I can't believe that it's already been three and a half months since I've been to Namibia, and a month and a half of that has been in Kamanjab. In many ways it has seemed like it was just yesterday and yet in other ways it has seemed like years. It's funny, during Pre-Service Training (PST) one of the current PCV's that came as a resource volunteer had given her outlook on time in Namibia, and so far it's been so true! She said that “the days seem long, but the weeks fly by.” It seems like this morning was forever ago, but that last week was just yesterday. I can't believe that it's been 15 weeks and that there is only 99 weeks left. I know that sounds crazy but if the rest of my time flies like the 15 weeks did, I'll be home in no time.
I've been hearing about group 34, the next batch of PCT's that will arrive after I did. They should be coming in August, after we've spent a month in reconnect and all volunteers conference. It's crazy to think that there is already a new batch of trainees coming and that we won't be the n00bies anymore... I was also reflecting on my invitation process. I had my acceptance letter on Halloween and left shortly after Valentines Day. That's slightly more than three months, so there might be a few people in group 34 who have, or will shortly have their letter to Namibia. I want to write a blog post for them, as well as others, that will help prepare them to come to Namibia and share some insights to others about my time so far. This might seem random, but taken with your acceptance letter, is everything I wish I would have known. I felt that the info PC gave and this blog would have made things so much better, but hind site is 20/20.
*Disclaimer* First, I want to begin by saying this blog is 100% based upon my opinion. Second, I am not trying to trash or criticize anyone. And lastly, these are all things I wish I would have known when I came. I feel like I might have some insights since we just finished PST. If there are questions that aren't answered email anyone of us. I'm sure almost all of us in the NamFam would be more than happy to answer questions.
If you contact any current PCV's it would be good to contact ones that are the same sector as you will be. There are 4 sectors: IT (technology), SEED (business), CHAAP (health), and Education. I contacted an education volunteer and while they were friendly and helpful, their scenario and advise wasn't really applicable to me (CHAAP).
- I have heard that Namibia is a “middle income” country. This isn't west Africa. There is a great infrastructure system left over from the South African Government and Namibia is better off than most. There are good chances that this won't be as rugged and “hard-core Peace Corps” as you might think. I was expecting to live in a grass hut and be miles from people who don't speak English, have to fetch my water etc. (Some are kind of that way but small majority) Almost everyone speaks some form of English, I have power and running water.
- I've got a cell phone and a wireless 3G internet device. It's really affordable, but you can bring a phone that uses a SIM card (any phone that's not Verizon or Sprint) but it MUST BE UNLOCKED! I thought that was only for “smart phones” but no! My cheap little Nokia still needed to be unlocked. Don't spend too much on unlocking a phone (unless you REALLY like that phone. Cheap phones can be bought here for N$180-N$400, which is like US $25-50. I've got service in like 92% of everywhere I am. It's not the fastest internet in rural areas, but you may or may not be in a rural area. If nothing else it's great when you travel to a non-rural area.
- There are still some racial tensions, (Apartheid was not like the problems America had...) but thankfully the tensions are mostly regarded to South Africans and “Afrikaners,” people who are white Namibians and benefited the most from South African rule. There is also a big mess created by the German government pre-WWI. It isn't uncommon for you to be assumed to be an Afrikaner or even a german by the older generation, but most times, once they find out you're American there is little racial tension.
- During Apartheid, the whites forced anyone not white into places called the locations, far from town. Sometimes, they're even named. Some towns such as Okahandja has a few and each had their purpose, other places like Kamanjab only has one. Today, the locations are where the majority of the people live, but mostly in poverty.
- Although English is the official language, especially for government work, it's technically British English. You will find plenty of British words such as petrol and flat, and even spelling such as centre and coloured. However, in reality it's “Namlish.” It's Namibian English. There are words and sayings that don't make sense and it's even spoken differently. Merchants (with poor English) will ask you “Are you selling?” which means “Do you want to buy something?” And in order to be understood by people outside of the government or big cities, you must modify your pronunciation and word choice. Americans have to talk slower and to really enunciate their words. It is also important to keep in mind the British English/Namlish sayings and to avoid using too many words while simplifying your word choice. The important thing, however, isn't to insult them by talking like a baby or to a baby or to talk down to them like they're an idiot.
- If you're a fan of BBQ, you're going to love it here! In Afrikaans, it's called a Braai and it's great. (it's called that all over Namibia, even in places that Afrikaans isn't spoken) There is a sausage called Boerewors, I LOVE IT! Braai pap (a corn based porridge isn't bad either)
- You get to eat with your fingers! It's acceptable and encouraged to eat a piece of meat (goat) with your fingers, and eating braai pap with your fingers is half the fun. That said, a bunch of hand sanitizer is probably good.
- Meat makes a meal here. Many Namibians feel that it isn't a meal unless there is meat, and when I say meat, I mean red meat. Most don't see chicken or fish as meat. Goat is usually the meat of choice. Sometimes there is mutton (sheep). Beef is money (literally, cows are money) so it's only eaten in special occasions. There is also boerewors and mince meat (ground meat). Also be prepared to eat a lot of TOUGH meat.
- Attention vegetarians: As I said, meat is essential here! It's eaten almost every meal and you will get plenty of crap for not eating. People here won't understand why you don't eat meat and can hinder your integration. (Especially true for most places except the big towns) It can also be seen as being rude and ungrateful. It is expensive to provide meat for meals, but providing meat to guests it a very polite thing to do. Recently, I visited the king of the ╪Aodaman Tribe. He gave me a nice portion of Goat and Pap (Braai pap). I ate the goat first, even the extremely tough meat, and ate all of the pap with my fingers. Everyone was so impressed! The king told everyone he knew and mentioned it several times.
- If you haven't eaten meat in a while, but think you might in Namibia, it is a good idea to ease into in while you're still in America. Your digestive system will thank you.
- If you're not planning to eat meat, that's OK too! Just be prepared for the various reactions you'll get and try to think of it as an opportunity to share your views. People here won't always understand but perhaps you can shed some light on it. However, do know that animal cruelty doesn't really exist here, most food comes from small, family owned farms and isn't like the PETA materials you'd find in America. Also know that in rural areas (such as Kamanjab) fresh produce is SUPER EXPENSIVE! I honestly can't imagine how anyone could live here and be a vegetarian, especially not vegan.
- A lot of people will see you as Dollar signs and think you're rich. For some reason, people here don't understand the concept of volunteering, especially the part that involves work for little to no money. (It's ironic because in Afrikaans, the word for volunteer is vrywilleger, which literally means free willing.) You will get asked by a lot of people for money and it will become extremely annoying. It's also really important not to give anyone anything because it will never stop, only get worse, and showing money in most scenarios it's like blood in the water...
- That said, some of the people I've met, especially in rural places like Kamanjab think that Americans are like gods or something and that America is a heavenly place that they can't even fathom.
- People will ask you how much things cost in America and will relate it to Namibian dollars. It is ok with people who give good vibes and to talk about abstract things, and not how much you've paid for your personal belongings. I would also suggest to only do this with adults and not children.
- Everything people have seen on TV, radio or internet about America, they assume to be true. The only form of American music that exists is rap, pop, and R&B, but think the really crappy stuff. People that are either really main stream or ones that never made it in America.
- People here have no concept about the “N” word. They've heard it through American Culture but have no idea what it means or the history/hate behind it. I have even had children wanting to be called that by me and others.
- There are many different racial groups of people here (Ovambo, Herero, Damara, Nama, San etc) and two that can take people by surprise are the “coloureds” and the “basters.” Those are two terms that aren't offensive and you'll hear frequently. I wouldn't recommend using those terms often and would wait until they themselves call themselves coloured or baster. They refer to people who have both Namibian and White ancestry. It can be complicated and you'll have to wait till you're here to fully understand.
- One of my favorite Namlish terms is “cool drink.” It's used loosely to refer to anything to drink that isn't water and non-alcoholic. Usually it implies sodas (all made with real sugar!) but can also mean juices and oros (a drink concentrate like kool-aid). Usually, cool drink is provided to guests when people visit or at most meetings. Coke is everywhere here and it's amazing! Tastes much better than US Coke (with high fructose corn syrup, yuck!) It's kind of like Mexican Coke but I like Namibian Coke much better! I should also warn that it's cool drink and not COLD drink. I can't even tell you the last time I had a COLD drink. Most are slightly cooler than luke cold...
- Alcohol is a HUGE problem here in Namibia and something every volunteer will encounter. In almost every village, town and city, there is alcohol everywhere. You can't go more than a few steps, even in the most rural areas, without seeing broken glass, bottles, caps etc. There are places called “Shebeens” that are really sketchy bars. They sell all kinds of alcohol, especially home brewed drinks (Tombo and other home brews aren't regulated, can have various alcohol contents, and can even be spiked with battery acid, and other crazy things!) are open almost 24 hours and play really loud music! They're also a really big problem because they magnify the issues here. They increase poverty, lead to health issues, spread HIV, increase gender-based violence (domestic violence), and other issues that go along with alcoholism. I would also strongly recommend that you drink as little as possible, especially at your site, but there has been history of drunken escapades, that can tarnish the reputation and prestige that PCV's enjoy. Also, wither or not your a CHAAP volunteer, you'll come into contact with HIV and you'll help set a good example and help others reduce the spread of HIV and the problems associated with alcohol.
- In Namibia, there are the 3C's: Car, Cell Phone and Clothes. These are the three things that people want to have, are status symbols and especially in bigger towns and cities, cause problems among “sugar daddies” and “boyfriends/girlfriends.” It can be challenging to see people spend their money on these items (or especially alcohol) when they aren't paying children's school fees, a balanced diet, etc. I once spent a week in a house where the family was barely having two meals a day, which consisted only of porridge, but were using their cell phones extensively.
- HIV has taken a huge toll on Africa, and Namibia is no exception. They have done a great job educating people here, and PEPFAR has done a great job, but there are several reasons why HIV is still prevalent. It's difficult to watch, because most people know the ways to prevent HIV infection, condom use, etc but don't follow the information. Sadly, I've heard many people tell me their fatalistic views on life and that they don't have a reason to control their drinking, condom usage, have one partner etc. There is also a good deal of sadness/depression as well.
- For all of you SEED volunteers (assuming this is your role, I don't actually know what they do), you'll have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of problems here involving business and entrepreneurial skills, or the lack there of. It's been challenging to see people copying others without distinguishing themselves from the rest. People will sell all of the same items, at all of the same prices at all of the same places. It's interesting, the unemployment rate is high, and there is huge income division, but most aren't willing to put in the effort to do anything about it. My flat (apartment) is not finished yet, because we can't find people who want to work! The money is there, but the only companies that are willing to work are seriously trying to work us over. They're not even subtle about it, it's highway robbery!
- Be prepared to hear a lot of the same music (not always good music) and often! There is a song called “Donkey,” a Hip Hop/Electronic song and everyone LOVES it. (It's ironic because it is about being the donkey that carried Jesus and how we all need to be that donkey, but the shebeens play it ALL THE TIME!) One day, between the various shebeens around my house, I heard “Donkey” twelve times! A couple of times it was back to back, and once one shebeen ended the song to have another instantly start it.
- You'll find that a lot of people are looking for a free hand out, but thankfully that is not what the Peace Corps is about. It will be challenging at first because, as mentioned earlier, people will see you as Dollar signs. I've noticed it, and had very interesting conversations with other Namibians about it, but they believe that with the present generation has experienced a good deal of charity and giving, and that people are more to be more inclined to ask for things and take handouts than in the past. They also feel it is not real motivating and can hinder hard work and progress. It can also be challenging to make friendships here because many people will want to be your friend to get free stuff out of you. (Money, air time, use of personal items etc.) Because Namibia is a “middle income” country, there are many NGO's that are reducing their work, or pulling out of Namibia completely, so it is really important to focus on capacity building and to not propagate the bad behavior.
What to Pack
- Don't worry about the recommended/required weight and size measurements given by Peace Corps. My bags were both bigger and heavier, but no one checked or cared.
- Peace Corps will reimburse you for luggage fees, but it MUST be your name and your credit card on the receipt. They will deposit the money in your US bank account or give you the Namibian Dollar equivalent at the exchange rate the day you came. However, this process was really SLOW so don't count on it for at least a month.
- Keep all expensive valuables on your carry on luggage, and everything listed on Random Recommended list below in your checked luggage. There are cheap locks that are TSA approved, these should be on every zipper and every bag, even your carry ons. There were a lot of random things taken at Jo berg airport from carryon bags as we went through security. Personally, I had my duct tape taken, others lost batteries and other things. They have sticky fingers.
- Clothing: pack high quality clothing. The clothing here is full price and seems like light weight fabrics and low quality stitching, buttons, zippers etc. Bring nice clothing, during PST men are expected to wear a collared shirt and dockers, women were expected to wear dress pants, skirts, conservative shirts. However, do pack plenty of shorts and fun clothing. I packed as if I were an education volunteer and brought too many dress shirts and not enough causal wear. Polo shirts are really nice and work for most occasions. You'll be able to buy nice PC polo's once you're here. I bought three and wish I had more!
- Shoes: contrary to given PC advise, shoe sizes are not impossible to find for men with larger feet. That said, the selection is smaller and they're more expensive, but not as drastic as I was advised. Cheap, comfortable flip flops are non existent. However, upon arrival to Namibia, you must go to a China shop and buy the China Shoes. They're supposed to be Adidas soccer knock offs. You can get them in many colors, but you'll find that literally almost everyone, especially anyone who's a soccer fan, has at least one pair of these. But you can't wear these to training. I would strongly recommend bringing a good pair of hiking boots as well.
- Random recommended things to pack: Fishing line, duct tape, batteries (either rechargeable or disposable, but a lot of them), ziploc bags, swiss army knife, sleeping bag (compressible mummy sac to 0 ºC is best) Tent (small and light weight) a sharp kitchen knife, knife sharpener, cheap plastic cutting boards, Fabric shopping bags (especially ones that are strong and compact), Several kinds of lights (both flashlights and headlamps), ear plugs, sunglasses, quick dry towel, caribeeners (those things rock climbers use), water flavor packets, good pair of scissors, good office supplies (pens, sharpies, pencils, note books, sticky notes, metric ruler), sewing kit
- BRING PLENTY OF HIGH QUALITY DENTAL FLOSS!!!!!!!!!!!
- Things to buy here: Plug adapter, china shoes, more casual shoes, cell phone, netman 3G stick
- I exchanged a US $100 at the airport in Jo berg (Johannesburg, South Africa) for Rand. In Namibia, both Namibian Dollars and Rand are accepted and equal. It was really nice to have so I could get my Netman 3G stick and cell phone and still have money. Credit/debit cards work too but there can be fees. If you're flown through Frankfurt, you might be able to do this.
- If you're wanting to visit other countries, (like to see Victoria Falls) bring at least US $200 for visa fees to visit other countries. You should also bring extra passport photos.
- American money, especially change is fun to give out. Little children love it.
- Post cards of your home town, photos you've taken are fun to bring. I'd also recommend a map and other picture books to show all of America, especially the wild life. It's important to talk to people here about life in America and to show it's not like MTV.
- If you have time, pick of an Afrikaans-English Dictionary. If you happen to learn it, you're a step ahead. If you learn something else, it's still really handy. Especially for southern Namibia and South Africa.
- Essentials: iPod, Speakers (for both computer and iPod) Camera (SLR or point and shoot, I brought both)
- You'll really MUST bring a computer. Bring one that you're not concerned if it's lost but make sure it's in GOOD condition. The only place to buy/repair computers here is in Windhoek. I STRONGLY recommend to bring a MAC, PC's are really susceptible to viruses and due to the slow internet/lack of computer stores, it's difficult to stay up to date on your virus protection. I would also recommend having the latest version of Office for Mac.
- Go to Amazon.com and buy yourself a LaCie Rugged! Don't bring any other kind of external hard drive, they'll break. Between the power issues, accidents and what not, they can break easily. Also get the biggest size possible! 2 TB is AMAZING.
- If you want to win over your fellow PCT's and every PCV in the Nam Fam, download HandBreak and start burning movies, TV shows, and more. It is for both Mac and PC but I would suggest making the resolution smaller, say iPod size. We don't care about quality but space! I would start with the most recent TV and then movies.
- Lots of music, current music, especially all of the pop crap that plays on the radio. Work out videos, podcasts etc.
- Books: A lot of people brought Kindles (or I had my iPod Touch) but nothing beats a paper back book. (If you get a kindle buy plenty of books in America, there is a fee to download them here, even the free ones, not to mention the internet is slow anyways) Physical books are expensive here and hard to get. Plus it's great to share with others.
- Bags: It is strongly recommended that one of your bags be an internal frame backpack. Even if you're not going to camp much, it's really convenient to have for conferences and other travel around Namibia.
- It's important to socialize, both with fellow PCT's, your host family, and people of the place you're having PST at. However, it's good to be with them all in moderation. Don't be with too much. I would also suggest to try and know your fellow PCT's so things aren't so “cliquey.” You'll never know who will be near your site, same region, or a good friend. Sadly you also won't know who will head home early....
- Every week or so, you'll have a new Resource PCV(s). Someone who's taken time from their site to come and help you out. Take use of them! Hopefully you'll get PCV's from all over Namibia and types of sites. It's also good to ask the Volunteer Support Network (VSN) PCV's to have “informal sessions,” where they can talk to you and tell you how it is without any PC staff present. Once you know you're site, especially make sure to know the ones in your region (kinda like a state) if possible.
- Probably the most important thing you can learn at PST is the culture. You won't get to really know all of the cultures well, except for your host family, but learn as much as you can. You won't know for some time where your site is, nor will you know the demographics of your site until you come back from your visit near the end of PST. It's interesting and can really help you out.
- It is important to learn the local language, but don't over stress it. There are two verbal tests (LPI) but they're not important, nor do they mean much. However, you might want to know that you get certificates with your scores and can post them on Resumes and CV's. But the only score that matters is the one you get when you leave at the end of your service. It's also important that you're open with your language trainer and the language manager. It's important to communicate to them how you learn and what they can do to help. When I was learning Afrikaans, I was struggling because I was getting caught up on the grammar of language. They were able to help. It's also advisable to learn the useful sayings and greetings in each of the big languages (Otjiherero, Oshivambo, KhoeKhoe) You'll never know who you'll meet or where you'll go on vacation. They'll help people see you're not a tourist and won't be scammed so much.
- One American thing that will be invaluable is personal time/space, something that isn't really appreciated here. During PST, you'll experience all range of emotions, but it's important to have a good balance of Personal time and space. It can be hard to not lock yourself in your room and stay glued to your netman, but it's important to get to know your host family. Even if your site is far away, you'll never know when you'll see them again, or how helpful they can be.
- Shortly after you arrive into Namibia, you'll have a meeting with your APCD (I forget the acronym, you learn SO many of them) about what kind of work you want to do and where you'd like to go. Make sure you take this meeting seriously! Answer truthfully and be honest. If there is something you'd really like to do or some where you really can't live tell them now or forever hold your peace!
- During PST, you're going to have A LOT of stress. Your whole time is planned, with little input from you, even your weekends. The only time you'll really have to yourself is to sleep! Do anything you can to handle it. PST and the first few weeks of site are the hardest you'll have. If you can make it past that you're usually home free. That's what I was told and so far it seems true for me. However, you'll have extreme boredom after PST while you settle in at site. It's kind of hard to be so busy than instantly have nothing.
If your PST is in Okahandja there are some things to know:
- there have been several PST's in the past, and they're used to PC and foreigners. It didn't prepare me for my site where a white person (or any other foreigner) was a novelty. It was quite the transition, getting used to people staring at me, talking ABOUT me but not TO me and traveling from all areas of the location just to peak into my window.
- It's a really nice town with many luxuries. Kamanjab is literally a gas station, a super market, two take away restaurants (kind of like fast food) and a hotel. As boring as Okahandja was, it's nothing compared to Kamanjab
- There is a really awesome hike to the top of the mountain with the cross. I would definitely do it! Great view and a lot of fun. I'm sure one of the resource volunteers will know, but basically you follow a bunch of spray painted rocks (at times obscure) to the top. Note there have been Baboons spotted and there are some crazy spiders. They're not poisonous, though they sure look like it, but their bite will hurt like hell and scar (according to the internet). They're usually out of the way, but the can make their webs in-between the trees on the path so keep vigilant. It's also important to know that their web is strong enough to catch a small bird...
- The Garden cafe is one of the best places in Namibia! They're Americans who operate to help people and a local ministry. Their food is amazing and a great way to relieve home sickness and stress!
- There are many places to go for lunch during PST. Spar is by far the cheapest and easiest. Their Ham, Cheese, and Tomato (Ham, kaas, en tomatie) is amazing. The best burger is at the german bakery, but their tomatie sous (catsup) isn't so good. Also their Coke is really expensive (I brought one from Spar before going) The second best is Rhino's, it's cheaper.
I can't think of much else to add. It's already pretty long. I hope this helps. Feel free to email me or the others. I would suggest reading several blogs of different people, job types, and stages in their PC service. If you have any questions, feel free to email me!