Go to School for a Day
Through studying, working, eating, and living together—and through playing together as well—Namibian schoolchildren form new families as they grow and learn. Peace Corps Volunteer Elissa Milanowski provides a unique glimpse into this world in her narrated slide show.
|Elissa Milanowski, Namibia|
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Photographed and narrated by returned Peace Corps Volunteer Elissa Milanowski, Namibia, 2005-2008.
Go to School for a Day in Namibia!
Peace Corps Volunteer
Welcome to Namibia! Namibia is a large country in Africa with deserts, sand dunes, plains, plateaus, mountains, beaches, cities, and animals like zebra, elephants, giraffes, and springbok. Named for the great Namib Desert, Namibia, or ”land of open spaces,” is a country of great beauty and great contrasts.
Namibia is located in southern Africa and is bordered by Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana and South Africa to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Namibia is twice the size of California, and home to only two million people, making it the second most sparsely populated country in the world.
Much of Namibia's landscape and wildlife is protected in national parks throughout the country. In fact, the natural environment is so important to Namibians that they were the first people in the entire world to incorporate environmental protection into their constitution!
The tallest and oldest sand dunes in the world can be found in the great Namib Desert, which is protected within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, and tourists come from all over the world to enjoy views of the Atlantic Ocean from Namibia's quiet seaside towns.
But of all the beautiful views in Namibia, this is my favorite: Waterberg Plateau. Each time I passed this plateau, I knew I was nearing my home and the plateau's namesake, Waterberg Primary School.
Tjike! Hello! My name is Elissa Milanowski, and I served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the rural village of Ongombombonde. I taught English, arts, and library and computer studies to children in the fifth grade at Waterberg Primary School. Here I am with two of my favorite first graders, Vijanda and Kaejova.
Waterberg Junior Primary School is home to 500 students, or “learners,” as they are called in Namibia. Waterberg Primary is a hostel school, a popular type of school in rural Namibia. Because Namibia is such a vast country, rural homes are very spread out and are often located deep in the bush with little or no access to roads. Most children have to travel two hours or more just to reach the nearest school. Rather than having children travel for many hours to and from school every day, the government sets up public hostel schools where children can live and learn. This means that children don't just go to classes here, but they eat, wash, play, and sleep here as well!
Our hostel school is similar to day schools in many ways—it has classrooms, a principal's office, a library, a computer lab, and a cafeteria, or dining hall, which is shown here. However, at the end of the day, children don't go home to their families. Instead, they stay on the fenced-in campus all week. On the weekends they are allowed to visit nearby shops or watch soccer games in the village. Every month, there is a “home weekend” when all of the children travel home to visit their parents, grandparents, and other family members.
There are a lot of children attending school at Waterberg, and some of them are as young as six years old. It can be difficult for small children to live without their parents, so these Herero matrons take care of the children by cooking their food, cleaning their rooms, and making sure that they are ready for school in the morning and bed at night. Matrons wear traditional Herero dresses with high waists and many petticoats, based on the styles of early Victorian missionaries in Namibia. Their unique hats represent the horns of a cow, an important symbol to this tribe of cattle farmers. The hats are made out of colorful fabric, and a rolled piece of newspaper forms the horn-like shape in the front.
Teachers also play an important role in the children's lives. Today, the teachers are celebrating Mr. Ya Otto's birthday with a special cake. Most of the teachers live right outside of the school grounds, sometimes separated from their families, who live and work in nearby cities. The teachers work and live together, and in this way they become like a family to each other and to the children they teach. There are nineteen teachers at Waterberg Primary School.
This is Vizuvaka. She is in the fifth grade. Like most of the children at her school, Vizuvaka is a member of the Herero tribe, which makes up seven percent of Namibia's population. Her native language is Otjiherero, the language of the Herero people.
Meet Osvaldo! Osvaldo is one of Vizuvaka's classmates and is also in the fifth grade. Osvaldo was born in Angola, a country that borders Namibia. When he was younger, his family came to Namibia to escape fighting in Angola that was making life very difficult for the people in the country. When Osvaldo left Angola, he spoke Portuguese, but now he is fluent in Otjiherero as well. Like all children in Namibia, he is also learning the national language, English. It can be difficult to learn three languages, but Osvaldo studies very hard and has become one of the school's best English students.
Waterberg Primary serves children in first through seventh grades. There are more than 90 fifth graders at the school, and Vizuvaka's class has 32 learners. Students in every grade wear a school uniform of gray slacks or skirts and blue shirts.
Osvaldo's class is very excited about their class picture! Fifth-grade classes travel together to eight different classes a day, with different teachers for subjects like math, English, science, social studies, arts, computers, and Otjiherero. The school day starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends at 1:00 p.m.
Every morning, the children wake up at 5:30 a.m. to the loud school alarm ringing across the campus. They wash, get dressed, and line up for a breakfast of porridge and tea in the dining hall. After breakfast they head to the school for the morning assembly. At assembly they pray, listen to announcements, and sing the national anthem. Let's listen to them sing the Namibian national anthem:
[Video of children singing]
After the assembly, it is time for the school day to begin! Children in grades one through four go to their classrooms, and children in grades five, six, and seven go to their first period classes. Until fourth grade, children are taught all subjects in their native language, Otjiherero. However, in fourth grade, they are taught only in English. Although English is Namibia's national language, it can be difficult for young children to make the adjustment when they are so accustomed to speaking Otjiherero. Reading is an excellent way for children to practice their English, and older children love to mentor their younger schoolmates.
There are more than 11 languages spoken in Namibia, but English is the national, unifying language. However, Otjiherero is an important part of the Herero culture, and many rural populations prefer to speak in their mother tongue. This first-grade book teaches children about food. The little girl on the right, Kaseu, is at the shop and wondering what she should buy, “Me Randa Tjike?” In the shop you can see bread (omboroto), eggs (omai), cakes (otjikuki), milk (omaihi), apples (otjiapla), and other common foods found in small Namibian shops.
Another new subject for the fifth graders is computer literacy. The seven computers at Waterberg are a recent addition to the school, and for most children, this is their first time to use a computer. The green stickers on the keyboard and mouse help them remember important buttons like “enter”, “space”, or “backspace.” Each class visits the computer lab twice a month, and so far they have learned how to turn on and off the computers, type their own names, draw pictures, and play games on the computer. Today, Vizuvaka and her partner Mbaundja are practicing typing capital letters and punctuation marks. Meanwhile, in Mrs. Kandee's class, learners are in the middle of a test. Let's peek into their classroom and see how they are doing!
[Video of Mrs. Kandee's classroom]
Back in the fifth grade, today is a special day. In English class the fifth graders have been learning about recipes and directions. They learned words like “add”, “mix”, and “bake.” Today, they are putting what they've learned into practice by making homemade biscuits, or cookies, in class. Osvaldo's class is just beginning to make their biscuits by melting butter on hot plates, and waiting to mix it with the flour.
Vizuvaka's class has finished their melting, adding, and mixing of ingredients. Their biscuits have been baked, and now they get to eat their creations—a very special treat since they aren't usually allowed to eat in the classroom. Of course, before eating their biscuits, this group wanted to show them off!
At the end of this school day, it is time for the yearly Prize-Giving Ceremony. Namibian children go to school year-round. They start the school year in January, which is summer in Namibia. They have vacations in March, August, and December. At the end of each year, in December, a ceremony is held to honor the best learners. Today, Osvaldo is being recognized for his high performance in English class. The children receive certificates, which they will proudly bring home to their parents when they go home for vacation.
When the final bell rings at 1:00 p.m., it's time for lunch! After school, children change into their play clothes and line up outside of the dining hall for lunch. Most children put on shorts and t-shirts, and because the school is mostly covered in soft sand, they prefer to leave their school shoes in their rooms.
A typical dining hall lunch consists of cornmeal porridge or rice, and fish, chicken, or goat meat with gravy. Today, goat meat is being prepared in this pot for lunch. Bread is almost always served with lunch, and as a special treat apples may be served with meals. Dinner is almost exactly the same as lunch, and children don't get to choose what they want to eat. Their plates have already been made by the matrons when they go into the dining hall.
After finishing their food, children line up outside for tea. The youngest children always eat and drink first, while older children help with the serving. Tea is made in big metal buckets and served hot with sugar and milk, and each child is served one cup. Because there are not enough cups for every child, when they finish their tea, they hand their cups off to the children who are behind them in line.
Now that the children have had their lunch, they are ready to play. School lets out at 1:00 p.m., and lunch is finished at 1:45. Dinner won't be served until five or six o'clock, so children have the afternoons to play with their friends within the school grounds. School is dismissed at one o'clock because the afternoons in Namibia can be extremely hot, and there are no air conditioners or fans anywhere in the school. It would be very difficult for children and teachers to concentrate on their schoolwork during the hottest part of the day. Here, some children play jump rope with vines from trees, while others compete in a soccer game.
[Video of children in playground]
When the weather gets too hot in Namibia, everyone hopes for rain. During the rainy season, from January to February, rain falls every afternoon. The rain cools everything off and helps the grass and the trees to grow. After a rain storm, children love to gather in the sand and build sand cities, complete with roads, tunnels, trees, and houses. Other popular after school activities include netball, soccer, dancing, and singing, as some sixth graders are doing here.
[Video of children singing and dancing]
Even though school is out for the day, these children are still learning. They are spending the afternoon in the library, working on a project for the Window of Hope club. The Window of Hope is a club for boys and girls that focuses on self-esteem, health, HIV and AIDS, and making good choices. Today they are making posters about their future goals. Club members share the knowledge they have learned in the Window of Hope with other children in the school.
When clubs like the Window of Hope or the school choir need to travel short distances, they pack into the back of a “bakke,” or pick-up truck. Our school does not have a bus, and very few teachers have cars. These children are headed to the nearby town of Okakarara to compete in an athletics competition against the children at Okakarara Primary Day School.
Another popular form of transportation in rural Namibia, where many roads are gravel or sand, is the donkey cart. Once a week a man comes to our school with his donkey cart to pick up the trash and take it to the village dump. Today, Osvaldo and his friends are helping drive the cart.
At night, children sleep in buildings called blocks—one for girls and one for boys. In every room there are eight beds, and children are assigned to rooms based on their grade level. Each block has a bathroom where children get ready in the morning, complete with sinks, cold water showers, and flushing toilets. The blocks also have big sinks and clotheslines, where children can wash their clothes by hand and hang them out to dry after school or on the weekends.
The children's rooms are very empty. All belongings are kept locked in small metal trunks next to their beds. Some children have pillows and some do not, but every morning the children make their beds and tidy up their areas. They take great pride in the cleanliness of their rooms. We painted these bright flowers on the wall of one of the blocks to add some color to the room.
At the end of the day, as the sun sets over the plateau in the distance, the children of Waterberg wash their faces and prepare for bed. Osvaldo, Vizuvaka, and all of their friends have had a very long day. If it is a weekend, the children might watch a movie in the dining hall, or stay up late dancing to the songs of the school choir. But on weeknights, lights go out at 9:00 p.m.
Slowly, the noisy campus grows quiet, and the sounds of insects fill the air. Tomorrow the rising sun and the rooster's crow will signal the start of a new day, but for now the children, the teachers, and the matrons rest.
Thank you for visiting our school, and kaende nawa, go well and goodbye.
Pronouncing some Otjiherero words:
Although they may look difficult, most words in Otjiherero are easy to pronounce. Most words can be broken down into groups of two or three letters that make a sound. For example: om/bo/ro/to. This word is made up of four letter pairs. In Otjiherero, the combination of “tj” makes the sound “sh.” The letter “e” is almost always pronounced as a hard “a,” while the “u” is pronounced like “oo,” as in tool. The letter “a” is pronounced as “ah,” and “o” sounds like “oh.” The letter “j” sounds like a “y.”
Tjike: she kay
Randa: rahn dah
Omboroto: ohm boh roh toh
Omai: oh my ee
Otjikuki: oh she coo key
Omaihi: oh my ee hee
Otjiapla: oh she app lah
Okuhepa: Oh koo heh pah
Tjinene: she nay nay
Rara: rah rah
Nawa: nah wah