Trees Never Meet

Today’s post comes from Zoe Ackerman, a Junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in English/Anthropology  and minoring in Creative Writing. Apart from writing letters, reading Spanish poetry, running in the woods, and painting with bright colors, she likes to laugh. This story is just a snapshot from her lessons learned while working with World Teach in Namibia. 

We live in a world of borders, seen and unseen, permeable and impermeable. The brick walls in this coffee shop; the city limits of Chapel Hill. Zooming out, we live within borders enforced by immigration booths in airports and fences in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The borders that define a place—sometimes imagined, sometimes real—hold shocking power to unite and divide.

Rewind back two summers and I find myself negotiating several borders in Namibia. Physically speaking, Okalongo lies two kilometers as the stork flies from Angola. At different points throughout the day, I am within the borders my computer lab at Haudano Secondary School. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., I am the Ultimate Conveyor of Computer Information to students grades 8-12 as we break down learning borders together. Better QWERTY keyboard finger positions. Faster typing speeds. Straighter posture. I will bring justice in the form of A-S-D-F-J-K-L-; right? The rest of the time, I’m in teacher housing with another American volunteer, practically back within the borders of the United States. Maybe that’s not a good thing, I say to myself, but I don’t let it bother me.

Throughout my summer, there are a couple of nights when I am alone, and things start to become less clear. This feeling coincides with the nights that my American roommate goes out of town. As she drives away, so does my place in Okalongo (or is it my mini-USA in Okalongo?)—the one I’d been thinking is so firm because of “how much of a difference I’m making.” The sun lowers in the sky, I light a candle, play Tchinchirote on the stereo and feel lost.

One afternoon, knowing that my roommate will head out later, I decide to restock my refrigerator. I emerge from the Oshakati Spar with shrink-wrapped apples, curry packets, light-green pears, full cream milk, bright red strawberries, flour, basmati rice, eggs, and ground beef. Yes. I’ll make a big dinner, and take some over to Secilia and Miriam, the teachers that live right across the way. No Tchinchirote and feeling adrift for me tonight!

I get home that evening to a dark house. Once I’ve put the groceries away, questions start to swirl around my head, upturning my sense that everything is “in its place.” I love literature. But who are the great Namibian authors and poets? Why haven’t I ever asked another teacher? And speaking of that, what are the teachers saying when they speak in Oshiwambo? Maybe English isn’t the only language I really need to know? Do the students like the competition I’ve set up? Of course they do. Then why do some students seem unmotivated? Maybe this culture isn’t only motivated by competition? I knock on Secilia and Miriam’s house, but no one answers. So I go back home, and soon Cesaria is crooning, Tchinchirote.

Suddenly, I hear a knock on the door. Out of habit, my heart jumps. At home in Virginia, I feel safe in the border of my own home, but an unexpected knock is a sign of trouble. But here, I’m learning that a knock on the door is usually a call of friendship. Tonight it is Boma, the grounds keeper at Haudano. He sits across from me as I patch my jeans. We talk a little, sip a lot of tea, and he tries some of the vegetable stir fry. “Where’s the meat?” he asks, laughing.

After a while, we hear another knock at the door. This time it’s Malakia, the assistant principal at the school. He invites us to dinner at his house. I get home later, exhausted and full. But it’s not time to sleep yet, for there’s another knock! Secilia. “I heard you made some rice! Without meat!” She’s already eaten, so I open a bag of “Dove Promise” chocolates—the ones with words of advice. We sit across from each other and take turns reading the wrappers. Share a secret. We do.

“Trees will never meet,” says Malakia a couple of days later. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of his truck as we drive through the bush towards his village.

“I don’t understand.”

“Trees can’t move. They only communicate with the trees planted around them. Maybe there’s a tree in India that wants to know a tree in South Africa.” He pauses. “You see? We are lucky to be human.

Malakia is on to something. Who knows how many students will use their improved typing skills to secure a better job? It’s clear that the impact of my service in Okalongo cannot be quantified. So what was I doing with Boma, Secilia, and Malakia? Was I serving them? Were they serving me? The word “service” doesn’t seem to encapsulate our relationships—for, in fact, it was “friendship.” Perhaps friendship is the ultimate test of whether your “service has impact.” Are you friends with those you’re serving? Is it hard to separate service from friendship, friendship from service? If so, you’re on to something.

Trees never meet. But humans can. When we let our guard down and answer the knock at the door, we start to knock down borders—both physical and imaginary.



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