An Interview with Sera
Amanda Taylor, a Periclean Scholar at Elon University, interviewed
Sera. Excerpts below:
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
Ah, that is the question. I got the idea in my head after a trip to
Honduras to work on some development projects when I was 15. I thought,
"these people are so poor, but so happy! I want to go live in a 3rd
world county and help eradicate poverty." Typical naïve response.
But even as I got older and more cynical, I still had the idea of wanting
to go live in a foreign country. I did a study abroad in England the
summer after my 2nd year of college and I did a lot of weekend trips off
on my own around the country, and it made me love traveling even more. So
it was a combination of wanting to do something good, share the knowledge
I was privileged to attain, and go experience life somewhere else. Also, I
really enjoy learning about different cultures and societies-it proves
somehow that everything is relative and what I hold to be true is really
just a result of my culture/environment. As a result of this constant
thought experiment, I pick and choose what I want to adhere to, leaving me
not really integrated into any culture, my own included. I'm also
interested in cultural anthropology and sociology--an amateur study of
I am very interested in how religion affects the HIV/AIDS
At our school, the kids seem very religious, at least in their talk. I
can hardly have any debate in class without them referring to what God
says about this idea. It's hard for me to know how this translates into
actions, exactly. It affects AIDS in the sense that many people want to
promote abstinence and not condoms. This is a very good idea, but given
the extremely high rate of teen pregnancy (4/10 girls) it is clearly not
working. I know this is going to sound negative, but I often have the
impression that there is no connection between what people say and do.
This is a problem in every society, I'm sure, but it seems to be a much
greater problem here. I guess my impression has been that religion is very
good in helping to curb the spread of AIDS if all this talk about
abstinence is actually practiced. I think it is negative if they talk
about abstinence, then go and have sex without condoms because somewhere
in their brain, they still think they're abstaining. (Studies have shown
that people sometimes think that using a condom is like premeditating sex,
which is somehow considered worse than accidental/spontaneous sex. You
know, it's like people are playing mind games with themselves. I also read
that people who are more open and honest with themselves about their
sexuality are more likely to plan ahead and use condoms.) Overall, I would
say that the religion has a positive affect on curbing the disease if it
does actually help people to curb their sexual appetites. It's hard to
know what is really happening though, since they aren't too keen on
sharing their sexual activities with their English teacher, and I don't
want to freak them out by asking too many personal questions.
In the AIDS club last year, I brought up masturbation, just to see what
they thought about it. They knew what it was, but seemed to believe it was
bad, because in the Bible it says…blah blah blah. I said there wasn't
AIDS in the Bible and so they have to adapt. I wanted to promote
masturbation as an alternative to sex (safe, no pregnancy), but it didn't
seem too popular, due to the religious connotations against it. It's hard
not to be frustrated by religion at times like that.
Another example is that on Monday, the principal reported at the staff
meeting that there is a new mandate that schools need to integrate
HIV/AIDS Awareness into all of the subjects and classes. He also said that
we all had to put our personal and religious beliefs aside because schools
are now required to provide condoms for learners, and teach about them in
class. (He didn't know I'd already done condom demonstrations to 3/5ths of
the school, as well as providing condoms). One teacher, who is notoriously
hyper-religious, raised his hand and said, "You can fire me if you
want, but I won't teach condoms. They should not have sex until they are
married." Yes, I thought, that is ideal, but…
Another thing you should be aware of is that this culture is
traditionally polygamous, and various tribes here in Namibia still
practice polygamy, although not the Ovambos. So it's really not part of
their culture to be monogamous, and so more often than not, they're not
faithful to their partner/spouse. This definitely compounds the problem.
Do you have any knowledge/anecdotes that relate to the role of
Let me just say I would not want to be a woman in this culture. On the
surface, women are equal to men, and the constitution has them as equal.
But in reality, women are still regarded as inferior. Women are supposed
to cook, clean, take care of children, etc. A wife cannot tell her husband
what to do (such as "wear a condom"). Furthermore, it seems like
the female learners are kind of bullied by the male learners. Nothing
really aggressive, but they definitely take on the submissive role. I
thought gender equality was a lot better than it actually was, until I
assigned the essay topic of, "Can men and women do the same
careers?" Most people, male and female, said no. Women are weak, not
as good at making decisions, will get upset easier, etc. It was really
offensive to me and it was the most difficult assignment to mark because I
wanted to write "WRONG! ALL WRONG!" in big red letters over the
ones that implied women were inferior to men. It was really depressing.
The way this affects the AIDS crisis is that women really do not have
the self-confidence to say no to sex or to insist on a condom. Similarly,
the boys do not respect them as equals. Furthermore, girls tend to get
self-worth and a feeling of being loved by being in relationships with
boys, who insist on sex as an integral part of the relationship. If you
look at any literature on girls in the States with low self-esteem, who
are prone to teen-pregnancy, it's the same situation.
I think girls here often try to fit into the role that they think is
expected of them, rather than defining their own role in the relationship.
For example, Fransina, who is the leader of my AIDS club, and a very
strong person, turns into a ditzy, giggly, mindless girl when she's with
her boyfriend. It's really annoying. But I think it's telling of how even
the most clear-minded person gets duped into fulfilling the cultural
Are any of your learners involved with sugar daddies?
Probably a few. But I don't really know.
Do they talk or write about it openly with you or their classmates?
No. It's funny now that you ask about it, but I realized that if it
wasn't for what I've read in the newspaper and as part of the HIV/AIDS
campaign, I wouldn't have a clue about sugar daddies. This is mainly
because we are kind of isolated here at the school and don't hang out at
the bars. I would probably be more aware of it if I lived in a town and
could see my learners hanging out with people in the shops. Also,
relationships in general are very secret. It's not like the states where
you inform your parents you're dating so-and-so and he comes and picks you
up at the house before you go to a movie. They don't tell their parents
they're dating anyone until they're nearly engaged. Despite my being
young, they lump me into the "parent" category and don't tell me
anything, nor do I really ask.
I am aware of several of the grade 12s that are dating each other, but
I never would have guessed it except that one of them told me. Again, it's
not like the states where kids are making out and groping each other in
the halls in between classes. They really don't express any public
displays of affection here. During training, Zac and I were told that we
could not hold hands in public or anything, even though we're married. So
again, it's one of those weird things where there's all this stuff that's
happening, but it's not out in the open, and is therefore difficult to
address. The learners themselves have told me that that's why they think
there is so much adolescent sexual activity. Because the kids have to
sneak around to have relationships, they do /everything/ when they are
able to meet privately with their boy/girlfriend. Whereas, theoretically,
if they are open about it and can be together in public, they are more
likely to develop a friendship-based relationship than a sex-based
Furthermore, they've expressed the idea that because the relationships
are secretive, there is no personal responsibility, like there would be if
they were more public. They gave the example that if a guy and girl are
dating, and the girl gets pregnant and confronts the guy for child
support, he can just deny ever having anything to do with the girl. Since
their relationship wasn't public, no one can verify that they were
together. (I know--you and I think, "just do a paternity test!"
but that is expensive and not readily available here). Furthermore, the
boys claim that since a girl can be dating more than one boy at once, she
will just go to the richest one and claim that the baby is his. I asked
the girls about this, and they said, very matter-of-factly, that yes, they
would do that. My first response was, how awful! But from a
utilitarian/survival point of view, it makes sense. And if the girl really
doesn't know who the father is, she might as well choose the one that
would be most able to support her financially. Another thing that occurred
to me during this discussion was that this secrecy is the very thing that
allows the multiple relationships. In American high schools, where dating
is a very public things, a person would have to be quite talented to
maintain several relationships without them finding out about each other.
But here, it is very easy.
Anyway, back to your original question about sugar daddies: I think it
is very much there, but also very secret and somehow accepted, yet taboo,
all at once. I know it is not culturally sensitive to say this, but the
more I find out about their relationship culture, the more screwed up I
think it is and the more pessimistic I get about the "war on
AIDS." One of the teachers here was complaining once about the rule
against teachers' sleeping with learners. He had already picked out a few
of the girls he liked, but he wouldn't tell me who they were. If a teacher
does sleep with a learner and it is found out, the teacher is
automatically fired. I thought this had been a longstanding rule, but one
day in the staff room a few male teachers were reminiscing about the good
ol' days when they were allowed to sleep with their students. They said
that learners liked it too, because if they got pregnant and it was by a
teacher, their parents would be happy (because of the financial support.)
Can you imagine!? The learners also told me that at Okongororosa, that
school we visited with the AIDS club, teachers were sleeping with the
learners. I don't know how they knew this though. Another volunteer works
at a senior secondary school and says that some of the girls cook for the
male teachers and she is convinced there are also sexual favors involved.
I think that the learners at my school are probably less vulnerable to
sugar daddies because they seem to come from wealthier households and have
more self confidence. But I think the poor village girls are really at
risk because the temptation to gain money would be great, and they
wouldn't have the confidence to resist pressure. Another thing that
perhaps complicates it is the culture's insistence on respect for elders
as well as the male-dominated society. So if a girl finds herself being
told to do something by an older male, due to her cultural conditioning it
is very difficult for her to disobey, even if it is regarding her own
How has the role of women in Namibia affected your experience or the
experience of other people/teachers around you?
I personally haven't been too affected by being a woman here. I think
it's because I'm a foreigner, so they don't apply their same expectations
to me. Plus, I walk around with the attitude that I'm equal to anyone, so
I don't fall into the trap of fulfilling an inferior role. Furthermore,
Zac respects me, and I think that shows and gives some indication for the
other men to follow. For example, sometimes the principal will take women
a little less seriously than men, but never me. Probably this is also
because I'm white. Another factor is that when I'm traveling, I'm always
with Zac, so I don't get harassed. The few times I traveled by myself, I
got constant marriage proposals by men. I attract a lot of attention just
being a white girl, not because I'm beautiful or anything. They just want
a green card to America. Another volunteer here, Jacque, has had a lot of
problems being discriminated against for being a woman. Her principal does
not respect her at all, her male learners are extremely degrading towards
her, etc. So every circumstance is different. Generally, the more
educated/affluent people have more progressive attitudes towards women.
In addition, I think a lot of the discrimination and traditional gender
roles occur within the household, and not as much in the workplace. For
example, girls will be expected to do all of the chores, and the boys have
to go look after cattle. Girls are definitely in a subservient position
within the household, but that doesn't affect me very much, since I just
live with Zac. One time, some learners came over and wanted to talk to Zac.
I said, "He's mopping right now, can you come back later?" Laimi
said, "Oh, miss! You should do that, not sir." I explained that
Zac was better at mopping than me. She said I was the wife so it was my
job. Another example is that whenever Zac does laundry outside, if people
walk by and see him working they will call him, "meme"-essentially
saying he is a woman.
As far as the other teachers, unfortunately I'm am not on intimate
enough terms with any of them to really know. Eg-I don't have any stories
from them. All that I know is stuff that I've observed, read in the
newspaper, and gleaned from the learners.
Is there any beginning of a women's rights movement over there? Is
there any need for one? How do you think that could happen?
There is not really a need to for a women's rights movement because
they already have the same rights as men, protected under the
constitution. The problem is with changing cultural beliefs, and these
beliefs affect some of the more minor laws. For example, when we first
came here in November 2002, they were trying to pass a law protecting
women and children from domestic abuse. In the end it passed, but it was
quite frightening that there was so much/any resistance to a law that
seems obvious to me. Currently, they are debating a law that would make it
illegal for a husband to sleep with his wife without her permission
(marital rape). Again, many, many people (men) are opposed to this law.
But at the same time, it is encouraging to see so many women actively
pursuing the full protection of their rights under the law. I think these
laws are definitely interrelated with the AIDS epidemic. For example,
women want the right to refuse sex if their husband won't wear a condom.
How can they refuse if the law won't protect them from being then raped
and beaten up by their husbands?
Do your students have any personal stories about AIDS?
I've tried this before and came up with nothing. The kids all swear
they don't know anyone with AIDS. Which is, given the statistics,
impossible. But I think what is happening is that people die, but because
it's always from another disease (TB, Malaria, a host of other
"mysterious" diseases) they don't admit that AIDS is the
underlying cause. Plus, there is still so much discrimination that I think
even if the kids did know someone with AIDS, they wouldn't admit it to
Are you very aware of the virus in everyday life? Are there a lot of
This is the funny thing. AIDS is so much here that it's not here.
Everywhere you look and everything you read, there is something about
AIDS. Everybody talks about it all the time. Sometimes I think it is an
overload-they are constantly bombarded by it, and so it becomes
meaningless and they just block it out, in the same way that I don't hear
the roosters crowing at 3am anymore.
On the personal level, I haven't experienced it at all. A lot of the
other volunteers have been to many funerals and have had host-relatives
die, but it is never said that it is from AIDS. Medical care is terrible
in this country, so people could very well die at a young age of something
like appendicitis, but I'm sure a lot of the deaths are also from AIDS.
How have you grown from your experiences in Namibia?
I'm definitely more aware of how culture affects life. I'm more aware
of the problems facing developing countries, and the aid organizations
operating in those countries. I'm also more cynical, in the sense that I
don't harbor any delusions about how life is in third world countries.
It's neither horrible nor a happy simplistic life. It's complex, it's good
and it's bad. On a professional level, I've gained a lot of teaching
experience, and I think that if I can teach under these circumstances, any
job in the states should be easy. I also think I've gotten to know my own
strengths and weaknesses a lot better-as they will always emerge more
clearly when dealing with challenging situations.
How has your marriage grown?
We've eaten a lot of cookies together, so we're both probably fatter.
(Sorry for the sarcasm, I really don't know how to answer this question.)
Let me say I'm glad we got to do this together, because it would be really
hard to explain, but definitely something I would want my husband to
understand. We haven't faced too many hardships (other than a severe lack
of cheesecake) and so maybe our first years of marriage were actually a
lot easier than if we had stayed in the States. We didn't have to worry
too much about all those things that can normally bog down a relationship,
such as finances, jobs, etc. We put aside these two years as a
"whatever, nothing really matters" time. It feels in some ways
like our real life hasn't started yet. We're putting it off as long as
What will you miss most when you leave?
-Hitchhiking/taxis (every trip to the grocery store is an adventure)
-The interestingness of it all
-The crazy things my learners do, say, and wear
-Feeding our chickens
-Being uniquely intelligent (as in I know about a lot of stuff that no one
else here knows, but that would be common place amongst other liberal arts
people in the states)
-The two-minute walk to work every day
-Having the classrooms outside (independent buildings as opposed to one
big building connected by hallways)
-The sunny, warm weather (Ohio weather sucks)
-All the animals everywhere
-The other volunteers (best, funniest, toughest group of people I've ever
been a part of)
-The whole experience of teaching in Namibia. I'll be a teacher in the
states, but it won't have the same eccentricity.
That I dislocated my shoulder and lost 3 months of my life in Namibia.
This will always be my deepest regret. Secondly, that I'm not more
outgoing and better at being friends with the other teachers. I don't
regret this too much, because it's just part of my personality, and it's
not something I can really force. I'm really not social (the learners
laugh when I tell them this and absolutely don't believe it, so I must
hide it well. But it's true.)
If you could tell the world anything you wanted particularly
pertaining to your experiences in Namibia, what would it be?
I guess I just want to say that I'm a very cynical person, but only
because I'm determined to see things as they really are. After my trip to
Honduras, I eventually realized that I was just projecting my ideas onto
the people, and not really comprehending their actual life in those
conditions (both the good and bad). So I've made every attempt here to see
things as they really are. Granted, I still interpret what I see and try
to make sense of it, but I try to avoid clouding everything with pity or
some romantic view of a developing country. This is what I was trying to
convey in my story about the "bare feet or smiles" from August
of last year.
I did one of my student teachings in an inner-city school in Columbus.
My supervising teacher would tell me every pathetic story she knew about
the students' home lives, as some sort of rationalization for why they
didn't turn in this assignment or did poorly on that test, etc. I realized
then that while the background of a person is important, you should still
just let that person be a person, a student in this case, and not attach
to them all the baggage of their past. She felt so much pity for all of
the students that she didn't expect them to amount to anything. I know she
meant well, but I really think this affected her teaching and her
expectations. Pity can be very condescending, and that is what I despise
Consequently, when I look at my students here, I don't look at them as
orphans, poor children, or victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I think such
labels are dehumanizing. I know the backgrounds of only a few of my
learners, what they've told me or divulged in their essays. I don't want
to look at Freddy or Sandra and think, "they are orphans" and
love them out of pity. Instead, I think, "Freddy is really creative
in his writing and is fun to banter with." and "Sandra is very
helpful and serious. I enjoy having conversations with her." These
may seem like mundane thoughts, but I don't want to label the kids
according to their backgrounds. I try to see the humanity instead of the