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


A typical scene from the school where I was teaching English

Neighborhood rugrats

Sean grating coconut

Dinner with friends

Louise, Tim, Florencio, Jenna, Sean, Me, Valerie

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Swaziland Pictures

Sean watching the rhinos


Checking out a lion

Yeah, he could get through that fence if he wanted to

Hippos and rhinos by the watering hole

Elephant butt

Bull elephant




Lions in front of our safari jeep



Hippos and a crocodile

The view from our door

Our bungalo

Nice scenery

Sean on the way to Execution Rock

Zebras running away


On top of Execution Rock

A family Christmas photo

In front of the hippo pond

Crocodile island



Warthogs and guinea hens

Some impalas
Checking out the birds

Found this guy in the road