Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Year (Almost)

As of today, I have been in Mozambique about 1 week less than one year. Weird.

But it has been a (mostly) positive experience, so I thought I would highlight the top 25 things that have made it so and that generally get me through the weeks.

Essentially, this is a compilation of all the things that scream “Moz” for me and that, after a year, I think it would be hard to live without.

1. Sampling one fried dough ball from each of the lady vendors that are in a row
2. The security given by mosquito nets (nothing can touch you! Whether or not this is true, it’s how I feel)
3. Sitting and people watching as a principal form of recreation
4. Recycling beer and soda bottles (you must bring an empty one to take away a full one)
5. The joy and cheers throughout the neighborhood brought on by the return of electricity after a power outage
6. The powerful, no matter how fleeting, hope that the sound of a fast moving car in the distance brings when waiting to essentially hitchhike
7. Buying 5 mangoes for a penny
8. Buying 5 avocados for a dime
9. The deafening yet awe-inspiring sound of rain on a tin roof
10. “We will never forget this, Teacher” and other funny and endearing things my students say
11. Manica Beer (Mozambique’s King of Beers)
12. All-Gold Ketchup (as close to Heinz as we can get here, and a savior of Mozambique’s notoriously soggy fried potatoes)
13. Magnificent sunrises and sunsets over the mountains
14. Southern hemisphere star constellations
15. Breathtaking scenery at every turn
16. Trucks that seem to be defying physics with such heavy loads of cargo and people, old motors, and drastically steep inclines
17. Being able to say anything I want in English and be relatively certain no one around me understands
18. Being greeted “Good morning, Teacher” at 5pm
19. Bejias (essentially Mozambican falafel)
20. Matapa (delicious mush of greens served over rice or xima)
21. The ingenuity of the toys the kids make for themselves out of trash
22. The exact maneuvering required to move two 20 liter water containers in order to not spill it all on the floor (and after a few hours in the water line, this is a most heart-wrenching experience, I know firsthand)
23. Attempting to take pride in the fact that I am always giving people around me a good laugh at the crazy things I always do
24. The Mozambican sky (I wish I were an artist so that I could, however vainly, attempt to capture it. But alas, I am not. And my camera is wholly incapable of seizing an apt frame)
25. The pre-K I am essentially running from my porch, as all the neighborhood kids come and draw me pictures everyday

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pouco a Pouco Vai Longe

That was our self-proclaimed mantra this past weekend. “Pouco a pouco vai longe,” literally translates as “little by little goes far,” or to us Americans, figuratively, “slow and steady wins the race.”

We climbed Mt. Namuli last weekend, Mozambique’s second highest mountain, at about 2490 meters tall, which happens to be right in our district. But, seeing as it is only an insignificant 15 meters shorter than the highest peak, and the other peak, though technically sitting inside Mozambique, can only be climbed by starting across the Zimbabwe border and Peace Corps has forbidden us PCVs from going into Zimbabwe during our service, I am going to go out on a limb and say I climbed the most accessible, tallest peak in the country. And it was hard. Damn difficult. So pouco a pouco we went.

It takes a day of walking to reach the base of the mountain, way out in the bush, past a diminishing number of brick/mud houses with straw roofs, children yelling at the white people, and family machambas (fields of crops like tomatoes and greens) as you get farther and farther from the city. But the views are absolutely stunning, reaffirming that I will bet anyone that I live in Mozambique’s most beautiful district. 8 hours into literally the middle of nowhere is where the queen of the mountain lives. Apparently, being the queen of the mountain is an inherited position. Once you arrive, you have to greet the queen, and bring her an offering, and then she will cook you dinner, let you stay on an esteira (reed mat) at her “compound,” and perform a ceremony to ask the spirits to allow you safe passage up the mountain. So an offering we brought. It included 2 kilograms of corn flour, a half liter of oil, a big ‘ole bag of gross dried fish, and a bottle of whiskey. Oh. And also 500 meticais a person. Apparently, though we brought exactly what our guide told us to bring, she was a slightly unhappy. Royalty… She then uses the goods in the ceremony and for your meals. So for two days I ate xima (Mozambican corn mush) and stayed away from the dried fish.

We spent the afternoon making faces and playing with the hoards of kids around, and inevitably, ogling the majestic mountain in front of us, that stared us in the face, as if to say, “Yes, I am freakin’ tall, and you signed up to climb me…idiots.”  The queen, who is also the chefe de localidade (mayor-ish person of this particular area of Mozambican bush), is relatively nice and friendly, and has about 10 houses in her little compound. They are all brick/mud with straw roofs. And there are tons of women of all ages, and children ambling around. But in the two days I was there, I saw no men. Our philosophy is that the young men are sent to the city to stay in the dorms to go to the nearest secondary school (an 8 hour stroll away), and the older men either don’t come back except to make more and more babies, or were working the fields all day. But we really didn’t quite get it and weren’t really sure what the gender politics were.

The next day, the queen performed a rather uneventful and unimpressive ceremony with some corn meal and whiskey to grant us permission to go up the mountain (I think my expectations were way too high), after which, she introduced us to the man that was to guide us up the mountain. And then off we went. And I almost did not make it. Obviously, there are no trails or switchbacks. You are literally climbing a rock face, at many times using your hands to pull yourself up using jutting rocks or a short reedy plant as leverage. And then on the way down, we often crab walked and slid on our butts it was so steep. The perils of the process definitely crossed my mind more than once. But as slow-going as it was, we made it. Oh, and the queen’s guide basically ran up the mountain in flip-flops. Thanks for the shot of confidence, man.

And the third day, we walked the eight hours home, this time past an increasingly denser population as we returned to the city. Though densely populated is probably misleading. At one point, about 5 hours from the city, we talked to a few kids who had screamed and ran to us from their machamba. We asked if they went to school, and they promptly told us that there isn’t one there for them to go to. There was a primary school near where the queen lives, but that is over 3 hours away, a bit of a daily commute for a 7 year old, who also has machamba, water-fetching, and of course, your general playing duties everyday. And there was also a primary school about 2 hours from the city, again about 3 hours away. We had, just by chance, come upon some kids who truly exemplified the main problem and massive conundrum of the Mozambican bush. These particular kids live 3 hours from the nearest primary school (which are free and ostensibly accessible for all children), smack in the middle of the two nearest ones, and so they can’t conceivably go. I kept on walking after that with an added twinge in my heart.

But, I was able to cross something off my Mozambique bucket list. As I will be the sole Gurué district volunteer next year, I had to represent and conquer the mountain. And seeing as the mountain is visible on clear days when I walk to my new school in the morning, it was just going to stare me in the face everyday, asking to be climbed. So climb we did.
 And the walking begins...

 Mt. Namuli in all it's majesty

 Our feast (eggs, fish, and xima)

Our accomodations 

Finally at the top! With our guides Avelino and Celestinho 

And Happy Lusaka Accords Day everyone! Yes, this week in Mozambique, we are celebrating the day when the Portuguese colonists and FRELIMO, the main Mozambican political party, signed an agreement that the governing of Mozambican would be turned over to Mozambicans after a transition period. Oh, and the inexorable war for independence that ensued soon after.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Ramblings

I am the only female teacher that teaches in the morning, 10th, 11th, 12th grades. There are only 3 female teachers that teach afternoons, 8th and 9th grades, and two of whom will be leaving after the school year ends. This inevitably makes for some interesting dynamics at meetings. Most of the other teachers are un-creepy, so I really have no problem with it. But, it just gets me thinking how male-dominated the work force is. There is not really sexism here that says, “a woman isn’t capable of (insert whatever skill, profession, etc)” but there is a sexism that mandates women to be the primary, and really the sole, caretakers of the home, cleaning and cooking, and the kids. And because of the significantly long time it takes to complete any household chore by nature of no running water, pre-prepared foods or other niceties, this is a full-time unpaid job for most women. Those who do have a job (out of necessity or just education), usually have a younger sibling, niece, nephew, or other relative living with them to do most of these jobs around the house, since the wife/mother has less time to complete the tasks. It is very common for teachers to take in a family-member or two, pay for school and provide food and shelter in exchange for housework. Hence, the average Mozambican household has like 8 people or more in it. If you have any semblance of means, you are expected to spread the wealth to family, friends, and neighbors. In this sense, the great lengths and care families go to for each other is inspiring. But in the sense that you are supposed to turn up the volume of your music and TV so loud that everyone within a mile radius can hear it, because, naturally, that’s what it means to share, makes your neighbor (me!) not so thrilled. You win some…you lose some.

The other day, a boy wearing a shirt with my school’s emblem on it entered my house without asking. He sat on my couch and scared the shit out of me when I walked into the living room a few minutes later. He started talking about how he just wanted to talk to me, how he needed some help for a sick sister, how he wanted to namorar (hook up) with someone, and then he was just rambling. Aside from how him being in my house uninvited, the mention of namorar made me, as a teacher and him an ostensible student, rather uncomfortable and annoyed. I didn’t know this kid, but I told him if he needed money, I wouldn’t just give it to him. He could do some work for us, like getting water, and we could help him out. Then he incoherently rambled some more. Sometimes, I think I don’t understand people because they mumble their Portuguese, but this was different and I really had no idea what was going on. Finally, we apparently came to some sort of understanding because he left saying he was going to find his sister. My neighbor then came up to me, apparently eavesdropping the whole time (but not helping…), and said that the boy is mentally ill. I thanked my neighbor for explaining this, but it got me thinking. I know that the mental hospital (I believe there is one in all of the northern half of the country) is currently full and that there is nowhere else or nothing else that addresses the needs of the mentally ill.

There is a guy in Nampula city that thinks all white women are his girlfriend, so he sneaks up and kisses you and before you can even register what happened, he is off. Peace Corps knows about this guy because so many of us have been attacked by the kissing man (myself included), and tried to get him a space in the mental hospital, but alas, there is no room, and thus nothing, or so we are told, that we can do.

It really gets to me, the lack of medical care. You hear stories about seriously ill two-year olds that die, and it is almost a relief to the family, because the baby was a burden on the already burdened family. And I can’t blame them. There is no support for the mentally ill, the disabled, the gravely ill (or sometimes even just the moderately ill), etc, especially if you don’t have money, and many times even if you do have some. You can see a doctor for free but any services will cost you. If an HIV positive person wants it, all kinds of HIV/AIDS support in many capacities can be made available (though if they consistently stick with it is a whole other battle). But any other disease is simply just dealt with as best as possible, which often, with no one to blame, is not “best” at all. And beyond just happening to have an extra pair of glasses in my house to give to a kid with bad eyesight in my class, there is nothing I can do. Yes, I can be nice to the mentally ill kid who doesn’t understand the many social norms, since I’m sure many people are not, as mental illness is not always understood here. And yes, I can employ the kid across the street who has turrets (undiagnosed of course, as I am clearly no doctor and he has never been to one about it) to sweep my yard and clean my floors because I know many people wouldn’t want to employ him. But beyond that, I am helpless. Seeing warmhearted, loving, fun people with no running water, no electricity, a one-room mud house with sticks and leaves as a roof, makes me think and makes me upset a lot of the time. Having students sit on the floor with no desks and a cracked chalkboard, using notebook paper to erase chalk, breaks my heart. Many aspects of life in Mozambique make me think and wonder and downright angry much of the time, but this one, lack of medical care, is by far the worst. Yes, the roads here are horrendous. The state of education leaves much to be desired. The standard of living is pretty low. Water and electricity are not guarantees. Corruption in schools and the police are pretty routine occurrences. But the vast extent of the spirit and ingenuity of most people here should indicate that great things are just on the verge and will indeed manifest. Except all this propensity for goodness and greatness is stunted when even basic medical needs are not consistently being met.

Mozambique is hosting the 10th All-Africa Games (African Olympics) starting next week, and it has been big news about all the money foreign governments and other bodies have given to the games. And though I think hosting the games will be great for Mozambique, as far as tourism, potential revenue, and publicity, I believe the $250,000 donated by the government of Mauritius alone might have better uses. No, throwing money at a problem here will not fix it. And I’m not really sure what will. But, money, in the right hands, and in the right programs, probably can’t hurt.