Monday, November 30, 2009

If Elton John and Tina Turner had a love child…

The rains have stopped and I have been passearing quite a bit. Turns out there are stunning waterfalls an hour outside of town. You can climb mangos trees on the way and shake out the ripening fruit for a snack. Pretty much all around us there are verdant hillsides and stunning views into valleys. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice how beautiful my surroundings were until this last week… perhaps I was too distracted by sensory overload and culture shock to be able to register more than a ten yard radius from where I stood.

In addition to the sun coming out, last week was highlighted by Thanksgiving, the culmination of model school and, most exciting of all, the announcement of our site placements. Thanksgiving was on Wednesday (just because) and most of the meal was cooked potluck-style by trainees. People pulled off such miracles as garlic mashed potatoes, apple stuffing, mac n’ cheese, pumpkin and apple pies, rum cake and chocolate chip cookies. I foolishly decided to cook beans and was relegated to cooking over coals, fanning to keep them red hot and waiting three hours for the beans to cook, but they went over well. The one food item that was not touched by any of the 70 trainees was the giant bowl of xima (big surprise).

Before the feast they handed each of us an envelope inside of which was sealed our fate for the next two years. We opened them all at once in a flurry of excitement and each person placed their name on a map of Mozambique. Turns out I’m going to the same place I visited a few weeks ago and requested, so I am pleased. There will be many blog entries to describe my site as I get acquainted with it but here’s a quick summary:
one of a cluster of cement/plaster houses on school compound, lots of kids around, gas stove with oven, small refrigerator, electricity, nearby water pump, mango trees, teaching Biology at the agricultural high school, about 30 minute walk/5 minute ride from large town with a great market, school compound surrounded by farm fields, can walk to a large bridge over the Limpopo River, flat and inland (no beach or mountains), very hot in summer but chilly in winter, 2 hours by chapa to Xai Xai (provincial capital on coast), 3-4 hours from Maputo.

It’s a huge relief to finally know where we’re headed! Luckily we had model school the past few weeks to distract us for from the agonizing anticipation. Mozambican students are technically on vacation, but we lured them back to school by the promise of cookies, fancy certificates and the novelty of American teachers.

On Tuesday I gave my culminating lesson about gentics. We followed two heritable traits in the children of an imaginary celebrity couple. I let the students pick and ended up with a cross between Tina Turner and Elton John. I found this laugh-out-loud funny but the students didn’t seem to get the irony. I asked two volunteers to the front of the room and designated one as a sperm and the other as an egg (this they found hilarious). Each got to pick the alleles (drawn as different colored genes on big paper chromosomes) at random and then we combined them. In case you were wondering, the imaginary love child of Elton and Tina could roll his tongue and did not have hemophilia.

So… now it’s just a waiting game. I leave for Xai Xai on December 9th. From there I will catch a chapa to my site and move in. In the meantime I am trying to see the bright sides of host family life (e.g. it’s temporary!) and squeeze in as much passearing as possible, though now that the sun has come out it can be oppressively hot and muggy.

P.S. Have no idea about the postal situation yet. I’ll e-mail my new mailing address when I get one, but it may be a little while.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hold on the mail for now

Just a note. Thank you all so much for the snail mail you have sent! I promise to reciprocate with some letters as soon as I get to my site, but it's been too hard to mail letters from the training village.
It means a lot to me to hear from home. However, since I will soon be leaving the training village please do not send anymore mail until I have my permanent address. I should get that address soon. Until then, any mail sent will likely just get stuck indefinitely at the Peace Corps headquarters.

The rains have come! (Getting ready to build an arc)

Ok… so I get what people mean when they talk about the rainy season. They don’t mean it rains more often. They mean it rains and doesn’t stop raining until there is no water left in the sky. It has been raining for about a week straight. Let me illustrate by describing my day yesterday:

I awoke feeling slightly damp, but I am luckier than some volunteers in that there is not water leaking directly onto my bed. There is, however, water leaking everywhere else. It turns out that tin roofs are not impermeable. The cement walls of my room are stained with big wet spots where the water is running down and there are little puddles on the floor at the base. I have had more cockroaches in my room since the rain started, but I don’t mind the company. They just scurry about and periodically turn on to their backs, curl up their little legs and dry up into little cockroach crisps.

When I walked out into the living room I had to be careful not to slip in the big puddles. Water dripped on my head as I walked to the bathroom which, ironically, was the only part of the house not leaking. The worst was to come when I went into the kitchen to cook my egg for breakfast and found a small lake. I stood barefoot in two inches of water while I prepared breakfast. We had to unplug our freezer so we would not get electrocuted. The stove, fortunately, is propane powered.

Having prepared breakfast and lunch and convinced my host mom that I did not need to bathe, I got dressed for school with the same dirty clothes I’ve been wearing all week (you can’t do laundry when it’s raining!). Under my skirt I wore sweatpants, anticipating the chilly draft through the broken windows of the secondary school where I’m teaching (more on Model School later). On top I layered several long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, jacket and raincoat. Once I was sufficiently bundled, I took a bucket of water and washed my nice leather shoes and put them in a plastic bag to carry with me. I then put on my glorious rubber boots. May I pause for a moment to thank the inventor of the rubber boot? Where would I be right now without my rubber boots? I dare not imagine! Let me explain.

I open my umbrella and walk out the door into the deluge. Soon I find myself mired in muck and must cautiously extricate my feet from the suction of mud without having it splatter all over my clothes. The neighbor watches me from her doorway and calls out “you’re going to fall!” Mozambicans are so encouraging…

“Yeeshhh… so much matopi!” I respond. Matopi is the xishangana word for mud and its three strong syllables (Mah –Toh – Pee!) can capture our contempt against the forces of nature so much better that the wimpy one syllable “mud.”

I continue to struggle through the matopi until I reach what was once a path and is now a raging river with waterfalls pouring out from the bamboo and threatening to wash me away if I set foot in them. I edge my way through the shallowest of the waters, again thanking God for rubber boots, and start climbing up a hill where water is leaping off the steep path in dozens of small cascades. When I make it out of the back end of the neighborhood, I cut up to the main street (the only paved road in town), hoping to catch a ride with the Peace Corps car that sometimes cruises around and picks up straggling volunteers. To my dismay, walking along the road did nothing but get me splashed by a car driving through a huge muddy puddle. I looked up to see the Peace Corps emblem speeding past.

So to those of you were envying me as you started hunkering down for winter, count your blessings! When the sun comes out again I will be sure to brag, but for the moment I am jealously remembering what it is like to hang up your wet socks next to the wood stove and warm your toes by the fire.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


As promised, here are some photos (finally!).

The only place I have found internet with a wide enough bandwidth to upload photos is in the capital city, so the next round of photos will have to wait until I am in Maputo again.

My bed with mosquito net
Me in my Project Puffin shirt and a capulana
Maura (aka Menina)
Mamá Joana and Menina

Ana (oldest host sister) and her son
Vovôs (grandmothers)

Hey look the mulungo can dance!

Mamá Joana, Me, Bernecia and tia, breaking it down

In a line, Bernecia is smiling

Mamá Joana presents a gift to Vovô

Vovô cuts the cake

Cake in the face

Extended host family members

Ana and me

Filó and cousins

Menina and Ortencia dressed up for Halloween






That's all for now. Next time I'll try and post some photos of the training village so you can get an idea of the surroundings.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hey all,
Thanks for the comments! I thought I'd respond to some of them.

So the "western" religious affliation of Mozambicans varies depending on the region of the country. The south is primarily Christian. Here in the training village we have Catholics, some very vocal Evangelist Christians and your typical low-key Protestants. Up in the northern provinces there is a large Muslim population, probably due to the influence of Tanzania and the history of Arab traders along the north coast.
Any western religion in Mozambique inevitably gets mixed with elements of the traditional beliefs. For example, I went to a Catholic mass to watch my host grandmother get baptized a few weekends ago. There were the typical Catholic prayers (in Portuguese) recited in unison, the communion, etc... but there was also celebratory dancing and singing with drums. They really love the whole incense thing and smoked the place out with it. It really felt African when, after my grandmother had the holy waters poured over her head, a few of the women let out a n'klulungwana (that loud oscillating cry where they roll their tongues).

A note on the Chikenocide... so the butterknife business is common practice here in the training village, but apparently other parts of the country have more humane ways of killing a chicken. I have heard that one swift cut with gardening shears will do the trick. Some people also have a way of breaking the neck first, but I'm not sure how that works. In any case I am not ready to kill a chicken and I don't plan on eating chicken if I can't kill it. I suppose my fish eating could be considered hypocritical, so I'm guilty there. I'm not catching my own fish.

As far as the weather, it seems to be either hot (sweat and blazing sun) or cold (yes, COLD! like sweatshirts and hats and warming your hands over the coal stove), with an occasional perfect day in between. Mountain weather. Apparently we're in the coldest part of the country. On Saturday I go north and inland. Supposedly it is HOT. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Week five!

So I’m on week 5 of training. So far so good, but it definitely has its ups and downs. I think we’re all looking forward to being on our own for a number of reasons. Living with a host family is an irreplaceable learning experience but it is tiring to have someone tell you when to take a bath… tell you not to wear those shoes because there’s a speck of mud on them or that shirt because it has a wrinkle… inquire as to whether you’ve made a bowel movement… ask why you came home late after school… ask why you want to be in your room and not watching Brazilian soap operas with them… tell you not to sit on the veranda because it’s cold… tell you not to go to school because it’s muddy outside… you get the idea. It’s sweet to have people looking out for you but the lack of autonomy and personal space is starting to get to me.

I’m also looking forward to cooking my own food and not having to eat excessive amounts of carbohydrates in the form of white rice, sticky white glop (aka xima), and bread. We had a two day training session on how to make permaculture vegetable gardens and I plan on starting one as soon as I get to site. Turns out you can grow plenty of fresh produce right next to your home in just about any kind of environment. We’ll see how successful I am. Sigh… I’m already dreaming about pumpkins, beans, lemongrass, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, fresh greens…
Excitement! Saturday I finally get to leave the training village and go on a 5 day visit to the site of a current Peace Corps Volunteer. I´m headed 5-8 hours north of where I am now - a looong chapa ride, but I am thrilled to have a change of scenery and to get a glimpse of “the real deal.” After that we have two weeks of model school (I finally get to teach in a real Mozambican classroom!) and then a week of wrapping things up and I’m off to my permanent site (will find out where on Thanksgiving day). It’s nice to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel but also nerve wracking to think I don’t have all that much time left to learn all I need to know.

P.S. Thanks for the snail mail! It totally makes my day. I got a letter from Grandma and three Halloween cards. It’s a little tricky sending mail back the other way, but I’ll try to do that soon.

P.P.S. Is anybody reading this blog? Write some comments.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween: did you see what the mulungos were wearing this weekend???

Yesterday we had a Halloween party for the trainees and their host siblings complete with costumes, candy, roasted marshmallows, limbo and the monster mash. Most Mozambicans have never heard of Halloween. Here’s a conversation I had with Filó (in Portuguese) trying to explain this strange holiday:

Me: “Filó, there’s a party on Saturday for Halloween.”
Filó : confused silence
Me: “It’s an American holiday. Halloween, do you know it?”
Filó: “Nooo…”
Me: “Well um, it’s a day where people pretend to be something they’re not. They wear make pretend costumes and they do Trick or Treat.”
Filó: silence
Me: “Trick or Treat… the kids go to the door of their neighbor and say ‘Trick or Treat.’ It’s like ‘if you don’t give me a sweet something bad will happen,’ but they always give the kid candy.”
Filó: “okaaayy…”
Me: “Sometimes the costumes are scary, like ghosts or monsters, but it’s for fun. There are haunted houses too.”
Filó: look of concern… “Haunted houses?”
Me: “Yeah! But they’re not really haunted, it’s just fun.”
Filó: “Do you believe in spirits?”
Me: “No, I don’t believe. Do you believe?”
Filó: “Yes.”
Me: “If I saw one I would believe.”
Filó: “Do you believe in God?”

If our training village didn’t already think we’re nuts then Halloween sealed the deal. My three year old host sister, a cousin, another trainee and I were all zebras. The idea came from a zebra-striped bed sheet I found in the market. We picked up other trainees on our way to the party at the other end of town. Alice had made a beautiful pair of fairy wings and matching frilly skirt out of a bed sheet. Her husband AJ was rocking the eighties spiked hair, a “Hester the Molester” mustache, aviator sunglasses and a sports coat. The zebras and 80’s man started walking but the fairy had forgotten her wand and ran home to grab it and catch up. At the sight of a white girl with wings running down the street the Mozambicans were, for once, left speechless. We then picked up a bunch of grapes (Joyce covered in green balloons), two lady bugs (Meaghann and host sister), and a landmine (Bao), and walked about a half mile down a muddy dirt road past the confused stares of Mozambicans out to “passear” on a Saturday night. They all thought AJ (80’s man) looked GREAT and at least one Mozambican told him, in all sincerity, that he was “chique de doer” (“looking so good it hurts!”).

An interesting cultural note…
Halloween is an exceptionally strange concept for Mozambicans because many of them believe in spirits in a very real way. Ancestor worship is still common practice, especially in the older generation. People believe that if they don’t offer food to their deceased relatives they will haunt them from the other side. If someone becomes ill or runs into some misfortune, you can blame it on a disgruntled ancestor seeking revenge. In Mozambique, haunted houses are no laughing matter.
The solution for disgruntled ancestor problems is to go to your local curandeiro (“witch doctor”). They do the potions, bone throwing, fortune telling and general health consulting. Oftentimes they will suggest you make an offering to a certain deceased relative or return to your “Fatherland” to pay a visit of respect. There are curandeiros here in the training village, but you wouldn’t know who they are. Their alter egos look like a typical Mozambican and they don’t have advertisements outside their homes. The villagers just know. The Peace Corps frowns on volunteers visiting curandeiros so all my knowledge of this will have to be second hand.