A few days ago I had to say goodbye to one of my best friends whom I won't see for another 4.5 months. As hard as it was, I am so incredibly grateful that Kelly dropped the dough and came halfway across the world to visit me for a few weeks. Having her here was incredibly helpful in so many ways (mostly it was the cooking though, I'm just being honest :p ).
For those of you who don't know, Kelly is a teacher too, so it goes without saying that there was quite a bit of teacher-talk going on. It was great to have her see and experience my school environment first hand so that I could process everything that I've been doing these past six months. I've said on multiple occasions how I am often surprised at the similarities between the Namibian and American education, and Kelly saw it too. At one point, we were discussing job interviews back home and I mentioned I was nervous because I knew people would be expecting me to have some sort of profound statement about my time teaching in Namibia, and I didn't feel like I had one. She looked at me and said "You don't think 'I went half way around the world and encountered all the same problems that we have here.' is a profound statement?" This is why I love her-- she can read my mind and make my thoughts sound much more intelligent than I think they are.
It's true though. The number of times each day that I think "just like America" is almost funny. Between syllabi that are too long for the time frame, a lack of critical thinking skills, lack of motivation, learners that are way behind their grade level, kids who are chronically absent, classes who'd rather chatter with each other than learn about equations, and exams breathing down everyone's necks, almost every conversation I have at school could be taken verbatim from conversations with colleagues back home. It's not only the bad that's shared though, all the things that I love about teaching are still here too. The light-bulb moments, coming up with a really good example that clicks and makes them laugh, sharing ideas with other teachers, those moments in class where you can't help but laugh, the friendly "good morning, miss" greetings (these are much more frequent and polite here!), marking exams and seeing that a learner who was struggling got a good grade, and waking up every morning knowing that it doesn't matter if yesterday's lesson bombed, it's a new day and maybe, just maybe, today will be the day you finally reach them.
The more I think about it, the more I see Kelly is absolutely right. That I am having nearly identical experiences here as my fellow first-year teachers back home is something that would surprise many people, myself included. I don't really know what my expectations for here were, but I can tell you that I certainly didn't expect that my life here would routinely feel so normal. (I am defining normal here as 'akin to my life at home', not as 'the opposite of strange'). It's not just school things either. Most of the time I spend here is spent doing things I would do at home. Sometimes I feel like I'm somehow cheating because my daily access to internet, electricity, and running water makes this not 'real Africa' but then I stop and think about how ridiculous that sounds. My housemates have the same access to utilities that I do, are they not 'real Africans'? What the hell is 'real Africa' anyway?
Americans tend to have this idea of what 'Africa' is, how it's so different from America, and somehow needs to be 'fixed'. In reality, Africa is a huge, diverse continent filled with people that are living the same basic human experience as the rest of us. Sure, there are some major differences, but there are fewer of them than people might think. I can't tell you what life in Africa is like, because I've only seen about 1% of it. I can tell you a little bit about what life in Namibia is like though. The majority of people go to work, care for their families, fix their houses, have friends, own cell phones, go shopping, drink, eat, enjoy movies and music, and go to school. Some (and the number is ever increasing) have internet, drive cars, and live in nice houses. Others are subsistence farmers who live without electricity or running water on traditional homesteads. In short, the lifestyles of Namibians are as diverse as the lifestyles of Americans. Every stereotype I had about 'Africa' (and I like to think I had fewer than most) has been challenged. I have come to see Namibia for what it is: a young, proud, beautiful, capable country trying to put behind it's troubled, racist history, move forward, and improve. That doesn't sound to me like something that needs to be fixed- in fact, it sounds eerily familiar...
So next time I see you, please don't ask me how Africa was, because I won't be able to answer that. Instead, ask me about my learners, my school, my friends, my village, my new country. I'd be more than happy to share my stories.
I guess I have a profound statement after all. (But it might be a bit long for an interview...)