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.