A Heartbreaking Goodbye to My Namibia Travels
As the Ministry of Education van rumbled down the sand tracks and pulled away from my little house in Onantsi village, I felt my heart sink.
In the few days prior to my departure from Namibia, I had begun to get excited about the prospect of leaving–of sauntering off around South Africa, of finally seeing Dan after a year apart and of once more returning to the beautiful land of evergreen trees and abundant rain.
But as my house disappeared in the distance and as I turned to see Embara standing on my doorstep waving goodbye, I felt an uncomfortable stir in the pit of my stomach and an overwhelming urge to cry.
It had been so easy to say hello, to jump into this new adventure with open arms and an open mind. It was easy to grow attached to my learners and to find beauty in my surroundings, but I didn’t fully realize how difficult it would be to let go of these very things one year later.
The year presented me with numerous challenges–challenges of navigating a language barrier, of fitting in with colleagues, of managing a classroom full of hormonal teenagers and of feeling physically drained from walking to and from town in the sweltering heat. But by far the greatest challenge I faced was saying goodbye to Embara and his friends, Jackson, Anna and Thomas.
Since Embara moved to a nearby homestead after his father’s death in early August left him orphaned, the two of us became inseparable. He became my little shadow, following me to town, helping me with school projects and filling my lonely afternoons with constant chatter and entertainment. It became apparent that I needed his companionship as much as he needed a parental figure in his life, and he would often stop by after school and linger until the late evening hours, telling me stories and jokes. He introduced me to many of the children from the surrounding village and ensured that my third term in Onantsi was anything but lonely.
Every day after school, Embara and his friends brought me tortoises and frogs, taught me countless clapping games and pleaded that I extend my contract for a second year.
But when darkness fell and the other kids would leave my house to commence their cooking chores or to collect firewood, Embara always stayed behind. He helped me sweep the pile of dead cockroaches that would dust my living room floor every evening and showed off his English skills by reading aloud sections of the newspaper clippings that he found scattered around my house.
When I really could not delay my lesson planning any longer, I would send him home reluctantly and hear him say, “Miss I don’t want to go. Miss, you are leaving me so soon. Why are you leaving me so soon?”
And every time I heard these words, my heart would break.
On my second to last day in the village, after I returned home from a long day of grading exams and entering marks into an Excel spreadsheet, I heard a knock on the door. Embara was standing alone outside my house, clutching his backpack and fighting back tears.
Confused and concerned, I let him in and told him to take a seat at the table while I poured him a cup of juice. I knew he had received his report card earlier in the day and immediately thought of the worst. What if he did not pass and had to repeat fifth grade?
However, I quickly dismissed that hypothesis. Embara was far too smart to have to repeat a year of school. Still, I was not sure what had upset him so much.
When he finally collected himself, Embara let out the story. He had received his report card earlier in the day and had come first in his class. He was so proud that he wanted to show me his marks, but his class teacher would not let him bring his report card home until he returned the natural science textbook he had lost earlier in the term. Embara had no idea where the book was, and he told me how much he had cried when his teacher denied him his report card as a result.
He had wanted to show me his grades and was afraid that I would not believe him when he told me that he had come in first in his class.
“I wanted to make you proud” he told me, “Because I have nobody else I can show my report card to.”
On my last evening in the village, after Anna, Jackson and Thomas left to go home for the evening, Embara once again stayed behind. He helped me pack away my clothes and watched me dart frantically around the house in search of everything I needed to bring home. He asked me if he could fit into my suitcase and come home with me and I laughed, but judging by the look in his eyes, I could tell he was not joking.
When we took a break and sat outside for a while, Embara turned to me and asked. “Miss, why does everybody leave me? First it was my mother, then my brother, then my father and now you.” And as with so many questions that I had heard prior, I did not know what to say. I felt a lump grow on the back of my throat and tears welling in my eyes. I did not want to leave Embara and his friends, though I knew it was time for me to return home.
I told Embara that we didn’t have to say goodbye just yet, that the Ministry of Education van would be picking me up at around 9am the next morning and that he could see me off the next day at
around 8:30 if he wished. Even before the sun rose, at 6:30, I heard a bang on my window and a small voice cry out “miss, miss, are you still here?”
Embara wanted to be sure to catch me before I left and was afraid that the ministry had already come to take me away. I assured him there was still time and I quickly got dressed and joined him outside as the sun rose. We waited and waited. I dreaded our final goodbye and the minutes of waiting for the bus felt like hours.
Saying hello is easy. It is exciting, new and full of possibility. But saying hello comes with a price, for every hello is inevitably accompanied by a farewell. And I didn’t want to say farewell to Africa. I was not ready to pack away this experience and put it away to collect dust. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my students and the children from primary school who made my experience so enriching and fulfilling. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the kids like Embara who have already had to say far too many farewells in their short lives.
So, instead, when the van pulled up and I gave Embara one last hug, I fought back tears, whispered “see you next time” and vowed to someday return.