Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PBS 3 Part Series

Check out this 3 part series on Mozambique. So far they've only posted part I. Due to limited internet capacity I can only read the dialogue, but it sounded like a decent overview to me.


Seems like the reporter only went to Maputo and Inhambane though...

Thursday, November 18, 2010


What is “WanChiton” you ask? Why it’s the capital of the United States of America! Well, that was the best answer I got on the bonus question of a recent Chemistry test. Some at least guessed places in the USA: New York (spelled “Noy Ork”), Los Angeles, Miami, California... Others were way out in left field: Malaysia, Beijing, China, Madrid, Mexico, Italy, Europe, Brazil, Botswana... Some of them were convinced they were right. Once came up to me after class, “teacher, it’s Italy! What?? You sure it’s not Italy?” “WanChiton” got half credit. To be fair, I doubt most Americans could name the capital of Mozambique.

I add bonus questions like that to give me a laugh while I’m grading. Otherwise it’s a depressing activity. Some students are doing well but a majority are not improving like they should be. I had high hopes this time around since I sacrificed several lessons to review, gave multiple after school extra help sessions, wrote study guides, coached them on study skills… It makes me think that some just don’t care and others have had their brains cooked by 8-12 years of rote memorization. Tests are rough, but when I look at their performance on individual topics almost everyone has shown improvement. Extra help sessions make me the happiest. More than once I've had a struggling student start hooting and hollering and dancing when he finally got something right. It’s a great feeling. I concentrate on the small victories.

I’ve gotten used to the way of things at school but sometimes it’s frustrating. Tuesday morning was a typical example:
I went to school two hours before class so I could print some lesson plans and tests. There is one working printer in the office and it only takes discs. The disc drive on my computer is broken so I took my flash and a CD to the computer lab in the other building. It had rained, so there was a field of slippery mud in between. I got to the lab only to find it locked so I traversed the mud back to the office. Apparently someone had just taken the keys so I went back to the lab. No luck. Back to the office. Apparently the keys were with the director who was nowhere to be found. I went back to the lab, muddy and annoyed, and found it magically open.
Another teacher said, “why don’t you ask a student to carry the printer from the office up here to the lab?”
“I’m afraid he will slip in the mud and drop it.”
“Oh, you’re right. Then we wouldn’t be able to print anything!”
My disc took 25 minutes to format and then I finally made the transfer. Right as I got back to the office and stamped the mud off my feet, the power went out. I talked to the secretary. “Yeah, someone has to go to town and buy more electricity. It could be a while.” At this point I had 40 minutes until class. I went to the side of the road and caught a ride to town then walked to a place with a printer and computer. As soon as I sat down the computer crashed. I left and walked to the other end of town to the only other public printer. After paying 4 meticals per page, I looked at my watch. 10 minutes until class. I sprinted to the chapa stop only to find the chapa already full.
“Are you sure you can’t fit one more?”
“No, look, it’s full.”
“Please? I’m in a hurry!”
The driver nodded and I dove in head first over the front row. My back was arched against the roof and they closed the door on my butt. The woman whose face was in my armpit didn’t seem to mind.

When we arrived at school, they opened the door and I fell out backwards. I handed the driver 5 mets. He demanded 7 so I gave him the rest without protest and ran to class, arriving just in time for my 2:00 pm class only to find out that my students were still working in the kitchen… They showed up 15-20 minutes late and some didn’t come at all. This happens often enough that I’ve learned to adapt, though between that and the slow pace of learning I have only gotten through a fraction of what I hoped to cover this semester. And what I had hoped to cover is an even tinier fraction of the national curriculum. Those students who expect to finish my class with a 50% average and then pass the national exam have another thing coming!

On a brighter note, the water came back!! Perhaps you saw my blog about pumping water. That went on for the better part of two months. Last night at our study session a student burst in the doors and said “water’s running!” The class erupted in cheers and singing and dancing. Students lifted each other up in the air and shouted for joy. One said, “good! I haven’t taken a bath in almost a week!” The hand pump we were using is a real pain. It’s broken so most of the water comes out the sides. It's the only working pump for the school, the professors’ neighborhood and two villages behind the school so there are always a lot of people there with all of their water jugs. You have to wait your turn. The water itself is disgusting, briny and cloudy. Josefa asked me to stop wearing white clothes because they were coming dirtier after the wash. Anyway, now our 20 minutes of running water three times a day feels like a huge luxury!

Other good news: I'm coming home! My family bought me a plane ticket so I can go home for Christmas/New Years. I'll be arriving Dec 6th and leaving Jan 5th. I'll spend most of the time in Maine but also a week in Florida and a few days in Vermont. If you'll be around I'd love to see you! Just e-mail me or call my house.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching Challenges

"Challenges" here could refer to my darling students or to the situation, depends on my mood. Some of you have heard this rant, but it bears writing about. I think it’s important for readers to understand the root challenges I face as a teacher. It explains a lot about the Mozambican school system. These are things that occupy my mind on a daily basis and have proven to be far more difficult aspects of Peace Corps service than, say, having to carry water or deal with a hot climate.

I am feeling frustrated with school at the moment, as I always do after correcting tests. On my last Biology test only 12 out of 35 passed (34%). It’s incredibly discouraging after dedicating so many hours to planning quality lessons, making beautiful posters, grading homework, giving extra help sessions... to find that it doesn’t seem to be working!

I'm encountering three main problems:
1. Biology and Chemistry are the two “key” disciplines of first year. If they don’t pass those disciplines they can’t go on to second year.
2. Both Biology and Chemistry have national exams that the students must pass. These exams are ridiculously hard.
3. The students lack the prerequisite knowledge and skills to learn the material in the curriculum, which combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade in an accelerated one year course.

The grading system in Mozambique is different than in the US. First, they grade out of 20 instead of out of 100. Second, the expectations are set very low compared to US standards. You can pass with 50% and many students are thrilled to get even that. 70% is considered exceptional.

Even with the low standards, the bar is set high. Students cannot continue to the next grade if they don’t pass Biology and Chemistry. With other disciplines the administration can decide to let them go on even if they’re failing (one of the reasons for the problem in the first place). Since I am teaching Biology and Chemistry, there's a lot of pressure on me to pass these kids/inflate their grades.

Students who pass with a grade of 10 or above (50%) still have to take the national exam, but if they pass with a grade of 14 or above (70%), they get to skip the national exam. The latter is preferable since the national exam has a very high failure rate. It’s almost impossible to prepare for it because the questions are specific and cover an unreasonable amount of material. The curriculum for regular secondary schools is jam-packed as it is and in a technical school like mine the problem is compounded by condensing three years of material (8th, 9th and 10th grade) into a single year. Did I mention that the Chemistry curriculum is from 1986, when Mozambique was in the midst of a civil war?

I’m looking at an old national exam now and wondering why, when there are only eight questions, they dedicated an entire question to naming the twelve parts of the microscope. Why is that important? It’s all the more ironic when you consider the handful of schools that actually own a microscope!

The first two issues wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the third: the very low level of my students. I am trying to teach a course that surpasses the difficulty level of American high school AP classes to kids who struggle in the most basic skills. Many of them still have to read aloud and I can hear them softly murmuring during a test. Many of them have trouble writing even when they are directly copying a text (I’ve had kids misspell their own name!). Math skills are also appalling. Many still have trouble with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Things we take for granted, like reading a table or a graph, summarizing a paragraph and writing something in your own words are near impossible tasks. These kids belong in fifth grade, not 1st year technical (i.e. 8th, 9th, 10th grades accelerated).

So how do these kids end up in my class when they really don’t belong there? There are a lot of reasons. Three that come to mind are:
1. Many Mozambican students pass a grade by cheating, bribing or performing sexual favors.
2. It is now possible to pass 5th grade then skip 6th and 7th grade by taking a test.
3. The technical schools changed their calendar so that students must wait around for 6-7 months before starting their first year of technical school.

The latter is a new change that has negatively affected our school. The youngest incoming students are 13 years old. Who would let their 13-year-old sit around the house for 6-7 months waiting for school to start? Most parents found a different alternative. The result was a very small incoming class (about 40 students total) that was largely comprised of students who simply hadn’t found something else. I hate to say it, but it was essentially “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” That said, I do have some jems in my class and a good group of hard workers. They keep me going.

I guess all I can do is my best, but the students will have to meet me halfway. I’m planning on dedicating an entire class period to teaching some basic study skills and I’ll be giving a project based on national exam questions. This on top of quality lesson plans, graded homeworks and extra help sessions, is all I can do right now.

The purpose of this entry was not to complain. Ok, maybe a little bit... but also to give you an idea of what my job is like. I'm sure American teachers can relate to many of my frustrations. These challenges are not unique to Mozambique. If you have any suggestions or encouragement don’t hesitate to send it my way!

Photos - pumping water

Neighbor boys sharing a bike

Filling up jugs, cooking pots, buckets...

Young girl carrying water

Taking my turn at the pump

Girl with her baby

Students at the pump

Making one of several trips back to the house with a heavy load

At the Watering Hole

“Vale a pena ter nada mas ter agua.” (“If you have nothing else you must at least have water.”) That is what Josefa said this morning as we helped her get water at the pump. The electric pump that services the school is broken so now we have to go to the manual pump behind the teacher’s neighborhood, fill our water jugs and carry them home. We didn’t exactly have running water before (it came on for about 10 minutes three times a day) but it was a whole lot easier than going to the pump.

The nice thing is that we get a taste of water pump culture. There are students, working members of professors’ households (i.e. relatives they’ve taken in) and people from the mud hut village behind the school compound. Changana is the predominant language and some people don’t speak any Portuguese, but there’s really not much to be said. One jug can be filled at a time so everyone sits around and waits their turn. People trade off working the pump (which is surprisingly tiring!) and help each other put water onto their heads or (should they be so fortunate) into a wheelbarrow. It’s a quiet atmosphere of waiting, mostly silent save the non-stop chugging of the pump.

It’s normal for young girls to be sent in pairs to get water. Some of them look younger than they are due to malnutrition but are surprisingly strong. Today there was a girl of only 6 or 7 sent all alone to fill two 25 L jugs of water and bring them home in a wheelbarrow. She waited a long time at the pump and eventually got frustrated, crying and trying to push her jug under the water to the annoyance of the others. When she did fill the jugs she made it no more than five yards from the pump before she could go no further. The other people started talking.
“How can they send that girl alone to get 50 L of water? She’s too young. What kind of mother does that?”
“She lives with her stepmother.”
“Oh, that’s it then. Her stepmother sent her. Stepmothers are no good.”
“I live with my stepmother and she’s good.”
“Ok, well some are good but most are bad. It’s better to have a mother.”
“And her father?”
“He lives with them but he has no voice for his children.”
“What a shame.”
“Does she go to school?”
“I think so, but they won’t let her go for long.”

I finally got tired of listening to their idle gossip and went to help the girl. I carried her wheelbarrow through the school compound, up the small hill behind and all the way to the beginning of her village. I knew that if her stepmother saw me helping the girl would be beaten, so I left her there and said to go home and ask for someone to take it the rest of the way. When I left my hands were bright red, my arms hurt and I had broken a sweat. It’s no easy task. I can’t imagine doing that at age 6.

When Valerie came to help at the pump the conversation became more lighthearted.
Joesefa said, “When you marry a Mozambican you will come to the pump and get water like this.”
“It’s a good work out.”
“You don’t have to go running, just come here and pump.”
“Valerie is a Mozambican woman now. Look at her pumping water with her hair in braids.”
“Yes, but a Mozambican woman pumps water with a baby on her back.”

In fact, there were people with babies on their backs, including a very young girl of maybe 14. I know it was her child because she was breastfeeding it. I was happy to see the baby fat and healthy, but sad to see a young girl’s life changed forever.

There is a lot to be learned at the water pump. You realize how precious water is, you begin to understand life in the villages and, most importantly, you gain an appreciation for the Mozambican woman. When life gets tough the man takes off. It’s the woman who stays. People celebrate male politicians and war heroes but it's the women who keep this country (and every other country for that matter) running smoothly.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

More photos!

Here are some more photos I took last night at our neighbor's birthday party.

Val's gone native.
Nino and me

What a spread!

The neighborhood terrors (ahem!) I mean kids

Kids are kids no matter where you are

Nino feeding cake to his godmother

Sharing champagne for a toast

Para cima, para baixo, para esquerdo, para direito, para centro, para dentro!
(up, down, to the left, to the right, to the center, inside!)

DJ's working the music

Valerie and Louise with neighbors.

Nino and Dona Adelia

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Photos - miscellaneous

Hello Friends! I thought I'd brighten up my blog with some miscellaneous photos I've taken recently. Enjoy!

sweet potatoes from my garden

Josefa helping me wash sweet potatoes

The girls at our picnic spot by the river

Valerie (my roommate)



Jenna, Yours Truly and Louise

We biked 4 miles out into the "bush" for our little picnic

Ceremony in the town plaza for Tourism Day (I was the only tourist)

Girls with traditional beautifying face mask

My neighbors braiding hair in our backyard at night

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Backyard in Africa

This morning I ran my typical route down the long dirt road behind our school. I was up by 5:10 and out the door by 5:25. Rex was waiting at my doorstep, wagging his tail. We jogged through the three rows of identical cement houses that make up the teacher’s neighborhood, then past the rusting farm equipment destroyed by the floods of 2000, then out the back gate of the school compound and past the pig sties. All the pigs died about two months ago from pig illness (not swine flu don’t worry!). I'm quite pleased that I no longer have to hold my breath or encounter the squealing mess of a pig slaughter. The pig killers, knife in hand, would say “good morning” and invite me to help them. Not the most pleasant thing to wake up to!

After the pig sties the road skirts a village of mud huts, then the reed structure of a church by the river. At the first ¾ mile or so there’s a field worked by our students opposite the crumbling overgrown walls of a “matadouro” (slaughterhouse) from colonial times. The only inhabited structure after the church is at mile 3. I call it the witchdoctor’s house because it very well could be. The path to the lonely house is guarded by two tall, straight papaya trees standing like sentinels. The house itself is removed from the dirt road and is nothing more than scraps of plastic, reeds, sticks and bits of aluminum. In front of the house is a tiny swept yard surrounded on all sides by scrub and grasses. I once saw an old woman out front and waved. She did not wave back.

All along the way are banana plantations and many fields of corn, tomatoes, kale, cabbage and lettuce. About a mile beyond the witchdoctor’s house is a large field of sweet potatoes and an orchard of fruit trees with a barbed wire fence. The orchard includes coconut palms, mangos, papayas, and various citruses.

I always have the company of people working the fields or walking the dirt road, mostly women but also old men on bicycles. Many of them speak very little Portuguese and are thrilled when I try to greet them in Changana. Sometimes I say “na tsutsuma!” (“I am running!”). Occasionally the women will decide to trot along with me. I’m impressed how well they can run with flip flops on their feet, capulanas around their waist and a basin of produce on their head. Besides the farmers I have Rex by my side. He’s a happy, energetic dog, fox-like in his coloring and his tendency to pounce on small rodents in the grass. Sometimes he plays tricks and crouches in the grass, leaping out as I run past.

When I get to mile 4, I generally turn around though sometimes I walk out to the river’s edge. A large sand flat bordered by reeds extends on either side of the river. The banks are held together by acacia and fig trees. You can hear characteristic “tink tink” of the blacksmith lapwing and see little sand pipers running around. Closer to the water’s edge are strangely perfect craters in the mud, possibly fish nests. Herds of cows are led down to the river to drink here and boys pull up in decrepit wood boats to fish off the flats with reed poles, tucking the fishes in cloth bags around their shoulders.

Inland from the river is a variety of habitats. In between the cultivated areas, stretches of savanna scrub are reclaiming abandoned farm fields. Among the scrub are black patches of charred ground from purposeful brush fires. The fires, I learned, are used to scare out wild rodents (supposedly quite tasty when roasted). Various trees dot the landscape, only some of which I can identify. The acacias are the most “African” with their greenish wood, intimidating thorns and tiny paired leaflets. The fig trees, with their thick, spreading branches and partially exposed roots, look inviting to climb, but I’m too afraid of snakes to try that. There are also sausage trees, so named for their sausage-shaped, rock-hard fruits the size of a 1L soda bottle. When I run under one, I look up to make sure the fruit doesn't fall on my head. It would probably knock me out.

I’m beginning to pick up on the subtleties of the seasons here. It’s nice being in a place long enough to see the flowering and fruiting of trees. Today I stepped off the road to take a pee and heard the loud and curious buzzing of several trees swarmed by bees pollinating delicate inflorescences. A few weeks ago there was a sudden explosion of red when the flame creepers came into bloom. Now they’re going into seed and the landscape is returning to drab shades of tan and green.

My knowledge of local birds is also improving, partly because of the birding I did with Sean. A lot of birds we identified in Swaziland have suddenly appeared at my site... as in they were here all along but I’ve only recently started to look for them. I particularly enjoy the hoopoe with its striped wings and finger-like crest feathers. It hops on the road probing termite holes with its curved bill. Today I had the luck of watching two yellowbilled kites mate. One was perched in a tree and let out a sharp screech. The other made three wide, swooping circles before alighting on the same branch as its pair. I hope they build their nest in the same tree.

It’s nice to become familiar with my own backyard here. It makes me feel more at home. My runs on that long dirt road are a way for me to escape and clear my head in the mornings before diving into a full day of planning, errands and teaching. It’s also a relatively solitary activity, where I can go for long stretches without talking to anyone save an occasional wave or “hello.” It’s how I “get away” without actually leaving site.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll... Find a Goat!

So I suppose this entry will be under the category of really strange things that have begun to seem normal. In other words, if you were to see such a thing back home it would end up in the local paper but here nobody bats an eye. There are too many examples to name so I’ll concentrate on one subcategory: strange places to find a goat.

Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice when visiting Mozambique is the ubiquitous goat. There aren’t exactly as many goats as people, but it’s close. Any patch of green has a goat grazing on it, typically tied around the neck and attached to a tree or telephone pole. Other goats roam free, chased around by herd boys. In our school compound the goats provide a background chorus of bleating: “Baaaaaaaaaaah!” Like the hum of an air conditioner, it’s something my brain has learned to tune out.

The goats come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some are cute, others not, but the baby goats are always adorable. It’s fun when a neighbor goat gets pregnant. Her belly swells until you look at her head-on and it looks like she swallowed a root beer barrel. Then one day you see a brand new, squeeky clean baby goat wobbling on its knobby legs with its shriveled umbilical cord still attached. When we first arrived at site a pair of twins was born and Valerie named them Merry and Pippin. The two hobbit goats had the sweet habit of curling up in the sun on our veranda.

So goats are part of the scenery, but even so there are sometimes when I say, “Now that is just not normal!” Mainly this has to do with goat transportation. In our first months at site we picked up on these oddities more readily. I remember my first month being shocked at the sight of a goat teetering at the top of a tall pile of water jugs hastily strapped to a trailer that was speeding in front of us on the highway. Since then I have seen many goats strapped to the roofs of chapas or otherwise precariously attached to moving vehicles.

Sometimes the goat is inside the vehicle. One of the girls got a ride in the back of a truck and nearly sat on a rice sack occupied by an unfortunate goat. Another of the girls got a ride in a VW hatchback and heard muffled cries from the rear. The poor volunteer didn’t know what to think until the driver said he was taking a goat to a party. Even Sean got his own goat-in-a-car experience when we were travelling by chapa. The driver pulled over at one point, picked up a goat and shoved it under the back seat next to Sean’s backpack. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll tie her down so she can’t chew your bag.”

Goat transportation doesn’t stop with cars. I’ve seen goats attached in all manners to bicycles. Sometimes there are two people and a goat on the same bike! Either the goat is strapped to the back and the second person is sitting on the cross bar, or the person is on the back and the goat is riding up front with its hooves draped over the handlebars. In any case, goat-by-bike transportation is always entertaining.

Sometimes you have to get the goats across the river. Goats aren’t good swimmers, so people put the goats on their heads and wade through the water themselves. Carrying your goat is perfectly acceptable. Often I’ll see people walking down the road with a goat over their shoulders.

My most recent goat story is from Jenna. She was walking through town and saw a man yelling at some kids with a herd of goats. It was their father telling them to turn the goats into the police station because they had been found grazing on his land. Later, Jenna saw the herd of goats in the police station compound waiting to be picked up. Apparently the owner of the goats will know to look in the “lost and found” for his misplaced herd.

There are probably other goat anecdotes that I’m forgetting but it all seems commonplace these days. It will be strange to return home to a place where goats are confined to petting zoos. I wonder what folks back home would think if I rode through town with a goat on my handlebars…

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Settling in to the new semester

It's a Thursday night and I'm listening to the wind howl outside. The doors are rumbling in the doorjams, a metal gate is swinging on a rusty hinge and the trees are rustling. The lights keep flickering on and off as gusts jostle the shoddy wiring to the house. August is the month of swirling winds that pick up dust and knock the red leaves off amendoa trees. The winds signal a change in weather. We're leaving winter and headed quickly towards summer. Already today I began to feel the heat. During Chemistry class I had a moment of wooziness and realized that, while explaining the contributions of revolutionary chemist Antoine Lavoisier before his death by guilotine, I had gotten rather over-heated. We had a lot of material to cover that period because we started 20 minutes late. I have the misfortune of teaching a post-lunch period on Thursdays and Fridays and the cooks are chronically late in preparing the daily beans and rice. Granted they are cooking over woodfire, but you'd think they could start earlier! To add insult to injury, my second class today (Biology) was cut 20 minutes short when we lost electricity. It was already getting dark and I had to face the fact that my students couldn't see the board or their notebooks. When they started using the light from their cell phones to see the page in front of them I finally gave up. These interruptions are irritating and it’s tempting to think how nice it would be to work in a reliable American school system, but then I remember all the unexpected interruptions we had to deal with there - snow days, bomb threats, fire drills... at least I don't have those things to worry about.

Other than the typical inefficiencies and frustrations, things are going well. My little bird walks are becoming a weekly affair. Last Saturday I had a large group of male students. A few of them got pretty serious about it, telling the others to be quiet so they could hear the birds, intensely following a dove from tree to tree and arguing over the identification, excitedly pointing out every bird they saw... It's pretty darn cute to see teenage boys get worked up about nature.

My girls group (REDES) is getting back on its feet. We're still making earrings out of bottle caps and scraps of capulana and I'm hoping the girls can begin selling them soon. Our next project will be embroidery, taught by my neighbor Dona Adelia. The meetings are a chance to talk about important issues and we're working on a curriculum including topics like safe sex, family planning, nutrition, good study skills, higher education, HIV/AIDS, etc... Other plans include taking the girls to a conference in September, writing to American pen pals and visiting the preschool where we painted the mural last semester. I just hope I can keep their interest and continue having a good turn-out.

There's also work to be done in my garden. I had a huge harvest of tomatoes, many of which I've given to neighbors since we couldn't eat them all ourselves. It was very satisfying to hand a huge bag of tomatoes to the same neighbor who was quick to criticize my failed corn and pumpkin. He was actually full of praise saying, "Wow! And you grew those without any artificial pesticides or fertilizers? Those are healthy tomatoes." He said he'll help me when I replant the garden. It will be good to have his input.

Tomatoes from my garden

There isn't much time for extracurriculars at the moment though. I've been swamped with work trying to plan Chemistry and Biology. It didn't make sense to plan too much before the semester started seeing as I didn't know what I was teaching, how many periods, how many students, etc... I didn't find out I was teaching Chemistry until after classes began! Needless to say I have a lot of catching up to do, on top of grading. I'm hoping to get ahead with my lesson planning so I can relax a bit and be better prepared. Sometimes I need to do a scavenger hunt around town to find supplies for an in-class demonstration but I have a growing collection of useful materials in my room: balloons, vinegar, baking soda, iodine, food coloring, modeling clay...

I'm also trying to keep up my running habit. It's important for my sanity. But to run, I must wake up early, which means not staying up late preparing for school. Also, as summer approaches, I have to run earlier and earlier to escape the heat, sometimes waking up at 4:30 am!

That's my simple life here in Mozambique at the moment. I'm off to bed now because it's already late. Nobody is blasting music and the neighborhood dogs are quiet so I'll be able to fall asleep to the sound of the wind.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Back to School – part 2

So I’m back from my bird walk by the river. I took three of my female students with me. At first two of them were talking on their cell phones, but once we started to see birds they really got into it. We ended up identifying 10+ different birds and talked a little about where you see them, the kinds of nests they build, how they hunt, etc… It was late enough to see bats hunting too, which led to a brief lesson on echolocation. I love teaching science outside! It’s also great to get to know students outside of class, which is easy at this school since many of them live on campus.

I like to be available for my students and sometimes they reach out to me. The other day, for example, a student came up to me after Biology class and asked me to feel her breast. I did, and felt a large tumor. She said she’s had it for about a year now and had already gone to the hospital. They sent her home with some stomach pills which obviously did nothing. This morning I accompanied her to the hospital and the nurse tried to do the same thing. When I saw the prescription for ibuprofen, paracetamol and erythromycin (pain relief, pain relief, antibiotic). I stormed back in and told the nurse that merely poking the tumor and writing a prescription was not ok! I asked to see the doctor but, it being Saturday, he was out. We will return on Monday and demand a biopsy. If they don’t have the means to do that here I plan on going to Xai Xai. I was frustrated with the hospital for giving out pills like candy, but I was glad to have been there to help. Patients like my student go to the hospital and leave with pills thinking they have been treated when really they’ve only been processed and dismissed.

Having venting my frustrations, I want to express that, despite all the challenges, I am feeling good about this semester. Although I enjoyed teaching English and think I made a difference, I think teaching science in Portuguese will be even more powerful. I have a chance to give these kids some valuable knowledge that can improve their lives. Knowledge of science will help them in agriculture, it will help them to stay healthy and make informed decisions, and it will help them to see and appreciate their surroundings in a more profound way. Science is also a great tool for teaching critical thinking skills, which are all but erased by the “memorize and repeat” method they are subjected to throughout primary school. Even though the task seems impossible, I can find solace in the small accomplishments. There’s no way they will leave my course without learning something valuable. And I am learning too.

Back to School (part 1)

Things are peaceful today. I left the front door open to enjoy the gentle, late afternoon breeze and perfect temperature. I’m waiting to see if some students drop by to join me on a bird walk by the river. On Monday I saw a crocodile for the first time in Mozambique! I was running over the bridge and some ladies were leaning over the rail pointing to something swimming upstream. I’m hoping it gets left alone since fewer people are bathing and washing their clothes in the river this time of year, but you can’t really blame the locals for hating crocodiles. One of the other teachers told me about his friend getting killed by one in that very river. Anyway, I’m hoping to see it again during my bird walk.

I took it easy today but I need to get back to planning soon. Classes began last week. I’m no longer teaching English or Computers since I’m working full time at the Agricultural Institute teaching Biology and Chemistry. The Chemistry got added on at the last minute. Actually, I only received my class schedule on the first day of classes (Monday)! Needless to say it’s been a hectic week trying to plan my lessons the day before and write my curriculum at the same time.

Teaching two sciences in Portuguese is tough, but I’m enjoying the challenge. So far things are going well. The students at the Agricultural Institute are more serious and better behaved than those at the regular secondary school where I was teaching English, despite the fact that many of them are younger (8th grade equivalent). My Portuguese is good enough to communicate my points, but does cause occasional confusion. The students are pretty forgiving and I make a point to say we are “learning together.” This week I gave a general introduction to studying science and tried to get them excited about it. We learned about the Scientific Method and performed a few small experiments as a class. We’ll have to move faster next week to cover more material, but I still want to do lots of demonstrations and group activities to keep them engaged (and to give me a break from lecturing in Portuguese).

A note on the curriculum: it’s impossible! For the technical high schools, they squeeze three years’ worth of material (8th, 9th and 10th grade) into one year. Each of those curriculums is overstuffed as it is and the end result is a curriculum that covers more material than any college-level intro science course. In Chemistry I’m expected to take them from “define a solid, liquid and gas” to the basics of Organic Chemistry and protein structure. There is pressure to cover the material since there is a national exam for each discipline. Not surprisingly most kids fail the national exams. Some of those kids drop out and others repeat. I have a quite a few repeaters in my class.

Another challenge has to do with the school itself. While our school was being renovated, we moved into the upstairs of the neighboring superior technical school (a very small university). There’s not enough space, so the dorms and offices and classrooms are all on top of each other. There are classrooms connected to dorms without even a door to separate them. Bunk beds are crammed into very tight and uncomfortable living quarters and students have little space to live, let alone hang out.

Last semester there was a shortage of classrooms. This semester there are more students and an even greater shortage. Since I’m teaching first years, we get the shaft and have to wander around looking for a classroom where another teacher hasn’t shown up. If we don’t find one, we get stuck in a large, echoey room with a tiny chalkboard propped up on a table. The chalkboard has water damage so I can only write on half of it, leaning uncomfortably over the table to do so. The kicker is that they finished renovating the old school about two years ago and it is sitting there unoccupied collecting bat droppings while we continue to suffer makeshift quarters.

Why aren’t we using the beautiful renovated school? The answer I keep hearing is that the school is afraid to move into the new building before they are provided with new desks, chalkboards, tractors and other promised school supplies, the rationale being that the Ministry of Education will deny them these materials if they think they are “making due” without them. Apparently the money is there and hasn’t made it through the chain of bureaucracy. It’s been two years, which makes me wonder if it ever will…

A third challenge is student life at the school. So far I’ve been impressed with the students, but they are pushed very hard. First of all they have an intense course load. On top of that, they spend the mornings working hard in the fields. When they’re not working in the fields or in class, they’re cleaning the school compound. The kids who live in the dorms have to do a lot of this work on an empty stomach. A lot of days they don’t get breakfast and sometimes they don’t eat anything until late in the afternoon. On Friday I had to delay my 2:25 pm class by 20 minutes to let them eat lunch. They hadn’t eaten all day. When they do eat, all that is served is rice and beans. They eat beans twice a day, every day. Apparently they used to get meat once a week, but they haven’t seen that for a while.

When I heard about the living conditions of students I was appalled, but at the same time I can see that the school is struggling just to keep afloat. There isn’t much money coming in from the ministry and although the students pay to attend, it isn’t very much. Still, I am inspired by the eagerness of some of my students and I look forward to getting to know them. There were very few enrollments this year so I only have 33 students but I’m teaching them two disciplines - a total of 10 class periods a week. Each period is a new lesson, so that’s a lot of planning on my part but it’s enjoyable work and it keeps me busy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Mulungos on the beach

Boats on shore

"The Perch"

Plenty of white sand


From the bus window
Sean with a barracuda that we cooked for dinner

Sean and me

On the beach

Boats in shallow water

People fishing on a sand bar

The island reef where we snorkeled

The dhow boat that took us to the island

After snorkeling


Dhow boats

More boats

Egrets hanging out

People getting off ferries from the archipelago to the mainland

Lady showing off - damn those women are strong!

Taking bags of live crabs to market

The view from our hostel

A baobab tree