Saturday, March 14, 2015

10 Things I Took For Granted: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Living Without Luxury


Don't be fooled by the title of this post, it's not complicated and it's not about economics...a word I personally can't even say without yawning. First of all, I'm not going to apologize for the infrequency of my posts anymore because a) I'm busy, and b) I'm tired of doing it every single time I post something. Just remember that you get what you pay for, and this endearingly amateur prose I provide is free.

It's funny I should bring up the mantra "you get what you pay for," because it fits right into the theme of this post. Recently I started a unit on Excel and small business ventures for my 12th grade ICT class with the intention of squeezing some knowledge of income generation principles in with all the formula confusion. I got the idea to have them do a cost-benefit analysis of two small businesses in their community, and then while researching cost-benefit analyses I became slightly obsessed with them. I started to cost-benefit analyze all of my actions, like getting up at 9:00 AM vs. 8, studying for the GRE vs. binge-watching House of Cards, and walking to the market vs. just eating tuna again for dinner.

So here I'd like to do a cost-benefit analysis of living poor vs. having all of the luxuries I took for granted in the States. You may be thinking, "Woah...poor? That's not a very PC term. Wouldn't "simply" or "within modest means" be prettier?" Nope. I'm poor. Just to prove it to you, I will reveal that I live on $200 a month. This has to cover food, water, electricity, travel, internet/phone credit, my maid (yes, she's an essential living expense), and any misc. expenses for the month. Just to make that hit home, that's less than a quarter of what I'd be receiving on welfare, and 21% below the US poverty threshold for a single person. Even so, I'm pretty well off compared to most of the family households in my community.

Now that we've established how poor I am, here's the list of the top things I now realize I took for granted living in the US,  how living without them has affected me and how I believe they affect societies in general.

*Note: These are ranked by how much I took them for granted (i.e. how quickly I would decide to give up my right arm to have them at this moment in time), not by their impact on society.

10. Diversity

This one ranks low on my list because being the only white person around sometimes has its perks here, like getting the front seat in a chapa that's usually reserved for men, or claiming ignorance of cultural norms/school policies when I really just don't want to follow them. I don't want to downplay how alienating it is, though. Being stared at everywhere you go, being catcalled in broken english and constantly disrespected, being distrusted or discredited at work, and being held to a different standard than the rest of your colleagues is exhausting and frustrating. Not only that, but the amount of times someone has asked in disbelief, "You have black people in America?" baffles me.

I think being exposed to such a wide variety of people is something all Americans take for granted to some degree. Speaking generally, people of the same race, religion, and background tend to stick together. This makes sense because we tend to pick our friends based on common interest, but there is such a beneficial affect on our psyche when we surround ourselves with different kinds of people. If you want racism, sexism, and other discriminations to dissipate, the best thing you can do as an individual is to befriend people who are different than you. That's when you really start to accept, on a conscious and an intuitive level, that we're all human beings deserving respect, and that's when you'll start to make decisions based on that respect.

9. Reliable Government/Democracy

Again, really important on a society level...but not affecting me so much as the lack of delicious ready-to-eat fried chicken. All jokes aside, having the security of the US government is something I seriously took for granted. We can complain about its problems and corruption, and we can even be justified in our complaints, but we've got a better system in place than 90% of the World and we're constantly working to make it better. I take comfort in knowing that vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral drugs are always available, that emergency medical care will be given to me regardless of my ability to pay, that if things get really bad and I can't afford to feed myself I can apply for aid, and that if I get kidnapped by Somalian pirates my government will move hell and high water to get me back safely.

Real democracy, a vote that counts, and an opportunity to be a part of the change in my government is something I will never complain about, because the alternative is seriously bleak. The blind sheep mentality is detrimental to the mindset of a country's people and, in my opinion, directly affects its efficiency and success as a whole.

8. Air Conditioning

Big switch here, but if your air has ever gone out in the dead of summer while the repairman is on vacation you know what I'm talking about. Except, you don't. Sorry friends and loved ones but when you compare the heat of the Southeastern US with this heat in Southeastern Africa it's the biggest understatement you could possibly make. The sun is literally closer to me. This means that not only is it hotter but the sun's rays are more intense, resulting in what feels like an oven set to 300F on a cloudless day. Add in the humidity of being on the coast and it's kin to that oven and the sauna in your gym combined. I can't even use the expression "sweating like a whore in church" because if that whore was sweating like I am I have no doubts that she would promptly be kicked out of church, or maybe be taken to the hospital.

How does AC affect society? I'm convinced it makes us more efficient and happier in general. The Mozambican workday in the summer is slow and there are lots of breaks because it's way to hot to sit inside. Also it's too hot to eat or sleep at night so everyone just stays in this daze of weakness and lack of motivation to do anything except nap. AC keeps us moving quicker, working longer, and sleeping better. Can't argue with a blessing like that.

7. 9-1-1

I had a dream a couple of nights ago that one of my students came into my house and refused to leave. So, essentially a nightmare. One of my threats to coerce him into leaving was to call the police to come remove him. I picked up my phone and started to dial 911 and then I realized that number means nothing here.

Don't get me wrong, there are police here in my village. If I needed them I'd just have to walk down the road to the station and get one. In bigger cities there's a definite police presence in the streets at all hours to enforce the law (and harass foreigners). I'm sure there's also a station number to call in the cities as well. One of the things I like about my village is the fact that I don't feel the need to have constant contact with the police to feel safe. I think it says a lot about the communal sense of security that exists in rural Mozambique. 911 is about more than just police, though. It's about the fact that when you're in danger of dying, you have an escape plan.

If I'm in a tight spot, it would take Peace Corps approximately 14 hours, best case scenario, to get me to the capitol. Add another 4-10 hours if it's something like emergency surgery that would need to happen in South Africa. This doesn't worry me too much because there aren't that many things that will kill you in under 24 hours but not instantly. What would worry me is if I were a national, and I had no real hope of immediate help in an emergency. The impact as far as I can tell is that people rely more on each other than they do the police, and they take precautions into their own hands when needed. Walk through any city in the developing world and this is evident by the fortress-style iron grating, electric fences, and broken glass/barbed wire used to protect residences and businesses. Of course, we've got our alarm systems and deadbolts, but there isn't a constant need to worry about being the victim of a crime in your own home when the authorities are about 10 minutes, not 4 hours, away.

6. Libraries

The availability of information is invaluable to me as a scientist. Libraries are free sources of information that have unfortunately lost popularity with the growth of the internet. You can still use the internet for free at the library, though. Free information for all! It's such an amazing concept. Every time I want to assign a research project to my students I have to print out articles for them to use, and every weekend flocks of children gather to look at our small collection of children's books. There is no building with free access to books, dictionaries, atlases, newspapers, computers, and internet. It just doesn't exist.

Obvious impacts are literacy rates and education quality, but I also think taking away that hub of credible information causes a dangerous shift. When your only source of information comes from the internet, television, and gossip, critical thinking and careful research go out the window (or never come into the picture in the first place). People stop questioning what they hear and more readily accept it to be true.

This may just be an inevitable trait of humanity though, given the measles outbreak in the Land of Information because people started believing vaccines are more dangerous than infectious disease epidemics. Hey, easy fix: lock everyone in a library who believes Facebook articles and/or celebrities are credible sources until they see the light and/or all succumb to rubella.

5. 24/7

This encompasses everything convenient about America, and our passion for making the most of our time. In Mozambique things are not so. The lunch break starts at noon and ends at 2:30 (or so). Things close promptly at 6 on weekdays and noon on Saturday, and good luck finding anything open on Sunday. This is not to say that you couldn't walk a mile to pay your electricity bill only to find that the sole employee of the energy company is inexplicably not there at 9:30 AM on a Tuesday. Life here is, in a word, inconvenient.

Astonishingly, people just accept the inconvenience of life for what it is, mostly because they've never known anything different. I, however, have an extremely hard time accepting the inconveniences and usually end up taking it out on the unsuspecting postal worker, waitress, or aforementioned energy company employee. Life is slower here, and that means less efficiency and productivity. But it also means less stress and frustration, with an ability to let things go that are out of your control. This I can admire, because I lack the ability to not try to control everything.

I often make fun of how slowly Mozambicans walk, dubbing it the "Mozambican Mosey." If I think about it, though, it accurately reflects the lifestyle here. For us in America, life is all about the destination. We live our lives constantly thinking about the future, preparing for what's next. Mozambicans live in the present. They're mind is on the moment they're in, so there's no rush to get to the next one. The journey is as important as the destination, so why hurry?

4. Wifi

OK, so it's not so hard living without wifi, but I lump this in with reliable cell service, internet, and all the things that instantly connect us to other people. Being connected to anyone with the press of the send button meant constant communication and no interruptions in social connections or productivity.

Now, conversations with friends and family are much more infrequent, and there's really no good way to keep up with everyone I used to talk to regularly. I just find out they're engaged or pregnant or moving to China whenever I log onto Facebook. Even contact within country is spotty and sometimes my village goes days without cell phone service, sans viable explanation.

I will say that each conversation I do have is more meaningful, partly because we have substantial things to talk about and partly because there's no such thing as unlimited pre-paid phone credit, so minutes are meticais! Arguments can be made that not having internet access is a blessing, but I maintain that despite the positives of being off the grid, it is still overall a curse. Not to mention, the "days since this iPhone has been backed up" notification is driving me insane, like tally marks on my prison cell wall.

3. Transportation

Safe, reliable transportation makes life less stressful, and less dangerous. First of all, having (enforced) safety regulations on all vehicles before allowing them registration is somewhat of an obvious yet overlooked measure in the developing world. I mean, you can charge money for these inspections, make it a profitable endeavor, and ensure the safety of your citizens. But noooooo, because then the colorful culture of cramming 40 people into a barely road-worthy pickup with secondhand tires and a transmission welded together in the market by some guy named "Rasta" would die. Can't be having that.

I want to say I took for granted having my own car, but I think I really took for granted having my own personal space in a car...or train or bus or boat. Also, the fixed scheduled departures and arrivals, coupled with the convenience of everyone else you know having a car, even if you don't (see number 5). The result? You always get to work on time, right?

Nope...just traffic. But at least there's AC! ;)

3. Prepared Meals

I couldn't decide whether to put fast food, restaurants, or just American food in general, so I decided on meals prepared by someone else other than myself. This is an important distinction because, while I firmly believe food from any other country just isn't as good as the American variety, I have had good food here. Just last night I made the best black bean enchiladas with homemade sauce. They were delicious, but they took me hours to make and they would have been just as delicious coming from a Mexican restaurant where someone spent hours making them for me.

The main point here is that meals are ready and available everywhere back home, and here they take hours to prepare. There's no sandwich meat or microwaves, and even salad veggies have to be bleached first. The result is spending most of your day planning and preparing meals, or visiting neighbors around mealtimes until one of them invites you to eat with them. The most serious problem arises on Sunday, when you're travelling home from a long weekend, tired, hungry, and nothing is open. Or worse, around 1 AM when you get the munchies and there's no taco bell or 24-hour Kroger.

I mark a country's development index with the availability of late night snacks.

2. Water

Do I mean indoor plumbing? No, I mean water. As in reliable access to clean drinking water. Not having to carry water for miles (or yards, even) to your house in a bucket. Having running water to wash your hands with. Irrigation systems for agriculture. Slip n slides and swimming pools!

What happens when you don't have it? Well, you carry enough water to your house to drink and bathe and cook with every few days. You praise the heavens and set out every bucket you own whenever it rains. You boil your drinking water even when it's 100 degrees outside. You might occasionally get cholera or giardia. You might have to wash your clothes in the river during a drought. Bottom line: you appreciate it, and you don't waste it.

I can bathe in 3 liters of water. I can wash my hair and body and shave with less than the liquid content of two bottles of coke. I do it every day here. I think clean, drinkable running water is a huge health advantage, but I think always having access to it has led us to waste it.  Every drop of water is precious when you have to carry 25 liters of it from a spicket 75 yards away, and even more precious when your water pumps are hooked up to the extremely spotty energy grid and you sometimes forego bathing for days until the energy comes back on because you have nowhere near the upper body strength to carry water uphill from the river 5 miles away. Which brings me to........

1. Electricity...!

Sofie's choice for every peace corps volunteer is choosing what sucks worse: living without running water or without electricity. Well, I don't have running water and I lived without electricity for 8 months, so I feel qualified to tell you that electricity is far more convenient than running water. It's one of those things upon which you don't realize how much you rely until you don't have it. Without electricity, a short list of things that become infinitely harder and/or impossible are: breakfast (I need coffee before I can light the coal stove, but I need to light the stove to make coffee!), pretty much all other meals, using the telephone, using the computer, sleeping (without a fan), keeping leftovers, purchasing meat, fish, or dairy, and any activities after 8 PM.

I will admit that having it has made me soft: I was sort of used to it when we didn't have it, but now, when it goes out, I become furious and would rather suffer in the dark than get out the cookstove and light the oil lamps. Just this morning I started WWIII with the neighbors because they forgot to pay the energy bill and I had to sleep without a fan. Being able to admit this makes me no more reliant on it, though. I know I can live without it, I just don't have to...and I don't want to.


So there you have it. That's my list. If you were wondering how the other half (of the world) lives, now you know. It's important to say that it's not a bad life, just a different one. There's not a thing on this list that has made me unhappy or unhealthy by giving it up. In fact, if I were to analyze what happens to society in general when you strip away luxury and convenience, I would say they become more resourceful. Humans have an incredible knack for adapting...we've been doing it for a long time. Mozambicans amaze me with this quality and I have definitely noticed an increase in my own capacity to make things work with limited resources. So enjoy your luxuries, and be thankful for them, but know that you can live without them. They don't define our happiness or our ability to be productive and successful human beings.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Three Cheers For The New Year

Our long summer break has ended and my second year of teaching is about to begin. I can't say I'm not depressed about this vacation coming to an end but it has definitely been a crazy adventure. I began my travel with a trip up to central Moz to Chimoio in the province of Manica. Prior to November this trip wouldn't have been allowed due to the ban on overland travel through the province of Sofala. Since my arrival here there have been attacks on the main road there and the only way to pass through was in a military caravan. Thankfully peace accords have been signed by the leaders of the two major political entities (FRELIMO and RENAMO) here and attacks have since ceased. This also meant that I got to spend Christmas with volunteers and friends from the north and central parts of the country whom I normally never see. The trip is about ten hours usually but I made it in eight with a nice ride from a CDC worker and his friend who's apparently built the road that goes through Panda. On the way we saw aftermath from some of the attacks that happened, including a burned down trailer and bus and a bridge destroyed by explosives. After arriving I spent some time at my friend Thelma's house in Vanduzi, a mountain village about 40 minutes outside of the city. Her site is home to the farms of a big fruit company here, so she can get fruit like grapes, plums, peaches and apples (fruit that is normally exported from South Africa and very expensive) for cheap. We headed to the city for Christmas Eve and cooked a dinner of lasagna, mac and cheese, pigs in a blanket, hummus, pita chips, glazed carrots, and plenty of dessert and sangria. Volunteers came from all over the north and central regions to celebrate together and we definitely had a great time.



After our celebration Thelma, Matt (another PCV) and I began our long trek to Cape Town. We had great travel luck and made it to Maputo, the capitol city, in one day. The next morning we hopped on a bus that took us to Johannesburg where I met my best friend Sarah who came all the way from Georgia to hang out in South Africa with me. After a night in Joberg spent catching up we all boarded a plane for Cape Town on New Year's Eve. I can honestly say this was the best NYE I've ever had. We crashed a yacht party, watched fireworks for the first time in a year, and watched the sun come up. Cape Town I always a blast and we definitely took advantage…plus when Sarah and I are together we always have a blast. It was the highlight of my year getting to spend an entire week with her.

 The rest of the week was spent mostly relaxing on the beach, eating delicious food and generally enjoying the beautiful land of beautiful people. We also played with spider monkeys, hiked to the Cape of Good Hope where a baboon stole my Camelback, and I finally got to dive with Great Whites! The shark diving was the most exciting thing I've ever done in my whole life. We went out on this two deck fishing boat into one of the harshest tides in the world. We hadn't been out there but five minutes when the first person started to look a little green. Our guide was standing there saying it could be hours before we see a shark, and before he finished his warning of the possibility of not seeing a shark at all the skipper yells out "shark in the water!" I looked over and saw a dorsal fin and then a set of jaws come up for the tuna head bait in the water by the cage. I snapped a picture and ran down the ladder to pull on my wetsuit so I could get into the cage first. I made it in first along with three other people and we watched the shark thrash and breach around us as they teased him with the bait up top. It was awesome. We had about 15 sightings in all, the largest about 5 meters, and I got two hours of cage time since about half of our group was hanging over the edge too sick to even think about the Nat Geo grade fun the boat veterans were having on the other side of the boat. Never have I loved my iron stomach more.

When we headed back to Moz we had about ten days before our midservice conference, but Thelma and I decided it made no sense to go back just to turn around and come back so we set out on another adventure. We visited some friends in Gaza province and slowly made our way up to Vilanculos where we spent my birthday on the beach. My friend Lisa was house sitting in a house right on the beach there, and some other PCV's came out to celebrate with us. It was the perfect end to our vacation and from there we headed once again down to Maputo for our conference. While the actual conference was tedious as conferences go, it was the first time my group was all together since we left training for our respective sites. Needless to say it was a great time. By the end though, even though I didn't want to leave the air conditioning and delicious food, I was ready to get back home to my own bed.


Yesterday I arrived from a solid month of travel and adventures to find my house completely taken back by nature. The spiders and roaches are much more abundant and much less shy than before I left and there is a solid layer of dirt and sand covering every surface. Our yard looked like a desert last month but there must have been an obscene amount of rain because it now looks like a jungle of weeds and I need a machete to Indiana Jones my way to the latrine. It's not all bad though because in addition to the weeds our okra and pumpkin plants are crazy big….the pumpkin vine even has two decently sized gourds growing on it! Must be that fertility is in the air because I also returned to find Lua extremely pregnant. I expect our house to be filled with puppies in about a month, which I can't decide if I'm excited for or dreading. Vamos ver! One of the things I realized at the conference is that I'm ready for whatever this next year throws at me. It's been a long year filled with ups and downs, some very extreme, but it's gonna be an adventure this time around. I'm already feeling like my time in paradise is slipping away too quickly so I've got to take advantage of the rest!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Campaign-in-the-butt

With the presidential campaign wrapping up here, midterms happening Stateside and finally copping season 2 of House of Cards, I've had politics on the brain lately. I don't normally talk about politics, partially because I was taught that it is impolite dinner conversation and partially because it annoys me a lot. Nevertheless I thought it would be interesting to compare American politics with those here in Mozambique.

Moz is a pretty new democracy coming from failed "one party democracy" (whatever that means) and socialist leaderships following liberation from colonialism. The political party system is massively complicated , facing corruption seeded since the war and influence from so many foreign interest agendas that no one knows who to trust anymore. What Mozambique has is the right to vote, a fact worth celebrating in itself. Despite being a democracy, though, the country is still riddled with socialist gray areas, like the presidential portraits hung high in every school,  shop and restaurant...Big Brother always watching.

Here in the south the majority by far is FRELIMO--the liberating party from the war-- and mum's the word about the other two major parties. The south is more developed, being closer to the capitol, but things get more complicated the farther north you go. As you head up, paved roads turn to gravel and then dirt. The income gap gets wider and development in general decreases. These people have more cause for complaint against the current regime, and thus are more likely to lean towards the RENAMO or MDM parties. This is also where political tensions rise, as in the case of RENAMO attacking civilian and military vehicle convoys in the province of Sofala. Thankfully these have since stopped despite yet another FRELIMO win and peace accords between the party leaders have been signed.

Elections were relatively peaceful here. They remind me of the elections for Miss Homecoming in college: full of gimmicks and based largely around how many campaign parties they can throw in the streets. Lots of our classes were cancelled here in Panda because professors were busy campaigning. All of our desks and some of our classrooms were commandeered for campaign use, so for two weeks we taught under the mango tree. These instances are common but mild. At a school farther north a student was given the ultimatum of donning a party Tshirt or not being allowed to study that day. She refused and went home. Some of our friends and colleagues participate in the majority party campaign even though they disagree with their policies. They do this because if they come out openly as in favor of another party they will be fired or refused employment. Things like this make it hard for me to appreciate how far the country has come because there is still so far to go. I sit on no high horse though because American politics strikes a similar chord with party loyalty to a fault. People of both nationalities act as if their political affiliation is akin to a sports team. They sing and dance, wear the swag and trash talk like it's all a game. They blindly follow their team with die-hard loyalty, checking the vote-party box on ballots, making excuses for just about anything and always blaming the other team when things go wrong. These affiliations come from parents or friends or even habit.

I'm a Republican. Being a Republican in the Peace Corps is like being a zebra in a pack of thoroughbred horses. As minority as I might be, though, I've had some productive and intelligent political conversations with my colleagues. We can speak objectively and open-mindedly...the only way to approach the issue of government in my opinion and I feel that my generation is doing better at that. Even so, I've gotten used to being a political outcast among my peers. Growing up in the South, it's easy to inherit the Republican fandom, and while I register on the same side I don't often agree. I'm a Republican because I believe in the free market, in conservative spending and in limited government. I don't believe in forcing any moral agenda through government policy. I believe in human rights and in free will, so I don't believe that it's fair to deny same-sex marriage licenses or that doing so makes our nation more moral. I'm a Christian, but I believe in the separation of church and state because I believe forcing adherence to any religion defeats its purpose entirely. Unfortunately this makes me the minority member of the GOP.

I can deal with being in the minority or even being the only person with my beliefs. What really baffles me is the important research people forego before heading to the polls, as if they identify with nothing outside of "red" or "blue." They want Hillary because she's a woman, Barack because he's not white, or George because he's a Christian. Voting history and domestic policy loses over the hot-button issues during the debate and who shakes more hands on the trail; or in the case here who has more Tshirts and better music. In both cases we end up with the dangerously uninformed and dangerously loyal majority controlling the polls. The only way the system works is with checks and balances, and the only way to keep those in place is to keep an open mind and make an informed decision based on facts and not feelings. This political can't-sway-me fandom has led to pretty terrible things in past societies. For further reading, see the rise of Hitler in Germany or the beginnings of Communism in Russia.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Secon...Wait For It...Dary

I'd like to talk here about secondary projects. These are any and all community projects outside of teaching school. They are also essential to my experience here since I find the most fulfillment from them and they generate more of an impact than my super-exciting lectures to 8th graders about kidneys.

I have a JUNTOS group (Jovens Unidos No Trabalho de Oportunidades e Successo), which is a group of 11th and 12th graders who express themselves through art with the underlying themes of HIV/AIDS prevention, the ramifications of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and discrimination, among other things. My group has been working on a newspaper themed around Malaria prevention and treatment and they have also recently been performing skits and monologues on drug abuse and gender discrimination during our school's morning announcements.

We have a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Education to hold a Science Fair to promote innovative and investigative research. We have two kids going to the Provincial Fair this weekend from Panda: one created a distilation apparatus using items from his kitchen and make his own orange oil with it, which can be used to repel insects,  clean the house, and moisturize skin. Another student did an experiment comparing eucalyptus, cinnamon and lemongrass as natural insect repellents. These are two of my rock-star students and I'm so proud of their projects. I can't wait to see how they do at the fair!

I also work with the R.E.D.E.S. organization (Rapariga Em Desenvolvimento, Educacao e Saude), a network of girls' groups with the mission of creating opportunities for young women through health education, skill-building and income generation. The goal is to reduce their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS by empowering them to build better futures for themselves and not fall into the patterns that so many others have felt forced into by society and lack of appropriate skills. This year I am serving as the Assistant National Coordinator for the organization and I am very excited to see it continue to grow and thrive in Mozambique. We have been working hard to create awareness and continue to educate and support our groups accross the country. You can learn more about R.E.D.E.S. on our website www.theredesproject.org if you're interested. If you're not, I made the website so go look at it at least. :)

Our group here in Panda is led by my site mate and I. I'm in charge of leading the girls in dance practice once a week as well, whether it's just for fun or for an upcoming performance in the community. They have performed a few routines already and the community members absolutely love them and have started asking them for encores. It's common for people to put together dances for holidays so other groups also perform but my girls are always the best (biased as it is, I stand by this statement). They have also taught me a lot about traditional dance styles, which I love, but my favorite part has been watching them transformed from the shy girls they were into the enthusiastic and sassy bunch they are when they're dancing in the town square. It's really helped them build confidence and I absolutely love sharing my passion for dance with them.

I have some other projects in the works here, but I'll save those for another post when I can talk about the finished product. You never know when things will fall apart here despite your hard work. I know I've touched on the frustrations of my service before, but when working towards such a large and ambiguous goal as "development" it's so easy to get jaded. It's very hard to see progress or results and sometimes you don't ever get to see them--either because they happen after your time here or because they never happen at all. Failure and uselessness are the things I struggle with every single day.

Things pile up here just like they do in the States, and I probably have the same stress load I did back home in one form or another. The difference here is there is no organization, logistics or leadership in place to help you accomplish goals.

There's just you.

And there's no parameters in place to guide you like there are for normal jobs. There are only your ambitions. So if your ambitions include visiting the beach and fulfilling the minimum requirements of service, you're golden! Have yourself a two-year vacation. But oh, you came here to help people, develop a community, change the world? Phhhh...good luck. Your ideas are put at the mercy of your community. Rallying these people is like herding cats and infortunately even if the need and interest exist the will to work for it just isn't. It's not laziness: most people work multiple jobs, tend a fam that feeds their family and raise kids--there's no time for volunteer work or community development. You're the one expected to spearhead the thing and the only one left to do the legwork. So you get burnt out and yet another idea gets archived while you fall back into the routine of "getting through" your service instead of trying to do something with it.

This is the cycle I struggle with. It's ugly and it's depressing, but it's real. I am happy here and I take pride in the small victories--I know it's all about the individual impacts. The relationships I have here with my students and neighbors, my experiences and progress with my youth development groups, they alone make this all worth it. But third world development is messy and hard and I can't ignore the feelings of impotence that come along with it. It's a difficult job, being a PCV and not for the weak of stomache--figuratively and literally because you never know when diarrhea will come along to top off your worst (or best) day!

Cape Town & Down


Per usual I have been neglecting my blog and have yet to write about my adventures in South Africa. Better late than never, here are all the details plus some bonus general updates!

First of all,if anyone is looking for an international vacation destination, I'll save you some trouble and tell you that Cape Town is the jackpot. It's the most beautiful place I have ever seen and the most fun vacation I've ever been on!

After a productive week in Mozambique's capitol learning about project development and funding (woo!), a fellow volunteer and I hopped on a bus to Johannesburg...or, rather, that was the plan. In actuality said travel buddy savvily forgot to bring along the one item necessary for international travel: his passport. Of course he discovers this as we are boarding the bus. So I decided to do the right thing and take my uncharictaristically prepared butt to a window seat and wish him good luck on the labrynth of flight changes ahead of him. Do unto others, right? In truthfulness I did feel bad about it but after almost a year of glorified camping you'd jump on the first bus to the first world too, believe me. So now I was left with the exciting endeavor of crossing an international border on foot, navigating planes, trains and automobiles for over ten hours and hunting down a hostel in a city I know nothing about alone. Don't worry mom, I come out unscathed.

In fact more than unscathed, I came back with a bag so full of groceries, goodies, clothes and jewlery that the flight attendant asked if I was an Amazing Race contestant. (Fun fact: I can never be an Amazing Race contestant because Peace Corps vols are considered to have too much of an advantage to be allowed on the show.) I of course used my "extra" day alone to shop...in actual stores...for new clothes that no one has previously worn. It was magical.

Soon I met up with some other Peace Corps friends whom I never get to see since they work in northern Moz. Eventually we were all reunited the next day and back on schedule to explore the southern tip of Africa! We went on a winery tour and learned all the secrets of wine making and wine tasting (the latter is what I was mostly paying attention to), went on a hike to the Cape of Good Hope where along the way we saw whales breaching, otters, ostriches, seals, baboons, and a cariboo-type animal as big as a minivan. We visited Boulder Beach where penguins were all over the place, just swimming and chilling out in their natural penguin habitat. I succeeded in touching one but he wasn't very into it and tried to bite me in retaliation.

 In addition to all the touristy things we also had ourselves a food-cation: mexican food, real burgers, italian food, seafood...heck, I was even excited about the McDonald's. I also managed to try ostrich, impala, crocodile and warthog--all delicious by the way. Imagine ribs, but instead of normal rib meat they are surrounded by thick chunks of bacon. That's what warthog tastes like...my new favorite meat.

So after five days of sightseeing, eating, drinking, shopping, and basking on beautiful beaches with beautiful people, I left the first world and returned home. Like I said, it was the most beutiful place I have ever been and I will definitely return soon, but it is nice to be back home. So now for the general life updates:

We have a dog! Her name is Lua ("Moon" in portuguese) and she's 100% Mozambican mutt. She came from another volunteer so she's trained and very sweet. Favorite activities include playing soccer with the local kids for hours on end, and lounging on the couch hiding from the local kids as they try to coerce her back outside with cries of "Luuuuuuuaaaaaaa" at seemingly constant intervals throughout the day. Least favorite activities include baths and when her parents try to share the couch which is so clearly completely her lounging territory. She's a serious seat-stealer.

That's probably enough for now, I was going to upload pictures but most of you come from Facebook and it's not like I have any new ones. When I do I will post them post haste!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching

"Boa tarde Senhora Professora."

Imagine this in the same tone you would use for an "Our Father" in mass. These words haunt my worst nightmares and yet sometimes still manage to make me smile. Especially when I mistakenly greet my students with "bom dia" since, despite my regularly scheduled classes beginning at a cool 1 PM, I've usually rolled out if bed pretty recently and still consider it the morning. Of course saying good morning after 11:59 is a major faux paux here in Moz and highly hilarious to 8th graders.

It occurred to me that I have yet to write anything about my actual job here, so here is a post solely about teaching...not one complaint about the lack of acceptable snack foods, cross my heart.

This year I am teaching 8th grade Biology and 11th and 12th grade TICs. TICs stands for Tecnologia de Informação e Comunicação, and basically consists of me teaching Microsoft Office and typing, because despite the confidence my school director and the ministry of education seem to have in me, I haven't the slightest grasp on the concepts of  algorithms and wireless technologies nor the ability to teach them to kids who are still trying to figure out which mouse button to use. In spite of my innovative teaching techniques (mostly yelling) they're still trying to right-click their way through life, and find how upset it makes me amusing.

The thing I like most about teaching TICs is that you can really see the progress the kids are making. Some of them had never used a computer before this class, and now the majority can at least navigate through the basic operations (given sufficient handicap time for the right-click thing).

Here in Panda we are very lucky to have a computer lab with 20 (12 or so functioning) computers, and a smartboard (also currently out of commission)! Seriously though, even with the continuous stream of issues with technology we are still lucky to have it at all. I know some volunteers who have to teach the class without even one computer to demonstrate.

Biology is an entirely different beast. I love my eighth graders and they can be better behaved than the upperclassmen. The problem with them is they've just come from primary school where they are molded into parrots and taught to write everything longhand. My greatest challenge has been to get them to think critically instead of just regurgitating information. No matter how many puzzles or experiments you give them, they always revert back to the term-and-definition approach to science they're used to.

I remember an episode of Letterman where he revealed some statistic about the intelligence of children in each nation. There was some standardized test with several parts and the only one the USA scored highest in was self-confidence. At the time I was ashamed that the only claim to fame our country's youth had was being #1 in arrogance. Now my experience here has put that data in a new light.

Americans aren't the smartest people on paper. Our self-confidence stems from our society and culture. We're taught from birth to be individual thinkers and are encouraged to be the best. This social mindset breeds a highly competitive group of people. In our efforts to edge out the competition and stand out in a society of over-achievers we become inventive and innovative. We take pride in ourselves and or work. We're forced to think critically and to be resourceful.

Here in Mozambique I notice a lot of cookie-cutter mentality: let's do exactly what we've been told to do exactly the way we've been told to do it. There's little thinking outside the box and less questioning authority. This is probably to be expected of a country with recently broken ties to colonialism and socialism, respectively. That being said I grow prouder of my students every day in their efforts to live up to the expectations I have for them. I can only hope that they'll be able to pay it forward one day in whatever sector of the country they end up in. It's a slow and gruelling process and I do get frustrated, but fortunately for the kids I can never stay mad at them for long. I'll end this post on a high note with a prime example: something I call The Chicken Incident.

The Chicken Incident happened in one particularly frustrating biology class during which no one was coming forward with an explanation of the difference between voluntary and involuntary muscles despite my talking about it for the past  35 minutes. I launched into the fiftieth explanation with my teeth gritting.

"Voluntary muscles are used when we consciously decide to use them, like standing up, or running, or..."

Just then, a chicken struts shamelessly into my classroom. Partly because I hold a perpetual grudge against chickens for waking me before dawn every day  and partly because I didn't like how cocky he seemed (pun intended), I decided not to ignore it.

"...Or to kick a chicken out of the classroom."

Maybe kicking the chicken wasn't the mature thing to do, but watching him catapulting towards the door, feathers flying like a cartoon sure was satisfying. Unfortunately in his panic he ran for refuge under the desk of 3 girls in the front row. This set in motion a frenzied attempt to extract him from the labyrinth of desks and successfully shoo him towards freedom. In the end he  ran smack into the wall beak-first before making it out the door, leaving behind him 54 flustered children and one very uncomposed and hysterical adult.

Never a dull moment, I'll tell ya.

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.