to flow in February, but it quickly dried up the next day. The larger Omaruru river has gotten pretty muddy a few times, but there hasn’t been enough rain to bring it back. The fact that the country is just starting to come out of a 2 year drought is part of the reason for the dry riverbeds too.
The water still flows underground, though, and in fact, most Namibians get their drinking water from these underground sources. The area around Omatjete is unique, though, in that it is not connected to the main water pipelines like the rest of the country. Instead, it gets most of its water from boreholes. (The word “Omatjete” actually means “sweet water” in Otjierero.) Three holes in the area feed Omatjete, and if one of them starts to get low, you can definitely tell a difference in the water pressure!
A big problem in Namibia (in my opinion) is trash collection. It is nonexistent out in the bush. Instead, people burn their trash. This is not great for the environment, but in all honesty – what else should be done with it? Omatjete is an hour away from the nearest town down a gravel road. Other villages are even farther away down gravel or even sand roads. Getting a garbage truck there and back would take an entire day, maybe longer. Burning is really the only option. Also, people have the tendency to just throw trash on the ground – it is definitely acceptable to do so. In fact, I was teaching “may” and “may not” to the sixth graders and one of the example sentences in their textbook was “You may not throw trash on the classroom floor, but you may throw trash outside.” I am trying to teach the kids about the importance of putting trash in the bin rather than just tossing it on the ground. At the very least it will be burnt and not blowing around the bush! I am hoping when one of them grows up they will have the creative idea that solves the village trash collection problem.
And now, for you visual learners out there – some pictures
The building directly ahead holds the offices of the Principal, the Head of Department (kind of like a vice principal) and the secretary. The buildings to the left and right are the classrooms. There is another building behind the offices that has two more classrooms and the library, and more buildings off too the right that have the bathroom, storage rooms, cooking rooms, etc. The windows and doors of the classroom are usually kept open during the day to let in the nice cross breeze (since there is no ac!). A few of the rooms don’t have working lights, but because we start school so early in the morning, daylight usually does the trick.