How a Year in Namibia Influenced a Lifetime Career
Wendi Haugh’s year as a WorldTeach volunteer in Namibia helped her define her future career. Here, she shares her experience abroad and discusses how her research in Namibia led to her career in academia, and the eventual release of her recently published book.
I served as an English resource teacher at Mariabronn Primary School outside Grootfontein in central Namibia in 1992, over twenty years ago now. The school was home to about three hundred girls and boys. My primary job – besides working with the teachers to improve their English – was to develop activities which would allow the students to practice their English outside the classroom. Lacking any other organized programs once school was out, they seized these opportunities with enthusiasm.
The students loved visiting the library, which I established with book donations collected by the previous volunteer and from my own network of family and friends. They spent hours clustered in small groups looking through books together, discussing the photos and puzzling through the English-language texts. The youngest children enjoyed drawing pictures, and would ask me how to spell the English words for cow and tree.
On weekends, we hiked up into the surrounding hills speaking English to each other. While the boys had explored these hills before, none of the girls had, and most came from flat places with no multi-story buildings. They were amazed to look down on the distant school from above, pointing and exclaiming about how tiny the buildings and cars and people were.
As an aside, the hiking club nearly didn’t get permission to start. When I explained my idea to the priest, he was increasingly concerned that the enterprise would be far too dangerous, while I waxed increasingly enthusiastic about the value of exploration for the students as I sought to change his mind. Eventually, I realized that he thought I wanted to take the children hitchhiking – or “hiking” in Namibian English – to explore new places! Once we sorted this out, the hiking club got the green light.
In addition to working with a great group of students and teachers, I was lucky enough to be in Namibia less than two years after the country gained its independence from South Africa. It was an incredibly exciting time as most people were enthusiastic about the changes they were experiencing as Namibia made the transition from apartheid state to nation-state. Wanting to learn more, I enrolled as a graduate student in cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and prepared to carry out fieldwork on national identity in Namibia.
When I went to Namibia in 1995 to do preliminary research, I soon realized that the money I had budgeted for hotels was far better spent making donations to WorldTeach volunteers, who were happy to host me at their schools throughout the country. The volunteers had been at their sites for about six months when I arrived, and all had immersed themselves in their local communities, building relationships of trust with many different people. I learned so very much by talking to them and to the people they introduced me to.
One of these volunteers, Eva Day, was teaching English to members of the Namibian Catholic Women’s Association in Anamulenge in the north, and it was here that I decided to carry out sixteen months of research in 1998 and 1999. Eventually, I finished my dissertation, spent several years teaching in visiting positions, and now work as an assistant professor of Anthropology and African Studies at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
Academic books usually take a long time to write, and mine took even longer. After making two follow-up trips to Namibia, I finally finished my book: Lyrical Nationalism in Post-Apartheid Namibia was published by Lexington Press in June. It begins by describing the experiences I had as a WorldTeach volunteer which inspired my research:
In 1992, just two years after gaining its independence from South Africa, Namibia made its first major marks on the international worlds of sports and beauty pageants: Frankie Fredericks won two silver medals in sprinting at the Olympics, and Michelle McLean was crowned Miss Universe. At the time, I was a WorldTeach volunteer teaching English, the new official language, at a Catholic boarding school called Mariabronn in rural central Namibia. Dozens of students gathered around the school’s single television set to watch these events. When the finale of the Miss Universe competition aired, I spent the evening watching the show with one of the teachers and her family. Even though we already heard the results, thanks to the time difference between Namibia and Thailand (where the event was held), the excitement in the room mounted to a high pitch as McLean passed each stage and eventually won. Back at school, little girls began organizing beauty pageants complete with catwalk struts and ribbons for the winners, while little boys began running sprints down the dirt road in the middle of campus. Under the apartheid system imposed on Namibia by South Africa, these children and teachers from different ethnic backgrounds, all of them officially classified as black, would most likely not have identified with either Frankie Fredericks or Michelle McLean, who had been classified respectively as Coloured and white. After independence, however, the successes of the track star and beauty queen could be and were celebrated as accomplishments all Namibians could take pride in and hope to emulate.
Mariabronn was located in a region reserved for whites under the apartheid system and was surrounded by white-owned farms and ranches, but the boarding school was a highly diverse community… At the time, it made sense to me that national identity would be embraced at Mariabronn and in Namibia’s multiethnic capital, Windhoek, where I attended WorldTeach training sessions and conferences. Despite their ethnic and linguistic differences, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors in such places could share an identity as Namibians. Moreover, they could appreciate the value of the new official language, English, because they needed a common means of communication. I wondered, though, how nationalism was perceived in the largely monoethnic, monolingual, and rural ethnic homelands created by the apartheid government, and how residents of these areas experienced the political shift from apartheid state to nation-state. How did they claim, construct, or experience membership in the nation? How did they feel about the choice of English as the official language? What did it mean to them to be Namibian?
My experience as a WorldTeach volunteer raised questions for me which I was fortunate enough to be able to return to Namibia to address. It also taught me some important lessons as a young adult learning about the world, and it provided me with valuable memories and close friendships. I hope that in turn, I was able to improve the lives of my students in some small way by introducing them to new activities, enabling them to spend more time with books, and helping them improve their English.
P.S. Like many academic books, Lyrical Nationalism is pricey, but I’d be happy to send a flyer with a 30% discount code to anyone interested in buying a copy. Just e-mail me.
– Wendi Haugh, WorldTeach Namibia 1992
WorldTeach is currently accepting applications for the Namibia yearlong program, to depart in December 2015.
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