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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nao Me Tocas

So a couple of posts ago I mentioned how surprised I was that Africa wasn’t as different as I expected it to be. There are a lot of differences, though and I think the best way to showcase them is to outline how my mãe and her friends came to the assumption that I am pregnant.

The events happened as follows:

1.       My family and my neighbor Matt’s family have been pining for us to get married and have children since we arrived, as they tell me almost daily. Any time we are walking together/hanging out is a big deal and basically considered a date according to Mozambican standards. Also, we both have teenage sisters who egg on the situation.

2.       Having switched Malaria prophy to Doxycycline recently, I had a bout of losing my breakfast Tuesday morning, which Mãe witnessed and shared with her friends. These friends just so happen to be the host mothers of the PCTs in my language group and so this info was shared at our cooking exchange the same day.

3.       Somewhere between explaining how to cook buffalo chicken and talk about how much I love Mozambican babies I accidentally agreed with something they said in Changana that caused the whole group of mães to laugh aloud for about five minutes. I tried to back track and say I didn’t understand but they just continued laughing at me.

And BOOM. I’m pregnant according to the Namaacha rumor mill, and now Mark’s mãe won’t stop touching my boobs every time she sees me. She doesn’t even make an attempt at being subtle, either because it’s totally socially acceptable. Along that note, privacy and personal space just aren’t the same here. People will seriously violate the typical American “bubble” and not even consider the fact that it would bother you. Everyone wants to touch your skin and hair because it’s different, and they won’t hesitate to pinch you and tell you to eat more. Sometimes this is annoying, like when my neighbor Hans (I call him this because of his handsy-ness and because I can never remember his real name) stays only two inches from my face when talking about music or proposing marriage, and gets increasingly closer as I try to subtly move away. Sometimes, though, it makes my day, like when I’m walking to class and a group of kids just bombard me with hugs or walk with me holding my hand and asking to try on my glasses.

Yesterday on our walk to class, Matt and I came upon a group of three little boys on their way to school. The first one said “Bom dia” to me and touched my butt, which I figured was an accident. The second one did the same, which made me think it was not accidental and when the third one reached his hand out I swatted him and said “Não não! Indiciplinados!” And they all laughed and ran away. The whole thing just made me think of the “he touched the butt” scene from Finding Nemo, except I am the large foreign thing everyone wants to touch.

So there is definitely a different culture here, and with that comes the awkward and often confusing integration period. One thing that I love though is that once a week we have Ngoma Time during which we share a little bit of American culture and get to experience some Moz culture as well. Yesterday we saw an awesome singing/step dance group perform, and one of our groups sang Sweet Caroline and Wagon Wheel which gave me flashbacks to Auburn (who broke the AP Top 25…what up!) and was a nice taste of home. My group explained the rules of Red Rover and then we all played a massive game of it in the school yard. It was so much fun, mostly because of how into it the Mozambicans got.

Today is the end of Week 3, and while it was off to a rough start it has ended sweetly. Our visiting volunteers Yuri and Anneke have had some really insightful information and tips for teaching large classrooms, which is much needed considering we will very likely have classes of 80+ students. My language group has a new professor due to complications with our old one and there is such a stark difference in our Portuguese class now. I feel like I’m learning so much more now even after just one class and I’m no longer dreading language hours. The only downside of today is that I REALLY needed to do laundry but it’s cold and rainy…not very conducive to line drying. I have enough clean underwear to last a couple more days though so here’s hoping we see some sunshine soon!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chega, Mozambique

The first word they made sure to teach us in Portuguese was “chega.” It roughly translates to “I am full” or “I’ve had enough.” They make sure we know this because Mozambicans eat a TON of food. These people can take out a pot of rice big enough to feed a village in one sitting, and they expect you to eat this much as well.

Week Three is apparently hell week according to previous volunteers and I can’t help but agree. Maybe the new wore off or maybe the reality of how long we are staying here set in but yesterday everyone was one more handful of xima away from a trip to the nut house. I know I had had enough…enough class, enough homework, enough of every kid in the village shouting Ola 50,678 times on my morning walk, enough of no one understanding me when I speak…CHEGA!

Xima, by the way, is a sticky mix of corn flour and water that is a staple here in Moz. Also, it tastes like nothing. Grits and cream of wheat have 10 times more flavor than xima. I am seriously chega of xima.

After Portuguese class yesterday we had to run around Namaacha in search for ingredients for the cooking exchange today even though all any of us wanted was to go home and pass out, or in my case dip into my Reese’s pumpkin stash. On the way home I tripped over a rock and should have caught myself but instead I just kind of gave up halfway down. Some days there just aren’t enough rocks, but this day there were too many. I fell flat on my butt onto a protruding stone in the ground and now I have a bruise on my backside the size of Texas.

On the bright side, today was a great day. The cooking exchange was just what I needed. Within our language group we picked food to make for our maes and they cooked food for us. My mae cooked arroz com mboa, which is rice with pumpkin greens, coconut, peanuts and onions…very delish! Sorry to say though it couldn’t hold a candle to the meal we made for them. We fried up a chicken (after killing and cleaning it of course) and made buffalo sauce with some Frank’s that Mark had brought from home. Then we made real mashed potatoes with butter and milk and garlic, and fried green tomatoes using some ranch seasoning I had packed (thanks Kathryn!).
Who knew I would be having fried green tomatoes in Africa? Certainly not me, but you won’t hear me complain about it. As I was eating I could just close my eyes and easily feel just like I was back home. There is nothing like some comfort food to fix all your problems. This philosophy is probably why I will eventually weigh 300 lbs or so.The best part was that our maes loved our food! Mine even had seconds and told me she wanted to make fried tomatoes and buffalo chicken again.

So there are good days and bad ones. Sometimes I miss home but sometimes I am overwhelmed by the amazing culture here. Connecting with people over things like music, dance and food is a beautiful thing, especially with a language barrier. It never ceases to surprise me how similar we all are even with such different ways of life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Life as "Face"

Well this is gonna be a long one. I’ll try to summarize the past two weeks as best I can…

I finally have internet! No phone, due to the faulty nature of technology purchased in Africa and the headache-nature of unlocking my iPhone, partially due to Apple and partially due to Sprint. But all this aside, I am finally able to update my blog…hooray!

Travel and our whirlwind stay in Maputo took a lot out of me, but I have never and will probably never again experience the range of emotions I felt on the day we arrived in Namaacha. We exited the buses and were greeted by a host of women in capulanas (Mozambican colorful fabric worn around the waist like a skirt) singing and holding pieces of paper with our names on them. I found my mãe and then, all of a sudden I was walking down the street with her towards the house I would be staying in for the next 3 months, racking my brain for things to say in Portuguese. It was awkward. When we got to the house I met my 19-year-old sister, Lidia and we ate lunch together after setting up my room and mosquito net.

I live in a 3 room house with a small gas stove (very nice when the power goes out…which is a lot) in the kitchen and a small television on which we watch tela-novellas every night. We also have a DVD players and a wealth of Kung-Fu movies but I have yet to watch any of them.
Around dinner time my family left for a party at our neighbor’s house who also happens to be the host family of one of the other volunteers, Matt. We had a great time eating and drinking and dancing and holding Matt’s adorable baby brother. It was probably nine or ten o’clock before my mãe told me the party was for a dead guy. She explained that everyone was having so much fun because they like to celebrate a person’s life instead of mourning their death. It was such a shock to be thrown into something like that with a bunch of people you’ve just met who don’t speak your language, but writing this down now is funny because someone in my immediate vicinity is either having a party or blasting music from their house constantly. I’ve just grown used to it. Usually my indicator that it’s time to get up and take a bath is Titanium blaring from my neighbor’s house every morning at 5:45 AM.

My first day in Namaacha feels like months ago, now. Since then I’ve killed a chicken, hiked up the mountains and to the Swaziland border, taught my family how to do the wop, learned all sorts of different Mozambican dances, given 4 haircuts to my fellow PCTs, and tried numerous times without results to explain to everyone why I’m not married with children yet.
My daily schedule these days is basically 12 hours of total-immersion Language classes sprinkled with classes about the technical aspects of teaching. I wake up at around 5 AM to the sound of HUNDREDS of roosters crowing at the same time and I lay there for about an hour daydreaming of cutting the heads off of every chicken that lives in this country. Then I take a bath out of a bucket outside, usually accompanied by a lizard or maybe a frog. The bucket bath is an art form but once you’ve mastered it you would be surprised how little water you actually need to bathe. And I get clean, too! It’s not pleasant in the mornings when it’s cold but nothing beats a nice outdoor bucket bath in the afternoon when it’s 100 degrees outside. After my bath I have to “tomar cha” which means to drink tea but I’m the only one who actually drinks tea in my family. The rest of them just load up their hot water with instant coffee, milk, sugar, etc. And God forbid you should do this without eating bread as well. Sometimes I have an egg or a banana too, but always bread lest mãe give me the third degree on why I did not eat bread with my tea in the morning. I think it might be somewhere in the Portuguese version of the Bible.

After a full day of grueling classes that make me want to drown myself in my bath bucket or maybe even my latrine, I usually go for a walk around Namaacha to visit my friends and return home in time to eat dinner and watch the Brazilian soap opera Passions with mãe before passing out from exhaustion at around 8.

Living in Africa is of course different than living in the States, but in a lot of ways it is very similar. The other night we had German potato salad for dinner! Everyone laughs when I tell them my name since it translates to "face" in Portuguese, and some of them refuse to recognize it as a name at all and just call me Carla or Carlotta. It’s very overwhelming right now but at the same time there is such a routine that it was easy to accept the quirks and roll with it. This is my life now, for the next two years and I am so lucky to be experiencing it and to have 49 other wonderful people to share this experience with.

A few of the girls in our group have started to meet every week for devotions and talking with them really makes me excited to see what God has in store for all of us during this period. It’s so hard and so overwhelming sometimes and I have experienced every single emotion that humans are capable of, sometimes all in one day.  At the end of the day, though, I know I’m here in this place with these people for a reason and I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

Currently the best bet of contacting me in the near future is probably Facebook or email. I love and miss everyone from home but my days are so jam packed that it’s hard to find time to check in, so please forgive me! I will try to update more often from now on and hopefully I’ll have some pictures to show soon, too. Right now, though, my sister is frying some delicious-smelling chicken and I think it’s time for a Domingo nap before lunch.