Experience of a lifetime
Namibia is about as different from Yamhill County as can be, in every way.
“The only similarity is that both have trees and a river,” said Geri Kemper, who Googled Namibia as soon as she found out it was where she was being assigned as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Now, almost a year and a half into her two-year assignment, Kemper is used to seeing wild elephants and hippos, instead of the domestic cattle and horses in the fields near her family home in Whiteson. She’s comfortable living in a house with mud walls and a grass roof, even though big snakes and alien-looking spiders sometimes get in. She doesn’t mind cooking over an open fire and washing clothes in a crocodile-infested river.
She’s still easy to spot among the locals, though, with her pale skin and light brown hair. Her independence and strange ways mark her as different, as well — unlike most Namibians, for instance, she makes friends with dogs and has one as a pet.
Yet, sometimes, she said, she almost forgets she’s in Africa. “Until I go out at night and I hear something moving and I think, ‘Wait, what’s that sound in the bush?’” she said, laughing.
Kemper spoke to the News-Register recently by Skype. She uses the program, which allows real-time video and sound via the Internet, to communicate regularly with her parents, John and Patti Kemper.
She’s looking forward to seeing them in person next year. When her stint with the Peace Corps ends in April, she plans to visit a friend in Indonesia before returning to Oregon.
She said it wasn’t easy leaving home and moving to a place where everything is so different. But she’s glad she said yes to the experience of a lifetime.
“There’ve been a lot of rough days,” she said. “But even with the rough days, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
She spent most of her school years in Amity, then transferred to McMinnville and graduated from Mac High. She was active in the Yamhill County 4-H program for many years while growing up.
She started college at the University of Hawaii and finished her pre-physical therapy degree at Portland State University.
While at PSU, she spent some time in Nepal teaching children with disabilities and helping with their physical therapy. Her experience there convinced her she wanted to follow a dream she’d had since seventh-grade, when a Peace Corps volunteer spoke to her class at Amity Middle School.
When she applied for the Peace Corps, Kemper knew she wouldn’t have any say in choosing her destination. “But that was kind of fun,” she said. “You don’t build up expectations ... you just get to have experiences that never would have happened to you otherwise.”
True to form, she had no preconceived notions about Namibia when, after receiving her assignment, she typed the name of the country into Google. But after reading web pages and travel guides and spending 17 months there, she can describe the Southwest African country to people back home.
She held up the back of her right hand, fingers pointed downward and thumb sticking out, to show the shape of the country. The little finger side represents the Atlantic coast. The joint near the base of the thumb corresponds with the upper eastern part of Namibia, where her village is located.
She lives in a woodland area that’s not far from Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Much of the southern part of Namibia — represented by her fingers in this demonstration — is mostly desert.
While the desert is very dry and hot, the northern part of Namibia experiences periods of cooler temperatures and a rainy season. The country is below the Equator, so it’s mid-winter there. But it’s already warming up, she said. “Two weeks ago, I would have been wearing a fleece jacket, but now I’m in shorts,” she said on Aug. 8.
However, at her mother’s prompting, she noted that she’s used to the heat now. She wrapped herself in fleece when the thermometer plummeted into the 70s.
Kemper makes a monthly trip to Rundu, a relatively large town, to shop for food and other necessities. Then she returns to the village where she lives and works, Biro, two hours from Rundu and close to Namibia’s border with Angola.
The people in Biro are self-sufficient, she said. Few have jobs outside the home, unless they are teachers or nurses. Most catch or grow their food, harvesting corn and millet as their main staples and butchering cattle for meat.
They also take advantage of the food the land provides: termites, mopane worms, crocodiles. Kemper recalled the case of a baby elephant being hit and killed by a vehicle. It’s illegal to hunt elephant, but the authorities don’t want it wasted, either, so the unfortunate animal was divided up among the local people for a feast.
English is the official language of Namibia, Kemper said, but many people in her area speak a native language, Mbukushu.
Kemper knows enough to greet people, give commands and hold very basic conversations. “It’s fun to surprise them that this white lady knows their language,” she said.
She’s also learning about Namibian culture. In that country, she said, relationships between men and women are very different than in the United States. Men are dominant and many have multiple partners, such as a wife and one or more girlfriends. If a high-status man takes as his girlfriend the wife of a man of lesser status, the other man has no recourse.
Women don’t get a lot of respect, Kemper said, and young women get even less. As a woman in her 20s, she would have little power if she were a native. Fortunately, her status as a Peace Corps volunteer gives her some inherent credibility.
Men do appreciate her work, she said, although they won’t let her tell them what to do. And the women are very appreciative and willing to listen to her suggestions or help her carry out her tasks. “They know I’m there to help,” she said.
Northern Namibia has the second-highest rate of HIV in Africa and, due largely to the disease, has many orphans. Although some live in orphanages, many live with their extended family relatives — that’s the preference of both the government and the native culture, which considers all blood relatives equally close.
“Even if you don’t have much, you still take in and help relatives if they need you,” she said.
Kemper works with an Orphans and Vulnerable Children Center, which provides outreach to orphans wherever they are living. Her center deals with more than 400 children, she said.
She has a number of duties: teaching villagers about nutrition, hygiene, how to care for small children and how to control the spread of HIV; teaching sewing; helping to decrease the teen pregnancy rate, which is very high.
The former McMinnville High School soccer player now plays with a community team in the Biro area. She also leads a “grassroots soccer” program for kids that incorporates lessons about health along with skill drills. She was one of the first volunteers in Namibia to start grassroots soccer, which the Peace Corps is taking worldwide.
She also runs the local version of another international Peace Corps program, HEARTH. Geared toward mothers and babies, it teaches about hygiene, family planning and nutrition.
The latter lessons include cooking demonstrations using local ingredients in ways that maximize nutrition — for instance, showing local people how to combine foods such as beans and corn to make a complete protein. Kemper said she has been showing Biro residents how to improve their porridge by adding eggs, which are readily available but not usually eaten there.
She also has been advising locals and other Peace Corps volunteers about gardening techniques — something she learned from her mother, an avid gardener.
Her main duty, though, is helping with preschool and kindergarten at the OVC center. She teaches them in English, which they pick up quickly.
“I like the kids,” she said. “I’ll be walking back to my house, and a herd of children will come running toward me. They’re adorable.
“Those are the moments that stick with you ... when you realize how much they love you for loving them.”
A place for children to play
The children in Biro, Namibia, don’t have play equipment and toys like American children, according to Geri Kemper, a Whiteson woman volunteering with the Peace Corps there.
They don’t have a Discovery Meadows or Amity City Park to go to. They can’t play in the crocodile-infested river.
“They just use whatever they find to have fun — rocks, broken bottles,” said Kemper, who teaches preschool and kindergarten among her other duties. “They’ll hang around the school on their days off, but they have nothing to do.”
Remembering how much she enjoyed recess at Amity Elementary School, she has set a goal of building a playground the children can use both during and after school.
“I’ve been researching how much play impacts confidence, imagination, and helps them build friendships and resilience,” she said. “It’s important for every child to have time to play.”
She also has been researching different types of play equipment and ways of building a playground. The materials must be inexpensive, sturdy and fixable with local products and manpower, she said.
If the locals can’t fix something easily with materials available to them, such as wood that grows in the area, the playground would soon become unusable, she explained. Many facilities the government and charitable agencies have built there “are falling apart because the locals have no money for upkeep,” she explained.
With help from the Yamhill County 4-H program, Kemper has already raised $1,000 with which to build slides, install tires to play on and other equipment. She still needs to raise about $700 to go to cover the cost of materials and transportation to the site.
She’s also received donations of tools and some labor from local businesses.
“I’m still looking for assistance with ideas, materials and different ways of building that will be sustainable,” she said, “and for ideas about things to do with kids, so I can translate that into the local language.”
Ideas and information can be sent to Kemper via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kemper is hoping it can be finished by Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, in honor of the efforts being made to reduce Namibia’s HIV rate. The timeline also would mean the playground would be ready in time for the local children’s summer vacation.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.