Thursday, 26 November 2009


There’s a Lemony Snicket book called “The Austere Academy.” It’s the DisneyWorld of schools compared to this place.
We spent a couple of weeks “student teaching” at a secondary school here in Namaacha. I learned more during that time in front of a 10th grade English class than I have during the rest of training. “Eye-opening” is a gross understatement.
Bulletin boards? Grammar tip posters? Classroom themes?
Classroom decorations have a different name here: graffiti. Moreover, teachers don’t have rooms – students do. Meaning they stay in the same room all day, and teachers travel from class to class university-style carrying all the supplies they’ll need for that class. Doesn’t allow for much creative decorating.
Teacher’s desk? File cabinet? Book shelves? Smart Boards?
Four walls and a chalkboard, if you’re lucky. Desks are wooden benches for two people, or individual metal desks for the nicer schools. Where there are too many students, everyone just sits on the floor.
Overhead projector? Computer?
At first, I thought it was nice that all the classrooms had large windows. Then I realized it’s because lights aren’t always an option. If they can get by without using electricity in classrooms, they do. And sometimes, they have no choice in the matter. I have yet to see a classroom with all windows intact.
Air conditioning? Heating?
I have yet to see a classroom with all windows intact. Students had to relocate during the recent monsoon because there were small lakes where the ceiling leaked. Thankfully, that means you’ve got built-in cross ventilation for when the temperature exceeds 100F.
I’m not sure about the minimum requirements to be considered a bathroom. Running water? No. Toilets? No. But there are stalls with holes. I suppose that counts.
Prior to student teaching, we had sessions on classroom management, adolescent development, etc. But we also had classes on avoiding corruption, confronting colleagues who give into corruption, confronting colleagues participating in unacceptable relations with students and convincing students that bribery attempts and cheating are not acceptable. These were taught by current Peace Corps volunteer teachers, who had plenty of first-hand accounts to share. It’s a little scary. On an unrelated note, the guy-girl ratio in my 10th grade class was roughly 8 to 1.

This country has such a dearth of human resources that teachers must attend just one year of training before they end up in a classroom (yes, I realize the irony of my saying that when I’ve had a whole whopping 8 weeks of training myself…). This means teachers can start at age 19 or so. Furthermore, they don’t exactly teach here the way we might expect back home. Pretty much everything is lecture-based. From first grade. No centers. No coloring time. No hands-on learning. No singing. Just lectures. It’s no wonder everyone’s in a hurry to get out of school, by whatever means necessary.

And yet…
I’m strangely excited about the prospect of teaching, certainly more so than I thought I would be (Mom, Kris, all teacher friends, I know you’re laughing right now. I’m aware my brief stint student teaching cannot compare to the stress and frustration of actually being a teacher and I’ll probably be ready to ET [“early termination” in PC lingo] after the first day…but bear with me…). This is teaching at its most basic - no technology, no administration, no parent involvement, just me, a chalkboard, some rice sacks and pens, and 20-30 impressionable young minds. Oooooh. Scary.
That said...I´ve never done this before! I have nothing to go off of! If you have any classroom management policies/activities/other ideas, I welcome them all!

Thursday, 19 November 2009


The currency exchange office will tell you that the U.S. dollar is equal to about 25 meticais.
Peace Corps says this is a lie. On a recent trip to a bookstore in Maputo, I discovered exactly why. Here’s my new conversion:

1 book = 600 mts
$1 = 25 mts
600 mts / 25 = $24
$24 = book

Books, and subsequently bookstores, are extremely rare around here. I’ve only seen one in the capital. As such, we were warned that books are ridiculously expensive here. However, $24 doesn’t seem like that bad of a deal, right?
Here’s the real conversion equation, as a good friend pointed out at the bookstore:

1 book = 600 mts
PC trainee weekly stipend = 550 mts
600 mts for 1 book > 550 mts for travel, phone, internet café, food other than rice for one week
(600 mts = 1 book) = no book for Val

Most things here are technically cheaper than in the states. But, as PC was quick to point out, we can’t base anything off the states now. The stipend is just fine to live off of comfortably, but we definitely have to nix out a lot of the extraneous “luxuries” we never considered before. If you’re careful, you’re fine. But it is rough when you get hungry for something other than rice, and a large package of “biscuitos” (cream-filled cookies) costs 7 mts, and a cup of yogurt costs 25 mts. Contrast that against three text messages to the states or 25 minutes on the internet...well, you get the picture.
PC prides itself on its ability to be resourceful with what little funding it has (one official broke it down like this: the entire PC annual budget, which provides for several thousand volunteers and their countless projects across the world, is half of the annual budget of the United States’ Military Marching Band). Other volunteers also pride themselves on this fact, especially in light of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The volunteers we stayed with in Chokwe were quick to point out the air conditioned, in-city, indoor-plumbing, well-kept accommodations of those organizations here to stop world hunger or provide safe havens for orphans. Not that that’s a problem… but with PC, you live in the same conditions as your next-door neighbor. I felt more than a little proud to hear Andrea say this. I stood a little taller the next time I took my cold bucket bath.
Along with this discussion, I realized that I – yes, fresh out of college, no real salary, dwindling bank account – am wealthy. I’ve paid to live in a dorm, apartment and house – all of which had electricity and clean, running water. When I’m hungry, I eat, even if it’s only a bowl of cereal. I can go to a doctor when I’m sick, but I’m rarely sick because I’m able to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I can buy clothes without holes. I own more than one pair of shoes. I am wealthy. And I’m in the minority. It’s a strange feeling.


All the mud makes laundry day a workout. I’m still getting a hang of the logistics as far as washing goes – for instance, don’t put your mud-drench khakis in with your other whites. Or use that water for anything but watering the garden, for that matter. And never do laundry when there’s any potential for rain.
This is the way we dry our socks…

Though if something is ever beyond redemption, you can always pick up clothes at the local market, open Wednesdays and Sundays.

…You just might want to wash that first, too. I don’t believe new clothes exist in Mocambique. I’m not sure how it works, but I think everyone just swaps the same clothes that have been in the country since independence. Some of my favorite shirts include:
@ “Westwood Elementary, Conneticut: Where Students Come First”
@ “Girls Rule, Boys Drool” (worn by a boy who clearly has not been studying his English)
@ Various company logos that no one has heard of
@ A Texas Longhorn t-shirt. The owner didn’t know what a longhorn or Texas was.
And, of course, the skirt/baby sling/apron/towel/bathrobe/headcover/political-statement-maker/Halloween costume all-in-one: the capulana.

Then again, there’s always one way to avoid doing laundry… Here, showing knees is not acceptable. Boobs are okay. I have no picture to include at this point.


Namaacha is in the hills of south Mocambique, so at a higher elevation and a lower latitude than much of the country. As such, the weather isn’t nearly as stifling as I anticipated. In fact, trying to anticipate the weather here at all is pretty useless.
When leaving the house in the mornings, the safest bet is to wear a tank-top under a hoodie with pants you can easily roll up and don’t forget your sunscreen and umbrella! One weekend, I slept in boxers and a spaghetti strap on top of the covers, and the next night was in my yoga pants, t-shirt, hoodie and socks with my sleeping bag zipped up all the way.
There’s one thing you can usually count on, though: rain.

Whether it’s drizzling or a full-on downpour, there’s no doubt it’s monsoon season around here.
Did I mention most roads aren’t paved? It can get a little dirty around here.
But it’s okay. You can always just wipe your feet on the doormat.

Rain here isn’t quite like at home. I had no idea the sky could hold so much water. It has rained constantly for the past five days here. Constant. As in, stuff falling from the sky at every moment, and hitting the ground and realizing it has nowhere else to go, so it just hangs out and makes mud. Everywhere. For five days. It’s mind-boggling.
There’s a small lake in the living room in the morning. I have to take a running leap out the front door to make it to land on the other side of the patio. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, it’s cold.
Being cold and wet here is different from being cold and wet in the states. There, it is an inconvenience. Cold rain means you have to run from the house to the car. You have to carry your dripping umbrella with you to class. You can’t walk the dogs. You have to drive slower.
Here, cold rain is borderline debilitating. You have to put on golashes to use the bathroom. You can’t start a fire to cook or heat bathwater because the charcoal is in a puddle of water in the half-covered kitchen. Roads close down. Doing laundry is simply not an option, and if you’re unfortunate enough to do laundry before a downpour starts, you’re stuck with wet clothes until the next sunny day. Not that it particularly matters, because you’ll only get it muddy all over again the next day. You have to navigate an obstacle course of sidewalk islands in order to walk anywhere.
I’m not sure if it’s colder here, or it just seems that way because you can’t escape from it. It follows you into the house, which is made of concrete with a tin roof, and the door doesn’t exactly fit the frame and there’s a hole where the knob used to be that you have to stuff with the “doormat” mentioned above to help keep out the draft. Some nights I sleep in socks, pants, a t-shirt, a hoodie, in my sleeping bag under covers.
I realize now there’s no way I could’ve survived Turkmenistan. If Mozambique is too cold for me, I’m pretty much doomed any place where snow exists.
The one perk of the rain? I haven’t had to get water from the well in a week. It magically appears in the buckets we put on the side of the house overnight.
This is not the case for the rest of the country, however.
In Chokwe, you wake up around 5:30 and are comfortable for the next hour or so. After that, the temperature hits 40˚C (around 100˚F) and stays that way for the rest of the day. The doors and windows stay open, and in the afternoon you just want to sit in the shade and not move. You put on sunscreen in the morning, but it’s nowhere near as effective as the layer of sweat, salt and dirt that covers you by the end of the day. The cold showers at night are almost futile, because you start sweating again as soon as you dry off. To sleep, you try to sprawl out so that no limb is touching another body part and thereby generating more heat. The mosquito net is the closest thing you need to a blanket. Of course, we’ll be at our new sites in time for the hottest month – January.


Namaacha was once a resort town for Portuguese colonists. In 1975, when Mocambique gained its independence, those colonists had 24 hours to evacuate. As such, there’s an old school along the main road…
And, across the street, a temporary construction fence around a half-way completed office building (estimated completion date: June 1976). My town has two paved roads. The street my house is on disappears altogether when it rains.
As for housing, the Portuguese abandoned large houses with indoor plumbing (including showers and bidets), swimming pools and extravagant gardens. As such, there are well-maintained houses such as my neighbor’s…
…next to more practical housing…
The majority of former-Portuguese-owned houses have not seen fresh paint or any kind of upkeep in the past three decades. My house is more recent, and so is somewhere in between:
My house includes two bedrooms – one for me, and one for the rest of the family. There’s also pantry/living/dining room, and an outdoor semi-covered room for the fire. No microwave; no refrigerator; no stove; no kitchen sink, because there is no running water, plumbing or, for that matter, real kitchen. Oh, and let’s not forget the casa de banho – behind the curtain on the left. It’s essentially non-portable Port-A-Pot that empties into a large pit in the backyard. Toilet paper is thrown out the “window” (hole in the wall) behind the “toilet” (also known as a “chimney”). But hey, I have electricity! Most of the time. We also keep candles close at hand.
Each morning I shower in a bucket of well water heated over charcoal. Well, most mornings. Bathing doesn’t seem to be a huge deal to my family, and I think at times Mama Celeste is annoyed by my need to bathe daily. A few times I’ve bathed in what was left in the teapot after breakfast. I’ve had more than one cold shower in the morning because Mama Celeste didn’t see a need to make a fire that day. The first time, I just managed to stop myself from shrieking at the first icy cupful by biting my lip. I´ll tackle that in another post.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A Familia

I live with Mama Celeste, a stellar chef who loves loudly and rapidly exchanging fofocas (gossip) and wine with Coca Cola...

my 18-year-old brother who thinks he’s Usher and aspires to be Michael Jackson, and is convinced he’s just that cool...

and my favorite 10-year-old in the world, as well as my Portuguese professor, English student, traveling companion, chaperone and dance instructor, Junior.

Oh, and occasionally Jhonkikas’s dad, and whatever other relative/friend/neighbor/relative friends’ neighbor chooses to crash in our house for the night.
I have other family, as well, though. Like these guys, who I see from 7:30 in the morning to at least 5:30 in the evening:

And these guys, who are crazy yet keep me sane:

It’s a crazy group of health educators and science and English teachers, married, single, 22 to 50, recent philosophy major graduates to costume shop owners, from Alaska to Florida, all here for countless reasons I’m only beginning to learn. These people have some of the most fascinating stories I’ve heard, as well as some of the most diverse personalities. There’s no single “Peace Corps” mindset. These aren’t your traditional hippies. Though I think, to a certain extent, you’ve got to be at least a little crazy to do this job, and love it.

And even these guys, who people here think are my family. Redheads unite!

Sunday, 15 November 2009



The next frontier.
These are the voyages of Valerie Cooper.
My continuing mission: to explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where few molungos have gone before.

Here are the basics:
I’m a Peace Corps volunteer trainee (PCT) living in the town of Namaacha, Mocambique, just a few minutes from the Swaziland and South Africa borders. Once I’m sworn in as an official volunteer (PCV) on December 12, I’ll move to my site (as yet unknown) and teach English at a rural secondary school. For now, I spend my days learning how to teach English, how to speak Portuguese and how to live and work in a new country, new culture and new mindset.