I have met so many people in this beautiful country that I want to share with you. This blog post will highlight one of them, Berta Boois. She is the cleaner at the clinic and she is also my Afrikaans tutor. She is patient with me but also demands that I work hard learning the language. I need someone pushing me because I have this mental block about languages and she is helping me overcome it. Her English is very good and getting better by the day!
Berta Boois…Born October 24, 1979 to her mother ( a housekeeper for others) and her father (a railroad worker). She is the 5th of 6 children and the only girl. She is a hard worker who was born in the Aus Clinic, where she now works. She completed primary school (which is through grade 7) in Aus, then went to Karrasburg (about 350 km’s away) for grades 8 and 9. She then went to Bethanie (about 110 km’s away) for grade 10. That completes her education. While she was in secondary school in Karrasburg and Bethanie, she stayed in the school hostel and when she came home during holidays and occasional weekends, she came to Aus to stay with her grandfather (“oupa” pronounced oh-pa) because her parents had moved to Rosh Pinah for work.
Berta’s parents are still living and moved back to Aus quite a long time ago. They live in the “location” (the poorest section of Aus) and Berta goes to their house every day for lunch. Berta’s oldest brother farms, another brother is a truck driver, and another one is a petro jockey (gas station attendant) in Rosh Pinah. Her other two brothers live with her parents. One has built his own room next door to her parents and the other lives with them. Neither brother contributes financially and that makes things extremely difficult for Berta’s parents who live on their pension. One of these brothers has a Grade 12 education and official work papers (which makes getting a job very easy). He will get a job, move away and get involved with some girl, spending all of his money and time on her. He never sends money to his parents or helps provide for them at all. Then he gets tired of his work and quits or is fired, moves home and mooches off his parents until he gets the notion to work again. This cycle has gone on so long Berta describes it as “this is just the way it is”. The brother who lives at home in the room he built next door is the youngest of all of the kids. He has a girlfriend (who is engaged to some 60+ y.o. white man in Keetmanshoop) with whom he fathered a son. The girlfriend won’t take responsibility for their son so Berta’s parents are raising him. Another drain on their meager pension.
Berta has 2 daughters. The oldest (Vanessa) is 14 years old and currently in grade 8 in Keetmanshoop (250 km from Aus). Her father lives in Kavongo which is in the northern part of Namibia so she does not see him and he does not help support her at all. She does want to see him but it is expensive to travel so far and therefore not possible at this point. School fees are really hard for the poor to pay but somehow Berta gets it done, but I’ll go into more about that later. When Kayla was in Grade 1, her father was working in Rosh Pinah and one weekend when Vanessa was visiting he moved up north without telling Berta and took Vanessa with him. She found out that they were gone and soon discovered there was nothing she could do. She went to the police who said the father had the right to take his child and Berta didn’t have the money to go up north to get her daughter back. She was gone for 2 years. Can you imagine the anguish Berta felt not knowing how her daughter was doing, not knowing if she was in school, not knowing if she was being fed and because of poverty, she was not able to do anything about it. My heart aches just thinking about her situation. The father brought Vanessa back to Berta after two years and has not seen her much at all since that time.
Berta’s other daughter, (Kayla) is 11 years old and lives with Berta in the location. She is in grade 5 at the Marmer Primary School in Aus. Kayla is a nice girl and I’m going to start tutoring her in reading as soon as I return from my visit home. Berta is currently researching schools hoping to send Kayla to a better school next year. Her father works with Scorpion ( a mining company in Rosh Pinah), he see’s his daughter when possible and he gives Berta N$500 each month to help with child support. N$500 is less than $50 US Dollars to give you have a reference. He is a Baster, which is one of the many tribes in Namibia. They are very proud of their Nama and Dutch decent. Afrikaans is their native language. You will notice in the picture below that Kayla is much lighter skinned than her mother.
The primary school here does not do a very good job of preparing the students to move on to secondary school. Many of the local children finish primary school (grade 7) and then they don’t go on to secondary school. There are many reasons this is happening but partly because there is no secondary school in Aus and sending your child to another town means they have to live with relatives or live in the hostel and that can be more than the budget allows. Another problem is that the students who finish grade 7 here, can not go directly into grade 8 in other places because they are not as prepared as they should be. Why isn’t something being done about that? Good question and one I keep asking. I get so many answers it is difficult to discern what is really happening. For my part, I will be helping the Life Skills teacher when I return from the wedding and I’m starting a “reading club” for the kids to help them learn to read English (the national language). All of their standardized tests are given in English starting in Grade 3.
Back to Berta. Here’s a recap of her work history. She started doing housework for a lady in Rosh Pinah. She worked there for 2 years and describes the lady as very nice. Then she went to work for the Scorpion Project doing cleaning and was there for about 4 years. Then she moved to Aus and got a job doing housekeeping at Klein Aus Vista ( a beautiful resort-look it up on the internet) and was there for approximately 4 years. At that point she got a job at the Aus Clinic. The advantage of working at the clinic is that it is a government job so she has better benefits. She has asked for a transfer to another clinic or hospital so she can move from Aus. Aus is a vary quiet community and with no secondary school, no grocery store, no bank, no other shopping at all and it would make things better for Berta and her daughters. They could all live together and the girls could further their education without it being so financially difficult. I hope Berta gets that opportunity although I would miss her tremendously if she does!
A bit about Berta’s finances. I’ve asked her permission to include hard numbers so you can get a sense of what her life is really like. She does NOT want pity. She has a joy about her even while working hard and worrying about making payments. Here’s the run down of her monthly income and expenses in Namibian dollars:
Income from pay N$4100
Income from two ladies who rent one room N$300
Total income: N$4400
Deductions from pay N$2100 (which includes health insurance, pension, and funeral expenses (for her parents, her kids, herself and one brother).)
Hostel fees etc N$300
Air time (phone) N$30
Total deductions: N$3380
Right now, Berta is making another N$300 per month from tutoring me but I’m not including that because it is temporary. Normally she is left with about N$1,020 (about $100 US dollars) for groceries, clothes, emergencies, birthdays, and anything else that crops up. Can you imagine? She does all of this with a smile on her face, a ready laugh and a twinkle in her eye. She is a joy to know and my life is much richer having met her.
Berta’s daughters have never owned new clothes, they wear “hand me downs”. They’ve never owned a cell phone. They’ve never asked for new things, it’s just understood that it’s not possible. Berta bought a bag of apples this week (a real treat) and while I was visiting Saturday, Kayla offered me one. That’s the reason for the quote at the end of this blog today. Berta has raised her girls to know they must work hard and get educated if they hope to make enough money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. She s a bit hard on them because she has worked so hard over the years and she knows what it’s like to struggle every single day. She wants a better life for her girls. Some ideas are universal aren’t they?
On another note. This past Thursday, a baby was born at the clinic that was only 23 or 24 weeks. He died soon after birth and has been in the morgue below the clinic since Thursday. Today, the grandmother came to claim the baby so he could be taken for burial. I went with the nurse to help get the baby ready. He was so beautifully formed, just very small and he looked like a doll. The grandmother brought clothes and blankets and a diaper and after dressing him, we put him in the tiny casket made out of pressed wood and then added all the other clothes that had been originally collected for him. It is their tradition to bury everything that was supposed to be for the baby with the baby. It was another touching, sad and spiritual moment to add to this experience I am having. I believe the image of that baby will stay with me forever.
“There is no act of faith more beautiful than the generosity of the very poor.” Abdullah in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts