Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Changing Can't Into Can

Here is my first installment of Faces of Namibia. As I have mentioned to some of you previously, I did not want to just do your everyday blog. I wanted to do something a bit different. “Faces of Namibia” is my experience here in Africa, told through the stories of the amazing people I meet. It will be a glimpse into my life through them, because they are really want make my experience worthwhile.

So, family, friends... world, meet…
This bright-eyed seventh grader at Ebenhaeser Primary School, where I am teaching, is my first subject for “Faces of Namibia,” for a number of reasons.

Besides his charming smile, positive attitude and great energy in the classroom, all of Mcdonald’s teachers also say he’s a wonderful student, who works very hard, always strives for improvement and is, for many other reasons, a real pleasure to have in class.

I admire how strong Mcdonald is, emotionally and mentally as well as physically. He is an inspiration. He is proof that when life hands us bad news or unexpected challenges, no matter the severity, we can and should rise up and keep moving forward. I remember being sad as a child for various reasons — but can’t say I’ve ever been in situation comparable to the one Mcdonald has to live with every day. He had his whole life altered in a matter of seconds and is now forced to cope with the reality that life is going to be much different.

Mcdonald was born and raised in Karibib, Namibia and has three siblings, all of whom live with their single mother in a small, under-developed part of Karibib called the location*[i]. Mcdonald enjoys spending time with his friends, going to school, reading and playing sports, especially soccer. He recently told me that he used to dream of playing soccer for his entire life — and maybe even, one day, as a job.

His father works at a butcher shop in a nearby town. He and Mcdonald’s mother got divorced years ago; now he’s re-married, but does not help support the family. Mcdonald’s mother used to work for a local construction company, but she had to quit her job earlier this year to take care of Mcdonald and his siblings, so money is tight. Mcdonald’s uncle assists the family when he can, but he struggles to make enough money for his own family.

On what seemed like a typical Monday morning — November 8, 2010 — Mcdonald was playing on the physical education court with his friends before school, just like they did every day. They were all running, laughing, joking and kicking a wadded up ball of plastic bags around in a makeshift game of soccer. But that Monday ended up being anything but typical: a brick wall that divided the physical education court collapsed, pinning his legs and trapping Mcdonald under the rubble. One of Mcdonald’s friends ran to the school office to get help. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance came and rushed Mcdonald to the local clinic where they quickly determined that more advanced help was needed.

The ambulance then rushed Mcdonald to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, 200 kilometers away (which is a two and a half hour drive at posted speed limits). Mcdonald was badly injured; his right foot had to be amputated that day. As Mcdonald was lying in the hospital recovering, he said, “… exams are starting on Thursday and I want to go back to school. It will not be easy but I will have to do it.” (http://www.informante.web.na/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=7419&Itemid=100)

But a return to school wouldn’t happen just yet: despite the doctors’ best efforts over the course of the next few days, his left foot also had to be amputated because of damage that was beyond repair.

This kind of injury would be difficult to deal with in any imaginable situation — but in the developing world it’s even more of a challenge. There are no special needs services readily accessible in this part of Namibia, and many families like Mcdonald’s do not have insurance, nor do they have the financial resources to pay for prosthetics, modern wheelchairs or the transportation that he needs. There are also no special needs schools, special needs teachers or certified school counselors available at the school Mcdonald attends.

Fortunately, Mcdonald has an immensely caring and supportive community around him — as well as many, many friends who are always more than willing to help. Every day when I go to the Primary school to teach, I see a group of Mcdonald’s friends surrounding him in the school yard before, in between and after classes, all taking turns helping push Mcdonald’s wheelchair from class to class. Although the school is all on one level, there are no ramps, so getting into each classroom does require some help.

Even outside of school, the terrain of Namibia presents an ongoing challenge for Mcdonald’s mobility. Most of the land is desert and completely covered in sand and rocks, with the occasional tree or bush. In small towns like Karibib, all roads other than the town’s main street are just sand and gravel. As you can imagine, this makes getting around in a wheelchair incredibly difficult.

Next year, Mcdonald will be heading to secondary school, most likely the one just across town. Going to school anywhere else would be too difficult on Mcdonald physically, as well as financially challenging for his family. His friends have all applied to various secondary schools in different parts of Namibia and so, unfortunately, there is a good chance that many of them will not be in Karibib next year. This sad fact has crept into Mcdonald’s thoughts lately and, as a result, he hasn’t been the same cheerful, young boy whom we all have grown to love.

He’s nervous about leaving his friends, scared about how he will get to and from the secondary school, concerned about whether or not his family will have enough money to pay for his daily transport, and anxious about all the unknown stressors this new transition will bring.

School has also been unsettling for Mcdonald these days for other reasons. Recently, one of his teachers was doing a lesson about the human body, muscles and the skeleton in her physical science class. It was too much for him to handle; he broke down and it took hours for the teachers and his friends to calm him down. He is devastated by the loss of the normal future he had expected for himself, the future that he has dreamt about. He misses playing soccer with his friends, running and jumping and being a carefree kid like everyone else.

Mcdonald is extremely resilient considering his age and the extent of his disability in such a challenging setting, but sometimes the harsh reality of his situation is too much for the 13-year-old boy’s emotions. His parents and teachers would love to help him get regular counseling and prosthetics so that he can have more independence and confidence, but funds raised so far by the school principal, teachers and community is just not enough.

He has to use the word ‘can’t’ right now: he can’t play soccer, can’t run, can’t jump, can’t do basic things on his own… my heart aches for him, for the physical and emotional challenges he faces now and that he will continue to face throughout his lifetime. I desperately want to help. I want to find a way to change those ‘cant’s into ‘CANS!’ The other teachers at the school feel the same way and have already pooled some of their money to help his family, raising the equivalent of one month’s salary to help with medical expenses. The community also came together in a big way: many people who sometimes worry about putting food on their own tables offered to help and donated what little money they could. It’s heartwarming; I can really feel how much this community cares about one another and how much they really want to help. Unfortunately, this support can only go so far. As I’ve mentioned, prosthetics, rehabilitation and counseling cost much more than his family can afford, even with the community’s support.

My request from you all is simple. If anyone is aware of medical grants, nonprofit organizations, hospitals or individuals that may be willing to help — that I can put in an application, proposal or letter to — please, please let me know as soon as possible. We are now approaching summer here, and the kids are finishing their final exams this week. I’d really like to be able to calm his anxieties a bit by providing some assistance, but I am not sure where to turn.

If you have any advice, recommendations, contacts, etc., please get in touch with me by email (jensenk7@gmail.com), phone (+264 81 758 1717) or Facebook.

Thanks all for your help and positive thoughts; any guidance is much appreciated.
All the best from afar,

A trust fund has been started by the school to accept donations for Mcdonald and his family.

Apart from the artificial limbs, Mcdonald will also need to pay for the surgery costs and is still in need of regular check-ups and doctors’ appointments. He has also been referred for further professional counseling (to deal with the trauma of the accident and his anxieties about the future), but his family cannot afford any of these services. In total the costs for the prosthetics and additional doctor appointments could be somewhere around US$25,000. When considering how much this money would help him and his family, this seems minimal.

Overall Estimated Total: US$25,000

The following is the quotation for artificial limbs given by E.D. Orthopedics in Windhoek: Prosthetics Total: Namibian $65,098 US $8,267.45

Breakdown of Prosthetics costs:
Transtibial Socket N$19,000 x2 N$38,000
1 D 10 Foot N$5,300 x2 N$10,600
Stump Socks N$285 x12 N$3,420
Bk Skin Cosmesis N$2,911 x2 N$5,822
Bk Cosmetic Foam N$3,628 x2 N$7,256

[i] A location is a Namibian term most easily described in US terms as (generally) a combination of a suburb and a ghetto. However, sometimes a location can be just one or the other, i.e. there are some very nice, middle class locations without much poverty, and there are some that are the opposite, where almost all the people living in them are impoverished and live in shanties or make-shift scrap metal houses. Sometimes locations can be a strange combination of the two as well, which is the case here in my town, Karibib. Locations are, from what I have been told a remnant of segregation here in Namibia, which can be seen by the fact that the ethnic demography of them is generally all black and/or colored. Most towns/villages here in Namibia have areas that are considered ‘in town’ where the whites and upper class/middle class families live, and the locations where middle and lower classes live. Sometimes there are multiple locations for larger cities, or in very small villages there is likely no location; though, I have not yet traveled widely in the country, so I will have to confirm this with my volunteer colleagues in the north and other regions at a later date.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Letter to Friends and Family

We wanted to send out a short note to just wish everyone a VERY Happy Thanksgiving !
(Sorry this one is going to be a bit sentimental)

Although we will not be celebrating here today, like everyone in the US, this Saturday we have a fun little get together planned with our host family, two other World Teach Volunteers from the US who are based near us, and possibly a few other friends we've made around town (particularly the wonderful local grocery store owner who helped us track down a turkey!).

Rudi and I also wanted to say that we feel very thankful on this particular Thanksgiving. Although we've both travelled quite a bit over the years, the short time we have been here in Namibia has still opened our eyes and changed our perspectives in amazing ways. I realize even more how much we have to be thankful for now, and throughout our lives. I feel so lucky to have realized my childhood dream of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, being able to share this with my amazing husband/best friend, and to have had some of the wonderful experiences I have in my life. Right now life isn't perfect, there are definitely ups and downs and many challenges, but I really don't feel like there is anything at all to complain about. The good and the bad are all part of life and are what really make it great. We are lucky to have our health and happiness and to be doing something we love and believe in.

We also wanted to say how much we really appreciate each and every one of you. Even living thousands of miles away, I can say that we still feel very connected and thankful that we have so many fantastic people in our lives. We'd also like to send a special thanks to those of you who have taken time out of your busy days to send us an email/letter/card/package and for those of you who have helped me with some small projects I've needed professional advice on (thank you!!). It really means a lot to me, and us, to know that you are all there for us even though we are so very far away.

We wish you all the happiest Thanksgiving possible!

All the very best from Africa,
Kristin and Rudi Pettersen

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The danger of a single story

I just finished watching a TEDtalk with a young, very intelligent, female writer from Nigeria - "if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding." She goes on to describe much more about the way in which many of us only hear one story, and I wholly agree with her statements. It also reminded me of a discussion I had recently with someone about how online media is becoming more and more customized to the viewer's preferences, and how this could be dangerous as it can lead to us becoming more closed minded as we only see things we agree with or that we want to see.

This TEDtalk made me think about the structure of my blog. As I've been thinking about how to share my experiences while I'm in Namibia, I've slowly developed the idea of having a 'profile' component to a blog. By 'profile' I mean I want to share the story of the people I meet, focusing on only one individual per month or so, so I'm able to really delve into who they are, and what should be shared with the world about their story and how. Everyone has stereotypes, everyone can fall into the trap of only seeing one side of a story. My goal will be to add sides of the story, to help connect people beyond news headlines, to try to share a part of the new relationships I create, and selfishly, I'm hoping it will help me get to know people better, more quickly :). Although I fully intend to do general updates about the things I've seen, done, etc as well, I want my blog to be more meaningful than just here's what I did today (although I have no doubt that will be pretty interesting in itself some days).

I'd also like this to be interactive. If you have questions, no matter who you are, weather we know each other or not, please ask. If you have suggestions, blog recommendations or just want to put in your two cents, please do. Since I'd like to think I'm (at least slightly) a political scientist, having a dialogue is extremely important to me, and as I've said above, hearing multiple sides of a story/topic, are critical for truly understanding something... though even after 27 months in Namibia, I doubt I'll come close to truly understanding my surroundings.

Since this is my first post I will also share some of my feelings prior to leaving the states and preparing for my journey.
I'm definitely excited, although I've gotten back into my rhythm at work so the excitement is slightly subdued at the moment as it's become a bit surreal that I won't be living this same life in about a month. The excitement will likely return, as my last day here at Mercy Corps draws nearer (sad!). While I'm on the topic of Mercy Corps, I can't emphasize enough how lucky I've been to work here and to meet everyone I have. My bosses Karen and Laurie have been unbelievably supportive in my professional and personal development, and they are both thrilled I will be taking this next big step in life (especially Karen who is a former PCV herself). Dan, the Founder, has been a real inspiration, and is so grounded, I can't think of a better person to call a role model.. though I'm sure if he reads this he'll think I'm just being silly and again be modest about his accomplishments. The others here in the Seattle office, and those I've worked with in Portland and all the other offices, continually amaze me with their intelligence, dedication and empathy. I find it hard to believe that I'll be able to ever work with another group of people quite like them (so I may just have to come back one day, if they'll have me!).

I would also say I'm anxious.... not necessarily nervous or scared... just anxious. Anxious to start a new journey, experience culture shock again (which I oddly enjoy), meet new people, make new friends, see giant new bugs that will initially terrify me no doubt, travel as much as possible, and teach (but more than likely learn more than I'm able to teach). I'm also extremely anxious about my white complex, and about being a WASP and sticking out like a sore thumb. I think I've always had a white complex... maybe because I grew up in white suburbia, lived in mostly white areas, went to a university that was largely white.. and 'hippy'... not intentionally, it just ended up being the demographic for those areas/schools...and although it's gotten better over the years as I've traveled (Latin America and Africa) and met and become friends with all kinds of different people, I still can get nervous when I'm around others of different ethnicities, hoping I won't say something stupid and offend them unintentionally. I'm still not sure if calling an African or African American 'black' is ok to do.... seems like it's a fairly PC word these days, and since I call myself 'white' I'd doubt anyone would make much of it... but I still over-analyse it when I'm about to say it and generally try to opt for another, even more PC term. If anyone would like to clarify, I'd be more than happy to hear opinions on this. I think one of the biggest things I'm scared of in life is someone thinking I'm mean or racist, or just another stupid white middle class girl who thinks she is better than other people (which I do not.. hell, I have plenty of issues! haha). I know many of you who know me well probably think that that all sounds absurd.. I know I'm not a racist, I always try to live the golden rule, and I generally think I'm a humanitarian across the board, always trying to be nice/help others whenever possible... but that anxiety still builds up inside me occasionally. I'm not sure that it will ever go away.. but maybe that's a good thing.. maybe it's just part of my internal editor, tidying up everything I say.. or maybe I just care to much about others liking me... which is maybe just something you care less about as you get older and mature. So maybe that will someday be a life lesson I learn... one of these days... to just be, and not worry so much about what others think.

And finally, although I'm thrilled we are leaving, I'm also sad to leave what Rudi and I have established here. I love my job and the people I work with, I love the people we hang out with, and I love the Pacific Northwest. Our soccer family is amazing and I love our Friday night indoor games, and post game dinners. They are a really fantastic group of people, always make me laugh until my ribs hurt, and I care about them dearly. I have also really enjoyed getting to know some strong women in the Seattle area in WIIS (Women in International Security). My former professor, now friend and mentor brought me into this circle, and I've found it to be very beneficial and meaningful, both professionally and personally. Speaking of my former professor, she has been an amazing mentor and resource, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, has been more than helpful in guiding my career, helping to give me more professional experiences and providing me with advice. She also trusted me enough to take care of her gorgeous little baby girl for a few months after I graduated when I was in between full time work. I can't thank her enough for all the support she has given me, and appreciate her investing her time in me, and becoming my friend.

Anyway, I think that's enough rambling for the time being. As you can all see... when I really get going, my blogs will clearly not be short one-liners... unless I get lazy.. haha, which could definitely happen, but I hope to hold myself accountable to my goals :)

Thanks for your all your support, I hope my words provide you with... something.. hopefully of substance.

Kristin JP