Saturday, May 22, 2010

Oh How the Garden Grows

As promised, here are some photos of the evolution of my garden. It’s amazing to look at what was once rock-hard, dry, dusty ground and see big beautiful green leaves and soft soil. Now it’s time to organize the second phase: training students in this technique so we can make gardens for people suffering from HIV and malnutrition. It’s a big challenge and will take a while to get off the ground, but I’m hopeful.
Before the garden

The ground was rock hard

The neighborhood kids helped out

I pay my labor in cookies

Digging the trenches

One bed dug

Notice the hole and swales for water control

After planting I covered the beds in straw

Yay, things are growing!

And growing

Tomatoes after transplanting, carrots on the left

The pumpkin is taking over

Corn, beans and pumpkin in the same bed

Swales in action during a rain storm

Very fresh produce

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Travelling North to Visit a Friend

Mozambique is big. Really big. Look at the bottom of the blog page to see a map with Mozambique lined up against the eastern seaboard of the US. It’s even bigger when you consider the poor state of ground transportation. This didn’t really sink in until this weekend when I travelled north to Maxixe to visit Luisa, a Mozambican friend who I met at the REDES conference. It looks close on the map, but it takes seven hellish hours on a chapa to get there.

I was out the door by 6:00 am, just as the sun was coming up and got a ride into town where I serendipitously caught the Maxixe chapa as it was filling up. They insisted on putting me in the front next to the driver. This always happens and it makes me very uncomfortable for several reasons. One: I get that seat because I’m a white woman. Two: the driver always wants my phone number. Three: I have an unobstructed view of the terrifying scene unfolding on the other side of the windshield.

The first leg of the trip goes down a road I have travelled many times. We passed women selling fried dough balls and people waiting at the end of dirt roads going nowhere. Little boys with reed fishing poles were sitting with their feet dangling above the canal that runs alongside the road. The irrigation spills off into little wetlands that sport a variety of birds. I saw ten cattle egrets roosting in a low tree and a host of other unidentified birds with long and interesting bills. I wished I had my binoculars but of course that would be impractical on a chapa going 70mph where you can barely move your elbows.

When we passed Xai Xai I was no longer in familiar territory. The road degraded into a pothole ridden mess. It then got even worse when we entered the construction zone where most of the pavement had been torn up leaving only rutted sand. The bushes and road signs were painted with orange dust and it blew in the windows of the chapa. This continued for two or three hours until we moved onto fresh pavement and my brain finally stopped knocking against my skull.

Occasionally we would pass through a tiny cluster of cement shops and restaurants brightly painted with advertisements for Coca-Cola, condoms, cell service and beer. If you blinked you would miss it and enter back into a long stretch of widely spaced reed and mud homes mixed in amongst cashew and mango trees, tiny farm plots, and sandy yards with pecking chickens. The main difference between this and my region were the coconut palms. The farther north we travelled the more palm trees we saw. There were foot holes chopped into the trunks where people had climbed up to harvest the coconuts and there were coconuts everywhere! - huge piles of them covered with leaves on the side of the road, giants sacks of them being hefted onto the bed of a truck by strong men, basins of them on the heads of women approaching the windows of our chapa.

Finally we entered into the city of Maxixe and I hopped a different chapa that took me out of town and left me on a sandy stretch of road lined with reed homes and fences. I bought some tangerines and was munching on one when I heard “Clancy!” I saw Luisa, spit out my tangerine seeds and gave her a big hug. We walked up the road and entered one of the palm leaf fences. Her yard had an avocado tree, some pumpkin vines, a little corn and garlic, and some sort of citrus I couldn’t identify. At the back was a tidy three room house with a cement floor and walls of neatly packed reeds. It was adorable and she had decorated the interior walls with translucent white sheets to keep out the dust.

From the top of the road you could see the distant ocean and the sea breeze made for a cool and pleasant evening. I took a bucket bath outside behind a reed wall and then we made a spectacular shrimp dinner. After dinner we took a walk up the sandy hill. Children stopped their games when they saw us and started trailing behind shouting “howareyouuuu!” and “mulungo!” Turns out the word for “white person” is the same up north too, even though they speak Chichopi instead of Changana. When the children had become sufficiently annoying we went back to her house and watched Brazilian soap operas before bed. Mosquitoes easily passed through the spaces in the reed walls and there was no mosquito net. The insecticide Luisa sprayed seemed to do nothing because I woke up covered in bites, praising Doxycycline and wondering how Luisa doesn’t constantly get malaria.

We had leftover shrimp for breakfast, took baths and went to the city for church (luckily she is Catholic, which made for a relatively short mass as opposed to the 5 hour long evangelical services). Afterwards we took the ferry across the bay to Inhambane. I was short on time, anticipating the seven hour ride home, but we were able to tour the city and I bought postcards and a big straw hat. After quite a bit of walking we sat on a bench to rest, watching fishermen waist deep in the water managing the fishing lines in their bare hands and stuffing the catch into a cloth pouch slung over their shoulders. A few dhows were out sailing in the distance and other boats listed to one side on the muddy shore. For the ride back I insisted on taking one of the little wooden ferries that were essentially an aquatic version of the chapa. While we waited for it to fill up I watched a boy catching fish off the side. Like the men on the beach, he had only fishing line, hooks, a few bait shrimp and his bare hands. In the fifteen minutes we waited there he pulled up five little black striped fish and slipped them into a bucket. When the boat was frighteningly full, we motored off across the bay, scaring up three flamingoes that flew overhead.

Back in Maxixe I bought some cashews for the road and bid farewell to Luisa, promising to return in July. The trip back was just as long and painful as the trip there, but it was worth it. It’s hard to make friends with Mozambican women my age here. Most of them already have children and live hard and practical lives. We don’t generally find too much in common. Luisa is 26 and living in Maxixe while she finishes 12th grade. We both have the freedom that comes with not having children or husbands. Had there been a man in her house it may have been completely different, but since there wasn’t we were able to hang out and feel at ease. I hope to make more great Mozambican friends like her.

Living With Not Dying from HIV

During the past few weeks as I was teaching my English students about HIV/AIDS, I kept thinking about the movie RENT and the message of “living with not dying from HIV.” The Mozambican version of this slogan is “vida positiva” (“positive life”), as in you can be HIV “positive” and still have a “positive” outlook on life. Seeing as over 1 in 4 people in my province is HIV positive, I suspect that nearly all of my students have known someone who has had the disease. It’s possible that one or more of them is HIV positive themselves. Therefore, I was surprised at the level of ignorance and stigma I encountered in the classroom. I heard things like “if you have HIV you are dead,” and there were a few cases of jokers pointing to a classmate and saying “hey teacher, this guy has HIV.” When I told them they were going to have a guest speaker who was HIV positive they were aghast. “Teacher, you mean the visitor… she has HIV?”

There is a hospital down the street from my school where another PCV works and I often stop by to visit. The hospital does great work helping HIV positive people in surrounding communities, even going door-to-door to check up on them (which is hard when they live out in the bush and there is no car to take you there). I had arranged one of the hospital’s trained HIV positive activists to come speak at my school but of course when I came to pick her up she was nowhere to be found. I talked to my friend Dona Olga, a technician at the hospital. She left and came back with two women, one older and one younger with a baby strapped to her back. Apparently they were just patients waiting in line for their anti-retroviral treatments and she had convinced them on the spot to come speak to my classes.

A fellow English teacher, Bernard (remember the lobolo and the killing of the cow?), was kind enough to come in and translate from Changana to English since the women didn’t speak Portuguese. Each woman told her story in turn: how she found out she was HIV positive, how her family reacted, how she began taking the anti-retroviral treatment and is now healthy and strong enough to keep working the fields. The woman with the little girl strapped to her back explained that she found out as a result of mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women. The students were amazed to learn that an HIV positive woman can give birth to an HIV negative baby if a high dose of anti-retrovirals are administered before and after birth.

The women talked about prevention, treatment and about the need to fight discrimination and stigma. They said their families were supportive but they were afraid to tell their neighbors. They reminded the students that you cannot get HIV from sleeping in the same bed as, eating off the same plates as, kissing, hugging, touching… a person with HIV. Lastly, they asked us all to be supportive of our neighbors and friends who are HIV positive.

During the break period we went across the street and I and bought sodas and cookies to share. We chit chatted about our respective lives and Bernard translated. The little girl on the woman’s back grabbed and sipped at a Fanta and the mother said something in Changana. Bernard smiled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“She said that the soda you gave her is blessed.”

The students really seemed to engage with the speakers. Here were two women who look like their aunts and grandmothers, who speak their native tongue, standing in front of them alive and well and unafraid to talk about their HIV status. In each class, a student got up to thank them for their courage in coming to speak with us. Perhaps the most striking moment was when Bernard and I shook hands and kissed the women at the end of the visit. The older woman said, “see? They are not afraid!” and the students clapped.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Tale of the Wooden Phallus

“Teacher, what is that?”
“Why, it’s a wooden penis!”
The student who asked me about fell over. At that point I had become pretty comfortable walking around school with a carved phallus. As second period began I hid the sculpture in my book bag (don’t want to lose the element of surprise) and began my lesson. I put up the text about HIV/AIDS that we had been studying and asked the students to recite the ABC’s of HIV prevention:
A = Abstinence
B = Be faithful
C = Condom
When we got to “C” I had them repeat “Condom” until they were shouting it. Then I reached into my bag and pulled out a package of condoms and said “what’s this?”
“Condom!” they shouted.
“Good, and what’s this?”
I pulled out the wooden penis. There were some gasps and wide eyes followed by much giggling, as expected.
Finally, someone shouted, “penis!” (pronounced “peh neesh”). I corrected their pronunciation and made the class repeat until they were shouting this, too.

We reviewed the purpose of a condom and then I asked for a volunteer to demonstrate in front of the class. First period’s volunteer was no surprise, a small kid who is smart and popular and thinks he’s cool stuff. He always wears a surfboard necklace. I was a bit surprised to see him volunteer since I’m pretty sure he had malaria yesterday, but today he seemed back to his normal, swaggering self and had no trouble sharing his “experience” with condoms for the class. When he had removed and tied the condom he illustrated proper disposal by taking it outside to toss in the latrine.

Second period’s volunteer was a girl, which was astounding considering the shyness of most female students here. I could tell she was nervous because her hands were trembling, but she was explaining in a loud clear voice. It takes an incredible amount of courage to get up and do that in front of a classroom of cocky Mozambican guys. It was definitely a “you go girl!” moment and I was feeling so proud. Then, when she picked up the wooden penis a guy in back shouted, in Portuguese, “she’s going to suck it! Suck it!” I stormed over to his desk, pointed at the door and said “get out.” I said nothing else and waited there, staring at him until he gathered his things and left. The other students booed him and he tucked his tail and hurried out the door. After that, I had no more problems with disrespect. The girl finished the condom demonstration perfectly and we all clapped for her at the end.

The condom demonstrations were part of a unit I am teaching on HIV/AIDS. It’s a good theme to kick off the second trimester of English classes since it is so relevant to my students’ lives. They inevitably know someone who has or had HIV, likely a family member or close friend. It’s possible that some of them are HIV positive. At the end of the previous class I opened it up to whatever questions they might have. Here are some examples (after we corrected the grammar):

“Can you get HIV from talking to someone?”
“Can you get HIV from greeting someone?”
“Can you get HIV from kissing someone?”
“Are there people in America who have HIV?”
“HIV came from America, right?”
“What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?”
“What percentage of Mozambican students acquire HIV?”
“Can you get HIV the first time you have sex without a condom?”
“Can married people get HIV?”
“Can you get HIV from a mosquito bite?”
“Why can’t you get HIV from a mosquito bite if you can get it from a syringe? They both prick the skin.”

Some kids still aren’t clear on the basics while others can ask pretty complex questions. A few of my students have been involved with Geração Biz, a youth HIV/AIDS activism group, but even they had some lingering questions. One of them approached me after class and said he liked this week’s lessons. My pedagogical director leads Geração Biz at the school and he was the one with the wooden penis. When I went to borrow it from his office he said they were going to laugh at me but that I was doing good work. I’m lucky to be in a school that encourages sex education and openness in talking about important issues. In this respect, Mozambican schools are ahead of many schools in America.

In class and in my blog posts I might seem pretty confident. I’ll tell you the truth. When I got up in front of class first period I was terrified. I had the condoms and the wooden penis in my book bag. I had told my pedagogical director what I was doing. There was no turning back. I had to act comfortable in front of the class so they would be comfortable too. I was nervous, my heart was fluttering in my chest, but I stood with my head high and spoke evenly. I wonder now, looking back, how many of my seemingly confident teachers were really quaking in their boots some days.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, but when you succeed you feel like you can do anything. I left school that day lighter than air. I chatted freely with passers-by. I sat on the steps of the paper store and made new friends with some ladies braiding hair. I practiced my Changana in the marketplace. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.

Talking About Race

I’m tired of being a spokesperson for the American people. I used to think it was part of my job description as a PCV, trying to represent the reality and diversity that is the USA. Now I realize how pretentious I was being. I realized this after school today as I was sitting in the main office chatting with our pedagogical director. He was asking the typical, “Will you take me to America with you?”
I said I’d pack him in my suitcase.
“No really, I’m tired of Mozambique. I already have my education, now I want to see America.”
The conversation continued with me explaining that he needs a visa, not easy to get for a Mozambican entering the US. Still, he was hopeful he’d find a way, joking that we could get married, asking me what American life is like.
“It’s better there, right?” he said.
I told him that depends on who you are. I explained that life can be very difficult for some people, that there exists poverty and violence. He asked what life would be like for him upon arriving in the States. I said that life for newly arrived immigrants can be very tough indeed.
“When they see me will they say, ‘Oh you are Mozambican?’” he asked.
“Well no, probably not,” I said. “They’ll probably think you’re American until you start talking. There are a lot of people that look like you in the States.”
“Really?” he said, “there are a lot of black people?”
“Yes of course,” I replied.
“They were slaves right?” he asked.
“Well their ancestors likely were yes. Generations ago people were taken from Africa and sold as slaves in the US.”
“So they’re African after all?”
“No, they’re African-American.”

At this point I was feeling good about my tactfulness with the race issue, especially given that I was speaking in Portuguese, but I knew I was going to slip up at some point. Whenever I have these conversations with Mozambicans I eventually say something I regret.
“You call them African-American after all? Not negro?”
“Yes, it’s not like here where you say negro or negra.”
“But they call each other ‘nigga,’” he said.
I have heard my students say this. I see it scrawled on the chalkboard after break periods. Mozambican kids hear it in rap songs but don’t know about the hate-filled connotations of that word, the controversy. When I ask what it means they say, “It means ‘black person,’ like me teacher.”

My students relate most to the segments of American culture featuring people that look more like them, but what finds its way to Mozambique is not a fair sampling of African-American heritage and culture. Rather they get a distillation of the most sexualized, materialistic and violent gangster rap our country has to offer. I don’t know why this happened, but it’s what I see. Mozambican kids idolize and emulate these images. They wear cheap brass “bling” over their uniforms. They write “G-unit” on the chalkboard. I was upset to walk into class one day and see an enlarged and frighteningly accurate drawing of a handgun done in chalk on the board. A bullet was leaving the gun and headed for a face.

When we did a lesson on professions and future aspirations, I had students in each class tell me they wanted to be “hustlers” and “gangsters.” I even had one tell me he wanted to be a terrorist.
“Do you know what a gangster is?” I asked.
“Yes teacher, he is a big guy, a big chief.”
“Gangsters kill people,” I said.
“Yeaaaaahh, they are big men with guns!” he said excitedly.
“Do you know who they kill?” I asked. Silence. “They kill mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. Do you want to be a gangster?”
He looked down, “No teacher.”
“Good, I hope that you will not.”

I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes. Rather, I want to more accurately represent the diversity of America. I want to tell the story of all its peoples. But what I’m realizing now is that I am not a representative of American diversity. I am only a representative of my own life experience. So inevitably when I try to represent what I cannot, I run into trouble.
When my director said, “but they call each other ‘nigga,’”
I said, “Well, that’s ‘gangster language.’ I can’t call them that, I must say African-American.”
“But they can call you ‘white?’” he asked.
“Well… yes.” I said.
“And you can’t call then ‘nigga?’” he asked.
“Of course not!” I said, exasperated, “If I did I’d be shot.”
“They’d shoot you?” he asked.
Here’s where I had gotten myself in trouble. Right here with this “they.” I was perpetuating the same stereotype that I wanted to break.
Backtracking, I said, “well no, I mean yes… it depends. In some places yes, I could get shot, but of course not everyone is like that. I want to say something… I shouldn’t group people by race like that. There are all different types of people, some good and some bad, in every race.”

I’m not sure I saved myself on that one. My director wasn’t antagonizing me, he was just curious. I’m pretty sure nothing I could have said would have offended him, but I offended myself. The race issue is hard to talk about, but it’s necessary to talk about. I will continue to talk about it. What I’m learning though is that I need to stop trying to represent the whole American people. The fact is I don’t represent all Americans, nor do I represent all female Americans, all white Americans, all 20-something Americans, all Americans form the Northeast… I only represent myself, Clancy Brown.

A Week of Girl Power! 2010 REDES Conference

Being on call as a chaperone, big sister, teacher for 40 + Mozambican teenage girls for a week straight is no easy task let me tell you! But last week was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. REDES (Young Women in Education, Deveopment and Health) is a Mozambican girls’ organization started by a Peace Corps volunteer. My neighbor, Dona Adelia, joined me at this year's REDES conference. I also brought two girls from the agricultural school, Fernanda (21 years old) and Leocadia (16 years old), to represent our group.

The conference took place in Xai-Xai at a hotel on the beach, but there was little time for sunbathing. The week was jam-packed. Even by fast-paced American standards it was intense and our Mozambican counterparts complained that they didn’t have enough time to digest their meals. Some of the girls who attended have never been away from their families before, have never slept in a hotel, and have barely left their village… I can only imagine how intense this week was for them. Hopefully it opened their eyes and gave them new opportunities and hope for their futures.

Each day had a theme:
our healthy lives
women’s rights
your future and education

On Tuesday, for example, the girls learned about HIV/AIDS biology, transmission and prevention. We had an outside agency come to the hotel to offer HIV testing and counseling. It was also a day for general sex education. There were accurate diagrams of sex organs, condom demonstrations, the works! The girls made bead bracelets representing their menstrual cycle. They talked about pregnancy and family planning. There was also a nurse who came in to answer all their questions. Even though many of them receive sex-ed in schools, it’s often superficial and sometimes inaccurate information. For some, this was the first time they had a safe, girls-only environment where they could ask tough questions about sex. Ages ranged from 12 to 27 so there was a wide range of experiences. Some weren’t even clear on the details of vaginal intercourse. Others had already had many sexual partners or even suffered abortions.

Guest speakers came throughout the week to talk about their personal experiences as Mozambican women, how they overcame adversity, became educated and assumed leadership positions. The girls read a translation of the poem “My Short Skirt” from the Vagina Monologues and talked about women’s rights. We discussed gender-based violence in its many forms (beating, sexual abuse, emotional abuse). This last discussion brought out personal accounts by some girls that brought me to tears later in my hotel room.

Sexual abuse is frighteningly common in Mozambique. In small groups we discussed the particular issue of teachers having sex with their female students in exchange for passing grades. It’s considered common practice in too many schools. When word gets out the school administration usually just transfers the teacher somewhere else where he will continue to abuse his students. In general there is no justice when Mozambican women suffer sexual assault. Accordingly, their families sometimes take justice into their own hands.

With so much heavy information to absorb, it was important to break things up with a little levity. There was much singing, dancing, clapping and laughing to be had throughout the conference. Music was a fun way for the girls to express themselves on serious issues. Each day a group of girls would write and perform a song related to that day’s theme. We even had some particularly talented individuals get up in front of everyone and sing songs they had written themselves. And dancing… well, Mozambicans LOVE to dance! Any chance they had to break-it-down the girls were all over it, the teachers too!

Each afternoon, I led break-out sessions on public speaking. I have already seen what a challenge this is for my female students. In English class I normally ask for half boys and half girls when calling students to the front. The boys jump up immediately but it’s pulling teeth to get the girls to volunteer. Of course the boys like to tell me it’s because the girls are lazy and stupid, at which point I remind them that their teacher is a girl and they’d better watch their tongues! When I finally get the girls up they put a notebook in front of their face or cover their mouth with their hand. It doesn’t help that the boys vocally criticize them when they make mistakes. “See teacher? Girls don’t know anything!”

With these experiences in mind, I tried to create an environment of encouragement and positivity. We started with some warm-up activities then we brainstormed good public speaking skills. To practice we did the “60 Second Hall of Fame” where each girl took a try at standing in front of everyone and talking for 60 seconds without stopping. Those who succeeded got certificates. If they didn’t succeed they could try again at any time throughout the week.

The last day of the conference I was eating dinner when I got tapped on the shoulder. A group of girls was standing behind my chair and said “teacher, we would like to hit you.” Startled, I asked them why. “Well, you didn’t give us certificates!” I said they could have another try at the Hall of Fame after dinner, but then I was caught up in some planning meetings. Much later, around 10 pm, I got a knock on my hotel room door. Three girls came in and said they were ready to try again. We went down to the dining room, me in my bare feet, and all three of them did the whole 60 seconds no problem. They were so excited they grabbed my hands and jumped up and down for joy.

Saturday breakfast was bittersweet. I looked around at the 40-50 girls and could name two thirds of them. Some of them had shared personal stories that I will never forget. Some of them had made huge accomplishments during the week. There was much hugging and kissing and goodbyes. Later that night I got text messages from friends I had made, some of the teachers or the older students, asking if I got home safe, saying they missed me.

I learned a lot that week, but most of all I learned that making a difference isn’t about numbers and statistics. When you hear about the numbers of women affected by HIV/AIDS… you say “oh, that’s terrible.” But when you have a friend who confides in you when she discovers her HIV status, suddenly there is a face to all those numbers. It hits you that each of those women is someone’s daughter, wife, sister, mother, friend...

And those other numbers, the ones NGO’s report to show their “success” rates to donor organizations. The number of people they have “educated.” That doesn’t mean shit. You can hand out 100,000 pamphlets and not help a single person. What matters are the individuals. If I helped even just one girl find her voice, if just one girl can find a brighter future because of this conference, then it was all worth it. However, I think that not one of us who attended walked away unchanged and none of us will ever forget that week.

The Killing of the Cow and Other Wedding Celebrations

I did not set my alarm yesterday and was pleased to sleep in past 6:30. I was less pleased when I saw the text message from Bernard saying I must be in Hokwe at 8:50. I rushed out the door with a banana and a handful of cashews. It was a strange morning. Normally the sun is out and gaining strength by 7:00 but it was nowhere to be seen. There was only a dense fog draped over the road and the fields. It created a dream-like sensation, walking down the road, seeing bodies emerge from the mist. I saw a group of women with impressively large bundles on their heads. Their wide bottoms swayed back and forth, keeping balance as they walked. I caught up with them on the bridge and greeted them in Changana. They were delighted.

“Dishile!” (“Good morning!”)
“Dishile khanimambo! U ya kwine?” (“Good morning thank you! Where are you going?”)
“Ni ya Hokwe. U ya kwini?” (“I’m going to Hokwe. Where are you going?”)
“Ni ya bazaar.” (“I’m going to the market.”)
They told me they were on their way from harvesting in the fields. One of the giant bundles was filled with lettuce, another with pumpkin leaves. I commented on how productive their fields must be. They smiled. I continued into town and walked into a general store where I bought two pretty capulanas. Then I went straight to the chapa stop and caught one headed to Chilembene right as it was filling up.

Almost an hour later I got off in Hokwe and asked some kids how to get to Bernard’s neighborhood. One of them pointed up the road and said “That way. It’s far. You should take a car.” Lucky for me a car came up the otherwise desolate dirt road right at that moment and I flagged it down. The driver, chief of the borough, took me out to the main highway and dropped me at a line of telephone poles leading off the paved road into the bush.
He pointed, “That way. Just keep asking people, they’ll show you the way.”
I got out and asked some women, their hands soapy from washing clothes. One left and came back moments later with an older man, his skin and clothes equally weathered from years of sun.
“He’ll show you the way,” she said.

The man’s name was José Machel and we made conversation in Portuguese as we walked. I followed him down the line of telephone poles then we turned off onto a worn path that skirted a grove of cashew trees. He indicated a line of people in the distance. “We mustn’t go that way. They are headed to the cemetery,” he said. So we took a different way, passing by compounds of small circular houses and tidy swept yards. The roofs were thatched with many layers of reeds and the mud walls were painted with geometrical designs, lines and dots. Neighbors called out to José, asking where he was taking the white girl. At one point he told me to put away the umbrella I was using for the sun and we navigated the narrow space between two barbed wire fences. After about an hour of walking, I was startled by the site of rows upon rows of tiny and identical cement houses spaced out among sandy yards dotted with mango trees. Turns out it was part of a foreign-sponsored re-housing effort after the floods in 2000.

We had only to say that we were headed to a lobolo ceremony and neighbors led us straight to the home of Bernard’s parents where a large crowd of men in slacks and button-down shirts sat in plastic chairs and women in capulanas and head scarves sat on straw mats. They were all under a make-shift tent. Bernard greeted me quietly, explaining that the ceremony had begun and I sat in a chair with the men. In the center the exchange was already taking place. One person read items off a list, things requested by the bride’s family to be paid by the groom. As items were read, they were placed on a straw mat and distributed to appropriate members of the bride’s family. Stacks of 200 metical notes were counted out. Suitcases filled with new clothes and capulanas were presented. Then came cases of beer and soda, jugs of wine and, tied to a tree behind us, a huge black and white cow.

The groom himself was not present during the lobolo for fear of being beat up by his future in-laws in case the gifts didn’t meet their expectations. Instead, he sent a substitute on his behalf. This was the man dressed in a suit and polished shoes who counted out the meticais. When the amount came up short he started sweating and dug around in the many pockets of his suit to make up the difference. He hit another snag when some of the old women began complaining about the cow.
“That cow is old!” they said in Changana. “He took our daughter when she was young, yet he has the nerve to give us a cow that is old?”
After much heated discussion they accepted the cow. The ceremony ended with singing and presentation of gifts by the other guests. Each family or group was called up in song and danced with their gifts before the bride and her mother, draping them with capulanas, waving new sets of flower-printed glass cups. When it was my turn, I awkwardly presented my capulanas, kissed the bride and her mother on the cheek and sat down.

The rest of the day was left to food preparation and sitting around. After the lobolo was presented the black and white cow was replaced with another. I had the opportunity to witness the entire process of killing, butchering and cooking the cow.

(Warning, the following is not for the faint of heart)
They fastened a strap around the cow's horns and tied the animal as tightly as possible to the trunk of a mango tree. When a man came over with a hatchet I held my breath. I thought maybe he’d go for the forehead, but instead he whacked it on the back of the neck. The animal thrashed wildly against the tree. Whack! Still thrashing… whack! On the third hit the animal dropped to the ground with a thud. After a few minutes, the muscles stopped twitching and the men began cutting off the horns.

At this point I was invited to get something to eat since it would be a long time before the real meal began. Somehow I still had an apetite and finished a plate of oily pasta and French fries then sat drinking tea with the women as they cut onions and sorted rice. After a while I returned to the scene of the cow slaughter. Several men were working simultaneously, peeling back the skin, scooping clumps of blood into a pot. The rib cage and gut were opened; organs were separated and removed for cooking. Step by step the animal was disassembled. At the end nothing was left but the grassy contents of its intestines, which were buried in the sand. Most of the rest of the animal was eaten – blood, liver, tongue, brain, bone marrow… They thought I was nuts for not eating it but were kind enough to prepare me a plate of fish.

The day went on into night. People ate their fill and ate some more. Music was blasted at top volume from speakers set up on the front steps of the house. They even had the TV hooked up to show music videos. A cake was presented and broken into bite-sized pieces to be passed around to all the guests.

The singing and dancing and drinking continued, probably through the break of dawn, but I took advantage of a ride with the one single car that had somehow navigated the long sandy paths out to the party. I squeezed in the backseat with a small child on my lap and we bumped along in the dark until we made it out to the main road again. An hour or two later they dropped me at the entrance to my school compound.

Excuse me but... school is still in session!

One thing I have learned in my first months of Peace Corps service is that success isn't about numbers, it's about individuals. That hit home last trimester when it seemed everyone had given up on school. For some reason trimester exams were given three weeks before school ended. Many students and professors considered the following two weeks to be an "extended vacation." Attendance dwindled. I was frustrated at putting hours of effort into planning lessons then showing up to nearly empty classrooms. Still, I was determined to set a good example and arrive on time and prepared for the few students who cared enough to keep coming. Below is an excerpt from my journal:

I walked the fifty minutes to school today, hoping to get some exercise and clear my head after another night of bad sleep. I arrived to a group of boys hanging out under the flag pole. I asked why they weren't in first period and they explained that the teacher hadn't shown up (not surprising). I told them I was off to class and one boy said, "but teacher, no one is here." I said that wasn't true, a few students were around. Even if I had one out of 50 students, I explained, I would stay and teach him or her. "Do you know why?" I asked them. They shook their heads. “Because each student is important. Each one of you is important to me." They liked that idea and I got a few thumbs up.

Sure enough, I arrived at my first period class to find one lone student. A few more trickled in when they saw me there. At the end of the period there were six students. In 45 minutes, those students got the individual attention they lacked in their normally over-packed classroom. We discovered and corrected several learning gaps and I saw things beginning to click for a few of them that had really struggled. Second period was better, with nearly half the class showing up once they saw I was prepared to teach, but last period was disappointing. I arrived to a classroom completely empty save a teacher calculating averages at a desk.
"Where's A01?" I asked.
"Oh, they all left," she said.
I was deflated, but then I saw one student from that class walking in the courtyard. I asked him if he wanted to have English class and he looked at me funny then said "yes." We went to the library and worked with some reading cards. His pronunciation was good and I had assumed he understood the material well, but then I discovered he was still having trouble conjugating the verb "to be" in the simple past and present. I was stunned, but then I found out that though he couldn't fill out a verb table, he could use the verb tenses in conversation. It was a great insight into his learning style that I may not have gotten in a normal classroom setting.

That day I only taught a handful of my students, but those students learned and so did I. I really believe each student is important. As long as at least one shows up I will stay and teach. I don’t just want to teach them English, I want to teach them that they are valuable as individuals. They cared enough to come to school today and I want them to know that at least one of their teachers cared enough to stay and teach them.