Sunday, January 22, 2012

The End or The Beginning?

You get off the train after a long journey and turn around to watch it slowly disappear along the tracks. A cold breeze finds its way through your bundled clothing and you think to yourself, “now what?”

Ok… it was three planes and a bus that brought me home from Mozambique at the end of my service last month, but I found the train metaphor more powerful. And that’s basically how I felt.

Now that the holidays are over and I’m staying in one place for a while, my brain isn’t spinning quite so fast and I’m trying to piece together what the last two years meant. I can feel that I’m the same person, but I’d like to think that I’ve refined my values, grown in maturity and gained a broad new perspective.

The other day I read a cheesy article in a yoga magazine that really stuck with me. It said that your inner self is constant and perfect, like a diamond, and that the diamond gets dirty and obscured by bad habits, social conditioning and misconceptions. So… perhaps in all of our efforts to better ourselves, what we’re really doing is shining up that diamond that has been there all along and letting our true selves shine.

The challenge now is not to slip back into the old habits and comfortable ignorance that tend to accompany a secure, middle-class lifestyle. There are plenty of temptations, plenty of excuses. It’s hard work to maintain that objective point of view when you’re back in your hometown.

Sometimes I feel like the last two years were a dream that I just woke up from. I recall feeling the inverse while I was overseas, that Mozambique was home and the United States was just a dream. It’s like the two worlds are so completely different that they can’t coexist in my mind.

One thing that makes me a bit uncomfortable is the creeping dissatisfaction that started to accompany the end of my service. I suppose you could call it “burnout.” I know that I did my best, but I couldn’t help feeling frustrated, tired and eager to go home. Still, I left Mozambique on a good note, with friendly goodbyes and fond memories, and overall I’m proud of my accomplishments.

As the train recedes into the distance, the weariness begins to dissipate and is replaced by a calm satisfaction. I’m ready to close that chapter of my life and begin the next, retaining all the valuable lessons that I learned.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Things I Miss and Things I Will Miss

A while ago, I started writing down two lists: things I miss about home and things I will miss about Mozambique. Thought you might find them interesting!

Things I will miss about Mozambique:
1. My Peace Corps friends
2. My Mozambican friends and neighbors
3. The open friendliness of strangers
4. People saying “hi” to you everywhere you go
5. My students, both the sweet ones and the naughty ones
6. The feeling of closeness in my neighborhood (everyone knows each other)
7. Unrelated people calling you “daughter,” “sister,” “mother,” etc…
8. Baby goats frolicking in my front yard
9. Showing up unannounced at someone’s home and feeling welcomed
10. The Limpopo River and “Holly the Hippo”
11. Fruit trees growing everywhere: mangos, tangerines, avocados, bananas, cashews…
12. Pristine, undeveloped beaches
13. Speaking Portuguese
14. Awesome 2nd hand clothes shopping in the market
15. My kitty, Khanimambo
16. My own personal Peace Corps doctor on call with free medical treatment
17. The slow, simple pace of life
18. The “forgive and forget” mentality (i.e. nobody holds a grudge)
19. Strangers going out of their way to help you (e.g. giving you a ride, carrying your groceries, fixing your bicycle, walking you to your destination…)
20. Getting excited about showers and parmesan cheese
21. Blunt, unapologetic honesty
22. Coconuts

Things I miss about home:
1. My family and friends
2. Safe, reliable transportation/driving a car
3. Grocery stores
4. Blending into the crowd and feeling anonymous
5. Fitting in, understanding the culture
6. Reliable, high speed internet
7. Coffee shops, good restaurants
8. Customer service
9. Mountains and forests
10. Winter, spring, summer and fall
11. Hiking, rock climbing, backpacking and other outdoor sports
12. Set prices on most items (i.e. no haggling)
13. Going out at night/after dark
14. Men being respectful of women (i.e. no catcalls or inappropriate proposals)
15. Toiletries: face wash, hair products, etc…
16. Being healthy without daily malaria prophylaxis
17. Climate-controlled buildings and vehicles (heat and air conditioning)
18. Swimming in fresh water without the fear of crocodiles or tropical diseases
19. Drinking from the tap
20. Discretion and politeness
21. Timeliness, keeping appointments
22. Feeling busy, always having things to do
23. Schedules

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Now anyone can comment on a post

I was looking at the settings on my blog and I changed them so that you don't have to be a registered user to post a comment.

So now anyone can comment on a blog post. I'm looking forward to seeing your comments!

Sex Ed: Whose idea is it anyway?

I was sitting in a bare room with tables and chairs, listening to my ipod and slogging through the unpleasant task of grading national exams, when I was yanked into a conversation among several male professors.

“Do you do Geração Biz?” asked one teacher, probably in his thirties.

“No, but I’m familiar with the group,” I replied.

“Do you know what they do?” he asked.

“Yes, they promote peer education about HIV/AIDS and other health-related topics in schools,” I said.

“I think it’s terrible!” he exclaimed.

I was completely caught off guard by his response. Up to this point, the only criticism I had heard about Geração Biz was that there weren’t enough active groups in Mozambican schools. Of course, I didn’t need to ask him to explain himself since he immediately began ranting about his frustrations. The other professors, also middle-aged males, chimed in or took the platform from time to time. Feeling like the accused and unable to get a word in edgewise, I just sat and listened.

The whole “conversation” lasted the better part of an hour. The crux of their argument was that teaching sex education to students, particularly young girls, was promoting promiscuity. The idea is that if you teach kids how to have safe sex, you’re telling them that it’s OK for them to do it.

We’ve all heard the same argument in the United States many times. It’s one of the driving forces behind “abstinence-only” education and other stupidity. I sighed over the ignorance of it all.

But the teachers made a second point that actually made sense. They accused “us,” as in all foreign influence in Mozambique, of forcing modern ideas on a country that wasn’t ready for them. After all, Mozambique as a nation is very young. It only achieved independence in 1975 and then spent 17 years embroiled in civil war. It hasn’t had time to modernize and even today the prerequisites for a social movement, primarily education and access to information, are unavailable to a large segment of the population. So, how can we expect Mozambicans to embrace the types of social change that took decades to implement in our own country?

One might counter that Mozambicans write their own policies. So... are foreigners really at fault? I would argue that we are. Foreign aid accounts for 50% of the Mozambican government’s budget. As a consequence, the government adopts policies that mirror those of donor countries. The last thing Mozambique wants is to offend a country like the United States that dangles foreign aid like a carrot that it can yank away at any time.

I’m reminded of a talk that the former American ambassador gave to our group during training. It was immediately after the Mozambican elections and he was not at all pleased. He spoke frankly with us and said that the US would threaten to remove aid if the government continued to permit election fraud and block rival parties. I felt that the actions of the Mozambican government during the election were wrong, but talking to Mozambicans I never once heard anyone complain. In fact, nobody cared at all.

So, my question is not whether sex education or women’s rights or democracy or any of the other causes that foreign donors champion are good or important. My question is: where is the momentum for these causes coming from? When I talk to Mozambicans, many of them seem either to passively accept or to actively resist those causes. Young people support the causes more than older people, but in general I don’t see the same undercurrent of activism and awareness that usually precipitates social change.

Looking back at milestones of American history - women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, the PRIDE movement - all of our social revolutions came out of a great struggle that took decades of activism and education. We’re still fighting these battles today. The difference is that the achievements we’ve made were the result of will of the American people. Our victories, therefore, are powerful because they are our own.

In Mozambique, the process is reversed. A change is imposed on the government and it slowly trickles down to the people. In most places, but especially in rural villages, tradition and customs are far more powerful influences on people’s behavior than anything the government does. As a result, conflicts arise any time government changes are enforced at the local level. As a public school teacher, I essentially work in a government institution and I have experienced this disconnect first hand. The curricula include topics like sex education, evolution and gender equality that seem to be somebody else's idea that the teachers are forced to follow.

So… in our impatience to liberate the oppressed and modernize thinking in Mozambique are we actually stymying their natural development? By enforcing social change from the top down are we preempting grassroots movements that haven’t had a chance to gain their own momentum?

My last example is an experience I had at the regional REDES conference earlier this month. Two nurses came in to teach the girls about the female reproductive system and give them a condom demonstration. Our Mozambican facilitators took it upon themselves to remove the youngest girls from the audience and send them outside. This was a surprise to several Peace Corps volunteers who, infuriated, sent the girls back into the room. An argument resulted between some very opinionated people that later required damage control.

The Mozambicans who removed the young girls (aged 11-13) argued that they weren’t ready to see a penis and would be traumatized. They also repeated the claim that teaching sex education to young girls promotes promiscuity. The Peace Corps volunteers argued that 12-year-old girls were getting pregnant in our communities and needed the information. No consensus was reached.

Personally, I disagree with the Mozambican women’s claims but I also disagree with the reaction of the volunteers. After all, REDES is a Mozambican organization. Granted, much of our funding comes from the United States government, but I think it’s wrong to pick and choose when we want to listen to our Mozambican counterparts. If they’re not ready to accept change, do we really have the right to force it on them? And if we do, will it have the desired effect?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Provincial Science Fair

Friday morning my living room was covered in scraps of paper and cardboard as three students sat on the floor finalizing their posters for the provincial science fair. The days before had involved many hours of revising written reports, making models and finding big cardboard boxes for displays. By Friday afternoon everything was ready and we packed into a chapa and headed an hour away to the school that was hosting the fair.

There, we met students and teachers from all participating schools in Gaza province. There were forty projects in total and as many teachers and visitors. I was quite pleased to find that a majority of the teachers were, in fact, Mozambican. There were relatively few Peace Corps Volunteers. Those of us who were present tried to keep to the background, though PCV’s were responsible for most of the logistics.

By and large I was impressed with the knowledge and creativity of the students. Projects ranged from medicinal uses of the “miracle tree” Moringa olifera to circuitry to seat belts. Our three students, Alexandre, Ercília and Dércio, did an excellent job. They had rehearsed their explanations ahead of time and, though they were nervous, they all performed well. I had also worked with Ernesto, a student at another secondary school in our town, and I was happy to see him win a special prize for the best health-related project. He investigated natural remedies for stomach problems using a native vine (a picture of his project will be uploaded later).

We spent two nights and one full day at the school. There were plenty of activities going on. Population Services International set up tents and offered confidential HIV testing. Geração Biz, a Mozambican peer education group, facilitated sessions about HIV/AIDS and other issues. One of my male students performed a great poetry piece about teenage pregnancy. Other PCV’s and I wrote and read a poem about gender equality. Of course, like with every Mozambican event, there was dancing. I somehow escaped being dragged into the dance contest but my female student won a prize for the best marrabenta.

Aderito, one of my two counterparts from the agrarian school, came to see the fair and was very impressed. We brought a T-shirt back for my other counterpart, Clara. They are both pretty pumped about continuing science fair next year so I’m hopeful this great program will continue after I leave.


Setting up before the guests arrive

Alexandre: "Effect of Light on Seed Germination"

Ercilia: "Methods of Soil Conservation"

Dercio: "Effect of Salinity on the Density of Water"

Ercilia, Ernesto, Alexandre and Dercio (front) with their certificates

Dercio, Alexandre, Me, Ercilia, Ernesto and Aderito

A cool project conducting electricity through cassava roots

A homemade electric saw using a fan motor

Geração Biz demonstration of a female condom

"Use a condom!"

Thursday, June 9, 2011

National Exams: Beating Our Heads Against the Wall

You’re sitting in class, staring into space. The teacher is trying really hard to keep your attention but it’s just so confusing! You raise your hand to read off the board but as soon as you stand up you’re sorry you did. You have to sound out each word as you read it, stuttering on the first syllable. Your classmates start yelling the words at you and saying you can’t read. The teacher tells them to be quiet but now you’re sweating. Finally you make it through the sentence but you have no idea what it means. You sit down and start copying into your notebook. You’re 16 but you still have to concentrate on forming the letters. A lot of what you write is spelled wrong and you never go back to read it because it doesn’t make sense. When the teacher gives you homework, you copy from the smart kids because you can’t do it on your own. You don’t know why you passed all the other grades. Some of your friends slept with teachers but you never did. Somehow you always got a grade just high enough to pass.

You live far away but your parents arranged for you to live with a family near the school. You’re treated like a maid and have to do the cooking and cleaning and babysitting. It’s tough having so many chores and studying at the same time but you do your best. Sometimes you have to leave extra help sessions early to go cook dinner or take care of the kids and there’s not much time for homework or studying.

Teacher Clancy encouraged everyone to get a 14 or higher (out of 20) in the class. That’s the minimum grade to be exempt from the national exam. A lot of kids got to skip the national exam but you barely passed the class. Not surprisingly you failed the first round of national exams. It was so hard it seems impossible that you’ll pass the second round. You’ve been praying every night for a miracle. You go to extra help sessions every day. You’re so nervous that you don’t sleep well anymore. If you fail, your parents might make take you out of school. What would you do then?

This is an example of the struggle that many of my students are facing. When I get frustrated I try to look at things through their eyes. Their persistence in the face of such obstacles is amazing. It breaks my heart that many of them will fail but I cannot allow a student to pass if he or she can barely read and write, has no grasp of problem solving or even basic mathematics, and, as a result, is unable to learn the core concepts of Biology and Chemistry.

What pains me even more is knowing that the administration will change my students’ grades to allow them to pass anyway. I was beginning to see progress in my toughest students. I believe that if they repeat the grade they might have a chance to catch up and gain the confidence and basic skills they need to succeed. Instead, they will move onto the next grade unprepared, forced to sit through classes they don’t understand, feeling helpless and stupid.

Today I graded the second round of national Chemistry exams. Three out of thirteen passed. The other teachers I was working with told me that we’d have to “help out” the other students by giving them extra points. I explained that giving them points wasn’t helping them. They really needed to repeat the grade. They agreed with me that artificially passing students was just perpetuating the problem.

The curriculum itself is a huge problem. It combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade material into one intensive year. The result is an accelerated course that looks more like college than 8th grade. It is impossible to teach that much information even to well-prepared students. Some teachers compromise by “presenting” the material in a massive and incomprehensible flood of information. It’s rather like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping some of it sticks. I chose the alternate route of teaching only a fraction of the material in the curriculum but ensuring that most of my students actually learn it. I made my tests fair enough that a student who learned what I wanted him to learn could easily get a good grade.

The end result was that students with a good basic understanding of Chemistry and Biology passed my course with a high grade and were exempt from the national exam. Those who struggled and lacked basic knowledge and skills were forced to take it. It's not surprising that they all failed.

The national exam is horrible. If I were a kid faced with that exam I’d be crying every night. It tests the most minute details of an insanely over-packed curriculum. The good news for the students is that they only need an 8 out of 20 to pass. The bad news is that it’s so ridiculously hard that most of them couldn’t get above a 6.

What happens next? The administration of the school is faced with demands from the ministry of education. All that matters is statistics and if the minimum number of students doesn’t pass then ministry officials will conduct an investigation (i.e. an inquisition). When the students fail, the teachers are blamed. I experienced this firsthand after my students failed the first round of exams. I was called into a room with exam monitors who asked me to explain myself. I talked about the root challenges with under-prepared students and an over-packed curriculum but they didn’t want to hear it. The conversation shifted to “what did you do wrong as a teacher that caused your students to fail?” You can imagine how angry and frustrated I felt.

I have the luxury of being a volunteer but other teachers have their jobs on the line. The only course of action they see is to boost grades. The reality is that the administration and teachers are just as frustrated with the system as I am. They don’t want to change grades, but the hierarchy is so immutable and the bureaucracy so thick that they are essentially voiceless against decisions made from above.

I acknowledge that the same problem exists in American schools. There are students in our own country who graduate practically illiterate. Still, I count myself extremely lucky to have been educated in the USA. I feel like most of my teachers did their best to help me learn, my parents supported me throughout and the education system, for all its flaws, was a heck of a lot better than Mozambique!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Science Fair

We recently hosted a science fair here at the Agrarian School. The fair itself lasted an afternoon but it was two months in the making. We met with interested students twice a week, teaching them the scientific method, helping them plan and execute their projects and then write up their reports. Students don't often get a chance to think for themselves as most of their schooling consists of rote memorization. Science Fair was a unique opportunity that encouraged curiosity, creativity and independent learning.

There was no direct funding for science fair and students had to be resourceful. One student used cell phone batteries to power his circuit board. Another disassembled old phone chargers to get LED light bulbs. Others used bottles, bits of styrofoam, wood and avocado pits rescued out of the trash. Display boards were made with cardboard boxes donated by local vendors.

The making of the display boards was the biggest challenge. We spent two long nights in the computer lab while the students chicken-pecked at the keyboard. They learned how to format with Microsoft Word and some of them made graphs with Microsoft Excel. All of the computers were virus-ridden and I couldn't save their projects on a flash drive or a disk so we had to carry the school's single printer from computer to computer and print out each project separately. One computer wouldn't accept the printer at all and I had to re-type the kid's entire project onto another computer.

There was a lot of last-minute craziness (two students started their projects the day before the fair), but it all worked out. Only two of the eight judges we invited showed up but we found substitutes at the last minute.

Overall it was a success and I appreciated the opportunity to work closely with some bright and motivated students. I also had a great counterpart, Clara. She's one of the two female Mozambican teachers at our school and has become a great friend.

Below are some pictures and brief descriptions of the projects.

Students preparing their projects

Samuel - Global Warming: a demonstration of the greenhouse effect.

Jorge - Conductivity of various substances.

Ester - Which foods attract more ants?

Helio - Which electrical circuit is more efficient: parallel or continuous?

Geno - The response of rocks when heated by fire

Alexandre - Comparison between corn and been seedlings grown in the light and the dark.

Lino - Comparison of the permeability of different types of soils.

Dercio - Changes in buoyancy with changes in the salinity of water.

Mastel - Growth of been seedlings in soils fertilized with cow and chicken manures.

People checking out the displays

Lino explaining his project

Judges discussing and selecting winners

Clara and me with the two winners: Dercio and Alexandre

The whole gang

The provincial science fair is in July and we'll be taking the two winners plus two female students. Ester was the only girl who actually participated in the local fair. Another female student prepared a project but her guardians prevented her from coming at the last minute. I'm hoping we can convince them to let her come to the provincial fair.

One of our judges was a science teacher from another secondary school nearby and he borrowed the manual so he can start a science fair of his own. Ours was just one of many science fairs all over Mozambique. Winners of the local fairs go on to provincial fairs and those winners go on to a national fair. Last year the winners of the national fair received netbook computers!