Saturday, July 31, 2010

Some Guest Postings by Sean

Sean left this weekend to return to the USA and I’ll be starting classes on Monday. He kept up a journal during his adventure here in… (gasp!)... AFRICA! and he wrote four guest blog entries, which that I’ve posted below. It was nice to hear his reflections. Sometimes he noticed things that I didn’t or had forgotten about. Other times he reaffirmed my own conclusions. I think you’ll enjoy the new point of view.

I also need to catch you up on our adventures so later I’ll post some entries and photos of Swaziland, Vilankulo and Tofo after that. Be excited – there are lions!

Vacation (Sean)

Some final thoughts while I’m here on the concept of vacation. Vacations are usually undertaken to escape the challenges one faces at home. To “get away” from something. But in general, vacations are typically supposed to be easier than whatever else you do while not on vacation. While I’ll never suggest that there is anything challenging about sitting on a beach on the Indian Ocean, this trip has certainly had its major challenges. But more so, getting used to this supersocial culture, its inefficiencies, and its transportation has been very difficult. I felt like I had really accomplished something after hearing some German friends reveal that they were looking to flee Mozambique, entirely fed up with the transportation system. I have gotten at least a little more comfortable here, to the point where I can get on a chapa by myself, can walk at night in Maputo without shaking in my boots, and can tell when I’m being lied to at the market. Much of this trip has been paradise, but it has been interspersed with intense unease (relative to my standards). I sure appreciate Tofo beach a lot more having gone through comparative hell to get there.

Africa has definitely loosened me up, made me look at my own culture from the outside, and allowed me to experience firsthand some of the challenges faced by those living here, allowing me to have a much better understanding of why things do or do not work here, and how to make change or take action in a way that is effective and appropriate for this place. After just 4 weeks here, I think the key realization is that I really don’t understand the system at all. Perspective has become one of the most important words to me, and in no small thanks to Clancy.

While I have definitely enjoyed my time here, I am excited to return to the comfort of the United States. In some ways, my return to the U.S. will itself feel like a vacation. I suppose the most successful vacations are ones where you take some back home with you.

Minority (Sean)

Clancy and Valerie have gone off to school for the morning, and the cleaning woman inadvertently locked me in the house, so I’m lounging about, trying to sort out this business of being a white minority. It is hard to separate my skin color from the other reasons why one from the U.S. may be uncomfortable here. Being a minority means a lot of things, and skin color is only one of many aspects in which my minority status is expressed, especially in this country. The language gap is probably the most difficult part of it all, even though I’m becoming fairly decent at understanding Portuguese. It is pretty uncomfortable to hear the word “mulungo” interspersed in (loud), rapid Changana, knowing that the strangers sitting next to you are talking about you. I try to remember that one’s personality doesn’t change depending on the language being spoken: Folks are very friendly in Portuguese, and are probably no different when speaking Changana, even if it is rude to do so when we’re in earshot. In the next town over, which has been historically quite removed from foreigners, I definitely felt stared at and isolated. Clancy mentioned that the folks there have a habit of informing her of exactly where she and the other PCVs have been at every point throughout the day.

At our site, however, I’ve felt surprisingly more comfortable than I expected to. The market is a bustling place, but I seem to be a passing fad. It’s also significant that I’m a tall, white male, which apparently engenders an air of intimidation rather than the vulnerability that a female would experience. As a result, I’m mostly left alone, and Clancy isn’t the target of cat calls when I’m around. On the chapa, no one seems to care about me, I’m just another obstacle to climb over to sit down (or otherwise occupy, creatively, a piece of empty space in the vehicle). At school, the students are mostly respectful, and are either very approachable or very shy. Beneath the loud and dynamic entity that is the classroom atmosphere, I could tell that the students really cared about making a good impression on me and wishing me the best on my visit here. One student raised his hand and stood up to say, “Tell people in America: we may be of different colors, but we are all one man.” I don’t feel like just a celebrity, but also an ambassador by default, and more often than not a catalyst for positive curiosity. I do feel privileged here for sure, and 95% of people here have been wonderful.

I immediately noticed that the PCV girls in this province stick together like sisters, in much the same way that minorities gravitate together in the U.S. I understand much better now why neighborhoods around the world often end up ethnically segregated, since minorities want to be in the company of those who are sharing the same experience. Human nature, really. Being drawn toward the familiar.

All in all, being a minority keeps me on my toes and engaged all day, every moment, but mostly because I know I’m being evaluated constantly. I do feel safe here… not safe like in the U.S., but as safe as a white person can be in third-world Africa.

At School (Sean)

It is interesting that school seems to be a construct of American or European industrialism, and is applied to other developing countries regardless of whether this method is consistent with their culture. For instance, every aspect of Mozambican culture is social and collective. Truly, no man is an island in this country, and people grow up relying on each other. Now imagine putting 45 teenage Mozambicans in a small classroom and asking them to something absolutely independently: take an exam without speaking. Moreover, they don’t seem to be bothered that the teacher is watching them cheat. They barely try to hide it, and every time Clancy turns her back, half the class looks around for moral support and silent (or not-so-silent) conferencing. Even when I’m looking right at them! Kind of like herding cats or filling a bucket of water using a slotted spoon.

Though Clancy’s classes hybridize 10th grade material with pre-school behavior, the students are certainly interested in learning, so much so that they are at the edge of their seat to try out every new English phrase. Still, I can’t help but feel that the structure of western schools doesn’t work well here. There is a lot to like about this student body and culture. Half of the class jumps up to volunteer in English exercises and dialogues- that just doesn’t happen in the states! I feel like these kids could be extremely good at things which we struggle at, but the structure of the schools must be re-directed to realize this potential. What kind of alternatives are there to the style of secondary schooling we receive in the United States? I have no idea! How else could the same important information be delivered and received in a way that is more conducive to and effective in this extremely social culture?

First Impressions from the Visitor (Sean)

Hi all, this is Clancy’s boyfriend, Sean. I’ve been having a fantastic time visiting Mozambique the last 4 weeks, and I am about to make the long trek back to the U.S. tomorrow.

Being a visitor has been daunting, fascinating, and informative for both of us. For Clancy, a fresh dose of American perspective after 9 months of acclimating to Mozambican culture has reminded her of certain weird or abnormal aspects of the culture that have become second nature to her. (For instance, traveling with 26 people in a chapa built for 14 is not something you would normally expect to get used to). For me, having Clancy as a guide has allowed me to get a truly Mozambican experience without [most of] the frustration of being alone and disoriented in an unfamiliar place.

I’m getting familiar with the pace of life here, and beginning to understand “Mozambique time.” It seems that Mozambicans are active all day, but the pace is slower, and less can be accomplished in x hours. For instance, a half-day in town can be filled up by buying a single bag of groceries, printing 2 pages of a document, withdrawing money from an ATM, and getting an egg sandwich. Why? People walk slow, talk slow, and must chat with anyone and everyone in passing. Every item is purchased from a different person at a different stall, accompanied by a short conversation. I like it very much because you often meet the actual person who planted and harvested the item you will consume. Buying food from a vendor takes a while because money exchange takes several minutes for no particular reason.

Mostly, the infrastructure is lacking, so tasks take longer because technology is not setting up a foundation upon which to work, and no steps can be skipped as a result. Tangentially, cell phones must have improved the quality of life dramatically. People always seem to be on the move, but moving slowly, and never in too much of a hurry to hang out. “I’ll be there soon,” could mean anything here.

The big, bad, scary image of Africa as a sad, sick, dangerous place is wrong. Some parts are bad, but there are plenty of good strangers watching out to make sure you don’t wander into those parts. People will go an hour out of their way to make sure you get to the right bus stop. Folks are impoverished and live very difficult lives, but they are happy, thankful, and peaceful. At the market, if you buy a 10 met sandwich with a 100 met bill, the vendor will walk away to find change, and you can be confident that they will return with your change, even if it takes 10 minutes. If you get on an international minibus to Swaziland, you can turn your passport over to the driver knowing that you’ll get it back (though this did give me a minor heart attack the first time).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Where Did Clancy Go?

I’m back after a long hiatus from the blog world. I won’t try to catch you up on the last month and a half, but I will try to explain my lapse in posting. There’s no good excuse really, I was just in a slump. My motivation was lacking and I was feeling all the symptoms of burn-out. I’ll explain the frustration I was feeling at that time. Don’t get me wrong, there were still a lot of bright moments – enlightening conversations, wheels turning in the classroom, having fun with friends, travelling to the beach, watching the World Cup… But it’s important to tell the whole story, the ups and the downs.

It started towards the end of the semester at the Agricultural School. Things were dragging. Attendance at REDES was dwindling. Girls lost interest towards the end of the semester and wanted to go to town on their free afternoon instead of attending meetings. The corn and pumpkin in my garden failed miserably and my neighbor didn’t hesitate to explain, after the fact, all the things I did wrong. The semester ended at the Agricultural School so my REDES and permaculture projects, which didn’t have much momentum anyway, went on hold for two months. In the meantime I was still teaching English at the other secondary school. The students there are known for being challenging and it was wearing on me. I felt like I spent hours planning a lesson only to have it flop because troublemakers would waste huge amounts of class time despite my best efforts at classroom control. A few students were really motivated, but the whole class got dragged down by the others who would shout ten or fifteen minutes before the bell, “teacher, time is over!” “teacher, I’m hungry!” “teacher, I need bathroom pass!” In addition, they all seem to have the attention span of a six-year-old and it’s extremely hard to keep them on task. Sean attended one of my classes during the last week of school and accurately described it as “teaching high school and preschool at the same time.”

In addition to work-related burn-out I was getting tired of the stresses of daily life. Everywhere I go I am noticed. It’s like being a celebrity. People know where you are and what you’re doing at any moment, they gossip about you… Everyone wants to talk to you, wants your attention, there’s no escape. I can’t walk down the street without saying “hi” to everyone and stopping to have conversations with anyone who wants to. It is a charming aspect of small town life but it gets tiring. Sometimes I want to go from point “A” to point “B” and not deal with anyone, but that would be unacceptably rude and could hurt my reputation in the community.

On top of my celebrity status there are constant reminders that I stick out solely by virtue of my skin color. I am often addressed by people as “mulungo” (“white person”). It makes sense. What are they going to say? “Hey, you in the hat!” Often I’m the only white person around. But it gets annoying. What’s harder to deal with is the negative attention from children who see me as some strange animal. They chant “muluuuungo!” or shout it rudely “hey mulungo! hey mulungo! hey mulungo!” For some reason they don’t feel the need to respect me like their other elders. Both children and adults ask me for money. If not money they ask me for other things – my clothes, my stuff… Men unapologetically ask me for my body. It’s constant. You can get used to it, but it still wears on you and after a while your patience wears thin. The only true escape is in my house. Sometimes I hole up and try to find peace in that sanctuary, at which point the neighbor children begin banging incessantly on my door wanting to borrow building blocks or paper and pens, wanting to show me what they’ve drawn, asking me to take care of a boo-boo and give them a band aid…

I was in serious need of a vacation. I’m writing now after a week of travelling in Swaziland with Sean. Swaziland is so peaceful, people generally leave you alone, the scenery is gorgeous and you can see all the African big game. It was just the escape I needed, but I’ll post about that later. Sean’s been here for two months and will be writing some guest entries. He’s helping me put everything in perspective. This is all pretty new for him, but we’re having a great time. Next on our itinerary is a trip up the coast to see the beautiful beaches of Mozambique. He’ll leave right before I start the next semester at the Agricultural School. I’ll be teaching Biology. No more English. I’m hoping to have renewed energy and motivation and get a strong start to the new semester. I also plan on continuing my regular blogging, so stay tuned.

Student Compositions about HIV

(This is a post I wrote quite a while ago but never put up. Better late than never.)

For a test grade at the end of their unit on HIV/AIDS, I assigned my English students a composition. They had to write about someone they know who has been affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. Yesterday evening I sat down to begin grading. I was sorting the papers alphabetically but stopped when I saw one of my favorite students and decided to read that one first. I read it once through and put it down. My head was spinning and I got up. I took a deep breath and when I let it out there were tears in my eyes. How was I going to get through these?

I decided to take a bath and noticed we were nearly out of water. I went outside to see if it was running and accidentally locked myself out of the house. Valerie was gone and there was no one to let me back in so I started walking. It was a half moon but it was enough to light up the clouds and illuminate the rutted dirt road around campus. I was afraid someone would see me wandering aimlessly and looking up at the sky. I felt lost and dizzy, like the ground was about to give way beneath me, but made it back to the house. I paused at the garden to watch the moonlight reflect off the moist green leaves then sat on the porch, letting the mosquitoes bite me, crying quietly until Valerie returned with the keys.

Moments like that I am faced with the reality that young people are dying early because of ignorance. When I first walked into the classroom all I saw was a sea of faces. Now there are names and voices and stories… individuals. I can’t think in percentages anymore, I think in individuals. You can’t be objective when you look into someone’s eyes. It’s so real, this epidemic. And it’s not fair. Young people live and make mistakes. But why must so many promising lives be cut short?

Follow up:
As I was reading the above mentioned compositions, I felt frustrated and angry not only at the reality of HIV in my community but also at the audacity of my students. There were so many copied or plagiarized compositions that I had to offer a make-up composition because too many received automatic zeros. To me, that reduces the legitimacy of everyone else’s stories. It becomes hard for me to know who was writing from the heart and who was inaccurately copying from an HIV education pamphlet in English. Was my first student telling the truth about his status or did he want a good grade? When I handed it back to him I mentioned that I appreciated his story and was available to talk.

Regardless about what they decided to write, I know that all of my students are somehow affected by HIV. A friend, a relative, a neighbor… they must know someone whose life has changed dramatically as a result of the disease. I also know that the odds are high that at least a few of them are infected themselves. I wish they would take this reality seriously. It’s a scary thing to have to live with, especially as a teenager, but ignorance can not be an excuse for needless suffering.