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Watching the War from Abroad

NamibiaTwo months into my stay as an American student in Namibia feels like an eternity. Living here as the US is waging war with Iraq is like being in the twilight zone. I feel far removed from the national panic, from the protests, the constant news bulletins and the government-issued terrorist warnings of the United States.

Being an American abroad is giving me a whole new perspective on the United States. Growing up in Maine, I took for granted what a privileged life I lived. I never questioned that I would always have a toilet and running water, which are luxuries for many Namibians. Along with adapting to the Namibian ways of life, I have also been exposed to a culture of people who know too well the realities of war and the value of peace. Almost everyday, a Namibian will ask, "What is your country doing in Iraq?" And every time, I am embarrassed by the question. I don't agree with the choices that the United States government is making, and I hate to explain US foreign policy when I, myself, don't understand the motivations behind it. I try to say that many Americans don't want war, but people don't believe me because the media tells them otherwise. All that people in Namibia see in the newspapers are pictures of American and British soldiers armed to the teeth, an unsettling and frightening reminder of the violence of the Namibian war for liberation, which ended only thirteen years ago.

village in NamibiaThe families that I've stayed with here are also adamant about keeping up with the international news. Just a donkey cart ride away from the rural farming village of Khorixas, our host families gather around radios to hear the news delivered in several indigenous languages of Namibia as well as English, the official language of the country. Kaitlin Boyce remembers this vividly: "One day when I was sitting under the only tree watching the goats, the hourly news came on in Damara, the mother tongue of my host family. The only words I could understand were Iraq, missiles, and United States. I was so frustrated that I couldn't understand what was going on in the world, or what my country was doing, because of the language barrier."

Being here in Namibia is helping me and my classmates look at the United States through international eyes and understand the economic power that the US holds in the world. From here, the US seems like such an egocentric bully, as it continues to wage pre-emptive war without the consent of the United Nations. I really don't feel like the US is considering that its actions will have consequences for people all over the world, including Namibia. One Namibian woman I know told me that because the USA is seen as such a superpower and provides Namibia with so much aid and feeds into its tourism industry, war with Iraq will affect people here. She fears the fall of the dollar, the rise in the price of oil, and the possible loss of jobs for people who work at US institutions in Namibia. For many young Namibians, it's the first time they've seen the US in this light.

Many people in Namibia see America as a land that still flows with milk and honey, a place where they can find jobs, feed their children, and be free from the legacy of apartheid and colonialism. Kaitlin explains one experience dealing with these misconceptions: "I teach an English as a Foreign Language class for some women educators. One class session a woman asked me when I was going home, and if she could come back to America with me. I asked her why she wanted to go to the US. She said, 'things are cheap there, and I will make lots of money.' The other teacher, Paul, started explaining the relative cost of living in the US. He showed the women how a typical teacher in the US would be in debt after paying only for rent and food. The women were shocked, and could not believe that life in the US could be hard for anyone." Many people in Namibia think that everyone in the US lives well. When I debunk misconceptions I try to recognize that this isn't true for all Americans, the problems that exist in Namibia also exist in the US, although not to the same degree. Some people in the United States still go hungry and live and die on the streets. There is still racism, sexism, and poverty. The people still live apart, the rich in their area, and the poor somewhere else. Both my country and Namibia have similar legacies of slavery, injustice, and oppression.

shadow in the desertI want to be able to represent our country proudly, but I do not feel that I can do so at the present time, and I'm not alone since my fellow students feel the same way. As Bidisha found out, other Americans abroad share our sentiments: "Today, I met an American doctoral student in downtown Windhoek. She told me that she's so embarrassed to be associated with the US right now that she now tells everyone that she's Canadian. She advised me to do the same and gave me crash course in talking with a Canadian accent."

The world is watching as the United States undertakes a war that will affect the lives of people around the world. And no matter what individual Americans think about war with Iraq, the world sees the United States as one unified force, embodied in George W. Bush.

Unfortunately right now his voice is not reflective of all of our voices. My fellow students and I, as citizens of the United States of America, do not support this war. It is not in the best interest of any nation or person in this world, and I cannot stand to see our country act out of greed and a desire to save face. Such actions are never tolerable, but are especially intolerable in a situation such as this, when thousands of innocent lives have already been lost, and many more are at risk.

This article is a transcript of a radio broadcast produced by Julie Joy (21), Bidisha Bhattacharyya (21) and Kaitlin Boyce (20), who are all currently studying and living in the southern African country of Namibia for four months with 17 other U.S. university students through the Center for Global Education.

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