Category Archives: Peace Corps

Sunday Snapshots: Time for Girls

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The 8th and 9th grade girls at school were buzzing with excitement on Thursday after I announced that they were all invited to a girls-only life skills workshop on Saturday. 

I am happy to have worked with an awesome student leader to  start a girls group this year that follows a program focused on health, education, and life skills development. There are 10 8th grade girls in the group, and we meet twice a month.

In order to include more girls, the 12th grade group leader and I planned a life skills workshop for the other girls at school. The 10 group members ran stations for the girls that came, covering the topics from our meetings so far:goals for the future, common gender roles and ‘thinking outside the box’ about gender roles, staying in school, strong communication, making good decisions, and strong friendships.

“Qualities of a good friend.”

Using every day scenarios to practice the 4 steps of strong communication.

Creating small theater pieces to show common gender roles of women and girls: cooking, cleaning, raising children, and helping elders.

Theater about common gender roles of boys and men: drinking, dancing, and playing.

Drawing successes from the past and goals for the future.

46 happy girls at the end of the workshop!

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Getting Strong, Looking Forward, Balance, and The Slumps

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The smiles and struggles are broad this time around, grouping the many happenings since the last time I wrote here. It feels overwhelming, after such an extended silence, to pick through all the little moments and choose just a few. So I thought instead about themes and patterns that might give a sense of what’s been going on lately.

One big theme and a hugely positive aspect of life in Moz lately has been my commitment to getting strong and feeling healthy again. Having arrived in Moz in probably the best shape of my life, I have struggled repeatedly here with the feeling of falling out of shape, of not having sufficient recreation to keep my strength up, of finding a steady work out routine in a schedule that is different every day, and with feeling healthy overall. On March 1 I committed to a 30 day Yoga Challenge from a YouTuber – SarahBeth Yoga. I completed the 30 days without missing a day and I marveled at that feeling of accomplishment and my own noticeably growing strength. For a couple weeks afterwards I continued to practice every day and play with the idea of challenging myself to 100 days of yoga, a feat that sounded nearly ridiculous or weirdly excessive at the time. But finally I decided to commit to that personal challenge as well. So, here I am on day 75. I have yet to miss a day, even if it was as simple as gentle stretching after being sick, spending 30 minutes playing in tree pose on the beach, or an easy 10 minutes in various legs-up-the-wall poses after a long day. After 18 of the most challenging months of my life, being intentional about taking time for my body and mind every single day has been one of the best things I have done for myself here. In addition, the long struggle with my fitness and health, and the mental turmoil it caused me, has solidified for me how much of a value health is for me. I need to feel strong. I need to feel healthy. And I need to do the things that make me feel that way.

The second smile these days comes in looking forward. In the next few weeks I will work with my library counterpart to hold our second literacy training for teachers at the primary school. The first training happened in March and I was so impressed with my Mozambican counterpart, who had the idea of the training and followed through with planning and organizing it and, finally, delegating tasks to me to help him carry out the training for 11 teachers.

In addition, I will work with my REDES group counterpart to plan and carry out an all-school workshop for girls at our school. REDES is a group for adolescent girls that covers topics regarding physical health, healthy relationships, and education. This year, I have worked with a 12th grade female student to hold meetings twice a month for ten 8th grade girls at our school. The program is designed for smaller groups, but we have had interest from so many other girls that we decided to hold 2 or 3 all-school workshops this year for any girl who wants to attend and participate in some of the activities that we do at our regular meetings.

After these events happen, we will be receiving visitors for a couple of weeks and are of course looking forward to that! In early June, one of our best friends, Sarah, will come to see us here in Mapinhane. This visit feels extra unique because it was during our visit to Sarah’s Peace Corps site in Tanzania in 2012 that the idea of doing Peace Corps together first seemed plausible to us. We met Sarah and two other friends at Victoria Falls for New Year’s and now she is headed back to this side of the world for a summer job in Tanzania, and has decided to stop through and see our Peace Corps site first.

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Me, Alex, and Sarah near her Peace Corps site in Tanzania in 2012.

A couple days after she leaves us, we will get a long-awaited visit from Alex’s mom, uncle, aunt, and aunt’s mom. As we have not gone home during our Peace Corps service, it has been a very long time since we’ve seen most of our family and we are looking so forward to seeing family before our last stretch of service. This gang of visitors will also visit us here in Mapinhane and then we plan to meet up with them in South Africa a few weeks later,  toward the end of their trip.I can’t wait for them to get a sense of our day to day life here, and to just have time to catch up face to face.

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Looking forward to a visit from Alex’s mom and fam!

With this flurry of events and visitors and travels, I know the time from now to mid-August is going to go by like the blink of an eye. By then, we’ll be looking at the last three months of our service. Not sure how to feel about that, but looking forward to everything in between now and then.

The final smile these last months has been an overall feeling of balance. Most of what has made me smile during Peace Corps has not really been tangible accomplishments, things I can check off a list, or say I “did.” Mostly what makes me smile is hearing “Teacher Cecelia!” shouted to me as a greeting from some hidden corner of a shop as I walk to the market, or having friends over for dinner so they can try American food, or spending countless hours chatting about every day things with people, or someone saying that Adult English Club is their favorite place in Mapinhane, or expressing how much they will miss us when we go in six months. These are the things we will grasp at later, wondering if it really happened the way we remember because there will be no proof other than how we remember these bright everyday moments. This being said, more so than last year, I have started to notice, along with the intangible smiles, tangible accomplishments that fill me up too. I smile about accomplishments in the classroom, like finding a positive behavior system to implement or teaching my “homeroom” group of kids a few important life skills. I smile about getting a REDES group off the ground, and watching as young girls start to open up and speak about important things in their lives. I smile about the teacher training at the library and the slow but definite progress of my counterpart taking ownership of that project. I smile about having helped facilitate sessions at a training for the newer group of volunteers that arrived last September. In this way, it seems that a balance has been struck between the intangible and tangible parts of our service.

Finding balance 😉

Finally the struggle lately has been a struggle with accepting and understanding ‘the slumps.’ There are so many ups and downs during Peace Corps service that they even give us a pretty darn accurate flow chart, depicting which months we will feel high periods, low periods, and plateaus. In fact, I’ve posted a picture of that chart here before…I feel that the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment pretty much gets me. It seems like nonsense, because there are always ups and downs in life, whether or not you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer. I can say with certainty that because of how foreign daily life can feel in a foreign country, the ups and downs during service are extreme and visceral and always teach you a kind of hard lesson. Whether it’s ups and downs of motivation level, actual busy-ness, health, homesickness, sense of accomplishment, or various other factors, sometimes this rollercoaster feels never ending.

While the valleys don’t feel nearly as deep this year as they did last year, it can still be a challenge to accept a slump when it comes. A few weeks ago, after a week-long break from school, I felt a major slump in motivation setting in. The feeling of not really wanting to do any of the things that I had to do, of not having any new ideas or any energy for work was certainly reminiscent of times last year, which usually ended up being pretty big slumps and pretty deep valleys that were emotionally tedious to climb out of. Fearing the slump, I found myself resisting my lack of motivation, pushing myself to try and plan things, think of new ideas, keep going when I had no energy to keep going. For me, managing a slump can be tricky business. For me personally, taking whole days off or out of my normal routine makes the slump worse, even though that’s usually what I want to do instinctually. Getting out of my routine here just makes the slump that much worse, the valley that much harder to climb out of as I try to restore my basic routine along with any motivation that goes beyond that bare minimum routine. Knowing that about myself, the struggle is to find a balance between the helpful and important ‘keep on keepin on’ mindset and giving myself permission to do less, to not force new ideas or plans or energy when I feel a little ‘low,’ and to trust that it will all come back around, naturally, in time. It is fear of losing my momentum here that makes me want to instinctually push back and ignore a feeling of low energy or low motivation. Seeing life as being linear, it is easy for me to make assumptive connections that a lack of motivation now means a loss of momentum down the line. However, having been through a number of slumps during Peace Corps service, I am slowly starting to believe that life is cyclical, not linear. I never quite trusted it last year, but I can usually convince myself now that all things come back around, cycle back through. It helps me to think of my own internal environment as being like the seasons. I have Spring times, when I am bursting with fresh ideas and energy. I have Summer times when all those ideas and energy come to fruition, I have Autumn times when I can reflect on what’s happened and start to slow down. And I have Winter times, when things lie dormant and rest. Thinking this way makes a “slump” feel more like a  natural and crucial time of rest, and a perfectly normal part of the cycle. It helps me know what I need to do for myself, depending on which ‘season’ I am in. It forces me to be patient and observant and accepting. And it gives me a change of pace to look forward to, eventually.

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The Heart of A Mozambican

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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.

Newton’s Third Law in the Peace Corps

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Bits of cardboard, plastic water bottles, duct tape, balloons, sewing thread, and popsicle sticks have become a constant presence in our house. Alex is testing out ideas for the science club he plans to start this year, and these are the makings of all his Alexperiments.

On one recent day he explained to me how Newton’s Third Law was at play in the launching of a plastic water bottle rocket; If Newton’s Third Law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then we can see that as the air pressure shoots out the bottom of the ‘rocket’ the ‘rocket’ shoots up into the sky.

A refreshing lesson in physics, sure, but the other side of my brain got to thinking about how Newton’s Third Law applies to my everyday life in Mozambique.

One thing that I’ve noticed starkly about this second year of Peace Corps is a sense that, although I am still affected by the environment around me, I am much more grounded overall. Last year I frequently had images of myself being drug along or kind of just ‘blowing in the wind’ until it stopped for a second and I could put my feet on the ground. Recently though, I have had images of myself like one of those spring-legged figurines that can be suctioned to any surface; there are forces that tip me to this side and that, but I spring back pretty quickly and my ‘feet’ are always in the same place.

One side that I see myself tipping to, I call the ‘chega’ side. Chega in Portuguese means ‘enough.’ So, when I am pushed to this side it is by something that makes me say ‘Ok, chega Mozambique. I’ve had about enough of your hijinks.’  Or simply, ‘Chega. I am ready to go home now.’

The other side I call the ‘fica’ side. Fica in Portuguese means ‘stay.’ So, when I am pushed to this side it is because something lovely has happened that reminds me this a good place to be right now and I want these moments to ‘fica’ in my mind.

Now, how does Newton’s Third Law tie in?

First, we must tweak it a little bit to say that for every action in day to day life here, there comes an equal and opposite action that causes an equal and opposite reaction.

For example:

I am walking on the street and a man I don’t know says to me in Portuguese, “You’re beautiful!” as he looks me up and down, raising his eyebrows. Chega.

I am walking down the street and a woman smiles and says to me in Portuguese, “You’re beautiful today!” as she looks me up and down. Fica!

Or:

I miss the peace that being in the mountains brings me. Chega.

I have come to find peace being at the nearby ocean. Fica!

Or:

I feel disconnected from friends at home when I realize I haven’t talked to certain people for months and am anxious to reconnect with them. Chega.

I feel connected here when I talk daily with Mozambican friends about their health, their job, their worries, and their desires. Fica!

Or:

Someone relentlessly calls me ‘Mulungo’ (white person), even after I tell them, ‘I am not just a white person. I am a teacher here. You can call me Teacher.’ Chega.

When this person still won’t stop, someone else relentlessly argues that I am a teacher here and should be addressed as a teacher, or by my name. Fica!

I realize more and more each day that Peace Corps is one big mind game with myself. Strengthening the ability to feel gratitude and stay positive is important anywhere and at any phase of life. Here, as it is normal to feel slightly uncomfortable all the time due to heat, language, cultural differences, homesickness and so on, I find this task of learning how to put things in perspective to be at the forefront of my mind; I am happy each time I find a little trick that helps me do so.

Now, thanks to the launching of water bottle rockets in the backyard, for each grumble I make, for each time I think ‘Chega Moz!’ I can try to let go of that moment by remembering that the equal and opposite ‘Fica’ moment will make itself known soon after, as long I am looking for it.

3 Smiles and A Struggle: The 2nd Year Feeling, The People Around Me, Normalcy, and Fearing the End

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‘I’m not afraid anymore! You hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!’

I left the second day of school on Tuesday, chuckling to myself as these words, originally spoken by Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, drifted into my head. No, the thought was not spurred, as it was for Kev, by scary burglars outside my house and a plan to blow torch their scalps and zipline away to my treehouse. It was spurred by a feeling of elation as I realized how comfortable I had just been in front of my 8th graders.  Not quite as exciting, really, but kind of a big moment for me.

Big kids used to scare me perhaps as much as Marv and Harry scared little Kevin at first.

Before coming to Mozambique, I had worked with children from about 1-11 years old in preschool and elementary school settings. They loved me, mostly, and thought I was super cool. That felt good. Big kids, on the other hand, seemed to stare into the souls of their poor teachers, ticked off and rarely complimentary. So, when I came to work in a secondary school here I was at once excited for the Big Kid experience and intimidated by them. Although I didn’t think I was afraid of them last year, looking back I know I was. They were new creatures to me; I didn’t understand their habits or what their looks meant or what motivated them or much of what they even needed from me as a teacher and as an adult in their lives. But I learned a lot along the way.

I’m no sage now, but I know enough to at least not be scared of the big kids. So, the first smile is about the 2nd-year-feeling. For me, this has two sides.

The first side is this: Since graduating college almost five years ago, I have switched jobs every year. While I am ultimately glad that I have dabbled as much as I have, and while I feel that I learned immensely from each job, it was an incredible feeling to start this, my first 2nd year in any job ever. It was amazing to not feel like the new person, to know at least the basics of what is going on and what is expected of me, to understand the routines of this job and how to accomplish what needs to be done, and to feel a level of general comfort that I have never felt before in a work environment.

The second side of this feeling is the sense of disbelief and accomplishment that we are actually starting our 2nd year of Peace Corps Service. While many days of the first year dragged by slowly, and while so many chunks of time felt filled up with little more than struggling through, I stand at this point, this marker of an end and a beginning, and it feels like that first year flew by. Because of the moments of wanting to throw my hands up and go home, of feeling lost, and generally unwell, I am now starkly aware of being so glad that we stayed for this second year.

Along the lines of feeling this lovely comfort on the work side of my service, the second smile comes in noticing the comfort and connectedness with our community. After spending most of our summer break away, we are settling back into life in Mapinhane now and, although they might not know it, the people around us are making it easy. The moments of interacting with all the people here who we have formed relationships with make it feel like we are picking up right where we left off. Some of these moments leave me smiling about people’s motivation: a student from last year asking that I continue to give him extra English work like I did last trimester, my library counterpart asking me if we will work there again, my 12th-grade REDES counterpart coming over to ask when we are starting our girl’s group, a colleague telling me he wants to do a student English Club this year, the start back to Adult English Club. The other moments are those that I have come to appreciate so much, the ones that make me feel a part of this community: a parent and fellow teacher coming over to say her son is excited to have me as a teacher, a friend bringing us food from her garden, Marcia telling me not to be nervous with my students, and the greetings and easy conversation with last year’s students.

With these first two smiles, there comes a realization that life here feels normal now. It is normal to have friends and students stopping by. It is normal to spend an hour getting to the market 5 minutes away because of stopping to chat with people along the way. It is normal that our class schedule will inevitably change 5ish more times. It’s normal to be pulled in many directions and wear many different hats each day. It’s normal and ok to not understand what’s going on sometimes. It’s even normal to feel sweaty all the time. Whether it’s in relishing the wonderful ‘new-normal’ moments, or in learning how to better handle the frustrating ‘new-normal’ moments, it’s a bit mind boggling to realize how much change a person can get used to over time. And thus comes the third smile: for not feeling so much like a lost foreigner anymore.

Finally, with all these happy feelings bouncing around lately, my struggle is in fearing the end. As I wrote about previously, it took a real long time for me to feel mostly comfortable here because it took a real long time to form all of these delightful abovementioned routines and relationships, and these are the things that most satisfy me here. Although there were many happy moments and successes personally and professionally throughout the months, I don’t think my mind and heart really settled in Moz until about last October. So now, with less than 12 months left, I am having mild sad feelings that the end seems in sight just as it is getting so good, and mild fear that the time is going to pass so quickly that I won’t be able to properly soak it up. The real struggle is in reminding myself how much can happen and change in a year’s time-as proven by the past year, and by life in general- and in reminding myself how much more is still yet to come and how many inevitable ups and downs there will be along the way.  The strategy for combatting fear of the future: continuing to actively notice good little moments each day, and in deciding to take notice being able to savor them.

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Sunday Snapshots: School’s Out

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I remember the first day of school in February, standing in front of my classes to sing the Mozambican National Anthem with butterflies in my stomach.

‘Those lines are really long,’ I remember thinking, looking out at my stretching lines of 8th graders, 50 or more to each class. I was scared; I had never worked with kids of this age, and certainly never in groups this big.

Now, I know all of their names, most of their personalities, and, for a few, I know about their families, their opinions, and their aspirations. I can recognize their voices when they call from the gate of our neighborhood. A number of them, we have seen six or seven days a week all year.

These students have challenged me and frustrated me. They have been 8th graders: crazy and loud and emotional and just plain mean. They have done strange things: plucking my blond hair from my head, grabbing my hand to examine my white skin, smelling my hair, and telling me I have beautiful legs.

For all these odd and angering moments, I am grateful to them. I have a long ways to go, but I am at least a bit stronger and tougher now. I have been challenged to find ways to manage a large classroom with limited resources and to encourage their confidence. I am more aware of where I need improvements as a teacher and of where my strengths are.

I am grateful too, for all the good things. These students have educated me: I understand a Mozambican classroom a bit more and I understand some of the problems these kids bring to school with them.

And they have surprised me , too, a few of them, with their eagerness to learn and to help, their curiosity, their silly nature, and their occasional appreciation.

So, I say goodbye to my first-ever classes as a teacher.

Até a proxima.

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What Makes A Place A Home

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“My students were so bad today!” I ranted to Marcia last week. I had arrived at her shop in a tizzy, having felt the urgent need to flee our house on the school grounds after an exceptionally frustrating morning in class. “They steal my things, they show me disrespect, they only want to play during class. I am tired. I had to escape from them!”

“Ayay,” she listened, making this common sound, a sign of disapproval.

“Then, another student asked me if I even speak Portuguese! He said he only ever sees me speaking English,” I told her. “I speak Portuguese every day!”

“Ayay! You speak Portuguese,” she said. “But you came here to be an English teacher. Your Portuguese will probably end after Mozambique, but the English you teach people could help them in their future.”

“I told him that exactly! Then, he told me all my students say I am not tough enough because I don’t hit them. These students! They frustrate me, Marcia.”

I went on to spout multiple frustrations from recent weeks: they don’t say thank you when I give them things, they show disrespect to each other, they cheat on their tests!

“And they are always telling me my hair is disorganized!” I huffed.

Her response: When they tell you your hair is disorganized, you tell them ‘I am good how I am.’ You worry about your furture. Right now, your future is low because you are worrying about my hair. Worry about your future!

“Yeah!” I agreed, laughing now. I sighed, gathering myself. “Tomorrow is a new day.”

“Yes,” she agreed.  “Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow, enter the classroom with strength.”

“Thank you, Marcia,” I told her, giving her the small handhold-handshake that is customary for saying goodbye.

I ranted to Marcia. She empathized with me. She advised me well.

It was the most common of interactions between friends.

I had never had a conversation like that with a Mozambican before. I had never let my guard down enough to let a Mozambican friend in like that. I am always careful to leave the house with a smile, constantly aware in the back of my mind that I am being watched, that my actions, words, and expressions contribute to shaping people’s view of foreigners, of Americans.

A month and a half ago, I was fairly certain that I wanted to leave Mozambique in January.

‘The thought of being here for 14 more months is completely unbearable,’ I said on multiple occasions.

I felt defeated. Since May, so much of my mental energy had been consumed by worrying about health issues. Any energy that was left was used up just doing the bare minimum to get by each day. I went through periods of time where I woke up multiple times a week, sometimes every day, and the first thought that came into my head was ‘I want to go home.’

It’s a strange thing, because those months weren’t all bad; there were beautiful moments, successful moments, happy moments. I found a lot of joy in the slow pace of life here, in getting projects up and going, in hearing great ideas from students and counterparts, in getting to know people. And I kept on going.

But, the same thought kept coming up: I just don’t feel right.  In my heart, I felt a squirming, restless, discomfort.

When this discomfort is felt, it needs validation. It became easy to give reason to this feeling by noticing and hanging on to all the frustrating parts of being here: the naughty students, the language barrier, the health issues, the negative interactions with people.

And those things are all real. They are not merely inventions of an uncomfortable mind but, rather, a lens through which I was seeing life here.

From the glimmers of happy moments that I occasionally noticed during this period, I knew there was another lens to look through.

‘I think I am just choosing to see all the bad things,’ I said to Alex one day. ‘I know those good things are out there, I am just not choosing to see them right now. And I don’t want to live my life like that.”

Eventually, some months after this statement, I made a deal with myself: at the end of each day I will write down three good things about the day and hang them on the wall.

I still wasn’t sure I wanted to be here for the next 14 months, but I was sure I didn’t want to spend my days trudging through, trying not to be miserable.

And I didn’t want my good moments stashed away for later in a jar or journal. I knew I needed to see them there, all the time.

Knowing I needed something to write down each day, I started to notice things like the little girl, alone on the path to town at 7a.m. dancing gracefully, her arms swaying in the air. I committed to memory the moment an elderly woman with a bucket on her head that gave me a thumbs up and a “Nice” in English, with a completely straight face as she passed me on the street. And I had to document the punishingly hot day that all the market ladies were sitting around in their bras, completely unabashed.

These moments are a reminder of how strangely and beautifully different life here is. They are a reminder of what a unique time in life this is for us.

More than these moments, though, the wall is filled with moments experienced or observed in the context of relationships between people:

A students’ smiley face next to my name on his test heading, a small indication that he was happy to be in my class that day. The easy and admirable friendship between two of our favorite Mozambican friends. The times I was brought to tears of laughter, sitting around our kitchen table with Alex and the Sara/hs. Someone’s shout of “Servido!” as I walk by, an invitation to come share food or drink with them. The days I spend more than an hour just talking to someone. The neighbor girl toddling over to play. Uninhibited laughter with our adult English learners. Ranting to Marcia.

I look at the wall and I see it. This is what I value. This is what makes life here, and anywhere, feel normal. This is what makes a squirming heart want to settle and stay. This is what makes a place a home.

“Quando está aqui em Moçambique, tem familia,” Marcia said to me earlier this week, her hands on her heart.

When you are here in Mozambique, you have family.

Sunday Snapshot: Sirius Twinkles

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What is that? There, out toward the ocean, blinking red to blue to green.

It’s a satellite.

No. It’s not moving.

It’s the top of the nearby cell tower.

No. That’s further south. Not straight ahead.

We have no moon right now. And we have no running water in the house, ever. Brushing our teeth outside each night is both a habit of hygiene and ritual of watching how the night sky changes.

It’s Sirius. Bright. Right ahead. Twinkling. Changing colors above the line of palms.

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I’ve never seen a star twinkle and change like that.

So, bed time can wait until we are satisfied by looking up at this big wide universe.

And suddenly there’s that feeling that I love, but haven’t felt in a while: the feeling of being so small, in comparison.

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Photo Credits to Alex Romanyshyn

 

Sunday Snapshot: Content

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Hours passed. And nothing much happened.

The house filled with the smell of cinnamon rolls and coffee and then the sound of students outside, coming by to chat. The day grew hotter. We moved outside, sat on the porch, shared a couple of beers, and ate cold leftovers, an apple, and the first mango of the season. People passed; we greeted them.

This sweet little neighbor, Nirma, toddled back and forth between her house and ours to play.

And the daylight faded like this: content, with her dozed in my arms after a day spent with my husband, one old friend, and one new one here in Mapinhane, watching the day go by from the porch.

3 Smiles and A Struggle: The Note, The Global Gallery, Library Hours, and Knowing More

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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 child.

A teacher.

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:

What girl??

I know these things happen.

In the EIGHTH grade?? Even if 8th graders here are 15 and 16.

I know these things happen.

Which boy??

I know these things happen.

Shit.

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?”

“Yes teacher.”

“Ok…well…does your friend know where to get free condoms if  he needs them?”

“No teacher.”

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.

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Thanks to all who sent postcards to Mapinhane! You know who you are, you wonderful people 🙂

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.

 

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First off, try to ignore the pot leaf. This is Anita, Ismael, Gustavo, and Elca. They are intelligent, hard-working, eager to help and learn, and kind. They are a few of my students that make class worth going to and I loved watching them shine with younger students.