Friday, July 16, 2010

Will all the OVCs in the classroom, please stand up?

OVC is a Namibian governmental term that stands for orphans or vulnerable children. To be an OVC you have no parents, or one of your parents has passed away.

I came to a harsh realization in one of my classes about the prevalence of this class of children in my school, and on a greater scale, Namibia. The teachers were asked to track the number of orphans in the school by home classroom to report to the government. The home classroom teacher for one class forgot to count in her own period, and came to my class to gather her count. She took me aside and asked, "Miss Dana, can I take the orphans from your class?"

I replied, confused, "Yes...but I don't know who they are."

She said that she would just ask them. She then made an announcement to my class that all of the orphans needed to leave the lab and come with her. At that point, half of my class stood up from their comptuers, and walked out of the classroom. Half of my learners had no parents, or one living parent.

In talking with colleagues and my principal about this situation, I learned that most of the parent deaths are casued by AIDS-HIV. I've known that I'm living in a country with 20-25% HIV infection rate, but it didn't really seem like it until this day. While it is so prevalent here, it's also so very hidden - you don't know who has it - it isn't talked about, and when someone dies, even if it's from HIV, it's more acceptable to just say they died of a "heart attack" or "sickness".

It pains me to know how many children grow up without parents, or without a Mother or Father. While it is such a tragedy by our standards, here, it is the norm. It is comforting to see the extension of family care though - many of these children have grandparents, aunt, uncles, brothers, sisters, or friends who care for them when they go "home". While there is usually someone or a group of people to care for OVCs, I learned that it is also common that these learners end up dropping out of school to become the head of household for their family, and care for their younger siblings. Without a high school education, the opportunities for young Namibians and limited, and it's much harder to go back to school later.

Situations like these make me thankful and appreciative of my life and family back in the USA. There is hope, though, that this will not be as severe a situation for Namibian youth in the future. I have seen work and education around issues of AIDS-HIV. Just this morning, a large group of learners received certificates for completing a course, "My Future is my Choice" around sexual health and AIDS-HIV. I pray that as Namibia grows into a developed country, the epidemic that is AIDS-HIV will diminish, and a generation of young Namibians will experience life with both of their parents.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Joys and Struggles of Teaching Computers in a Developing Country

The area where I feel like I have made the most strides at Shaanika is with the teachers at my school. With the much, much smaller class sizes, I’m able to give individual attention and each person is able to have their own computer. It makes a really big difference. Teachers also have more self-discipline than the learners – they can pay attention during the lessons without being distracted by typing on the keyboard or opening up any random program (though I know there is the occasional Facebooking going on…!).

My beginners have come a long way! The beginning teachers had never used a computer before. They are an older group, and most went to university many years ago. We started with the very basics, and it takes them just as long, usually longer, than the learners to get the hang of things. Technology in general isn’t very familiar to them. Already they know how to format a document, create a table, and cut, copy, and paste. One of the highlights of my week was showing two of my middle-aged women learners the Internet for the first time! How do you explain the depths and lengths of the World Wide Web? I basically told them, “What or who do you want to know about? Anything you want to know, you can find it on the Internet.” And the truth behind that statement is awesome, frightening, overwhelming, and empowering. They were truly amazed by what came up in a search engine, and with the interface of Facebook. How easily I forget the complexity of what seems so simple!

The advanced teacher class is also going very well. We spent a couple lessons on Microsoft Excel and learning how spreadsheets can be very useful for keeping track of grades and other important data. I also showed them the value of formulae, and how the mathematical calculations they are currently doing by hand can be done with a few clicks of the mouse. This week we worked on PowerPoint and they are having fun with animations, transitions, slide designs, and learning how they can more effectively teach their learners. Next, we will set up email and Facebook so that we can all stay in touch when I leave.

As for the learners, things are not quite as easy, but still equally rewarding. The learners literally run from their classrooms to the computer lab. I have to remind them to slow down on their way in so they don’t damage the computers or tear out the cords that run haywire throughout the lab. As I’ve mentioned, teaching 45 learners with 20 computers presents many challenges, especially when computers are down, and you have less than 20. Often times I find myself frustrated with their inability to pay attention to the 10 minute lesson. Computers are distracting machines, and they are bursting with excitement and curiosity about what they will discover next. Sometimes I get upset when I have to “discipline” them, which in my world, is telling them, “Stop touching the keyboard/mouse, close the typing skills program/Internet/Encarta, or I will switch you with a classmate that is standing”. Typically, that is enough, but sometimes I actually have to move them.

In venting to my roommate/colleague, Jen, she reminded me that this is a very different view of disciplining learners than my colleagues. Stay tuned for a blog update about corporal punishment in Namibia…coming soon….

She reminded me that while I might feel like I’m scolding them, the reality is that I show them more respect and love than they are used to getting from any adult or a teacher they know. I tried to take this to heart, and while I might occasionally scold the class, I give affection, praise, and love as much as I can to individual learners each time we meet. I have found that I can give a lesson for ten minutes or so, and spend the rest of the class period walking around while they practice an activity. I’m able to be hands-on with them (literally, my hand on top of theirs on the mouse), show them how to do the skills, and give them a squeeze or pat on the back and tell them “Good job!” or “Yes, perfect, you’re awesome” and that goes a loooong way.

Another key to success is finding the learners that already know what I’ve taught, or picked it up quickly. These learners are very, very few…maybe one or two per class. When I praise them for a job well done and ask them if they will please help me and show their classmates how to do it, they are ecstatic. They feel so privileged and excited to help out, and then I have someone to help me tackle the 40+ learners who can’t seem to get it down.

It’s amazing how much I take for granted and assume when teaching computers. Imagine if you had never typed on a keyboard before? Or had never highlighted something? These basic skills that are practically inherent in our culture do not exist in their knowledge base. I have spent entire class periods with learners trying to teach them how to highlight. There is more to it than you realize. Try to highlight something on your screen now…think about all of the different steps, and how you would explain it to someone. Now think of two, or three MORE ways to explain if they didn’t get it the first time…

I am constantly reminding learners to use Shift and then press a letter, and not to switch Caps Lock on and off to make capital letters. They frequently forget how to get to the next line (Enter), and will hold down the Space Bar until the cursor arrives at their desired location. Some are still at this level, while others are copying/cutting/pasting with no problem.

While it can feel like a constant struggle, and like I’m incessantly repeating myself, when they get it, it is a triumph like none other. The look on their face when they grasp that they don’t have to press the Space Bar to get something Center Aligned, or when they see something disappear (cut), and reappear (paste) in the correct place, is priceless. Helping someone learn to highlight, one of the most basic computer skills, recognizing them for their accomplishment, and seeing their joy in such simplicity, makes all of this worthwhile.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Traditional Namibian Wedding!

This weekend was truly a once in a lifetime experience! I attended my first traditional Namibian wedding. It was incredible in every way and I will do my best to describe the event in detail, but it is hard to put into words.

The wedding was of a former teacher from my school who is now an Inspector for the Ministry of Education. In Namibia, everyone is invited to your wedding. They send out invitations, but there is no RSVP, no headcount - if you want to join in the festivities, you are welcome. I love this is truly the more the merrier!

Jen, Rachel and I geared up for the celebration by wearing traditional Oshiwambo skirts. They are long, flowing skirts with lines of black, red, and hot pink. This is the traditional pattern of many of the traditional dresses women here wear. They are loud and colourful and helped us to fit in a little better (but not much!).

We arrived at the church in town for the ceremony with many others. The ceremony itself was not too out of the ordinary - bride in white dress, groom in suit, and a typical wedding party. The wedding ceremony was all in Oshiwambo, so we didn't catch much of it. What was different was that at one point everyone filed up to give congratulations and place a monetary gift in the basket at the front. I had met the groom once briefly, and he was welcoming and excited to see me there.

In the States we have a very limited wedding party, but here, there are tiers of women in the wedding. By the time photos came around, it seemed like everyone there was in the wedding! The photographer even asked us to come up to be photographed with the bride and groom. We thought it was funny that they would want to be photographed with almost complete strangers, but that is just the Namibian way - everyone is somehow a friend or family member.

My favorite part of the day as a whole was the presence of the kukus in the celebration. Kuku is a word for "grandmother", and is really just a term of respect. A kuku is a woman who is maybe in their 40's or 50's and older. These women wear traditional dresses in bright patterns, headdresses, and carry around horsetail whips. They wave around the horsetail whips in the air and make a high-pitched, loud, celebratory call throughout the ceremony and day. It was funny, endearing, alarming and more. I would grow to be used to this sound as it was heard throughout the day about every few minutes!

Everyone was ecstatic to see us in traditional attire. A little goes a long way here....if you show interest in or love for Namibian traditions, they will embrace you with open arms. Many, many people stopped to take photos of us, to tell us how beautiful we looked, and just loved it. I have felt like a celebrity since coming here, but especially so at the wedding! You would have thought by the reactions that I was walking the red carpet in a Vera Wang gown.

We left the ceremony and headed to the bride's homestead, the village of Omuthitu. This was not too far from our town, but much more rural. We hopped in the back of a bakki (pick-up truck) with about six others squished in the back. It was then that I had a real "Africa moment". I was riding in the back of a pick-up truck with kukus, nothing but dirt, donkeys, and the occasional cluster of straw huts in my view.

We arrived at Omuthitu and that was where the real party began! Kukus greeted us, excited to welcome us. We were rushed around and introduced to many people, and given a tour. It was hard not to notice the pathway lined with about seven cattle heads on each side. Just the heads....nothing else. We were then shown the room that held the missing parts....their bodies. There was an entire room full of about 20 cows that had been slaughtered. The smell and the sight of the blood and feasting flies were unsettling. We were told that this is a tradition when someone is married. The more cows that are slaughtered the bigger and more extravagant the wedding. We soon found this to be a valid reflection on the rest of the afternoon and evening!

We continued on our tour and were greeted by kukus who loved to have us take their whips and mimic their celebratory calls and cackles. They truly got a kick out of us participating in their traditions and it was so special. We were taken into a straw hut and made to continue with the calls, jump up and down dancing, and given some traditionally brewed beer, called omalovu. The beer was chunky, sour and all around pretty foul....but I pretended to really like it, which made them happy. The few moments in the hut were indescribable....the excitement and warmth from these women was all-encompassing and overwhelming! It was a moment in time I won't soon forget.

Soon we were ushered back to the entrance of the village to wait and greet the bride and groom as they arrived. We were looking in the direction of their arrival, and soon figured out that there was much more to see coming our way from the opposite direction. There was a massive parade of kukus, kulus (elder men), and all the rest of the wedding guests marching toward the couple. There was singing, chanting, celebratory calls, and dancing. It was so loud and exciting! It's hard to even explain and I'm glad I took some videos of the spectacle.

After a good while of this festivity, the bride and groom and wedding party were ushered toward a special seating area. There were some speeches, and then it was time for gifts. A long line of women carried gifts on their heads (no hands!) to the couple. First were the baskets with traditional gifts, and then came more modern, boxed and wrapped gifts.

When gift-giving was finished, it was time for the meal. Up until this point, I felt like I was truly in Africa. When we walked into the tent for the meal, I could have just as easily been at a wedding in America. The tables were beautifully decorated and set, and there were cool drinks, champagne, liquor, and beer at each table. It was surreal to see the modern set-up and experience the juxtaposition of the experience we just had with a very fancy party.

We enjoyed our meals of meat (beef, goat, pig head, whole chickens), pasta and potato salad, vegetables (beets, carrots, beans), and as is traditional at any wedding, free booze.

You would assume the wedding celebration would stop here, after 6 hours of already entertaining wedding guests. However, then it was time to head back to the groom's homestead for the next party. We hopped in the back of another bakki and got a ride to Ongonzi Lodge for the groom's party.

This party was very nice as well - not quite as large and elaborate as the first, but still very classy. There was another entire meal served, toasts, and music. Oddly enough, the music was not traditional music, but a strange play list of power ballads from the 90's, to include Rod Stewart and other random artists. Of course we were excited to hear some familiar tunes! The only disappointment was the lack of dancing at the party, but overall it was a great ending to an amazing day.

I feel blessed to have experienced this special part of Namibian culture. It really emphasized for me the true point of weddings - to celebrate, to love, to have fun, to give thanks to God and to those who care about you and want to share in your special day.

Greeting in Oshiwambo

The act of greeting others is a very important aspect of Namibian culture. Here, you must greet everyone, and with the traditional greeting. This is not a simple, "Hello, what's up?", but an exchange that goes back and forth multiple times. I have learned that I cannot walk around town with my head down, but must make eye contact with every person that passes and greet each individual, one at a time. This can make getting from A to B take a little longer than planned!

While it can be a lot of back and forth, it's also refreshing to make substantial contact with each person you encounter. Namibians are not too concerned with time, and there is an assumption that you are never too busy to greet someone.

Greeting goes as follows:

Me: Walalapo meme!
You: Ee-ee.
Me: Nawa.
You: Ee-ee.

You: Walalapo, meme.
You: Ee-ee.
Me: Nawa.
You: Ee-ee.

In essence, it means:

Me: Have you spent the night or morning well? OR How is the morning?
You: Yes.
Me: Really?
You: Yes.

And then you return the greeting! Takes a bit of getting used to, but I'm getting it down.