As an African American experiencing life in the renowned “traditional African village” for the first time, you might find yourself in quite the conundrum. On one hand it’s almost surreal. You are getting a firsthand look at what you’ve always imagined your ancestors to have lived like. You even come across people who bear striking resemblance to your African American relatives. Still, upon arriving you quickly realize that they and their environment couldn’t be more different from your own.
Their mother-tongue, that understanding of the earth and how to live off of it. The deep sense of community you witness every time a villager stops by to greet them.
Despite your interwoven shades of brown, an extended stay in the village can leave you feeling like an outsider and desperately searching for ways to fit in.
You may start to wish you could, if even for a day, just blend into this environment. You become hyper-aware of your American-ness and of just how much the slave trade stole away from you. Challenges begin to surface all stemming from how vastly different you, the African American, really are.
Weaving my way into my husband’s tribe and village life has essentially plunked me into a lifestyle completely opposite to that of my own. And as much as I wish it would’ve gone seamlessly, it hasn’t and is still a work in progress.
One thing I’ve learned each time I visit my in-laws in their northern Namibian village is that managing expectations of myself in the extremely unfamiliar environment is crucial. In doing so I have been presented with some unavoidable truths.
I’m not and will never be as physically strong as my in-laws.
The first time I visited my husband’s home village I just knew I would help around their home and be the immaculate houseguest. Wrong!
What did happen was my husband’s family members doing all sorts of manual labor that I often wasn’t physically able or just didn’t have the skill set to do.
Cooking over an open fire, gathering firewood, sowing seeds into the ground, repairing the goat’s enclosure, herding the cattle, feeding the pigs, digging a deeper irrigation system for the water tap, drying meat. Each day the temperature pushed 100 degrees fahrenheit and yet everyone milled about barely breaking a sweat.
Usually by about 11am each day my body was already feeling exhausted and dehydrated by the heat of the day. Meanwhile I saw my mother-in-law on several occasions, pounding mahangu grains into the ground using a hefty log-like apparatus that I could barely lift, a debacle I filmed myself trying to emulate here. The scorching temperature didn’t seem to bother her at all.
Sure, I wanted to assist with lunch preparation, but standing next to a fire while under the Namibian afternoon sun was brutal and migraine-inducing. I was not as physically strong and my heat endurance was significantly lower than everyone else’s.
I knew I wasn’t a lazy person, but I found myself feeling inadequate about the fact that I couldn’t assist with all of the laborious tasks that everyone around me was doing.
Help out around the home where I could in smaller versions of the family’s tasks. I would offer to wash the dishes after meals or show interest in what they were doing by asking questions or just being present. If I saw someone carrying two heavy bags, I’d offer to help carry one. If a guest arrived and there were no chairs around, I’d give up my chair or offer to go grab one. When my mother-in-law asked me to prepare bread and tea for her elderly parents I enthusiastically agreed. I also learned to stay hydrated no matter what!
I need a lot time and the right mental space to learn a language.
To this day I am still far from fluent in Oshiwambo, my husband’s mother tongue, so visits to my husband’s home village have left me feeling frustrated about not being able to participate in the local conversations. However, the circumstances of my years in Namibia haven’t exactly been conducive to learning the language.
Unlike local Peace Corps volunteers, I didn’t begin my experience in Namibia with a significant amount of language training. The most formal training I’ve had is between 8-10 hours with WorldTeach, the teach abroad program that I first moved to Namibia with. Whether it was a new job, wedding or becoming a mother, the rest of my life in Namibia has been encompassed by one life event after another – not exactly a favorable language learning period.
I’ve also generally lived in towns around people who understand English or speak a language different from my husband’s family. At home my husband and I naturally speak English, although my husband often speaks his mother tongue to our 9 month old son (I guess he gave up on me! LOL). I’m one of those people who simply haven’t had the time to put in a ton of language study.
As greeting is an important part of many cultures across the African continent, I’ve mastered the Oshiwambo language greetings and begun my language skills from there at my own pace. I’ve also realized that I definitely do not have to be fluent to survive a visit to the village.
During your stays in a village take along a dictionary (if one exists or you’ll have to start your own), notepad and pen and start to write down words as you learn them by ear. Ask what words mean from children who are fluent in English and their mother tongue as they are often easy to learn with. Use individual words as much as you can and from there try small common phrases.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself but do be prepared for many periods of sitting down silently while everyone else is having conversations. Don’t beat yourself up about this! Don’t take offense to it either. Remember that it’s only natural for people to speak in their mother-tongue to each other first, even if they do speak English.
Of course, studying the language will make those visits to the village significantly easier but don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t had the time to get a good mastery or don’t speak the language at all. Show off some new words as you learn them and people will see that you’re at least trying! It will come.
When you visit the village, there may be downtime. And lots of it.
Spending time in the village as a visitor can be very… still. Just because you’re visiting doesn’t mean people will stop their day-to-day routines. Laundry still has to get done. Meals still have to be made. Thatched roofs need to be built or strengthened. And since the rains were heavy last night, the soil must be turned, lest the crop go to waste. People living in traditional settings don’t just live off the land – they control it. This requires an immense amount of manual work.
Basic physical restraints and unfamiliarity with processes often prevented me from being able to assist with these day-to-day activities. I often found myself bored and somewhat lonely.
I learned to get comfortable with periods of downtime. I’d take a walk, pull out my kindle, journal, reorganize my luggage. Or I might just sit somewhere and be a sponge, perhaps by watching my sister-in-law make marula oil from homegrown nuts.
Feeling like I always needed to be doing something like everyone else seemingly was, was simply unrealistic given the environment. By default there just wouldn’t be as much for me to participate in and that was okay.
My differences from Namibians don’t make me any less Black.
Living abroad in a Black country can throw you for a loop in ways you never imagined. When I first arrived in Namibia I remember how pro-Black and Pan-African I was. Fast forward to my experiences in the village and all my perceived Blackness was being questioned – by others and by myself. The extreme environment left me feeling like I didn’t know a thing about Africa anything. The way the R’s and L’s rolled off of my tongue left some Namibians in the village I visited looking at me as if I was from Mars. I was certainly not African or Namibian anything. To them, I was an American.
I stopped comparing myself to my in-laws and recognized the vastness of Blackness. I am an AFRICAN-American. A BLACK woman. Out of all of the ugliness of colonialism has blossomed the magnificent diversity of the African diaspora. Our differences leave us all with so much to offer each other in so many endless ways.
I won’t be accepted by everyone.
Despite my genuine efforts to be culturally sensitive and open-minded to all of the novelty village life presents, there have quite possibly been individuals who still didn’t think I tried hard enough. My efforts to immerse myself are missed, a conclusion is reached that I am lazy or someone may just flat-out not like me. Misconceptions, unfamiliarity and even language barriers can breed contempt.
First, I acknowledge the fact that someone not approving of me isn’t actually unique to this particular village. There are plenty of people who I could meet in the States who simply won’t like the way I do things! This attitude stops me from writing off an entire Namibian community, a mistake that’s so easy to make in the midst of cultural adjustment.
My mantra is to be confident and comfortable with the fact that I’ve tried my best and that my adjustments are a work in progress. I am satisfied because I know that although awkward at times, my efforts have been from a genuinely good place. Finally, I remind myself of the special opportunity and perspective I’ve been afforded to experience – life in two vastly different cultures.
After the visit is over, and I’m back to town life, I have time to quietly reflect on my latest village excursion. As I shake the sandy grains from my luggage, I notice a surprising reminiscence for my recent rural ventures. All of the positives have easily outweighed the tests that life in the village brought my way.