Thursday, July 28, 2016

My "Second" Job

Peace Corps, Namibia Africa...
Race Breakdown: W: 6% Coloured or Baster (mixed race): 4%
Total populations of the cities to which I traveled:
Otjiwarongo (28,249) and Okahandja (22,639) and Groot Aub (6,000)

Then, I joined the Peace Corps. I could write volumes about the two and a half months I lived and trained in Namibia, an African country just west of South Africa, but I won't. I'll only tell two stories.

The first is that one of the fellow American Peace Corps trainees was named Amona White. She slept in the dorm-style bunk room adjacent to mine where we volunteers were stationed temporarily to undergo the first session of training. She was the only black member of our group, beautiful, athletic-looking, feminine, and introspective. As always happens in camp-like situations (living together, eating together, experiencing bouts of diarrhea together... ), you begin gelling with your peeps. We girls, in those two rooms, found ourselves before bed - spoon in collective peanut butter jar, hair in pony tails on top of heads, feet dangling over bunk edge - sharing little bits of our lives with one another. We shared both our American lives from back home AND our experience of life in this crazy new place called Africa. Once many nights like this had passed, Amona chose a moment to share about what it felt like to be an African American in Africa. First, let's start with what she expected. She explained that, as she prepared to come to Africa for two years of service, somewhere in her consciousness existed this expectation of a homecoming of sorts... not with balloons, and confetti, and big posters reading, "WE LOVE YOU!!!" But a more subtle embracing into a larger community to which she belonged. She was fully American, but she was African by heritage, by all means. But what she experienced was about as opposite of belonging as possible. She actually felt shunned a bit...quite a bit. She said that it was her belief that the ripples of the Apartheid in Africa's southern countries (**primarily the country of South Africa, but Namibia, due west of it, was impacted as well), ending just nine years previous to our group's landing on Namibian soil, was to blame. That, although racism and persecution of black Africans by white Africans was at the root of the Apartheid movement, what came with it nearly a decade later was a certain unshakable revere towards white individuals. She couldn't believe it. She was shocked that the effects were most postively-affecting for white folks, instead of negatively-affecting. I sat there and listened, and thought, "Whites treated blacks in this region like scum. SCUM. And still make out like bandits. What gives?" I saw it in my own host family too, who were a mixed race. In the class system I observed while living with them, there was a superiority the lighter-skinned black Africans held. And, truth be told, there was outright racism from the light-skinned black Africans towards the more native, dark skinned Africans, insofar as their language and their ways were often made fun of (To be fair, there seemed to be infighting between most ethnic groups). And so, it seemed to me that not only was Amona not being celebrated for being the only black volunteer in our American group, she watched US WHITE VOLUNTEERS get treated preferentially. Had Amona not been a stoic soul, I would have wrapped my arms and legs around her and buried my head in her tank top that night and told her that I am sorry people have to SUCK as much as they do.

The second story from my time in Namibia was after language class one day. Vetendoah, one of our Namibian trainers, was hanging out with the volunteers during the free time we had stretched before us. By this time, I had lived in the country long enough - part of which involved the stint in the home of my host family where I went and did EVERYTHING they did - to recognize the strong Christian presence. I had attended Catholic mass with my host family, and it appeared also that all of the Namibia trainers exercised their Christian faith in one capacity or another. I asked Vetendoah, a little nervously, about whether there were any other religions prevalent there. I say "nervously," because the Christian faith-life of most Africans with which I had come into contact was rather rigid. It supported the literature about Namibia we got sent stateside expressing the importance of remaining like Switzerland when it came to religious discussions... basically, just hide anything non-mainstream-Christian so as to avoid major catastrophe. If you're gay, don't talk about it. If you're agnostic, don't talk about it. If - God forbid - you are atheist, DON'T TALK ABOUT IT. Vetendoah, not one to shy away from the truth, explained that there were still some who celebrated their more native spiritual traditions and rituals, often in small groups and often late at night so as to not cause a ruckus. I didn't ask, but I remember immediately imagining a big ole fire and dancing around it. She said, though, that the regular Sunday morning Christian worship was upheld faithfully as well. She also shared that most of the Namibians that she knew had a Christian name in addition to their real name. I asked her hers. I cannot remember what she said, but I remember it being something like "Samantha" or "Mary" or "Alice." And all the Christian names were like that. Although Vetendoah didn't seem to be, I was deeply troubled by this. I don't know the specifics of how the country of Namibia was exposed to Christianity in the beginning, but the European-sounding "Christian names" sure gave me a hint. Did missionaries (many light-skinned?) descend upon this place, seal the native people's fates in heaven with Christian names and Christian churches and Christian bibles, then take off? Forgive me for my ignorance on the matter, and for making Christian missionaries sound like awful people. But I can't sidestep what appears to be both a religious event and a racial event (Christian conversion of African people) all jumbled together. (Note: I am a Christian, a confused one most of the time, and sort of proud of that. But, considering my confusion, I'm pretty devout in my belief that Jesus taught us best how to live and love and that submission to God and His ways are what we're here to do.) I am sure missionaries sharing the Christian message had Jesus, great intentions, and purity in their hearts... And maybe that's what God wanted them to do with their time. But maybe it wasn't. After Vetendoah and I talked, this is what I played out in my head: white Christians with both Christian customs AND white customs evangelize to the African "savages" whose own connection to God (and even whose names) were Not Good Enough. I can't help but wonder if that also meant Not White Enough.

I tell these stories, because while race relations in Namibia, Africa are altogether different than that in the United States (apples, oranges), what followed me there was the same: whites seeming to get the better end of the deal (I know my experience was very isolated - a couple short months in a couple small Namibian towns - so please know that I know that this may not have been at all the case for other volunteers in my group or for other whites across the continent of Africa...but I'm me and these stories spoke to me in this way). Further perplexing, this was in a country where the race statistic were reversed! (United States: Blacks make up 13.2% of total population while whites make up 62.6%, Namibia: Blacks (of all different ethnic subgroups) make up 90% of total population while whites make up 4%). If anything, I was prepared to endure the experience of feeling an outsider, and being treated perhaps poorly as a result of it. The fact that I didn't was lovely, but the opposing result troubled me more.

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