Friday, August 31, 2012

Highlight of 2012

Highlight of 2012: my sister’s visit to Invinha last month. Everyone
loved it: all my neighbors, students, coworkers, etc kept saying how
beautiful she was and how they were so happy for her visit. We road in
chapas and hitchhiked, ate good food, went to class, town, the
hospital, and just hung out. I stepped in human feces near the trash
pit, and we trudged to clean it in the river. Welcome to Peace Corps.
For weeks afterwards, people would ask me enthusiastically, in one
long stream of inquiries, not waiting for an answer before continuing:
“How is you sister? She already left? Is she back home in America? How
is her husband? When will she return?” I got to show off my life and I
think we will both remember it for a long time.

Even after 23 months in Mozambique (can ya believe it?!), however, I
guess there are still some things to learn: apparently, according to
each and every person that I introduced Emily to, weight is positively
correlated with age. Without exception, the second question people
would ask when I “presented” her, after “What is her name?” was “Who
is older?” And when I would reply, “She is. 7 years older in fact,”
all veritable hell would break loose. “Noooo! That can’t be,
professora. You are so much fatter, so you must be older!” Funny the
first time, it quickly got old, and offensive. But I guess, in their
eyes, women gain weight once they start bearing children, so the older
you get, the more children you have, and concomitantly, the more
weight you gain. They thought we were crazy: we don’t have any
brothers (your father only has 2 children? And 2 girls at that?!), and
neither of us have any children (she is married but doesn’t have
children?!). The perfect opportunities arose to interject the benefits
of family planning into daily conversation.

One thing Emily commented on, interestingly, was how much less sad
being here was. Yes people are poor, but once you get to know them and
how they live, once you get past the differences in how things look
(clothes, building materials, roads, etc), it is easy to forget where
you are and what is reality. She said that most people would assume
that the living conditions are what make it hard to live in Africa.
But not having running water really wasn’t that crazy or challenging.
It is the differences in culture, having people take advantage of you,
perceptions of foreigners and what they are here to do, and missing
people back home that is tough.

This last sentiment has been demonstrated first hand this past week. A
group of Portuguese scouts are here in Invinha, staying at the nuns.
Some are working on improving the electricity in the school and
hospital, some are fixing computers in the computer lab, some are
making a concrete path for when the kids ride their bicycles onto
school grounds, some are ostensibly helping out at the hospital. They
are all earnestly buying and passing out bread. It’s all fine and
good. Except that practically our whole training in Peace Corps is
about including host country nationals in everything, attempting to be
as sustainable as possible in our work, and not just being about the
money or what you can give away. So it is interesting to witness a
whole other approach to helping out. This is the kind of help many
people have grown accustomed to and want in Mozambique, and presumably
other countries crippled and dependent on foreign aid, because they
actually don’t have to do anything to reap the benefits of the aid and
get free shit. But when the computer breaks again next year, who will
fix it? Alas, that requires forethought. I even had another teacher
come up to me yesterday, and say, “See those white people are really
helping. That is what you should do, use your money to actually help
our school.” I guess the events Peace Corps Volunteers put on with
counterparts to discuss self-esteem, HIV, and positive life choices
with students, the fact that we require dedication, sticking to your
word, and showing up from people we work with, and all the other less
glamorous, more subtle ways PCVs attempt to help are lost on some

I also started assistant-coaching the girl’s soccer team at my school.
Plainly put, we suck; we are absolutely horrible. In our first 2
games, we lost 6-0 and 5-0 respectively, but hey, if the pattern
holds, maybe in 5 more games we will tie. It is not surprising we are
so bad: we are that small school from the boonies attempting to hang
with the teams from the big city that are fed by schools 8 times the
size of ours. Until now I had not really delved into the world of
sports in Mozambique. Apparently, rewarding good attendance at
practice with playing time during games (though that is often the case
in America), being a team-player (and not yelling at your teammates
for their mistakes), listening to your coach (instead of flirting with
the boys team; then again, they are in high school…), words of
encouragement (fans constantly berated our low skill level), and
breaking it all down to basics (when you can’t pass with your left
foot, perhaps we should work on that before headers) are not worthy
aspects of athletic participation here. But I kinda suspected and
anticipated many of these disparities and more. So I go to practice
when I can, attempt to give specific yet motivating feedback, and make
them run (though your sub-par girl’s soccer team in Mozambique
definitely has a higher fitness level than an American equivalent
because they are accustomed to carrying water on their heads for
kilometers at a time and pounding grain all day). I think the girls
like my being there, and hopefully we will score our first goal
sometime soon.

And as much as I have bitched and complained, and threatened to quit,
now that I have been in Mozambique for 23 months (3 more to go!), I
can say one thing: it has been worth it, for my personal development
at least; I do not feel comfortable venturing such a bold statement
regarding my impact on the development of Invinha and the other places
I have been and people I have met. My friend, a volunteer from an
earlier Moz group, said the following, eloquently put yet a little bit
unexpected at first glance, “If Peace Corps Volunteers come back to
America as better people after their service, Peace Corps has done its
job.” After all, it is America paying for us to be here, so if
thousands of 20-something professionals come back with 2 years of
experience abroad, a broader worldview, and a plethora of intangible
skills like problem solving and adaptability, America will benefit.
And if a few of the kids I have worked with remember that crazy white
lady, Teacher Ana, who gave out paper and colored pencils to draw on,
who ran in short shorts every afternoon, who yelled at them for being
late to class, who once brought macaroons to class around Passover,
then that is alright too. The 114th and most recent book I have read
in Mozambique, Lies My Teacher Told Me, discusses the Peace Corps for
an entire paragraph, mostly saying that the agency is unworthy of
mention in history textbooks (I’m not saying I disagree) as it has
been wholly insignificant in shaping history, but “it does not
disparage [the] fine institution to admit that its main impact has
been on the intellectual development of its own volunteers.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lake Malawi

A few weeks ago, I lead a conference for girls between the ages of 12 and 20 that live in Mozambique’s northern provinces as well as their girl’s group leaders. Mostly we just discussed sexual health, how to prepare for your future, and how to stand up for yourself. It was, almost, really awesome. A few hiccups that probably wouldn’t have taken place at a similar event in the US: two 12 year olds left their sink on all night because they didn’t know how to use one, thereby wasting all the water in the big water tank and leaving us without access to water for a rather extended period of time; a volunteer and a participant got malaria; people complained about their travel per diem (free money!); on the truck ride home, a girl had an epileptic-esque episode and everyone blew it off that she was ok, just, merely, possessed by a demon (no big); and 4 people of the 21 people that got tested for HIV (participants and facilitators) tested positive. I was, obviously, devastated at the news. I have no idea who these women/girls are, as the tests are confidential, but the percentage is staggering. But then again, I guess it makes the whole conference and all the prep headaches worth it for 4 people to learn their status, and therefore hopefully get some treatment and live a longer, healthier life. But still, not the stats you want at a girls’ empowerment workshop. Overall, however, it was the culmination of this year’s work for me and I was pleased with what the girls learned and will hopefully utilize in their lives and communities.

As a reward, I went to Lake Malawi after the conference with some fellow volunteers. Malawi is awesome. It is dirt cheap and downright beautiful. Lake Malawi (or Lago Niassa as it is called this side of the way), more specifically, is one of the largest fresh-water lakes in the world and boasts some of the most diverse and unique marine life around. We went to a pretty touristy place and it was weird. Not the “Africa” experience I am used to: on one side of the road that comprised the destination were lodges and backpackers and bungalows for tourists while the other was the typical Malawian experience: goats and bloated-bellied children with protruding bellybuttons from poor umbilical chord removal running everywhere, mud-huts, small shops that sell soap and candles, and people selling their extra crop on the street. It was quite the dichotomy. We sat with our feet up taking in the majestic lake while women and girls washed clothes and dishes in the lake two feet away. It was also interesting to see how the community has been affected by tourism: some kids sat on their front porch and played homemade guitars, yelling: “Take photo! You hear!” because they have obviously grabbed the attention of many a foreigner in the past and received small coins in return for their cuteness. At one point, we decided to go to the market to buy some bananas and sandals. Everyone we asked for directions, average Malawians, told us it was really far and we wouldn’t make it. It was not that far in reality and we did succeed, though probably some of the only tourists to leave the tourist bubble, as people didn’t really know how to handle us once we arrived. We all decided we felt more at home at the market than perusing the ebony and rosewood paraphernalia that people catered for tourists on the side of the road near our hostel. The owners of the hostel where we stayed also probably thought we were the cheapest mother-fuckers ever. The sign out front claimed to be the best value in town so, clearly, on our $200/month living allowance, we chose it. We ate peanut butter and bread for at least one meal a day, asked to do our own laundry instead of paying their staff to do it (their faces when I asked for a bucket to use in the lake were priceless), and we brought back the Malawian beer one night instead of buying the Danish beer that though bottled in Malawi, is “expensive.” This Malawi beer, however, was awful. Called Chibuku (Shake-Shake in Chichewa, the Malawian local language), it is basically fermented corn: a thick, foul-tasting, vomit-esque liquid that is sold in one-liter cartons for 50 cents. You drink it as if taking a swig from a milk carton and one sip in, we all decided, well that was fun, and dejectedly caved into splurging for the Danish Carlsberg, offering the local beer to a random dude. Needless to say, we did not fit in with the rest of the young, traveling crowd, but we had a blast anyway. We went snorkeling and kayaking, and forgot all the crap we had been dealt during the conference. This is my pitch for a Malawian vacation.

Another pitch for travel in south-eastern Africa: I finally got to watch Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode on Mozambican food and culture. He boasts that Mozambique has the best food that he has eaten in all of Africa, which I wouldn’t doubt for a second (thanks to awesome seafood, a plethora of coconut-inspired dishes, and piri-piri (spicy) grilled chicken), and he shares some great visual shots of and interviews about the real Mozambique. Though his rather harsh commentary on Portuguese colonialism and the rebel group Renamo is only mostly deserved (and his impressions of Frelimo, the political group in power since independence, are more than a tab idealistic), he paints a slightly forlorn portrait of poverty in Mozambique. Yes, people are extremely poor. Yes, people live without running water, electricity, and grocery stores. But, to quote my sister who visited last week, people make it work and just go on living their lives. African poverty is generally less sad in real life than it is usually depicted through film and photographs. But Bourdain did take care to include how downright nice and welcoming and peaceful Mozambicans are, all undoubtedly deserved appellations. And he did ultimately claim that the hostility of many recently post-civil war African countries is nonexistent here, giving Mozambique a bright future, which is definitely true in my experience. If you want a taste of this, usually, fantastic country, definitely try to get your hands on a copy of the show.
Our copy machine finally arrived, but it was not the warm welcome I had anticipated. First, the teachers all individually commented that the machine was old and ugly. Well, I told them, it is second-hand because the brand-new ones were 3 times as expensive and even the money to get this second-hand one was a stretch. And the copy machine definitely performs its intended purpose: it makes copies! They still shook their heads. Then I told them that they would still have to pay for copies (though the price would be half of the price in town). WHAT!? they shrieked, this is our copy machine! Well, I replied, after we use all the initial paper and toner that our grant funds purchased, how will we buy more? They all just sat there, and I read their minds: we will wait for the next white person to buy us more.

Oh right. Duh…

But still, I think they will warm up to the copy machine once they start to see the benefits and I therefore thank everyone who contributed to this project. It will tremendously help my school for years to come as they get the copy-business underway and can use the profits to fund projects that directly profit the school and the students. Obrigada!