Friday, March 21, 2014

Wild Life

I’ve been waiting to write about this until I had a satisfactory collection of pictures to truly depict the horrific—uh, I mean incredibly diverse wildlife here in Mozambique. Alas, most harrowing encounters take you by complete surprise at moments when you are sans camera (mostly at night in the latrine) so you’ll have to use your imagination a bit. Let me start off here by saying that the people in Texas have no idea what they’re talking about. Granted, I’ve never been to Texas and everything may as well be bigger there than the rest of the states but I’m just saying unless they have ants as big as thumbs and beetles as big as fists Africa has all rights to the claim that everything’s bigger here.

A prime example is Tyrannosaurus Rooster, (or T.R.) our surprisingly cowardly friend who wakes us up each morning with his oversized rooster voice box. The first day we arrived we saw him strutting across the yard and stood in awe and shock until I came to my senses and snapped a picture of the beast. Since then we have tried numerous times to get another shot of him with something to scale but he’s so skittish we have yet to succeed. He even lets the normal-sized roosters chase him around. You’ll just have to take my word for the fact that his head comes up to my thigh.

A really big millipede
Sometimes, when I’m napping in my hammock or when the rains bring excellent porch-sitting weather I forget where I am because life seems so normal and calm. But Africa is always quick to remind me that I’m here in her untamed midst—whether it be bats in the roof, bugs in the flour, a dead mouse in my closet or the straight-out-of-Revelation plagues that swarm the road at night. My favorite was of what can only be described as tarantula-cockroach-cricket hybrids.

It’s not all bad, though. In fact, some of it makes me never want to leave. Where else can you get fresh pineapple for less than 25 cents? Or huge mangoes, papaya, oranges, coconuts and bananas fresh off the trees in your yard? In the afternoons we all sit and chat under the shade of a cashew tree that’s bigger than my house and at night we sit under more stars than you could imagine. If you only look up for 2 minutes you’ll see 5 or 6 shooting stars on a clear night.

One of the aforementioned plagues
It’s a constant battle between “how did I get myself into this mess?” and “how did I ever get so lucky?” but at the end of each day as I’m brushing my teeth under the Milky Way, clear as day from my back porch, the latter wins out and I go to bed happy.

…unless of course there’s a scorpion in my sheets.

Como Se Chapa?

Let me start this one off by saying that when I get back to America I will never complain about anything transportation-related again, because not even Atlanta rush hour on MARTA can compare to the torture of the chapa.
                A chapa is, in most cases, the only way to get anywhere in Mozambique. The closed-back variety is a large van on its last leg built in the 70s for a capacity of about 10 people, including the driver.(Picture the vans A/C repairmen drive, or maybe the kind you’d call your kids inside when you see it driving past your house.) the chapa driver is only out to make the most bang for his buck and since each person is more money (yes, you have to pay for this torture) he’s gonna pack as many people as physically possible. So, these ever-resourceful businessmen often add an extra “row” in the trunk space—essentially an old car backseat stuffed back there and maybe secured with some sort of rope if you’re lucky. And of course the fold-down seats facing the front row where you can enjoy someone’s knees in your crotch for a few hours. If you’re really lucky(or pretty) you might get one of the 3 coveted spaces in the passenger seat up front with the driver where you can be the first to see your imminent death hurtling towards you, probably with the added bonus of the gear shift being jammed into your thigh every few seconds. Either way, you better believe there will be 20 or more p3eople crammed into this vehicle, most of whom are not wearing deodorant so commandeering a window seat is priority number 1.
                The other type of chapa is the open back, which is what we mainly have here in Panda. This is a small pick-up truck—more than likely an Izuzu from the 80s. The real treat is getting to ride in the passenger seat, which you can sometimes pull off by being female, white, and showing a little knee if you’re desperate. if you can’t get this coveted spot, you’ve got to pile into the back with the others. The one good thing about the open-backs is the breeze that’s non-existent in the oven-like vans. You’d think that in 2/3 of the space of the van they’d fit 2/3 of the amount of people…but you’d be very wrong. I’ve seen 30 people in the back (and on the roof, and hanging off the side) of one of these. Your options are essentially to sit on the edge of the bed or stand in the middle. At first sitting seems like a good idea since you can hold on to something, but after a few hours of sitting on a metal rail with the weight of grown men and women seemingly trying to push you into the road, the threat of falling out becomes too much for me, as well as the fact that my butt falls asleep within about 30 minutes.

                But let’s not forget that people bring stuff, and here in Africa that stuff is a lot more of a logistical nightmare. I would say they travel with everything but the kitchen sink, but here the kitchen sink is a large plastic bucket and they definitely travel with those, too. So, with every inch of space filled where does all this stuff go? To that I just have to laugh and tell you that a chapa is never, ever truly full. There’s always room for the 50 kilo sack of rice and the plastic bag full of chickens. Where? On your lap, under the seat, in your leg space, on the roof or hanging out the window. I think my favorite sight in Mozambique is a goat standing on the roof of a chapa going about 70 down the highway. Recently, I was walled into a 2x2 space in the back of an open-back by about 50 boxes of toothpaste. At first I was annoyed and felt trapped until I realized that because of the boxes it was impossible for any other person to encroach on my space. With no people leaning on me or trying to push me out, I just hooked my arm through the rope that was securing the boxes and took a nice standing nap. It’s important to enjoy the little victories when dealing with chapas. Really these happen every time you are in one that makes it where you’re going without breaking down or blowing a tire, or if one of these things happens in the shade rather than the sun.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Happy Heart

Sunday was my first time in an African Assembly of God church. My friend Momati told me that service started at 9:30 AM, so naturally he arrived at my house around 10. We walked to the church only to find we were part of the early crowd and the caniço (cane) building was being used for children's church, so I waited outside under a tree with some other women and exhausted my Xitswa (the local dialect) vocabulary in record time.

Around 10:45 some important-looking people in suits showed up and we all filed into the church. There were plastic chairs set up behind the altar for the people in suits and grass mats and wooden bench pews for the rest of us. The service started off with Xitswa hymns sung from memory by most people, and although I was graciously offered a hymnal the language is as hard to read as it is to speak. Whoever created it didn't understand the importance of vowels. Part of the problem is that there are many sounds in Xitswa that I wouldn't have the first idea how to spell, like a low whistle or a grunt for instance.

After the hymns it was time to "bring your thanks to God" and about 10 people stood and announced things God had done for them that they were grateful for that week. After the thanks was a time for anyone who had prepared a song or dance of praise to present. There was a solo song and four dance groups, one of which was the most precious group of kids I have ever seen. They performed one song with a step dance and they stomped so much they kicked up enough dust to fill the building.

After the singing and dancing the room erupted into a loud combination of everyone talking--shouting, really--at once. At first I thought maybe they were speaking in tongues but the woman next to me casually that this was the time to pray aloud. So after everyone's mixture of shouted prayers in Portuguese and Xitswa the sermon began. It was difficult to determine which one of the men in suits was actually the pastor because they all took turns contributing what were probably words of wisdom but I can't be too sure because 90% of them went over my head. The text was from 1 Kings when Joab is ordered to be killed by King Solomon. What I got from my occasionally whispered Portuguese translation was that even if you're sick or dying you should come to church because it's better to die in the presence of the Lord than at home. Fair enough.

Then of course I was asked to stand and tell the congregation my name and where I'm from and what I'm doing here. And my embarrassment was complete when I acknowledged that my name is indeed "Face" and I received not only the laughter I have come to expect but also a round of applause. Then we all got on our knees for "individual prayer" which caused the room to erupt again because there is no quiet prayer in Africa. Then more singing and dancing, an altar call to lay hands on the sick, and the offering, which was sort of a line dance...with singing of course.

The last part of the service was a very large woman presenting the pastors with their holiday gifts from the congregation (capulana, bottles of soda) and then throwing hard candies into the congregation as a New Year treat.

All in all I had a great, albeit overwhelming, time at church. I walked away with new friends, a slightly increased Xitswa vocabulary and some hard candy! Not to mention my heart was filled at the sight of all those people praising God for a solid 3 hours. It was definitely different and more in-your-face than the organized, highly scheduled church services back home but you can't help but be impressed with people who will willingly sing and dance in near-hundred-degree heat for that long. It's the happiest bunch of church-goers I've ever seen.

During one of the last hymns that was sung my friend turned to me and said "This song is a good one. It says, 'I have nothing, but I still have happiness in my heart.'" And I think that sums up the spirit of a Mozambican church service pretty nicely.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Mulungu Zoo

Hello from Panda!

After an exciting last week in Namaacha with plenty of parties and 4 glorious days in the capitol for the swearing in ceremony and supervisor's conference (complete with HOT SHOWERS), I am now an official bona-fide, sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteer!

Our beloved festive bull skull!
We arrived at site on Friday afternoon after a 6 hour chapa ride. Panda is a super small, sandy village about two hours away from the coast. It reminds me of a little beach town...without the beach. Our house is a 3-room concrete house with attached bath house and storage area. We have a latrine which the previous volunteer took upon himself to splatter-paint pastel shades of the rainbow. Don't ask me why but we do have the most festive latrine in Mozambique...and heck probably all of Africa.

The school where we work is pretty much in our front yard. I'm already having visions of rolling out of bed 5 minutes before class starts. Our house is one in a row of other concrete and reed houses occupied by other professors and their families. The upside to this is that we have a very safe environment and people are always at our house, from the neighbor's girls playing jenga in our living room and swinging on our porch to our colleagues coming over to make sure we have everything we need. The downside to this is, well, people are always at our house.

Our front porch, complete with swing and pull up bar!
This morning, for example, I was awoken by one of the little girls peering into my bedroom window and yelling my name. That horror-film-worthy alarm brought me as close as I've come to wetting the bed in 15 years. Later today as I started on the hopelessly large pile of laundry I've been putting off, two of our fellow teachers walked over. One, whom I am afraid of because she speaks so bluntly and has a bad case of angry-face, exclaimed in surprise that I was washing my clothes.
-Yes, I am washing my clothes.
-You know how to wash clothes?!?
-Of course.
-You know how to wash clothes like this?? (makes scrubbing motions with her hands)
-Huh! Well where are you going to dry them? (now she's quizzing me)
-...On the clothes line out back.
Then they proceeded to watch me wash clothes for five minutes in silence before they left. Ten minutes later I had the same experience with one of my students.

My room
We're the Mulungu Zoo! Mulungus (which is Xitswa for white people) are inherently fascinating to Mozambicans and here we are doing all these fascinating things like laundry and cooking and reading...who could blame them for stopping by to sneak a peek? Part of this is also that routine daily tasks that we consider errands are much more social activities here. In the States we try to get things like shopping, cooking and cleaning done as quickly and efficiently as possible to make more time for the fun activities with our friends like eating, going to the movies, etc. But here, the chores and errands are the social activities. A trip to the market could take over an hour even though it's only a five minute walk because you have to take time to stop and talk to everyone there.

Yesterday I was feeling pretty sick--just tired and achy and all I wanted was to lay down. The previous day we had completed our obligatory introductions to our colleagues and community leaders, so I was surprised when the school director summoned us over to the school that morning. My roommate Emma and I walked over expecting to discuss class schedules or more awkward introductions but Senhor Director simply announced that the daily snack was ready. I tried my best to hide the you-seriously-just-got-me-out-of-bed-to-eat-an-egg-sandwich expression but my face has a knack for displaying my true feelings. My escape efforts after snacktime were also futile. The aforementioned colleague who strikes fear in my heart with her stink-eye caught whiff of our idea to return home. "No," she said before we even got up. "Sit and converse with us." Well, how could I argue with a direct order from Maleficent herself? So we sat there learning Xitswa words, teaching English words, and of course explaining why we don't have husbands or boyfriends or both.

All humor aside, I really do love Panda and our community here. Everyone is so unbelievably friendly and eager to help in any way they possibly can. These people would probably give me the shirt off their back and they've only just met me. That's the kind of community I was hoping for and I am so grateful to be here. I can't wait to spend the next two years in my new home!

Living Room

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

House-Arrested Development

Provincial elections are today and as a result all of us are on lockdown for the day. So since I’m stuck in the house faced with laundry and lesson planning I thought it would be a great time to write about site placements.

Last week was the most stressed I’ve been since I arrived in Africa. After arriving from site visits we all had a long weekend of relaxation to look forward to with ample time to wash the pile of dirty clothes we accrued over the week--OH WAIT, I was thinking about an alternate universe where I have enough hours in the day. Let me start over.

After arriving from site visits we all had a long day of classes and then an entire weekend of permagardening to look forward to. What’s permagardening you ask? Well, I couldn’t tell you because I was so tired and hot and over it Saturday morning that I hardly paid attention. It has something to do with sustainable vegetable gardening and composting. Probably useful information but half of my group spent our time deliriously doing ridiculous activities like fruit ninja with real fruit and machetes, mango baseball and chasing chickens. Let me just say that real life fruit ninja is much more fun than the app.

The following week we were all supposed to be planning to teach model school (basically kids are bribed with food to come be our guinea pig students for a week), but with site announcements on Thursday everyone was on edge. My week went about like this:

 Lesson plan. Panic. Lesson Planning and panicking. Try to think of ways to make genetics fun. Realize that’s pretty much impossible. More panicking. Get sick. Puke for 8 hours on the hour. Spend the day dying in bed in a concrete house that’s kin to an oven in the African sun. Recover and lesson plan some more…also more panicking because site announcements are tomorrow!

When the day finally came to find out where I’ll be living for the next two years, we had our long day of core classes and they of course waited til the very end to hand out our site packets. We all lined up on the sidelines of the basketball courts outside of the school. On the court was drawn in chalk a giant map of Mozambique and all of its provinces. They handed us our envelopes and we all stood there like kids on Christmas Eve waiting to open them.
And the verdict is………

PANDA! In Inhambane province in the south, which is affectionately dubbed the Peace Corps Playground because of how close all of the volunteers are placed together. I am actually really close to a lot of great people, and I have a roommate and a site mate so I’m very happy with my assignment. I am teaching technology, which is not what I expected to be teaching or feel prepared for at all but in the Peace Corps there’s no way to know what you’re actually going to be doing until you’ve already done it. Also, I had a long conversation with one of the volunteers I’m replacing and he says that technology teachers are seriously needed in Panda so I’m happy for that. Also they apparently have a state of the art computer lab that was recently donated to the school so I’ll actually have computers to teach with, which is a serious advantage and a rarity here.

Some other things about my site: it’s kind of in the matu (bush, middle of nowhere, etc.) but only an hour and a half away from 2 beautiful beaches and an hour away from a large city where I can get things I can’t find in the markets. My house has electricity and is in a neighborhood with all of the other teachers at the secondary school. We have a latrine and a yard and I fully intend on having a dog, a chicken coop and a pig that I will fatten up over the next two years and have as barbeque at the end of my service. It’s also apparently very safe and the community is very welcoming. Overall I can’t wait to be there and settle in to my new home!

That’s all for now, I’m going to continue demolishing a bag of Jelly Belly’s that my family sent to me in a care package with two of my friends.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Two Words: Chicken Burrito

Site visits were this week, and it has been a cluster of events and emotions. Everyone going north of central Moz got to stay overnight in Maputo in a hotel that would probably have not met my standards a month and a half ago but now seems luxurious…mainly because of the HOT SHOWERS! Staying in the capitol has other perks too, like pizza and burritos and gelato and crunchy peanut butter and cheese and wine and the best coffee milkshake you can find anywhere! So yeah the perks mostly revolve around food and I think I ate more on Saturday than I ever have in my life. It was beautiful.

What was not beautiful was me on Sunday morning because we had to wake up at 4 AM to catch a ride to the airport and board a plane (if you can really call it that) to Chimoio. My host volunteer Jamie met us there in the PC office and after running some errands in the city we headed to Sussundenga. Both of these cities are in the province of Manica in the center of the country. It’s about an hour chapa ride from Chimoio to the lovely mountain town of Sussundenga. About halfway through the chapa passes through the market of a smaller village and you can buy produce from the vendors as they come up to the windows and try to entice you with their enticing selection of onions and tomatoes.

 Poor skinny dogs of Sussundenga.

The first full day in Sussundenga was nice because I basically got to see all of it...and because we had some delicious french toast. We walked about 6 and a half miles going around the lower half of the village and hiked a bit up into the mountains to look at the amazing view. We passed through all of the local mercados (markets) and at one of the clothing stands I found an ADII shirt from Baylor. Basically Africa is the end of the line for your clothes that got donated but never sold in America. They call them calamidades (literally calamities) and they’re pretty awesome sometimes.

The next day we walked around the top half of the village and I got to see the new secondary school and another gorgeous view. We ended the day eating dinner with a local family there. We ate rice and beans and I must say that you haven’t had rice and beans until you’ve had it here. Mozambicans definitely know how to cook beans.

I left the next day for Chimoio to overnight there with the other volunteers since we had such an early flight the next day. We spent the day in the city which was surprisingly nice. I don’t really like big cities, even in the States so I couldn’t see myself living in one here but after visiting Chimoio I really don’t have a preference one way or another. Despite it being urban we met a lot of nice people and the volunteers placed there seem to love it and feel at home. I also felt a lot safer than I expected to feel in the city. Also it helps to have pizza and soft serve ice cream available on command. Overall there were things I liked and things I didn’t about both sites, and I still have no strong convictions on the type of site I should request. Honestly I’m just ready to find out where my new home will be for the next two years!

Mountains in Sussundenga

On the way back from our lovely site experience we had a handful of headaches at the airport and then in Maputo at the Peace Corps office and basically had to hike across Maputo luggage in tow in order to catch a chapa back to Namaacha today when we were expecting to have another night at the hotel. But that’s Peace Corps for ya so whatever. As soon as I arrived back home I was tackled by my niece and nephew (who I recently learned are really my half brother and sister) and my sister Lidia and then Mãe. As soon as I saw them I was overwhelmed with how much I had missed them. I am so happy to be here, home with my family. And they made me my favorite dinner, Matapa!

So now I’m exhausted and we of course have a long day of core classes tomorrow, which I of course will not be paying attention to since we find out where our sites are this week.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why I Joined The Peace Corps

I want to take some time here to talk about the idea of spreading information, education, training, love or whatever via person-to-person interaction. We call it a grassroots effort, and it is probably the most frustrating and difficult thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer.

My generation is one that was taught things like “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “impossible is a four letter word.” We are a generation of super competitive overachievers because we have big dreams and we crave fame, power, and notoriety. In my case, I had such a desire to change the world and I really believed that I could until adulthood and the real world set in. All of a sudden there were bills and student loan payments and an empty job market to worry about. So, I joined the Peace Corps…not to run away from adulthood but because I believed it was the best possible way for me to make a career out of meeting the needs of others without ending up homeless.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, though, it’s that you can’t come into this job thinking you can change the world, this country, or even the skewed notion that a girl’s education is less valuable than a boy’s. You don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations, but you do need to adjust them.

I think we all came here thinking we would find creative ways of making these kids love science. We’d jump in feet first into teaching a subject we love to these people and our innovative American attitudes would raise test scores, attendance and student participation across the board! That’s the idea, anyway, but it’s not the reality. 

Each week we get a pair of volunteers who are one or two years into their service. They help facilitate our lessons and give advice on what to expect from our sites, schools, etc. The reality they have delivered to us is that we will have much larger classes than anticipated (a class of 60-80 kids is normal), cheating is rampant, attendance is scarce, the grading system is often corrupt and biased, students rarely are equipped with textbooks and the textbooks themselves contain errors. So essentially I am now prepared to have a class underwhelmed with resources and overflowing with students, most of which don’t belong in the grade level or maybe don’t even speak Portuguese. I am also prepared to feel completely useless, because I think everyone feels this way when faced with such an overwhelming obstacle.

That brings me to the question: why am I still here? I’m still here because I believe in what I’m doing, even if I’m not always sure I know what I’m doing. I believe in the overall mission of the Peace Corps and that one day the education sector won’t be needed in this country, and I will be able to say I was a part of that. I believe I am here for a reason, even if I don’t yet know what it is and even if it’s something as simple as being a friend to one person here.

If you look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic, you’ll see a massive problem that seems too big and too overwhelming to overcome. When you think about this disease in America, you think of the billions of dollars spent on research and ad campaigns. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn it’s much different here. In lieu of the ad campaigns there are red ribbons painted and drawn on the street corners and bus stops. This weekend my mãe’s cousin cut her own throat because she found out she was HIV positive. She had two children. It’s devastating, and when you try to think of a solution it seems like too big of a problem and at first you come up empty. You can encourage your friends and neighbors to get tested. You can offer counseling or just lend an ear. You can teach sex-ed to a group of teenagers. You can’t solve the problem immediately, but the problem wasn’t created immediately either. It can be helped the same way it was spread: person to person.

The other day in one of our Tech sessions we talked about the traditional gender roles in the culture here, and one of our professors mentioned that people think he’s crazy when he goes grocery shopping for his wife or does housework because he’s a male and that’s not his role in society. He said they are even offended at his allowing his wife to continue her education. He believes in what he is doing for his wife and his family, though, and his view on how to combat this resistance is just to rationalize it with his friends. He said that once he explains that he is doing this for the benefit of his family and for his children a lot of times they will see his side of the equation. He may not change their viewpoint on gender roles in society, but if one person sees the benefit of gender equality and passes that on to another person you have started a chain of ideas. That’s what grassroots is, and I wholeheartedly believe in its effectiveness.