Saturday, June 23, 2012

Trimester 5 Down, 1 To Go

This week was the last week of the second trimester (only one more!), and therefore, an important week of revision, answering questions, attending to notebook checks, verifying that all students have completed the assignments of the trimester, and more.

In America.

In Mozambique, however, the school decided to cancel class all afternoon Tuesday for an impromptu teachers’ meeting. Typical. I took advantage of all the teachers being held up in the meeting and combined my classes of students, gave my lessons, and then casually slipped in to catch the end of the meeting. What I learned at the meeting: our school ranks at an impressively low 154th in the country. Now I do not know for sure how many secondary schools there are in Mozambique, but the lowest ranking I saw on the charts was 183, so I would venture somewhere around there. This fact definitely does nothing for moral. And many schools that I know are much more disorganized than mine had higher rankings, owing to more rampant corruption, grade-changing, and overall fraud.The 29th worst school in Mozambique is what a shred of honesty gets you. Furthermore, Zambézia is the second lowest achieving province overall. Sweet. And finally, I also learned that on the 12th grade national exams one must pass to graduate, in 2011, only 9.1% of students at my school passed the first round (if you fail, you are given another chance a month later). Passing in Mozambique requires only achieving a 9.5 out of 20 or higher, or equivalently, at leasta 47.5% (in America, passing is 70%; can you imagine a school system full of students getting 55s and thinking that is good?! Because that is what you have in Moz…). That means that 90.9% of 12th graders last year at my school did not understand at least 52.5% of the material they were expected to. 90.9% of students got less than a 48. A devastating blow. This therefore means one of two things: 1. Students in Mozambique are exceptionally stupid (which I onlymostly disagree with) or 2. The standards are way too high for the reality of what students are capable of learning and teachers of teaching. My vote is on the latter, with perhaps a hint of the former mixed in…

Then on Thursday, with exams to commence Friday, they canceled first period of both the morning and afternoon sessions to discuss with the students the process of the exams and to call up and reward the best students in each class. Now, I am not necessarily against the dissemination of this information, but I am against cancelling the class period 5 minutes before it started when I had planned either to do a review or a final evaluation, depending on the different subjects I teach. Then the rest of the day was given over to the students to copy long texts in Portuguese and English from the board because they would not each be given their own exam paper on exam day. Needless to say, I lost my shit. Why can’t we ask for students to contribute the 2 meticais per test it would take to make copies?! Normally I am against asking poor students to give money to take a test, but in this scenario, considering the alternatives, I liked it. Well, I was informed, the government, which provides nothing to the school except the salaries of the teachers, and this usually months late, has mandated that the schools cannot accept money from students for the final exams. The government provides the exams, chock full of errors, well beyond the abilities of the students, and often on topics not required in the curriculum, and insists we use them. But they only provide one copy for each discipline for each grade. One copy of the 8th grade math test only gets you so far for 400 eighth graders. So the school, now with no money from the government to make copies and without the ability to charge students, must raise the necessary funds. All this the day before the first exams are to begin. Now this is a quandary if I ever heard one. Ultimately, I “loaned” the school the money to make the copies, and yes, I realize I will never see that money again, because I was sick of all the bullshit. I know this act is not sustainable and that it is not advisable by any standards of development. But it was something I could concretely do to help because I could not think of another alternative aside from smashing all the students in the gym, typing the tests into the computer, and using the projector. With all the problems we have been having with energy recently, I ventured not to suggest this for fear of further chaos. And the hope is that next trimester, when my school has begun to make money from the copy machine my wonderful friends and family helped to buy, they can turn that money into the copies of final exams. At least, that is the hope.

As has been my mantra all year, education here is a joke: teachers and students alike view it as such. One of the nuns that run the girls dorm is from Swaziland, a neighbor of Mozambique that, like all its neighboring countries, is English speaking. So she likes to chat with me. On Thursday, we had an hour-long bashing session of the Mozambican school system, as apparently the Swazi schools are more, effective, strict, transparent, and honest, at least according to her. No one takes academics seriously we agreed. It is just not good for the spirits to see 35 year-old teachers cozying up to 16 year-old students instead of going to class. It is demoralizing to give out zeros to half the class because they all cheated on the assignment. It is downright upsetting to have class cancelled on you at the last minute on a regular basis. It is devastating to witness 17 year-olds at the school party drunkenly announcing that they want to sleep with Professor X or Professor Y. AndI hate planning fun, interesting lessons only to have many of my students be unable to open up their minds to properly absorb and comprehend information, because after years in a mind-numbingly boring scholastic situation, they are unable to do anything except incorrectly vomit information from the board onto the assignment without an inkling of understanding. Watching illiterate students copy shapes of letters and words in the ninth grade does nothing to make you want to keep on teaching. Such is the way of the Mozambican school system.

And finally, I also wanted to comment on barulho (noise). Sometimes I will wake up briefly at 1am and be totally unaccustomed to the deafening silence I encounter. I savor it in my two-minute half-asleep, half-awake daze, because I know that the next time I wake up, the racket that is inherent in Mozambican life will inevitably be in full throttle. Living in Mozambique is anything but quiet. From roosters crowing to people sweeping their front yards to dogs fighting and barking incessantly to a few women getting a jumpstart on the day’s grain pounding, the commotion and clamor start before daybreak. And all day, there are people talking loudly, the din of buckets being filled with water, the disturbance of children screaming, and so much more. My yard is the neighborhood, and these close quarters do nothing to deflect the sound blast. And to top it all off, all day and until late at night (maybe like 10 or 11pm here), except on those glorious days when the energy has gone out, people are blaring music. I often go to sleep to the sounds of horrible Mozambican rap and then wake up at 5am to the same song on repeat. And the night after the school day party last week, it seemed like every teacher’s house in the neighborhood was hosting 30 drunken students and a cacophonous cornucopia of bad music that lasted 3 days. And with Independence Day on Monday, I am steeling myself for another jarringly loud rave. I would like to qualify this last paragraph that I do appreciate the vivacity of life in Mozambique: there is always someone around to chat with, always some leaf-tearing or rice sorting to help with, and life is never totally dull. But it damn sure is loud.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bowzer Is Back

Some genius yet masochistic Peace Corps Volunteer decided it would be a good idea to bring 5 seasons of Bravo’s hit show “Top Chef” to Mozambique. I stupidly decided to start watching it. It is one of my favorite shows back home (I mean what could be better than a reality show about people who are actually talented, and that talent being in the realm of creating delicious food) and I soon became engrossed in it. But, it was a unique type of torture because I am wholly unable to make, or even purchase, any of the food I am seeing on the screen. Here are people making 5-star food while I am eating starchy pasta with no sauce because the market didn’t have tomatoes that day. But one lazy Sunday afternoon, I was in my room watching an episode of this beloved show when all the kids of the neighborhood came tramping and screaming up to my porch. I unhappily dragged myself away from my computer and asked them what was up. “BOWZER RETURNED!” they yelled. I told them that was impossible since Bowzer died two months ago, and they just repeated themselves, “BOWZER RETURNED.” And then as if on cue, a little runt of a dog that looked exactly like my adored, deceased dog Bowzer streaked in front of my house. Upon further inspection, I obviously noticed that this dog was not in fact Bowzer, but probably his offspring. And now the whole neighborhood thinks it is hilarious that my one-balled dog had succeeded in procreating, and in producing a similarly one-balled child at that. I aptly named this new dog Bowz Jr, a nice appellation in comparison to most of the other bush dogs that were christened by me as Black Dog, Brown Dog, Piece of Shit Dog that enters my house and chews things like my computer charger chord, STD dog, etc. He is totally scared of me, as all non-Peace Corps Volunteer dogs are in the face of people here, and I do not touch it or allow it in my house, because it has not received a Rabies shot I’m sure, but I can’t help but feel a certain connection to it. One neighborhood woman called him my grandson…oy.
This past weekend, I took some of the kids who do morning announcements at my school to a leadership conference (if leadership is mostly related to learning about gender, sexual health, and HIV…) with 3 other schools put on by PCVs. Overall, it went well, but per usual, the participants (students and teachers) were greedy about everything. Some idiot foreign aid official decided decades ago that giving people in developing countries a massive per diem when attending a training or conference was a good idea, and now every time we put on a training or conference, we reap all the negative effects: “This free money is not enough,” “My free t-shirt is too big,” “I must go walk around the city and buy a keepsake before I go home,” “I don’t get my own room?!” “Do you have any smaller bills?” “I don’t like this free food” were just a few of the complaints. It is just frustrating because they think that because we are foreigners were have an infinite amount of money to spare and they are owed their share, when really it is not our personal money we are using, the training took a lot to plan and a thank you could go a long way, and the training is not supposed to be for money, but rather to gain skills and knowledge, FOR FREE I might add. But overall, it was a good, informative weekend.
A few of the students, however, got “sick” at the workshop. And not matter how minimal the symptoms, the other teachers wanted the volunteers to take them to the hospital. I outright refused to take the kid with slightly swollen lymph nodes who I had just witnessed wolfing down his lunch and running around during free time. But I conceded for the girl who had chills, a fever, and was crying, and the kid who said it hurt when he took a breath. All the other teachers were certain that the girl had malaria, but I reminded them that yes, she had some of the symptoms of malaria, but until we did a test, we shouldn’t call it that. They were also pissed at me for not taking the other boy who also “had malaria,” though in my non-expert opinion, that diagnosis, without the presence of a fever, is complete crap. I understand that people often get very sick very fast here, and often die, but that does not mean that you need to miss this once in a lifetime conference for a stuffy nose. Mozambicans go to the hospital here like it is their job and it annoys me because they always miss school and other commitments simply because they aren’t drinking enough water in the hot Mozambican sun and got a headache. But I took these two kids to the hospital and it was an eye-opening and very explicatory experience, as it was the first time I had gone to a Mozambican health center. We got there and there was no line or seeming order to the place. Some creepy technician warmed up to the female, crying student, in a manner that reeked of sexual harassment and took some blood for her malaria test. The other kid was simply given a prescription for some meds. I asked him what the nurse had said, and he replied that he should take his meds twice a day. What meds? I asked. He didn’t know and handed me the baggies. It was an antibiotic and some ibuprofen. Now I am no doctor, but I know that just giving out antibiotics for everything is not advisable. And he had not received even the hint or a diagnosis or the concession that he even had something wrong. Two hours later, the girl was also given a baggie of meds “for malaria” she told me. I took the baggie (I had given her the money for the meds, so it was my due to see what it was) and saw it was another antibiotic. Again, I am no doctor, but I know that the anti-malaria was not this med, so I asked her if her malaria test was positive or negative, and she said they had just given her the meds. I figured it must have been negative since they didn’t give her the anti-malarial, and I proudly boasted that I had been right about her diagnosis when I got back and reported to the other teachers. But is struck me: the hospital staff were just on one big power trip. They don’t inform the patients of anything because this is what gives them power: a population of people who don’t know anything about their own health, go to the hospital for the smallest of symptoms, and just blindly follow the advise of medical staff. I was rather pissed off at the whole process. I mean come on, the girl wasn’t even told if her malaria test was positive or negative, leaving her to believe that the meds she was given were to cure her malaria. I hate to think of what goes on when the hospital administers its anti-retrovirals for HIV positive pateints…
And finally, at this conference, one of the other PCVs there eloquently summed up what I had always sensed being here but was never able to rightly express: “The schedule and agenda that Mozambicans demand that every event has don’t actually exist, but the people attending the event do exist. Therefore, as long as there is someone who has something to say, the time and the uncovered topics are irrelevant and the person can go on talking until the end of time.” No matter if no one is listening or if he is repeating what has already been said seven times by other people, it is his right to delay everyone because the schedule is this ethereal, intangible concept. Nicely put.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Topic 5: Money Problems

In a chapa the other day, the driver and I were chatting after someone had just tried to pull a fast one on him and not pay for his ride. The driver highlighted a very common thread here: “Moçambicanos são cheio de problemas” or “Mozambicans are full of problems.” Money problems is just one.
Because community is the overarching entity here, people lend money to family and friends until they have no more money left to lend, or to even use themselves. They now move to the bottom of the money-lending chain and need to borrow from someone. No matter how much money you have, you inevitably follow this cycle. Once money is lent out, there is no expected return date. You shouldn’t expect to see that money again, unless of course, it comes in the form of you asking them to lend you some money at some later date, no matter if the original amounts do not match up. I am fairly certain that people often get the wrong idea of me because I generally refuse to lend money on principle. Yes, I would like to help out, but my Peace Corps living allowance does not afford me very much room to play with each month. I am currently holding a student’s ID card and wife’s bank card hostage until he pays me back the money he claimed he was going to use to remove a cancerous-looking growth that resides on the back of his head. He said he would have the money in 2 weeks. That was 3 months ago. And he is still sporting the awful growth on the nape of his neck. It is nice that Mozambicans look out for each other but it also means that no one ever has any money.
            The reason for this lending-borrowing cycle is that Mozambicans have no concept of budgeting or saving. One of my teacher friends, Bemvindo, desperately wants a laptop and always asks me for mine. As I decline, I always advise him that if he saves 500 meticais a month, in a few years you will have enough to buy a laptop. And if he saves 1000 meticais a month, that laptop will be his in a year. He has a steady job as a teacher and a consistent income that just about matches my Peace Corps allotted living allowance, definitely enough to work with if he is truly dedicated to saving each month. But this concept of saving goes nowhere with him. He always just claims poor: “I have to buy food for my daughter,” “I have to buy soap and other household items,” “I have to buy gas for my motorcycle.” That’s it! I tell him. Put your motorcycle on hold for a little while as you save money. But he always claims he needs his motorcycle (for what exactly I am unsure since he can literally see his place of work from his house). Then ok, we will sit down and make a budget. We wil plan out what you buy every month and see where we can cut back so you can save money and buy your laptop, I tell him. Easier said than done. When we actually tried this once, I started with food. “How much do you spend on oil per month?” He didn’t know how much a bottle of oil cost because he had never thought about it. He either bought it if he happened to have the money or didn’t if he didn’t have the money. He had never actually paid attention to the price. It was like this for every item. He made purchases when he felt like it without thinking into the future or preparing to buy more when the one he had ran out. So I told him, for the next month, write down everything you buy and how much it cost. He didn’t, even when I bugged him about it each week. So I gave up. He didn’t have any desire to do what it would realistically take to buy his laptop; he just wanted me to give him mine. Mozambicans also always want to know how I can afford to go on all these trips when I also insist that my salary is the same as, and often less than, theirs, and they can’t afford to travel as much as I do. I tell them that I plan ahead: I know it will cost me x meticais to take the trip that I want so I make sure that I keep that much in my bank account. Instead of buying 5 beers on a Friday night like the male teachers, I travel to Quelimane. They are blown away and can’t understand why I wouldn’t just buy the beers.
The reason that Bemvindo seems to be unable to plan for the future is a cultural lack of understanding of future consequences. It is why students don’t study for tests or why they come to my door after I have turned in my grades and ask to do a make-up test. It is why they don’t save or budget money. It is one of the many reasons why people have like 8 children. It is why buses do not run on a schedule and meetings/school always start late. And it is because the local, Bantu languages do not have a future tense. I have been told that the local language in Gurué, Elomwe, uses a phrase to indicate the future, that when translated from the local language to Portuguese for me, translates to English as “from here to nothing,” as in “from here to nothing, I fix your cellphone” or “from here to nothing, the chapa leaves.” Or also as in “better sit tight, wait, and make some friends and small talk with the others here as your cellphone is fixed or the bus prepares to leave because it could be a while.” They simply combine this esoteric notion and declaration of the future with the present tense. The time frame is so general and inconclusive that they can get away with totally neglecting the future and no one gets too upset about it. When your first language doesn’t have a concrete way to express future time, it is downright impossible to wrap your mind around future planning.
Mozambicans lack this propensity towards the future with food as well. If they have a lot one day, they will eat until they explode and then have nothing the next. They will go to see if they have corn flour and realize they have none to make for dinner and go to bed hungry. Didn’t you realize yesterday when you used the last of the corn flour that today you wouldn’t have any? It is the same with water. Maybe before you use your last bucket of water, you go get in the water-line so that you have at least something to work with while you wait. That’s what I do and I somehow never go without a bath or without washing my dishes.
            It is great that Mozambicans are so helpful of one another, and I realize that many Americans have the same difficulties with budgeting. But it is still extremely interesting to live in an entire culture that is so unconcerned and indifferent to the concept of what will happen later today, tomorrow, this weekend, next year. In my 11th grade English classes, we are currently learning the future continuous (I will be doing) and the future perfect (I will have done). I hope I have elucidated some of the reasons why this unit is particularly challenging for us. Perhaps a happy medium between my own hyper-vigilant, American, future planning and the Mozambican, laidback, unworried attitude is in order. From here to nothing, that will be the day.