Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Namibia

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Namibia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Namibia.

Outside of Namibia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich, have blond hair and blue eyes, or know many celebrities. The people of Namibia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Namibia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Namibia[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in Namibia recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Namibia has made great strides in gender equity in the government and the private sector. Women hold ministerial portfolios and senior-level government and private sector posts. But less educated women at the lower ends of the socioeconomic scale tend to have less authority and control for income, spending, and reproductive health. This situation is driven as much by the lingering pattern of migratory labor (i.e., adult males working away from the homestead) as by tradition. Thus, many rural communities do not have much experience with women who take on professional roles, remain unmarried, and live away from their families. Because of the differences in cultural norms for women and men, female Volunteers may receive unwanted sexual attention and need to practice discretion in public (e.g., not smoking or drinking).

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

Stereotypical notions of Americans often exclude people of color. Therefore, Volunteers of color often are identified by their cultural heritage or are simply ignored in a setting where most Volunteers conform to the “blond-haired and blue-eyed” stereotype. In addition, you may feel isolated in your training group if there are few other minority trainees.

African Americans may face higher expectations for their performance, especially in acquiring language and adapting to local norms. Asian Americans are often grouped with Chinese regardless of their actual background and face stereotypes resulting from Namibia’s current involvement with Asian countries or the presence of Asian merchants in the community. All groups are affected by the impact of popular culture on perceptions of minority groups.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

Senior Volunteers will find their age an asset in the Namibian context. They will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. On the other hand, they will be in a distinct minority within the Volunteer population and could find themselves feeling isolated, looked up to, or ignored. Seniors are often accustomed to a greater degree of independence and freedom of movement than the Peace Corps’ program focus and safety and security practices allow. Pre-service training can be particularly stressful for seniors, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Homosexuality has been the topic of much heated debate in Namibia. Human rights proponents argue that the Constitution protects individuals regardless of sexual orientation, while others argue that homosexual behavior is unnatural and as such should be deemed criminal. In rural areas, many people simply do not believe that homosexuality exists. Homosexual or bisexual Volunteers may discover that they cannot be open about their sexual orientation in their community. In addition, they may serve for two years without meeting another gay or bisexual Volunteer. Peace Corps/Namibia is committed to ensuring that staff members understand the particular support needs of homosexual and bisexual Volunteers.

See also: Articles about Namibia on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Churches play a vital role in the life of most rural communities in Namibia. As such, they are social as well as religious institutions, and you will find them to be a source of information and support regarding community events and practices. Community members frequently ask Volunteers about their religious affiliation and may expect them to attend a community church. Volunteers not in the practice of attending Christian churches may be challenged to explain a decision not to attend. Particularly in rural areas, non-Christian religious beliefs are not well understood, and community members may attempt to "convert" non-Christian Volunteers.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As a disabled Volunteer in Namibia, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. While it is not uncommon to meet Namibians who have lost a limb in war, Namibia has very little infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

That being said, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of serving in Namibia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/ Namibia staff will work with disabled individuals to make reasonable accommodations to enable them to serve safely and effectively.