Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'm Here! (And So Is My Luggage!)

The good news is I’ve arrived safely in Namibia. After a week of waiting and a one-hour shopping spree in Windhoek, my luggage has finally arrived, too. I survived my first days here with one dress, a pair of pants, some worn-out flip-flops and a t-shirt. When my bag finally arrived I couldn’t help but wonder why I packed so much stuff in the first place. Two weeks in Namibia and I’m already reevaluating the essentials.

The country is amazing. Open plains and clear blue skies. But there’s also a lot of nothingness. In a place twice the size of California with a population of just 1.8 million people, I guess that’s to be expected. The days are warm and dry and the nights are cool and comfortable—the best of both worlds. The mornings are perfect for runs. November and December are considered the “rainy season” but that’s happened only once since we arrived.

We landed in Windhoek on November 2 after the world’s longest flight and nearly a week’s worth of travel. PCVs from Nam 25 and Nam 26 met us at the airport with a giant banner, two massive buses and a bowl full of fat cakes. These simple yeast rolls are made with a bit of sugar and fried in an iron pot. They’re best served warm, but even day-olds were a delicious welcome to a country we’d heard so much about. The ride from the airport to Okahandja was about an hour—long enough to see a bit of the countryside before sunset, plus baboons, giraffe and warthogs. This is Africa, after all.

There are about 25 trainers from the 13 regions in Namibia working with us on our language and cultural skills before we depart for our official sites in January. (We will do a temporary site visit, which includes our first experience “hiking,” next week.) They lined the walkway of our compound the night we arrived and sang songs in Afrikaans, Silozi and Otijiherero—music and voices like I’d never heard before. It was the warmest welcome I’ve ever received, and a feeling I hope to never forget.

Since then, it’s been 10-hour days of cross-cultural training, Peace Corps rules and regulations sessions, near daily vaccines and a whole lot of “getting to know you” time. I’m living in a room with five other girls: a teacher, a public health worker, and three recent grads. They are all absolutely hilarious and have made the ups and downs up this surprisingly stressful experience easier to handle. So far we’ve been able to keep each other sane and laugh at the things that might otherwise make us cry.

Last week the members of Nam 27 were interviewed by our program directors about potential posts, desired living conditions and expectations for service. From what I can gather, I’ll be working in a small town putting together health training materials and developing community outreach programs to disseminate the information. We were placed in our language groups last Thursday, so many of my fellow volunteers have an idea of where they’ll be heading based on what they’ll be learning. I could still go anywhere.

You’ll all be happy to know I’m learning Khoekhoegowab (kway-kway-kovab). And yes, that’s the clicking language. There are about 15 of us trying to perfect the four basic clicks. So far it’s been a struggle. We were told from the start that it’s unlikely we’ll master the language, but despite that, we’re trying.

One of our trainers took us to the Location, a part of Okahandja where black Namibians were forced to live during Apartheid. As it turns out, many of them still live there today, too. We listened to a Khoekhoe choir practice, and then performed a song with them. We learned a dance that none of us were really all that good at, but I’m still convinced we’ll leave this country with more rhythm than when we arrived.

This week we began twice-daily language lessons in preparation for our permanent site visits next week. On Tuesday, my three-man class actually took to the streets to practice with the locals. It was a reminder of how little you can learn in three days. Unless I was asked my name or where I was from, I was useless. But the women were slow and patient and the little boy, Quinton, got a kick out of our trial and error. I’m sure next week will bring more of the same. I’m anxious, and at the same time, can’t wait to see where I’ll be spending the next two years of my life.

For now, half of our days are filled with language and cultural education. The other is technical training. Workshops and lectures teach us more about the health system and the major health concerns in Namibia. From the looks of it, there are many. The sparse population, rough terrain and lack of transportation mean a majority of Namibians have little or no access to public or private medical care. There are just seven surgeons, five pediatricians and two psychiatrists in the entire country. The university has no PhD program, so doctors must be trained outside of the country. Work permits are hard to come by and it’s nearly impossible to find qualified professionals willing to work for next to nothing in the rural areas where the need is greatest. Here in Okahandja more than 100 people are on the waiting list for antiretrovirals at the local hospital. The facility services about 36,000 people, and while the drugs are in stock, a shortage of qualified doctors able to administer the medication means patients can still wait upwards of six weeks for treatment.

We met with one of the two doctors that serve the town on Tuesday. His patients come from as far away at the Botswana border to the east, Windhoek to the south, and more than 400 km to the west. Nearly 40 percent of his patients are HIV positive and at least two or three more people test positive each week. He told us that health information is widely available throughout the country. Namibia even offers free condoms to residents to prevent the spread of disease. But people are still failing to put what they learn into practice. It happens in the states, too, but after talking to trainers and healthcare professionals—even a traditional healer at the Location—it’s clear there are unique issues and challenges at play here.

Gender roles are a reality in Namibia. Men are the decision makers and women tend to be the more submissive partner in a relationship. Males have the final say in all things related to sex: from where and when it happens to whether condoms are used. Sex is often a display of power rather than an act of mutual satisfaction. If a woman voices her opinion on these matters she’s seen as loose. Rape laws were only recently introduced in Namibia. One current volunteer told us that men in his village were actually unsure how to date after this happened. He said before, they just took what they wanted. Courting didn’t exist. But then, neither did rape. It was expected that women would say no, and it was almost understood that that didn’t really matter.

But there are other obstacles facing health education and AIDS prevention in Namibia. The vast landscape, sparse population, and lack of jobs mean that hospital workers, teachers, policemen and miners are often sent to work in areas far from their families. Wandering men can bring the disease home and pass it on to their wives, who in turn, risk transmission to their children during pregnancy and even after birth. Men are rarely tested. At a clinic in Okahandja 1,200 women tested positive for HIV. Of that number just 12 had husbands who volunteered to be tested, too.

As it turns out, the number one risk factor for AIDS in Namibia is marriage.

Although the country offers health care at a relatively low rate, just two percent of the infected population is getting the drugs and treatment they need for advanced HIV/AIDS. In the states, that number is upwards of 80 percent. There is just one ambulance in Okahandja to service more than 35,000 people. And while a visit to a national health center costs around N$6 (about one dollar in the US), an unemployment rate of 50 percent means even that nominal fee can be prohibitive.

It’s been a lot of information to digest and this past two weeks has served as an incredible eye opener. As a westerner, I know it will be difficult to navigate a system of beliefs and a worldview that’s unfamiliar to me. As a volunteer, we’re taught that the information is out there and that many of the resources are widely available. But even so, many residents, including some of our trainers, are still unsure of just how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. While it can be frustrating to hear, it’s a good reminder of why I’m here: to educate, assist, and ultimately, to learn.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great entry Jill. I check everyday for updates. It was good to hear from Brenda's that she has spoken to you.

You clearly our missed here as the Christmas Shops in Union Square go up... hehehe...

Love Ya-Ant.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jilly!

I'm glad to see that you're maintaining that positive attitude!Many friends have told me they're reading your blog and looking forward to learning about Namibia through your eyes. I continue to be awed by your determination, resolve to serve,your positive attitude, and the love and service you want to share. Keep those NYC honed street smarts and continue to "be the change you wish the world to see," and educate the rest of us as you go on your way.
MOM <3 :-}

Anonymous said...

Hey Jill!

Glad to hear that you got there safely! I have been checking your blog everyday hoping for updates. Your journey is inspiring to all and you will touch and forever change so many people by your passion and committment to HIV/AIDS and the people of Namibia. Remember that your family and friends are always here thinking about you and with you every step of the way.

Love Your Cousin,

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm excited for you all over again after reading this post, despite its mention of flip-flops (thanks to you, now a global scourge). Also, I want some fat cakes. Warm, cold - whichever. I believe you have my address and lots of extra time and money for buying me snacks and shipping them to Brooklyn, so how about you get off your duff and make a difference for once. What else? What's up with the harmonica? Did you see How I Met Your Mother this week? I'm not going to be home next Monday night, maybe you can make yourself useful and record it for me. Send the tape in a different package than the fat cakes, doy.

Happy Thanksgiving,

~ THE Richard Peck