Sunday, March 29, 2009

Death and Dying in Northern Namibia

We have been overwhelmed with the pervasiveness of death throughout our time in Rundu. In North America, the death of someone we know is a shocking but thankfully rare occurrence: here, death confronts us unrelentingly. Almost every week, the church choir has been at some sort of memorial service or other in the community, and we have often felt the suffocation of grief that shrouds the community.

We attended a memorial service and burial for the first time last weekend: one of the cooks in the OVC program became sick suddenly and died, which came as a heavy blow to us all. When someone dies here, the proper things is to go and sit with the family at their home and grieve with them. In the time leading up to the burial, someone is always around the family, sometimes simply just sitting alongside them.

The night of the memorial service, a tent-like structure was erected in the midst of the family's yard, and many hundreds of people had crammed in. A friend of ours instructed us as to what was culturally sensitive and required of us, such as paying respects to the father and mother of the deceased. The night was filled with histories and sermons, and many many, songs. When someone dies in the community, choirs from the surrounding churches come, and so boundaries are erased in the face of grief. At many points, different mourners would break down into hysterical wailing, and there were lumps in our throats as we participated with them in their grief. While we returned home after the service, most people stayed the entire night, singing songs and waiting with the family.

The next day was a Sunday and we all reconvened at 8am for the funeral service. The choirs met the “hearse” (a pickup truck with a canopy) which had brought the body from the hospital, and the casket was carried the final 500m into the church on the shoulders of the singing choir. We were amazed at the numbers of people who had gathered for the funeral, several times the capacity of the church. Again, 8 different choirs from different churches had shown up, this time from a wider geographical area, all bringing a song or two as there contribution to the mourning. Each would wait patiently outside the church until it was their time, then would squeeze into the packed building through a side door and sing their songs, then exit to make way for the next choir. After the service, we all accompanied the casket to the local graveyard and said final farewells. We were told that many would be accompanying the family back to their home to spend more time with them sitting and grieving.

Other reminders of death happen nearly daily. When we arrive at the hospital at 8 am, we are usually met by a caravan of vehicles coming from the mortuary, with singing choirs in cars following the released body as the hearse drives slowly to wherever the final destination is.

Another haunting notifier of death heard much too frequently in the halls of the hospital is a “death wail”. This unmistakeable designation of tragedy comes from yet another mother walking/stumbling to the hospital exit from the pediatric ward, sobbing and lamenting spasmodically as she flees the news that her child has just died.

Children die in Namibia at obscene rates, from diseases that should be treatable or preventable. The statistics from 2007 showed that 24,000 children died in Namibia of malnutrition, which is especially shocking when one considers the population of Namibia is only 1.8 million. Many people still look on western medicine with suspicion, and will try all sorts of traditional medicines before coming to the hospital. The patient is usually on death's door and usually has had their conditions aggravated by traditional remedies, but if the patient dies while in the hospital, it reinforces the idea that western medicine is to blame or has failed. We have spoken with many frustrated hospital staff who wish people would seek help when it was needed, not after every other avenue was explored.

Life is hard and altogether too short here in Rundu.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Broken Foot

A few weeks ago while playing soccer with the boys at OVC program, Daryl broke a bone in his foot. We were able to get an X-ray quite quickly, but there was some uncertainty with the image so we drove the next day to the capital city, Windhoek, to get a CT scan and the advice of an orthopaedic surgeon. The results were that the 1st metatarsal was fractured in too many pieces to perform surgery, so that rest and time was the only option for treatment. We were relieved to avoid surgery.

The sight of a white guy on crutches hiking through the sand is one that elicits a lot of curiosity and attention. The first few days Daryl was wearing an Aircast, and he might as well have been from outer-space. We were able to switch to a much-lighter fibreglass cast for the next couple of weeks, and the entire cast is now covered with signatures of the kids.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

O little town of Rundu

Rundu is a small town on the Northern border of Namibia and sits beside the Okavango River which separates the Nambian soil from its northern neighbour Angola. We get the privilege of seeing the river daily as we drive in and out of town and it offers some of the most spectacular sunset views.

I recently heard that Rundu used to be considered one of the prettiest and most picturesque towns in ALL of South West Africa!!! This was in the days before Independence (18+ years ago) when there was a large army base and a lot of money in the town, and things certainly have changed. For many complicated reasons, this region is now one of the poorest region in Namibia and Rundu has been greatly affected. There is garbage everywhere on the side of the streets, often smoldering in big burning piles that have been pushed together in an empty lot. People urinate whenever and wherever they feel the need. Water is expensive, so the beautiful gardens have fallen into disrepair. Stray, rabid dogs roam the streets, and there seems to be a general lack of concern and civic pride, at least compared to other Namibian towns we have visited.

Rundu is developing by the day though. Even in the short time we have been here land has been developed and buildings erected (but remain empty…). There is a lot of anticipation that Rundu will become an even greater economic hub for this whole region, especially with future plans to build a bridge between here and the northern Angolan city, Calai (when, exactly, is anyone‘s guess). There are 5 main grocery stores, a few clothing shops, and a random assortment of other businesses. There are innumerable “china shops” which peddle nearly identical cheap sandals, clothes and electronics: “Made in China“. Unfortunately even with all the Chinese living in Rundu, there are no Chinese restaurants.

We have a new two-story mall, which has the talk of the town since its opening in November. Now, unlike the opening of a mall elsewhere, this “grand opening” meant that there were two stores open while the rest of the mall remained in construction. Literally you would be walking under unfinished construction with men working while getting your groceries. The main construction is more or less finished but the mall remains only partially occupied by stores, mostly stores that already existed in town that picked up and moved locations only to leave an empty building somewhere else.

There really are two main reasons to go to the mall. First to ride the escalator (when it is working). Yes, this is what Rundu folk do for fun. It is the first escalator the majority of people have ever seen and most importantly ever been on. There were a few small mishaps, a few injuries and one rumoured death (in truth someone had a heart attack in the general vicinity of the escalator, but rumours die hard around here). There is also a spot in the mall for an elevator, but there is no signs of building it so we are unsure what the likely hood is that it will ever be built.

The other attraction at the mall is the “Hungry Lion” which is the first and only fast-food restaurant here. It is a fried chicken joint similar to a KFC but ironically is often out of chicken…(if that’s what it even is!). As far as other restaurants go, there is a coffee shop in town (not at the mall) that is a nice place to grab breakfast and lunch and it is run by a friendly Afrikaans family and generally attracts the other Afrikaaners and foreign workers. All the other restaurants in town are in association with lodges, some much better than others.

The open market is where many of the locals hang out. People have all sorts of random things to sell: food like vegetable, nuts, grains, fat cakes (similar to a donut), frozen fish, and fresh meat, as well as a food court (serving pap, mutete, and oshikundu). You can also find hair salons, clothing stalls, tailors, used clothing shops, and my favourite, shitanges (which are pieces of material used for practically everything but most commonly a skirt). I have a small obsession with them!

The last day of the month, which is referred to as “Kavango Day“, is payday for those that have jobs and people come from the whole region to collect money from the bank (or get money from relatives who have jobs) and to usually spend all of their wages in one weekend. Yikes. People are everywhere and the streets are packed, line-ups unreal and usually the hospital is full on Monday morning with injuries resulting from bar fights. We try to do our shopping the day before for obvious reasons! In contrast, once the shops close at 1pm on Saturdays the town becomes ghost-like until Monday morning.

We just recently got a couple street names, with a sign even!! There are only a few paved roads in town the rest is sand, sand, sand. During the dry season the sand becomes suspended in the air turning into a hazy fog. The sun sets far above the actual horizon as it sets into the thick layer of sand. Since the rainy season we now have clear skies (when the clouds part) and breathe much cleaner air. The downside is intense that the roads are obliterated with pot holes and at dusk there are swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The rains have ushered in green everywhere, and all the neighbouring villages have plenty of corn fields just on the verge of harvesting.

As the region is a farming community, it is no surprise to find cows walking the streets (they are huge!), goats galore, donkeys (usually with their front legs tied together so they don’t wander) and chickens running madly this way and that. Being a big city girl, it cracks me up every time!! As you can see the stop sign's do not apply to cows...this picture was taken one block form our house!

For some other great shots of Rundu check out: