Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So... there has been a change of plans!

To my surprise, I discovered that Biology classes (the ones I would be teaching) are not offered until August. I found this out from talking with a student a week and a half before the start of classes. Needless to say I was quite vexed with my supervisors for not telling me this in the first place. I have since scrambled last minute to find another occupation for the next six months. Lucky for me, there is a secondary school about a 30 minute walk from me that was in need of an 11th grade English teacher. I got the job on Monday and started classes on Tuesday (not much time to prepare!). Thus far it is going well, though I am scrambling to put together lesson plans, syllabi, etc… at the last minute.

In addition, I will be filling my time by working as a computer teacher at my original school, teaching a class and helping the administration to streamline some of their procedures. At the moment, they have computers but still do everything by hand. It takes days to do what you could do in a few hours. My first priorities are teaching them to use the computer to make class schedules and calculate grades.

To be honest, I have come to expect situations like these. A curve ball is thrown at me at the last minute and I am expected to pick up the pieces. Nobody holds your hand. Peace Corps told me I would have to be flexible and independent, and I guess this is what they meant.

I think it will all come together in the end. I have only taught one day of English classes but already have some great stories to tell. I’m having fun, the students are learning, I am learning... I’d say things are going well.

“Estou a pedir”

I would like to write a blog entry about a single phrase, one that I hear many times daily and one that provokes intense and conflicting feelings. The phrase is “estou a pedir,” literally “I am asking.” I hear it from cloudy-eyed old women, spoiled children, destitute mothers, teenagers with cell phones, neighbors, colleagues… pretty much anyone. They’re all asking me for something. Sometimes it’s legitimate: “I am asking you to help me with my English,” “I am asking for a glass of water.” Sometimes it’s questionable: “I am asking for your phone number.” Most often it’s unacceptable: “I am asking for 5 meticais,” “I am asking you to marry me,” “I am asking for your hair (i.e. I want you to shave it off and give it to me so I can weave it into mine).” I am confronted with this daily. How do I reconcile all of these requests of “estou a pedir?”

I’ll give you an example. I was walking to town in the hot sun under my umbrella. I was practicing my Xangana, saying “dishile!” (“good morning!”) to some of the passing women. Despite the fact that they had enormous sacks on their heads and babies tied to their backs, they would wave and smile. With the fourth woman, older and without anything on her head, I got a wave and a smile and then some mumbled Xangana I couldn’t understand. She repeated in Portuguese, “I am asking for one metical.” I felt betrayed. I had come to expect this from children, but from a grown woman? I was disgusted. How dare she? You can’t buy more than a small biscuit with one metical. She was grinning at me. Was she teasing me? If she really needed money why not ask for more? These were the thoughts going through my mind at the time and I said to her, in Portuguese, “Are you asking me for money?” She nods. “Are you a child?” She nods. At this point I turned my back to her and stormed off.

As I continued my walk to town I cooled off (I say this figuratively, the sun was still blaring) and tried to understand the reason behind her behavior. How did she see me? A white girl with nice clothes walking to town under an umbrella, someone who clearly has money to spare. This woman had grey hair. She must have been alive before independence from the Portuguese (1975) when Mozambicans were still being exploited by their mostly white colonizers. She lived through the civil war that followed, arguably one of the most brutal internal conflicts in modern history. What had she seen? My heart softened. I forgave her. When I got to town another old woman approached me for money. I told myself, “If you give to her then everyone will begin asking you. You’re on a Peace Corps salary. If you start giving you will quickly run out of money.” But then I thought, “It’s just one metical. It will buy one biscuit. She may be very hungry…” I didn’t look at her and kept walking.

Another example. Yesterday a girl maybe 14 years old with her hair in braids showed up at our doorstep. She said she knew the prior volunteer and proceeded to walk into the house and sat on our couch. I asked what she wanted and she got shy. I sat down next to her. She said that the former volunteer had told her that if she ever needed anything she could come ask the new volunteers. I thought perhaps she was looking for advice and asked, “What do you need?” She replied, “Running shoes.” I was taken aback. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you running shoes.” She looked at me silently. “We are not here for that. We are here to help you with academics, advice, but not to give you things.” She sat on the couch silently for a long time while Valerie and I chatted about what we would buy at the market. We said we were leaving soon. The girl stayed on the couch, flipping through a book about yoga. I sat down with her again. “That’s yoga, it’s a type of exercise. You can do it without running shoes.” I felt like a jerk. I asked her about school and home and how many brothers and sisters she has. I asked how she knew the other volunteer. I invited her to come back some day and chat more. I still felt like a jerk. She finally left when our friend arrived to take us to town.

What did she need running shoes for? Just that morning I had gone for a run, enjoying the freedom and clarity of mind it granted me. Did she want to get in shape? Maybe she wanted to join a girls’ soccer team. Was lack of shoes the only thing holding her back? Sports teams are a powerful tool for building confidence and life skills. It could make the difference between staying in school and leaving early to start a family; between saying “yes” to unprotected sex and having the courage to say “no.” I was being too hard on myself, but the reality is that I could have found a way to give her running shoes. It would have cost a pretty penny and I don’t have much to spare, but I could have made it happen.

These are just two examples of the many cases of “estou a pedir” I run into every day. Valerie and I have talked about it on many an occasion. At first I was insulted and resentful. I wanted nothing to do with people who would blatantly ask me for money and things just because I am a “mulungo” (“white person”). Now I find myself with more patience. I try to see myself in their eyes. Why did they come to me? Can I help them in a meaningful way without giving them things? How do I explain my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer?

I understand now the importance of my reputation. The way people see me will determine whether I can succeed at making change in my community. True, even on a Peace Corps salary I am living a life of comparable luxury. I eat well. I have money to spare. But it’s so important that I make my role clear. If people see me as a charity it will be difficult to get them to see me as a teacher, an advisor, a colleague, a friend... But to what extent can I justify withholding my excess from those who are so clearly in need? This is the question that plagues me every day.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sand dune development and safaris without elephants

I consider myself an optimistic person but I sunk into a defeatist moment late Sunday afternoon. I was looking out at the Indian Ocean from atop a hill, a large sand dune, just inland from the beach we had been swimming at earlier. The beach lies on an inlet protected by a barrier island where the water is shallow and too warm and the sand is covered in inches of squishy muck. The beach, however, is white sand and pleasantly unpopular. As the light was beginning to cast long shadows, we left the beach and drove up the hill to see the property of a friend. It was a perfect scene. A cool breeze was moving the long grasses on the hillside and the sky was turning warm colors. Behind us, farther up the hill, a woman was standing on a rock in a flowing skirt, partially silhouetted against the sky. She looked as if she were guarding something, distrustful of our presence there. Around us, crisscrossing the field, was barbed wire strung between fence posts. It outlined the property we were there to look at, still untouched save a sign claiming its ownership. Beside the woman in the flowing skirt was another property framed in barbed wire, but this had the cement skeletons of condos under construction. On our friend’s property I imagined all the creatures living in those grasses, the unseen diversity and hidden worlds. My friends told me they will be cutting the grass there in anticipation of construction… more cookie cutter condos. They stood, arms folded, and discussed the grass cutting. It would take a few men a whole day, laboring away with machetes.

At least habitat destruction in Mozambique is slowed down by the constraints of physical labor and limited capital. Slowed but speeding up daily. With the influx of tourist income from South Africa and elsewhere, these rare untouched spaces are quickly disappearing under cinderblocks and cement. I have yet to hear any murmurings of dissent against this tide of development. The word “development” is tossed around without much consideration, too often confused with “progress,” too often assumed to be the solution to poverty and illness. The Millennium Development Goals, for example, are an often talked about motivator of change in Mozambique. The seventh of the eight goals is to “ensure environmental sustainability,” though I fear this goal is nothing but a string of catchphrases woven into grant proposals and never really acted upon.

But there is hope. The volunteer I am replacing is staying in Mozambique for a third year to work in Gorongosa National Park. Mozambique was a big safari destination for Portuguese vacationers before independence and the civil war scared off any tourists. What we’re left with are large areas of preserved habitat but no elephants (they were killed by hungry soldiers). Who wants to go on a safari without elephants? The idea at Gorongosa is to reintroduce the megafauna and attract tourism that both promotes the preservation of natural habitats and provides income to local residents. All I know about Gorongosa is what I got in a 60 Minutes special featuring the American billionaire investor (voicemail inventor Greg Carr) who has made it his pet project. Watch it online: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/17/60minutes/main4543667.shtml?tag=cbsnewsSidebarArea.0. I look forward to getting the inside scoop about Gorongosa from the other PCV’s who are working in and around the park and seeing if it really is an example of the “sustainable development” that Mozambique aspires to.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pasta sauce, rain and mosquitoes

It’s been awhile since I last posted. I can blame it only partly on lack of internet access (we have internet near our house but it rarely works). More so I have been caught up with settling in at my new home. School doesn’t start until the end of the month but it’s amazing how busy I can feel when I have nothing to do! Just about everything takes longer here.

Take cooking, for example. We have it far easier than a lot of PCV’s since we have a gas stove with an oven and a fridge (some would be very jealous to read this). We are also fortunate to live near a small city with a variety of foods. Still, everything must be made from scratch. Pasta sauce? Well, you lock up your house and lather up with sunscreen then walk thirty minutes in the scorching sun to town. Once there, you find your way to the market and duck under canvas and around reed walls, dodge fly-covered piles of raw meat, shoo away men proposing marriage and kids asking for money and women calling you over to buy things, and finally you make it to your favorite vendor waaayy at the back. You load up on tomatoes and onions, then move on to another vendor for okra, then elsewhere for garlic, etc… By the end you are lugging your sack of goodies back in the hot sun and make it as far as an awning on the main street where you sit in a heat daze and wait for the stores to open. They’re closed from 12 to 2 for a siesta and you can see Mozambicans stretched out in the shade along the sidewalk lying on capulanas or in wheel barrels. The store finally opens and you look for the things on your list: milk, popcorn, margarine… all out. So you chat it up with the folks behind the counter and promise to return another day and walk the thirty minutes in the hot sun back to your house (or wait for a ride). Once home, you begin the process of chopping, cooking, etc… If you want a salad you must first thoroughly wash all your veggies with bleach solution. If you want rice, you must sort out the rocks. Oatmeal? Sort out the bugs. I’m not complaining though. It’s a chance to practice my Portuguese, get to know people in town and feel somewhat productive. When I forget how spoiled I am I just talk to my friends in the “matu” (“the bush”) and they remind me what it’s like to be in a village with only tomatoes and onions, no refrigerator and only a coal stove to cook on.

An update on the weather: it rained! The rain lasted a few days and brought with it a stretch of cool weather (high 70’s) that we decided was sent from heaven. It also brought with it many mosquitoes. Despite our best efforts, they find their way into our house and I have resorted to wearing bug spray in the evenings. There is a lot of malaria in this region but I am religious about taking my malaria prophylaxis and using my mosquito net at night.

A note on mosquito nets… You need to tuck them in! It’s a pain when you have to get up at night but I realized that even though mosquitoes are too dumb to find their way into the untucked net, spiders are not. I noticed a couple of strange bites on my arms and legs and almost had a panic attack when someone explained that they are spider bites. It doesn’t help that we have a black widow spider living on our back porch. We’ve named her Charlotte (it makes her seem less terrifying) and have decided on a “live and let live” sort of relationship. Some of you already know that my Achilles heel is my irrational arachnophobia, but I am handling the situation well.

Perhaps another reason for my lack of blogging is that everything is starting to seem normal. I promise to continue posting even as the extraordinary becomes mundane. You will just have to write back and remind me how much of this is different from “normal” life back in the States.