Friday, April 9, 2010

Photos - Painting mural at daycare with REDES girls

Here are some photos of the REDES group painting a mural at a daycare:

REDES is rolling

I am currently teaching at two different schools, which has me spread pretty thin. At the agricultural school where I was originally assigned I am only teaching once a week, but I am also involved in the rejuvenation of a girls group called REDES (young women in education, development, and health). It’s sort of like Girl Scouts of Mozambique. There are groups all over the country and they get together once a year for regional conferences. I’m arranging to bring two girls and one counterpart (my neighbor) to this year’s conference during secondary school vacations at the end of this month.
It’s challenging to find convenient times to meet since the students are always busy. If they’re not in classes they’re out working the fields or cleaning the school compound. Still, we’ve already done some good projects. A few weeks ago we went out to the daycare where another PCV works and painted a mural. I brought a tub of cookies and a Frisbee and we had a great time. The girls decided to paint their jeans and this new fashion can now be seen walking around campus. I consider it good advertisement for the club.
Last week we had a Mozambican-American dance swap. Valerie, Jenna, Louise and I represented the USA with such wonders as line dancing, swing, the electric slide, and old fashioned rock n’ roll. My REDES girls showed us marrabenta, passada and some talented booty-shakin. It was girls-only and super fun!
We used popular music from my computer for the dance swap, but next time I want them to show us traditional dances with only drums for music. Some of the girls in the club are extremely talented at traditional dancing. I sat in on one of their practice sessions once and got to play the drum while they danced barefoot.
I swear Mozambicans dance out of the womb. I have never seen people move their bodies like they do in this country. I’m really looking forward to Woman’s Day celebrations on April 7th. There will almost certainly be some great dancing and singing.

I'll try and post some pictures in the next post.

Confronted with stories of Mozambique’s dark and recent history

While strolling around town after the Mozambican Women’s Day celebrations, we visited the home of a friend and gathered on chairs in the shade, eating fresh oranges and sugar cane from his backyard while we talked. It was an unusually revealing conversation about the civil war, a topic I rarely hear people talk about. The small community is made up of almost exclusively of supporters of the ruling Frelimo party save for the owner of the house we were visiting. Though the conversation was not unfriendly, they were openly criticizing our host for supporting Renamo and recounted stories of the atrocities that the party inflicted on townspeople only decades ago.
I sat in silent horror as they told us about locals whose wives were kidnapped and murdered, of the pits they dug that were filled with cadavers, of the heartless torture inflicted on individuals (things I don’t have the stomach to write here). In those days you didn’t dare leave your house after five o’clock. Jeeps with spotlights patrolled the streets looking for disobedients. Soldiers would force people to carry incredibly heavy burdens for many kilometers until they could no longer bear them at which point they were shot and killed. School-aged children were recruited to dig the mass graves and they laughed in glee as the bodies were mutilated and burned, brainwashed to relish death and violence. Some of those children are the parents of my students. You wouldn’t know it now. They seem like good, friendly people. In fact, it’s easy to forget there was ever a war here at all, until you see the pockmarks in cement walls where bullets once hit, the crumbling structures that have not yet been torn down or repaired…
The conversation went on to describe life under the communist government prior to the civil war. Everyone was forced to work on communal farms and the sparse production was severely rationed. Breadlines stretched on endlessly, many people never receiving their portion. Women would wake up before dawn and place a rock to mark their place in line. Rice was rationed so strictly that people were given only one kilo to last months. Those who were single or widowed and did not have employment were taken to slave away on government farms, receiving nothing in return.
I was disturbed by the levity with which they told these truths. They laughed and slapped their knees as they talked about a man whose ears were cut off and was forced to chew and swallow them, of unborn babies being cut out their mother’s wombs, of the children digging the mass graves. When talking about the digging up of human bones in their gardens my face must have shown my horror because I was told not to worry, that the floods washed the shallowly buried bodies away back in 2000. I gnawed on sugarcane to try and occupy myself, wanting to understand the history of this place but at the same time feeling increasingly tired and weary of absorbing the difficult information.
I think they were laughing because that was all they could do. There are not enough tears to cry and not enough hours to morn all the awful things that happened. I have the luxury of feeling bad. The people who really lived through these things have to put it behind them. There are enough problems to deal with now that it is impossible to dwell on the past.
Still, sometimes I wonder why people seem so complacent with the problems they face in the present. Why don’t they get angry about corruption in their local governments and schools? Why don’t HIV-positive people do more to educate others about the disease? Why do children repeatedly go to the hospital with malnutrition not because there isn’t enough food but because their mothers don’t know how to feed them? How can people still walk down the streets and laugh and smile and drink beer and cheap whisky?
But then I step back and look at the incredible progress that has been made in Mozambique. I see hundreds of kids in their school uniforms every day walking down the same main street where machine guns once roamed. I see busy stores and gardens, women selling produce at the market. At the hospital people are being educated about cholera, free HIV testing and treatment is administered, mothers of malnourished babies are learning how to make healthier meals. At school, my students want to learn English because they see potential in their futures.
Although it’s painful to hear about the suffering of the past, it allows me to see how far Mozambique has come. I can focus of the positives, the accomplishments, and do my small part to help my students and the individuals in my community to continue to move forward.

Mozambican Women’s Day

This morning I awoke to the sound of running water in the backyard and sprung out of bed, not bothering to tie up my mosquito net. It’s the first time water has run on the compound in quite a few days so I wanted to take advantage and fill up our water barrels before it shut off again. The rough awakening put me in a bad mood and I was impatient with the pile of puppies I found outside my front door. They are cute but unvaccinated and crawling with mites so I took a broom and swept them and the accompanying pile of dirt off the veranda. I was short tempered also because of a lack of sleep in the past few weeks. My malaria prophylaxis gives me vivid dreams and sometimes I find myself wide awake and very disturbed at odd times of night. I resisted the urge to go back to bed and instead readied myself to walk over the bridge to the next village to celebrate Mozambican Women’s Day. We decided to go on Mozambican time (i.e. an hour late) and got there right as the festivities were beginning. I joined a mob of women and bought a capulana printed with Josina Machel’s face and the words “7 de Abril.” Josina was the wife of former president and revolutionary Samora Machel and she is a heroic female figure in the war of independence against the Portuguese.
I tried tying the capulana around my waist but was quickly intercepted by some ladies who tied it for me the proper Mozambican way. We then began singing songs in Changana and marched to an oddly shaped town monument that I have taken to calling “the lemon squeezer.” Dona Olga, Jenna’s friend from the hospital, translated the songs for me from Changana to Portuguese. The first sang about a mother’s irreplaceable love. The second was about Josina herself and how she went out to the battlefield with a baby on her back, a rifle on her shoulder and a pot of food for the soldiers on her head – a model Mozambican woman.
The celebrations brought people from the village and surrounding communities. All the women had on capulanas and some had head wraps. Babies were strapped to their backs or cradled in front, suckling unashamedly at their mother’s breast. That’s quite common here, by the way. Unlike in the States, breasts here are considered solely utilitarian and it’s not uncommon for a woman to pull one out, feed her baby and then forget to put it away.
After the placing of flowers on the lemon squeezer, we heard more songs and speeches and watched some traditional dancing by local school kids. When celebrations broke up we went “a passear” (“strolling”) through town. First we visited the home of a man who had been ill. We sat awkwardly in their unfinished cement-brick home on plastic chairs and straw mats, saying little. I was relieved to see that he looked strong and was feeling better. It could have been malaria, it could have been AIDS-related illness… but I won’t know since such things aren’t talked about openly.
We then visited the house of another friend and had an unsettling conversation about the civil war (the subject of the next post). After this we caught a ride to the city, got sandwiches for lunch and navigated the muddy market looking for produce. With the rains, the produce selection has greatly improved and I found such delicacies as pumpkin, plump eggplants and green bell peppers that are big enough to stuff.
When I returned home I unloaded groceries and was just settling in for a much-needed nap when our neighbor, Nelia, called me over to witness the roasting of cashews. I thought it an unremarkable event to disrupt my nap but went out anyway. They had a piece of metal roofing set on cinderblocks above a fire made with sugarcane husks. Two girls stood away from the fire and used long sticks to constantly turn over the nuts, still in their toxic husks. Nelia pulled me away from the fire and explained something, making quick gestures and spreading her fingers. I didn’t understand until the pile of nuts suddenly erupted in flames as if doused in gasoline. The girls squeeled and jumped back as the flames grew. Apparently the same compound that makes the husks toxic before roasting is also extremely flammable. They had to use sticks to turn over the metal sheet onto the grown, the flaming nuts spreading across the sand and the flame diminishing into a blue smoke. It was quite dramatic, the whole production, and it made me appreciate the roasted cashews I buy in plastic bags on the street.

Am I teaching English or Health Ed??

Another typical Mozambican conversation:

- Good afternoon!
- Good afternoon!
- All is well?
- All is well, except for this mud!
- Yes, but the rain is good.
- You are right. With rain we will have food.

The rains arrived the morning after I planted the first seeds in my garden and now I’m seeing sprouts. Other people’s gardens are farther along. On the way to school today I saw lots of green: corn, pumpkin, beans, garlic, onions, tomatoes, cacana, cassava…

People here live close to the land. Rains bring life, but too much brings cholera. Northern parts of Mozambique have had outbreaks in the past month. The hospital near my school has its cholera tents and beds prepared just in case. Luckily this area has been spared an outbreak the last few years, mainly thanks to successful water purification efforts (adding bleach) in surrounding rural communities.

Still, I worry about my students, many of whom do not treat their water. Last week they had trimester exams and I wrote the reading comprehension section about the transmission and prevention of cholera. Subliminal messaging? That’s what I’m going for. I try to throw health messages into my lessons wherever possible. Some miscellaneous examples from my 11th grade English classes:

1. I need to buy (buy) a mosquito net.
2. They decided to wait (wait) before having children.
3. They got (get) tested for HIV.
4. We chose (chose) to use a condom.
5. She knows her/hers HIV status.
6. There are two ways to treat your water. What are they?
7. What kind of disease is cholera?
8. What happens when women have children at a very young age?
9. What role do men play in the education of women?
10. What must Nelia and the children eat to stay healthy and strong?
11. How will Claudia and Paulo find out their HIV status?
12. Why must they use a condom even if they are HIV negative?
13. Who can get malaria?
14. How is malaria transmitted?

Sometimes when I talk about condoms in class, the kids will actually pull them out of their backpacks and hold them up. USAID donates them to my school and they are handed out for free in the library. Hurray for prevention! Safe sex is a part of the public school curriculum in Mozambique. Except for the Catholic mission schools, there is little controversy about it. When between 1/4 and 1/3 of your population is thought to be HIV positive, you can’t afford to rely on abstinence-only education.

I’m looking forward to teaching Biology in August. I got a taste of it last week when kids were studying for their finals in the library and asking me questions. I got to explain the lifecycle of the parasite that causes malaria. A student then asked me if you can get HIV from a mosquito bite and I explained why that is not possible. We got to talk about why HIV positive people are more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis. They were intrigued to learn that it’s possible for an HIV positive women to have an HIV negative baby, and that even though breast milk carries HIV it’s recommended that she breast feed until the baby begins to eat solid foods (since most people can’t afford formula). We even got to have that valuable talk about why you should use a condom even if you trust your partner and have both been tested negative for HIV.

If you had asked me a few months ago if I would be comfortable having these conversations with Mozambican high schoolers I probably would have told you no, but it’s amazing how you learn to fill that teacher role. I care about my students and I want them to have the right information to make healthy decisions. It can be the difference between a great future and a life cut short.