Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Slums of Outapi

I had a really interesting and somewhat surreal experience with one of the development studies classes today. Development studies is an interesting subject -- only 11th and 12th graders take it at my school, and it's a combination of history, geography, economics, environmental science and urban planning. The teacher for development studies is Jona, who is also Meme Monica's nephew. He invited me along on his senior class field trip to Ohnhimbu, our local shanty town, and then to the open market and the town council. The kids had been focusing on health issues in their class discussions, so they spent time examining toilets and areas for dumping garbage.

First, the class visited Outapi’s shanty town. In Onhimbu, there are shared community toilets, some shacks made of corrugated metal, and tiny houses made of poured concrete. It certainly was poorer than in the town proper, but I’ve seen worse. People get their water from communal taps, but the water is treated and safe to drink. Few houses here have electricity, but that is also true of the homesteads out in the countryside. There is a small market near a pond of rainwater which was becoming a bit stagnant. To be honest, I liked that it didn’t look orderly and westernized, but rather was a higgledy-piggledy jumble of small vendors.

While we were walking through Onhimbu, some of the students were vocal about how terrible it was there. I asked the kids how these houses differed from their own, and they indignantly replied “Mr. K, our homes have nice yards that are swept. And we have big homes. Not small ones like these.”

“How big is your home?” I asked one student.

“My home has nine bedrooms,” she replied.

“And how many are living there?”

“Oh, we are four.”

Oh, dear. There we were, 30 private school kids in nice uniforms and their two nattily-dressed teachers, wandering through the shanty town. It’s as if I were teaching in an affluent suburb of New York City, and took my students on a tour of the grittier areas surrounding my former school in Jamaica, Queens. On the one hand, it’s good to expose fortunate students to poverty. On the other hand, it just felt strange to me. Aren’t I supposed to be helping the people who live Onhimbu, not the ones who can afford a private education? And what about those who live in the much poorer parts of Africa, with per capita incomes in the hundreds of dollars instead of the low thousands?

After spending 15 or 20 minutes wandering through Onhimbu, we went to the recently constructed open market. This outdoor market space was clean and well-organized. It also had slabs of meat sitting unrefrigerated all day long. People there also sold a locally-made moonshine called tombe which was consumed out of a communal glass. To someone who grew up with western supermarkets, the carcasses hanging all day was just as disturbing as the poverty in Onhimbu.

Finally, we arrived at the town council building, which was a newly-built, modern structure. The students spoke to an environmental health specialist who worked for the council. The kids asked hard questions about why the city ‘allowed’ Onhimbu to happen, and the representative tried to explain that the city was upgrading its facilities as quickly as possible.

I wonder if this trip was a success, educationally. If wealthier students see how others live, will they be inclined to support policies which help the poor, like minimum wage laws or public health codes? Or will they be horrified, like some of my students, and harden their resolve to become rich and successful so they need never live in a place like Onhimbu?

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