3/12/13


Life after Two Months in Africa
From WorldTeach Namibia Volunteer Erika Bisbocci


     February has flown by before my eyes and with it, a whirlwind of experiences and emotions. I am having difficulty acknowledging the fact that the first two months of my African adventure are over and I am not sure if it is harder to fathom that I have been here for two months already, or that I can fit all of my experiences so far into this short two-month span. Time has become so malleable here, so unpredictable, that I am beginning to lose my grasp on it. The days fly by like minutes and the weeks feel like days. Yet, at the same time, some moments seem to drag on forever.
     I suppose these emotions are the normal side-effects of living a life outside of one’s own everyday reality. I remember feeling a similar sense of confusion when I lived in Jordan.

     Many people have told me that the first few months of living abroad are the most challenging, and I am happy to say that I have survived these months and have had many memorable experiences in the process. My last few weeks have been a jumble of weekend reunions with friends, mountains of papers and exams to grade and the everyday rewards and frustrations of teaching and living in a developing country.
     As this pattern of my daily life has begun to unfold and fit into a routine, my feelings of confusion and moments of awe are becoming less pronounced and are beginning to feel normal. I no longer boil with frustration when teachers or students interrupt my class with trivial requests. I no longer laugh in amazement when I see a tiny boy leading a herd of animals past my house. My jaw no longer drops when I see cows sitting on my front steps or milling about the school grounds. My heart no longer skips a beat when I wake up in the morning to lizards, spiders and grasshoppers peering down at me from the top of my mosquito net.
     I guess what I am trying to say, is that I am starting to feel at home.

     Yet, despite my adjustments to life in Onantsi, there are still moments that take my breath away.
     One evening a few days ago, when the weather was surprisingly cool, I decided to go on a rare run to explore the area past my school.
     I followed the sandy path past my house, away from town, toward the “village” where so many of my students live. As I ran, my breath was heavy, my body began to hurt from severe lack of exercise and I had no idea where I was going. Yet, when I reached the end of the sand road and happened upon a vast, grassy plain in all directions, I stopped and looked out at my surroundings.
     In the distance in front of me, I saw a woman carrying a large basket on her head. To my left, I heard children laughing as they ran back home after fetching water. I saw a herd of cattle and goats along the horizon, making their way across the endless fields of grass and sand.
     I turned 360 degrees in every direction and absorbed the beauty of my new environment, standing in awe as the sky ignited in fiery reds and pinks.
     I could not help but smile and remind myself of the sheer beauty that surrounds my everyday life in Namibia.

Evening Sunset, Onantsi

Thunder and Lightning in the Distance
     And yet, though I have begun to settle into a routine and am enjoying my time in Namibia for the most part, I would be lying if I said this experience was easy. There are times that I have nearly been driven to tears by the realities I have witnessed, and times when I have wanted to rip out my hair in frustration with my students. Teaching is by far the most challenging job I have ever had.

     Before coming to Africa, I had the naive expectation that middle schoolers in Namibia would be different from those in the United States--that students here would not be overcome by the pressures of conforming and "fitting in" that drive the irrational behavior of many American adolescents.
     However, in my time here, I have come to see that the adolescent behavior is universal and I have realized that these students are trying desperately to find their own identities in an environment that preaches conformity. The students at Olukolo not only face all the same challenges as students in the United States, but many of them face far more.
     In Onantsi, the everyday difficulty of coping with adolescent behavior is compounded by the fact that most of my learners come from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring challenges from home into the classroom. I have many students who are orphans, students who walk miles to school every day on an empty stomach and undoubtedly students who are battling HIV.
     When I asked my learners to write about a memorable day in their lives for homework, my answers ranged from one student who wrote about a trip to Russia with his father, to multiple essays about students losing parents, witnessing the death of friends and getting beaten by teachers. One girl spoke of the horrible day in which she saw her friend being dragged underwater and eaten by a crocodile.
     How am I supposed to even begin grading these essays? How, in light of the challenges many of my students have faced, can I blame them for neglecting to see the importance of conjugating verbs in the present progressive? How am I supposed to convince students of the tangible benefits of education, when I know that, for many, the reality of them leaving their village and finding a good job is virtually unattainable?
     I have struggled--and will continue to struggle--with these questions on a daily basis.

     Regardless of the difficulties, however, I am enjoying my classes—especially my English classes—and am beginning to see slight progress in my learners. The rewards of seeing even the smallest improvement in my students' level of English has the power to overcome any sense of frustration and helplessness that I have felt in the classroom.

- Erika Bisbocci, WT Namibia '13-'14

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