Friday, March 30, 2012

Peace Corps Partnership

My colleague, a history teacher at my school, and I recently wrote and submitted a grant proposal to purchase a copy machine and printer for my school through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. This program uploads the proposal onto the Peace Corps website and allows for donations from website viewers back in the US. Once the proposed budget is fulfilled, this one at $3,923, the volunteer (me) will have access to the money to put the grant plans into action. The program has recently accepted our proposal. I have outlined what I see as the main benefit for the copy machine below: essentially, the enhancement of the quality of education my school will be able to offer the students, though its advantages will be far reaching at both the scholastic and community levels. If the statement resonates with you, the link to donate on the website is also below. A copy machine will revolutionize the capacity in which my school and the community as a whole can run, making this technology affordably available and accessible to about 16,000 people for the first time. This project will definitely make a direct impact on my community and continue to do so long after I leave. A school, by nature of the number of lives it impacts, needs a copy machine to function, and I would be honored if I could help implement this technology in the community and school I have grown to love to live in. On behalf of the people of Invinha, I thank you for your dedication to reading about our lives here through my blog, and I therefore thank anyone in advance who is able to help us realize this project.
Invinha is the only secondary school in the area and serves students who travel unfathomable distances to and from school everyday by foot or bike (up to 20km in one direction). It is also considered one of the top schools in the province (which is, however, the lowest academically performing province in the country), yet still has definite improvements to make as far as the quality and student support it offers. I believe that offering the services of printing and copying is extremely important as Invinha continues in its efforts at development, of which education (and ideally good education) is the cornerstone. As my counterpart and I began thinking of ways in which I/we can make a lasting and meaningful impact on our school, we felt that a copy machine was the most dynamic and student-centered, allowing for the most meaningful improvements to the quality of education in an area where school buildings are becoming accessible for a growing number of students but where the quality of this education is still quite lacking.
Teachers and students will be the main beneficiaries of the inauguration of these technologies. A school cannot fully function without a copy machine. When a teacher in Mozambique and at my school wants to give a test in which every student will receive his own copy (as opposed to writing a shorter, less evaluative one on the chalkboard), he mandates that every student who wishes to take the test contribute the amount for that test copy to be made and a portion of the travel fees the teacher will accrue on his way to the city about 20km away, which has the nearest copy machine. With all the disciplines each student takes (up to 11 in some grades), this fee becomes exorbitant to all, and wholly restrictive to some, by the end of the academic year. By lowering the price for copies and printing and not requiring teachers to travel to the city to copy tests, more students will be more able to contribute and take the test, allowing more students to pass more classes. Furthermore, when a teacher wants to use a text or handout in class, he also requires a contribution from students for the printing and copying of said document. Teachers therefore rarely do this, instead they must write it all out on the board or dictate it aloud, and the students copy the information, which wastes valuable class time that could be better allocated elsewhere. This time could be used in a more enhanced manner to more deeply discuss, explain, and practice the information if they were able to cheaply disseminate texts, worksheets, handouts, etc to their students. The introduction of the technologies will tremendously improve the quality of education the students receive on a daily basis at my school. After the teachers are briefed on the great value these easily accessible machines can have on their teaching, they will be able to incorporate student-centered and creative plans into their lessons that will increase their students’ academic gratification and performance. The acquisition of skills and knowledge that simple handouts can provide in a classroom setting is vast and downright important, and can only be introduced to the school through the purchase and implementation of the printer and copy machine that these funds will ultimately buy.
Again, thank you for your continued time and support in reading my blog, especially this one. We here in Invinha thank you in advance for any support you may be able to give, helping us in a very necessary way to provide a higher quality of education to our students.
Use this link to read more about the proposal and to donate:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

When I was preparing to come to Mozambique, I knew that there would be obvious discrepancies between the culture in which I had lived for 22 years and between the new one that would ideally be my home for two and a half years. I figured there would be differences in the family make-up and dynamic, which is definitely true. Women are undoubtedly in charge of all work around the house and are at the whim of the man who ideally has some sort of job, but most commonly works in the machamba (family field) or lounges all day, with the woman and children often also pitching in at the machamba as well. “Man of the House” is to put it nicely. The man may or may not have other wives, children, houses, and lives in another part of town or even in another town. Women do not even refer to their husbands by their name, but rather as the father of their child: my friend Cristina refers to her husband not as Benvindo, his name, but as “pãe de Zuria” (father of Zuria, her daughter). I also figured that there would be a disparity among family planning practices, which couldn’t be more true. Women begin having children at unfathomably young ages, often with much older men, and continue to have children until they are biologically unable. Women have an average of like 7 kids and think I am crazy to be almost 24 and not have even one child. I figured there would be differences in food, which obviously there are. I figured there would be differences in what is considered acceptable conditions to live, which is needless to say, right on the money. And these examples are just a few of the things I predicted I would come across, and thus they have taken only minor effort to get the hang of and accept (not that I don’t try to talk young girls out of having children at the age of 13).

There have also, however, been a myriad of aspects of my life here that I didn’t anticipate. Some were very easy to get the hang of, like pretending that I take 3 baths a day to fit in, or hiring someone to sweep the dirt in my front yard everyday so my yard is as “bonito” as everyone else’s and to avoid suspicion or condescension. My shoes get scrubbed, as do my floors, and I now do not get as upset anymore when someone in the 2-hour ATM line has 7 cards, meaning he had been delegated by family and friends to take out money for all of them, slowing up the line. I now know that most Mozambicans are almost unsettlingly nice and it is culturally inappropriate to not do something for someone when asked, stranger or not. They help each other out, which can get annoying when they slow the bank lines and when their excuse for being late to class is that they were conversing with a friend they saw on the road, but it is also admirable. Whenever I am in a pinch, someone will help, which I cannot always say about the fast-paced, busy culture back home. But there are also many more unanticipated differences that have recently really gotten to me.

Prior to my time in Moz, I did not realize that logical reasoning and critical thinking skills are not innate human qualities. Somehow, my students are able to fix anything tangible with any materials they find randomly around them, which is indeed a form of problem solving, but they are unable to problem solve in the classroom when presented with more theoretical concepts. They will get every drop of ink out of a pen (and spend hours attempting to scavenge this last drop) but the concept of singular and plural nouns is lost on them. They can regurgitate that singular means “one” and plural means “many” as I have taught them, but when I say “Maria” or “Mozambique” and ask if it is singular or plural, I get 50 blank stares back at me. “How many people is Maria?” I ask, and again I am greeted with 50 looks of confusion. I anticipated that Mozambican students would not have the same skill set as someone of the same grade in America, but I did fully understand why that was. Yes, it is because these schools operate without proper materials and books. Yes, it is because these schools are understaffed and over-enrolled. Yes, it is because the teachers have minimal training. Yes, it is because school is cancelled whenever it rains because the noise the rain makes on the tin roofs makes it impossible to be heard throughout the classroom. These things I knew would be obstacles with which I would have to combat but I thought that would be it. I didn’t realize that the school system was so terrible for so many other reasons, and it has taken me almost 18 months to really grasp it all, most of which is not the fault of anyone or anything except probably a 20-year civil war of destruction. Education here is a passive experience. You show up and you disinterestedly listen to a teacher dictate something from a book and BAM, you are “learning.” Corruption is rampant, which goes beyond the expected grade changing and favoritism, which I had sort of expected to encounter and think I could deal with if it ended there. When a student has reached 11th grade by copying everything from other students and relying on teachers to arbitrarily hand out grades without really reading what the students write, all of which is corruption, the students have no incentive to turn in individual, creative work. I try to tell the students “Each one of us has our own, good, individual ideas! And I want to know what your ideas are, not the ideas of someone else! Not the ideas I wrote on the board as examples! I already know what I think! I want to know what you think!” But this concept means nothing to them. They have no experience with it. The boy that works for me once asked me for help with his Design/Art class homework, and one of the questions was something to the effect of “Why is art important?” We discussed it for a while until he had formulated his own, individual, and I think very inspired idea of the importance of art, which he then wrote down on the paper. When he got the homework back, he had received no credit for this response because it was different than what the book says. Our school library, mind you, has one copy of the 10th grade Design/Art book, which the 10th grade Art/Design teacher keeps in his house, meaning no student can access said book. So this kid is doomed if he thinks in an original or imaginative manner and doomed if he doesn’t because he has no means of getting to the book with the “right” answer. By the time the students reach my class, they have been conditioned that they don’t have to put any real effort or thought into school to get by, which is utterly demoralizing. I realize many American students have these same lazy, apathetic ideas regarding education, so for me the absolute devastation I feel upon entering the classroom everyday is that here I am, teaching students who don’t care, and don’t even know how to care, without any materials. And I often think, what is the point? 

Mozambicans also have what my old roommate used to call “chefe syndrome,” which is the complete and utter submission to the chefe (the boss or the person is power). Mozambique had a devastating civil war soon after gaining independence, which ended less than 20 years ago. Frelimo is the party that has been in power since then and because of the atrocities of the civil war, everyone is scared shitless of being seen as part of the opposition. Therefore, even if they disagree with the government, with their teacher, with their father, with their boss, with anyone in a position of authority, they applaud them. The other day I found out that the Ministry of Education is going to write and administer our final exams for the trimester. This is brand-new policy. I decided this year to change around the curriculum to a sequence that made more sense to me, which means I have already taught things at the end of the curriculum and have not yet gotten to things at the beginning, concomitantly meaning that all my students will inevitably fail the exam that the Ministry of Ed gives. And there is one week left in the trimester. When my colleague told me the news, his wife, my friend Cristina, who is in my 11th grade class, just sat there. I looked at her and said “Aren’t you upset?! You are going to fail the test and fail English for the trimester!” She just shrugged, “What am I supposed to do?” My thoughts: I don’t know! Get angry! Get passionate! This is your education, your key to a potentially better life for your daughter and sitting here passively is the worst thing you can do! But Mozambicans submit to authority at all costs. This is also why I can’t level with my students and hold an actual conversation about why being late to class is unacceptable, because they will inevitably stand there, head bowed, wholly silent and unresponsive, because I am the authority figure so what I say goes. Anyone who knows me knows that making your opinion heard is of utmost importance and so I hate when my students think I will get mad if they assert themselves in their interactions with me. If they only knew that I would actually just hug them and maybe make them cookies were they to do so. I had sort of figured before I arrived in Mozambique that corruption would be the norm in all aspects of life, and that the ruling power might be conceived as all-mighty, infallible, and frightening, but I didn’t understand what that really meant and how society is so affected by it in so many aspects until I began to experience it every day. I have been thinking recently about what I suppose that development programs here, like Peace Corps, USAID, etc, in Mozambique should do to help most effectively and I honestly don’t know. Did I think that my, personally, being here was going to bring dramatic change on a large scale? Absolutely not. And I don’t know anymore what I thought my being here would accomplish. But I am now of the mindset that critical thinking and logical reasoning skills being taught in school beginning from grade 1 could do absolute wonders. How should we do that you might ask? Your guess is as good as mine.

I apologize if this post is too negative. But after 18 months in Mozambique, hitting a wall is inevitable. Outside the classroom, life is good. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Form Before Function

There is a general Mozambican ideal that I have termed “form before function.” It can be seen in all aspects of life, and generally makes me want to pull out my hair. At the airport for example, sometimes you put your bags on the counter for an airport employee to do a cursory check of the top few items for illegal substances (good thing they were hidden at the bottom…kidding!). Sometimes the airport employee will actually put your bag through an electronic scanner that may or may not be working. But remember, form before function, so even if it doesn’t work, the electronic bag scanner must be used if it is there. Then, you will be directed to walk through a metal detector that again, may or may not be working. Per usual, however, said metal detector will assuredly be utilized either way. If it is working, I always beep because I have inevitably forgotten to take off my belt or remove my cell-phone from my pocket (I am a bad traveling American I know…), but I just show the relatively disinterested airport employees the item on me that was the culprit and I am waved forward. I then think to myself, yes, the cell-phone in my pocket made the metal detector go off but so did the explosive or gun attached to my leg. Obviously, I don’t have anything like that on me, but I am always pretty weary of boarding a plane with such lax security measures. But the metal detector must be employed in form even if its function is difficult to spot and comprehend.
            Furthermore, there are laws against serving alcohol to persons under 18, laws mandating seat belts, and laws prohibiting riding in the back of a truck. There are laws to protect young girls from rape by their teachers, and against domestic violence. Police officers are ideally supposed to protect and to maintain order in ways aside from random traffic checks that solely result in monetary, or even sexual favor, bribes (Protect and serve? No. Police officers intimidate and extort here). Robbers, rapists, and murderers are supposed to go to jail. These jails, however, are barely existent, and those that are often let prisoners roam the nearest town. Laws not enforced because even if they were, the jails are a joke since police officers, like teachers and other government functionaries, are rarely paid, leaving them with no incentive to work, and ultimately, there could be no follow up on fines: Yes officer, please send my ticket to the third thatched-roof house after the mango tree with a spiny trunk on the road with no name in the town that everyone just calls “that town with market day on Tuesday.” Obviously, there are laws and jails in form, but in function, it is virtually impossible to enforce or use them.
            This tendency of favoring form before function is also easily observed in the school system. For example, students routinely spend hours making a beautiful cover-page for their often shitty 5-sentence composition that they mostly copied from a friend in a few minutes. The composition might not be very good at all, but it will be pretty, that’s for damn sure. Furthermore, I missed a week of school for a Peace Corps conference at the beginning of the year, but I arrived back just in time to be forced to meet with all the other English teachers to “plan out” the year. Because the other 9th and 11th grade teachers had decided, those lucky bastards, that they couldn’t be there, I was able to do my “plan” myself. When I was done, I handed my “plan” into the English department head. It was a rather detailed account of what topics I intended to cover every week of the year, more or less in accordance with the state-approved, yet quite laughable, curriculum. The English department head was displeased with my work. His two concerns: I didn’t write anything as having been taught during the week I had been out of town, and I was beginning the year by teaching dictionary use and parts of speech (two topics which I knew were not in the curriculum but which I had deemed as absolutely worthy of my and my students’ attention). When I tried to explain this logical reasoning (a concept that is lost on people here), he told me that I had to at least say I had taught something the week when I wasn’t there (which is ridiculous because substitute teachers do not exist here so obviously the kids didn’t learn anything) and that I could not say I was teaching something outside of the curriculum. I had to say the proper things on my year’s schedule, but he didn’t care if I showed up to class or not or what I taught. My year’s plan just had to appear to be what the government wanted, but no one, probably not even the ministry of education itself, cared what I actually did with my students. My plan had to have the correct, curriculum-based form, even if its content was never realized.
            Like many school systems throughout Africa and the world, learning is based on rote memorization. Again, this is form before function. Students have to appear to have learned something by demonstrating they can vomit the exact words from their notebooks onto the test, but it doesn’t matter if they understand said concepts or if they can apply them to anything useful. I always tell my students “Use your head! Activate and turn on your brain!” because I believe that many of my students have vast academic capabilities no one has ever tried to unleash. But they have been so conditioned to learn a certain way, which is vastly different and foreign to me, so it’s a learning process for all of us. Some of my 9th grade students, who are from deep in the bush, are totally illiterate, which is devastating every time I encounter it. They can copy the shapes of letters and words that I have written on the board, with absolutely no comprehension. But, according to form, they go to school everyday, and who cares what they have actually gained from it. It is the same with many rural primary schools. The kids show up every day; their parents or guardians can say, “Yes, my children go to school.” (A book I am reading about development in Mozambique claimed the following to be a recurrent utterance during interviews, “My kids can go to school, but my pockets are still empty”). But these kids do not necessarily enter the classroom everyday or learn anything if they do because most of these schools are barely staffed. The process and declaration of kids arriving at the school grounds is sufficient, as if the act of walking 2km with a notebook in the crook of the arm or tied to the back with a piece of cloth will magically infuse the brain with knowledge. The government can say that x number of kids are learning to read and that x number of 12th graders are learning calculus because it is in the curriculum and teachers have signed that they taught it. Mozambique can consequently continue to receive foreign aid (yes, our tax dollars). Very few students, however, actually accomplish the tasks at hand. The curricula for different disciplines are just far too vast and far too hard for the majority of students to hang with it. But it was written down and approved so implementation is secondary. Form before function is generally the only thing that makes me upset on a regular basis here, and yet is also makes me proud of the miniscule minority of students and teachers that are able to make something of the educational system, learn, and grow.
Our water-pump for our neighborhood is currently having problems. The water trickles out so slowly that it takes forever for a bucket to fill. With 20 houses using the pump, and I would say an average of 7 people per household (except mine), that is a lot of water being used every day. So to counteract the problem, which leaves the unlucky few up past midnight for their turn filling up their buckets, my neighbors have created a system. But I have no idea what that system is. And I have tried my best to understand. I have asked. I have observed. I have sat for hours at the pump trying to understand the system. And the only rationale I have come up with is that there is no system. I would bet that some wise fool made the grand statement that some existential process existed and everyone just regurgitated the sentiment without pondering what the bylines of said process were. Instead, they just bicker and steal each other’s places in line, justifying their behavior by demanding they are acting under the all-mighty system. All of this leads me to believe that the lack of a proper orderliness or logic to the water-pump-line is the most deeply underlying cause. In this case, the lack of form has resulted in the lack of function. So maybe the existence of an arrangement that people can cling to and follow, no matter how futile the arrangement, prevents situations such as this. And in that sense, I would have to cast my vote for form, even if it stands independent of function, as seems to be the norm here in Moz.
Aside from the battle between form and function being realized at the water pump, other news has hit the neighborhood. My friend Elsa finally had her baby! Her husband is a Portuguese teacher at my school, and she teaches at the primary school (her husband also has another wife in the city…totally normal). I walked by her house on my way to the trash-pit the other day and she said, “Ana, my daughter has arrived!” so I ran over and beheld the beautiful, HUGE, and strong baby girl sleeping on the reed mat in between her older brother and sister. She does not yet have a name (though when I asked, Elsa told me I could name her if I had an idea, which freaked me out so I let it go), but I must say that holding a 6 hour-old baby is awesome. Apparently, Elsa had been having contractions all day (though she didn’t say anything during the hour I was with her and some other women that afternoon), and asked our other neighbor to walk with her to the health post at 10pm. She “worked hard” (her words, not mine) until 8am, when her daughter was born. They came home soon after, but not before her husband had gone to work for the day…totally normal. Elsa looked damn good for having just given birth hours before, washing clothes in the front yard as if nothing life-changing had just happened, because per usual, another Mozambican woman has a whole lot of força (strength and energy).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Topic 4: The Help

Most Peace Corps Volunteers in Mozambique have people who help them with the housework to some extent. It’s not that we are lazy (though occasionally that is so) but it is that there is just so much housework to do here in comparison to the US, and as Americans, we generally have other things we would rather do than wait in line for water for upwards of 2 hours a day. In America, you ostensibly have a dishwasher, a vacuum, a washing machine, a dryer, lawn mower, running water, and more. Here, you (or at least I) do not. The people, most generally high school boys or older-ish women, that help out around the house essentially do all the things that machines do in America. That sounds horrible to say I know, but it is true. And also, as (white) foreigners, we are seen as having money and means. I realize that we do not make a salary any higher than our Mozambican counterparts, but that is still widely considered well off. And it is a very Mozambican propensity to spread that wealth by helping to support other people. Most teachers and other people with steady jobs have someone (or someones) that help their wife around the house. At my old house, an older lady supporting her family worked for me, and now I support 2 high-school boys in exchange for their help. I would be considered even weirder than I already am if I did all the housework by myself. And I do not always outsource all the work: I sweep the floor everyday, wash dishes, and often cart my own water. I never wash my clothes or the floor, however.
One day one of my house boys, yes that is the best way to describe him, was washing the bathroom floor (no, I swear this is not a weird task…floors get dirty here! Especially when water gets accidentally spilled on the floor and dirt gets constantly dragged in by people and dogs, like in said bathroom), and I heard the noise of a cap opening and closing. When I looked in after he had vacated the room, everything was still there so I didn’t really care. Then, before he left for home, he looked all meek and asked, “Teacher, if you use it, it’s fine, but do you need that thing that smells good?” I pointed to the lotion. “No,” he said and pointed to one of my extra deoderants. I asked him if he knew how to use it and he pointed to his armpit. So, I gave it to him, and now an 18-year-old kid has women’s deoderant. Lucky him. But really, I feel that cleaning the bathroom and hanging my curtains that day in exchange for women’s deoderant was a totally fair trade.
Are my houseboys the best students? No. Are they the smartest, or even the most hardworking? No. Not by a long shot. Do they stay out of trouble? Well, considering one of them was kicked out of the boy’s dormitory for getting drunk last year, I would venture a big, fat, NO on that front. But are they still good kids and do they still deserve to have work? Hell yes. The two boys that work in my house are best friends, and grew up together in the same, super small, bush town outside Invinha. They are both the oldest children in families that have been orphaned from both parents. They have both decided that despite the fact that their intellectual abilities and academic drive leave a little something to be desired (through no fault of their own, but rather of the school system that has failed them and those like them), they will do anything to get an education, bring that success back, and help their younger siblings. Only the luckiest few high school graduates actually secure a place in a post-secondary school institution or a job that utilizes what knowledge and skills they have amazingly been able to glean from the shitty Mozambican school system, but I still believe wholeheartedly that an attitude that impels someone to value education as much as the boys that work for me do should absolutely be rewarded. So I hired them. 
The deoderant is just one example of how I pay my boys for their work of clothes-washing, floor cleaning, grass-cutting, and water-fetching. Most volunteers pay their help with a monthly stipend. I don’t, because I was asked by my boys to pay them in goods. I pay for them to enroll in school, buy their notebooks, pens, and other school materials, buy their school uniforms, outfit their new house (a little mud shack) with kitchen supplies, buckets for water, and a mattress, etc. When they need something, like to pay for copies for a test or to go home to the bush to visit family, I give them money or the item they have requested (within reason). Being the granddaughter and niece of orthodontists, I decided one day to ask if they had a toothbrush. They replied that they have one. So I bought them another one so they wouldn’t have to share, and some toothpaste. When one of them came to me and said his sister was very sick, would I mind giving him a sheet so she has something to lie on, I brokenheartedly gave him a sheet, blanket, and pillow. One of them received an old iPod for his work last year, and this year the other will get my digital camera (we are working together even now for him to start a business in which he takes pictures when people have parties and then people pay for him to print them in the city. He is very good with technology and can fix anything, including the camera they day after I decided to start letting him use it, so I thought we should try to capitalize on that skill). I also have them cook once every few weeks and they get to keep half of it. Sometimes, they come and say they don’t have any food for dinner, so I help them out. For us, it works: they get what they need when they need it, and don’t have the temptation to spend their entire monthly wages on beer after one weekend. I treat them fairly, which I cannot always say is the norm for the behavior of the other teachers in my neighborhood towards their helpers, and I make them study with me two hours a week. They get a small monetary reward for every passing grade they receive on a test or other schoolwork. Once, they came over when I was eating bread and peanut butter. I made them each a sandwich, and one, with a smile form ear to ear, said, “I have never had peanut butter before. It is delicious!” Those are the moments.
            Two weeks ago, I attended the Carnivale/ Mardi Gras celebration that is held annually throughout the month of February in my provincial capital. It was an organizational feat if I have ever seen one in Mozambique. A whole street was blocked off and lined with people selling Mozambican street food (grilled chicken skewers, sausages, and plate after plate after plate of corn mush). Oh yeah, and there was plenty of beer. It was delicious. Then at around 9pm, a section of the street was blocked off for the dancers. There was one dance troop from each neighborhood of the city with about 10 guys and 10 girls in matching outfits. Until about 6am (aka for the next 9 hours), these dance troops did choreographed dances up one side of the street until they reached a stage, performed on stage, then danced back down the other side of the street. Once back at the starting point, they hurriedly drank a gulp or two of water (from a HUGE keg of water, I’m telling you the organization and attention to detail was rather surprising and quite unexpected) and then danced down the street anew. They were all great dancers, and it was quite a sight, damn good entertainment, and a grand old party. Some cities of the world build floats and give out bead necklaces for Mardi Gras, and others, like this one in Mozambique, think it is good fun and not cruel at all to mandate people to dance for 9 hours straight without a break, and then repeat it every Friday and Saturday of the entire month of February. Oh Moz, never ceasing to amaze and shock me, and then throw a good party.

The Boys: Leonardo (left) and Daniel (right)