3 Smiles and A Struggle: The Mystery Bag, Confidence, Our Happy Place, and Finding ‘Força’

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Every  day in Peace Corps is an adventure. One of the trusty Sarahs in my life said this to me once, when we were visiting her in Tanzania during her Peace Corps service a few years back.

“Yeah,” I thought, “Catching these buses is craazzyyy. All these people speaking Swahili…whaaaattt?! And how did you know that apparently abandoned building had a woman cooking food inside?! Is is an adventure.”

But I think now that maybe I misunderstood her. Or maybe I understood her perfectly given the lens I was looking at it through: buses, foreign language, and questionable cooking facilities were new, exciting concepts. But I understand it again now, through yet another new lens.

Every  day in Peace Corps is an adventure. I tell myself this now.

One day I miss America with all my heart and stomach, and I picture myself there on the clean streets, kickin’ up Fall leaves and eating all the bacon with all the friends and family. The next day I can’t imagine how I will possibly  re-integrate into my own Pokemon-Go, schedule-lovin’, everything-at-your-fingertips culture, just a mere 18 months from now!

One day a student plucks a hair from my head and marvels at its shiny blonde brilliance before slipping it into his shirt pocket to save for later…I steal it back and tell him he cannot keep my hair! The next day I give all students permission to pet my strange, blonde hair for 5 minutes and 5 minutes only, after class, quickly shutting down all attempts to pet me during class by saying, “Hey! You can touch my hair all you want once we’re done, but right now we are working!”

One day I am watching a 4th grader struggle to read flashcards, thinking she looks stressed and is never going to come back to the library. Then she tells me she wants to read more, and we struggle through the flashcards a second time.  The next day I am navigating the Mozambique hospital system, along with Alex and trusty  sitemate Sarah, as we struggle to help a colleague in need. Two days later I am eating pancakes and wondering if the past 2 days in that hospital were real or if, in fact, I am waking up from a really weird 36-hour-long semi-nightmare. And then a couple days later my students are utterly silent, listening to a guest speaker talk about why learning English can help them in Mozambique. The next day I leave the classroom to the sounds of boys yelling and glass breaking….

And so it goes, on and on like this. My emotions, my logic, and, even, my physical self have never before been pulled in so many directions.

In this way, every  day in Peace Corps is an adventure. I am not exaggerating when I say that I literally wake up every  day not knowing what will happen, what emotions may overtake me, if I will end the day laughing or crying or just staring at the wall wondering what the heck is happening.

In this way, I practice surrendering control over my life and being okay with it. Some days I succeed, other days….I remind myself tomorrow is another day. And each day I wake up and never know what card I am going to draw out of the ‘mystery bag.’

And so, I have created a physical ‘mystery bag,’ where I can write down the most memorable moment of each day, good or bad, in an attempt to capture this wacky adventure.

One of the moments that made it in for this week was a discussion I had with my students that led to my second smile. After the abovementioned guest speaker left, the silence of the students was immediately broken and I was standing up front feeling completely invisible, as they all chattered away with each other. As I struggled to get their attention some of the good-hearted girls in class told me that I need to do what Teacher Alex had done the day before: he kicked out a bunch of students for not working silently when they were instructed to.

“Yes I know. He arrived at the house after class like this,” I said in Portuguese, shaking my head in my hands, mimicking frustration. “Por causa de vocês!” Because of you guys! “He should not have to do this. You should show respect to your teachers! We are often going home after class like this.”

And somehow, by my mimicking Alex’s frustration, I had their attention, and I took advantage of the moment to share some of my own frustrations with their recent disrespect.

“We are here to help you,”I told them. “We love Mozambique and we want to help. But we are here, far away from our family, our friends, our language, our country…everything that makes sense to us.” At this last one, they giggled. “…Our culture…everything. It’s true!”

On a roll with my  Portuguese now, and having a silent audience, I continued calmly.

“When we come to class every day to teach you and help you, and you show us this disrespect, we wonder if it is worth staying here.” Gasps. “It’s true! Why should we stay far from our family when it seems like you don’t want us here?” Gasps.

“No teacher…no!” they pleaded, shaking their heads and wagging their fingers, the way Mozambicans do when rejecting an idea.

“Well,” I retorted. “It seems this way some days.”

We lingered in the silence for a few moments.

“Now, are we ready to learn?” I asked.

Yes.

The lesson went by in what I can only describe as bliss, compared to what it’s been like the last couple months: no yelling over them or at them, no kicking kids out, no audible growling in frustration from Teacher Cecelia. Once, I asked for silence and, when the noise continued, said I was going to step out, and when I heard silence I would come back in. It was less than a minute, just enough time for a couple deep breaths.

At home after class, I smiled, a bit proud of myself, realizing that this was the first time I had the confidence to stand in front of this group of 49 unruly 8th graders and fully explain my feelings and frustrations in Portuguese. I didn’t get flustered or nervous. I didn’t feel stupid or doubtful. I didn’t yell slightly incomprehensible, frustrated Portuguese. I spoke, and they listened. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

The final recent smile is in knowing, with certainty, that we have found our Happy Place here in Moz.

You can see here, on the official Peace Corps Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment Handout that we were due for a real good slump from about months 4 to 6:

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Real life events have confirmed what Peace Corps predicted for us. We have been in a real good slump. And because of this, we have come to appreciate our Happy Place, and need our Happy Place, that much more.

Vilanculos, Mozambique: thank you for saving my mental state more than once in recent months, with your gentle waves, funky tide patterns, bright boats, and calm sunrises over the archipelago. And the French Toast doesn’t hurt either.

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Now, I would certainly like to linger in that happy place, but I still have a struggle to tell you about.

Remember that hint from above about navigating the hospital system here?

Last weekend the three of us PCV’s here in Mapinhane were being visited by a member of our Peace Corps staff when he had a medical emergency and needed help.  We are extremely thankful for having had the help of some colleagues and friends in town, and this staff member is okay now. The good that shone through from this situation was seeing our community and colleagues come together, drop everything, to help us and this person they barely knew. And then hearing that they do this because many of them have been in a similar situation.

“Let me tell you about this one that is a hero for myself,” our neighbor said later, when we were thanking him for his help in the situation. “He saved my life when I had Complicated Malaria.”

Still, helping our colleague through this situation was a major challenge for us. It was scary and unnerving. It was confusing.

For 36 hours, we were navigating a foreign healthcare system, full of procedures and Portuguese vocabulary completely unfamiliar to us (shout out to all the Moz Health Volunteers, who work in this system every day!). We were witnessing a medical emergency, with no knowledge of the patient’s medical history or what could be done to help him. We were being hinted at by hospital staff, as they looked shamelessly at our white skin, that we should pay more for a private room for our colleague. And we were realizing that this is what a medical emergency looks like here: 5 hours to find someone with a car to get you to a hospital that has bare bones equipment and a doctor that is MIA.

With a week to reflect on the events that passed, three simple words spoken to us that afternoon linger in my mind: “Força, vocês. coragem.” Strength, you guys, courage.

Every  day  I reach for these things, I realize. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great day or a total flop. It doesn’t matter if I encounter challenges, or how grand or miniscule they are. I need strength to keep on keepin’ on, no matter how slow the progress on a project. I need courage to express myself in Portuguese.

It is a universal search, I realize. No matter where we are physically, mentally, emotionally it’s human nature to search hard for these elusive forces. We want things to feel natural and easy and light, but sometimes it’s a struggle to keep searching for the strength and courage to do what you need to do in life, to be your best self, to help others.

And sometimes it takes something big to remind you how essential these things are. Sometimes it takes an image in your mind to make it stick. For me, it’s this: the three of us in a hospital room in Mozambique, scared and confused  as our colleague struggles in the bed a few feet away. And someone taking the time to stop in this chaos, gather us, her hands on our arms, and say the right thing.

Força, vocês, coragem.

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Photo Credits to Alex Romanyshyn.

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