Story by Emilee Booher
Photos by Gracie Persson
Gracie tried to sleep on the floor of the sweltering sheriff’s office as insects swarmed the room and crawled all over her body. The men lounged around in nothing but boxers, continuously eyeing her on the floor. The sound of the snakes hissing outside of the open windows was even more bothersome than the buzzing of the flies surrounding her face. She arrived in town after nightfall, and couldn’t find her way to the village where the Nghuuyepa family lived.
The village was a two-hour walk outside of the town of Ondangwa, in northern Namibia, where the sheriff’s office was. Gracie called the family several times for directions, but failed to reach them because of shoddy reception. Fearful of getting lost in the Namibian night, she was forced to seek refuge with the half-naked sheriffs.
The night grew long and more sleepless. The only thing she wanted was to see the grass-roof huts of the Nghuuyepa family’s home. She was trying to at least slip into a sullen slumber when her phone rang. It was a call from the Nghuuyepa sisters. They had been walking for hours looking for her and had already started heading back to their village. Ecstatic to finally get a hold of Gracie, the sisters turned back to rescue her from the inferno that was the sheriff station.
After about an hour of walking, the sisters reached the station and welcomed Gracie back with laughter and locking embraces. It was too deep into the night to walk back to the village, so they decided to stay there. Mono, the middle sister, sat down in a squatting position and rested Gracie’s head in her lap like a mother to her child.
“Ondikuhole,” Mono said to Gracie, meaning, “I love you” in Oshiwambo, her native language.
Gracie was coming back to stay with the family again after being away for three months. She had left to go home to Eugene to earn money in hopes of returning to them soon.
Life Before Ondikuhole
Born and raised in Oregon, 20-year-old Gracie Persson serendipitously found a home away from home in Namibia with the Nghuuyepa family. She lived with them for a total of three months, with a brief trip home in between. In this family, she found a sense of daughterhood and sisterhood that had not always been present during her childhood. The ideas of home and family were unfamiliar to her, considering the rocky realities of her youth in Eugene.
Growing up, Gracie seldom felt the joy of a functional and healthy family. She rarely had the pleasure of seeing her parents get along.
“They fought a lot. I remember plates being thrown, and I would always try to get in the middle and make peace,” she says. “Their whole marriage was fast and they don’t even share the same belief system.”
As a result, her parents divorced when she was seven. Her father moved to the coast and Gracie stayed in Eugene with her mother and younger sister.
“I really, really loved my dad when I was little. I remember asking him to marry me, and I was completely serious,” she says.
With her father out of the picture, Gracie and her mother had a long-lasting resentment toward each other.
“I was a really strong-willed and bold little child, so I would confront my mom all the time, angry with what had happened.”
By the time Gracie turned 16, she had a distant relationship with her father and a conflicted relationship with her mother.
“My mom and I went through a really hard time in high school and I was really depressed… I would wake up in the morning to my mom just yelling at me,” she says.
On the verge of self-destruction, Gracie moved out of her mother’s house and in with the family of one of her classmates. This change slowly restored her stability piece by piece. She began to feel just how powerful loving relationships could be.
“When you love people, you forget about you, and you start to heal,” she says. “That’s what started happening to me.”
In 2006, the summer after her junior year in high school, her church presented her with the opportunity to volunteer in the eastern African country of Uganda. She traveled there with 28 people, staying in various volunteer houses and hotels. During the group’s stay, she worked in orphanages and taught art to the children. She also visited different refugee and internally displaced persons camps where she was exposed to levels of poverty, disease, and turmoil that she had never seen before.
Going to Uganda
It was in Uganda that Gracie discovered her passion for volunteering in developing areas. She started planning her next journey for the fall of 2007. This time it was to Namibia, a country on the western border of South Africa.
“I knew that Namibia had really high HIV rates, and I wanted to spend time with the people there and see if I could help,” she says.
Until it gained its independence in 1990, Namibia had been under an apartheid, which literally means “separately” in Afrikaans. This system separated people by the color of their skin, giving whites superiority. It forced people with black or colored skin to move out of many areas including Windhoek, the country’s capital city. Many settled in areas on its perimeter such as Katutura, which means “a place where we don’t want to stay.”
“There was still a lot of segregation and separation between the people … and it’s still affecting them today,” Gracie says.
She first went to Namibia to volunteer at the Beautiful Gate organization in Katutura, where she saw disturbing remnants of the apartheid era. Beautiful Gate is a Christian organization led by Afrikaners, people predominantly of European descent. Its goal is to provide care for children in need, particularly those with HIV.
But the organization’s caretakers were not as she expected.
“The only time the leaders would come was to tell the people what they were doing wrong. They didn’t really have a relationship with any of the children,” she says. “They also allowed the teachers to beat the children, not just a spanking, but with a wooden spoon all over their bodies; they would do these things in the name of Jesus.”
The leaders used their beliefs to justify a strict hierarchy above the teachers and volunteers.
“If a blanket was missing, [the leaders] would automatically assume a teacher had stolen it, so they would break into [the teacher’s] classroom and go through all of their stuff,” she says.
It was hard for her to abide by the leaders’ authoritarian methods. Gracie once tried confronting them about the morality of their practice, only to be rejected and ignored. “I was all by myself, and they just started yelling at me … It was horrible,” she says.
Gracie quickly grew to hate Beautiful Gate, calling it “terrible” and “corrupt.” She saw the organization doing more harm than good. It instilled some of the same system of beliefs as the apartheid. “[The leaders] were controlling, narrow-minded, treating black people like they’re less,” she says.
She endured the organization for two months, during which time she became friends with Gabriel Nghuuyepa, another volunteer from a tiny village in northern Namibia. This friendship soon became the catalyst to Gracie’s escape from the organization, and her entry into a life-changing situation.
Gabriel invited her to accompany him on a visit to his family’s village for holiday break, and Gracie enthusiastically said yes.
Leaving for a New Family
They left the organization in Katutura and made their 335-mile journey north to Ondangwa, covering nearly half the country’s length. They traveled on an old, rickety bus, followed by a two-hour walk to Gabriel’s village under the scorching sun. It was summer in Namibia, and the days were hot and dry, typical of its semi-desert climate.
When Gracie arrived, the Nghuuyepa family welcomed her with smiling yet apprehensive faces. Behind their transparent smiles, Gracie could see doubt concerning the presence of a foreign white woman in their home.
“They’ve been taught that white people are better,” she says. The family couldn’t fathom why a white person would want to come stay in their village.
“They thought it was crazy I was even coming there. The dad tried to persuade Gabriel to have me stay in town because they were embarrassed to have me,” Gracie says.
The family members stared at her as if she were an object on display. Some of them had never even seen a white person before. Gracie wanted more than anything to be accepted and trusted by the family as an equal, and as someone who didn’t see herself above them.
When Gabriel returned to Beautiful Gate after the break was over, Gracie didn’t go with him. She was weary of returning to the organization, and the family generously invited her to stay with them for the duration of her stay in Namibia.
Gabriel’s family included his father, mother, five sisters, and six-year-old niece. He and his sisters spanned from 14 to 24 years old, all around two years apart. The Nghuuyepas were self-sustaining; growing their own crops and raising their own livestock. Whereas many Americans see sustainability as drinking out of reusable mugs and buying organic products, the family relied on nothing but the careful craft of their hands, the mobility of their feet, and the fertility of their soil to live. The father, Tate Joseph, was a pastor who traveled by foot to preach to various groups of people in the town. The mother, Meme, often sold produce at the local market.
The family’s home consisted of multiple huts that each served a specific purpose. “They were like bedrooms in a house, but all outdoors,” Gracie says. The parents had their own hut and the sisters shared another one. There were also separate huts for uses such as beating millet (a type of grain), cooking, using the bathroom, and sheltering the livestock.
As a foreigner and guest in the Nghuuyepas’ home, it was important to Gracie to help change their belief that white people were superior. “They were very much wanting to serve me and do everything for me,” she says. The family was embarrassed to even share their food with Gracie and compared their crops to eating cockroaches.
“They bought me stuff like white rice at the grocery store in town, which they didn’t even have money for. I had to refuse and say, ‘No, I’m going to eat what you eat, and I’m going to drink what you drink. Stop elevating me.’”
She began to assimilate into their everyday lives by helping them harvest their crops, pound millet, cook meals, shepherd the cattle and goats, and fetch water.
“I would help get water and try to carry it in a basket on top of my head, but my neck was too weak so I’d fill it up half way and try to carry it back,” she says. “I also tried to milk a cow once and they thought it was the funniest thing in the world.”
Laughter and play quickly became the most powerful adhesives between Gracie and the family, particularly with the sisters.
“They saw something silly in me, and they were really silly girls,” she says. The girls made up the word ombwilu, for “playing and joking around.” “They would come to me and say, ‘Let’s play ombwilu!’ and we would wrestle or sing songs.”
Sometimes Gracie and the girls made a game out of beating the insects, or hohos, off of the crops with broken cornstalks. Ndamangululwa, the young niece, found the most pleasure in this, laughing and chasing Gracie and the other sisters saying, “let’s get the hohos!”
At night they would all lie together in the huts and tell stories about ghosts, or albinos, which they pronounced “al-bee-nos.” They would congregate together on the floor of one of the huts and fall asleep next to each other.“We started sharing beds as sisters. They would hold me and tell me they loved me,” she says. Soon, the lines between white and black dictated by the country’s history began to dissolve; Gracie became part of the family.
Everyone gathered a few times a day to share a prayer together or just talk as a family. “Sometimes we would have very good, intense debates. They were really strong women who wanted to know the truth, so they would argue with me and it was awesome.”
When Gracie left the village, Ndamangululwa cried to the sisters and said, “But I love the white girl, I love the white girl … I want her to come back.” It was heart wrenching for Gracie to leave her family in Namibia, but she was thankful for the unique experience they gave her.
“I was really humbled,” Gracie says. “I saw the purity and how freeing it is to completely sustain yourself, how much easier it is than we think, and how far off Americans are from it.” She says that although people in the United States are so concerned with sustainability, many still drive their cars and go out to eat. It’s not just a fad for the Nghuuyepas, it’s a necessity for survival. “I think they have a lot to teach us.”
But the most significant experience for Gracie was being a part of the love and closeness of the Nghuuyepa family. She felt what it’s like to have sisters who search outside for her all night. “I learned how a family functions healthily and saw how much peace they had. They were so loving and were with each other all of the time,” she says. She saw a loving mother who taught her daughters the things they needed to know, and the transfer of that knowledge from the older sisters to the younger sisters.
“I feel since I got this chance to change and feel more love in my life that I should also bestow it on other people. I’m trying to encourage my family to do that too,” she says. Since her return, Gracie and her mother have been working on resolving some of their issues. “Now my mom and I have a good relationship, pretty good, I mean, I’m kind of selfish,” she says jokingly.
When Gracie went to Namibia, she found a kind of love that’s rare to come by. It’s the kind of love where people’s differences become the glue that holds them together. It interweaves and fills in the gaps until all parts become a whole. Even though they come from two very separate worlds, Gracie and the Nghuuyepa family found the simplest joy in a shared sense of humanity. That in itself is the greatest healer.
“I believe you can heal people’s spirits through relationships,” she says. “It’s so important to believe in love, because we can’t change it all, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about touching people and loving them for who they are.”