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).

1 comment:

  1. You should be a journalist or something. This is really well written. In environmental engineering we talk a lot about how simple and 'well tested' water and sanitation ideas (like centralized pumps, or solar water disinfection, or latrines or whatever) are often really ineffective in practice. It is hard to pinpoint why exactly they fail, but your story is another example of how the water pump isn't this 'wonderful' solution to water access: it is inconvenient and annoying because half the time it doesn't even work! But in the spirit of form before function, the Moz government or whomever funded the pump can check off that your water supply is 'improved' because you have a pump even if the pump isn't working.

    And Parabens para Elsa!!!