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.