Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, happy belated Hanukah, happy New Year and happy every other holiday that falls in this general time period.

It is strange being here for Christmas in the summertime. I went to one of the four small stores in Opuwo today in search of cookie cutters (unfortunately none are to be found in this desolate town) and was quite surprised by the contrast I encountered there. There I was, sweating out of every pore in my body, listening to the song “Let it Snow” play on the intercom.

One thing being out here has taught me is how much culture and upbringing influence our worldviews. I just cannot fathom that it is Christmas season in the sweltering summer heat. I mean, the town’s grocery store has signs proclaiming “Summer Christmas specials.” Seriously? How crazy is that?

The other day I had lunch at a Spanish friend’s house (she works for an NGO out here). She, her Canadian boyfriend and I were all talking about the ways we celebrate Christmas back home. We laughed over the seeming idiocy of each other’s festivities and it made me realize just how nearly impossible it is shake-off or disregard the importance of our cultural upbringings and how much they influence the way we live our lives and look at the world. If such a simple thing like Christmas celebrations is so deeply ingrained in our minds as a result of our upbringings, how much more so are things like gender norms, parenting styles, social welfare, the value of education, etc? Can these perceptions really be changed?

Here, the other volunteers and I have constant discussions about how to improve Namibian’s lifestyles without significantly altering their cultures. Per example, how can we get the Himbas to bathe without changing their cultural hygienic preferences of using herbs and mud? And should we even try to do that or should we leave them be? There never seems to be an easy answer to these questions…on the one hand is the belief that changing people’s cultures is unethical and on the other is the argument that without change, their lives cannot improve and may even be at risk.

I have yet to come up with an answer to this dilemma and I rather doubt that I ever will. This process of development is an extremely delicate and difficult one!

Sinter Klaus

[Note: this entry was written primarily for the amusement of my neighbors…hope they, and you, enjoy!]

When I moved to Namibia, I thought I would be learning about African cultures and celebrating national holidays. Yet somehow, on the night of December 6th, I found myself celebrating a Dutch holiday. Yes, I joyfully partook in my first Sinter klaus revels with my three Dutch neighbors – Jesse, Jorrit and Frouke (and baby Silke though she didn’t pay much attention to the merriment).

Sinter klaus is a Dutch holiday related to Christmas. From my understanding, the Dutch still celebrate Christmas but have additional festivities on December 6th. On this particular day, an elderly man named Sinterklaus travels from his home in Spain via a steamboat to Holland where he goes around with his ‘Black Petes’ and throws presents into people’s chimneys where they then land miraculously in children’s shoes.

The concept of the Black Pete is an interesting one. Supposedly, Sinter klaus’ helpers are black people called Petes (or more accurately, white Dutch people who paint themselves black…?). Apparently, there are numerous songs describing the Petes in less than friendly terms – my neighbors told me the songs were rather racist. I just assumed that these Petes were similar to our elves but I must be wrong about that because at the end of the evening, Jesse asked me if Santa had any “slaves to help him.” So whereas Santa’s elves merrily, free-willingly engage in their toy-making, Sinterklaus’ Black Petes are conscripted into servitude. Seriously? How does slavery embody the true meaning of Christmas?

For about a month prior to this special day, the children leave their shoes in front of the chimney with a list or cut-out pictures of the gifts they would like. In an effort not to be entirely selfish, the children also leave cookies for Sinterklaus and carrots for his horses
(apparently the Black Petes get nothing…ah, the life of a slave). The gifts are then purchased in Spain and transported back to Holland by Sinterklaus (the Spanish economy must be booming this time of year).

Then on the eve of December 5th, the gifts miraculously appear in the children’s shoes. Accompanying the gifts are poems written by the Black Petes (aka the parents) about the gift receiver. My neighbors and I exchanged gifts and poems this year. We had some good laughs over the poems we wrote about each other! I really liked what the poems add to the celebrations – it forces the poets to be creative in humorously writing about their friends and family members and it takes the evening beyond the all-consuming materialism that American Christmases seem to embody these days.

The Dutch also have a practice similar to our American one of giving coal to "bad" children. However, the Dutch version of this takes a rather frightful approach. Children who are "naughty" are thrown into the toy bag, kidnapped by Sinter Klaus and taken along to Spain. I didn't get clarification on what happens to them upon arrival in that foreign land though - I was still in shock over the horror of telling small children that if they misbehaved they would be kidnapped.

Overall, I don’t exactly approve of the holiday’s roots in slavery or desire to frighten the young but I do quite enjoy the poetry. Therefore, I will happily award Sinter klaus celebrations with two thumbs up!

My Second African Thanksgiving

As some of you may know, Thanksgiving just happens to be my favorite holiday. I like it primarily because it provides an occasion for friends and family to gather and reflect on all that is good in life but it eliminates the material elements of other modern holidays.

This year, I had Thanksgiving at a lodge on the outskirts of Opuwo with two Canadians, an Irishman, a Brit, one of my Dutch neighbors, some Namibians, four other PCVs, and five PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees who will join me in Kunene in January when their training is complete) – it was a very international Thanksgiving!

In spite of the fact that we are basically in ‘middle-of-nowhere’ Africa, we had a somewhat authentic Thanksgiving meal. I hitch-hiked up from Windhoek (eight hours away) with a cooler full of frozen cranberries and two frozen turkeys…that sucker was heavy! Some of the PCTs made apple pies and another volunteer found something similar to ice cream (we don’t really get ice cream in Opuwo sadly). We even had a couple cans of cranberry sauce from the SuperSpar in Otjiwarongo (the biggest grocery store in Namibia!). And the lodge made something similar to stuffing. So in all, we may not have exactly replicated an American Thanksgiving but I was quite pleased with our Africanization of it! J

The One Year Mark

As of November, I have been in Namibia for one year! Time is such a strange concept out here that it is somewhat difficult to believe that a whole year has gone by. I am usually very cut-off from the outside world and know little beyond the happenings of this small country. I really have no idea what is going on back home – the politics, latest bits of Hollywood gossip, scientific breakthroughs, milestones in the lives of friends and family members, movies made or new products sold. Its been over a year since I swam laps in a pool, drove a car, ate real ice cream, saw a play, went to a Mexican restaurant, bought something made by Hershey’s, or took a bath (showers only, but I’m grateful to have even that!).

Prior to this year, the longest time I’ve spent living outside the US was about six months. I don’t consider myself to be anti-American but there have been times when I did not think fondly about certain aspects of my culture and homeland. The year I spent studying abroad and traveling in Europe highlighted some of those features for me. But this past year has done just the opposite – it has highlighted aspects of American culture that I previously took for granted. Living in a completely foreign environment for a year has caused me to think more about the lifestyle that I left behind. And quite to my surprise, I have discovered that there are a tremendous number of things I miss about living in America, an extraordinary number of things that I once failed to appreciate. One of the things that I am most grateful for in regards to my year of service here has been its ability to increase my respect for my own culture.

My Newest Neighbor

My flat is on the end of a row of three flats. The middle flat houses my neighbor, Jesse. She is a Dutch volunteer serving with an organization called Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) and is here working as a physiotherapist. The flat on the opposite end is the home of Jorrit and Frouke who are also Dutch VSO volunteers. Jorrit is a pharmacist and Frouke a doctor. And on October 21st, Frouke gave birth to their first child, a beautiful little girl named Silke Alide Tjijandjewa Kabel.

Silke has been a most welcome addition to the volunteer community here in Opuwo but has caused some bewilderment with our local neighbors. Apparently Silke is the first white baby to grace the streets of Opuwo. When Frouke was pregnant, Himba women were startled to see her walking around town. A few of them pulled one of our Namibian colleagues aside and asked her if Frouke was just overweight or if she was really pregnant. Our colleague, Barbara, told them that Frouke was indeed expecting a child. The Himba women were absolutely amazed. They told Barbara that they didn’t know that white people had sex too! I don’t know how they thought we procreate – perhaps they thought of us as some sort of alien species or something…

Now that Silke has finally arrived, the Himbas love to peek at her when Frouke and Jorrit are ‘out and about’ with her. Frouke and Jorrit bought a sling for Silke to rest in while they are walking around. At first, people didn’t seem to realize that there was a baby inside the sling but people have caught on now. Now, Himbas swarm around whenever Silke makes a debut in her sling. They still have not adapted to the idea of a man carrying his baby around though. Jorrit is the recipient of some disapproving glares from many of the locals. I, personally, am ecstatic that his “unusual” behavior has caused some people to question gender norms; I think it’s wonderful that people are being exposed to the image of a caring father and I’ve (somewhat jokingly) suggested that he not allow Frouke to hold the baby in public. J