Saturday, November 8, 2014


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'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 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 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 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.

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 cani├žo (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.