3 Smiles and A Struggle: Secondary Projects, Student Progress, Food for Cultural Exchange, and Misunderstandings

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Now that we are settling into our school schedules, we are starting to think about some secondary projects. These are projects that Peace Corps Volunteers do outside of their regular work schedule. There are a lot of opportunities for Peace Corps sponsored/organized secondary projects that volunteers all over the country, and world, participate in. These include Grassroots Soccer (Health education through sports drills, more or less), REDES (A group where girls can learn about entrepreneurship, health, and education and attend an annual conference), JUNTOS (A group for girls and boys that allows students to learn about HIV/AIDs, domestic violence, gender equality, etc. through expressive forms , like music, dance, writing, playing games, and attend a conference), English Theater (A theme-based theater club that culminates in regional competitions each year), Science Fair, and Library and Early Grade Literacy projects. Secondary projects can also be anything that volunteers and their communities dream up, based off of community need. These include things like English Clubs for students and adults, workout clubs, craft clubs, teacher workshops, health workshops…let your imagination run wild! The third type of secondary projects are the ones that involve building things like science labs, computer labs, and libraries.

So, this past week there were some smiles as we started to organize and plan some secondary projects. First, our sitemate, Sarah, and I carried out our first Adult English Club meeting in Mapinhane. The three of us will be doing this together, but Alex was in Maputo so was not able to come to our first meeting. Although we only had 5 adults come, it was a start, and I am excited to start providing a forum for adults to start practicing English, as many in our community have expressed interest in learning. In addition to forming an English Club for adults, next week we will have our first English Club meeting for students. I am excited to be able to practice English with students at a slower pace and in a more fun setting. By the time English Theater preparation starts in May, we hope to be able to have some strong English Club members that will want to audition. We also chatted with one teaching colleague this week that has worked with REDES groups before and one who has worked with JUNTOS groups before. They are both eager to start the groups again, and had great ideas about how the groups can be organized. We will probably start forming these groups slowly over the next couple of weeks and will have the chance to attend trainings next month. Their enthusiasm and ideas made me smile! So, although we aren’t spending hours upon hours in the classroom, our time is slowly filling up little by little as projects emerge. Teaching here is a challenging and interesting experience, but secondary projects give us a really unique opportunity to get to know our students and community in more varied environments and to give them a chance to be exposed to new information. Although all of these projects may not remain steady through our two years of service, we are enthusiastic about all of the possibilities right now.

In the teaching realm, last week was filled with a plethora of struggles, as I expect to be the norm for quite some time/forever. But, there were some reasons to smile too. I have started offering tutoring hours during the week and am pleased at the number of students that come to me with specific questions during this time. It is very rare for students here to ask questions during class, but I am glad to know that they feel comfortable asking during tutoring. Hopefully this articulation will carry over into the classroom eventually! I was also really excited to see that my students earned, on average, a score 3 times as high on their first quiz as on their initial English assessment, which was made up of similar questions. It was encouraging to see that at least some of the information is sinking in. Additionally, I am really pleased with their progress in participating in class and trying activities that are weird and uncomfortable for them. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a looooonnggg way’s to go in the classroom, but it’s nice to have at least a few little glimmers of sunshine.

The third smile this week was from our ongoing cultural exchange via food. Sorry if I keep bringing this up…our lives kind of revolve around food here and we spend a lot of time on ‘labor of love’ meals that we like to share with friends. This week it was dinner with our neighbor Cristovão, who you may remember from this post about great neighbors. He had been asking us to cook “fajitas” with him once it was avocado season. Well, here we are in avocado season, perfecting our chip-making skills, and eating as much guacamole as can be had. Sidenote: because avocado is aGUACAte in Spanish and a type of sauce is MOLE, we translated to Portuguese, in which avocado is aBACAte and sauce is MOLHO…behold the Portuguese word for guacamole: Bacamolho, coined by us. Anywho, Alex was lucky enough to find three different colors of peppers on his way back from Maputo last week, and we knew it was fajita week! We labored roasting a whole chicken on the charcoal stove, making scrumptious tortillas from scratch, smooshin bacamolho, and cooking peppers and onions. The meal was a success, the food exchange will continue with teaching Cristovão to make tortillas, per his request, and we got to have good, long conversations with him. The only downfall: shame on some previous PCV who clearly called a burrito a fajita, as Cristovão told us that the other fajitas PCV’s made him didn’t have peppers and onions. That was a burrito. A fajita isn’t a fajita without peppers and onions. Doi. However, I realize that real fajitas do not have bacamolho/gucamole…but since his fajita was, after all, a burrito, his request to make and eat this food centered around avocado 🙂

As noted, there were a number of frustrations at school last week. There are a lot of small misunderstandings and confusion here that adds up to be really exhausting. I am not airing these frustrations to paint Mozambique in a bad light, or to complain. I did not expect Peace Corps or life in Mozambique to be easy or make sense, and for all of the things that don’t make sense to me, know that they do make sense to Mozambicans. It is not a question right now of systems that are right or wrong…just very, very different. I am sharing my confusion here as honest struggles and as a real example of how life here works. The first of this downslide of frustrations was when I went to the primary school library- my main secondary project- Tuesday, only to find that the boss had still not made a schedule for the library, as he had promised three weeks in a row. We love that stress is practically non-existent here, but sometimes it would be nice if it existed just a little bit for the sake of being accountable and getting things done. Solution: I will go today and sit down with him to make the schedule. Hopefully. The next day I was approached by two students who had missed a quiz I gave 6 days earlier and wanted to know if they could make it up. The first frustration was that they had not approached me about this before 6 days had passed. We had not been taking attendance yet this year because class lists and registration was not being finalized until March 3, so I didn’t know who had missed the quiz and assumed (NEVVVERRRRR do it…) that students who had missed would come tell me. Wrong. So, I wanted to know if they had an excused absence. In America I would go to the office and ask the secretary. I went to the office and asked the secretary. There was fumbling and shuffling and searching for class lists. And lots of fast, quiet, Portuguese. Then a Pedagogical Director- kind of like a Vice Principal- was called in to help. I explained. He told me to check the attendance book. I said we had been told not to do attendance and I wasn’t wondering if they were absent, but if it was an excused absence. He said to ask the students. I said I had, but how was I supposed to know if they were telling the truth about being sick. He said to ask the dorm leaders. I said ok, but really doubted that they would remember whether one out of hundreds of children in their care was sick 6 days earlier. Solution: I went home as fast as I could-home is kind of the safe zone where no frustrations can enter- and made a plan for explaining missed quizzes to students better and keeping better track. The next day I collected homework on a subject that we had been slowly going over for the whole week. I began to grade and realized that very few of the students had understood the concept, many did not follow the directions, and some did not copy the ‘word for word’ part of the assignment down fully. I was frustrated that they hadn’t told me it wasn’t clear in class, even though I asked repeatedly. I was frustrated that directions were so difficult to follow and that it was most likely at least partially my fault for not writing them in a way that made sense to the students. For example, I often say ‘completar’ (complete) or ‘escrever respostas’ (write answers), only to find out that the word that makes sense to them for homework is ‘responder’ (respond) to the questions. To me, these mean the same thing. To them, it causes the whole assignment to be confusing. Solution: Grade in small batches, give good feedback, explain the feedback in detail as this is not something they are used to receiving, explain that a star next to an answer means it was good as stars next to good answers are a new concept, try to rework directions for the next homework and explain more than once in more than one way, and wait a long time…until at least one person asks a question about it. So, that was three days of going about normal work business here, and although all of these things were fleeting, they were frustrating and tiring. I was so happy that school was not in session Thursday, as this was the day for finalizing registration and class lists. I didn’t feel like I could take another day of confusion about the school system! Four days off and some good food and company allowed me to regain my patience to take on a new week at school in Moz.

I know that even though some of these things will start to make sense the longer we are here, new confusing things will crop up. So, yes it was a struggle with the school system last week. But that is not going to go away. So, the bigger struggle was with attitude and patience, in choosing how to deal internally with things that are frustrating in my environment. Because I am a human these things are not always on point, of course, but each time I encounter a frustration I know that I also encounter an opportunity to choose how I react and what my next steps are. Sometimes I am happy with my response. Sometimes I’m not. So, it will be great for my worldview when I come out of Peace Corps understanding how the school system works in another country. But it will be even better for my life skill set when I come out of Peace Corps having strengthened my ability to react gracefully in the face of ongoing frustration.

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Sunset after a Sunday soccer game.

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