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Thursday, February 14, 2013

First Few Weeks of School

                Sometimes, in the middle of class, as I’m writing formulas on the chalkboard, I have a spontaneous moment of reflection. I start to think, here I am in Mozambique teaching math in Portuguese to 60 some 9th graders. How crazy is that? At the end of the day, sometimes I have taught 5-6 hours back to back. I am amazed that in a few short months I have learned enough Portuguese words to be able to fill that much time, and sometimes without notes!

                How did I get here? Since I first turned in my application I knew that I really wanted to teach math in the Peace Corps. There are only a handful of countries that have Math Education programs so I was thrilled to be invited as a math teacher to Mozambique. Despite very frequent warnings that I would probably teach English instead, I hoped and requested and begged for math during all of training and after arriving to site. And I got it! But as I feel those 60 pairs of eyes on me and 60 pairs of ears listening to my American- accented Portuguese I sometimes start to think, am I crazy??

                My school is better equipped than many in Mozambique. There are almost enough desks for every student, there is a large blackboard in every classroom with plenty of chalk for all of the teachers. Every student comes with notebooks and pens for each class. And the classrooms I teach in are located on the 3rd floor, with a nice sea breeze and views of the ocean. Not bad…

                Students are organized into Turmas and stay in their one classroom for the whole day while teachers rotate in and out. All students wear uniforms, sing the Mozambican national anthem before school starts, and stand up to greet each teacher as they enter the room. The teachers all wear batas, these white lab coat-looking things, which are polyester and super hot (temperature wise, definitely not attractive wise). But the up-side is that they also help cover up the fact that it’s a million degrees and I’m sweating like I just ate thai chilis mixed with habaneros and wasabi. 11th and 12 graders meet in the morning for classes, from 7am to 12. Then in the afternoon the 8th, 9th, and 10th graders have class 12:30-5:30. So I usually spend the mornings planning and grading then I go to teach all afternoon.

                After not teaching the first week of school because the schedule wasn’t ready, classes started full force in week two. I had three turmas with 90 students in each class, but luckily the schedule was just changed to divide up the number of students. Hopefully I will have about 70 students in each class when that is finalized.

                I’ve been facing a lot of challenges I expected to face as a first year teacher, and some that I hadn’t even thought of. I’ve been spending a lot of time just trying to figure out how to organize lesson plans and grading. But it’s the small challenges that are also surfacing. For example, I had no idea how hard it is to write in a straight line on the chalkboard! (I have so much respect for all of my teachers who made this part look easy, not to mention everything else).  Plus, I am still trying to figure out how I am going to learn all 273 names of my students.

                But everyday it is getting better. After one particularly brutal day when a class was getting out of hand, I was walking away from the school feeling particularly exhausted. As I passed a group of 6 year old girls with my bata slung over my shoulder, one started yelling “Acunha, Acunha,” the word for foreigner in Koti. I’ve gotten used to being called out like that and I was prepared to just forget about it, as usual. But then another girl replied in Portuguese, “No, she’s not an Acunha, she’s a Professora.”

                I was smiling for the rest of the walk home.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Welcome to Angoche

                When I walked into the apartment for the first time, I soon realized that my Peace Corps experience would not be even close to the fantasies of thatched huts and hauling water that I had been imagining since I started the application process so long ago. During training, Mafe and I had no shortage of stories of people who had been to Angoche. Everyone gushed how beautiful, safe, and nice it was that we had little doubt we were going to a great place.

                Angoche is a town of about 80,000 people on the coast in Nampula province. It is a strange town because it has many beautiful buildings that were built in the last 50 years, only to stand empty today. There is a huge tree lined boulevard that is used by a few bicycles, motorcycles, and the random car. There are marble storefronts leading to windowless, abandoned buildings. The center of town is all made of cement, and there are usually few people walking around town. Then, walking further from the center reveals neighborhoods with tons of people, spending time between houses that can be made of anything from brick to sticks.The people of Angoche speak Koti, a language only spoken in this city and the surrounding areas.

                The city is located on a bay with mangrove trees lining the water. A 20 minute walk and short canoe taxi ride gets you to the beautiful beach peninsula of Thamole. Seven kilometers from town is the gorgeous and mostly deserted beach of Praia Nova. It’s been rare to see anyone but fishermen pulling in their nets on these two beaches and the white sand stretches for miles.

                Although Angoche is a fairly large town by Mozambique standards, it is pretty isolated. It takes anywhere from 3.5 to 5 hours to travel to here from Nampula city. The road is mostly dirt and sand, with so many potholes the drivers go from one side of the road to the other to try to find the smoothest path. Normally, there aren’t any cars going in the opposite direction so that works pretty well. Every once in a while there is a stretch of smooth pavement that usually lasts for a mile or two then suddenly disappears into another long stretch of dirt. Then, after thinking you are in the middle of nowhere, you reach a city full of street lights, multi-story buildings, park benches, stores and a bank. The road ends at an outlook on the water so you can’t go any further. That’s how you know you’ve arrived in Angoche.

                Our apartment is in the center of the cement part of town. We sit atop a hill on the second floor, so we can see the ocean from every window of the house. We have tons of space and the previous volunteers left us plenty of furniture, kitchen utensils, and everyday necessities. Mafe and I got comfortable here very quickly.

                Our first month here was spent cleaning the apartment, hosting people for Christmas, and generally getting acquainted with our new home. It’s been crazy to think that this new place will be my home for the next two years, especially for me. I have moved 12 times in the last 5 years, so two years sounds like a really long time.  But I am looking forward to getting to know the town and the people better everyday I’m here.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Site Placement Day!!

Written November 21, 2012
It was finally here! This was the day we had been waiting for since week one. The day that made concentrating in training sessions almost impossible for the past week. The day people had dreams about, had nightmares about, and spent hour after hour anticipating and wondering about. It was finally site placement day.

                All 68 trainees from the 19th group of trainees in Mozambique had gathered in the semi-covered basketball auditorium with all of the Peace Corps staff and some volunteers who were just waiting to see the chaos unfold. This was the same auditorium where we were welcomed into the town of Namaacha by our singing host mothers 7 weeks before. That day, they had whisked us off to our new homes and we were left to figure out the language and cultural barriers for a few days with our families.

                By the time we got to site placement day, everyone was feeling pretty comfortable in Namaacha. Now we were speaking Portuguese, haggling prices, joking with our host families, and observing with Mozambican culture. But site placement day was similar to training in general. Pure anticipation. Session upon session was based in training us for what we anticipate we might encounter at our future site, fueling our desire to know where we would go. We had learned to adapt to many different living situations, so we would be prepared for the possibility of living without electricity or running water. We had been analyzing the possible situations of Mozambican schools and the potential problems. We had been discussing Mozambican culture, knowing that it depends greatly on the geographic area and the native language spoken there. We did visits to current volunteers to see what a site might look like, but just learned that they were all different and they would all work out.  But the problem was we didn’t know which schools, we didn’t know what living conditions, we didn’t know what languages, and we didn’t know which sites we were going to have to prepare for.

                We had to come up with one magic wish for our site. I put “Math,” knowing the one way I would be disappointed would be if I was assigned to teach something else. Other people had put electricity, people, site-mate, mountains, north, south, city, or mato (aka, the middle of nowhere). We had interviews so we could say what we most wanted in a site. But we all knew we had agreed to be sent where ever we were needed, and that our requests would probably be taken with a grain of salt. 

                In the gym we all formed a semi-circle around a map of Mozambique that was drawn on the floor. We each held an envelope that contained our future for the next two years. What we will teach, where we will live, and who we will live with. I stood arm and arm with Jamie and Cheyanne, two wonderful ladies that I had shared the plane ride from Denver to Philly with and been great friends with ever since.

                Just like that, on the count of three, everyone tore open their envelope at the same time and the room erupted in chaos. Frantically reading and trying to understand through the excitement of the moment was almost impossible. I read in flashes, not catching a lot of content. Jamie, Cheyanne and I broke off in different directions as we raced to the outline of our respective provinces to see who we would live close for the next 2 years.

                After arriving in the Nampula outline, I started to realize exactly where I would be going. Angoche, a place I had heard of from current Peace Corps Volunteers as a beautiful beach site with a wonderful house and very difficult access. After a bit I realized I would be rooming with Mafe (Maria Fernanda). I could not be more excited! Mafe and I were next to each other for the 15 hour JFK to Johannasburg flight, as well as the flight from JBurg to Maputo. Then, we were roommates in the hotel for a few days before we came to Namaacha. I had a feeling we would be together again and I could not be more thrilled that I was right. Plus, if we could make it through the flights and jetlag together, we could make it through anything!

                But after the initial flurry of activity, I was able to process more and more. I looked around and saw Jamie in the next province over but Cheyanne was way down south. Many people I have become so close with during training were spread out all over the country. Nampula is in the northern region of Mozambique, and it can take up to 4 days to travel down to the capital city of Maputo in the very south of the country. Training is set up to have us clinging to each other for one second, then ripped apart in the next. But I know that many of us have made some strong bonds that won’t be broken by distance, just like our many friendships that were stretched across the world when we set foot on that JFK- JBurg flight. Plus, it just gives us more places to visit over the next few years.

                But truthfully I had trouble containing my enthusiasm that day. I was all smiles as I read the letter from the past volunteer in Angoche. I couldn’t put down the map because I wanted to see exactly where everyone else was going. We all headed to Xavier’s, a bar that has become a daily hangout spot, to swap info on what we know about the sites, what we are going to be teaching, and hypothesizing what the next two years might look like. We might have gotten the answer to all of our questions, but that answered opened up more and more questions that can’t be answered until we leave our safe and comfortable town of Namaacha and head our separate ways. But now, in the last two weeks of training, we are left to anticipate what our new communities will be like, how well we will be able to integrate, and what on earth we are going to do for the month and half we are at site before school starts. But we can also focus on the here and now, the spending time with our host families and bonding with our friends before we go off in different directions. Then, we will arrive excitedly to site only to discover that we will never quite figure it all out.

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

“I was thinking about it, and I want to live with you when you move away,” my host sister told me yesterday. We always talk in the kitchen after dinner when we are clearing the plates together. It is one of the only places we are outside of the earshot of my host mom. Joulietta is a beautiful and bright 14 year old girl. She is finishing the 7th grade this year and will be starting high school in January. From my side, I was shocked. What on earth would a 23 year old, recent college grad be doing taking care of a teenager??? But then I realized, here it probably wouldn’t be so weird. In this context, it often works out that someone lives with their older sister, especially if she has a stable job, a good degree and a nice house like the one I will be moving into in 2 weeks.

                Joulietta lives here in Namaacha with her aunt. Her mother works in Swaziland where it is too expensive for her to study. So in exchange for doing a lot of the house chores and selling snacks by the road, she lives with my host family and goes to school here in town. She will move next year anyway to go to secondary school, where she will probably live in the Internato, the Moz equivalent of dorms.

In many ways Joulietta is way more mature by Mozambique standards than I am. She can carry a full 5 gallon jug of water on her head while carrying another with one arm, all while going uphill. She cleans the whole house before 6 am then gets to school to study. She can mash peanuts, shred coconut, light a charcoal stove, and work a machete way better than I ever dare hope to. She guts fish and chickens without a flinch. I, on the other hand, am struggling with most of these things. These are the tasks a woman needs to be able to do here, which would put me at the level of a 5 year old girl.

But don’t get me wrong, the 5 year old girls have their responsibilities here too. It is not uncommon to see little kids taking care of babies here. Many kids are free to go off and play by themselves, as long as they are within earshot of their mothers when they call for them (but that’s still pretty far because the moms here can yell loudly).  But they are still taught from that age how to wash dishes, how to wash their clothes, and are expected to help mop and sweep the houses and the yards (yes, they sweep the yards). While in the US, childhood is expected to be a time for fun and carefree days, here it is full of responsibilities. With age comes more respect and more downtime. At least that seems to be the pattern with my family. This is a notable difference for me, coming from a place where the older you are, the more responsibilities both in work and at home you are expected to have.

Most of the time Joulietta is the one trying to take care of me. If my mãe (mother in Portuguese) isn’t home, Joulietta is the one making sure I take my baths, making my snack, getting me an umbrella, and making me meals. It makes me so uncomfortable to be fussed over and I try my best to do everything myself before she has the chance to do it for me. But at the same time, she is very proud to show me how responsible she can be and that shows. Plus, as noted before, I am a baby on the Mozambican survival scale. No one can believe that we’ve lived on our own if we can’t even make cove com amadoim e coco (Collard greens stew with peanuts and coconut milk, sooo good).

But although Joulietta’s life is by no means easy, she does have a lot going for her. She has a family that cares enough about her education to put her where she can pursue it. She has dreams of studying math and working in a bank. She has motivation to do well in school. She has friends that spend time with her after school while she is selling soda and chips.

                So while I can’t take her with me up north to my site, I will always have her in mind while I am teaching the soft spoken girls in my math classes who might get to school late because they were cleaning the house that morning. I will try to come back and visit to see how she is doing in school and she can see how I’m doing at mashing those peanuts. But 2 years might not be enough for me to master that.

Intro to Mozambique: Matope Madness Namaacha style

Written November 15, 2012

I have been having trouble starting a blog here. I came into the Peace Corps with the intention of sharing my experience with my friends and family back home through this blog and it is now week 8 of training and this is my first post.

Let me start by gushing about what a great experience this is. I had heard that training is tough and frustrating but that has not been my experience. For me, training is incredible at the best of times and boring at the worst of times. The days are long (7:30 to 5:30) but the weeks fly by. It helps that my training group is fantastic. I have made some great friends already and I have been enjoying trying to know everyone in the group a little better by the end of training. The town of Namaacha is gorgeous, with green rolling hills in each direction and mango trees at every house. It can get very hot here which has us hoping for rain. Then it rains and we remember that we hate that because then there is matope (mud) EVERYWHERE! I go out to the bath house to take a shower and by the time I’m back in the house my feet are muddy again. That’s how much matope there is. My host family has welcomed me from day one as Mana Anneke (older sister Anneke) and I was lucky to have enough Portuguese and Spanish to be able to communicate with them right away. I dance with one host sister, do math homework with the other, and bake cakes with my host mom. Each day I am learning more and more Portuguese.

Being so content with my current situation made it hard to write. I didn’t know where to start when all I thought of was, “I like this and I like this and I love that!” Where’s the drama? Where’s the suspense??

But what made this post the hardest to write was the realization that I have only begun to think about what it means to live in Mozambique. So far, I spend a majority of my waking hours with Americans. We have 10 hours of class together a day. Add in a few hours of bonding time (ie. Jogging, walking, beers, Frisbee) and it takes up a good portion of the week. I do spend a lot of time with my host family but even then, I cannot begin to realize the importance of the cultural differences I am seeing. So that is why I am hesitant to write anything about what Mozambique is like. The truth is I have been seeing everything from a Namaacha bubble. We are close to South Africa and Swaziland, and Maputo in a place that gets colder than almost anywhere else in the country. It is nowhere close to representative of the country.  I don’t expect to know everything about Mozambique by the time my 27 months is over either, but I am open to learn as much as I can and I share it along the way.

So this is my version of a cultural disclaimer. I don’t know everything and I will try my hardest not to pretend I do. But I do want to share a bit about my experience and this beautiful country where I am living.