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.”


  1. 1. Verry impressed at the 114 books you've read. Thats one of the awesome things about not living in the US, you end up reading so much (unfortunately I forgot about this while packing for Chile and ended up reading the 2 books I brought ~1000pgs in the first two weeks).
    2. Very well put about the impact of Peace Corps. I think the impact/knowledge it has bestowed upon you is its greatest value, and any small progress you make in Mozambique is the cherry on top. I also agree with the philosophy of imparting knowledge and skills on people/involving them in the work rather than giving them free handouts. Its a lot harder, but lets be honest, if we could solve world hunger/poverty/gender disparity/etc with free handouts, no one would be hungry, illiterate, or poor.