Thursday, 4 November 2010

Cause When You're a Celebrity...

All the students, teachers, most of the store owners and ladies at the market all know you, ask how you’re doing, making sure there’s nothing you lack. Walking down the street, people do a double take, then stare at you, unbelieving, before running off to tell their friends. People are always introducing themselves, giving you their phone numbers, because they all want to be your friend. Sometimes they ask to take a picture with you. Sometimes they don’t ask and just not-so-secretly take your picture, anyway.

They, along with other random people, invite you over for spontaneous meals, and, very often, birthdays, family gatherings, weddings, baptisms, any events they can think of, and you have to be careful not to overshadow the event's real guest of honor.

You never have any problem getting a boleia, because every car that possibly can is going to stop to at least chat with you. And when they find out you speak Portuguese – whoa! You’re officially their new best friend, and although they're going in the exact opposite direction they'll go two hours out of their way to take you wherever you need to go. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to stop the cobrador from kicking someone else out of a full chapa so I could take her seat.
People know your every move, and after some conversations, you often feel pretty sure you were the topic of dinnertime conversation (“I knew you were just friends with that guy, but my husband insisted you were dating because you visited his mother the other day! Just had to ask!”) One of the first phrases I learned around here is “Esta desaparecida!” – “You disappeared!” Meaning they don’t know what you’ve been up to for the past two days and need you to explain yourself so they can relate it to their equally curious friends and relations.

Yep, being a celebrity is quite the experience.

And then one day, you realize…I’m not Julia Roberts. I’m the two-headed man-eating bearded midget lady from Mars.

I have white skin, and as if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got red hair and green eyes – I’m pretty much a freak of nature around here.

When I’m invited to parties and gatherings, instead of being the guest of honor or surprise birthday rap artist, I’m invited as one invites the magician or clown.

When I ride down the road, people don’t shout my name. Most of the time, they don’t know my name, don’t care to know it or care if I have one. I am mulungo. In fact, Louise and I have created a game of counting the number of times we hear people shout “mulungo” at us on our half-hour bike ride to the preschool (“Wow, twenty-three today! That’s a new record! That last one couldn’t even walk yet!”).

Kids will come from out of nowhere to try and touch my skin and hair to see if it comes off before running giggling back to their posse.

You can never really be sure who honestly sees you as a friend and who sees you as a potential plane ticket or VISA to the magical kingdom of the United States of America (one student in my computer class did an entire PowerPoint presentation on how his life dream is to marry an Americana so he can live in the U.S., where life is so easy).

I don’t have to be seen as a celebrity. But every once in a while it would be nice to be seen as a human being.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Magical Boleia

Disclaimer: Please keep an open mind and ignore everything you have been told about certain things since childhood. This is not America. And I am, as always, super duper careful about my safety and the safety of others and do not take any unnecessary risks. Trust me, this is safer than the alternative.

Of all the impressive technologies we have in the states, we lack one crucial thing that is both vital and found in abundance in Moçambique: the boleia.
The term boleia is used to describe a passing car, truck, van, 18-wheeler, tractor, ox-drawn wagon, bicycle, or other moving object driven by future friends who makes their services available to you at the drop of a hand and completely free of charge. To succeed in attaining this divine transport, one needs only to stand on the side of the road, stretch out right arm to be parallel with the ground and flap the hand slightly and slowly in the direction of the oncoming object. The object will (usually) slow and pull over to your side of the road. You will first poke your head in the window, greet the driver, and ask where he/she is headed. If the driver is going in your directions (and with a grand total of six highways in the country, that's very likely), you open the door/jump in the back/mount the steps/pop the trunk and get in, greeting the driver with the customary "Tudo bem?" Sometimes this is more tricky, as there is often a small flock of arm-flappers in a single location, and space in certain transports is limited. But often it is simply your posse, the driver and preexisting passengers, and the open road.
In the event you are fortunate enough to find yourself in the front passenger seat, you are encouraged but not obligated to 1) provide a listening ear to life stories/marriage proposals/political debates/requests for free transit to America; 2)provide a lap for and tend to wandering crianças/chickens/etc; 3) assist the driver with cell phone, Cokes, etc.
As it is such a widespread means of transport in this country, you can also afford to be selective. Obviously, functioning car, lack of alcohol, women drivers are always a plus. Travelling in groups is imperative (however, as it's often a deterrent for a potential boleia, it's worth it to have one lone female stand on the side of the road, then have your five friends wait in the bushes until she opens the door and gives the signal before swarming the car).

The advantages of boleias are countless, but include:
1) It’s free. And you live on a Peace Corps Volunteer budget.
2) You make all kinds of new friends and very, very quickly get very, very close. Sometimes this can also be a disadvantage.
3) Unlike on a chapa, you often have your own seat.
4) If you are extremely fortunate, your boleia will have air conditioning.
5) Shaves hours off your trip, since there’s no reason to stop every five feet to pick up/drop off more passengers, unlike chapas.
6) Significanly decreases the chance of painful chicken pecks to the feet and/or chicken refuse on shoes.
7) CHAPAS ARE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH. Period. Their sole purpose is to get as many people as possible to their destination in as little time as possible so it can pick up as many more people as people to transport them in as little time as possible to another location, etc. etc. through whatever means necessary because more people, less time = more money. Personal transports, as you can imagine, have a very different set of priorities. Like safety. Graças a Deus.

Some of my favorite past boleias:
1) Covered truck to Inhambane City – Jenna, Clancy and I stretched out, used our backpacks as pillows and slept the whole seven hours from Macia straight to our drop-off in Inhambane City. Our driver even stopped at a gas station to use the casa de banho halfway through.
2) Car from Xai-Xai to Macia – nice Indian guys not only assured me that I could call them for a boleia from my doorstep anytime but also offered me authentic Indian candies (“It’s not drugs,” one assured me as I tried to read the foreign script on the package).
3) Car from Macia to Maputo – driven by one of the only 1000 doctors in this country, he also hooked me up with drinks and let me take a little nap in between hearing stories about his studies in Portugal and Ukraine (I can still imagine it…the wise old native doctor and the young idealistic travelling girl swapping stories when he reaches into the back and offers me a glass bottle of Coca-Cola and takes one can of Coke Lite for himself and we toast to the development of Moçambique before drinking…can you get a more stereotypical Coca-Cola commercial?)
4) 18-wheeler from Inharrime to Chicumbane – myself and three other boleia-ers hung out inside the cabin of a sweet 18-wheeler, complete with bunked beds and sound system rockin’ James Blunt, Tracy Chapman and Shania Twain for five hours.

Kids These Days

I was hopping a boleia to Macia with a relative of David's last Friday, as they were on their way to a festa. The driver was David's cousin, and in the passenger seat was David's uncle, a little, excitable old man with a subtle speech impediment, probably due to years of neglected oral hygiene. It was what one would call a sweet boleia - red, four-door BMW (probably obtained from South Africa via Chokwé's infamous black market), black interior still intact, cush seats, best sound system I've seen in this country... no complaints here. Both men were dressed in suits. I sat in the back seat next to boxes of Cokes and Amarula and behind the little excitable old man, so that he had to turn in his seat and peek out from behind the headrest to excitably tell me all about the festa and interrogate me.

After about ten minutes, over the music and the little excitable old man's rambling to his silent companion, I hear something from behind my seat. Just a little noise, like something's moving around in the trunk. But just once for a minute. I ignore it and focus on the conversation.
"Is she still back there?" this from the younger man, who otherwise hasn't said a word. "She's awfully quiet."
A little rude, I think, but I lean forward to say something. Maybe he hasn't noticed I'm speaking Portuguese. Little excitable old man cuts me off.
"Of course! She's a good one. Nothing will ruin this festa, unless your uncle Naftal shows up..."etc.
I try to ignore the comment, let the little man keep talking.
Then something hits the back of my seat, as though coming through the trunk.
Oh Dear Lord, I think, David lied and sent me with these unsuspicious-looking men to lure me into a trap and they've got the last person who asked for a boleia tied up in the trunk.
The excitable little old man keeps babbling, moving his excitable little old arms.
Suddenly, there's a truly agonizing scream from behind me. I involuntarily jerk away from my seat as much as I can in my seatbelt. Even the excitable little old man stops talking.
Then it screams again. And there's a very audible kick against my back seat.
The excitable little old man chuckles.
And then it dawns on me.
" there a goat in the trunk?"
The excitable little old man's face peers from behind the headrest.
"Yeah!" he says, "We're going to party!"

Other favorite places to see goats:

  • On a bicycle. Usually strapped over the back tire, but there has been at least one occasion when the poor creature was sitting with front hooves tossed over the handlebars, posterior on the bar in front of the seat. The fact that you couldn’t see there was even someone on the bike behind him and that his frantic bleating was so constant that I actually experienced the Doppler effect as he rode by only made the image that much more bizarre.

  • Crossing a river. On the shoulders of a person, of course. You could only see the top half of the woman above the water and the goat, bleating like there’s no tomorrow, wrapped around her head, slipping slowly through the water.

  • In a purse. No kidding. When walking past a goatherder on my way home one day, the man had a herding stick in one hand and a woven purse in the other, and what should appear but – madly bleating, of course – the head of a tiny newborn goat, apparently not big enough to keep up with the crowd on the way home. I'd take one of these over a chihuahua any day.
  • On top of a bus. Like any other piece of luggage, usually tied down. Usually.

  • In my living room. Just kidding, not my favorite place. He made it all the way to my bedroom door before I realized it and chased him out. We were both bleating by the end of it.

The Not Fun Stuff

The preschool is near the end of a looooong dirt road past the fifth bairro of town. The only thing past the school is the cemetery. We get a surprising amount of traffic on that road.
The funeral processions start with the one hearse from the one funeral agency in town, a black one with untinted windows so you can see the coffin inside. Behind the hearse, mourners process through whatever means possible – large work trucks with people standing like sardines in the open back, several chapas full, pick-up trucks, motorcycles, bikes, usually lagging behind by the time they reach the school. The immediate family of the deceased is dressed in black, and will continue to dress that way until the end of the mourning period - six months. The funerals are always eerily silent. Mozambicans don't usually show sadness as we might in the states. I've never seen anyone here cry. From the time they climb into the car to the time they reach the burial site, it's quiet. At the sight of the hearse coming down the dirt road, the teachers at the school order the kids to be quiet and close the doors that otherwise remain open all day. I usually see about one funeral procession a week. I’m at the school three days a week.
By far the saddest funeral procession I have ever seen, I didn’t even realize was one at first. The teachers and I were on the veranda, waiting for the kids to arrive. I was leaning against the wall reading and one of the teachers, Mana Gloria, was stretched out on the esteira mat beside me, when she nudged me and pointed. Coming down the road was a woman in a capulana. Several feet behind her were three other women, and some feet behind them, another few women, two with hoes and one with a shovel.
When an infant dies, only women go to bury it, Mana Gloria explained. She pointed again, and I realized the woman at the head of the procession had a capulana draped over the front of her shoulders and chest so it hung down over her folded arms to to her waist. Here, with the life expectancy of a child being what it is, they don't use hearses and coffins for children. It seemed like it took forever for the silent, tiny procession to march it's way past the school.
This is perhaps the most terrifying because shortly afterwards, the kids arrived - the three-to-five years olds universally known as Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Principally orphaned, of course, by AIDS. We know of at least a few of the kids who are HIV positive. This is the kind of stuff you try very hard not to think about during the school day.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Val vs. the Cobrador

I finally kicked a man.

Though not in quite the context I figured I finally would resort to violence. It's like this...

I was headed home from Maputo on a Friday afternoon with a pack of Peace Corps mulungos – Jenna, Donna, Louise and Louise’s boyfriend, Tim, visiting from the states. We’d just wrapped up a few days of civilization in the capital and piled into the back of a chapa for the 3+ hour ride home.

Not a half-hour outside the capital, we hit a bump in the road – certainly not uncommon in itself, except that chapa kept bumping. We found this very amusing for about 60 seconds – talking slowly to play with the involuntary vibrations in our voices as we bounced along. Then it was annoying. Then I looked out the window. The road was smooth. Then it was worrisome. The road wasn’t bumping – our tire was.

Five minutes later, we're still bouncing. No one else really seems concerned. Nervously, we get the cobrador’s attention and point out the fact that something is wrong in the state of our chapa. He agrees, makes a call, yeah, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.

Fifteen more minutes pass.

We start to approach a town. We could get off and catch a safer chapa or a boleia. Should we ask to stop?

Then we hear a pop.

PARAGEM! (STOP!) from the mulungos in the back row.
The driver pulls over. Are you fazering xixi or stopping here? the cobrador asks.
Getting off. As we’re only about an hour into our 3+ hour drive, and a normal trip to Chokwe costs 150 mets, we ready our 50 mets bills to pay.

We pile out with bags in tow and the cobrador waits for us to pay. It’s 150 mets, he says, because that’s the cost from Maputo to Chokwe.

Really? Does this work with other mulungos? I think.

We chuckle. No, we’re not paying the full amount, we still have most of the trip to go. We’ll pay you 50 mets, 75 at the most.
No, it’s 150 to Chokwe, he says.
We’re not in Chokwe, I point out. We’re going to catch another chapa - one with all tires intact.

First, you should know this is not an unusual request – people get on and off all the time, and cobradors make up prices all along the way. People get off, others get on, and pay for the rest of the way. I’ve never heard of paying for a full trip when it’s incomplete.

No, the cobrador starts to get angry. You got on to go to Chokwe, you have to pay the full amount.

The other passengers are staring. The driver gets out.
You shouldn’t be getting off here, he argues. So you have to pay for the whole trip.
The tire is flat. You’re going to have a blowout, and the chapa isn’t safe, Louise says.
The cobrador is still talking at Jenna, Donna and me. Louise walks to the back tire to show the driver, also still ranting. Tim, who speaks three phrases in Portuguese, principally the phrase, “Não falo Portuguese,” (“I don’t speak Portuguese”) stands cluelessly by.

You can’t trick us, you have to pay, you got on the chapa in Maputo to get off in Chokwe and you have to pay for it, or you just need to get back in the chapa so we can go the rest of the way and pay 150 mets, blah, blah, blah, the cobrador keeps yelling and is clearly getting angry.

No, we live here, we know how it works, and that doesn’t make any sense. You’re being unreasonable, I say. More people will get on and they’ll pay, just like us. We’re not obligated to pay for the whole way. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hear me because he's still rambling. Meanwhile, the driver is continuing to rant at Louise.

I try to give the cobrador my 50 mets. He throws his hands up and keeps yelling.
Calm down, calm down, calm down, I tell him, and he keeps yelling louder.

Then the cobrador and driver throw in the race card. Just because you’re white, you can’t get away with this.

Guys, we should probably just get out of here, I say.

I turn to the road to try to flag down another chapa.
The cobrador grabs my backpack.
Really? Seriously? I think. He thinks he can get away with this scam?

You can’t leave! Get in the chapa!
Let go of my bag, and let us leave. We’ll pay you 50 mets, I repeat. Still nothing. He’s still ranting, holding on. He doesn’t even care.

Pulling my bag, he tries to force me back to the car. At this point, I’m simply astounded by his audacity. You’re really trying to force me into the car? Are you insane? I pull away. My backpack strap breaks, and he grabs onto my bag with both hands.

We’re wasting time! Get in the chapa! he keeps yelling.

I’m suddenly aware that my heart is pumping and my hands, firmly grasping my bag in our tug-of-war, are shaking – thanks adrenaline, but I really don’t need you right now. It’s surprising, because at this point I don’t actually feel worried – he can’t force us in the chapa, and he wouldn’t dare try to get the money away from us through other means. There’s nothing he can do but keep throwing his temper tantrum. He’s not getting anywhere, and he’s just making a fool of himself in front of the other passengers.

Speaking of which, most are still gaping out the window, but a woman has descended and, after seeing the tire, is arguing our side. The driver, taking a cue from the cobrador, has grabbed Donna’s bag in an attempt to get her in the chapa.

Let go of me. I’m not getting in, I tell the cobrador again.
I don’t care! I’m not afraid of you! he yells, which strikes me as an odd statement – of course you’re not afraid of me, why on earth would you be? A grow man against, well, me? I certainly should hope not.

He steps closer and pulls on my bag.
I’m not getting in. I’m not afraid of you, either, I respond. He steps closer.
Ah, I suddenly see. He's trying to intimidate me.
Ha. I want to show him it’s not working.

So I kick him.

In retrospect, this isn’t one of my finer moments – partly because it was a childish thing to do and only served to make him angrier; partly because, adrenaline and all, it was a really pathetic kick. Had I really been thinking, I could’ve done humanity a favor and kicked much harder and higher.

But in this childish turn of events, I do realize exactly what’s going on – Jenna, Louise, Donna and I are trying to reason with them. We’re putting forth rational arguments in a civilized manner. Of course we’re in the right. But that’s not the issue.
We’re women.

These older men have told us to pay. Then they have told us to get in the chapa. And we have told them no. How dare we. Of course they’re not going to allow this.

While this is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of these men, it doesn’t help the situation at all. The cobrador and driver are yelling, the other passengers are yelling, we’re yelling, and it’s all completely futile. He's still attempting to force me back into the chapa. No one’s getting anywhere, and it just needs to end before something bad happens. Of course, my thoughts weren't quite this coherent at the time, but the intuition was firmly in place.

I jerk my backpack enough that I can take a few steps toward the road and frantically flail my free arm. Passing cars see a large black man trying to drag away a young white woman. As much as I hated to use my damsel-in-distress card, it worked swimmingly and instantaneously.
A car stops within seconds – an older Mozambican couple. The cobrador immediately slacks his grip, and I move toward the couple as they get out of the car.

All the adrenaline that apparently bypassed my foot seemed to have been redirected into my Portuguese, and despite my now trembling voice I get out a speedy yet comprehensible recount of events.

The Good Samaritan tells the cobrador to let go, and he and the driver both turn their attention to ranting at him. Within minutes, the driver and cobrador never ceasing their rant, the man has instructed us to get into his car so we and the chapa driver can go to the police station in town. We pile into their car – a five-seater, for the seven of us with luggage. As he starts the car, the chapa driver comes to the man’s window.

I don’t have time for this. It’s 45 mets to Manhiça. They can pay and we’ll let them go.
We pass our money to the driver. Outside the car, we see more people getting into the chapa to replace us and a few others who got out, so that his 15-passenger vehicle once again has the standard 25 and his wallet is full.

We get into another chapa and vent for the next hour. But just for an hour. Because around that time, our chapa unexpectedly pulls over. There’s another chapa a ways behind us. The cobrador of that chapa comes up to the window – it’s our dear friend the raving lunatic cobrador.
Could you help me? he asks. Our tire blew out.

Was it wrong of us to burst out cheering and then wave to him? Probably. But I think it was even more gratifying than the kick.

Monday, 5 July 2010

8 Clues You're Dealing with a Mozambican Male

1. He has friend ask for your number for him. Because you don’t speak the same language. ("What's the point?!" I exclaimed. His friend had to translate this as well.)
2. He asks for things the first time you meet that civilized men wouldn’t ask for after a third date.
3. After a serious discussion he FINALLY stops introducing you as his girlfriend and instead settles for “My future wife.”
4. At the discoteca you have to turn around in order to tell him to stop trying to dance with you. SEVEN TIMES. (“They’re like goldfish,” Jenna says. “You tell them to go away, five seconds later they forget and come back and try again.”)
5. When you tell him you don’t want to namorar because you have a husband back home and he replies “Yes, but do you have one here?”
6. He sends you a text that says “I miss you” on the same day you meet him.
7. You think you’ve finally gotten the “just friends” point across. And then he goes out and buys you a red silk negligee for your birthday. (Don’t laugh. I was traumatized.)
8. You daydream about life as a nun.

Mana Thelma

Mana Thelma always sits just to the right of the entrance to loja grande on her capulana, surrounded by green bacias and large plastic sacks overflowing with tomatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, green beans, whatever’s in season. Usually she’s alone, but sometimes she has a friend or some children with her. She sits there, from before the store opens at 8 hours until shortly after it closes at 18 hours. Sometimes she’ll sleep a few feet away in the shade of the awning of the Hotel Limpopo during the siesta hours, when the store is closed. But usually she sits in the sun, wrapping a capulana around her head when it burns too hot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her move from that spot.
Mana Thelma.
“Mana Valer!” and her big white toothy smile always greet me when I approach the store. I wish her a “lixile” or “inlhikani” depending on the time of day, and she asks about my health, comments on the weather (usually “sò calor!,” occasionally “sò frio!” when it drops below 90˚). Portuguese is a second language for both of us, so the conversation stays basic. She once asked about my husband and children, and when I said I had neither, of course preparing to defend myself, she just smiled wider and exclaimed “Es menina!” (You’re a child!), but not in the condescending way the professors at school do, more like she’s supporting the fact that I’m too young to worry about such things yet. I caught myself before I launched into my protest, nodded, and agreed. Sim, sou menina.
Sometimes I’m just passing through to pick up milk or rice at the store, but I always try to find something to buy from her, usually attempting my basic market Xangana and asking for the hundredth time the word for tomatoes (ximati, it turns out). She laughs at my attempts, asks about the word in English, then laughs at us both as we try to contort our mouths to make the foreign sounds. She really got a kick out of “onion.” I stopped pronouncing for a moment, thought about it, and had to nod and agree, sim, it’s a funny word.
Every time I buy, she’ll tosses in a barcela – a little something extra. Maybe a spare green pepper to go along with my bag of onions, or maybe a few really ripe tomatoes when I buy cucumbers. One time she gave me a full bag of green beans when I bought carrots, one of the priciest veggies.
Obrigada! she says as she slips the greens into the black plastic bag.
Obrigada a voce! I reply, surprised at the generous barcela.
Não, obrigada a voce, she insists, and as she holds up the bag to me from her spot on the ground, still with her big toothy grin, she leans forward to look me in the eye.
Oh, I realize. No, this isn’t a Wal-Mart greeter. There’s no salary for Mana Thelma. She lives off of what she sells. She knows I could easily get the same vegetables anywhere else, sometimes even cheaper, and she really and truly is grateful for the fact that I’m buying from her.
Oh. Sim. I nod and agree. Mana Thelma and I have a pretty good understanding.


It was brought to my attention early during training that Portguese would only be half the battle here. It was brought to my attention in the following way:

(While sitting in the living room with Mama C and Jhonkikas in about my third week of training, as I understood the conversation at the time…)
Mama C: Valer, blahoo blah time blahçao school blah blah blah tomorrow?
Me: (excited at my pseudo-comprehension) Oh! I go school 7:30!
Mama C: (to Jon) Blahoo go early blahar no time blah blah take bath blah Valer.
Jon: Blahir no want blahçao help Valer. Blahes want sleep.
Me: (somehow able to ascertain through their discussion that my bathtime for the following morning is on the line) I make bath water warm in morning! No problem!
Mama C: (glancing sideways at me, surprised, perhaps a little annoyed…)
Me: (still grinning like a loon at my own cleverness). I can! Bath! Yes!
Mama C: (talking in complete gibberish which I only later recognize as the infamous Xangana) Blahki whistle blah grunt Valer blahi blah grunt whistle whistle grunt.
Jhon: (in agreement) Grunt.
Me: *sigh*

When I awoke the next morning, Mama C was already gone, Jhon was still asleep and there was no charcoal to make a fire. After a bitterly cold shower, I determined to someday learn to speak Xangana.

Estrela da Manha

Never saw me as the preschool type? That’s because I’m not. Yet here I am…
Technically, I’m here as a teacher trainer and curriculum supervisor – meaning I teach the teachers what to teach, then show up and monitor to make sure they abide by the curriculum and abide by preschool rules.
No, I don't actually teach. Unfortunately, neither do the people paid to do so.
It’s like this…
Preschools, as I might have mentioned before, are a newish concept over here. Education with the aim of actually educating children is kind of a foreign concept in the first place. Teachers choose the profession – which involves completing the 10th grade and one year of training – because it’s better than working in the machamba. Much better – because you don’t have to do much beyond show up occasionally.
The challenge for me is being culturally sensitive while still attempting to make very necessary changes. There are certain things I have had to acknowledge are simply the result of my overly-paranoid American upbringing and are simply never going to happen here. In other areas, change is simply vital – to the survival of the school in some ways and the survival of the children in others. My sanity is already a lost cause.

Goal One: Adult Supervision.
Right now, I don’t even worry about the teachers actually teaching all the time – just be with the children! This is a strange concept because culturally they don’t supervise their own flesh and blood children at home – so why on earth would they do it for some stranger’s little boogers?
As such, I often find myself running between the two classrooms, kitchen/office and the new playground equipment, searching for the teachers (with such a simple campus you’d think it’d be difficult to hide…but they manage).
Remember the Saturday morning cartoon Recess, and how the kindergartens ran around in loin cloths and war paint with spears? For starters…
A typical afternoon looks like this: I’m sitting in the midst of the 3- and 4-years old, peacefully singing the alphabet song, when Teacher 1 says she needs to use the casa da banho. That’s fine – but wait, where has Teacher 2 gone to?! This means I will be alone with the little boogers for a minute. This doesn’t look good.
Minutes after Teacher 1 leaves, the room is in chaos.
The kids have raided the toy area, are bouncing off the naptime mats and, of course, engaging in their favorite activity: hitting each other.
“Nao lhe bate!” (Don’t hit him!) is my useless battle cry. A few kids who don’t speak Portuguese settle for taunting me in Xangana. One particular devil child stops hitting him and hits me instead. They know they can’t get away with it. Unlike the other teachers, I refuse to hit them back.
Finally, I run outside and to the 5-year-old classroom and stick my head in the door to beg help from Teacher 3.
No teacher.
Three girls have decided the dry-erase board isn’t near as much fun as the human canvasses of their classmates. A group of boys are taking turns using each other’s heads for soccer target practice. Two kids have another by the arms, one on each side, trying to see if they can pull him apart. A few others are testing the strength of the bars on the windows by dangling from them.
“Whew,” I say aloud. “No blood.”
I go teacher hunting.
I stick my head in the kitchen. The cook is there with Teacher 2, who has been MIA for an indeterminate amount of time. They pause their conversation and buttering bread for snack time to look up at the interruption.
“Hey, can someone, um, stay with the children?”
Teacher 2 looks shocked. “Can’t you see we’re busy here?”

Accompanying the children to the casa de banho is another thing Louise and I try to drill into the teachers every week during planning, and another thing that more often than not falls to us. Which really wouldn’t be a problem in an American preschool. But here’s a little different.
First, a word about the casa de banho. This is not a bathroom. Safety positioned 50 meters from the classrooms por causa de stench, the casa is a two-room concrete structure hovering over a pit that I don’t care to think about. The two sides each have three 6-inch holes cut into the floor with outlines indicating where to put your feet in order to avoid any, pardon me, misdirection. Stalls? Toilets? Toilet paper? Same place as the sink with running water, soap and electricity in general – only in my dreams.
Usually when I approach the casa de banho there is already a flock of students waiting patiently for help with buttons and zippers. First problem: When there is no teacher, there is no one to assist in this endeavor. And this doesn’t stop them from taking care of business.
Second problem: Inevitably, I will catch someone trying to sneak behind the casa de banho. Inevitably, that leads to me finding a small herd of children already there, taking care of business right there in the yard.
“No!” I shriek in Portuguese. “You have to fazer xixi (direct translation: make pee) inside the casa de banho!”
Typically this results in fiendish giggles, more taunting in Xangana, and me standing there, powerless to do anything but, no pun intended, let nature run its course.
I can’t blame them too much thought, because the casa de banho is usually pretty gross, thanks to children missing the hole – often by as much as three feet…
Moral of the story: These children need to be accompanied to the bathroom. Period.
As with any school, there is lunchtime and naptime. Remember bringing your Barney mat and pillow every day? Same concept, just a little different here. The capulana covers are mainly to keep the flies off faces.

There’s a breakfast in the morning and lunch in the afternoon. Lunch: rice. Everyday. Usually with something on top, but not necessarily. Breakfast: pepina (direct translation: porridge). Actually, I won’t lie, I look forward to the porridge.

Yet for all its problems, the school represents an incredible accomplishment, and I can’t begin to describe what an improvement it is over normal circumstances. The school is free for OVCs – Orphans and Vulnerable Children. About half the children are orphans. We don’t know the number that are HIV positive. But for several of the kids, it’s pretty clear.
Being an orphan here is not like the states. Rather than being placed in foster care, children are usually given to relatives. And they earn their keep. For the first few months here in Chokwe, I thought it was very interesting that our neighbor, a fellow teacher, had a young male empregado to do the washing, cooking, cleaning, etc. for the family. Then he told me that he was an orphaned relative. It’s the story of Cinderella, without the fairy godmother, prince or happy ending at the palace. But again, it’s infinitely better than the alternative.
These children are in such a situation. So to be able to go for free to a place where they can learn Portuguese, reading, writing, and receive two meals (even if it’s just empty carbs – again, better than the alternative) is truly a blessing. It’s like children are ultimately seen as expendable around here – especially children under 5, whose life expectancy is dismal.

And while some of them are little brats, there’s a lot that are I simply want to take home with me. I don’t pick favorites. But I do like one or two better than all the others. They're cute.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


I just spent the week chaperoning 50 high school-age boys in Maputo for the annual JOMA Conference. That said, this particular post is not for anyone under the age of 18. Period.
Allow me to explain.

JOMA, or Jovens para Mudança e Acção (Young People for Change and Action), is a Peace Corps-initiated national youth organization that aims to raise awareness in gender issues in general and HIV/AIDS prevention in specific through mediums such as theater, journalism, music and art. At the Instituto Agrario, I have a theater group of ten guys, and we perform short (largely what you might consider improv) pieces that tackle some pretty sticky topics (but my guys are pretty hilarious, so they make it fun, too. I can almost understand all their jokes. Sometimes.). For the conference, I took my co-sponsor and two of my top students, Aniceto and Jaime.

Following the organization’s theme, the conference focused on gender and sexual health. But not quite in the same way we receive sex ed in the states. Oh no. This is Moçambique. Sub-Saharan Africa. Where the average sexual debut is 14 (the age of many attendees) and the HIV/AIDS rate is 27 percent. (My province, Gaza, has the highest rate, with 40 percent of death attributed to AIDS.) A local health organization was at the conference to administer HIV/AIDS testing. All but one student (remember, these are high schoolers) took the test. We don’t know the results but given that statistics, in that room of 42 boys and 6 girls, you can’t help but wonder. And wonder who just took the test anyway.

I remember having sex education in health class. I also remember the kinds of things I was seriously worried about at the age of 14. Things like breaking up with that boyfriend I didn’t actually talk to and whether I wanted chili cheese fries or taquitos for lunch topped the list. Condom negotiation with boyfriend(s) and getting tested regularly for HIV/AIDS did not. Probably couldn’t have explained it to you if I’d tried, actually. That said, I also learned a lot and had discussions with people I’d just met about things that I probably wouldn’t discuss with my best friend.

The goal of the conference is not only to impress these issues on the students, of course, but to help them in their efforts to share this information in their schools and communities. The conference was the fun part; now the real work begins.

Of course, the conference also included strengths-building activities, leadership training, team building activities, and Trust Falls, Chubby Bunny, Spiderweb Crawl, relay races and pool time. They’re facing very adult topics, but they’re still very much kids.

Moz Men: Chapter 2

Leaving the library with my friend Rute, when a man drives up.

Man: (to Rute). Hi. I’m Julius. Tell your friend I like her. Tell your friend she’s going to be my woman.

Me: Um, hi, her friend speaks Portuguese.

Man: (moment of confusion) (then, to Rute) Tell your friend she’s very smart.

Over the phone, with my empregada’s nephew / Portuguese tutor I fired because he doesn’t know Portuguese / guy who sold us shrimp (bear in mind he still wears all black because he’s in the mourning period for his late wife)

Julio: Hi, it’s Julio. I accidentally gave you an extra kilo of shrimp this morning. Can I come back and get it tomorrow?

Me: No, that’s okay, I’ll just pay for it next time you’re in town.

Julio: Ok. Can I still come over tomorrow?

Me: (suddenly realizing this is not a business call). Why?

Julio: Because I like you. I want to make you my wife. You can take me back with you to America.

Me: You’re kidding.

Julio: No. Do you understand what I’m saying? Here: I like you. You are going to be my wife.

Me: You’re kidding.

Julio: No, I’m trying to tell you I like you.

Me: That’s nice. I don’t care. Hey, why don’t I just give my empregada the money to give to you? Does that work?

Julio: Ok. Hey, I’m running out of phone credit…

Me: Sorry. Goodbye.

With a very good friend after grabbing dinner one night (yeah, should’ve known), who I’m trying to make understand the concept of a platonic relationship.

Me: Okay, see you tomorrow.

Z: Wait, we’re not going to kiss?

Me: Um, no. See you tomorrow.

Z: But Valeria, you’re not being very kind. This hurts. I’m in love with you.

Me: Yes. But I’m not going to be your namarada.

Z: But why?!

Me: Why? (honestly perplexed…wait, I have to explain why I’m not interested in you? The fact that I say no isn’t indication enough?)

Z: Yes. Why won’t you namarar with me? I love you.

Me: (Realizing the only way I’ll get out of this is by being painfully blunt.) But I don’t love you. I’m not even interested in you.

Z: Don’t worry! It’s okay! I don’t mind.

Me: (blink) (silence).

Me: Good night, Z.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

I can remember quite clearly in kindergarten when another student (not me, I didn’t talk then) eagerly exclaimed, “Teacher! Teacher! Look!” And my teacher (whose patience I envy to this day), replied “My name’s not teacher! My name’s Mrs. Pashby!”

Here, it’s the opposite. Every teacher is either “Senhor Professor” or “Senhora Professora,” or, for short, “Stora.” When I enter the second grade class every week, the students scramble to stand up and recite in unison, “Bom dia, Senhora Professora! Como esta?” In my English classes, this translates directly as “Teacher,” and this is also what the kids in the neighbor call Clancy and me (Teacher Clance for her, Teacher Valer for me).

It’s really kind of humbling.

Walking into school, into the town, into the market, everywhere I go, I constantly hear either “Stora!” or “Teacher!” (now I know how moms feel, except that I’m usually the only professora around, so it’s usually safe to respond). Unfortunately, all the students (preschool through secondary school) easily recognize me on sight, but I’m a little slower to place them. Thankfully, that’s not always necessary for a basic conversation and I can usually deduce the information quickly (“Hey, how are classes going? You’re failing Informatics? Oh no, why? Oh right, I gave you a 0 on that last test for cheating…”) What’s really funny is when the students confuse Clancy and I. Nevermind the fact that her hair is brown and mine is red and are two completely different lengths, or that she has glasses and I don’t, or that she wears skirts on a daily basis and I wear skirts only when I’m running low on laundry. How do they manage to distinguish us? I’m the short one. By one inch. Don’t ask me.


I have a pretty widespread view of Moçambique’s education system, thanks to a variety of projects. It starts with preschool…


I’ve never seen such a need for a preschool. Monday through Friday a 25 passenger van picks up 45 kids between the ages of 3 and 5 and four teachers (SO not legal by American standards, but an obvious necessity around here. The first day, I found myself on the front bench with the driver, another teacher, and a death grip on four children bouncing between our six knees. Seatbelts? HA.). The preschool is a relatively new concept here – typically students dive into first grade cold turkey at age six. This particular preschool is exceptional in that the children are not allowed to speak Xangana – only Portuguese – and, little by little, are learning English (which is where I come in). I spend Mondays teaching the teachers super-simple English that ties in with each week’s topic. I admit, I felt a little ridiculous the first time I taught five grown women “Apples and Bananas” from Barney. But they loved it. In fact, I’ve just about exhausted my Barney repertoire.

But preschoolers all over the world are exactly the same. Sometimes they cry for no reason. They wet their pants during naptime. They skin their knees. They fight over stuffed animals.

Because of this it’s easy to forget some of the differences. Like the fact that this school caters specifically to children orphaned by AIDS. And you can pick out the ones who suffer from malnutrition by the way their hair fades and falls out in places.

Another stark reminder of the differences I noticed when I went to get onto a kid for hitting another one. I raised my hand to put my finger in his face and straighten him out…and he flinched. Or cowered, like I was about to hit him. Which is the main form of punishment around here, especially in the primary school. Another volunteer is responsible for overseeing the direction and regulations for the preschool. She has her work cut out for her.

Primary School

But these kids have an incredible advantage, as I realize when I go weekly for storytime with the second grade at the primary school next to my house. The majority of these seven-year-olds don’t speak Portuguese, just Xangana. All the lessons are in Portuguese. On a whole, they’re learning their alphabet, and I’m specifically trying to drill word recognition. One or two of these second-graders can recognize words like “yes” (sim), “dog” (cão), and “cat” (gato). The whole country has a no-fail policy until the seventh grade, which explains why some of my friends complain about trying to teach English to students who can’t read Portuguese in the eighth grade. But when you realize most of these students have never seen a real book in their lives, it’s not that surprising. (I’m working on this…right now, I’m translating the random assortment of English children’s books at our house. Vai, Cão, Vai!, for example.)

But otherwise, they’re just like second-graders anywhere. They get in trouble for talking. They get super excited the sit on the floor around the teacher for storytime. They have to show you every little thing they do and positively beam at any recognition. They’re really cute when I’m only there for 45 minutes max.

Secondary School

My primary assignment is at the Instituto Agrario, where I teach Informatics (computers) to a roughly jr. high level and English to a roughly high-school-senior level. Informatics can be trying, but I love my English students. They’re incredibly motivated when it comes to learning English. The schedule at the instituto keeps them ridiculously busy – working in the fields, cooking the meals, carting agua, cleaning the buildings, maintaining the grounds., etc. – but they still get their homework in on timely. Mostly.

Unfortunately, they also have a 30 percent HIV/AIDS rate here in Chokwe, and a culture that encourages multiple partners and an average sexual debut of age 14. And malaria. Constantly. Because they don’t have a weekly prophylaxis like the volunteers, and, if they’re on the top bunk, don’t even have a mosquito net.

But otherwise, they’re just like high schoolers anywhere. They all have cell phones. They’re late to class. They fall asleep in the same class. They have all kinds of questions about the rest of the world (although most of them revolve around Michael Jackson). They have drama. They have ambitions. And when I simply can’t take anymore inefficiency and corruption in the administration, they’re the reason I keep showing up to class (which I can’t say for many of my colleagues…).

...And Beyond...

After weeks of negar-ing, I finally gave in and started an Hora de Inglês for professors at the Instituto, and was actually pleasantly surprised at their level of English. Now each Wednesday I stand up in front of a group of middle-aged Moçambican men and teach them the preposition rhyme, “Old McDonald,” and, after some convincing, even got them to participate in some board races. It’s a little intimidating, but it’s worth it when I hear “Good morning, Teacha!” in the professor’s office and start a conversation in slow, broken, but excited English, just like with my other students. And even better – they ask questions like nobody’s business. I could probably walk into class without a lesson plan and we’d still go over time. Sometime when I’m feeling especially lazy, I’ll probably try it.

Yes, some of them don’t go their own classes. Some of them have no problem with taking bribes of varying levels of scrupulousness for grades. And some of them routinely ask for my phone number, though I convinced more than a few of them that I’m married.

But in my English class, they’re just like students anywhere. They get wrong answers. They ask questions ten times in a row. They get excited and high-five the other professors when they get a correct answer. They genuinely want to learn English.

Wish a few more of my preschool, primary school and secondary school students felt the same way...

Comfort Zone

Getting outside your comfort zone can be a little…uncomfortable.
However, I have discovered a direct relationship between the size of your comfort zone and how far out of your comfort zone you venture.
Here, I think I’m pretty darn far outside my comfort zone. But that just means that it doesn’t take much at all to make me comfortable.
For instance, when some other PCVs introduced me to their friends from Portugal, there was an instant connection. Filipe and Clara have never been to the states. I have never been to Portugal (I was vaguely aware there was something on the Iberian Peninsula that was not Spain, but I always just kind of imagined it as a dark, fuzzy, non-Spanish blob…). But that didn’t stop our bonding over what really matters.
“Oh my goodness, Portugal has flushing toilets, too? Aren’t they great?!”
“Yeah, I used to know how to drive, too. Used the pedals and everything.”
“Really? Portuguese guys don’t propose to you every day? I think it’s the same back in the states…I remember that…”
It was the same when we came across a group of foreigners right here in Chokwe. I didn’t think twice about introducing myself – in fact, I almost felt obligated to do so. Of course, as soon as I walked up I was greeted with “Hey, I thought I saw another white person in town! Nice to meet you!” One of the guys was from Holland, another was from Great Britain and a couple was from South Africa. But we all spoke English. So we became fast friends.
Really, the only thing I have in common with these people is that, like me, they’re estrangeiros – foreigners. Turns out being strangers is a great common link.
Were I to approach a similar situation back home, I realize, it wouldn’t have quite the same effect. (“Whoa, you speak English?! Me too! Hey, let’s be friends.”)
This has also led me to the conclusion that all we need to have world peace is a few extraterrestrials. (“Hey, you’re human? Me too! Hey, what do you think about that whole having two eyes thing – it’s great, isn’t it?”) That said, I’m going to recommend to Peace Corps that they join forces NASA as a means to world peace. I nominate myself to be the first volunteer to Mars. Cooper out.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Hello all!

Just a brief update until I can do some real damage online. Classes have (finally!) started and I think the schedule has changed for the last time. I’m teaching two classes of English and one of computers, which, at first, I didn’t think I was qualified for. I quickly realized otherwise. (Lesson one: This is a mouse. It has buttons and moves the little arrow on the screen. Lesson two: This is a keyboard. When you hit a button here, it magically appears on the screen!). It´s especially fun because all the computers are in English. :) I’m also continuing a peer tutoring project started by the previous PCV English teacher (Andrea, you’re amazing!) and am starting a theater group with an HIV/AIDS prevention education focus.
It’s been fun.
The students, for the most part, are incredible – super-motivated to learn English, they love to be involved, and they have more ideas than I could possibly hope to tackle in the next two years.
The administration, not so much…

I’m also helping out weekly at the primary school next door (see previous entry). Originally, I wanted to do a sort of storytime for the students. Then I realized: there are no children’s books. Oh yes, I have Dr. Seuss. And I have resources for all kinds of English book donations. But these kids are still learning Portuguese. Much like me.

My Portuguese at this point can probably be best described as “conversational,” with occasional moments of insight with more complicated conjugations. I just about did a dance when I discovered Lois Lowry’s The Giver in Portuguese at the local library. They have about three actual novels, and this is a real gem.

Any ideas are welcome! I’m currently researching methods for acquiring children’s literature in Portuguese. For the theater group, are there any theater junkies out there who know where I can find a list of improv practices or other theater activities I can teach at rehearsals? Anything is appreciated. (“You know you need unique New York” doesn’t translate well…)

I managed to get some more photos on facebook. Keep the letters coming. If you´re reading this, I feel I can safely say I love and miss you very much. Tchau!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Bits and Pieces

My life is a little different here…
- The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is open both doors to let in a breeze, then get a kettle of water boiling. Not for tea, but so I can run it through the filter afterward and have drinking water. I do this about three times a day.
- I walk a half-hour into town to buy groceries about every other day. Sometimes if it’s too hot, I can hop a boleia (car, pick-up truck, tractor, someone’s bike handlebars) into town. Often ten other people are hopping the same boleia. It’s a great way to meet people and get up close and personal quite quickly.
- On these same walks, I walk along a road that looks like it was plucked from civilization and stuck in the wilderness. Corn, tomatoes, papaya, bananas, go off in every direction until the earth drops off. You pass people going to and from the fields along the road, usually women, anywhere from age five to what looks like 75. Sometimes they´ll be riding in carts behind oxen. Sometimes you’ll see them in the field less than fully clothed, Native American-style. They always, always, great you with either a “bom dia” in Portuguese, or a “dixile” in Xangana, the native language here in most of Gaza.
- I walk 45 minutes to church with my neighbor on Sundays. I used to balk at the idea of driving that long to attend my home church in Azle while in college. In an air conditioned car. With a radio. I don’t mind this walk at all.
- Lizards, chickens, cats, dogs, goats, kids and cows all peacefully co-exist in my front yard. And sometimes on my patio. I don’t mind the dogs because at least you can shoo them away. The kids don’t listen.
- The part of my day I probably look forward to the most is getting to dump cold cupfuls of water over my head for a shower. I’m fairly certain it’s the only time of day – and night – that I’m not sweating.
- My roommate and I usually spend about an hour making dinner every night. I thought I cooked from scratch back home. Then I started buying things like yeast and whole coconuts and rice that I passed on the way to school that morning. I have chopped up an onion almost every day since arriving in Chokwe. I wear sunglasses because I discovered I’m uber-sensitive and end up bawling halfway through the first one if I don’t. Much to my roommate’s amusement.
- I speak English with my roommate, the other volunteers, and the ten people that stop me along the road to try out their English and ask me to teach them more. Other than that, it’s Portuguese or a sad attempt at Xangana.
- I was just interrupted by my neighbor, who was outside the front door frantically beating a log against the side of my house. Thankfully, the snake was dead before it made it to the patio. I love my neighbors.
- Around noon, everyone in my bairro whips out an esteira (sort of like a tatami mat), lays it in the shade and doesn’t move until three. During this time, they might munch on mangoes, work on homework, gossip with neighboring esteira-dwellers, or just let their minds wander. It’s brilliant.

Looking for a Job?

This whole Peace Corps concept is brilliant. They say, “Don’t worry about food, don’t worry about shelter, don’t worry about money (in fact, you’re not allowed to make any money while here – any freelancing you do will truly be that: free), just worry about making a difference while you’re here and we’ll take care of the rest.”
Which allows us to do some crazy things.
For example:
A week before classes started, my roommate, Clancy, was told by students that Biology wouldn’t be taught until fall due to a change in the school calendar. She confronted the director and he confirmed it – she was out of a job for the next seven months.
A vital attribute of Peace Corps Volunteers is adaptability. Monday morning was the first day of classes for the secondary school in a village down the road, Guijà. Clancy went to the school that morning to talk with the director.
She explained that she had never taught before, did not have a degree in English, and her only real qualifications were that she spoke English, had attended American schools and had three months of training in teaching and Portuguese. Oh, but she didn’t need to be paid.
The director’s response was to praise God that their prayers had been answered and now one person wouldn’t have to teach both 11th and 12th grade.
The next morning, Clancy taught her first English class to 11th graders at Escola Secundària de Guijà.
No questions. No resume. No interview. No contract. No problem.
Down the road in Howkè, my friend Anna is up in front of students without a break from noon to nine at night some days, because there are only two English teachers for four grades.
Two days ago, I was reading in the park and got to chatting with a girl in town to take a test at the local instituto superior. She told me she had just taken a test in Maputo to enter a journalism school there. She told me how crucial it was to speak English to get the job. Then she told me, in broken English about Susie, her Peace Corps English teacher in the 10th grade.
I´m typing this on a brand-new computer, complete with Office 2007 and Windows Vista. Prior to this, two of my colleagues were practically fighting over me because they both had written pages to type up, and neither knew how to use Word...or what Word actually is. They were absolutely flabbergasted that I was looking at the page and typing instead of looking at the keyboard. Suffice it to say, Clancy and I are currently working out a computer class for the professors.
Moçambique is hot. It’s inconvenient. It’s hard at times. But, dang, I have never felt so useful.

My Teaching Debut, or How I Discovered I Am Not Meant to Teach First Grade

I have a knack for getting myself into ridiculous situations. But it’s okay, because usually ridiculous situations have a knack for turning out okay anyway.
This particular situation is ironic because
1) I taught a class in Portuguese.
2) I’m still learning Portuguese.
3) The students don’t speak Portuguese.

This is how I came to teach at the primary school of bairro B in Chokwe:
After receiving my teaching schedule for Instituto Agrario (Each class only has two hours of English a week! I only teach Mondays! Whose idea was this?!), I realized I would drive myself nuts if I didn’t have something else to do the rest of the week. So, I wandered next door to talk to the directora at Escola Primaria do Bairro B, a electricity-less, four-room (well, three rooms and one mud hut) school house for grades 1-6.
The previous volunteers had volunteers in various ways – art classes, PE, music, etc., and said they had greatly enjoyed it. I explained to the directora how I’d like to volunteer to read or write with the kids, maybe tutor a few, generally help out however I could.
Perhaps that was my first mistake.
She asked if I would like to sit in on one of her lessons that afternoon, and I got a good feel for her approach in working with students (lots of repetition, lots of interaction, lots of whacking kids across the back of the head with a stick, though I didn’t quite see myself adopting that particular method). I sat quietly through the lesson, helped with the grading, tried to ignore the kid behind me who kept touching the back of my arm to see if the white came off, and generally had a very pleasant afternoon.
She asked if I’d like to try my hand at teaching the following day, for second grade at 7, and then for first grade at 12:30. I looked at her book, got some ideas, made some plans, and arrived promptly the next morning.
The teacher, however, did not. And I have no doubt that was premeditated.
There I stood, 30 pairs of fascinated and expectant eyes on me, armed with English alphabet flashcards, a hastily translated “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” (doesn’t have quite the effect in other languages….) and second grade Portuguese and math books. And I taught the second grade in Portuguese.
Afterward, I felt happily accomplished and ready to take on the first grade in another hour and a half. This time, at least, I knew I was on my own from the very beginning.
That still didn’t save me.
I arrived even more prepared to the first grade class – with a few more students than the first one – at 12:30. I proudly introduced myself in slow, loud Portuguese, and told them I was going to be their teacher for the day, and asked them to tell me their names.
One nodded. The rest didn’t move.
I went to the first student and asked her name in Portuguese.
She smiled and said “sim” – yes in Portuguese.
I asked if she had understood what I had said. She smiled and said “sim.” I asked if everyone in the class spoke Portuguese. She smiled and said “sim.” I asked if she could say anything other than “sim.” She smiled and said “sim.” I asked her to if she would please go outside and tell the third grader gawking at me through the window at the back of the room to go climb the nearest papaya tree. She smiled and said “sim.”
And that’s when I remembered…
Portuguese is the second language for everyone in this country. They do an incredible job of teaching Portuguese by immersion when they enter school, as evidenced by the second graders I’d watched and taught. But these guys had been in school for one week. They knew how to greet the teacher and ask to go to the bathroom. That was it.
And so, for the next three and a half hours, I gestured, drew, gesticulated, and did everything in my power to get them to understand colors, numbers, letters, anything at all in Portuguese, while trying to keep 50 kids in their seats, quiet and paying attention, without resorting to beating them over the head with the teacher’s stick. I won’t lie, it was awfully tempting.
I let them go a half hour early. They didn’t seem to mind. I was still sane. And I hadn’t had to beat anyone.
When walking home, a group of girls who live in the same bairro walked with me. They hadn’t understood a word I’d said, but they smiled, two held my hands, and they chanted “un, dois, três, quatro, cinco!” all the way to my front door.
They’re darn cute. But I think I’ll stick with secondary school. And, if not English, at least Portuguese.

The Namaacha Files

From the Namaacha Files: My first experience with agua
I was feeling particularly gluttonous one evening after a meal of deep fried potatoes, deep fried fish (heads and all), with a side of deep fried rice, and was debating going for a walk or pursuing some other form of exercise that evening.
Mama Celeste suddenly enters the room in a hurry, and all I catch is something about washing clothes the next morning. (Yay! Finally!, I think to myself. I wasn’t sure why we hadn’t done it before, as I was getting pretty desperate. )
Confused but curious, I follow her to the kitchen, where she’s excitedly emptying buckets and jugs into other buckets and jugs and pots and anything else that has the capacity to hold water (Soup bowl? It’ll work for now. Xi-xi bucket? No problem.). Afterward, I silently congratulate myself – I’m wearing my khakis, maroon polo and TCU hoodie from class earlier that day, and I haven’t gotten a drop of (pretty disgusting) water on me.
Then Mama C picks up three of the jugs, motions for me to pick up the other two, and exits the kitchen.
The only problem? She’s not headed for the front door.
In fact, I have no idea where she – now we – are headed. By the time I do realize what’s going on, it’s too late: The first water jug is full, and I help Mama C place it on her head. And the second one? Yep, that’s where I come in.
And so I double over, bear hug the 25 liter jug that’s about the size of my torso, and start toward the house.
Mama C doesn’t spill a drop from the jug on her head. I take a step, wait for the water to stop sloshing, take another step, wait for the water to stop sloshing, and continue in this fashion back to the house.
I can feel the water drip onto my leg first, then, after another few sloshes, it begins to run down my leg, and before long my khakis are so drenched they’re sticking to my legs.
Two houses away, it begins to slip…
I stop, put it down and rearrange, have to concentrate to unwrap my digits from their death grip on the underside of the jug, and hoist it up again.
What on a casual walk takes three minutes took around 15.
I realize as I approach the house that my adopted brothers will get a kick out of my awkward state of wetness, as I imagine it looks like I xi-xi-ed my pants. I finally drop the jug in the kitchen (now missing about a third of the water) and have a chance to survey the damage. No, it does not look like I xi-xi-ed my pants. It looks like I did much more than xi-xi my pants and proceeded to roll in it. The dirt from the bottom of the jug had mixed with the water sloshing everywhere and turned my khakis a lovely shade of mud.
Mama C has already gone back to the pump.
I run in the house, change pants, grab my trusty capulana, and follow after her.
At this point, it’s pitch black (and of course there are no street lights…cause there’d have to be streets…) and I have the added fun of trying to figure out where to step without twisting an ankle or angering a black mamba. Not that I could see my feet over the jug in the first place.
After the second jug, I don’t think there’s any way my arms and back will allow me to carry, let alone pick up, another. I head back to the pump, but am genuinely uncertain of what I really hope to accomplish. Mama C has her final jug on her head, I bend down to pick up the last one, and I hover there a moment, trying to trick my arms into thinking they can hoist up just one more jug…
But wait, what’s this?! A person is approaching! A man, at that! And a man Mama C apparently knows! She calls out to the dark figure approaching us. He says he’s headed to our house! Mama C motions to me, says something along the lines of “fraco” (weak) and motions again towards the house. I’m saved!
My mysterious savior bends over the jug, hoists it up as though it were empty, and says something to me.
I’m so thrilled at his assistance that it takes me a little to realize what he’s saying…something about my head?
And then I remember: oh yeah. I’m in Mocambique. Men here are only good for the consumption of food and alcohol, the spreading of AIDS and the creation of more little women to do all the work for them.
“Não posso a cabeça,” I tell him. I can’t carry it on my head.
Fueled by my sudden rage at his entire species, I’m able to bear hug the proffered jug and trudge after Mama C. The man follows us right back to the kitchen, waits patiently for us to sort out the water situation, then joins my brothers on the couch in front of the TV as Mama C serves them dinner.

I am not a raging feminist. But at that moment, I came pretty darn close.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Visit to the Tailor

I was told before coming to Moçambique that I would have to turn down marriage proposals left and right. This is not completely accurate. Men here do not propose marriage. They simply inform.
Take for instance, a recent conversation with my tailor, translated into English:
Tailor: Good afternoon!
Me: Good afternoon? My dress is ready?
T: Just a moment while I fix up the zipper. So, do you live here in Chokwe?
M: Yes, I moved here a few weeks ago. I like it here. But I don’t like the heat.
T: Yes, it is hot. So, do you have a namorado (boyfriend, husband, lover, etc.) here in Chokwe?
M: (realizing exactly where this conversation is headed and jumping to evasive action) No, my husband is in the United States right now. Have you always lived in Chokwe?
T: (repeating the line all men in Moçambique recite and are convinced of) But no namorado living with you here? You’ll go crazy!
M: No, I’m okay. How about you? Do you have a namorada?
T: (clearly congratulating himself on this opportunity) No, not here, just in Bilene. (pause) I’m going to make you my wife.
M: Um, I have a husband. And you have a namorada, no?
T: In Bilene (roughly an hour away – clearly this is an excusable distance). But you will be my wife. I like you.
M: How’s that zipper coming along?
T: It’s good! Would you like to try it on?
M: (acknowledging we’re in the middle of the market and Moçambique does not believe in dressing rooms) No thank you, I’ll just take it. Good bye!
T: Can I have your phone number?
M: No.
T: What?! Why not?
M: I’m going now. Have a nice day.
T: Okay! See you soon! Just bring it back if there’s any problems and I’ll fix it. Tchau.
M: Okay, thank you. Tchau!
And we part ways.

"Estou a pedir..."

“Estou a pedir” literally translates into “I am asking for.” It’s roughly equivalent to “please.” On a cultural level, however, there’s no comparison.
A founding father once said something along the lines of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” He would never have survived in Moçambique. Moçambicans “estou a pedir” for anything and everything. It makes sense in this culture – no one has everything one needs, so people think nothing asking a neighbor or friend for it, knowing that neighbor or friend won’t hesitate to ask for something when they need it as well. Tomatoes? Clothing? Stove? Children? No problem.
However, it’s a little more complicated for Americans to get accustomed to this concept of “estou a pedir”-ing…especially in certain circumstances.
People along the side of the road will estou a pedir you for a sip of water. Kids will estou a pedir you for your shoes. And worse.
For example:
I was peacefully enjoying my bucket bath one morning in Namaacha in our outdoor “bathroom” next to the house. Just as I was bent over filling up a cup to rinse off, I heard Mama Celeste approach from the house. I looked up from my bucket just in time to see the curtain that serves as a door pull back and Mama C stick her head in. Confused, I froze, bent as I was over my bucket, wearing nothing but suds, and blinked.
“Estou a pedir tesoura.”
At this point, my Portuguese was still a work in progress, so I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly.
“Esta a pedir…tesoura?” I repeated. Literally, “You’re asking for…scissors?”
She replied with a grunt – which translates into “yes, please” in the local language of Xangana.
I stood there a moment longer, racking my brain for any possible way that this request could make sense at the present time. Nothing.
Finally, I said “Não tenho agora” – “I don’t have them now.”
She grunted again – this time meaning, “Oh, okay.”
She remained standing in the doorway. We stared at each other. The soap was starting to dry on my skin. I wondered if perhaps I’d been too obliging in the past.
“Umm…depois.” I finally said. “After.”
Her next grunt (meaning “fine”) sounded a little disappointed.
Another uncomfortable and soapy moment passed. Then she disappeared back behind the curtain.
I stood there blinking for a bit before finishing my banho. Afterward, I went to my room and fetched the scissors for Mama C.
“Muita obrigada,” she said. Which confirmed that, for better or worse, I’d heard her correctly.
Another night, I was awoken by a knock and my door and Mama Celeste calling my name (kind of… “Valer” is close enough). In a sleepy and worried daze, I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and mosquito net to open my bedroom door.
“Estou a pedir lanterna.”
At this point, I still didn’t know what the emergency was, but I understood that it required a light – in this case, my cell phone that doubled as a flashlight.
I went to my bed, retrieved my cell phone and handed it over to Mama C. I watched from my doorway as she walked to her room, peeked through a stack of clothes, and get a pair of socks out of the bottom. Then she came back and handed me the cell phone.
“Muita obrigada. Vou dormir.” Thank you. I’m going to sleep.”
I took my cell phone, saw her go back to her room and heard her climb into bed.
Then I looked at my cell phone. 3:30 a.m.
I didn’t say a word. I just went back to bed.

Monday, 4 January 2010


They have an incredible invention here in Mocambique called the empregada.
An empregada is a woman (always) who helps take care of the house. It’s almost like a maid or a nanny, except that they’re commonplace here. Stay-at-home-moms as well work-outside-the-house-moms (they do exist here!) both utilize empregadas. I’ve heard empregadas employ empregadas, but this has yet to be seen.
Clancy and I were blessed to inherit a wonderful empregada who’s worked with the previous four volunteers. Josefa comes for a couple hours in the morning four days a week, and she is a huge help to us. In fact, the other night, Clancy and I talked about how we miss her on days when she doesn’t come in, and we wondered how we ever survived in the states without one.

Who pumped and carted our water from the well every other day? And then helped boil, cool and filter it so we could drink it?
Who spent four hours washing our clothes in tubs with a bar of soap and hung them to dry on the line? Then scrambled to take them in during sandstorms?
Who washed our floors every other day to get rid of the dust from keeping the doors and windows open constantly?
Who showed us how much faster it is to heat bath water on the gas rather than electric stove?
Who burned our garbage in the backyard?
Who killed the cockroaches in the refrigerator and knocked the termite mounds out of the extra bedroom?
Who corrected our Portuguese and told us daily we needed to fatten up, find a nice Mocambicano boy and live in Mocambique forever?

…anyway, long story short, we’re very fortunate to have Josefa.

And the best part?

Clancy and I both pay her $10.

…a month.

I <3 Mocambique.