It?s been three years since I left Africa, possibly, but hopefully not, for good (and six years since I lived in Namibia). Time gives distance, perspective, a chance to appreciate the value of what you?ve experienced.
I came to Africa, more specifically Namibia, through a non-profit called WorldTeach. I was assigned to teach English at a rural secondary school in the north of the country. My town, Ohangwena, had a population smaller than the population of the school I was assigned to, a government-run boarding school with its own population of around 900 students. There were textbooks, but nowhere near enough for the 40+ students I had in each class. There was electricity most of the time, but no lightbulbs for the dark classrooms, a photocopier that worked about three hours a week. However, there was a large dose of institutionalized apathy.
One of the hardest aspects of working there was the fatalism. It?s frustrating to repeatedly be told that something can?t be changed or fixed because ?this is Africa.? But what can be worse is when the locals buy into the naïve optimism of the foreigner.
Study hard and you?ll get accepted into university, we told them, and they believed us. But with great grades, acceptance to university still wasn?t guaranteed ? political, familial and tribal affiliations could derail any promising, hard working young person. How can you not be a fatalist when your doors are closed as soon as you?re born?
In northern Namibia, a young woman isn?t truly an adult until she?s had a child of her own. This pressure drives even some of the most promising out of education, out of a career path and into a cycle of poverty
It?s too easy to look at the foreigner with their ideas and enthusiasm and dismiss them as not understanding or of imposing western ways. And sometimes they are correct. Why did my school burn all of it?s own garbage instead of composting and using the compost to grow a small vegetable garden? It seemed like an obvious and simple change that would have positive impacts ? less pollution, more food. How does that not work? It doesn?t work because (often venomous) snakes are attracted to the steady heat of the compost pile, and there are enough problems with students getting bitten by non-venomous lizards without inviting killers into the grounds.
As it was, I had an encounter with a black mamba, a very aggressive, very deadly snake, on the school grounds. Foolishly, I took pictures of it before a passing teacher saw the snake and started screaming. I was fortunate to walk away from the encounter. The snake became someone?s dinner.
In much of Africa (definitely in what you probably picture of as ?Africa?) people live a lot closer to death. If there?s going to be any kind of meat with dinner ? chicken, goat or, occasionally, cow ? then someone in the family will have looked it in the eye and killed it.
People also seem to die more frequently. A government minister coming to visit our school died when his car hit a kudu (large deer); a co-worker fell sick and died within a week; another co-worker passed out in class, died without ever waking up. Cholera, meningitis, malaria, and tuberculosis were all common and deadly. HIV/AIDS was responsible for one third of all deaths in Namibia in 2010 (and over a quarter still today). In comparison, road accidents, of which there are plenty, only accounted for five percent.
These are a people who generally don?t live long enough to die from cancer. Even prostate cancer, the most fatal cancer in Namibia, only ranks twenty-third as cause of death, and accounts for six tenths of one percent of all deaths annually.
(All stats from here)
But let?s not paint an image of a countryside waylaid by death. It isn?t. Much of the Africa that I saw, mostly in the south and east, is tamed. The roads are paved or at least maintained and everyone?s favourite toy is the cell phone.
There?s innovation going on here ? in cell phone money transfers; in checking the expiration and validity of medications; in microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship.
Most Africans I met were quite good at spoken languages, no matter how poor their schooling may have been. Many spoke three or four languages and could understand dialects derived from them. In the south, most people spoke English and Afrikaans as well as their own traditional language. In much of the continent, there are imported languages that transcend national boundaries ? English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese ? as well as few African ones, notably Swahili and Yoruba.
The people I met generally knew what the world thought of them, and mostly it made them angry. They weren?t looking for hand-outs (with a few exceptions). They were looking for a fair shake, and honest chance, or as they got more cynical with life, a dishonest chance, to get ahead.
Living in Namibia taught me, more than anywhere else I?ve been, that people are the same, no matter skin colour, economic condition or education. Everyone wants better for their family. Parents worry about children. Adult children worry about their parents. Some people are nice, some are not, and some would be nice if they could get ahead that way.