3 Smiles and A Struggle: Appreciating Peace Corps, A Good Week for Learning, Mozambican Women and Staying Steady

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The last few weeks have been strange and a bit tumultuous, full of the extreme highs and lows of Peace Corps Service that we have heard about, the 27-month-long roller coaster ride that we chose to get on. But it feels like we are on an uphill…or a downhill??..I guess it depends on what part of the roller coaster you like. I’ve been searching for Smiles and, as it turns out, I didn’t have to search too hard.

We recently travelled to the capitol city of Maputo, with our entire Moz 25 family, to celebrate the life and service of Drew Farr, who passed away in a car accident on March 25. The memorial service was put together by other PCV’s in our group. It was beautifully done and had a bit of everything: pictures, stories, live music, letters from Drew’s friends and family back home, lots of tears, some good laughs, and all of us, together. I think we are all grateful that Peace Corps organized a way for us to get together and celebrate Drew and support each other.

Drew’s parents’ message to us was one of the most powerful encouragements I have yet heard during Peace Corps service, and I know it will stick with me for a long time. They reminded us of Drew’s happiness here and his passion for Mozambique, and they encouraged us to go forward with our service just as passionately. From this message alone, my appreciation for being where I am in life grew.

My appreciation for what Peace Corps is only grew more as our whirlwind of a weekend continued. For the few days that we were in Maputo, Peace Corps arranged for us all to be hosted by American families in Maputo: USAID workers, embassy workers, missionaries, and others. These families opened their homes to us on short notice, fed us protein and real tortilla chips, offered us fine whiskey, friendly conversation, and stories of Peace Corps past, from their own experiences as PCV’s.

We spent our bit of free time wide-eyed and  wandering the aisles of clean, air-conditioned shopping centers, trying to remember what we needed among all those aisles and trying to decide which flavor, brand, or size of [insert any product here] that we wanted, confused by having any choice at all.

When we got hungry we ate pumpkin bread (PUMPKIN bread!), sliced bread (SLICED!), and perhaps the most delicious Shrimp Pad-Thai ever in the history of the world.

With a white porcelain pot of lemongrass tea on the side.

All the while, we were asking each other, “Does anyone else feel like Maputo isn’t real life?”

Yes.

Yes was the answer every time.

It happened so fast, in just 4 and a half months of being at site. We are no longer accustomed to shopping indoors, food in packages, good whiskey, air-conditioning, conversations with people from our own culture, toaster ovens, …sliced bread to put in a toaster oven, young children who know how to read, trampolines, private vehicles, things that aren’t dusty, hot showers, pets you’re not afraid of getting worms from, and balanced meals that include starch, protein, vegetables, fruit, and flavor.

It didn’t feel like the Mozambique we have gotten used to.

It was magical and indulgent, awkward and eye-opening.

After two days, I was ready to go back to the Mozambique I am used to, or getting used to. This exposure gave me a bit of appreciation for the unique opportunity that Peace Corps really is. I don’t dislike hot showers, trampolines, private vehicles, or kids that can read. In fact, I love all of these things. And we live pretty chique for PCV’s (yeah…the secret about the immersion blender is out…). But I couldn’t help but think that whether we go home after Peace Corps or continue to work abroad, we will most likely never again live without running water in our house, a washing machine, good internet, an abundant produce selection, restaurants, and the many other wonders we saw in the big city. We may never again live as a minority in a rural town where only 3 other people speak our language fluently. We may never again have the chance to live and work alongside people of another country and culture every day.

For better or for worse, we have this hiccup in time- 20 short months more- to soak up all we can of this weird and wonderful chapter of our life, rural Mozambique, and our Peace Corps journey.

It’s funny how it happens: when you start to appreciate something a little more, you really start to notice the positive side of the experience. Part of the real fun of Peace Corps is that we get to teach a variety of age groups in a variety of settings, and we get to (…have to) be really creative.Sometimes this really blows up in our faces and our lesson erupts into total chaos. Other times, we see good learning happening, students participating, smiling, understanding, and getting excited about learning. I had a few of these good moments this week.

April is World Malaria month, and we decided to focus our English Clubs around Malaria this week. We found out what our students knew about Malaria, then presented some new facts. We then learned Malaria vocabulary in English and learned about what to do if you get Malaria. Next, we played symptoms charades, where a pretend mosquito ‘bit’ students and then they had to come up and act out a symptom. Finally, we talked about the importance of using a mosquito net at night had our students draw themselves under a mosquito net so they can hang it up in the dorms for all to see.

 

Another moment of good learning happened at the elementary school library. We have been reading ‘Estela-Estrela do Mar’ (Stella-Star of the Sea) for 3 weeks now, completing a different literacy activity with the book each week. This week was the final week with Estela, and we went ‘fishing.’

Students used a fishing pole-string tied to a ruler- to fish over the top of our ocean poster. Each student took turns catching a letter on the fishing line, and then had to find something on our ocean poster that started with that letter, say which letter they had caught, what sound it makes, and what item they found on the poster.

This activity was a big hit with the kids and garnered more participation from them than any other activity I have done.

Yay for learning, literacy, and libraries!

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Next up in the line of smiles this week is some of the Mozambican women that I am starting to work with. When it comes to starting secondary projects (things we do outside of teaching hours), it can be difficult to find people who are able to commit time as volunteers to these projects. Most teachers in Mozambique complete two years of school before beginning to teach, and can then continue to pursue the equivalents of Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees after their career is started. Because of this, many of the teachers in town are enrolled in distance schooling on top of their teaching schedule, raising a family, and potentially supporting other family members living with them. Not to mention that normal every day things take up way more time here; clothes are hand-washed and most people cook on charcoal stoves, to name a couple. Asking someone to work more hours for no money is a tricky thing. But it is possible to find people who can fit in a couple more hours a week to serve their community in a different way.

Last week, a teacher from the other secondary school in town expressed interest in working with me at the primary school library, after a past PCV from our site told her I was now leading the library project. After observing one of my sessions there, she led one of her own and did a great job. She was a natural with basic literacy skills and seemed to really enjoy reading with these younger students. I am so excited about her self-motivation and interest in the library, and just to get to know another female in Mapinhane. We will now be able to double the number of weekly groups at the library- 4 instead of 2- and hopefully motivate others in town to commit an hour a two a week to these students.

I also had my first REDES team meeting this week. REDES is Raparigas Em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saude- Girls in Development, Education, and Health. There was a training for the program recently and I was planning to go with an older female student from school, with the idea being that she, I, and my only female teaching colleague at school would run the group together. Because of the memorial I was not able to attend, but we arranged for the student to go with another PCV. At our meeting she presented all of the information from the training to us and updated us on what our next steps need to be. We made a plan on how to form our group, and then the conversation moved into a discussion about abortion, early marriage, pregnancy, sex, and the challenges that girls in Mozambique face- all topics that are not openly talked about here. I only listened and observed, as it really hit me what a valuable program this is in Mozambique. I think that my two female counterparts will be great leaders for the secondary school girls in our group, who will now have access to knowledge about sexual health, women’s rights, and entrepreneurship and access to workshops and further trainings in these areas.

And all of this after celebrating Mozambican Women’s Day earlier this month!

 

As noted, the last few weeks have been tumultuous and the struggle has been to stay steady in the face of all these ups and downs. The roller coaster is cultural clashes after living our daily life in a setting that most Mozambicans live theirs and then taking a two-day trip to Maputo that felt like a two-day trip home to the U.S.  The roller coaster is being in a slump here while we are missing out on things at home. The roller coaster is being happy here while we are missing out on things at home. It’s seeing so many direct opposites on a daily basis: the best and worst of myself, the best and worst of this country. And it’s the constant tug-of-war, balancing act of being out in our community, trying to communicate and form relationships or in our house, speaking English and feeling at ease, save for the tension created by our most recent episode of Lost.

The importance of knowing how to support myself and others in my Peace Corps family has been a personal challenge. And the importance of perspective and adaptability has become clearer with each day in Mozambique, especially in the last three weeks. The only things I know to do are hold on to what makes me comfortable, let go of what makes me comfortable when I feel up to it, look for the smiles, and trust that it will all even out.

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