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.

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