The struggle this week comes first. It began with low muttering from two adult males. I could tell by the tone that it wasn’t threatening, but wasn’t something I would want to hear and I didn’t feel the strength to face something ugly head-on that day. I tuned out, thankful in this case that my level of Portuguese still doesn’t allow me to hear hushed comments unless I choose to, and listen well. Usually I choose to listen, I choose to allow the ‘unintentional ignorance’ of living in a foreign culture to be chipped away slowly by painful realities.
It happens fairly often. Something happens that I may not have noticed some months ago, maybe because I didn’t have the language yet or didn’t perceive the tone or didn’t pick up on the cultural cues. Something makes itself clear, and it hurts.
I see a girl with less opportunity than a boy, which shows itself in many subtle forms.
I hear more hisses and comments from creepy men.
I hear the kids at school calling each other stupid in slang, or calling themselves stupid.
A kid tells me they don’t want to upset ‘so and so’ teacher because he will hit them.
I realize that all of the adults in a students’ life have passed away, and that student is now a caregiver for younger family members.
An awesome colleague tells me he wants to finish school to become a teacher but he can’t afford it, even though he works full time.
This week, it hit me hard, and it stuck. I tuned out, but Sarah heard the rest: a teacher watching a little girl dance, moving her hips, and say ‘the girls need to practice that move because that will be their life. That one, when she grows up, she’ll be good.”
God. It’s like a punch in the chest. It’s like salt on a wound, like water being thrown in your face.
A reality in Mozambique.
It just hurts. It hurts to know and understand. But I hesitate to share these things because they are so bad, and probably worse if you are a reader that isn’t here every day to experience the many joys and beautiful parts of this culture alongside these ugly, ugly parts. I share these struggles to get them off my chest before they eat away at me, like I know these things do. I share them to paint a full picture.
Sometimes, I hear these things and I know I am powerless. But that day, looking at those little girls, I felt like I have a failed a bit. I don’t seek your pity. I chose this tough path, riddled with challenges and the frequent feeling of having failed. But I felt like I haven’t done as much as I could for girls here, with resources and access to programs like REDES, designed to educate girls about their rights and empower them for their future. And I felt like I haven’t done enough for girls here in educating BOYS here about how to respect girls and lift them up.
But, I am thankful for these painful moments, for knowing more, for the loss of unintentional ignorance that will inform my service for the year ahead, and pull at my heartstrings until I can’t help but do something.
The first smile this week, too, came along with knowing more and noticing more, little by little, the longer we are here.
There are things that I know happen here that I have still, after more than a year, not yet been exposed to on a personal level. One of these is the prevalence of unprotected, teen sex and early pregnancy. The kids at our school are a bit of an exception, I think. There aren’t pregnant girls attending class like at the other school in town. There isn’t even super obvious dating or flirting. They are expected to follow strict behavior rules set in place by the Brazilian nuns that run the school, and no one is talking to them about safe sex; teachers aren’t permitted to, and most of them are boarding school kids without older family members around that might talk to them about it.
So, although many PCV’s likely deal with these things much earlier on in service, it took a while for me. Earlier this week I saw a note being passed in class. I approached the student to take the note, and he held onto it with a clenched fist, a pleading and fearful look in his eyes.
Usually, the notes are nothing really: someone asking someone else to buy them food or share a snack, someone telling someone about homework or tests.
“No, teacher, no,” he said quietly, shaking his head at me.
Eventually, he gave me the note, crumpled and a bit soggy from his sweaty, nervous palms. I slipped it into my pocket to read after class.
And the note began:
‘Fica quieto. Aquela gaja não está gravida.’
‘Keep quiet. That girl isn’t pregnant.’
My mind raced:
I know these things happen.
In the EIGHTH grade?? Even if 8th graders here are 15 and 16.
I know these things happen.
I know these things happen.
I have to talk to them about it.
I know these things happen.
At the end of the day I pulled the 2 note-passers aside. I asked them who the girl was. They told me she goes to the other school. I asked who the boy was, if it was one of them. They shook their heads, unconvincingly, smirking.
“Ok…” I said, chomping on my gum to calm my nerves and summon clear Portuguese. “Well, do you know where to get free condoms if you need them?”
“No teacher. No! It’s not us. It’s a friend. It’s a friend from the other school,” they shook their heads at me, a bit frantically.
“Ok, ok, I believe you. I just want to talk to you,” I told them. “You are not in trouble. I will not tell anyone. I will not tell the nuns. You can say the truth to me, if you want to.”
“No teacher. It’s about a friend.”
“Ok. Are you sure?”
“Ok…well…does your friend know where to get free condoms if he needs them?”
I told them where: the health center or Teacher Sarah’s house.
“Oh yah? I can get them at Teacher Sarah’s house? For free?” one of them asked, unknowingly revealing his fib about the friend.
“Yes. And please tell your friends. Ok…I don’t want to embarrass you guys, but this is important. You need to use them…every time. Because this,” I said, pointing to a part of the note that (I thought) was saying that pulling out is ‘a lie,’ “is a lie. You are right. It doesn’t always work.”
“Ok. Yes teacher.” Giggles. “Thank you teacher.”
I left them, wondering if I had done the right thing, or if I had done it in the right way. Did I just encourage them to have sex, without talking to them about the bigger picture, the dating, the respect, the importance? Or did I encourage them to make safer an action that they are clearly already doing? But still, without talking about the rest. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to push too hard. It’s a fine line when there are only a select few people around that they can talk about this with if they need to.
The next day, Sarah said, they did come to her house, nervously telling her I had said they could. Like she does with so many boys in our town, Sarah gave them condoms and made them explain to her how to use them, correcting them when needed. If Sarah knows the boy, she usually asks who the girl is to know if the boy is dating someone steadily or not. But she didn’t want to scare these boys away from coming back if they needed to. It’s a fine line.
The following day, one of the boys asked Alex more about it, and Alex was able to open up a discussion among a group of boys about consensual sex, about always remembering that it is between 2 people and both people have to agree.
So, maybe, in the beginning, I couldn’t address the many complex parts of having sex as a teenager, or the many complex parts-many of which I still don’t fully understand- of having sex as a teenager in a culture that sees sex differently than my own. But we got there, together, eventually. Now, a few more boys in our town may not share the common view that ‘real men don’t use condoms,’ and they have a resource to make a good choice in a situation that they would most likely be in whether they had a condom or not.
I’ve learned that I am not one to dive right into things in Mozambique. I like to watch and listen, to get to know people before I talk about the tough stuff with them. For this, it’s slow-going here in Moz. I am not-maybe ever- going to address a large group of students about sex. Maybe I’m a wimp for this, but having to look at 50 adolescent faces and talk about sex doesn’t feel right in my gut. Where I find my successes, I’ve learned, is in planting seeds, in talking to a student that I’ve already known for months and have a relationship with, a student that I know, for a fact, other students will listen to when he talks even if they wouldn’t listen to me when I talk. In thinking about this, I can smile.
Alright. Enough about sex in Moz.
The next smile came from setting up a small ‘Global Gallery’ at school, the first use of postcards sent from friends and family for my postcard project. In the library at my secondary school I hung a map and attached various postcards and bits of information- in English- to their place on the map. I was excited to make this small display that can give our students a bit of exposure to other countries and to more conversational English.
So far, we have Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany, South Africa, Morocco, The Virgin Islands, and various parts of the United States represented in our Global Gallery. On Monday I will add Vietnam, Nepal, and Cambodia, (which arrived in the mail this weekend!) and keep expanding and changing the cards from there!
“It’s beautiful,” the librarian told me, as he stood there reading the information and explaining it to a student.
Now finally, as the school year here draws to a close, I find myself wanting to experiment with various projects so that I can tweak them and jump right in next year. One of these is holding open library hours at the primary school library. There are now 3 literacy sessions per week at the library for students that have difficulties reading, and we wanted to expand to give all students the opportunity to come in, read, and explore the books a couple of times a month. This week I took 4 of my more mature 8th graders to the library to help out with free-reading hours. We opened the library for a couple of hours on Saturday morning. Only 11 young students came in (all girls..hoorah!) and a few secondary school students. But still, it was a start, and I was beaming watching my 8th graders work with younger students, watching them peruse the books for a good fit and run with their own teaching ideas. And with class sizes of 50+ I relish opportunities to get to know them a bit better outside of school, to have conversations with them that allow me to better understand the life of a boarding school teenager in Mozambique.