Tag Archives: EGRA projects

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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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.

 

 

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Donut-Making, Palm Sunday, The Library and Feeling Far Away

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We must begin with donuts. And Sarahs. This past weekend me and Alex along with our sitemate Sarah (Becks) and our other PCV friend Sarah (SG) set out on a grand Moz culinary adventure: donut-making, all from scratch of course. This delicious idea was inspired by funfetti frosting that was sent to me from my friend Sarah (America…?)  for my birthday, along with cake mix and other birthday surprises. We spent weeks gathering the ingredients, some of which we don’t see very often, like margarine and powdered sugar. Then, in assembly line fashion, we made a whole lot of donuts. We made the dough and let it rise for an hour, rolled it and donuted it, rolled it and donuted it, rolled it and donuted it, until all the dough was donuted, then we let the donuts rise for another 45 minutes, fried them, and set about topping them with glaze, funfetti frosting, or cinnamon and sugar. Our endeavors were successful and our hard work was rewarded. After working so hard, this indulgent treat was even tastier than anything we could have bought. So many smiles, and even more yummy sounds. Check back soon for this donut recipe and modifications for Moz!

Earlier last week one of our students invited Alex and I to attend the Palm Sunday church service, where a group of students would be singing, dancing, and drumming as part of the service. The Mozambican church service followed by the traditional American treat-eating made for a confusing day of mixed culture, but a very satisfying Sunday. The church service began down the road from church, where a procession of people walked, singing gently and waving their palm fronds. After stopping in various places along the way to pray, the group gathered, much to our relief, outside of the cement church for a service under the trees. Anytime that something important happens here under the shade of the trees, I am reminded that this is something small I love about being in Mozambique.  A simple archway had been made, and a stage set for the pastors. Both were decorated with woven palms and purple bougainvillea. A group of our students began the service with dancing and singing. The people then settled on benches, chairs, and mats on the ground. An older student directed others to bring us a bench, and we were seated. A kind man approached me, as I was twisting my palm leaves into a messy weave, and told me in English that he wanted to teach me how to weave the leaves. As the bulk of the church service took place I followed the lead of this new friend, smiling to myself at his whispered encouragement. “Good. Yes, like that.” Feeling guilty for not paying attention I looked around, only to find many busy hands working their palm leaves in much the same way. The service concluded with more song and dance from our student in the local language, Shitswa; I love church in languages that I don’t understand. Something about the manner in which people worship is much more powerful to me than the words being said. A new friend, a steady breeze, and joyful songs made me smile during this, our second visit to church in Mapinhane.

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The final thing that has been giving me lots of smiles lately is my time at the primary school library. It took a few weeks to get a schedule organized and start having groups of students, but now that we are up and running, the sessions are one of the things I look most forward to during my week. The library was started by a volunteer 3 education groups before me (Moz 19) and continued by my predecessor, Sarah (surprising name, I know), from Moz 21. I am starting now with 4 groups of 3rd and 4th grade students that have difficulties with reading and literacy. Each week, we read a book and then do a literacy activity related to the book. I read the same book 3 weeks in a row with a different activity, and have found this repetition to engage the students because they can recall parts of the book from the week before. Every fourth week will be time for the students to read and explore books independently in the library. The students have been so engaged and happy during the sessions, and it really puts a smile on my face when I hear them leave the library practicing what we learned or when I am told that their mothers were wondering what they were doing in the library and wanting them to go more often because they came home talking about it. It is very uncommon for students here to have books at school or home, or to have much, if any, access to reading material anywhere, especially for pleasure-reading. Being exposed to books is a special treat for these kids, and I can tell every time I go into the library or pull a book out of my purse to read in the schoolyard.

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My early morning walk across town to the library gives me time to play with preschoolers on their way to school.

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The entrance to the primary school in Mapinhane.

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My first group at the library!

 

Now, 6 months into our 27 months in Moz, the struggle lately has been the start of feeling far away and disconnected from people back home. The time difference makes it challenging to find a good time for phone conversations. And the lack of in-person connection is becoming harder. Even when I lived in the U.S. it was not uncommon to go weeks or even months without talking to some friends; most of my friends are spread out all over the country. But then we would get together or have one really long, satisfying conversation and I was reminded of the strength of our friendship. Here, I know that those strong relationships still exist, but now I just have the ‘months with no contact’ without the eventual get together that renews the relationship. It is clear already that we will come out of Peace Corps with a number of new relationships, but I am beginning to miss my people from home more and more! Texts and emails go unanswered and the time between now and our next get together seems to be an eternity. So, I am going to begin making a more conscious effort to schedule phone calls, email people more often, and do anything I can on my end to stay in touch. It is an odd and scary thing, this realization that there really is a whole physical world between me and so many of the people I love. And it is hard to feel that I can’t give the support I want to give and am not feeling all the support I am craving right now. That being said, I can only believe that strong friendships will survive this time and distance, we will pick up where we left off, and new friendships will grow as well.

So, friends, if you are reading this, know that I love you, am thinking of you and missing you here in Moz!

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Hidden beauty 🙂