6/22/10

A WorldTeach Journey from Namibia to Bangladesh: Introducing Field Director Jess Barrow

We're incredibly lucky at WorldTeach to have hard-working Field Staff in each of our countries who are committed to our mission and passionate about international volunteer service. As we partner with the Asian University for Women to send volunteer teachers to Bangladesh this August, we are thrilled to introduce Jess Barrow-- returned WorldTeach Namibia volunteer and our new Bangladesh Field Director-- to the WorldTeach family. Read her story below:

Jess as a WorldTeach volunteer in Namibia ('06)

My journey to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh really began four years ago when I was a WorldTeach Namibia volunteer in a village called Omatjete and I met a girl named Ovandu-Ovawa. Ovandu was a shy sixth grader with large eyes and a hesitant smile. Whenever I called on her to read aloud her voice barely raised above a whisper. But she was as smart as she was timid-- I often saved her paragraphs to grade last because I knew it would help cheer me up after all the other dismal ones.

Ovandu, like most of the other girls and women in my village did not open up to me right away. They seemed guarded and unsure and above all busy. In Omatjete the men drove the cars and they owned the cattle but whether or not the community moved or not lay squarely on the broad shoulders of its women. All of the teachers at my school were women and families were primarily made up of women and children. The greater majority of my students had no paternal figure in their house, and the lucky ones saw their fathers once or twice a year. These women—be they mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or teachers worked, cleaned, laundered, cooked, swept, shopped, organized, and cared for all of the village kids. It was a shared load. The women also ran the church, the literacy program (teaching adults to read in the afternoons), and coached sports. It was strange then to hear those who said that women could not lead because in Omatjete they were the very best leaders—never expecting recognition for their services. Leading simply as a matter of course, because it had to be done.

My girl students often asked me how many children I had at home in America. It took some convincing them that at the age of 23 I had none. The idea was unfathomable to them. But evening after evening Ovandu sat on my stoop, sometimes reading, sometimes helping me with laundry and slowly we began to understand each other. I saw so much of myself in her quiet approach and curious eyes. I often watched her walk away in the evening with the heavy knowledge that however much we shared, however much promise she showed our lives would be very different.

I returned home from Namibia uncertain of the impact I had made in my year there. Teaching had been unbelievably difficult. Progress was incremental and at times non-existent. I wondered if my presence had mattered at all. After about a month in the U.S. I received a letter from Ovandu. In the letter she wrote that she was determined to finish school and go to college before starting a family-- and that it was because of me and our stoop talks that she had such conviction.  

I carry that letter with me everywhere I go. I carried it with me when I went to work for a non-profit in my hometown that provided support to teen mothers and at risk girls. I carried it with me through the tireless days and sleepless nights of a presidential campaign. I carried it with me to my cubicle at the Department of Education in Washington D.C. And I will carry it with me when I board a plane to Chittagong Bangladesh eager to do my part as field director and teacher at the Asian University for Women. It's because of Ovandu and the incredible women I met in Omatjete that I understand the power of women's education. It's because of what they taught me that I can leave my family and friends behind in the hope of contributing a small but valuable service to others' lives. Ovandu's words are a constant reminder of what can be achieved and how much more remains to be done.

outdoor classroom in Namibia


1 comment:

  1. Jess - I wish you all the best on this journey and in this important work that you are doing. May you continue to see the beauty in simple things and the ripple effect of even the smallest connections with others...

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