Thursday, 10 November 2011

Border Crossing

While boleia-ing home one afternoon, I had the great fortune of attracting the attention of a white SUV with a license plate from Gauteng Province – I had succeeded in what is typically thought impossible: the much-coveted South African boleia.
“Are you going to Chokwe?” I ask when they pulled over.
The middle-aged couple take a moment to consult their map before confirming that yes, they are headed to Chokwe.
“Great!” I say, and start to open the back door. I quickly realize it’s locked. And then I remember… oh right, South Africans. I lean back over to the passenger window and after running through a list of possible English translations for “boleia” settle for asking, “Um…could I get a ride?”
“Oh sure!” And the man unlocks the door and I climb in the backseat amid ice chests, bags of canned and processed food, fishing gear, suitcases and, miracle of miracle, air conditioning. I had found the four-leafed clover, the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the star power in the question box, and now my road would be easy.
Of course, the questions start.
So, you’re not afraid to hitchhike here? Not at all, it’s very common, and much safer than public transportation. Do you speak their language? Yes – I teach in Portuguese. What are you doing here? And the standard spiel about volunteering with Peace Corps, etc.
At this point, the wife turns around in her seat, and I can see the concern spilling out of her eyes as she ingenuously questions…
“Your students at the school, are some of them…black?”
She’s speaking English, so I know there’s not a translation issue. But I suddenly feel like these people are so far from the world I know that I’d have more in common with a Portuguese-speaking Mozambican boleia.

Oh, South Africa.

This was one of my first real eye-opening experiences with the people who look like me living in the “developed” country next door, the one with the highest per capita on the continent and, startlingly, also one of the highest crime rates. I’ve only spent a brief time there myself – enough time to relish in efficient customer service and commercialism, but not enough time to have any idea about the culture. While answering questions and explaining a little about my life in Mozambique to the beach-bound tourists I often encounter, I also learn a lot about their country. Questions like these speak volumes.

At first, I thought most of the South Africans I encountered were simply the elite – they drive through Mozambique in their caravan of SUVs stuffed with food and water from their own country and their boats or trailers hitched on the back, not getting out of their cars from the border crossing to the resort run by their fellow South Africans except to fill up their 50-gallon tanks at the legit gas stations where the Indian owners accept credit cards and speak English better than they do. Naturally, these types are probably just as sheltered in their own country and completely unaware of how the other 95% of their fellow citizens live, and so I shouldn’t judge their country based on such a select group.

But then you run into the working class guys, usually here in Mozambique to make use of the country’s natural resources, so they can send the gas or water or sweet corn back to South Africa to be processed and packaged and sold back to Mozambique for triple the price, without Mozambique actually seeing a penny of profit.

One South African friend, who invited us to a barbeque (“braai” in South Africa) on the beach one day, comes from a family of farmers, far from the tourist hubs of Cape Town or skyscraper-lined Johannesburg. He told us about the atrocities black South Africans commit against his fellow farmers, burning the land and raping the white women, and how they had assassinated the president of the white-only Afrikaans farmers’ union. He told us about how these horror stories never made the newspapers because the media was corrupted by the government, run by a black president. He told us about how things were so much better during apartheid – less crime, less fear, more breaks for hard-working white folks. He told us about how he used to be friends with a volunteer up north, until they meet for a drink one day and she brought along her boyfriend – a black Mozambican – and he hadn’t spoken to her since then. He told us about how his niece goes to a preschool where a black kid also goes, and his brother forbids her to play with him and tells the teacher that he’ll take her out of the school if the black kid even touches his daughter. He told us how blacks are more like animals than whites, not even using a fork when they eat, but just using their hands. He told us how blacks just don’t deserve the rights they have in South Africa.

(At this point I think back to Mama Celeste, and remember the countless times she ate with her hands – there were three forks in the house, including a plastic one saved from a neighbor’s fancy wedding some years back, and when everyone was home those three weren’t enough to go around, so Mama C always made sure I had a fork and opted to wait until we were finished before cleaning one and using it herself or simply eating with her hands when possible.)

The one thought that kept running through my mind during this enlightening conversation was that South Africa today sounds exactly like what I would imagine from a pre-Civil Rights era United States. And it makes sense. Apartheid – the South African law of strict separation between whites and blacks – was eliminated less than twenty years ago. The majority of the blacks in South Africa have relatively new-found liberties after centuries of suppression, lack of decent education and generally being seen as less than human. And the whites are dealing with the fact that they are no longer entitled to all the perks of being superior and unquestionably in charge. Though the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution made African Americans legally equal to whites in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until well after the Civil Rights movement that things really started to change there.

And the things he had to say about Nelson Mandela – did people once think the same thing about Martin Luther King Jr., who is today heralded as a hero of peaceful change in our culture? And do people honestly believe they have a God-given superiority over an entire race of people – to the point that they don’t even consider them to be the same race?

But being judgmental would just be hypocritical. I know without a doubt that had I been born in the US a century before, I would have the exact same view as these South Africans. These opinions are a reflection of society more than the individual. It's purely cultural.

Though I grew up in podunk Azle, with a larger number of trailer parks than African Americans, I also grew up watching The Bill Cosby Show with my grandparents, learning to count in Spanish on Sesame Street, celebrating Black History Month in schools, and singing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…” at Sunday school. It has been ingrained in me since childhood that people of any race, belief, culture and country are created equal, and deserve respect accordingly. I’m not naïve enough to think that America is free of racism, discrimination and its fair share of race-based hate crimes, but I've never encountered someone my age who so adamantly held these beliefs, which I consider to be "old-fashioned."

Moreover, he was equally surprised that I, also being white, did not hold the same beliefs. We live in Mozambique as the average citizen does – we have the same cookie-cutter concrete houses as our colleagues, we speak (more or less) the same language they do, we also lament when water stops running or stretch out on our esteiras when it’s just too unbearably hot inside the house, and they are the people we turn to when we need help.

We told him these things. He seemed puzzled. Not really sure how to respond.

Of course, we also have South African friends living in Mozambique who are trying to learn the language, make friends and respect the cultural differences, frustrating as they might be at times. They make the effort, and they enjoy living in Moz because of it.

But when the South Africans from the aforementioned boleia stopped to drop me off at the market in Chokwe, they at first refused on the grounds that it wasn’t safe. I could understand their concern – the market is a mass of mud-and-stick stalls next to a chapa stop, where your car is swarmed by people wanting to sell you pirated phones, cheap plastic jewelry and homemade egg sandwiches out of a bucket when you stop. I have to assure them that it’s okay – I’m here every day, they know me, and I’m perfectly safe.

“You would never leave a white girl at a place like this in South Africa. There’s no telling what they’d do to you,” the man says as he reluctantly unlocks my door.

Unlike Mozambique, South Africa has an airport with more than one baggage claim, they have more than one TV channel, they have multiple-lane highways with brdiges and wastewater treatment plants, they have oatmeal, sanitary packaged meat, grapes and peaches, as well as big, clean cities where they hold world sporting events like the World Cup. But I feel perfectly safe in my town here in Mozambique. I’ll take that over McDonald’s any day.

My friend says he’s sure that all the racial tension and violence will lead to a full-on war between South African whites and blacks. I say I’m certain things will get better – it just might take a few generations.

Friday, 26 August 2011


Muita obrigada!

A huge thanks to everyone who supported and contributed to the Books for Kids Africa project for the Escolinha Estrela da Manha! On August 9, BKA delivered 200 children’s books in Portuguese and gave a full-day training on the care and use of the books.

The collection includes everything from fairy tales and fables to Mini Laruousse dictionaries on dinosaurs and the human body. These books and accompanying activities will be incorporated into the curriculum in addition to individual reading (picture-looking) time.

The goal is for the books to open up a whole new world through reading for the students. But the kids aren't the only ones who've been deprived of quality reading material.
You’ve never seen 10 women more excited to discuss “O Arvore Generoso” – “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein.

I found a baby goat under the kitchen sink.

Actually, Khani found him. But he wasn't particularly sure what to do with him. The feeling was mutual.

He had no interest in leaving his new nook. Clancy had to show him to the door.

Now when he comes over, he just hangs out on the porch.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Adventure Continues!

Hello all!

Greetings from Moçambique! I just wanted to share some exciting news with you that I recently received. Peace Corps has offered me a position as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) in Moçambique’s central office for next year. This means, starting in January, I will move to a new province a couple days’ north of my current site and work with Peace Corps to open new PCV sites, support current volunteers and coordinate trainings and other activities in the surrounding three provinces. I will also be spending some time working with a yet-to-be-determined NGO in the city to gain more international development experience.

This is not a decision I made lightly, but after plenty of prayer and talking with some former PCVLs, friends, PC staff members, I genuinely believe this is where I’m meant to be next year. I get another year to improve my Portuguese, get a better feel for development work and decide where I want to end up for grad school afterward. And, ok, I’ve kind of fallen in love with this country. 
I’m thrilled at the opportunity, but I know this also means that I’ll be away from you – my family, friends and support network – for another year. Thankfully, PC is paying for me to go home for a month, from December 16 to January 16, and I’ll see everyone then. And then be home for good at that time in 2012. This also means that you have another year to come visit me in Africa.  Cape Town, Victoria Falls or Mount. Kilimanjaro, anyone?

I’ll keep you posted as I hear more about my home for the next year on facebook and my blog ( Or, I’m always up for Skype dates (valcooper87). Love you all and looking forward to seeing you in a few months! Fique bem!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and Teacher Valeria

I’ve discovered I have a mild personality disorder when it comes to teaching.

In my Medio classes, I have about 25 students between the ages of 18 and 45. When the bell rings, I’ll start with a warm “Good morning!” to which they respond “Good morning, Teacher Valér!” and maybe a comment on some novidades – “news” – about the weather or something from the news or some changes in the school, which sometimes leads to a brief discussion. Then I’ll tell them to turn in their homework while doing the warm-up activity so I can call roll. When break time comes around, since many classes last two hours, they have five minutes to do whatever they need to, and when they return I’ll usually introduce them to English exercise vocabulary (i.e., we do “jumping jacks” or “jog in place” or simply “stretch – reach for the sky!”) to make sure they’re awake for the rest of class. If we finish early, particularly when they do activities in pairs, I’ll let them leave early, but most of the time it’s the opposite – someone will ask a question that turns into a debate that gets us all off topic for a little bit, but hey, it’s all in English, it’s a cultural exchange and they’re often more engaged than when we talk about present perfect or second conditional or whatnot. (Digression: One of my favorites was when we were learning religious vocabulary and got onto the topic of family – my students were appalled to hear that it’s not looked down on or uncommon to be unmarried or to be married and not have children in the United States, which led to a debate about cultural expectations and reasons for not getting married. When I challenged them with my personal take on the issue, one of my best students put her new vocabulary to use and asked me in all seriousness, “Teacher, do you want to be a nun?” I had to apologize afterward for laughing so hard.) In short, I leave my Medio classes with an elevated hope for Mozambique and humanity in general and feeling confident that I could be content to do this in some capacity for the rest of my life.
Then, I have Basico.
The youngest students are 13, but the older ones (18, 20, 24) are the ones to watch out for in these classes of 40 students. I walk into class with a bellowing and severe “Good morning!” which actually means “Sit down and be quiet – Teacher Valéria’s here.” I shut the door after I call roll, and if students try to enter after that I tell them I’ve already marked them absent but they can stay if they want to. While they do the warm-up, I walk from desk to desk to collect homework – if they don’t have it out and ready to hand in when I pass, I don’t accept it.
If you talk out of turn, you get one reminder before I tell you to leave the classroom. If I catch you sleeping, I tell you to leave the classroom. If you show that you clearly aren’t paying attention when I call on you, I tell you to leave.
I make a conscious effort not to smile in my Basico classes. The ones who’ve spoken to me outside of class know I’m really a softie, but they also know that ends when you walk through my door.
Unlike last school year, I have not had any discipline problems in my Basico classes. I have also noticed a definite increase in the number of homework assignments I receive and a sharp decrease in the number of tardy arrivals.
I’m pretty sure they’re terrified of me. But they can warm up to me in a few years when they’re in Medio. I got this system from my favorite teacher – my mom.

I also teach at the nearby Instituto Superior Politecnico da Gaza – the rough equivalent of a technical college – where I am “Doutora Valer,” since I have a degree. I teach first year English, which means I’m stuck in a tiny classroom with 100+ college freshmen (the majority boys) for a few hours every week. I have to keep these guys – most of them my age or older, though I will never tell them that – under control enough to teach some finer (more boring) points of the English language. At one point, I genuinely considered bringing my Peace Corps-issued air horn to class. However, I’m not about to baby-sit them and it’s not particularly my concern if they fail to show up or turn in their homework and I’m not going to hunt them down if they miss an exam. When students come up with sob stories about why they missed this or didn’t turn in that etc. etc., I’m pretty merciless, because, heck, they’re adults, they should be able to take care of themselves and their bosses won’t coddle them when they’re in the real world, either. But I also have no problem diving into an off-topic discussion or sharing personal anecdotes or jokes with them. If there were just about 80 less of them, we’d probably all be great friends (as long as they don’t know I’m single.).

And then, once a week, I go to the preschool. I’m welcomed with shouts of “Mana Valér! How are you?” And I hug and I kiss boo-boos and I wipe tears and I don’t mind when one goes an entire day without once letting go of my blue jeans. The teachers and I have a tacit agreement – they’ll handle discipline and yelling and keeping the kids on task, and I’ll handle the encouragement and praise and confidence-building you just don’t find in this country.

Thankfully, I also have weekends with friends, when I can talk about anything, make some good food, play games, and just be Valerie for a while.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

What Statistics Can't Tell You

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa, you can only imagine how much we hear about malaria - it's about the most popular topic aside from HIV/AIDS. During our three month training, there was no end to the information - parasites from this mosquito, these blood cells explode, these pills prevent, those medicines treat, these programs fight it all over the country, etc etc and hey does Lisa have a new capulana dress, cause I need to talk to her tailor... Like most things, you don't really pay attention - and really, can't fully understand - until you experience it.

And Peace Corps is all about experiences, right?

But perhaps if I had listened a little more closely, I wouldn't have wound up in the hospital...

As detailed in a previous entry, I had an amazing time when Kris came to visit, going on a safari and snorkeling in the lagoon. Unfortunately, I apparently had such a good time that I forgot to take my weekly malaria prevention pills.

At the end of the trip, Kris and I headed back to Johannesburg, South Africa, and through a strange but convenient twist of fate, we arrived a day earlier than planned - on Friday, and Kris's flight and my bus were leaving on Sunday. That evening, we ordered dinner at the hotel. Though it was a delicious (and to my PCV pocketbook, expensive) meal, I didn't have much of an appetite, and I ended up taking most of it in a to-go box.

So when I tossed my cookies in the middle of the night, I figured it must’ve been the fast food we had picked up on the road.

When it happened again the next morning, I counted my blessings that we had nothing planned for that day and we hung out around the hotel watching B-rated movies on TV, reading, and, in my case, sleeping, all day. After a full day of rest and much crackers and Sprite (Mom's best sick food next to cream of mushroom soup), I was sure I'd be fine.

Sunday morning, after spending some more time sitting beside my friend the toilet bowl and assuring Kris that I would be fine and she couldn’t miss her flight, we headed to the airport. I left her there and took a taxi to catch my 8 am bus back to Mozambique.

At the station, after becoming acquainted with both a toilet and trashcan and ensuring that I had paper bags on hand for the ride, I found my way through the line and onto the bus. I was asleep within five minutes of sitting down - in a carefully selected seat without any obstructions between me and the bathroom.

I stayed that way for most of the next nine hours. The one unfortunate exception being when we had to cross the border. In the immigration lines, I leaned on the wall. Then I leaned on the railing that separated the lines. Then I leaned on a random stranger or two. Somehow, standing up was simply exhausting. I made it to the booth where the immigration officer gave me curious looks but stamped my passport anyway, then made a bee line back for the bus. I fell asleep.

My seat neighbor was kind enough to wake me up when we pulled up to the bus stop in Maputo at 4:30. And then wake me up again after everyone else had gotten off at 4:35. Praise be to advance planning, the hostel where I’d arranged to spend the night was only two blocks from the bus drop-off. I saw those two blocks as a necessary evil that must be conquered in order to reach the prize - a bed - and with that driving force, I managed to keep my feet moving straight through the front door and to a top bunk in a room full of Germans getting ready to head out for the evening. I ate half a cracker, had another sip of Sprite, and fell asleep just before 6 o'clock.

At this point in time, any normal person probably would’ve suspected that something, possibly more serious than bad beef, was wrong. But I was sure that if I just slept through that night, I'd be fine to catch the chapa for the four-hour ride back to Chokwe in the morning.

The following morning, when my crackers and Sprite from the day before made a frustrating reappearance, I decided it would be best to take advantage of the fact that it was Monday and I was in the same city as the Peace Corps office and our Peace Corps Medical Officer. If nothing else, she'd be able to hook me up with some Pepto or whatnot.

I didn’t even attempt public transportation, but instead called a taxi to take me to the PC office (which cost more than my four-hour ride home) to minimize the amount of time I had to spend in an upright position. At the office, our beloved PCMO, Dr. Isadora, listened to my symptoms, found I didn't have a fever, and hooked me up with some pills, Gatorade, a hotel room for the night and a firm order to eat something.

The next morning, I was asleep on Dr. Izzy's office couch when she came out of a meeting. I explained that I'd followed her instructions, but all the pills and fruit-punch flavored Gatorade had done was brighten up the toilet bowl a bit in what was now part of my morning routine.

When the thermometer said I had a fever of 103, out came needles and a line of various tests for illnesses I only vaugely remembered from training. It wasn't long before one came back positive.


I was more than a little surprised and annoyed at this prognosis, which came with a whole new set of meds, cold compresses on my forehead and stomach, and a very concerned PCMO.

I slept. When Dr. Izzy woke me up later, it was to say that the fever wasn't getting better. Could I make it to her car to go to the hospital?

But not a real Mozambican hospital. No, near the waterfront of Maputo, deep in the territory of embassies and houses with tall gates and multiple guards and garages that have two cars, where expatriates go to enjoy the cheap living of a developing country, is a private clinic. Thank God.

At the clinic, Dr. Izzy and the part-time PCMO, Dr. Nurja, introduced me to two other physicians, a couple more shots and an IV that caused a permanent ringing in my ears (quinine?) and a room on the second floor that would be my home away from home.

My notebook during the next 48 hours makes for an interesting read that I am unquestionably going to burn when I die. But from the dream-like tidbits I can remember and the pages I wrote, I apparently spent my time in the clinic counting the number of holes from needles (two in my left wrist for the IV, three in my left elbow and two in my right for unknown reasons, and two in places we won’t speak of), counting the TV channels (four), counting the ceiling tile, avoiding the deplorable food despite the fact that I hadn’t really eaten in five days, talking on the phone with the Aggie (I wasn't aware of this until he called again a few days later and asked if I was better, at which point I asked, "How'd you know I was sick?" and got a rather disconcerting answer...), and assuring the doctors that I was going to die of boredom sooner than malaria and to please let me go recover somewhere with more TV channels.

And in between all that, I slept.

Thursday, when I was a little more lucid and conscious, one of the doctors finally said that I was fine to leave the hospital so long as I didn’t overexert myself. The IV was removed (I could hear again!), I was helped out the door and to a waiting taxi and found myself back at the hotel.

Friday morning, I ate a bowl of cereal at the hotel. I officially broke it off with the toilet bowl.

My meals the next few days were small and simple and always accompanied by Gatorade and a cocktail of three different drugs (six pills at breakfast, three pills at lunch, six pills at dinner). On Saturday, by far the most helpful aid in my recovery arrived in the form of Clancy, Louise and Jenn, all the way from Chokwe, who reintroduced me to the joys of food in Maputo. On Tuesday, a week after I was first admitted to the hospital, I went back to the clinic for a final blood test. It tested negative for malaria.


But even this experience is not the REAL malaria experience.

I, as an American citizen and a Peace Corps Volunteer, am an exception. From the beginning, I'm given a prevention pill that is practically guaranteed to keep me malaria-free - so long as I remember to take it (and believe me, I will never forget again). I had, for all practical purposes, a personal doctor who covered me in cold compresses and literally held my hand throughout the whole ordeal. I went to a hospital where I was served food and had nurses and multiple physicians checking on me constantly. After that, I was put up in a hotel and given money for food and transport in order to recover, and received follow-up testing.

When most Mozambican citizens get malaria, they first have to find a way to get to a hospital or health center - which can involve countless hours or even days on public transportation. Once there, they sit on a hospital porch with sometimes up to 100 other people for hours to wait to have a hospital technician give them an instant but not always accurate malaria test. If they are positive, they are handed a prescription for pills. They get the pills at the pharmacy. And then they go home.

And that's the best case scenario. Unfortunately, it's not always the case, as we learned in our training sessions.

  • Malaria is responsible for 20 percent of all childhood deaths in Africa.

  • 10,000 pregnant women in Africa die each year because of malaria-related causes.

  • Malaria is responsible for 30 percent of all hospital deaths in Mozambique.

  • There are between 300 and 500 million clinical cases of malaria each year, resulting in 1.5 to 2.7 million deaths.

  • More than one million children die of malaria in Africa annually - that's an average of 2,800 a day.

  • About 80 to 90 percent of the world's malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

*statistics courtesy of the World Health Organization

My First Visitor!

After a year of nagging her, I finally convinced Kris to come visit. And despite what she might tell you, it wasn’t even under false pretenses.

Our adventures started when I picked Kris up at the airport in Johannesburg, after a 12-hour trip from my home in Mozambique. From there, we drove to Kruger National Park, and within thirty minutes of entering the park, we’d seen these… ... and these… …and these…
…and we were pretty excited.
We stayed in huts like these – don’t be fooled, they have hot running water, electricity and generally put my Moz home to shame. On the second day, we took a sunset safari and even saw some of these. In fact, they surrounded our car, then hung out all over the road to soak up the heat of the concrete. On the third day, Kris and I turned off the nice paved roads with the nice white English-speaking South Africans on holiday in their SUVs and campers…and we went to Africa.

Using a recently-opened and apparently not-often used border with Kruger’s Mozambican cousin, Parque Nacional de Limpopo, we took the one road all the way through the park and headed to Chokwe.

After roughly six hours on trails that might have once upon a time been considered roads, we arrived safe and sound at home. Khani was glad to see us.

After convincing Kris that the terrifying natives would not eat her, we spent a day wandering around Chokwe, seeing the school and market and meeting friends.

And after that, we grabbed my roomie Clancy and headed on to the Bilene lagoon. Here, we encountered by far the strangest creature of our journey – the Aggie. Complete with a boat called “The Spirit of San Jacinto,” a brand of Texas on his chest and a tattoo that says “Howdy” on a place other than his chest, the Aggie greeted us with a warm handshake and a glass of an ice cold local beverage that can only be described as Texas-sized. He and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Joe, hooked us with kayaking, snorkeling with sea horses and endless dirty pirate songs and jokes on the lagoon.

And there was plenty of time for this, as well. At the end of the day, we walked down to the market for fresh shrimp, cooked with lemon and garlic over charcoal right on the porch. Beats any hibachi.

Alas, our adventures came to an end, and we returned to the Johannesburg so Kris could catch her plane back to civilization.

You, too, could be the proud owner of photos such as these! Contact your local travel agent and book your next flight to the magical land of sub-Saharan Africa.

Water, Water...Where?

Up until moving to Mozambique, clean water had always been my right as an American citizen.

When I came here, suddenly, it became a privilege. And like all privileges, it must be earned.

To have readily available clean, safe, water is to not think about it. Never before has water been a chore. It has never gotten me out of bed at 5am so I can fill up as many buckets as possible before it shuts off. I’ve never become sweaty, sunburned and physically exhausted from having to pump it out of the ground before carting it back home in a wheelbarrow. I’ve never before pulled a back muscle because of water, or had a crick in my neck because I didn’t center the jug perfectly on the top of my head. I’ve never accidentally dumped a bucket of water on my roommate’s head while trying to get it on my own (sorry, Clancy…) I’ve never included boiling water as part of my morning and evening rituals. Nor have I ever had to drink hot water while sweating on a 100 degree day just because I was too thirsty to wait for it to cool. I’ve never kept a full Nalgene bottle permanently in my purse along with my wallet and house keys. I’ve never before had to settle for a simple “rinse off” shower because it’s too dark to go to the pump for more water. In short, I’ve never had to work for water. Never even had to worry about it.

All this complaining, and I’ve actually got it good compared to most.
Our source of water has never been constant – at one point, it ran three times a day, directly to a faucet on our back porch. When that didn’t happen, to the pump we went with our jugs and our neighbor’s wheelbarrow. We fill up our jugs, then take them back to our house and fill up our big barrel – which apparently was used by something called “Protea Chemicals Inland” in its previous life. Not sure what that’s all about.

Now, when water runs, it starts somewhere between 5 and 6 in the morning and runs for about twenty minutes. There’s a spigot behind our house we share with our neighbors, and as soon as you hear the noise – that unmistakable noise of pipes hissing to life with water – we all roll out of bed with our jugs and wait our turn in line for the next bucketful of clean, fresh, water.
I never really noticed back in the states how much water I use in a day. Oh, there are all kinds of statistics meant to make you feel guilty and whatnot, and I know I take way too long in the shower, but I’ve never been more painstakingly aware of how quickly it disappears as I am here.
But just in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation – i.e., no running water, but functioning internet so you can reference this – I’ve included a handy-dandy How To Live Without Running Water Guide Below.

How to Shower:
1. Fill bucket or basin with water from water source/storage of choice.
2. Bring bucket/basin to drainable area (casa da banho, latrine, sheltered back porch, etc.)
3. Using small cup, dump water from bucket/basin over head and body.
4. Shampoo hair.
5. Wash body. Use more cupfuls of water if drying occurs between steps 4 and 5.
6. Rinse and repeat until you run out of water or the water collecting at your feet ceases to be brown and sandy.
• Note: In winter, you might consider heating kettle of water on stove before use. Especially when shower is outdoors.
• Note: For uncovered shower areas, showering during a rainstorm can be economical, but is discouraged during thunderstorms.

How to Wash Dishes:
1. Fill two basins with water halfway.
2. Select the least dirty dish to dip into first basin.
3. Using sponge or cloth and soap, wash first dish.
4. Rinse first dish in second basin and set aside to dry.
5. Wash, rinse, repeat.
6. When water in first bucket ceases to be transparent or a liquid, bring basin to back porch, check for neighbors in line of fire (chickens and children are OK), and toss dirty water. Note: If water is not transparent, use hands to ensure no dishes remain in water BEFORE tossing). Refill with water from rinse bucket, and continue. How to Use the Bathroom: (special for Clancy and Val’s house – we have a toilet!)
1. Fill large bucket with clean water and bring to casa da banho.
2. Have smaller empty bucket beside water bucket.
3. After using the toilet, use a cup to pour water first over one hand, then over the other, so that the water falls into the second bucket.
4. Put cup aside, use bar soap on hands.
5. Using cup, rinse hands one at a time so water falls into second bucket until hands are no longer soapy.
6. When hands are clean, dump second bucket down toilet to flush. Repeat as necessary.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Fun With New Words

My students eagerly introduced me to a new word the other morning on my way to class. "Gilboa!" they say. What's that? I ingenuously ask. And they show me exactly what a gilboa is.

Apparently the students were cleaning out a bamboo stand at the school when they found him. One of the professors promptly took matters - and a shovel - into his own hands and everything was back to normal after a few minutes.

After plenty of photos, Gil the Boa was cooked up for dinner. The bamboo stand is safe once again.

The Little Things in Life

There is one significant part of my life here in Mozambique that I haven't mentioned up until this point. It seems a bit frivolous, but I now can't imagine and day without it. It is the Mozambican love of my life.

And his name is Khanimambo. Khani was born on the bed of my friend and fellow PCV Anna early one October morning, and was orphaned shortly after that. At two weeks old, he was adopted by Clancy and I and came to live with us here in Chokwe. He was then dubbed Khanimambo Shanaynay Mundzuku, or “Thank You Very Much Tomorrow” in Xangana.

Though very much a Mozambican (he gets cold when the temperature drops below 80 degrees), Khani grew surrounded by all the comforts of an American kitty. When finally weaned off milk out of an eyedropper, he was introduced to a diet of sardines and xima, giving him a better protein intake than many children around here.

He quickly became a well-known face around the school. After seeing us keep him in the house, feed him and even pet him, the neighbors dubbed Khani our "bebe." Students will often ask in passing, "Hey, how's Khanimambo?" Really, they think we're absolutely nuts, but Clancy and I are okay with that.

But like any other cat, he likes to play - with bugs and frogs and lizards, with feet, with computer cables, with his own tail, with anything else he can find.
And though he has staked his claim in the guest bedroom...

He can sleep pretty much anywhere.

Khani also enjoys walking you to school, crawling onto your lap while you're trying to grade papers, sporatically attacking your hair, purring nonstop and generally reminding you not to take yourself too seriously.

As far as cats around here go, he's got it pretty good. But I think it's a fair trade. Now all I have to do is train him to be quiet for the 24-hour plane ride home...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Adorable Mozambican Children Need Your Help!

You’ve read my rants on this blog.
You’ve seen the photos of the kiddos.
And maybe, you’ve even expressed a desire to help.

If so, here’s your chance.

The Peace Corps Partnership Program is a sort-of grant that allows people all over the world to donate funds to Peace Corps Volunteers’ projects. I wrote and submitted a grant to request $2,900 for a project at the Escolinha Estrela da Manha, and it was recently approved as part of the program.

I plan to get a library of 200 children’s books in Portuguese to the Escolinha Estrela da Manha. The director of the Escolinha, an incredible woman named Sybil, has purchased virtually all the Portuguese children’s books she can find in the capital.

Books can fill in the gaps for the lack of training/education of the teachers – you don’t have to know how to teach, books do all the work for you!
Books can open little kids’ minds to life outside of Chokwe, and maybe even instill a little much-needed creativity and imagination.
Books can instill a love of reading that will not only make education easier, but give them such an advantage that the rest of their lives will be easier.
Books are seriously lacking throughout this country, and it’s obvious.

But your donation can, at least in this little pocket of the world, get books into the hands of some kids who both need and appreciate it.

OK, I have to say it, I know there are millions of informercials about how your $1 a day donation can help starving orphans in Africa, and then they proceed to show you depressing photos of these kids and assure you how 50¢ of every $1 will go straight to them along with funding more infomercials… as such, I want to assure you that ALL of these funds, 100 percent, will go directly to the purchasing of books, bookshelves and training in using books for education for these kids. Whether you’re interesting in donating one dollar, or maybe a few more one dollars, each dollar will benefit these lil guys on a daily basis during story time.

I promise to document the arrival of the books and send you a massive THANK YOU in advance. Let me know if you have any questions! Or just check out the site for yourself:
Keyword “Cooper” or “640-026”

Come on. Can you really say no to this face?

Friday, 25 February 2011

An Acceptable Integration

If you’re too open-minded, your brains will fall out.

The same goes for being too culturally sensitive. While the results are different, they are equally messy.

Peace Corps, by nature, looks for folks who are culturally sensitive and open to new ideas. When PCVs depart from training, they believe – among other naïve suppositions – that they will be the paragons of cultural integration. Then one day, that culture smacks you in the face and you have to ask, “This is how things are, but is this really the way they should be?”

At the preschool where Louise and I work, we continually find ourselves puzzling over what we should accept as the way things are and what simply needs to change, particularly in the area of treatment of children. You can imagine this differs slightly from the American standard.

It takes a village to raise a child. Here, the parents mostly leave it up to the village. Along with cows, I also have to dodge toddlers on my morning bike rides to the school. Sometimes older siblings (themselves too young to go to school) will be around to keep an eye out for them, but otherwise the men are away at work and the women are simply too busy to mess with them once they grow out of their capulana back sling. I understand the infant mortality rate is deplorable and so it’s almost worth it to not get attached – but perhaps that rate wouldn’t be so high if a little more attention was paid to exactly what Junior's up to.

Similarly, punishment is simple – a knock upside the head, and they won’t do it again. There’s no coddling, no "my little Timoteo has special needs" and certainly no Dr. Spock. It’s survival of the fittest at its best.

At the preschool, this is doubly true. These ladies are paid to not only watch but educate these children. Neither of these, of course, is possible when the teachers are sleeping on the front veranda and the children are wreaking havoc on the playground in back. It’s written in the teacher’s expectations that they are not to separate from the students except in emergency situations, but, unfortunately, tea time in the kitchen is classified as an emergency, as apparently is personal naptime and sitting time. The latrines are about a two minute walk from the classrooms (four if you’re under three feet tall), and to this day I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a teacher accompany the students. Typically going to the bathroom is not a hazard, but it can be problematic when children can’t undo their own buttons, often decide it’s more convenient to just fazer xixi outside the casa de banho and run a high risk of losing a limb down the latrine hole. Don’t get me started on trying to get the teachers to help the students wash their hands…

Work inside the classroom also leaves much to be desired. Watching the teachers at work in the classroom, you might get the impression that they hate their jobs, children, people in general and life. The teachers set down the kids for their lectures on the ABCs, colors and numbers, and often will keep a stick handy to hit the ones too bored to pay attention. The punishment for a child hitting another child, of course, is that the victim child gets to hit the perpetrator child back. Yay justice.

At our insistence, the teachers agreed to seek alternative disciplinary measures to hitting children. In one moment of sheer genius, in fact, one of the teachers decided to simply have the other children hit a student who couldn’t count to three – three hits, in fact, just to reinforce the lesson. We’re currently negotiating a “time out” area.

Positive reinforcement, and encouragement in general, is an unheard of practice. Instead of “That’s incorrect,” or “Try again,” the most common phrase heard in all schools is “Nao sabe nada” – “You don’t know anything.” It’s never the fault of the teacher for doing an atrocious, uncreative job of teaching, it’s always the fault of the student who decided not to understand the material and must be punished until he changes his mind.

The thing I have to remind myself, though, is that to the teachers, there’s nothing wrong with this. This is just how things are here. Mothers don’t watch their children at home, teachers hit students in primary schools, and when they get hurt they’ll learn to not do it again. That’s the culture, and that’s life.

It's not too terribly different from the United States even a century ago. We’re asking these ladies to do things that are totally not a cultural norm and that took years to be considered imperative in our own educational system. But the alternative of sitting back and waiting until, God forbid, a child does seriously injure himself when the teachers are too busy to pay attention, is not one I’m comfortable with. Last week one teacher told me that I was way too worried when they left the kids to play on the playground. I agreed with her that I was worried, and that I would continue to accompany the children on the playground at recess to make sure there was no reason to worry.

On more than one occasion, the teachers have even commented on how I just love children. If you have ever met me, you will understand why this is a concern. I’m still not a kid person, but I don’t hit them, I talk kindly to them, I help them when they need it, I encourage them. This might just be my American upbringing in hyperactive mode, but I will continue to do so and hope to at least be an example to the teachers. Somewhere between putting a child on a leash to watch Baby Einstein in a house with antibacterial sanitizer dispensers in every room and letting a child – literally – play in traffic, there has to be a happy medium.

On a happy note, I still feel like a lot has been done at the preschool since it started. The teachers are creating their own visual aids to lessons, using puppets to act out Bible stories, having them trace letters in handwriting books and generally using more activities. Check these out:

Teachers aside, this is why I show up for work.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

If You Decorate It, They Will Come...

Meet Almiro.

Almiro, one of my first year Basic students, has just made a captivating discovery: Disney princesses.

And Almiro isn’t the only one discovering new friends, oh no. There’s also these guys…

…who’ve just become acquainted with the likes of Charlie Brown, Garfield and Hagar the Horrible. And I have made an equally astounding discovery in the process.

Many moons and two volunteers ago, PCV Aarron (whom I’ve never met) created Project Speak Up. I knew nothing about the project, except that there were a bunch of random English books, flash cards and wall décor cluttering up the back closet in my house, and that apparently the project used to have its very own room at the school. I wasn't really sure what it was all about, but I started badgering the director to get a similar space ever since.

This semester, my begging paid off.

I really had no idea what to expect the first day I announced that The English Lab would be open. Would anyone come? Would they use the materials? Would they appreciate all the work I put into decorating the walls? In short, would this project work?

At 17 o'clock sharp I had my answer, as a mass of 20 students walked in. Happily surprised, I dived into the first activity - Simon Says.

That was quickly followed by a body parts game, complete with several rounds of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and a couple of board races with brief explanation in Portuguese intermingled.

And the students kept coming.

Around an hour later, I sheepishly had to admit to the students that I had exhausted my planned activities for the evening (not to mention myself) - but, if they were so interested, I did have a few cheesy children's books, some flashcards and other individual activities they could do silently, and I'd help them as needed. Oh, and I had brought along some comic strips from an old newspaper my parents sent in a care package last year, if you want to take a look.

And to my shock and awe, they stayed. They sat quietly, staring at note cards, quizzing their friends, sounding out words, tearing through the dictionary, and I frantically ran from person to person trying to clear up grammatical doubts or clarify word usage. The comic were the biggest hit - even with two people reading a section, I ran out almost immediately.

Are these my students?!, I pondered. They’re quietly studying English on their own, asking questions, helping their colleagues. I teach a class of around 40 eighth grade students - where are the sleeping kids? The ones texting on their phones? The ones who write the first random words to pop into their heads when called to the chalkboard? What’s going on?! Why are they so interested?!

The second night, the same thing happened again. Just after 17 o'clock, I ran out of desk space, even though they were sitting three and four to a bench, and some students simply stood.

The third night was no different. When the dinner bell failed to sound at the customary 19 o'clock, I had to kick everyone out so I could go home to eat. I was confounded.

As much as I would like to credit it to my exemplary teaching skills and winning personality, I know neither of those actually exist, so I was forced to search elsewhere for my answer.

I didn't have to search very hard.

Comics? Books? Flashcards? Games? They don't have overhead projectors or even white board. They don't have any sort of visual aids. They don't have textbooks, for goodness sake, and they certainly don't have books for leisure. They have the notebooks and pens they bring with them to class, and whatever they write down and happen to remember. And from grade one, they are taught that school equate to lecture. Pictures with words? Colored pictures? Entertaining educational material? Princesses and mermaids and foreign lands?! WHOA!

Even more exciting, with the materials Professor Aarron left I was able to do something I’d previously only dreamed of – decorate. Since teachers move from class to class instead of the students, the classrooms all remain, sadly, unadorned – gray, lifeless, depressing boxes with desks and chalkboard and, if you’re lucky, windows.

But not the English Lab.

Calendars, color charts, maps, word reminders, noun labels, an alphabet banner – everything was there, just waiting for the perfect classroom to adorn.

After a week, I'm now forced to conclude that, just maybe, despite everything that suggests the contrary since I've arrived, many of these kids actually want to learn. And in this room, where they can work on their own, have a teacher right there to help them individually and so many resources at their disposal that they can actually figure things out on their own and colleagues just as interested as they are, they work at it. The problem isn't the kids - it's, among other things, the rather backward educational system, with the drastic disparity between showing up to class to make a decent grade and actually learning the material.

And the ones who don't care - coincidentally, the same ones who disrupt class for the others - don't come. And I'm perfectly okay with that.

I still have plenty of ideas to improve learning and keep the students engaged – many involving individual listening practices with tape recorders and books – but for now, the students seem content to stick with what they have.

Just remember, you're never too cool, or too old, to learn from Disney princesses.

Friday, 11 February 2011

At the campground in the middle of Gorongosa National Park, there is this 8x11 sign on a cluttered bulletin board.

For example, in 1972, the park had 1400 buffalo, 500 lions and 5500 wildebeests. In 1994, there was none of those. Currently, there are around 185 buffalo, 40 lions and 200 wildebeests.

The sign says nothing more on the subject. The would be completely explainable if animals had somehow developed the technology to instantaneous transport themselves on a whim. But that is not the case. So it begs an explanation for the mass amounts of disappearing-reappearing animals.

My roommate, Clancy, and I made the trek up to Gorongosa around Thanksgiving last year. We started our boleia-ing early Thursday morning, crashed with a volunteer in Inhassoro that night, and continued onto the park the next day. Our friend, Sinead, the Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Chokwe before us, currently lives and works in the park with the Centro de Educação Comunitaria.

And at this community education center, we got the story of the bulletin board.

The very same Vasco da Gama that we learned did something very important in history class that I don’t quite recall landed on what is now Ihla de Moçambique circa 1500. He and his Portuguese buddies made short work of colonizing the terra gloriosa and enslaving the African population.

Fast forward a few years to 19 60 – the Portuguese establish the Parque Nacional de Gorongosa in the central region of the country. With its large numbers of lions, hippos, and rhinos, it quickly became a premiere park in Southern Africa. Within 15 years, however, the Portuguese are formally kicked out of country, which would not be a problem in itself, save that the newly independent Mozambique was almost immediately thrust into a Civil War that would last for the next 16 years.

During this time, major national highways were coated in landmines, cutting off food, medical and other supplies in the bloody war. One day, someone in the central region realized that, in this protected land next to their house, their lived a bounty of zebras (≈3,000), mass herds of impalas (≈2,000) and even 2,200 of those enormous creatures that could easily feed a village for a week. Really, can you blame them?

By the time the government of Moçambique had reestablished peace and was clearing out those mines and rebuilding highways in 1994, the only living things left in the park walked on two legs. And there were a lot of them. Hence the middle column.

The unlikely hero of our story? The very same person you can thank every time you have a discover a missed call on your cell phone: Greg Carr. After he developed voicemail, the would-be philanthropist set out to use his funding as a source of good, and he stumbled upon Gorongosa. For the past few years, Mr. Carr has worked to rebuild the borders of the park, reestablish the central camp (which now includes a restaurant, pool/watering hole and air-conditioned huts) and reintroduce the animals that served as fodder for some many people over time.

The Centro de Educação Comunitaria, where Sinead works, was built to sustainable “green” methods, with bunker-style houses to keep visitors cool and solar energy. Students and community members from surrounding neighborhoods (and some still technically within the borders) are invited to learn how to co-exist and care for their rare four-legged friends that crazy foreigners like to come oogle at.

While the park still has a long way to go, a casual morning three hour tour (a three hour tour) through the park can give you a view of these…

And these…

And these…
Just be careful if you see these, because the saying is true – elephants never forget. And they tend to react none to friendly (trumpeting, flapping ears and running at your jeep) if they see the creatures that slaughtered so much of their herd.

And if you’re in the houses, you might also see some of these…

Step lightly.

Gorongosa, however, is by far the best and most developed wildlife park in Mozambique. A three-hour tour of the Limpopo Park, just a couple hours from Chokwe, got us a lovely view of a zebra and a better idea of why you should never use a low-rider Mazda four-door on an African Safari. Of the Parque Nacional de Banhihne in Gaza, the guidebook wisely advises: Banhine is currently completely undeveloped as a protected area and has no large wildlife of note. Camping is possible but there are no facilities and you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient.

If anyone cares to come visit, I promise you some fun close encounters at Gorongosa Park. For more information, check out the National Geographic documentary Africa’s Lost Eden: Gorongosa National Park.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

How Things Work. Or not.

I’ve never taught in the American school system, but I’m not too far out of it myself, and certainly not far enough out to forget how things work.

Here, things don’t work.

There are just certain times where my roomie, Clancy, and I look at each other, scratch our heads, and say “Pretty sure this wouldn’t happen back home….”

About five minutes before class, peeking in all the rooms and unable to find my turma, I start to worry. I wander down to the yard, where a bunch of students and cattle are hanging out and start asking about Turma A. One student points me in a direction past the lean-to shack that serves as a kitchen, where I find a few of my students.
“Where is everyone?!” I ask.
One gestures. “Around.”
Not surprised.
“It’s time for class. Call the others and let’s go upstairs.”
“No, teacher, we have a new room we can use, in the back.”
I’m shocked and surprised. The new school building, including the structure that houses the nonexistent tractors, has remained untouched since it was completed a year and a half ago for reasons given only in quick incomprehensible mutters by the higher-ups. We can use them?! Finally?!
“Great! Let’s go.”
And we walk down to the tractor structure to the last room. The chefe da turma (literally, class chief) produces the key, entrusted to him by the director, to open this grand, new sala. The door opens. We peer in at our new classroom.
“Uh…where are the desks?”
Classrooms here don’t have much in the first place – a chalkboard and wooden benches attached to the desks. But this big beautiful structure of concrete and mosquito-netted windows contains absolutely nothing.
“Oh. Wait here. We’ll go get desks,” class chief says.
I’ve been here long enough to know how these things work.
“Nope. Call the others. There are empty class rooms upstairs. Let’s go.”
Finally, we find an empty classroom upstairs. I write up the warm-up on the board and start calling roll.
“Where’s Melas? I just saw her.”
“She’s cooking, teacher.”
“Yes. Lunch. She’s cooking lunch.”
This transaction is in Portuguese, so I know they haven’t misunderstood.
“Why is she cooking lunch?”
“The cooks didn’t come today. If no one cooks, we can’t eat.”
“So…instead of asking some of those students hanging around outside, they pull students out of my English class to cook lunch for everyone?”
“Only some of the students.”
I glance again at my roll sheet, back at the class.
“All the girls are cooking?”
“Why are all the girls and only the girls cooking?”
I can see them glance at each other nervously. Yes, they understand the words. They don’t understand why I would even bother to ask this question.
“Uh, teacher…?”
Breathe, I think. Just breathe. This goes beyond merely a discussion with the director. The Serenity Prayer is vital to a PCV, particularly that second part – accept the things I can’t change. But at least I can pick away at it. I calm myself down enough to start the lesson – vocabulary relating to healthy relationships and gender equality. It makes me feel a little better.

Things you’d probably never have to worry about in an American classroom…
 “We’re having a very important visitor this afternoon – the country’s Minister of Education. As such, classes are cancelled this morning so students can clean the school in preparation.”
 “Class is over! Why are you just coming in?”
“Sorry teacher, Professor Macamo sent me to town to buy seeds…”
 Three school holidays in two weeks. Three surprise school holidays in two weeks.
 Our school has three grades levels, aptly called First Year, Second Year and Third Year. This year, First Year classes started around Jan. 10, I’ve been told Third Year starts next week, and Second Year? They’re anticipated August.
 Because of this, my hours dropped significantly, so I talked to my director about it.
Me: “Mr. Director, I really don’t have a lot of hours…are there any other English classes I could teach?”
Mr. Director: “English? Nope, don’t think so. But hey, you know how to use a computer, right? Here, take this computer class. They started last week.”
 I remember back in the states going to the school a week or two before the first day to see the class list and find out who my new teacher and classmates would be. Four weeks into class. I still don’t have a roster with my students’ names. Yet I’m still supposed to take attendance. Really?