Posted by: kam6761 | October 12, 2008

Another Culture

Despite having not written in quite some time, I’m somehow unable to think of anything significant worth writing about.

As Dan stated in his blog, the most exciting incident as of late was the “Fry Miss Kathryn” meeting that our school cluster had recently. I think the hostility was realty directed towards my HOD, who conveniently “wasn’t able to attend” the meeting. My colleague, McKensey, conflict causer and complainer extraordinaire, accused her of essentially pressuring me into resetting the exam so that the learners of my school would perform better on the Languages exam than on the Maths and Science exams (my HOD is the head of department for Languages and he is the Subject Head for Maths… yes, they make Math plural here—I’m not sure why). Anyway, it was this ridiculous notion that caused McKensey to create the biggest stink EVER about me resetting the exam. My HOD had given me a heads up that McKensey wasn’t letting the issue drop, so I had the foresight (Thank Heavens!) to prepare an explanatory letter. It explained, in detail, what was wrong with the original exam, and it went on to discuss the generally low standard that many schools have regarding the instruction of English. I tried to preface this by explaining that if they came to America to teach Oshiwambo, they would obviously be more qualified than someone who had just taken it as a subject in school. I thought this was an adequate explanation, and truthfully I think most of the people at the meeting were unable to understand the content of my letter, so they continued to ask questions regarding why exactly I reset. I had beat around the bush out of fear of offending someone, but I was so angry at that point I just blatantly stated, “I was educated in one of the most developed countries in the World. English is my mother tongue, and I grew up in a learner centered education system. I’m sorry if this is disrespectful, but I feel that my standard is therefore much higher than the level of this cluster.”

SILENCE. After that, no more questions came my way. No more communication in any way came my way. The next day my principal called me in to ask how the meeting had gone (he was also conveniently not there), and then he ended up calling in McKensey to make sure things were smoothed over. McKensey made a few remarks about what I had said, obviously showing he was offended by it.

I feel really conflicted about what happened. My remarks and the way I felt made me sort of feel like the imperialist Westerners that I hate, and that was really emotionally trying for me. I came here to work with local teachers, to learn everything I could about the culture, and to fit in without being overbearing or disrespectful. It was this tendency that mushroomed this whole situation. I could have simply talked to the teacher who had set the exam originally and explain it needed to be redone, but I felt uncomfortable telling a local teacher that the quality of his work was low. Because of my reluctance to do that, I ended up having to tell all of the teachers in the cluster (not just our school, but the entire school district) that their standard is low. It was not a good feeling.

And the thing is it’s incredibly complicated. The history of this country and, in particular, this area, has shaped the way the education system is today, but I didn’t have hours to qualify my remarks. Until independence, blacks were educated under a different system. The teachers in this system were only Grade 6 graduates. This means that many of the teachers teaching now were taught by people who only completed Grade 6… and you wonder why the Education system is lacking. And things ARE improving—the younger teachers have better (if not perfect) English and show more critical thinking skills, but there’s still a long way to go. The scars are deep and it’s going to take many years to get things on the right track, but then there are the more upsetting issues that are, I suppose, cultural. I don’t know if it’s “African Time” or laziness, but many teachers don’t even show up to their class until halfway through the period (many often don’t show up at all). The learner centered education system the government always talks about is certainly not implemented at my school. Most classes I’ve seen, if the teacher actually shows up, consists of the teacher writing notes while the learners mindlessly copy things into their books. Not to mention the various sticks and weapons the teachers carry for the learners who decide to talk.

Oh, but I digress! I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and am willing to admit I don’t think the American school system is simply different—it’s BETTER. There’s so often this lack of discussion when it comes to different cultures, this sort of default “it’s just different” rhetoric. If you want to qualify anything from your culture as superior, you’re being ethnocentric. Is it just me, or is that a big pile of rubbish?

Yeah, treating children as people, respecting them and the duty to instruct them is BETTER than beating them and barely instructing them. This is not to say our culture is perfect by any means, but I certainly think in that aspect it’s better. This doesn’t mean I think the Owambo culture is completely flawed; in fact, there are many things I think our culture could learn from it. The sense of community and togetherness, for instance. I often think the American trait of independence has gone way too far, and being here has been such a nice vacation from that.

Last week a lower primary teacher brought her learners into the library (without asking me), so they just tore apart the library and made it a complete mess. I got a list of the learners who had done it, and told them they needed to fix it. I asked the older kids to show them how to put the books back correctly, and they did, and then they continued to assist them in doing the task. Thinking maybe there was a language barrier, I told them it wasn’t their job and to let the little ones do it, but they told me they wanted to help. To help these kids they barely knew. Not to mention the countless number of times I’ve seen a baby start crying and the nearest person, relation or not, picks the baby up to console him or her. I think I’ve already mentioned this, but even things like rewards are shared here. If a learner wins a sweet that can be divided into pieces, it’s divided and shared among the other kids.  A SWEET. Like the size of a cough drop.

So I don’t know, maybe I’m an ethnocentrist, but I’d rather just label myself a realist. There are  certainly good and bad things about every culture.

Rampant materialism? Bad.  A culture of reading and learning? Good.

A strong sense of community? Good. A lack of respect for education and children? Bad.

Obviously these things are not good and bad in any absolute sense, but in my opinion criticizing aspects of another culture doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. I hope.



  1. Kathryn, all I can say is WOW.

  2. Kathryn,
    This was a very thought-provoking blog. It’s neat that you don’t forget about some good aspects of the Namibian culture even as you voice your frustrations with other aspects. I’m glad you’re thinking about these things. But what DOES make some cultural norms better or worse, bad or good, other than one’s own personal opinion?

  3. i think i agree with you, kathryn 🙂

    and i’m so sorry that that whole… exam thing… got blown up SO MUCH. that really stinks. but don’t feel discouraged 🙂

    how can they divide up a cough drop-sized sweet? that’s amazing!

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