Expat In Africa: What I Learned While Visiting My Husband’s Village
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While my American family bid farewell to 2016 bundled up in New York City, I rang in the new year about 8 hours north of Namibia's capital city of Windhoek. My holiday was spent in a small Namibian village not far from the Angolan border. This is my sixth year of living abroad in Namibia and my fourth holiday season here.
I honestly wasn't looking forward to this year's Christmas and New Year's in the village very much. Why is this you ask?
Well, the idea of two weeks under the excruciatingly hot sun with no fan or air-conditioning was mortifying. Plus the language barrier between my in-laws and I would be a challenge as it always is.
Nevertheless, I tried to be as optimistic as I could.
If for nothing else, the visit would be a fantastic experience for my 18-month-old son. His grandmother and great-grandparents would get to know him more. He was no longer an infant so they'd get to experience him in all his toddler tantrums and glory.
I was also looking forward to my son getting to spend time with his cousins. Whenever we visit the village there are lots of young children running around. This time my son would be just about old enough to participate in the playtime too. I knew it would be a nice change from the seemingly boring days spent home with mom and dad in 'town'.
So I took the village visit by the horns and rolled with it. Here's how it went.
My Day-to-Day Routine
- Wake up and peek out of the window. An overcast sky meant there was hope for a relatively comfortable day. If it was sunny, I mentally prepared myself for the exhaustingly hot sweaty day ahead.
- Grab my son for a walk to the field where the bathroom was. Along the way, I would greet everyone I passed with a wa la la po (good morning), per their tradition.
- Chase after my son repeatedly to ensure that he didn't run into any of the open cooking fires.
- Chase after my son repeatedly to make sure that he didn't irritate the family dogs and get mauled.
- Next up - fetch water and wash my dishes in a bin. Then cook a breakfast of oatmeal on the gas stove, which sat on top of an old bed spring. This process involved a lot of bending over.
- More chasing after my son. But this time to get him to actually eat some of the breakfast I just made.
- Now the mad dash began. I would need to start preparing lunch before the heat of the day really set it. My husband spent most mornings away building a fence around our nearby land.
- Around noon I would hurl my son onto my back in my carrier for naptime. I'd go stand under the Marula tree's shade, swaying back and forth until he fell asleep. While he nodded off I would catch up on Paul Mooney's, 'Black Is The New White' on my Kindle. Then I was off to finish whatever lunch concoction I managed to drum up. I'm no cooking pro.
- Next, I usually filled up a tub with water to go bathe. The catch is that there was always this chicken in the small bathing room incubating her eggs. Yep. You read that correctly. Every time I went to bathe a hen was stoically sitting in the corner keeping her eggs warm. By the end of our visit, they'd actually hatched.
- After bathing, I usually relaxed for a few. The heat of the day had hit so it was time to go into energy save mode. Relaxation consisted of trying to reach a cell phone signal to check Whatsapp or Facebook. For once, checking social media was actually comforting. It helped me to feel less foreign, given the rural environment.
- My son would eventually wake from his nap in beads of sweat. So it was off to give him a bath. He typically ended up caked in sand less than thirty minutes later. Frustrating.
- The afternoon continued with me chasing behind my son some more. He would blissfully dart back and forth between inside and outside the home's common area with his cousins. No one really kept the gate closed so it was free-range.
- By this time my husband and mother-in-law had returned home from working on our land. So, if I remembered to, I'd greet them with a cool drink. We'd then sit and chit chat for a few under the coolness of a tree.
- Late afternoons were sometimes spent tutoring my niece-in-law on her multiplication and long division.
- Soon, it was dinner time for my son. This consisted of me reheating leftovers from lunch.
- Then, one last bout of chasing. This time to get my son to eat at least some of his dinner. Not long after, around about 8:30 pm he was utterly exhausted. A few minutes after we put him down to bed he would drift off to dreamland. Village life is tiring.
- By about 9 pm my husband and I would eat our dinner and catch up on the day's events.
- Finally, as per tradition, I'd say ka la leni po nawa (goodnight in Oshiwambo) to every single adult in the family and pass out around 10 pm.
Notable Events During My Stay In The Village
- I attended a local wedding but the day was bittersweet. Why? Because my son acted completely insane during church and at our wedding reception table. I tried not to take the side eyes too personally because well, he's a one-year-old. Nevertheless, it was still a pretty enjoyable day. It ended up being cut short due to what seemed like a sandstorm. Can't have those reception tents blowing away!
- Christmas and New Year's were pretty quiet. I decided to cook a few dishes to add to the holiday lunch meals. This was a first for me. And I was super nervous about how my American cooking would be received. Thankfully, everyone was politely receptive to my grub. I was proud of myself for stepping outside of my cooking comfort zone. I had harnessed the confidence to serve my own dishes.
The Most Challenging Parts Of My Village Visit
- You guessed it. The heat! I spent so much time in over 90-degree weather running behind my son. By the end of each day, I was completely spent.
- Child safety was definitely an issue. The other kids have spent more time in the village and know not to run towards the open cooking fires. And they know not to harass the family dogs. However, due to my son's age and town upbringing, he understood none of this. One time I found him in the kitchen alone where there was an open fire. The thought of what could've happened still gives me chills. He also developed this obsession with touching the family dogs who I could tell were less than impressed.
So, I spent a lot of my days being incredibly paranoid. On one hand, I didn't want to appear to be nitpicking at my son's every move. After all, his cousins were roaming around freely.
Yet after one too many close calls, I went into stealth mode. Who cared if I looked overprotective? We would not be having a perfectly preventable accident.
- Another bummer was that my son got sick. Womp. Towards the end of the trip, he developed diarrhea and then even ran a fever. Naturally, my imagination started to run wild. Had he contracted malaria? We took him to the local doctor who prescribed a probiotic and a few other things.
- But then there were the rainy season bugs. Lots of 'em. Just when the night settled in and I wanted to catch the breeze coming through the windows... zap! Bang! Scores of embambala (night-time bugs) were practically torpedoing into our room's lightbulb. And god forbid it rained. All sorts of dragonflies would materialize and descend upon us the next evening. Nighttime became a nightmare.
The Highlights Of My Village Visit
- Remember how I told you all that living in Africa has improved my cooking skills? Well, I really outdid myself this village visit. That's because I finally learned how to make traditional Namibian mahangu porridge. This is huge because it's a staple of my husband's tribe. I even made it on my own several times! I truly never thought I'd be able to do this. I'm so empowered.
- Another highlight was that my Oshiwambo language skills really improved. I was picking up words left and right!
- I also really started to understand my husband's culture a lot better this visit. Six years into Namibia and my cultural awareness is truly falling into place.
- Then there was the afternoon I up and offered to help my mother-in-law plant crops. It was a great bonding experience.
- And, as you can probably tell, my son truly had a blast. By about the third day in he had no time for his father and I. He was all about his cousins. And they loved him too!
In essence, this was a challenging but eye-opening two and a half weeks in the Namibian village. It was definitely difficult at times. Yet I surprised myself by how much I was able to push through it. Towards the end of the trip, I even eased up on the incessant monitoring of my son.
From mastering the local traditional porridge to managing my own daily village schedule, I feel triumphant. And a little more Namibian.
I think I'm looking forward to my next visit to the village!