Saturday, December 31, 2005

Final Few Months & Coming Home...

Hello everyone,
Happy New Year! Now that I'm back in the US (with access to broadband), I thought it might be easier to share thoughts and pictures from my final weeks in Africa via blog, so here goes...

First, I have to send out a huge thank you to everyone for your support and generosity in making the mosquito net project a success. The project raised over $7,000, and we were able to purchase 1,150 mosquito nets for children and community members in Oshikuku, as well as an additional 250 nets for another school in a malaria zone where my friend Christy teaches, outside Rundu. Overall this project will help protect more than 1,400 people from malaria this wet season.

The first shipment of nets arrived in November and it was exciting to see the reactions of staff and community members. My school was proud and honored to receive the donation, and I was touched when I went running and two fifth grade boys from the primary school yelled out, "Miss Elisa! Thank you for the mosquito nets!!"

I'm looking forward to staying in touch with my staff and hopefully hearing about a decrease in cases of malaria this year as a result of this donation. Thank you again for your contributions and support.

As for my final few months in Oshikuku, the third school term was a busy one. In mid-October we took two field trips to Etosha National Park, a wonderful place that is 22,000 square kilometers, or the size of Switzerland. Etosha is only about 2 hours away from Oshikuku and it's known as one of Namibia's treasures and one of the best game-viewing parks in the world, so I was surprised to find out that most of my learners had never been there. After several weeks of preparation, we set off on two trips with about 70 kids each day to see the animals in Etosha.

We rented a bus and left the school at 4am. I knew the kids were excited when we got onto the paved road and the entire bus burst into song: "We are marching, we are marrrr-ching, we are marrrr-ching to Etosha Pan!" and other various songs in Oshiwambo, the local tribal language. We spent the day peering out of the bus windows at lions, kudu, giraffes, zebras, elephants and rhinos and learning more about Etosha.

The end of the term also wrapped up well academically. I could see progress and development in all of my learners, but I was the most proud of my grade 11 English class for how far they were able to come this year. In April the highest letter grade received on the Cambridge test (on a scale of A-G) was an "E" and only 4 kids in the class got that grade; in December, almost a third of the class finished the year with a "B" grade, and everyone passed. At the beginning of the year I could barely understand my kids and they could barely understand me; by the end we could communicate effectively. They worked hard, and it was wonderful to see the excitement and pride they took in their results.

I was also constantly impressed by the spirit, will, determination and humor of my kids as I got to know them better. Building relationships with my learners and understanding their life circumstances, hopes and dreams... that was undoubtedly the most valuable part of the year for me.

The relationships with my kids and with members of my staff and village also made saying goodbye incredibly difficult. My roommate, Britt, and I were a bit of a mess our last few weeks in Oshikuku, preparing to depart from such a warm community. Thinking about not seeing the memes (older women) each day and greeting them in Oshiwambo with "Walalapo meme!" "Ehhhhh." "Nawa." "Ehhhhh."... Thinking about not walking up to the school in the morning and having my younger learners lean out of windows yelling and waving, "Miss Mandell!! Miss Mandell!!" each and every day... In the last few weeks, Britt & I would take walks through the village and admire the sunsets and wave to our neighbors and realize that in a matter of weeks, this wouldn't be home anymore. That was pretty tough.

But the end finally did come. After our friend Dalia made us a last traditional meal of chicken, oshifima (porridge) and beans, and after the staffs of both my school and Britt's school gave us baskets, necklaces, pottery and other gifts of appreciation, the time came to leave Oshikuku.

My last few weeks in Africa were spent exploring Mozambique with two other volunteers. We learned some Portugese, ate fresh seafood on the coast, and ran into half of the Peace Corps while in Maputo, the capital city. It was a whirlwind of emotions and bus rides, and a colorful and interesting way to end the year.

Forty-three hours of flights and layovers later, I was back in Seattle. And I have to say, this return to the States is as much a part of the experience as everything else. The culture shock coming back hasn't been as bad as I'd initially feared, but I do feel like I'm seeing things at home through new eyes.

I don't really know how to put the contrast into words... we just have so *much* here. When I go to the grocery store and there are aisles and aisles of every kind of food and hair product imaginable... or when I go to the mall and see the endless shop windows full of clothing and jewelry... it's still a little overwhelming. The advances and changes in technology in just a year (particularly related to cell phones and ipods) are mind-boggling. I do find myself appreciating certain luxuries like sleeping on a good mattress, going snowboarding in the mountains, eating sushi, and drinking microbrews. These things are like heaven. Yet I can't stop looking around my town and calculating the cost of the large metal holiday statues of nutcrackers and wondering what that could pay for in Namibia. I know there's a bigger picture and it's not nearly that simple, but something about the simplicity of life in Oshikuku this year has highlighted just how much we really have here in the States. Many friends who've returned from Africa said the same thing when they got back, but it's still been strange to experience firsthand.

Now that I'm back, more than anything I'm left with a tremendous feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the experience I've had this year. I went to Namibia to learn about living in a developing country and to learn what it means to be a teacher. I feel like I've come back with a much richer understanding of both of those things, and so much more. I love that this experience will always be a part of me. I think Oshikuku will always feel like a 'home away from home,' and I feel lucky to have dear friends in Namibia with whom I will stay in touch for years to come. And finally, I deeply appreciate that this experience has broadened and deepened my understanding of what it means to live on this planet.

Thank you all for being a part of this journey with me through these emails, photos and blogs. In terms of what's next (many of you have asked), well, I'm working on that and I'll keep you posted. Until then, happy holidays and a happy New Year to all.



P.S. In case you haven't had enough, here are some of my favorite pictures from the past two months:

The kids at morning assembly.

That's an elephant at Etosha. We were really close.

Here is our visit to a Himba village. The Ovahimba people are one of the oldest tribes in Namibia, and they have maintained their lifestyle and traditions for centuries. One unique thing about the Himba people is that the only day of their lives when they bathe is on their wedding night; every other day they smear their bodies and hair with a mixture of mud, fat and ash to keep the skin soft and protected.

Here are some kids we met in a small village on the shore of Lake Malawi when we were camping.

Here's me, Mwiya, Britt and Dalia in front of the "card wall" in our home.

And finally, a photo of the beautiful vast Namib desert, taken while sandboarding.