Rebekah Henrich :: Namibia
I arrived in Namibia three weeks ago on what seemed like it was going to be a relatively straightforward assignment. During the months of preparation prior to the trip I had learned that Namibia, one of the youngest countries on the continent, only eighteen years of independent rule, had a very stable and active government. The Academy for Educational Development had informed me that I was going to be working with the quality of primary school education. Having traveled abroad before, particularly to other developing, Christian nations I was not as worried about culture or living standard as much as I was worried about proving myself to the organization I was working with.
Upon arrival I stayed several days in the capital where meeting the directors of the programs and projects which I was working under. It turned out to be relatively simple, no sharp-edged questions, just general greetings and introductions. I thought I had begun to settle into Namibian society when we departed for what was to become my home-away-from-home. Along with my host family we drove nine hours north, to the tiny city of Rundu, Namibia. As it sits on the boarder with Angola, Rundu is a completely different scene from the highly urbanized capital of Windhoek. If anything, I think staying in Windhoek for so many days distracted me from the reality of Namibian life.
It was here in Rundu that I first realized I was 10,000 miles away from the world I left back home. For the first few days there was hardly any communication with my host family, and definitely not any with neighbors and other locals. Up here tribal languages reign over English. This greatly surprised me; I had learned that Namibia’s official language was English, that all official government and privatized business are conducted in English. This was far from the reality. Even though upper-primary through university levels of schooling are taught in English, the language is rarely found outside the classroom.
Additionally, my scope of work was drastically altered. My second week here we headed to a national conference in Swakomund, a city on the coast, which I thought was going to be around basic education as support by AED. Instead, it turned out to be an entire week conference on HIV/AIDS and its effects in the educational sector. Even though my background on Namibia and HIV/AIDS was minimal, I found the conference very helpful. It was there that I finally realized I could be helpful and of use in the field. The conference had members from the Ministry of Education, UNICEF, UNESCO, Global Fund and AED. From the beginning I tried not to intervene in discussions since I had been so ‘out of the loop’ up to that point. It was at these times that individuals would call on me to sort out disagreements in their groups and asked me to help present their findings to the whole conference, around sixty people. As we broke up for small group work I came to see that my background of work in Uganda regarding orphans and vulnerable children could be applied to Namibia’s fairly young OVC and HIV policies. Even if I hadn’t been exposed to the situations I had been in Uganda, there were still many areas I could have been of assistance. Coming from the United States with an interest in HIV/AIDS, I had come to be aware of many of the science and biological implications of the disease. I was very surprised that individuals working in the field here in Namibia were often unaware of many of the implications. During the last two days of the conference the chief-of-party from AED asked me to partner with the UNICEF chief coordinator for HIV/AIDS mitigation here in Namibia, together we worked on a proposal to be submitted to the National Office. This week greatly helped me understand that even as an outsider I can be an effective player in Namibian development.
Once we returned to Rundu I found myself struggling again. Because of the small town, lack of English and low social interactions outside of work and the house, I have once again developed a feeling of isolation from the community. There are always many people at the house but conversations almost never occur in English, leaving me unable to actively participate in most discussions. Overall the language barrier has served to divide me from the comfort and acceptance I had hoped for by staying with a host family.
Being in Rundu has also served to demonstrate many of the complications with development. Since AED is partnered with the Ministry of Education, a lot work is directly affected by the government and government standards. Many of difficulties I have seen so far in the field of development are not so much initiated by AED, but by the inefficiency of the government and its participation in development. As AED has worked hard to expand the role of education in the development process, the government has taken over many projects in order to increase the framework to a national level. At that point government employees, called inspectors, are supposed to visit schools and secure that such policies and activities are being implemented properly. We have already had to meet with, and persuade inspectors to visit their schools and reinstate policies that school administrators are choosing to ignore.
While I deeply appreciate the opportunity to work with AED but I am still struggling to enjoy the day to day. For me this has been the hardest part of the past few weeks.
I now have one week left of my internship; I moved out of Rundu yesterday and will be in Windhoek working out of the headquarters office for the next little while.
I have had some very wonderful experiences since my last update. I participated in the EduSector Health Day in the Caprivi region. This is an annual program set up in most, if not all of the13 regions. The day was very busy, a welcomed change from life in the Rundu field office. The event took place on a Friday and the entire region closed schools for the day. Most of the teachers from the region gathered in Katima Mulilo, the Caprivi capital. Together the participants met at the open market and then held a large parade to the venue site, the Caprivi College of Education. The group of people was led by the Caprivi army marching together, including their band. There were many speakers including Liman, our Chief-of-Party, the mayor of Katima, the governor of Caprivi and others, like the Deputy Minister of Education, and that of Health. Over 2,000 people participated which was nice. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those individuals got tested for HIV/AIDS which I thought was a slight let down considering that Caprivi has a 43% infection rate, the highest in the country. Despite this, most got blood pressure checked, as well as glucose levels. Northern Namibia has a high incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure because of their high meat, high salt diets. Additionally, individuals also received information on STIs, TB and could get tested for Malaria if they thought they needed. It was events like this which reminded me why I enjoy working abroad. I like working with people, knowing their stories and doing what I can to help them, even if just for a short period of time.
I also helped with hosting a workshop for primary school teachers in Otjiwarongo, and attended the Oshana Regional Educational Stakeholder's Conference: 2009 in Ongwediva. Both of those were interesting experiences, but not nearly as engaging as the event in Katima.
One presentation at that conference in Oshana did grasp me hard, it was given by the regional director. She presented the 2008 pass rates from different schools in the region, going through subject by subject. One of the schools had a 0 % pass rate of English among grade 10 students. The statistics were shocking. I couldn't believe how badly these schools were failing their students. Yet, overall the region was very happy with the results, they were seeing improvement. For the first time a majority of students passed, 50.1 % of grade 10 learners passed the national exam. For grade 12 students only 20 % of the region passed their exam, meaning nearly 80% of students were unable to qualify for university or college level studies. The rest of the conference was focused around combating these statistics and what sort of policies or programs needed to be created to raise these pass rates. I struggled with most of the exercises, knowing that even if we worked hard and came up with positive solutions, the implementation and monitoring would be low. Many of the teachers also commented on poor implementation, but we all struggled with coming up with ways to change them. As long as regional inspectors are not reviewed by their superiors, it will be difficult for the Namibian school system to tell which policies are being effective and which ones are not.
My biggest struggle with most of the conferences is the lack of focus. Through interviews with teachers in the Kavango region, as well as discussions with teacher advisors from the Oshana and Okahandja regions, it became quite clear that English lends itself as the fundamental obstacle for Namibian learners. At present, lower primary, grade one through three, is carried out in the mother-tongue of each respective region, allotting only forty minutes a day to English study. Then at the beginning of grade four a switch is made into all English instruction. This leaves many students unable to keep up in other essential courses, such as math and science. Even through the science and math teachers point out that one of the biggest challenges to their subjects is the misunderstandings due to English, they often just state it and then go on working into the context of their specific subject matter. The main concern rises out of the students’ inability to pass grade levels. Since students are only allowed to fail one grade level in any cluster of grades, lower primary, upper primary and secondary levels, students are continually promoted to the next grade without a firm grasp of concepts taught in the prior grade. The largest factor then becomes when students are promoted to upper primary grades without actively earning the promotion. As students are enrolled in all English classes without understanding the language of instruction it leaves learners falling further and further behind, as indicated in low national pass rates of grades 10 and 12.
I have begun to feel that some of the more minute details which teachers have been working on will not affect students as drastically as we hope as long as national policies are also not concerned with quality. Through working with AED I have discovered that national interests do not always build on each other, and in Namibia they can even aid in the prevention of positive development in the education system.
On a more personal reflection, the day-to-day has not significantly improved since my first reflection. Being in Rundu has been hard. It is a very small community and very hard to get to know people, mostly because of language barriers. During my time there I was unable to form any real social connections. Additionally, all the time travelling to conferences and workshops often left me without a daily routine and thus also limited my abilities to continually interact with the same individuals. Being isolated made it very difficult to find the motivation to continually work hard. I wanted to meet with more students, meet with the rural teachers and spend time with the people who these programs are supposed to be benefitting. I wanted to see the direct impact of all this money and energy, however this rarely happened.
I return home two weeks from today and am very excited to get back to my busy and fast-paced life. I look forward to the comfort of a routine and relocating myself in an inclusive community.