Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Professora Ana's First Day at School

Last week, we had the opening ceremonies for the 2011 school year, and
it was your typical Mozambican affair. They demorar-ed: an all
encompassing, absolutely necessary for Mozambique verb that signifies
the concept of Africa time: they stalled, dillydallyed, took forever,
etc. I was told to show up at the extremely vague and worrisome hour
of “cedo” (early), but since I clearly had no idea what that meant, I
showed up at 7am (when the school day starts), but only at 9am did
they have me make a bunch of changes to the schedule. By 10am, they
finally shoved all the teachers into the auditorium room thing, and a
whole bunch of students and parents followed. Now, let me tell you,
there is nothing like spending a few hours time in a confined space
with upwards of 1000 people in the sweaty heat of mid-day in a country
where few people wear deodorant. The ceremony finally began a little
while later, with the chefes (essentially, important people; in this
case, the school director and two representatives from Gurue’s
district government) making a grand entrance to us all standing and
singing a welcome song. I was constantly nudged to sing, but my excuse
for not singing was actually valid this time because I didn’t know the
song, but apparently, my clapping along did not suffice.

Then we went right into the Mozambican national anthem: I think that in my less
than 4 months in Mozambique, I have sang their national anthem more
times than I have sang the American national anthem in 22 and a half
years (baseball games included) and we will sing it pretty much
everyday before the school day starts so I will only increase my
exposure to it. Gathered from my observations of Mozambicans, I have
learned that to sing the Mozambican national anthem there are certain
expectations: you have to stand straight, with your hands at your
sides, looking straight ahead with a stone cold look on your face.
There is to be no smiling or appearing to enjoy yourself or you WILL
be scolded- this is a gravely important matter, the singing of the
anthem, and you must demonstrate it as so. You must also sing loud,
though this is confused by the fact that because you are attempting to
keep such a serious face, you can barely move your lips. And the
kicker, since I am usually fighting back a snicker (because I just
love singing so darn much…), is that when they sing the chorus, they
don’t just sing it once. No, that would be logical and efficient, both
of which are not tenants of Mozambican life. But they sing it TWICE
between each stanza, meaning that this is the longest song in history.
Anyway, enough ranting.

After the anthem, there was a series of speeches that I didn’t put
much effort into listening to, because listening to Portuguese in a
room with bad acoustics is a challenge for me, but I did glean that
one was rattling off a plethora of statistics from last year’s school
year, another was a dramatic reading of the entire school rule book,
and then they opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to add a rule,
or present a worry/concern/question they had. One parent talked for 23
minutes (yes, I timed him) about how his eighth grade daughter did not
enroll in time and thus could not attend school this year because all
the spots filled up so fast. I feel for you man, I really do, but 23
MINUTES??? Finally, after my nails had taken a severe biting-marathon,
one of the chefes officially announced the school year open. I was
free! Nope, that was just a tease.

They have apparently started a new tradition this year of planting trees to mark the beginning of the
year. I am all for planting trees, but I was starving. So I awkwardly
hung out at the back of the teacher group as they planted about 15
trees. Then, for the second time, I thought we were done, but no, the
school director claims so everyone can hear him and points at me,
“You, Teacher Ana, you are new this year so you have to plant a tree.”
Fine, o senhor director, I am happy to plant a tree if that means I
can go home and eat lunch. But, apparently, a white girl digging a
hole, putting a plant inside the hole, filling it with dirt, and then
pouring water from a bucket into the hole (all via fiercely guided
instruction) is hilarious to Mozambicans, and they kept shouting, as
if on repeat: The arvore (tree) is named Ana, and then laughing more.
I’m not sure what was so funny, but now a tree bears my name in
Mozambique. I have left my mark.


And I must also note that they will wait weeks or months to name a
baby here, but the tree MUST immediately be named after the branca
(white girl) who planted it.

School was supposed to start the day following the opening ceremonies,
but true to form, we were still tweaking the schedule and thus were
unable to start. Instead, I met with the four other second cycle
(11th-12th grade) English teachers to do dosificacao (essentially,
planning out what we will teach through the first trimester). Clearly,
all the other disciplines finished the entire year’s planning in the
time it took us to finish half the first trimester.  Our planning
sessions take so long because each topic inevitably turned into a
philosophical and esoteric (shout out to you Mark B) debate about why
we are teaching students each of the topics. “What is the objective of
the passive voice?” Well, the curriculum says we need to teach it, so,
we are going to teach it, is my answer. But, seeing as nothing is ever
simple in Mozambique, that did not suffice. So, we had to continue our
planning the following day as well, but that meant I could postpone my
first teaching day even more, and thus, I didn’t complain.

Then on the first day that I was actually going to give lessons, a
blood-curdling scream came from outside our window. Some small child
was literally screaming her little behind off for a good 45 minutes.
Normally, Mozambican kids don’t really cry or throw fits, or anything
of that nature. We therefore thought we had something like a loss of
limb situation on our hands. Finally, we couldn’t stand it anymore,
mostly worried that something was horrifically wrong with this child,
so we asked our neighbor what was happening. Apparently, a 6-year old
girl didn’t want to go to school, and this was her reaction. Well,
menina (girl), I feel ya. I don’t want to go to school either. I felt
like I was going to vomit on each and every one of my 240 11th graders
throughout my four classes.
Thankfully, I did not.

And I survived. I survived my first day of teaching. I taught three
duplas (double-block classes) to three of my four turmas (classes).
Naturally, not all the students were there, so it was a good way to
ease into the whole process, with the classes at about half capacity.
Since the teachers are the ones who rotate classrooms in Mozambique, I
enter the class when all the students have ostensibly already arrived.
They all stand up, and we exchange the following (because this is
English class):

Good morning class.
Good morning Teacher.
How are you today?
We are fine, thank you.
I am also fine, thank you. You may sit down.

It’s a somewhat awkward interaction but it is how they show respect
for teachers and get ready to learn so I will always make them
complete the exercise. Starting next week, I will probably start a new
“word of the week” where every week, they will have to use that word
in the greeting. For example, if the “word of the week” is fantastic,
they will have to say: We are fantastic, thank you. And I can respond:
I am also fantastic, thank you. Anything to liven up the monotony of
Mozambique. And teach vocab.

But back to my first day. I think it went ok, except that in my first
class, when writing the date, because that is standard procedure in
Mozambique, I wrote: Tuesday, January 25, 2010. As one shrewd student
pointed out, “Teacher, 2011.” Awesome.

I am, however, gradually getting a feel for speaking slowly and
annunciating, and deciding which parts of what I am saying need to be
translated into Portuguese. No student has corrected my Portuguese yet
so that was a plus. We went over the rules, including that I will
close the door and not let them in class 10 minutes after the class
begins, because otherwise, they will stand outside the class and
interrupt me to ask if they can enter, which I find rather irksome.
Before 10 minutes, they are allowed in without asking. One of my
classrooms, however, does not have a door, so I’m not sure what I will
do about that one yet. Then they had to answer some questions in
English, both for me to get to know them and also to evaluate their
level of English. One question was “How old are you?” I went over my
answers to the questions to show them the proper sentence structure.
But to answer this one, I said, “I am very old. I am 99 years old.”
They all laughed. But if they knew I was only 2 years older than some
of them and potentially even younger than others, well let’s just say
it might be detrimental to my attempts at classroom management.

The last and most complicated question was “What did you do during the
holidays?” so that I could see if anyone was actually able to answer a
question in the past tense. Only a handful did so successfully, as I
expected. My favorite answer to this question, however, was “water and
Fanta.” Whatever floats your boat buddy. But we shall have to see how
it goes when I am ultimately presented with the prospect of imparting
actual knowledge, aka tomorrow.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The End of Isolation

That’s right. My month of being the only American in town is now officially over. My roommate (she is absolutely fantastic and also a teacher at the secondary school), the health volunteer who lives on the opposite side of town (also great), and another teacher who works at a school about 15km outside of my town (again, also great) have all returned from visiting their families in the US for Christmas. They are all from last year’s training group, meaning they have already lived in Mozambique for 1 year and thus can show me the ropes. It is glorious.

 Since we are in the southern Hemisphere, the students have been on summer break since about November-ish. Officially, the school year starts January 17, but in Mozambique, that doesn’t have any bearing on when teachers will begin teaching, students will begin showing up to class and learning, and school will in actuality commence. Students at my school are still registering, and everything is still getting figured out. However, in true Mozambican fashion, we randomly ran into a colleague in town and were told about a school meeting on January 14 at 8am. So, naturally, we show up at 8am on January 14. Of course, the meeting was 8am on January 13. Great. Now we are the assholes who missed the meeting. But again, had we not run into the other teacher, we wouldn’t have even known about the meeting, so now we just feel guilty instead of blissfully oblivious and ignorant.. Instead of going to the meeting that we were expecting to be in that morning, we used a computer program that we all get a copy of during training to create the school’s class schedule. We did this because if they had to do it by hand, it would take days (even with the program it took my roommate and I almost all day), and by being in charge of it, we could give ourselves the best schedules possible. Sweet. Currently, I am teaching English to all the 11th grade humanities students (for 11th-12th grade, they get to choose the humanities, science, or engineering tracks). So that is four turmas, during the morning school session. All Mozambican students are broken up into turmas, like classes/groups of students, in which each turma is assigned a classroom and the teachers are the ones that move around. So the kids stay with the same other kids all day. But of course, “kids” is a relative term here, as I very may well have students older than me. But 4-5 turmas is an average workload for an Education PCV so I am happy. And I would have an early day Wednesday and have Mondays off (meaning I can travel more). But, for the past few years, the two volunteers the Peace Corps has at my school (me now being one of them) have also team-taught TIC (basically, computers). At my school, only the 11th graders take TIC, but we have to teach all of the 11th grade turmas during the afternoon session. All 11th graders take all their other classes during the morning session, and TIC in the afternoon session. Yes, of course the Mozambican school system has to make the scheduling as difficult and illogical as possible, don’t worry. Additionally, we will split up the turmas into three groups each (so that there are only 1-3 students per computer, and not 4-6, and thus they can actually get some hands-on practice and learn something). Therefore, we will have to teach the same lesson 18 times each (36 total) over the course of a week. So, needless to say, teaching TIC kinda sucks. But it is a good skill for the students to learn and beneficial in the long run the more familiar the more people are with computers here. Apparently, however, over the course of the whole academic year, we pretty much only cover the parts of the computer, turning it on and off, opening and closing a program, and basic typing skills. But considering probably none of them have ever even used one before, it’s a good start. Don’t worry, apparently I am qualified to teach computers though I don’t type with my fingers on the right keys and clearly do not know the correct names for all the parts. Again, in true Mozambican fashion, we were in the computer lab making the schedules and only successfully turned on two of the computers (there are maybe 25, of which, apparently, 12-13 used to be working on any given day). Our theory is that a power surge may have fried the wires. So, unless they get new energy box things for each computer we won’t be able to teach TIC. Bummer (note sarcasm). And the schedule will most likely change at least once or twice before school even starts and a good 3-4 times more before the end of the first trimester. So who knows.

In other notes, I have now been officially initiated into the Peace Corps world of petty theft: both my roommate and my flip-flops were stolen off our porch in broad daylight. Lame.

Additionally, mango season is now definitely in full force: one of our friends (and I say “our” referring to this Indian man who owns a tea plantation nearby that was/is friends with the other volunteers here in Gurue, and thus I claim him as my friend to make myself feel better) has a mango tree and he has delivered two free shipments of about 30 mangos each to our house. So what can you do with 60 mangos? Well, we have now made an unnecessary amount of mango-ginger jam (thanks to the roommate) and an unnecessary amount of mango sorbet (thanks to me).


Oh and I would like to point out that I am currently a walking Peace Corps contradiction: My bedroom light is broken: I changed the light-bulb, but I think that there is some sort of electrical problem which I attempted to fix by unscrewing the flap around the switch until I realized I had no idea what I was looking for and thus just put it back on. So here I am sitting in the dark (it is 4:30am), typing on my computer while my empregada (maid) sweeps my yard with a broom made of reeds and mops my floors with an old shirt. To add

Another new development in my bedroom is that the roof also now decided to start leaking, meaning that every time it rains (namely every day), the foot of my bed gets soaked. This point of the room is at just the perfect place to make it so that no matter where I move my bed to avoid the leaky roof, some part of it will still inescapably be caught in the cross fire. Awesome.


Whenever I walk anywhere, I inevitably and almost constantly get pedir-ed, basically I get asked for something: “Estou a pedir pao” (loosely translated to “Can I have your bread” if they see I have bread) or “estou a pedir pasta” (can I have your purse?) or, the most frequent offender, “estou a pedir dinheiro” (can I have some money?). I mostly ignore the requests and only if I’m really annoyed do I make a snooty comment back. But by far the most quintessentially Mozambican moment I have had: I was sitting at home, minding my own business, reading my kindle, and I get a call from a number I don’t recognize. There is a lot of noise in the background when I answer it. I finally make out what the person is asking, “Estou a pedir dinheiro.” Seriously? Did I really just get a pedir phone solicitation? Yes, yes, I did.

And also, one of the lojas (shops) in town had skim milk!!!!! (most of the time, there is full-fat milk or cream, but there is always sweetened, condensed milk that can be thinned out with water if a recipe calls for milk, or another option is powdered milk). My roommate and I bought them out of this extremely rare item here in Mozambique and I bought some terribly stale cornflakes and have been enjoying cereal with bananas for every meal since. If you didn’t know, most people lament the high cost and unavailability of cheese in Mozambique; I however, lament the loss of cereal.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ponderings and Observations

Mozambicans have a totally different sense of time:
If you ask what time [x] event starts or what time they will be making a stop at your house, you may or may not get a specific time. If you are lucky enough to receive one, they will inevitably extremely late if they arrive at all. If you don’t get a time, your guess is as good as mine. The fact that something starts late isn’t like it will start 15-30min late, but even 3-4 hours late, or perhaps there is no starting time given at all. To Mozambicans, the event, the church service, the party, the visit to your house, etc will happen when it happens. Case in point: one day, my maid offered to come get me the next day to bring me to her house to meet her family. I said “sure, but at what time?” She replied, “tomorrow.” So I stayed by the house all day not wanting to miss her coming to get me and thus miss a rare social opportunity. She never showed. She apparently came the following day when I was out. But I know that one day I will get to her house and meet her family, I just can’t when exactly that will be.

Another example, showing that everything takes time here in Mozambique and the whole concept of efficiency as I know it is lost: I needed to send in this form to the Peace Corps Office that I had been working on since arriving at site that detailed things about what my options were in emergencies, contact info for important people, etc. Luckily my town has a shop where you can make photocopies and send faxes. I showed up Monday morning and asked to send a fax. The lady said, and I quote (through translation of course), “The fax machine works only in the afternoons.” Ok, that does not sound true but whatever. So I went back in the afternoon. I was told, “The fax machine is unavailable today.” (Why I wasn’t told this information on my last visit I am unsure) “When can I send a fax?” I asked, and received the answer, “Tomorrow.” “Tomorrow morning or afternoon?” “Afternoon.” So Tuesday it is. Tuesday afternoon I show up, and what do you know, I was told to come back tomorrow. “Is the fax machine broken?” I inquired. “No” was the response I received. “Well, why can’t I send a fax?” Blank stare. I continued, “I really need to send this so can you please tell me when I will be able to?” “Tomorrow.” A scenario such as this happened every day until the following Monday, the last day to turn in the form, when I was finally granted my wish. Granted, I hadn’t been able to decide if I should use the word for “send” that I looked up in the dictionary (I think used when referring to sending letters) or the word people use when referring to sending text messages. And I’m pretty sure I used the word for “broken” that people use when talking about bones and I’m not sure if that meaning stretches to technology as well. So, all in all, I can’t blame the lovely store workers for refusing my service if I had indeed asked to “order a fax” or inquired if their fax machine was “fractured.”

And a different sense of distance:
If you ask how far some town is from another town or how long it takes, you will get a variety of answers, probably ranging from 2-10 hours. They aren’t trying to give you wrong information, they either just don’t know, and it is not really a Mozambican thing to recognize that you don’t know something, or they have had such varied experiences traveling that road, that each and every person is telling you what has been true for them.

And direction:
There may or may not be street names and signs in a town/city. There definitely are no address numbers outside the really developed areas of the really big provincial capitals. In my town, there are street names in the “downtown” area with the shops and the market, but it is hard to locate where on the actual road the name is given and no one knows them anyway. And furthermore, there are no street names for the windy, confusing streets in the bairros (neighborhoods) where people actually live. Many establishments also don’t have proper names or names that anyone knows or in reality uses. So, if you ask where say, and this is from personal experience, the padaria (bread shop) is, you will get a variety of answers similar to: “La” (far over there) with a hand gesture perhaps in the right direction, “next to the store” (there are a million stores in my town), or some sort of mumbled, contrived directions that are unintelligible to me but that probably would have led me astray anyway. It is just their way of initiating me into the town: if you live here, you know where it is. And I live here.

Mozambicans are very environmentally friendly. Barely anyone has a private car, though many do ride motorcycles, and they recycle. No, there isn’t a formal garbage and recycling pick-up system. But, it is cheaper for a store or bar or restaurant to have a soda or beer bottle refilled and reused than it is to buy new bottles. So in order to take a soda or beer out of the establishment, you have to bring an empty bottle of that kind to them first. So people have in their homes a few cases of soda and beer bottles that they exchange when they go to buy new ones. It works on the honor system, and here it works.

The idea of future planning or thinking ahead is pretty much nonexistent here. There were many days when my host-dad didn’t work (he usually worked at the padaria 6 or 7 days a week from 5am-8pm) because they ran out of flour and thus couldn’t make bread. When I asked if he didn’t see yesterday that they were going to use up the last flour soon and thus should buy more, he had no answer for me. Granted, sometimes people run out of food or water because they can’t afford more or the well is dry, but many times it is a huge surprise like, uh oh, no more, now what should we do? Since it is hard to save money because people might not have a disposable income and this idea of planning doesn’t happen, a group of people (mostly women) who are extremely close and wholeheartedly trust each other, may get together and all pledge to put 100 meticais, or 500, or whatever amount, to the pot each month, and each month, a different member of the group will take the pot to buy big items like a new stove or TV or repair part of the house. Therefore, each person gets the money back that they put in, but it is in a lump sum that they can now do something really productive with. It really is a genius system. 

Another genius system is the pre-pay system they have here for electricity and cell phone minutes. You pay when you are running low (or have run out) and thus only pay for how much you use and also how much you can afford.  But this has lead to a country-wide custom of “beeping” people, meaning you call someone and hang up just before they answer so they have to call you back (and thus use their minutes, because incoming calls and texts are free). It is quite annoying. But this system also makes it so I remember to turn off lights when I leave a room so that I waste as little energy as possible and thus can put off purchasing more for as long as possible. So in that sense I guess its all right.

There is a porch culture here. People cook outside, wash dishes outside, do laundry outside, and just hang out outside. Since I do a lot of stuff on my computer and don’t want to show it off to the whole community (laptops cost the same here as they do in the US, so its about a whole years salary for someone with a pretty good job, thus the not showing off thing), I inevitably stay inside a lot. But when I do force myself to sit outside, I have nothing to do but sit there and talk to the occasional passers-by. I might bring a book and read, which is quite pleasant, but no one here has any books so I am just the weird white girl reading. On one such occasion, I was sitting on my porch reading when one of the many people who live in the teacher’s house that I share a duplex with (another thing is that there are often a huge amount of people living under one roof sharing beds or sleeping on the floor) came over and parked the 3 month old baby in his stroller in front of me and left. 2 things were weird about this: one, this was the first stroller I have seen in Mozambique (babies are without fail strapped to someone’s back with a capulana) and two, I now had a baby to look after without being asked or even told to. So, obviously, I was picked up the baby and played with him; he is absolutely precious. About 45 minutes later, I delivered a quiet, sleeping baby back to them. They looked at me like I was some alien who is old enough to be a teacher but strangely enough, apparently has no family of her own and yet still knows how to care for a baby. Ha.

Here, books are extremely expensive so practically no one has any; students don’t even have textbooks. They have notebooks for their school notes and that is the only available scholastic resource. My host-family, who isn’t rich but definitely doesn’t suffer, had two books: one of pictures of Florida that their volunteer last year gave them, and one of pictures of Washington D.C. that my sister sent for them. Reading is thus not part of the culture, not something people do because it is just flat-out not available (hence why I am the weird white girl reading). Most people are in fact literate, however.

Furthermore, there are simply less leisure activities available. Sure, the better off people have a TV (to watch the 6 Mozambican channels, of which most of the programming comes from Brazil and Portugal), a DVD player (to play the few DVDs they have that are most likely in English and thus they don’t understand the dialog), and a set of speakers (to play slightly outdated American hip-hop, rap, and pop). But beyond that, there is absolutely nothing for people to do for leisure. They also may play soccer or basketball, but that’s it. And beers are about $1. Also, for about 75 cents, you can buy about a flask full of extremely cheap gin or whisky. To put this into perspective: a bottle of water is $1.50 and juice is $3.

Similarly, kids don’t really have toys. But that means that the whole earth is their playground, which forces them to wholly utilize their imagination and creativity. A popular game is some sort of jumping game over ropes (made out of random materials) tied between trees or wrapped behind a kid’s legs. I don’t really get it. They will also make cars or other objects out of wire, attach it to a stick, and push it around. Another game is to take an old tire rim and roll it through town by constantly pushing it with a stick. My favorites, however, are the soccer balls made out of anything and everything and the goal posts constructed out of long sticks. These kids are truly innovative and encouraging. They also spend time climbing trees and picking mangos to sell until they have earned enough to go see one of the terrible king fu or Bollywood films they play at the movie theatre. But, I am happy to let some kid pick my mangos for me and pay him less than 1 cent for it.

As evidenced by the available modes of travel here, personal space invasion is not an issue. When you greet someone and they shake your hand, they may hold onto it for the entirety of the conversation. And it is not totally uncommon to see two men or two women holding hands as they walk. They probably aren’t a gay couple (if they were, the would most likely not be flaunting it), but just demonstrating friendship. Pretty cool I think.

And most importantly, the majority of people are incredibly nice and hospitable and will help you out to the best of their ability. They will feed you, offer you a chair to join them in the front yard, and always, always wish you a good morning and ask how you are. And they love to party. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


(I wrote most of this on New Year’s Eve)

Well, now it is officially just past midnight and the first day of this new-year. Here in Mozambique, they have a different way of saying ages. When it is their birthday, they say they have now completed [enter appropriate number here] years but before that, starting on January 1, they say they are in their [enter same number here] year. So now, in Mozambican terms, I am 23: in my 23rd year, and will complete 23 years on my birthday in 2011. Or at least I think. Don’t quote me on this, I don’t fully understand the system. But anyway, it is the first day of the new-year, my 23rd year.

And I am all alone (except for the lovely Schlesingers who called me so I wouldn’t actually have to be alone as the New Year hit…thanks!!!). This is because as dorky and un-fun, as uninteresting and dull as it is, I am a rule-follower. We have all these travel restrictions as PCVs, all are for our own safety and to ensure we are actually working and not just traveling around: we have to text a number of our travel plans and details and get it approved before we head out of site; we can’t travel the day before, of, or after a holiday because there are not really practiced controls against drunk driving and drivers are more likely to be under the influence surrounding holidays (but that means that holiday travel must be at least 5 days so no one is complaining), etc. But during the first 3 months at site we are even more restricted so that we actually attempt to meet people in the community, try to integrate, and not just skip out to see friends from training when the going gets rough. And this year, Mozambique increased the work visa fee tenfold and Peace Corps does not have it in the budget to pay this incredibly increased sum, so they have taken our passports/visas and have been working it all out for us. But that means I don’t have official documentation on me proving I am legally living here so they have restricted our travel even further. New Years travel has been banned this past week so that we don’t risk a run-in with the cops. All of these restrictions make sense to me. Except that in our first month at site, there are 2 major holidays for Americans, Christmas and New Years. Luckily I had a great Christmas and got my one holiday in before the ban because New Years was a little anti-climatic. A few of my friends were supposed to come to visit me for New Years but Peace Corps kept saying they needed to deliver some paperwork to our sites but couldn’t specify an actual date. Therefore, they couldn’t risk leaving site without potentially getting caught. So I was going to be all-alone. But then, last minute one of the Peace Corps staff was coming to my site on December 30 to give me the paperwork and then heading out the next day and driving through the town where my friends happened to be. So he would take me and I would make it just in time to bring in the New Year. Sweet! I asked my friends if I should bring anything they couldn’t find there, they said potatoes (usually a staple food but for some reason couldn’t be found there this week) and peanut butter (many places in Mozambique don’t have it, and it is a PCV necessity, but I can find it at my site). So I went out and bought a huge thing of peanut butter and a huge bagful of potatoes. But as Peace Corps flakiness would have it, the staff member realized I was not technically allowed to travel and backed out. Damn. Like I said, I am a rule-follower so I couldn’t bring myself to catch a last minute chappah and head out against Peace Corps policy though I know many people were probably going to. So, not only would I have to spend New Years alone, but I had also just purchased an unreasonable amount of potatoes for one person to ever consume. I was reminded of my squash exploits a couple of weeks ago. I had asked how much it cost and the lady said 10 meticais (30 cents), which is the price for a bushel of bananas so I reasoned that since squash was a much less available item than the ever-present banana, it was fair. So I took out some money while the lady put my squash in a plastic bag, but apparently, 10 meticais was not the price for 1 squash. No no no. It was the price for 5 squash. I couldn’t back down now, as the lady was so happy to have made a sell, so I paid my 10 meticais and took home my squash. After making every concoction I could think of with it over the next few days, sautéed stir-fry-esque thing (successful), squash latkes (not successful), squash mash (even less successful), etc, I was sick of it and still had 2 huge squash left. I gave it to my empregada (maid). So similarly, I gave the majority of my massive potato purchase to her as well. Happy New Year Ana (yes, we share a name, but we definitely don’t share liking to start work at 4:30am, which is when she arrives each and every of her three prescribed mornings at my house).  

But I have learned one thing from my solitary New Years: it’s not so bad, especially when you treat yourself to a few of the good, expensive beers and a $10 Neapolitan ice cream tub (I make only $187/month so that’s a huge purchase because ice cream is a rare delicacy here, and this is the only ice cream available in my town). And this first day of 2011 also gave me a chance to reflect on a few other firsts I have experienced recently:

My first day in Mozambique, we were staying at a hotel in Maputo to get some initial training before heading off to our home-stays. I woke up that first morning, that first full day in Moz, and my face was absolutely covered in some sort of mosquito-bite rash allergy thing. One of my eyes was swollen shut (the other only half open) from the swelling, I had a fat lip so that I couldn’t properly close my mouth, my whole face was puffy and red and had bites all over it. And of course, that day we took photos that they use for everything: our Peace Corps IDs, all forms, etc, not to mention this puffy face was the first impression I was making on the 70 other volunteers who would be my family for the next two years.

My first day at my home-stay, I was so nervous, I felt sick all day. Am I being culturally appropriate? Do they like me? Am I cut out for this? Will I ever be able to communicate with them? I started setting up my room and began by assembling my water filter. I am horrible at tasks like that and broke it. It was very hot that day and I had no water, and now no filter with no way of telling my host-mom so. I brought her to my room and made some gestures to show her it was broken, and she took my hand in one of hers, the filter in the other, and dragged me to some neighbor who fixed it after about 2 hours of us watching him. Then, while my first batch of water was boiling before I filtered it, she gave me lanche (snack): dry biscuits and to drink, milk. But it wasn’t milk. Oh no, it was full fat cream (gross). But I was so thirsty, and the dry biscuits didn’t help, that I downed the whole thing.

My first day in Gurue, I woke up starving having arrived in the pouring rain at 10pm the night before and fell into a bed without even putting sheets on it (I threw down a blanket and fell on top of it). I was starving, starving and terrified. Where am I? Can I live on my own? Will I ever meet anyone to be friends with? So I got out of bed and immediately left the house because I couldn’t stand to be alone in it. And I wandered around aimlessly for 5 hours, getting lost, trying to work up the courage to talk to someone and buy some food and thus have to really put my meager 9 weeks of Portuguese to the test.

But now, as 2011 comes into view, I think I am on the right track. I still get an unbelievable amount of bites from every possible insect that could ever possibly bite you (I am apparently a magnet) even though no one else around me, Mozambican, American, or otherwise, seems to be getting bitten. I still have trouble communicating some of the things that I want to say (which is incredibly frustrating for someone who enjoys and appreciates being able to manipulate words to get at the exact, desired meaning). And I still don’t really have any real Mozambican friends. But yesterday, I tried to buy eggs from the only guy at market who happened to have any. He tried to charge me 5 meticais each. The price I have consistently paid is 4 mets for the smaller, what I believe to be guinea fowl eggs, and 7 mets for the bigger, chicken eggs. These were guinea fowl eggs and thus should be 4 mets, not 5, each. I told him this and he didn’t lower the price. Not wanting to be ripped off and wanting to only be treated like everyone else and not some dumb, rich white girl, I went on my way, and bought a few other items from other vendors. I was a good distance from the market when I heard, Mana! (big sister). I turned and it was the egg man running after me. He said I could buy the eggs for 4 mets each. I had just effectively bargained and shown that I knew what was up. So maybe I have learned something, can get across my point, and can actually subsist here. Success (and some delicious egg and tomato sandwiches to show for it as well).


Side-note: I had heard about the fact that insects, bugs, and reptiles were bigger and better in Africa. And so far I have found this to be true: the spiders in my room are the size of my palm, there are all sorts and types of annoying bugs flying everywhere, and huge lizards creep all over my walls. But by far the grossest are these giant snail-slug things. I have only spotted a few over the past three months but they are quite shocking: they are the size of a softball. On New Year’s Day, I had left my front door open, which I hardly ever do, for just a few moments. When I went back to shut the screen-door, I heard a crunching sound: a giant snail was lodged in the top left corner of the door-frame, and it was now wounded because I had smashed it. It was leaking gross snail-liquid onto my porch and wouldn’t move even when I attempted to scare it into moving by closing the door on it again. So finally I killed it with the handle of my broom and swatted it into my yard. Welcome to Africa.

While walking home from the market yesterday, I came upon a group of boys playing soccer. They kicked the ball (and by ball, I mean round-ish object made out of reeds and other random materials) out of bounds near where I was walking so I ran and picked it up. I proceeded to drop kick it back to them. All twenty boys stared at me, jaws dropped. The white girl plays soccer?

And I also would like to add that I hope that pineapple season never ends.