19 April 2022

Field notes: A Chinese Buddhist school in central Namibia

The day starts early at the Centre. At 5:00 in the morning, nearly 200 children and about a dozen caretakers (called “mothers” or “mamas”) are already bustling around their residential buildings (called “villages”) getting ready for the morning meditation class at 5:30 in the temple hall.

By Yasmin Cho
Marie-Curie Fellow
Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies

The temple at the Centre doesn’t resemble the temple of a traditional Buddhist monastery. It looks like a large indoor gym and is also used for martial arts training and various other activities. But in any case, it is where all the Centre’s Buddhist activities take place: it has a small shrine with a Buddha statue and offering bowls as well as large Buddhist-themed wall paintings toward which the children pay homage every day. Led by a couple of the mothers, the children walk to the temple from their villages, entering the hall in lines and sitting in straight rows on the floor. Their shoes are also lined up at the back of the hall. The younger children in the pre-primary class, who joined the Centre only a few months ago, require more assistance from the mothers in getting lined up and seated. But all in all, the children seem to embody the meditation procedures quite well since they repeat the same ritual twice a day, every day. 

About twenty years ago, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity organization supported by a global Chinese Buddhist network of practitioners started building schools and providing free education for vulnerable children in Africa. The school in Namibia, one of the organization’s six schools, opened in 2015 and currently houses about 200 children from pre-primary to grade 6. Although the school follows the secular curriculum set by the Namibian government, it also instills and cultivates Buddhist practices, Buddhist bodily technology, and Buddhist values in its daily activities for the children at the Centre. Yet, among the Namibians in town, the Centre is known as the “Chinese school”; and the Buddhist elements of the school seem to have remained largely confined within the boundaries of the Centre.

The school

Beginning with the meditation class in the morning, the children at the Centre have a very tight schedule each day: regular classes with Namibian and Chinese teachers in the morning, and in the afternoon, extracurricular classes and activities with Chinese teachers that include classes for martial arts, dance, and Chinese language before their evening meditation class. Even during the weekends, the children are involved in various kinds of activities ranging from cleaning and gardening to scouting, sports, and library sessions. This encompassing 24/7 care program, as it is called by one Namibian staff member who has children, is the most attractive and enviable feature of the Centre. Angie, a Namibian social worker at the Centre, told me that she would send her daughter to the Centre without a minute’s hesitation if she could because of this all-day care system. (Unfortunately for her, the children of employees are not eligible for admission to the Centre because the children have at least one full-time working parent. Most of the children admitted to the Centre come from poverty-stricken families who have no means to sustain a basic life, yet alone education, for their children.)

The informal settlements in central Namibia

The sky is still dark when the morning meditation begins. There is usually no electricity at this early hour. A fire damaged the Centre’s powerhouse several months ago and the supply of electricity has been limited ever since. The children and the staff must wait until the sun is up before the temporary solar electricity unit kicks in; but the system is unreliable and electricity at the Centre has become something that is no longer taken for granted.

In the meditation class, besides silent meditation, children also recite mantras and listen to short lectures given by a Chinese staff member (ideally, Chinese monastics give lectures and lead the class but they are not always available). A small group of children has been selected to play in a Buddhist music band (with dharma drums, bells, and gongs) for the meditation class as well as for other small and large Buddhist rituals around the Centre. Their music provides rhythms and beats for the recitation of mantras, making the memorization of mantras, which sometimes takes as long as 30 minutes or more, easier and less tedious. When the loud chanting sound of children’s mantras reverberates around the entire Centre, a distinctive Buddhist soundscape is formed and, in this way, the space is consolidated as distinctively Buddhist at least twice a day.

The meditation class aims to lead the children into a calm and well-aligned state of mind. It is an ideal Buddhist way to start and close the day. The semi-military mode of operations (walking and sitting in straight lines, maintaining proper posture, etc.) is necessary to maintain discipline and inculcate the children into Buddhist habits of posture and practice. Most of the children follow the rules and are well acquainted with every step of this Buddhist life cultivation. As they grow in competence, the inculcation process itself and its outcomes become invisible and go unnoticed.

Without a doubt, the Centre has brought dramatic changes into the lives of these children. If they had not been admitted to the Centre, they would not likely get up at such an early hour and walk and sit in rows to meditate; they would not play and listen to Buddhist chanting rhythms, let alone recite mantras themselves; they would not engage in a strict daily schedule full of classes and activities; they would not learn Chinese; many would not even attend a school. Strangely, however, these changes—despite their groundbreaking impact, both implicit and explicit, in the lives involved—go unnoticed most of the time. What the children do and learn at the Centre have become normalized. A seven-year-old Namibian child who can recite complex Chinese Buddhist mantra in Chinese for 30 minutes without a break has become a background fact in the Centre’s operations.

At times, despite the noble aims and well-managed disciplinary method of the class, some children doze off during class—being in “meditation” and being “half-sleep” are indistinguishable. Drowsing during meditation is not much of a concern because it doesn’t harm the overall implementation of the class; but what is potentially more troublesome, a Chinese staff member shared with me, is that some of the older children in grades 5 and 6 sometimes show an attitude of disrespect toward the meditation class, and more broadly, toward Buddhist-related activities and rituals at the Centre. These children often do not chant while others chant; they deform their postures deliberately; they shake their legs the whole time, or simply do not pay attention to the class. Some of the Chinese staff are concerned that, as the children grow older, the implementations of Buddhist culture such as the meditation class may create conflicts for the children who share with their families a deeply Christian religious ethos; and in fact, most Namibian families hold strong Christian values. But it is too soon to tell if something will “break down” or come into conflict, and this extraordinary experience will become visible again.