Thank you, Malema

Thank you Malema, who started off as a random town name on a piece of a paper, a place I’d be “sent” to, and with time turned into a place with my house, later on, home.

Thank you Marcelo and Adelia, my landlords, for giving me my three chairs and helping me buy a mattress in the pitch black when I arrived to my house for the first time. Then thank you for checking up on me almost every day, showing me the best place to buy onions and tomatoes, somehow figuring out that my diet when we had no electricity was only stale crackers and taking it upon yourself to feed me meals large enough for four adults.

Thank you Veronica, my first friend and neighbor from two doors down, for filling me in on the bairro gossip and knowing exactly when I needed a hug.

Thank you Neusa, the curious 9 year old from across the street, for peering over my wall and see that I was struggling with the lighting of the charcoal stove. And thank you to the rest of the neighborhood kids, the maluquinhos, little crazies, for being the best form of birth control. You were so annoying when you knocked on my door before 8am, but thank you for the countless hours of screaming the alphabet, thousands of drawings, and unsolicited sweeping knowing you’d get a candy or a coin out of it. Thank you to the ones who’d sneak into my yard to steal my mangoes but leave the largest ripest ones on my veranda for me, and the ones who checked up on me and ran errands for me when I was sick.

Thank you to my director who asked me what days I wanted off, and when I said Monday or Friday, gave me both Mondays and Fridays off. And thank you to all the colleagues who were clearly confused by my own confusion and exceptionally patient with all their explanations, conversations and curiosity. Thanks to the students who corrected my Portuguese over and over again and told me when my shirt was inside-out (only happened twice)!

Thank you to the chapa drivers who pack 23 plus people, live goats and chickens, in a 16 seat vehicle and still somehow getting me to my destination safely. And thank you to all the strangers who have stopped for me while I was hitchhiking through the middle of nowhere, especially the one man who upon hearing we were American proceeded to turn on Lionel Richie’s greatest hits for the six hour ride. Special shoutout to the hitchhike who gave me a ripe pineapple that was a great surprise. Thank you to all the pick-up drivers who have let me sit in the front and the cops for not being too annoying at traffic stops. Thank you to all the street vendors who have sold me snacks out of chapa windows and gave me back all my change. And thank you to LAM for free hotel rooms when there were (numerous) flight delays.

Thank you to the Peace Corps Medical Officers for answering all my calls about irrational fears and unlikely diseases, and Peace Corps staff for also answering my numerous calls about more irrational fears and general worries and countless rides and lunches in Malema.

Thank you to every market drunk who called me “senhora” instead of “amor” and the owner of the hardware loja who stuck up for me when another customer said “buying a hammer isn’t appropriate for a woman.”
Thanks to the bakery for saving me the freshest pieces of bread, and my favorite onion and banana vendor for all the bachelas, free extras.

Thanks for the call to prayer for waking me up every morning before 4am but serving as a reminder that the day was about to start.

Thank you to Hortencio, who started off as my guard and ended up as my right-hand-man-fixer-upper-encourager-of-all-DIY-house-projects. Hope to see you on HGTV one day.

Thank you to my “familia Americana” and American friends for answering all my phone calls and texts, especially when it was to listen to me vent, cry, or ask about random things about American pop culture that I didn’t understand anymore.
Thank you to all the fellow PCVs, my government issued friends, for constantly being a Whatsapp group, city weekend, bad idea and dollar beer away.

And thank you to Mr. Bow, Davido, and Nelson Freitas for providing the auto-tuned background music to the past two years.

Thank you Malema, for the past twenty four months, you’ve been good to me.

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“Vais no Mercado?”

Vais aonde, no mercado?” Where to, the market? My neighbors pop their head out of their courtyard as soon as they hear my metal lock click open. Life in Malema, like most towns in Mozambique, revolves around the market. For Malema, it is a conglomeration of three streets and tens of alleyways, seemingly disorganized but all leading to the mostly open-air vegetable and dried fish building. Usually my favorite place to do some shopping, in the past two months, the choices here have become less varied, the vegetables smaller, the fish smellier. ‘Tis the season, tempo de fome.

Tempo de fome, the time of hunger, has its official start in October in Malema. The rains haven’t fallen consistently since March or April, the sun has come back with a vengeance, and Malema is dustier than ever. The common greetings have been switched to “poeira, pa”, said with a bit of a sighliterally translating to “Dust, eh.”

Malema suffers from two tempo de fomes a year. The first, in April, happens when the corn hasn’t been harvested yet. Corn, usually dried and coarsely ground up and then served as a boiled mush called xima, with variations known as Pap or Ugali in other parts of Africa, is Mozambique’s staple food and Mozambican’s main source of calories. When meals are served, xima easily takes up to 75% of the space on the plate. The second tempo de fome is the one happening right now. This one is different. Caloric needs are met, by Malema standards (in Mozambique, 2/5 children suffer from chronic undernutrition), but essential nutrients are lacking because unavailability and/or unaffordability.

Long gone are the days of 1 metical clementines which supported me from the month of May to August. One infamous pineapple was seen at the exuberant price of 90 mets, though in a few months it will be a fifth of that price. Tomatoes are mini and overripe, onions come bundled up in tiny groups of ten. Five mets per lugar but by the time they are peeled (and you have cried) they are no larger than half a thumb. Green peppers (red, orange, and yellow have never been seen in Malema) are soft rather than firm, double in price yet halved in size.  Bananas, once sold on every street corner and in every shade of the spectrum from light green to Big Bird yellow are now only spotted brown, buzzing with flies. Cucumbers, avocados, okra, sweet potatoes, cassava, cabbage, lettuce, oranges, mangoes are no where to be found, peppers and bananas will quickly follow suit. However, there are two produce we can always count on to be available. Tomatoes and onions, the two staples that can be found in Malema all twelve months of the year. I’ve eaten them 100 different ways, cooked, caramelized, fried, raw, smashed, whole, with garlic, with spaghetti, with bread, with beans, alone. Malema is the unofficial capital of onions in Mozambique, which doesn’t make it surprising that I can confidently say I haven’t spent a day without incorporating the humble onion into one of my meals.

I’m lucky to live in Malema, with over 120,000 inhabitants, it is one of the bigger Peace Corps towns, meaning potatoes are available, eggs can be found, and there is a surplus of beans, peanuts and spaghetti. My Achille’s heel: the padaria, bakery, is consistently stocked with fresh white loaves. For anyone on a Peace Corps budget, these are affordable year-round. Though I make way less than my colleagues at school, I don’t have any other mouths to feed apart from my own so I can splurge on potatoes even when the prices subir. But for my neighbors, and even colleagues, potatoes and bread are a luxury during tempo de fome. 

But the mercado isn’t only for buying the ingredients for tonight’s dinner. It is the social gathering spot of the community. With the economy in Mozambique slowly recovering from a crisis, what used to be bamboo stalls, barracas,  have transformed to large concrete lojas, stores, where one can find dozens of different plates, plastic shelving units, lightbulbs and enormous speakers, tried and tested by every store blasting their own playlist from 6am to 7 pm. Recently, a soft serve and popcorn machine have been installed, making it a favorite hang out spot of students on their way to and from school. Older men spend their afternoons crouching over bao boards, playing rapid fire games while waiting for customers to buy their capulanas, bikes, or even lace underwear (a new appearance in the Malema market). There hasn’t been a day where I’ve gone to the market and found it closed, or even quiet, and it is impossible to avoid a “how are you, how’s your family, and your job, and your house?” conversation with a friend I’ve run into, or a vendor-turned-friend.

The best market days are the days where the market surprises you. Though the market is vast, the items sold at the stores and stalls are repetitive variations of each other. But from time to time, something catches your eye. Most surprises are found in buckets being carried on heads. These mobile vendors usually sell the seasonal fruit, mangoes in December, avocadoes in April, sweet potato leaves in March. But 0n a day I was trying to skip a market run (but found myself out of onions), I ran into not one, but four boys carrying bundles of carrots on their heads. Carrots don’t grow (and aren’t sold, nor eaten) in Malema. They had come from a town 100km over, so I bought 30 carrots to take advantage of the opportunity. Sadly, that was the first and last time I saw carrots in Malema. Second only to the carrot surprise was the time a lady was selling fresh honeycomb out of her bucket! Another once-in-Malema opportunity, I bought a plastic bags’ worth and had it as a (healthy?) snack with my neighbors. 

Though I miss the convenience, choices and organization of a typical Western supermarket, the going-to-market and what’s-in-the-bucket rituals will be missed once I’ll be back to the USA (in 37 days but who’s counting?)
 

The Grand Southern Tour

This past Saturday, the 52 remaining Moz 27ers (the Peace Corps cohort I came to Mozambique with) celebrated our official two years in country. This was a landmark we’d been highly anticipating, and at times I’ve questioned if I’d even make it this far (not a surprise to anyone!)

The month of August has been my “longest” month in Mozambique by far. As most months do, it started off in Malema, calculating and giving back grades to my 300-ish students as the second trimester came to a conclusion while the start of tempo de calor, hot season, was giving us a run for our money. As soon as my grades were turned in, I caught a ride to Nampula city and onto a flight to Maputo, which marked the first stop of the Grand Southern Tour, for lack of a better name,  vacation taken without much reason except that I had over two weeks of unused vacation days and half of a country I hadn’t visited yet, so porque não?

Soon after, I was on another free flight (shoutout to LAM, Mozambique’s national carrier, for surprisingly having a comprehensive loyalty rewards program) on a 20-seat propeller plane, towards Mozambique’s promised land, the province of Inhambane. The beaches of Inhambane are arguably the best known part of the country. They’re what pop up on Google, in travel books, and the occasional National Geographic article when searching for Mozambique. If I had to be honest, (and admit to being naïve) Inhambane is exactly what I thought Mozambique would be like when I first applied to Peace Corps. A beautifully paved EN1 lined with endless coconut trees, towns seemingly no more than 30 kilometers apart, tons of cars willingly stopping for hitchhikers, espresso machines in the gas stations… a PCV’s dream.

I spent a few days in Vilankulos, the gateway to the world famous Bazaruto archipelago, where I pretended I was an extra in Finding Nemo while snorkeling in crystal clear waters after hiking untouched sand dunes rising up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. From there I moved onto Tofo, a backpacker paradise, where I ate the best pizza(s) and Indian food in between playing card games with friends, and early-morning whale watching. Inhambane was a dream vacation, so dreamy in fact that I would forget I was in Mozambique. Waiters would address us in English that was more grammatically correct than ours, and no one would bat an eye when the market mães would sell bananas for 15 times the price of what they are in Malema (true story). It was wonderful to be able to show my knees (and even some upper thigh!) to the sun, eat sushi on the beach, but after two weeks, I started becoming ready to go home, back to the north where bananas are affordable and overeating is difficult due to a pure lack of options.

The Grand Southern Tour’s final stop was Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, a diamond in the rough framed by 70s-era communist-style architecture in juxtaposition with decrepit colonial buildings, accented by streets that smelled a touch too much like a gas station restroom. Maputo, overwhelming in comparison to Nampula, will never cease to surprise me. Our cohort of 52 found ourselves together for one last time, at our Closing of Service Conference, a 48-hour event filled with back-to-back powerpoints on elevator speeches, medical insurance, and despedida-how-tos, essentially 48 hours on how to leave your Mozambican home and attempt at being a Functioning American Adult™. As a friend rightly said, it resembled a graduation weekend.

Now, back in Malema, it’s starting to feel like a conclusion of a chapter. Of a book, really. With less than three months, I’ve been mentioning my departure more and more often. “Mais voçe vai sair de vez?” but you’ll be leaving forever? No time to think about departures though, the third trimester has started, Grupo C and I are pushing out another mural, and English Theater practices are getting squeezed into any free periods. A year ago, I used to think that the days go by slow but the weeks are short, though now it seems that time is functioning on fast-forward, and soon enough I’ll be on my last chapa ride out of Malema.

Ps. If anyone is looking to hire a Portuguese speaker with skills that include making students feel guilty for copying their neighbor’s homework… check out my Linkedin!

A Wedding, a Mural and a Funeral

For those of you familiar with the satirical game Cards of Against Humanity, known as the riskier version of Apples to Apples, there is another version called Jaded Aid, specific to “development workers*” that always comes up in play at large Peace Corps Gatherings, in which one of the white cards sarcastically says “the sustainable change that was supposed to be created by that mural.” The first time I held that card in my hands, during an afternoon on the beach surrounded by PCVs and G&Ts, I chuckled… I was putting aside the grant I had meant to be writing, to paint a mural (or two) and took it as a reminder that it might be the only concrete thing I’d accomplish in the remaining months of my service.

After finally sending in my project proposal, one day I got the text notification that  9,142 meticais ($158 USD) were deposited in my bank account, and all of a sudden I realized I had to get down to business. Scared that I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew, I promised my Grupo C class (the engineering group, also the least popular option for studies, usually filled with students that were too late to sign up for school, and thus missed out on their opportunity to join the medicine or humanities-focus groups) that they’d get free snacks and homework extra credit if they participated.

The attendance rates were never-before-seen for Escola Secundaria Eduardo Silva Nihia. “No students will show up on Saturday afternoons,” said one of the teachers, after warning me that none of these students know how to paint, and that he could only help if I brought him new glasses because “painting is bad for the eyes”. The first meeting, 22 students showed up! Five of them early (a very rare occurrence for my students/a weekend!) Over the course of two months, we met three times a week, working from the early afternoon until it got too dark to see the pencil lines on the building, drawing a grid compromised of 1,500 six by six centimeter squares, to the soundtrack of whoever’s phone could connect to the bluetooth speakers. 

Around the same time that our mural was progressing, so was my grandfather’s illness. At 89 years old and a glass of champagne a day, he’d lived the equivalent of four lives, and I knew all good things are bound to come to an end. While interviewing for Peace Corps, we are asked if we are ready to commit for 27 months, and warned over and over again that we will miss out on birthdays, weddings, births, and funerals, because of how far we will be. My last phone call with my grandfather happened while I was teaching my students how to dip their brush in just the right amount of paint so that it doesn’t splatter or drip all over the rest of the mural, a lesson my grandfather had taught me in his workshop 18 Julys ago. My grandfather passed away peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by most of the extended family who had gotten together to celebrate the first of his grandchildren’s weddings (a silver lining). Our mural was finished the day of his funeral. As cheesy as it sounds, weirdly, I’d never felt so far away from my family, while at the same time I’d never felt so much as a part of Malema (it took me 21 months, ha).

The mural stands bright and tall, 3 meters long and almost 2 meters high, constantly surrounded by students pointing out where Mozambique is, and guessing at which islands could be Cabo Verde. The 30-ish students who spent countless hours drawing the grid, learning how to mix primary colors in order to form secondary ones, painting in the lines (not outside of them) and matching country outlines to their names are the same ones who have been proposing their designs for our next mural, one that will focus on Malaria awareness, to be started in September. And most importantly the engineering students of Grupo C, seem extremely proud of their work, bragging to the younger kids gathered around, admiring the mural during intervalo, and even receiving a loud parabéns from Senhor Director at the morning assembly.

Anyways, are you really a Peace Corps Volunteer if you don’t paint a mural? Here’s the handy-dandy guide I used to get mine started.
*not sure PCVs count as that, but we sure do feel the struggle sometimes

Recebendo Visita

It’s been over four years since I sat down for my first day of study abroad orientation, in São Paulo. The first thing the professor told us was “for the first couple of weeks, there will be things that will shock you, surprise you, confuse you… write them down because soon you’ll be used to them” and so I did. Or so, I tried.

So when I moved to Mozambique, I thought I’d do the same…. but life caught up and I forgot. After some time, life here seems normal. My house quickly became a home, and the things that annoyed me (roosters at 4am), confused me (the call to prayer), shocked me (blatant low level corruption in schools), soon became the norm.

I’ve always thought that a home is where my family is, but even without them, Malema quickly moved from being where my house was, to where my home is. It all came full circle when after 21 months in country (almost exactly!), mom and my littlest (taller than me) sister stepped off of a teeny 37 seater airplane into the lovely Nampula airport.

Full circle. Worlds collide. I assumed that because I’ve called home (almost) every single day since I’ve arrived to Mozambique, my mom would not be shocked/surprised/confused about anything. But I’m especially thankful for having a visita here, which helped me see both Malema (and the rest of Nampula) with new eyes while also reinforcing everything I’ve loved about this country for the past 21 months. (especially the people, who are ever so hospitable, but also the food, the mountains, the oceans, the school including the indisciplinados…)

I will never be able to choose an eloquent set of words to explain the emotions, (including the tiniest bit of frustration), awe, and happy tears, that I had for Mom and Pauline who stayed in my little house in Malema for four nights and were patient, polite, and understanding (turns out DuoLingo Portuguese really works!) with me, my neighbors, my school, a district science fair that started with a three hour delay, countless photoshoots with my friends, eating chicken without utensils, and all with minimal food poisoning (though that last point was probably just good luck).

Most of these pictures are stolen from their cameras, since they saw everything with fresh and bright eyes and gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of Malema, Ilha, and even Nampula City.

Without further ado, my favorite pictures of our time in Mozambique together.

 

 

 

Ps. If by chance there are any Peace Corps families contemplating visiting…. I highly recommend it! Clearly, I reaped the benefits (restaurant meals, hotel beds, an entire suitcase filled with snacks and dictionaries for my students!) But it was so beneficial for me to see that there was someone from home who lived a piece of minha realidade.

Love My Pit Latrine

A few months ago, I was at the airport awaiting the verdict on yet another cancelled flight. As hoards of passengers rushed towards the check-in section, I befriended a trio of angry Mozambican chefes. When the airline lady confirmed our worst fears— that the plane wouldn’t leave until the next morning— my new friends complained as I halfway rejoiced.

“Well at least we’ll have a warm shower.”
“What do you mean? You don’t have a shower at your house?”
“Nope, it’s just me and my pit latrine.” I replied, to three faces who were shocked and amused at the same time.
“You Americans are crazy.”

Pit latrines consecutively top the list of frequently asked questions that Peace Corps Volunteers have as they land in Mozambique. On my third day in Moz, arriving to my host family’s house, I was relieved to see that they had the nicest type of bathrooms for Namaacha— a dump flush. A real toilet placed over a hole inside their house— I was relieved that I didn’t need to learn how to squat over a black hole like my friends who were unfortunate enough to only have a pit latrine in their host houses.

After swear-in, I arrived to my new house in Malema, apprehensive and disappointed when I saw that I had gotten a outdoor bathroom, the new home of my pit latrine. Though I didn’t know it on day one, throughout its’ 17 months of use, my pit latrine would bring in praise from all volunteers who visited my house.

As trainees, there was a definite hierarchy in terms of toilets. The gold medal went to the flushable toilet that we all knew and loved, (one that would become a rarity in the next two years). Silver went to the dump flush. This mysterious entity was almost a toilet, just one with no running water— in order to flush, one would have to dump copious amounts of water at just the right angle to make number twos disappear— hence the name, dump flush. The bronze went to the pit latrine, the most under appreciated of all toilets. Though every pit latrine has their own personality- they are generally in an outhouse separated from the main house building. Made of a concrete block with a hole on it, in order to use it, one must perfect both their squatting and their aim. As trainees, its’ safe to say we were scared of pit latrines.

The hierarchy quickly changed as we started living on our own. My pit latrine – though scary to use at night and the home of a stubborn family of cockroaches, never smells. I can’t say the same for all my volunteer friends’ who have a dump flush. Though symbolically a fancier version of the pit latrine- the upkeep of a dump flush is ridiculous. My host mãe would spend 15 minutes scrubbing ours every day… turns out most volunteers aren’t as determined as she is to keep it clean.

Until I joined Peace Corps, I took every toilet I sat on for granted. Around the world, 2.5 billion people are still without access to improved sanitation, the fancy word used to determine a facility that separates human excreta from human contact, aka my pit latrine. The statistic for Sub Saharan Africa is even more shocking, the lowest in the world, with only 30% of the population having access to improved sanitation devices. Open defecation is a grave reality here. The issue with having a lack of access to improved sanitation facilities does not only mean that we have a smelly situation. It means disease. Even small amounts of human excreta can pass on diarrheal diseases, such as choleraDiarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under the age of five, disproportionately harmful for those affected with HIV.

Environmentally speaking, pit latrines are extremely environmentally friendly. I never need to dump water into it, And after perfecting the art of the bucket bath, (it’s surprisingly easy to rinse out conditioner with no shower!) I’ve been able to keep my water usage to under 20 liters a day (including drinking water), 1/20th or five percent of what the average American uses daily. 

So the moral of the story is that even though I once doubted it, yes, my pit latrine, and everything it represents, is the shit, but that won’t take away from the fact that I will rejoice a bit when my flight is cancelled and I am put into a hotel with a flushing toilet and a shower with lots of water pressure.

Second Time’s the Charm

 

Two weeks ago was the last-first-day of school for Professora Leonora. Armed with my first lesson written on papel gigante, giant paper, and a list of bullet points of what administrative things I had to talk about in the first class— I walked in, shoulders back, chin up.

I don’t remember my first-first-day last year, it was a bit of a blur. I know I was nervous, sweaty (but I blame that on the weather) and just beyond confused. I didn’t know where the classrooms were, the students were taller and some were older than me, and I blanked on the Portuguese word for cheating.

Next week I’m entering my 18th month of service. Over that time the group of 65 Peace Corps Volunteers I’d arrived in Mozambique with has diminished to 54 for multiple reasons– health, safety, boredom, salaries/relationships waiting in the U.S. I would be lying if I said there weren’t (many, many) times where I considered hopping on a plane to JFK and not looking back, but older volunteers kept saying that the second year is much easier.

I didn’t really believe them, overall, my first school year had gone pretty well— I liked my students, and most of them liked me, most importantly I never felt disrespected at school. I liked my house, my neighbors, and I had found numerous ways to cope with the boredom, isolation and the harassment that is bound to happen when you are a woman living alone in a foreign country.

So I didn’t think much would change between the first and the second year. As I walked in my first class, though, I didn’t feel nervous. My five minute introductory presentation about why they have a American mukunha teacher this year flowed perfectly. I didn’t trip up on my Portuguese, I didn’t stutter. I was almost on autopilot.

As Peace Corps Volunteers we talk a lot about how we’re always tired. There are many reasons for this; bad quality mattresses, constantly being surrounded by new things, new mannerisms, new norms every day, having to communicate in one or two new languages while walking around a new town. I can only speak for myself, but I’m very rarely on autopilot here. I find myself paying attention to everything that is happening around me, because even if I’ve been in Malema for over a year now, everything is still new(ish).  But these past two weeks at school, I’ve been (almost) on autopilot. I now know how to take attendance, where to get new chalk, how to organize my notes on the board so that they’re written in the most comprehensible way for my students. I can recognize the faces of confusion and know which words in Portuguese to use when begging them to ask questions or let me know what they don’t understand.

I’m not saying that I think things this second year will be easy, but they will definitely be easier. Monday marks the start of the third week at school. I just finally got my class lists, and with a budget shortage, the Mozambican government is also experiencing a national teacher shortage. My classes are about 20% larger than the were last year- topping off at 103 students per room right now, but inscriptions are going on until March- so that number will continue to rise. Yet, in comparison to last year, I feel like I actually am a part of the school, with a few interesting projects in the works— another professor and I are going to start up a Science Club, my students from last year want to get English Club and Theater going as quickly as possible, and I’m hoping to be able to paint a mural or two with the design students.

I have about nine months left to my contract here, and though there will still be days when I will want to hop on that plane back to New York (and eat a bagel with lox), I’m looking forward to the next 280-ish days (but whose counting?)

 

…..

Ps. If anyone knows of any companies that will want to hire me come November 2018, let me know!

Estou Doente

I hate being sick. I don’t recall a time I’ve vomited without crying, longing for my mom while I’m hunched over the toilet. My biggest fear about living in Mozambique was being sick. The running joke between Peace Corps Volunteers is that you aren’t a real PCV until you’ve shat your pants. I vowed never to get to that point (and I haven’t yet, thankfully).

My fear of being sick probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was always a low key hypochondriac, the hypochondria escalating when I got sent to live alone. In order to combat this, I’ve done everything I can to stay healthy. Boil and filtering my water, peeling, bleaching or cooking my vegetables. Making sure my meat is thoroughly cooked through, getting my eight hours of sleep, taking my multi-vitamins and my anti-malarials.

Overall, I’ve held a pretty good sickness track record in Mozambique. Mild food poisoning, a few bouts of fever, a possible encounter with rabies (and the accompanying vaccines). Nothing compared to most of my friends, whose intestines seem to be mad at them since the first day we’ve arrived in country. I think I’ve been lucky for the most part, my immune system is strong and holding up, and my sickness paranoia has helped me avoid taking unnecessary risks. I also think it’s not fair to my students for me to be sick. I only teach three (loaded) days a week- and if I’m sick, it’s not difficult to miss all three days, aka 1/14 of the classes of that trimester.

That brings us to this Monday. Usually, I don’t work on Mondays but the school year is over (finally!) and I was at school in order to proctor exams. Honestly, one of the most boring jobs of the school year, spending ninety minutes staring students down and explaining that yes, looking at your neighbors’ paper is cheating. Minus 5. Sitting on my chair, I started to cold sweat, and after the first 90 minute period, I fled the school, hopped on my bike and had to run to my bathroom when I got home. Damnit, I was sick.

I thought it would pass after 12 hours, but it just seemed to be getting worse. Peace Corps doctors recommended I stick to a BRAT diet, which I realized wasn’t possible since I had zero of those things in my house. (When will I learn to hoard saltines?) After 24 hours of Gatorade, oral rehydration salts and eating the last banana I owned, I decided it was time to look somewhat acceptable and knock on my neighbors door. I could hear Neusa and Leticia, the two 10-year-old first graders and arguably my best friends here at site, arguing about what music to play.

“Hey, if you guys are done with school do you mind going to the market and getting me bread and bananas, I’m sick and I have no food at home.”

“Uh oh are you okay? We can’t leave the babies at home alone- wait, we’ll go find someone to watch them!”

They said as they ran around the bairro looking for a cousin, neighbor, or older brother. I tried to tell them I could wait until the afternoon but not even three minutes later they had found their step brother and his friends to watch the house and the babies. Less than 15 minutes later I was the proud owner of 3 days worth of bread and 10 bananas. In exchange, they each got a shiny 5 met coin (the equivalent of $0.08) and a lollipop. I think I just invented Malema’s very first delivery service.

Being sick in Mozambique is nothing like being sick in America. Gossip spreads like bush fires here, and after missing school for 12 hours, I started getting multiple texts and Facebook messages from students (even those who barely participate in class). “Professora, rapidas melhoras” Get better soon. My door started knocking, neighbors mad that I didn’t tell them I was sick because they would have brought me sopa or xima, which they promise would make me feel better. Others telling me they’ll take me to hospital, not letting the subject drop until I tell them I’m already in contact with my projecto doctors, and that likely, I have all the medication I need in my med kit we were given during training.

In a sense, its a bit annoying to be feverish, not having brushed my teeth in 24 hours, let alone put on deodorant and have to answer the door multiple times a day to tell another person that I’m fine, it’s just stomach issues. On the other hand, wow, knowing that people just want to check up on you when you’re sick is the Peace Corps’ equivalent of your mom feeding you soup and saltines when you have the stomach bug. And though I never ever ever want to get malaria or another serious illness, it’s reassuring to know that if that does happen, I’m in great hands here in Malema. 

O Dia Internacional da Menina

Today, October 11th, is the international day of the girl. As I’ve said again and again, living in Mozambique has made me more aware of my gender than ever before.

Here woman and girls face disproportionately high rates of HIV, premature marriage, and early school drop outs because of the enormous rates of gender inequality.

Fellow PCV and friend, Leah, made a beautiful and equally sobering video with help from girls in her town, about what it means to be a girl here in Mozambique.

Some sobering statistics that I repeat everytime someone asks me why we need to have a “day for girls”:

But this can change! And this should change! Because…

So the point is, not only is it fair to keep empowering and educating girls around the world, but it’s also beneficial to society as a whole.

Viva as mulheres. Hoye!



ING-glish Tea-YAY-ter

During training about a year ago, we had an afternoon information session on the secondary projects that already exist in Peace Corps Mozambique. REDES (a girls empowerment group), JUNTOS (a community activism youth group), Science Club, Grassroots Soccer and English Theater. All of those sounded pretty cool except for English Theater. I have never been a theater kid, never had any theater friends, and got visibly embarrassed when called up to the front of a classroom to present a 45 second skit. That is the one secondary project I would never do, I thought to myself. But… as Justin Beiber once said, “never say never.”

Fast forward to the second trimester of the school year and a student I didn’t know comes up to me, and in explains that he used to go to school in Meconta and there were these American teachers that did theater, would I be doing a theater group as well? It took me a while to understand the request through the broken English and commotion of passing time, but how do you say no to a kid who just wants to learn. “Uhhh… yeah I guess we can do it,” I hesitantly promised.

I called my first meeting for a Sunday afternoon at school. “Ha, no one is going to show up,” said a colleague, “these kids in Malema are too lazy”.

17 showed up. We had a group.

The first assignment was to watch novelas and decide what parts we liked. “The guns!” “The drama!” “The babies!” The second assignment was to decide a plotline for our piece. We already knew we’d need to choose a final group of nine to compete in the provincial competition. This year’s theme was “different isn’t bad” and the group settled on albinism. Right as we chose our topic, the New York Times came out with an interesting photo essay about living with albinism in Northern Mozambique and Malawi. 17 copies of that later, we spent days reading the article out loud. Awkward chuckles when we had to repeat the word albino, over and over and over again. Al-bee-no, albee-now, al-bin-aw, ohhh, oh, AL-bine-oh.

Pronunciation was not a strong point for Malema.

Third semester began and I was getting more nervous. Rumor had it that the city schools were GOOD. Audition time came around, and the chosen nine were the ones who dedicated the most hours to writing the script and coming to practice. Should I have instead chosen the best speakers who always showed up late? As September approached, I was running around town, printing revised version of scripts, permission slips, and letters of explanation.

“Teacher, I’m not sure my dad will let me go. After all… you are… you know, white… and I’m not sure he wants me to travel with a mukunha teacher, this is the first time a field trip has happened for students from Malema, and he thinks I’m just going to namorar (date),” my star actress told me two weeks before the day of the competition. Shit. I only had three girls, and I didn’t want to lose them. I was desperate to prove that girls can excel too. Cue a few more days of tracking down any important chefe of school. Director, vice-director, or any important teacher with a chefe-belly. A last minute with them and the parents explaining that yes, it will be overnight on the Island of Mozambique, that all transportation, food and lodging costs would be taken care of. “My phone will be on loud all weekend, girls and boys will be sleeping in different rooms, this will be a great opportunity for your child?” I pleaded and reassured, as they one-by-one signed their child’s permission slip.

The nine hour/two chapa journey to the island was easy. I practiced by PTA-Field-Trip-Mom skills, making sure these teenagers were fed and not lost or car sick. We even got there early enough for the kids to drink a soda on the beach, first time at the beach for at least half of them. For a friends’ group- it was the first time that one of his kids’ saw a paved road!

The competition went smoothly. Topics included socio-economic classes, religion, sexual orientation and albinism. Some groups had boys dressed as girls, which made me even prouder that Malema was the group with the most girls participating. (though only having 1/3 of girls is really not something to be proud of, this country has a long way to go). There was a stark contrast between the levels of the city schools, which usually have smaller classes and more resources, (some even have youth centers where kids can go for after-school tutoring), and rural schools, with enormous class numbers. (Mine are between 87 and 92 kids each, while some friends have less than 40). But that’s how Mozambique is, that’s how the world is. A culmination of small variables; location and luck, that determine the opportunities a child will have throughout their lives.

Though we didn’t place, I think this was the closest I had ever felt to being a proud parent. Trying to console kids who are almost my age that yes, we are still winners, we didn’t place but we were “probably” in fourth place (pipe dreams). It was incredible to see these nine kids grow, as English speakers, as studiers, as self-confident young adults. I couldn’t be prouder of my three alunas (girl students), who went home certificate in hand, and were back to school on Monday answering questions correctly with their voices loud and strong.

Tomorrow will be Malema’s very first English Club meeting. A group that the theater kids insisted on starting. “Teacher, we need to work on pronunciation, other groups spoke with YOUR accent. We want to learn your accent teacher.”

So as much as I was dreading starting a theater group, it is by far the most rewarding experience I’ve had in Malema. Spending countless hours with those kids, I have learned about their hopes and dreams, and I couldn’t be prouder to say that two of them want to be English teachers as well. As for the English, well, the students of Escola Secundaria de Malema have a little bit of a ways to go before speaking with my accent, but we’re off to a pri-TEA gr-ate stART.