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.