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.