Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Second Third


Just like after the first third of our Peace Corps service passed, I can hardly believe that we are already at this point. We have just finished our Second Third, meaning we are now 18 months in with 9 (ish) months left in our service. Again I find myself thinking that nine months, or even 18, doesn’t feel all that long in the grand scheme of things. But sometimes when I think about all that has passed and changed and been learned and done in these months, it feels equivalent to the amount that passed and changed and was learned and done in about the 4 years prior to coming to Moz. For this, these months feel long and rich. Here’s a recap of some of the major moments, successes, and struggles from the Second Third.

My 3 biggest personal successes

– This Second Third of Peace Corps service came with some really rough times, as you will read below. The struggles that I faced during this period left me stronger in a number of ways, and I consider this one of my biggest successes from this period. After months of feeling frustrated and at a loss as to what to do for myself,  I put a lot of mental energy into actively flipping my perspective on life here. One way that I did this was to look for good moments each day, write them down and stick them up on my wall at the end of the day. My wall is now covered in little things people have said to me, beautiful everyday scenes that I have noticed, small successes at work, positive interactions between students, extra delightful meals I have eaten…the list goes on. This tactic has changed the way I see my days, and has kind of rewired my brain; I find myself looking for the good now so that I have something to write down each day, and from that initial motivation the habit just grows stronger. Of course, no matter how much you look for the good, uncomfortable emotions and experiences are part of life too. Another shift in my perspective has been learning how to be ok with uncomfortable emotions and to realize that they are part of a balanced mind and, like all thoughts and emotions, are only temporary. The final part of this growth is strengthening my ability to be grateful for frustrating experiences that can teach me something and learning to let go of those that can’t.

– Feeling at home, feeling comfortable, being myself and having strong friendships. I have written a little about this before, but it took me quite a long time to really feel at home here and to be myself and develop friendships. I don’t think I realized this until I suddenly felt a change in life here and realized that this is what it was. Around October last year, something here just clicked and I felt strongly at home and part of the community.

– Taking care of my physical health. Coming from a mountain lifestyle that was inevitably active, one of my biggest struggles here has been feeling strong, getting into an exercise routine, or finding ways to exercise that are even a fraction as fun as what we were used to in Colorado. I tried a number of ‘programs’ and am now almost to the end of a ‘month of yoga’ challenge and I don’t think I have felt this strong since we’ve been here.

My 3 biggest personal challenges

– Uncomfortable self-growth. That abovementioned success was one of the hardest-ever life prizes to earn. Learning how to change how I perceive my environment, learning to change how I perceive what’s goin on in my own mind, and learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions did not come without a large amount of strife. There was a period where it felt like changing my thought patterns felt like a full-time job.

– A string of physical health issues, feeling less healthy than I was used to and feeling physically weaker and more out of shape as time went on.

– Comparisons between myself and Alex and how our skills and contributions are recognized differently. There have been countless times where someone will say to me “Alex does…..why don’t you?” or “Alex knows how to….why don’t you?” Of course, on the flip side, there are things that I know how to do that Alex doesn’t, but he has never once been confronted with a statement like this. My response used to be to try and defend myself. Now, I say “Alex is Alex and I am me. We are different people. We do different things. We know different things.” Additionally, Alex has a variety of skills here that are very visible: gardening and speaking local language being the two most often praised. As my skills are less visible-remembering people’s names, working with counterparts on various projects, working in a variety of areas- they are often less praised. These things combined can make it tricky to remember to appreciate our differences and to not let the comparisons get me down.

The 3 things I am most proud of at school

– Understanding a bit more how Mozambican kids tick and, thus, learning and implementing a handful of effective classroom management strategies in the context of a Mozambican classroom. For me, these include implementing a points and rewards-based behavior program and using leveled groups to build confidence and more efficiently foster learning in a classroom of 50.

– Being a ‘Diretora de Turma,’ kind of like a homeroom teacher, for this second year of teaching. My school chose me for this extra  position and I am enjoying it so far. It was described to me as being more or less the ‘class mama’ to one of the groups of 8th grade students. This includes communicating with their parents, managing their academic progress, working with other teachers to manage academic progress, managing their overall classroom behavior and relationships within the group, and, by my choice, working on lots of good life qualities, like teamwork, respect, and recognizing good qualities in others. I really enjoy working with kids in these areas outside of the classroom and see this as a good chance for me to strengthen a different set of skills.

– Being more confident as a teacher. From the first day of classes this year, I could tell that my confidence and strength as a teacher here had gone up a lot since last year. I can see a difference in how I handle situations in the classroom, how I relate to the kids, and how I plan and carry out lessons.

My 3 biggest struggles at school

– Adults that say  certain kids ‘know nothing.’ The phrase ‘Ele/Ela não sabe nada’ always feels like a slap in the face to me, and the conversations about different types of intelligence seem never-ending. As someone that comes from a culture that believes that everyone knows something, these types of statements feel almost like a poison in the school system here.

-Students’ lack of confidence in themselves and in their ability to learn, and the variety of factors that contribute to this thinking, like being told they know nothing, being laughed at when they answer questions incorrectly, or being called a ‘donkey’ or a ‘goat.’

– The more lax scheduling and planning and the occasional lack of dissemination of information. Sometimes meetings happen and no one tells us. Sometimes the test schedule or the class schedule is put up the day before…and no one tells us. Sometimes it seems like no one knows what is supposed to be happening when.

My 3 most worthwhile contributions to secondary projects, and progress made on goals

– In my First Third post, I stated the goal of starting a REDES group- a group for girls involving health, education, and personal development topics- at the primary school and at my secondary school. This year, I have worked with an awesome 12th grade female student (who attended the REDES trainings with me last year) to start a group for the 10 youngest girls in 8th grade at the secondary school where I teach. Working with girls was a big goal of mine in coming here and I am so happy our group got off the ground this year.

– I also previously stated the goal of facilitating a literacy and library training day in my community. What ended up happening was even better than ME facilitating a literacy training: a couple of weeks ago my Mozambican counterpart on the library project organized and planned a literacy training for 11 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teachers. He is the pedagogical director-like a vice principal- at the school where the library is located and was complaining to me one day that teachers don’t use the library as much as they could. I told him if he chose teachers I would help him carry out a training, and he ran with the idea. He organized the teachers and planned the material based off the training he went to with me last year. He told me which parts to cover, and he covered other parts. The training left me grinning the rest of the day; I was so happy to see what a compatable team we have become as we presented a variety of literacy topics and talked about how teachers can use them in their classrooms. In addition to this, we now have 4 facilitators at the library that work with small groups of struggling students each week.

– As noted after the first third, I still consider our Adult English Club to be one of the most worthwhile and ‘organic’ projects we could have done. We are continuing the club this year with our new sitemate, Sam, and some new adult learners mixed in with last year’s group. Seeing how the group from last year has grown in their level of English, their confidence, their complexity of questions, and their eagerness to tackle higher level English is a weekly reminder of why we came here. I am amazed at their self-motivation, the fact that they show up early and leave late every week. In addition to this, a few of the members of this club have become our best friends in Mapinhane, and the weekly club meeting was one of the first spaces here where I felt like I could be myself.

The top 3 things I hope to still accomplish in my secondary projects

– Working with my REDES student leader to organize mini-workshop days at our school. Our club is made up of ten girls but there are a lot more girls who have expressed interest in being involved. The program is designed for small groups, so we can’t include all the girls that are interested in our regular meetings. However, I hope to work with Marizia, my student leader counterpart, to organize 2 or 3 days that are open to any girl at school to come and receive the information and do some of the activities in break-out groups.

– Complete the second half of our literacy training with the group of 11 teachers. The second session will include training on ‘read alouds’ in the classroom and activities to do for comprehension, as well as training on how to use our big collection of leveled readers and decodable books in the classroom. We will then observe the teachers using the new skills they learned, and they will receive a certificate for participation.

– Strengthen our Student English Club. Last year our Student English Club felt like babysitting a large group of crazy boarding house boys for an hour every week. It certainly didn’t feel like the most worthwhile use of time for us or for the students and we are hoping to change it up this year. We would like to do more long projects to keep the same students coming back each week and to ‘weed out’ some of the students that come just for a way to get out of the boarding house for a while. Our biggest idea is to have the students work on short theater pieces and/ or short ‘films.’

My 3 favorite things about life in Mozambique

– Variety in my work week. I am a person of many interests and, although sometimes it wears me out to switch gears so much, ultimately I love that over the course of a week I get to teach English to 8th graders, teach English to Brazilian nuns, teach English to Mozambican adults, read books and play literacy games with 3rd graders, work with a primary school vice principal to strengthen programming at the library, work with 8th grade girls to develop life skills, and work with a 12th grade student leader and see her leadership skills grow.

– Still, the calmer, slow pace of life. The fact that someone comes over to say hello and ends up staying for two hours, that I feel so much less rushed  and less pressured to get a million things done each day, that taking breaks is expected, and that cooking takes a great deal of time and care.

– The connectedness of people. There seems to always be an ongoing conversation happening, wherever I go here. This is hard to describe, but sometimes it is demonstrated in the way people get around and the way they ‘occupy space.’ People here walk or ride in buses with other people, so just to get from one place to another means talking to at least one person, probably many more. People here sit outside in their free time, so this means greeting and chatting with anyone who passes. People here buy food directly from other people in the market, so this is another location where conversations grow. It took some getting used to and some days it is still wearing, but mostly I am comforted by the amount of conversation that happens, the amount of contact, and just the feeling of being connected and being a part of a very communal community.

My 3 least favorite things about life in Mozambique

– The amount of living things that exist during the summertime/hot season. I think this summer has been worse because of the amount of rain, but there have been a number of times this summer season that I have said, ‘I can’t wait to go back to a place where it’s winter for 7 months and everything is dead or sleeping!’ We battle with mosquitoes, camel spiders, centipedes, ginormous grasshoppers and praying mantis, the occasional scorpion, the occasional elusive snake in the neighborhood, a handful of strange unknown creatures, bats in the ceiling and in the bathroom, and approximately a jillion tiny, spastic ants. Cockroaches and regular-sized spiders don’t count…I don’t even notice them anymore.

-Our communal bathroom situation. At first, sharing a bathroom with the rest of the ‘hood didn’t bother me too much; having a real toilet and cold running showers is a pretty good deal by Peace Corps Moz standards. However, as time has worn on this situation has worn on me. The constantly dirty, wet, smelly toilet stalls and the prevalence bats in the bathroom at night leave me calculating how much time I am going to spend just sitting in our very own, private, clean bathroom when we get back to the US. Not to mention having to walk past numerous colleagues and, usually, students every time I am going to do my business in the bathroom or take a shower. Dear privacy, I miss you!

– Still, drunk and/or entitled men. It feels like my blood is boiling every time a man looks me up and down, says I am beautiful, tells me he wants to break my marriage and marry me, and countless other unsavory comments. The difference now versus in the first third is that we have developed a number of really close friendships with wonderful Mozambican men; this keeps me from making blanket statements about ‘Mozambican men’ because there are a lot of great ones too.

My 3 favorite things about Mozambican culture and people

I think I best described these already, in my post, The Heart of a Mozambican.

-Unquestioned and unending generosity.

– A priority on people, spending time with people and building relationships.

– Pride in whatever they have and whoever they are.

The tough stuff

Like I mentioned above, cumulatively, this second third included five of the hardest months I have ever experienced. What began as insomnia in May turned into other mysterious health issues that lasted from about July to September. Dealing with ongoing health issues on top of the variety of challenges of learning to live and work here led to a lot of frustration, fear, hopelessness, and mental exhaustion until the end of September arrived and I said out loud for the first time ‘ I don’t think I can do this for another 14 months.’ I had been building up to this ‘last resort’ option of going home and finally, at a loss for what to do for my body and mind, we seriously considered going home after the school year ended last year. My doctor’s appointments were a plane ride away, in the capitol, and usually meant me missing a week of work, while my students back at site were constantly asking Alex what was wrong with me. When I returned, still with unresolved health issues, I was greeted with lots and lots of ‘You disappeared’ statements, a loss of momentum with work and projects, and, most daunting of all, the task of learning how to be okay with all of it.

This small paragraph cannot even begin to recap or describe the struggle I felt during that time and it all feels like a strange and, at times, miserable dream, with the glimmers of the things that kept me going mixed in there somewhere: time spent with the Sara/h’s and with Alex, occasional visits with other Peace Corps Volunteers, small successes at work, Adult English Club, days at the library, budding relationships with people at site, the Indian Ocean, good books, good food, my parent’s visit, looking forward to friends coming, and all the other little moments that added up to make it bearable.

I can say now that I am immensely glad that we didn’t leave at the end of last year. What is happening this year, at this point in our service, reminds me at least a couple of times each week of life’s balance. Those miserable times led me to here. Those months forced me to develop and grow in myself skills that now feel like the  ‘bread and butter’ of how I look at life, handle challenges, and view myself. Man, am I glad they’re over, but I sure am grateful for having been through those months and come out the other side.

The 3 things I have missed most about the United States

– Seeing our friends and family on a regular basis and celebrating milestones in their lives right there with them.

– Mountain livin’ and having a lifestyle that helped keep my body and mind healthy and strong.

-Clean, private bathrooms.

My 3 favorite moments with other PCV’s

– Being with our sitemate, Sarah, as she closed out her service in Mapinhane. It was refreshing to see how people expressed their gratitude for her being here and said so many kind words about how she had impacted them in so many small ways.

– Countless nights spent with Alex and the Sara/h’s cooking, dreaming up culinary masterpieces, playing cards, watching movies, doing puzzles, and drinking Shandies.

-Weekend brunches at our friend Beth’s house in Vilanculos.

My 3 favorite travel moments

– Riding chapas (mini-buses)  and tuks tuks (three-wheeled, partially enclosed mini-taxis) in Vilanculos with my parents.

– Picnicking in the luscious grass at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town.

-An early morning meander at Victoria Falls, having the place to ourselves for a bit.

The 3 most exciting things to look forward to in the third, and final, third

– Soaking up 9 more months in this place so different than our home: spending time with friends here, enjoying the slow pace of life, visiting the beach frequently, buying dirt cheap seasonal fruits and veggies, and taking in all the weird and wonderful everyday occurrences.

– Some of Alex’s family-including his mom, aunt, and uncle- coming and doing some travelling with them in June and July.

-Successfully completing our 27 months of Peace Corps Service.


The Heart of A Mozambican


I am struck by an image, a simple thing: 2 oranges in a bowl.

“Servido,” Laila says to me. ‘Help yourself.’

We have been sitting together for more than an hour on a straw mat on the floor of her newly rented room. We talk about her 10th grade studies, her little sister, her new boyfriend, her twin siblings. We talk about my 8th grade students, my nieces and nephews, my sisters.

There is a lot left unsaid.

“Gosta de beber vinho?” I ask, pointing to a half-empty bottle of wine in the corner. ‘Do you like to drink wine?’

Only some days, when my head is really full, she tells me. I think a lot, she says, calmly.

I feel squeamish, instinctually, about a 10th grader drinking. But Laila is 20, past the legal drinking age, and long ago an adult in every sense of the word.

She asks if I drink. Just once in a while, I tell her.

A neighbor stops by and peeks into the room.

Já dividiu o quarto. É bonito como assim,” she says with approval. ‘You already divided the room. It’s beautiful like this.’

Laila has strung a rope from post to post across the middle of the room and draped two kapulanas over it as a divider. On one side there is a twin matress on the floor, the bed neatly made and the blue mosquito net tucked in tight around the bottom. We sit on the other side, slightly wider. Here is the straw esteira mat that is a staple of the Mozambican household; the esteiras are often laid down outside in the shade and here people will relax together, nap in the heat of the day, shell peanuts, do homework, braid hair. Propped against one wall of Laila’s room are her school notebooks and the notebooks of her younger sister, who lives with her. Her hair pieces and cosmetics are lined up between the notebooks. In one corner are her three plastic kitchen shelves, some food, and a couple pots and dishes. Along the wall are her jugs for hauling water and her larger basin of water. I feel a breeze come through the caniço grass walls of the room, and feel the soft evening sun rays come through the door. People pass by and greet us. A pan clatters to the floor in the room next door and Laila says something in the local language to the neighbor. A colleague from her class comes in and sits down for a couple of minutes, talking about Physics homework.Laila’s collection of brightly-colored, freshly-washed plastic sandals dry outside the door; A number of neighbors have left her smiling since I arrived with comments about her beautiful shoes.

In the extended moments of silence that are the norm in any conversation here, I sneak glances at her face. What I see there feels familiar now: a thoughtful calm. If she is stressed, it doesn’t show. For the longest time, I mistook this absence of apparent stress in Mozambicans for the absence of stress. ‘Mozambicans are so resilient, they never seem to worry,’ I used to think. I am embarrassed to admit that now; all people worry. My gaze moves to her hands, a knife in one and a kakana plant seed in the other. They too are calm in their task of dissecting the seed. Seeing her there, so grounded and almost stoic, I begin to uncoil slowly. It is comfortable here, and my own mind is more settled than it has been in days. The feeling that visiting her felt like an obligation after a full week of work seems ridiculous now, and I feel guilty for it.

Laila is a former student and good friend of our first sitemate, Sarah, and I said I would continue to check in with her this year. She is a hard worker and a good student. She supports herself and her little sister with minimal help from family; This situation is not uncommon here. These students struggle, undoubtedly. In their communal culture they are supported by friends, neighbors, teachers, each other. Many of those that support them have been in this situation themselves.

The day before this visit, Laila had texted me asking me for help buying food. I do not come from a communal culture; requests such as this make me feel at once responsible,unsure, and guilty. I did not reply that day and by the time I arrived the next day, someone had brought her the vegetables for dinner, a coconut, some rice, and the two oranges that she then, without hesitation, insisted on sharing with me.

I apologized for not replying to her message. I couldn’t tell her it was because I wanted to help but just didn’t know what to do, that I didn’t feel I could just buy her food, that I feared giving to her meant that I would inevitably be asked to give to an unpredictable number of others in similar situations. I couldn’t say that it was because I have never in my life known people that run out of food, and that I don’t have an instinct for this situation. They all seem lame excuses now for not responding. But I couldn’t tell her that either.

All I could say was, “Desculpe.” Sorry.

In the peels of the two oranges that lay between us now, in her tidy and calm and comfortable room, after two hours of conversation, I see the things that I consider to be the heart of Mozambicans: an unending and unquestioned generosity, pride in what they have, and a priority on the people around them. These are the things that all at the same time make me feel welcomed and starkly foreign, guilty and grateful, naive and a smidge wiser. These are the things I ache for within myself, the things I aspire to in this life.

I rise to leave and Laila insists on accompanying me outside, three short steps to the front door. In the fading sunlight she gathers her shoes, and I promise to come over again soon.