Friday, February 18, 2011

Tales from my Turmas

Well, I gave my first test this week. And not at all shockingly for
Mozambique, most of my students failed. Tests and grades are based on
a scale of 20 points, and a student needs to simply score a 10 to
pass. There is less of a culture here for studying at home (the
students, after all, go home and have hours of chores to complete,
like pumping water or making dinner for 12 from scratch), the students
are taking upwards of 8-9 classes a year and only attending school 6
hours a day (also, I am usually the only teacher still teaching during
the day’s last period thus students aren’t even in school that long
each day), there is a country-wide teacher shortage so some subjects
do not get taught all year, and the curriculum is too demanding and
covers too much material as it is trying to bridge a sort of
achievement gap. Therefore, many students are not able to score a 10
either without cheating or bribing the teacher, or may not even be
able to do so with corruption on their side.

Additionally, the emphasis here is on the community, so just as many people share
profits from the machamba (field) with extended family and friends, or
people turn up their stereos to allow (or force, depending on your
point of view) the whole neighborhood listen to their music, if I know
the answer on the test, I should also tell my friend. The idea of
academic integrity is a hard sell. This is not to generalize all
schools, all administrations, all teachers, or all students, but
simply to highlight a general trend. Most students do want to learn
and to pass, because they recognize the benefits to their futures that
actually graduating high school, and though it is not at all
widespread, that attending university, affords them. But, most will
not be able to take advantage of those opportunities. Furthermore,
many of my students have just been passed along every year (and even
the ones who passed may have only mastered half the material, if even
that) so even though they are in 11th grade and have supposedly been
taking English since 7th or 8th grade, they still do not know the word
“uncle” or how to properly conjugate “to be” in the present tense.
However, I still have to give tests and assign compositions despite
the inevitable battle against the almost institutionalized cheating
(in the form of cheat-sheets, and totally obvious copying from a
neighbor among many other things) and the lack of study and
test-taking skills. Yes, obviously, cheating occurs in the US as well,
but it is rarely condoned by teachers or as rampant as it is here.

On a positive note, I only had to outright fail one student out of 240
for cheating during the exam, that I saw at least (though with all the
rules, multiple versions of the test, and sternness I had and showed,
I think I controlled it pretty well). He had written a bunch of stuff
on his hand and was blatantly staring at it during the test. C’mon
dude, I’m not blind.

Best answers from the test: “I will have eaten my sister” and “A good
profession for João is October.” Surprisingly grammatically correct
statements in English, but not quite what I was going for.

Other interesting teaching moments from Mozambique:
We were making a list of irregular past participles a few weeks ago.
So I asked the class, “what is pagar?” hoping for the response to be
“to pay.” One kid yells out super loud “to take a shit.” Normally, I
would throw a kid out of class for saying something like that (like I
did when a kid answered “What will you have done by 2020?” with “I
will have killed my grandfather”), but in this case, I did not throw
him out because “cagar” is to take a shit and is similar to “pagar”
and he misheard me. I was the only one who laughed because none of the
other students knew what “to take a shit” meant. Their loss on a funny

The teaching ambiance in Mozambique sometimes leaves something to be
desired. The school never turns on the lights for any class, so if
it’s cloudy then the rooms are relatively dark. But one of my turmas
(classes) has this horrible room behind the gym/auditorium/large room
thing and it is extremely dark, and I have them first period
sometimes. So when it’s cloudy outside and 7am, they can’t see the
board. Awesome. Also, some of the chalkboards in some of the
classrooms are so old and cracked, there are random patches where
anything written there is illegible. But the thing that really gets me
is that there are not enough desks for students in the school. I have
over 60 kids in each turma. My classrooms have on average less than 20
desks in them. Granted, these are the desks that are more like benches
with ledges that are intended for two students, but doing the math, if
every student shows up (which I admit is a rarity on a non-test day),
that is 3 students to a desk, and there may still potentially be
overflow and thus students sitting on capulanas on the floor or
standing in the back. And since students always stand up to answer a
question from a teacher, they are at times unable to do so and it
becomes a whole process trying to work their way around the other
students next to them to stand up, wasting my precious little
class-time. Because of this shortage of desks and the fact that
students stay in one classroom and the teacher’s rotate, there becomes
a war between the turmas for desks. Before school every day, from my
house, you can see and hear students stealing desks from other
classrooms to make a more complete set for their own classroom that
day. Thus, one of my turmas will always inevitably have had their
desks stolen on any given day and therefore I will be teaching to a
class of half the students sitting on the floor. Sad. Especially when
I was giving a test and made them put everything at the front of the
room. Because I am apparently extremely harsh, they had nothing to
write on. But, given that Mozambican ingenuity, they figured it out.

It is now avocado and cucumber season. I have thus subsisted solely on
avocado, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches for a few weeks now. But I am
not in the least complaining.

Also, we had some other volunteers over last weekend, and so I went to
go fill up one of our caixas (crates) of beer. In Mozambique, you need
to give a bar a bottle if you want to take the full bottle home
because it is cheaper for them to get the bottles refilled than it is
to always buy new bottles (it has nothing whatsoever to do with
recycling though that is an added benefit). So we have two caixas of
beer bottles in our house that we can use to trocar (trade). And on my
way back from the bar where we got the beer, I carried the caixa of 12
full large beers on my head like a true Mozambican! That’s it. I’m
done. I can officially return to America now.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Boleia-ing Around Mozambique

Unfortunately, I have to report that the robberies have continued
after our sandals were stolen off our porch a little while ago. Yes,
we (my roommate and I that is) learned our lesson and no longer leave
anything on the porch unattended even for a moment. Instead, we
essentially just make a large pile of shoes just inside the door under
the table on which sits our mini-stove/oven thing. Last Thursday, I
was getting ready for school and opened the door at about 5:30am
(school starts at 7am). Then, at about 6:45am we went to put on our
shoes to head out of the house. Two of my nice American pairs of shoes
(gotta love Steve Madden) and one of my roommate’s Mozambican pairs
were no longer there. Apparently, some quite audacious person had
ENTERED our house in order to grab the shoes, WHILE we were inside
getting ready and eating breakfast. I am less upset by the fact that I
now have to go and buy uncomfortable, flimsy Mozambican shoes that are
appropriate for work, than I am bewildered that someone was able to
take something from inside my house while I was there. Then, after
being down exactly half the number of shoes I brought to this country
(having had three pairs stolen in two weeks), my cheap Mozambican
flip-flops broke the next day. Apparently it’s not my week. But we now
keep what is left of our shoe collections safely tucked in our rooms.

This past weekend, I traveled to Nampula city (essentially, the
capital of Northern Mozambique) to go to an actual grocery store and
do a couple other errands. I taught my classes Friday morning and then
we headed out to the next big town to spend the night with our friends
before continuing. Since it was not really chappah time (and chappahs
generally are not pleasant anyway), we headed out about a kilometer
from town to wait to catch a boleia (basically, hitch a ride). In
Mozambique, a boleia can take a myriad of different forms: it can be
chilling in the bed of a truck of any size with any number of other
travelers and random assortment of items; or it can be in the cab or
back of a semi; or it can be riding in the cab of a car/truck that’s
being towed on the bed of another truck; or it can be any other random
vehicle with four wheels and a few square feet of space. The best kind
of boleia, and the only one that will probably not cost you the
equivalent of chappah price, is a private car. Not many people own
cars in Mozambique, but if they do, they may wonder who this crazy
white person is (or who these multiple, crazy, white people are),
trying to flag them down, and stop. And if you are lucky, and they are
going to your destination (or to another crossroads in that
direction), they will take you free of charge. And this weekend, my
first experiences trying to boleia, I had the opportunity (or
misfortune, whichever your opinion is on the topic) to take most of
these options.

We waited about 2 hours that first day, only succeeding
in flagging down cars that were not going anywhere of any help to us.
But then, we finally found our ride: it was a half-empty chappah,
(which NEVER happens, as chappah drivers will drive around the city
trying to pick up people until they are full, and then cram on more
people they find in bush towns on the side of the road en route). It
was a mini-bus and not an open-back truck, going to the city we were
headed, very late in the day for a chappah. To say that this was rare
would be an understatement. The ride was glorious since the driver was
actually in a hurry to get to his destination and did not stop at
every small town to buy random stuff, and he hurried his passengers
boarding and de-boarding by honking loudly and for extended periods of
time. It was glorious even when some crazy, drunk man sat next to me
absolutely screaming about how Mozambique is the only
Portuguese-speaking country in the world that speaks proper
Portuguese, and that people who speak Spanish are only speaking bad
Portuguese. It was also still glorious even when we waited 10 minutes
for the cobrador (guy who collects the money and manages the passenger
flow on a chappah) and a passenger to wrangle up a chicken that got
away. We still made record time for the journey. After enjoying a
delicious dinner, peanut sauce pasta, with our friends, we headed to
Nampula the next morning.

Again, we waited about 2 hours but there
were barely even any cars passing us, which was extremely
disconcerting and unusual since we were on the main road that goes all
the way up Mozambique and were at the closest large town to Nampula,
which is effectively a truck-stop for people going into the big city.
Regrettably, we ultimately got on a chappah that barely made it to
Nampula it was going so slow and was in such bad shape. We then spent
about 2 hours in the city rushing around before heading back, wanting
to be able to get actually get a ride and get in a mode of
transportation before dark.

As was becoming the usual trend for the
weekend, we waited close to three hours, only flagging down people who
were going to nearby destinations. We were just about to give up and
attempt to pay a taxi an exorbitant rate to take us or pay for an
expensive room in the city (since there are no cheap, even
semi-sanitary places to stay the night in Nampula), a semi pulled up.
We had distanced ourselves from a big group of people who were also
trying to boleia, banking on our foreign-ness to be intriguing to
people with cars/trucks, but realizing what was at stake, we pushed
our way into the cab of the semi. We sat on the top of the rickety
bunk-bed playing all the car games we could think of, much to the
chagrin I’m sure of the many Mozambicans crammed around us. The ride
was alright though, considering we did indeed make it back, and the
driver only stopped in order to occasionally bribe cops (since it is
technically illegal to charge people for rides if you are not a
chappah). We ate another great meal, Lebanese chicken and rice, and
woke up to try it all once again on the last leg of the trip.

This time we decided, however, not to take the dirt road back to Gurue
(my site) since it had rained a lot in the past day or so and not many
people would be going that way due to the dangers of the mud. Instead,
we were hoping to catch two separate boleias taking the two roads that
are longer but paved on the way to Gurue. And we had extremely good
luck. After not too much waiting time, we flagged down a truck, and
only had to share the bed of it with between 4-6 other people and a
whole bunch of caixas (crates) of beer and soda, as well as a wooden
door. Then on the second leg, we quickly got a PRIVATE CAR to stop,
and he took us for free in his brand new car playing slow jam hits
from the early 90s. Sweet.

Switching gears, I survived my first week as an actual teacher with
actual students who are actually expected to gain knowledge from the
words I am saying. I had practically no discipline problems (except
when a student asked “Teacher, are you married?” and I thought he was
saying, “Teacher, are you a man?”- both being inappropriate
questions), though they may only have been well-behaved as they were
stunned by this foreign spectacle standing in front of them trying to
teach them something. This is also probably the reason for why
students scatter away from me when I walk down the hall- it is as if I
am Moses parting the Red Sea. I have learned a lot already, including
most notably, that I am not quite tall enough to reach the top of the
chalkboard without standing on my tippy toes (and I am learning which
classrooms have which sections of their chalkboard that are pretty
much unable to be written upon) and that I am going to need to
translate every word I say in English into Portuguese for them to
understand. If I don’t know how to say it in Portuguese then they will
have no concept in English anyway so it works out. I also realized how
very antsy and anxious I get when my students are painstakingly
copying from the board (Mozambicans are perfectionists and will take
out a ruler to draw the lines of a chart in their notebooks, but since
they don’t have books, what I put on the board and they copy is
essentially their only reference and study material). Fun fact: the
word for chalk in Portuguese is “giz” (pronounced jeez, or jizz; take
from that what you will), and therefore, I come home from school
everyday covered in “giz.” We had some fun, reviewing the simple verb
tenses and doing activities about the unit’s vocabulary, professions
and school subjects. I can already see the vast achievement and
knowledge gap among my students, but am slowly starting to figure out
what the hell I am actually doing attempting to teach without any
formal training. My biggest failure thus far: one of my turmas
(classes) was in a annex classroom the first week since their
classroom still needed to be cleaned, but this first classroom had no
desks. So the students brought in rocks to sit on, or they used their
notebooks from other classes as a buffer, since Mozambicans generally
hate getting dirty. The first day, they stood up to greet me, and
since there were no desks in the classroom, I forgot to tell them they
could sit down so they stood and stared at me for 10 minutes until I
realized my mistake. Sorry guys.

Thursday, February 3 is Dia de Herois (Hero’s Day) in Mozambique so we
don’t have school. Because all Mozambican holidays essentially follow
the same rubric (putting flowers on some monument in town, followed by
a procession to some other destination where a drawn-out and long
presentation of cultural performances and speakers who don’t know how
to properly use microphones will ensue), we are going to skip out and
hike to the waterfall outside town.

Also, I go running at 4:30am here so as to avoid as many people as
possible being out and thinking I am crazy for running (in shorts god
forbid) and that is when my empregada wakes me up and cleans my house
(though 4:30am in Mozambique is pretty darn happening and the sunrise
is absolutely stunning over the mountains). But, I have slowly learned
some valuable running lessons:

1. Dogs in Mozambique are scared of people because people throw rocks
at them because in their fear of people, the dogs growl and bite (it
is a vicious cycle), so when approaching a pack of dogs, I suggest you
make a wide arc around to avoid them or they WILL chase you and bare
their teeth and growl and you will become afraid of contracting

2. Don’t stop to look at the newborn puppies on the side of the road
or you WILL be tempted to choose the cutest one and bring it home,
which will violate your roommate agreement of no dogs.

3. Running by a group of men should motivate you to increase your
running speed in order to avoid as much of their prolonged comments
and hoots and howls as possible. However, you can thank creepy men for
your improved fitness level.

4. When running more in the matu (bush), you will get a lot more
“mosheliwa”s (the standard greeting in Lomwe, the local language) than
“bom dia”s so if you respond appropriately and say “cosheliwa,” a
barrel of laughs will trail behind you since the muzunga (white girl)
knows Lomwe. But you will have gained some thread of respect from
them, even it is only fleeting and temporary.

5. Simply allowing the random strangers who join you on your run to
continue to run with you is probably a good idea, even though they are
probably making fun of you in the process.

6. If all else fails and you feel awkward running by a bunch of people
sweeping their quintals (front yards) with a pile of weeds and a bunch
of other people carrying produce in large baskets on their heads,
yelling out Lourdes Matola and doing a fist pump WILL get you some
brownie points. Lourdes Matola is Mozambique’s sole Olympian recently
and a track star.