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Nikki Hunter '02: Journey to Africa Opens Eyes

Willamette grad teaches kids and adults while learning about apartheid and AIDS

Nikki Hunter didn't plan to hitchhike across South Africa, but the Keizer native did it -- twice. During her vacation time from serving more than two years in the Peace Corps in Namibia, Hunter traveled all over Africa.

"Africa's not that dark and mean place that it's portrayed as," Hunter said. "You really don't learn much about African history (in the United States)."

Hunter, who graduated from Willamette University in 2002 with degrees in communications and history, always has had a fascination with Africa. "I've always wanted to go to Africa since I was a child," she said.

She and her sister, Lindsay, who worked in a dive shop in Mozambique at the same time that Nikki was in Namibia, plan to return to Africa next spring.

Despite her knowledge and curiosity about history that motivated her to major in the subject, Hunter still was not prepared for the aftermath of apartheid, legal segregation imposed by the Dutch in Namibia. "I'm white. I was seen as rich, more affluent," Hunter said.

Some locals would assume she was an Afrikaner, or a South African of European ancestry, because of her blond hair and blue eyes. Her realization was just one part of the education that guided her experience.

She learned while teaching, too. Hunter taught English, advanced-education courses to adults and HIV/sexual-health education at a hostel school in her village of Opuwo. The school had about 300 children. Sometimes in the hostels, children had to sleep three to a bed. "Living conditions for the children were terrible," Hunter said.

Her classes averaged about 40 children. "One hug can make their entire week," she said.

It was an interesting juxtaposition: to teach children in Africa while discussing teaching with her own fifth-grade teacher, Linda Reynolds of Clear Lake Elementary School in Keizer. "I admire her for taking on that task [of teaching in Africa]," Reynolds said. AIDS is a rampant problem in Africa. One of the teachers at Hunter's school died of the disease. "It was such a challenge for her because the rules were so different; students were dying, parents were dying of AIDS," Reynolds said.

In their correspondence, Reynolds confessed that Hunter's situation was unlike her's. "I didn't quite know what to write back to her. I was looking at my career and what my experience is," Reynolds said. "Connect with kids and learn from them as much as they learn from you."

What Hunter did was to help her hometown of Keizer and her new village of Opuwo connect through books. Reynolds' students sent books to Hunter's class, and they were amazed that their efforts could help. "They were tickled that those books made it far away," Reynolds said.

This story was written by Daniela Velã¡uez for the Statesman Journal and appeared on November 1, 2005.

© 2005, The Statesman Journal. Reprinted with permission.