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.