From Ondangwa to Oranjemund: Building Cultural Bridges

Landing at Hosea Kutako Airport outside the capital Windhoek, the landscape is spotted with camelthorn trees and dry riverbeds. In the distance, one can see the undulating terrain of the Auas and Eros Mountains. The sun appears larger, more intense; an organic heat lamp brightly shining down on Africa’s hidden gem.

January 3rd, we began our two and a half week trip across Namibia. It is the middle of summer in Namibia and temperatures can reach up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). Sunscreen and hats are not recommended, they’re a necessity.

After getting settled in Windhoek, acquiring the two new Cisco devices intended for two new participating schools in the Building Cultural Bridges program, we began our drive to the North…no, not the Game of Thrones North, the Namibian North, or affectionally known as Ovamboland or O-land.

Roughly a seven-hour drive to Ondangwa, we encountered a heavy amount of rain. Typical for this time of year as it is the rainy season in Namibia. The substantial amount of rain was evidently followed by an immense amount of greenery. An auspicious sight for farmers and livestock in the North.

After our arrival in Ondangwa, we made the short drive up to Ongwediva to meet with our participating Namibian teacher, Sarafina. Bright and ambitious, Sarafina provided us directions to the school where she taught, Hashiyana Primary School, and her journey on becoming a teacher at the school along with her fascination with classroom technology. Upon arriving at the school, we were fortunate enough to meet the Principal of the school, Amon Ndeitwa. The first term of Namibian schools had not yet begun (classes begin on January 15th), so Principal Ndeitwa was in his office prepping for the upcoming term.

After a successful Cisco DX installation and training in Hashiyana Primary School along with feedback from Sarafina and Principal Ndeitwa on what can make the BCB program better, we were off to the coastal city of Swakopmund.

Driving south, through Etosha National Park, into the town of Outjo and then past Karibib and the Uranium mining town of Arandis, we became engulfed by the briny sea air of Swakopmund. Our stop in this German-influenced and highly visited tourist city of Namibia was to meet with teachers from two participating schools, Westside High School and Festus !Gonteb Primary School. American student response letters in hand, we were warmly greeted by three teachers at Westside High School.

Ingrid, Tamara, and Grizelda, provided a comprehensive assessment of how the Buiding Cultural Bridges program had been operating in their school. Discussing their interactions with American teachers, new ideas for projects that Namibian students could present to their American counterparts, and steps to incorporate STEM education such as coding and programming into videoconferencing sessions, the amount of enthusiasm could be tasted in the air. Closing out the meeting with Westside High School, we headed out to Festus !Gonteb Primary School – only a few kilometers away.

Arriving at the school, pre-school preparations and admission were in full swing. Administrators moving swiftly between offices, parents patiently waiting to enroll their child in school, and an element of eagerness lingered amongst it all. Delivering response letters to the Principal of the school, our time was brief but we were left impacted by the vision of the school communicated by the Principal. This was the second school he would be operating as Principal over due to a vacancy recently created in a neighboring school. Undaunted by the challenge, he emitted confidence in his students’ and teacher’s participation in Building Cultural Bridges and establishing a rapport with their American counterparts.

Maintaining the tight schedule, our time in Swakopmund came to an end and we got on the dusty scenic back roads toward the inaugural town of the Building Cultural Bridges program, Oranjemund. Some 11 hours of driving through majestic and surreal topography that only Namibia can offer, we arrived in the town juxtaposed between the nourishing Orange River and mighty South Atlantic Ocean.

With only a few days to spend in Oranjemund, we reconnected with students, teachers, and principals to identify new engaging classes and perform maintenance on the videoconferencing devices located in the two respective primary schools. In addition to the maintenance and class identification, our colleague Vern, was able to interview a teacher and a principal about their experience in education in Namibia. A short video documenting these interviews is currently in the making!

Oranjemund felt akin to a homecoming. Navigating one’s old neighborhood, remembering the sights and smells, encountering friends of past, reliving the moments that brought the Building Cultural Bridges program to what it is today; it is appropriate to admit a sense of sentimentality.

Bidding adieu and heading north to Oranjemund’s coastal cousin town, Lüderitz, we were in the second half of our trip. In addition to Ongwediva, Lüderitz would be the home of the second Cisco DX videoconferencing device – specifically Diaz Primary School. Two teachers from Diaz Primary are committed to spearheading the program with assistance from a Peace Corps Volunteer to help build sustainability.

The BCB program is centered on connecting students from Namibia and the US. Moments such as witnessing students receiving and reading their letters reminds us that it is the young individuals who drive this program. They make it exist and we are only here to create a channel for them to bond.

The BCB program is centered on connecting students from Namibia and the US. Moments such as witnessing students receiving and reading their letters reminds us that it is the young individuals who drive this program. They make it exist and we are only here to create a channel for them to bond.

Finishing up distributing letters, the installation, and training of the videoconference device in Lüderitz, we were back on the road headed north to Windhoek to spend one last day brainstorming ideas with potential partners in improving the BCB program by integrating career ideation and health subjects such as HIV awareness and prevention.

Reflecting on our time spent in Namibia, we are forever grateful and indebted to the countless Namibian students, teachers, principals, and all who give this program life. Seeing this program expand to additional schools in Namibia – to schools who deserve it, who know they can make it happen and can operate it sustainably, only further motivates us to continue to do everything we can to keep this program running.

Connecting students beyond their borders to their fellow peers across the globe develop not only friendships but so much more than meets the eye.

All these traits and skills come to life when students communicate and work together across cultures. They come to understand that the world is getting further interconnected and any of these individuals could be future teammates, colleagues, employees, or bosses.

Why wait to get to know them? Starting now can lead to endless possibilities.

5 Student Benefits of being involved in an International Pen Pal Program

We like to imagine that our students’ classrooms are multi-lingual, multi-cultural environments that bring the entire world to their eyes. The realistic and unfortunate fact is that, generally, this does not fulfill our expectations. Undoubtedly, the world is getting smaller thanks to social media platforms and an increased reach of the internet, yet are the interactions we have, especially students have, meaningful? Are they learning or exploring the cultures of the people around the world?

With the Building Cultural Bridges program, the expectations aforementioned are met and go far above. Connecting students across states in the US to countries in Africa, first via pen pal letters and then video conferencing, has allowed students (and teachers) to benefit immensely. And in more than one way.

Below are the top 5 benefits to students who are participating in an international pen pal and cross-cultural exchange program:

Reading, writing, and presentation skills improve: Students are able to practice reading and writing as they write out their questions and thoughts onto paper. Not only are they writing for a real purpose but they’re physically writing for a real audience too! Students tend to care more about their grammar, their spelling, and their punctuation because they want to impress and make a good first impression on their pen pals; especially when it’s international.

Students increase their compassion and understanding: When students are writing to other students in an opposite hemisphere or a continent thousands of miles away, they begin to see differences in the world around them. From what they eat to a second language they speak to sports they play. Yet even though there are differences between them, students begin to see the similarities they have with their pen pals because after all, they’re kids! Kids enjoy playing some of the same sports, read some of the same books, and may eat some of the same things.

Promoting patience and delayed gratification: Rather than having the instant gratification of a text message or Snapchat, students develop the understanding that creating anticipation sweetens the ultimate experience of receiving a letter back. Instead of getting the awfully similar text tone when an email comes in, students can physically handle their letter when it arrives and eagerly open it to read what their pen pal has written in response.

Developing social skills and abilities: When students write pen pal letters, they can typically swing two ways. One is that the student will write all about themselves OR students will list out questions that may make it seem like a 60 Minutes interview. So where is the middle ground? Encouraging students to read their letters to their peers allows for constructive criticism and revisions to be made to their letters. Moreover, by letting students write about themselves but also asking questions their pen pals, they begin to discover common bonds that share with one another and a variety of topics that spark interest in learning more.

Curiosity development: Children are naturally curious. However, an international pen pal can ignite a curiosity for the world outside of what they know. Where is the country located that their pen pal is from? What is the language or languages are spoken there? What is their history? Many inquisitive questions can come from writing to an international pen pal. As their curiosity increases, the more interest in learning that ultimately develops.

Interested in joining the Building Cultural Bridges program? Click here to fill out our application form!

The Building Cultural Bridges Program relies on the kindness of public donations to continue running. A donation of $5 provides 1 hour of video conferencing for US and Namibian students. Donate Today!