On my second day as volunteer, one of my fellow teachers approached me with questions about the United States. In the past (cf. Tanzania), questions like “Is Canada a state?” and comments like “But you are European” annoyed me. However, my fellow teacher changed the way I feel about these seemingly ignorant questions.
When she asked me if President Obama was president of all 50 states and if he ‘governs’ or if he ‘rules,’ another coworker laughed aloud. Turning toward her mocker, she calmly defended her question; saying that if she is ever confused about information that she hears concerning any certain place in the world she waits until she meets someone from that place. Then, she can ask that person questions to clarify what she has heard. Who better to elucidate an issue about a place than someone who comes from that very place—immersed in implicit knowledge of it simply by existing in it? She further cited the example of a former volunteer who grew up in Oklahoma. When her students refused to believe in the existence of tornadoes, she called upon the Oklahoman. He served as witness, and persuaded the doubting learners.
After I explained the difference between governors and presidents, Colombia and the District of Columbia, and the term ‘American Indian’; my colleague said that she would travel more if she were not so terribly afraid of oceans. She never learned how to swim.
At this point, our coworker who earlier scoffed found his moment to re-enter conversation. Just as I can share knowledge about the U.S.A., he is a resource for learning about Zambezi. This narrow panhandle that provides the outstretched thumb of Namibia’s hand extends the country halfway across the continent. As such, it is isolated and drastically different from the rest of the country. The massive Zambezi river is the current namesake of the region (after the German name Caprivi was abandoned in 2013), and he made mention of this with regard to learning how to swim.
Our coworker explained that while I might be a credible source for American politics or tornadoes, he might teach us how to swim in rivers. I stated that I grew up swimming in rivers, but that is not what he meant and I was dismissed from further contribution. The difference in contexts made my statement irrelevant. The important difference here is that when people say ‘river’ in Zambezi or Kavango, hippos and crocodiles are also implied. Where I grew up, we had mine runoff but fortunately not one man-eating reptile.
He told us that it is quite easy to swim despite crocodiles. In fact, he said, Zambians and Angolans do it often when they cross the border by swimming.
First, he told us, you dive in—“twaaa’!”—he made a grand gesture with his hand from above his head, down to the floor. “Then you swim deep, deep, deep, on the bottom. There, they can’t catch you.”
His and my perception of the word can likely differ.
“If you need air, you come back—” he stiffened his body, and looked upward, “—up.” He took a gulp of hypothetical Zambezi air. “Then, you go deep down again, and you swim. That’s all!”