Friday, October 21, 2011

Things I Miss and Things I Will Miss

A while ago, I started writing down two lists: things I miss about home and things I will miss about Mozambique. Thought you might find them interesting!

Things I will miss about Mozambique:
1. My Peace Corps friends
2. My Mozambican friends and neighbors
3. The open friendliness of strangers
4. People saying “hi” to you everywhere you go
5. My students, both the sweet ones and the naughty ones
6. The feeling of closeness in my neighborhood (everyone knows each other)
7. Unrelated people calling you “daughter,” “sister,” “mother,” etc…
8. Baby goats frolicking in my front yard
9. Showing up unannounced at someone’s home and feeling welcomed
10. The Limpopo River and “Holly the Hippo”
11. Fruit trees growing everywhere: mangos, tangerines, avocados, bananas, cashews…
12. Pristine, undeveloped beaches
13. Speaking Portuguese
14. Awesome 2nd hand clothes shopping in the market
15. My kitty, Khanimambo
16. My own personal Peace Corps doctor on call with free medical treatment
17. The slow, simple pace of life
18. The “forgive and forget” mentality (i.e. nobody holds a grudge)
19. Strangers going out of their way to help you (e.g. giving you a ride, carrying your groceries, fixing your bicycle, walking you to your destination…)
20. Getting excited about showers and parmesan cheese
21. Blunt, unapologetic honesty
22. Coconuts

Things I miss about home:
1. My family and friends
2. Safe, reliable transportation/driving a car
3. Grocery stores
4. Blending into the crowd and feeling anonymous
5. Fitting in, understanding the culture
6. Reliable, high speed internet
7. Coffee shops, good restaurants
8. Customer service
9. Mountains and forests
10. Winter, spring, summer and fall
11. Hiking, rock climbing, backpacking and other outdoor sports
12. Set prices on most items (i.e. no haggling)
13. Going out at night/after dark
14. Men being respectful of women (i.e. no catcalls or inappropriate proposals)
15. Toiletries: face wash, hair products, etc…
16. Being healthy without daily malaria prophylaxis
17. Climate-controlled buildings and vehicles (heat and air conditioning)
18. Swimming in fresh water without the fear of crocodiles or tropical diseases
19. Drinking from the tap
20. Discretion and politeness
21. Timeliness, keeping appointments
22. Feeling busy, always having things to do
23. Schedules

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Now anyone can comment on a post

I was looking at the settings on my blog and I changed them so that you don't have to be a registered user to post a comment.

So now anyone can comment on a blog post. I'm looking forward to seeing your comments!

Sex Ed: Whose idea is it anyway?

I was sitting in a bare room with tables and chairs, listening to my ipod and slogging through the unpleasant task of grading national exams, when I was yanked into a conversation among several male professors.

“Do you do Geração Biz?” asked one teacher, probably in his thirties.

“No, but I’m familiar with the group,” I replied.

“Do you know what they do?” he asked.

“Yes, they promote peer education about HIV/AIDS and other health-related topics in schools,” I said.

“I think it’s terrible!” he exclaimed.

I was completely caught off guard by his response. Up to this point, the only criticism I had heard about Geração Biz was that there weren’t enough active groups in Mozambican schools. Of course, I didn’t need to ask him to explain himself since he immediately began ranting about his frustrations. The other professors, also middle-aged males, chimed in or took the platform from time to time. Feeling like the accused and unable to get a word in edgewise, I just sat and listened.

The whole “conversation” lasted the better part of an hour. The crux of their argument was that teaching sex education to students, particularly young girls, was promoting promiscuity. The idea is that if you teach kids how to have safe sex, you’re telling them that it’s OK for them to do it.

We’ve all heard the same argument in the United States many times. It’s one of the driving forces behind “abstinence-only” education and other stupidity. I sighed over the ignorance of it all.

But the teachers made a second point that actually made sense. They accused “us,” as in all foreign influence in Mozambique, of forcing modern ideas on a country that wasn’t ready for them. After all, Mozambique as a nation is very young. It only achieved independence in 1975 and then spent 17 years embroiled in civil war. It hasn’t had time to modernize and even today the prerequisites for a social movement, primarily education and access to information, are unavailable to a large segment of the population. So, how can we expect Mozambicans to embrace the types of social change that took decades to implement in our own country?

One might counter that Mozambicans write their own policies. So... are foreigners really at fault? I would argue that we are. Foreign aid accounts for 50% of the Mozambican government’s budget. As a consequence, the government adopts policies that mirror those of donor countries. The last thing Mozambique wants is to offend a country like the United States that dangles foreign aid like a carrot that it can yank away at any time.

I’m reminded of a talk that the former American ambassador gave to our group during training. It was immediately after the Mozambican elections and he was not at all pleased. He spoke frankly with us and said that the US would threaten to remove aid if the government continued to permit election fraud and block rival parties. I felt that the actions of the Mozambican government during the election were wrong, but talking to Mozambicans I never once heard anyone complain. In fact, nobody cared at all.

So, my question is not whether sex education or women’s rights or democracy or any of the other causes that foreign donors champion are good or important. My question is: where is the momentum for these causes coming from? When I talk to Mozambicans, many of them seem either to passively accept or to actively resist those causes. Young people support the causes more than older people, but in general I don’t see the same undercurrent of activism and awareness that usually precipitates social change.

Looking back at milestones of American history - women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, the PRIDE movement - all of our social revolutions came out of a great struggle that took decades of activism and education. We’re still fighting these battles today. The difference is that the achievements we’ve made were the result of will of the American people. Our victories, therefore, are powerful because they are our own.

In Mozambique, the process is reversed. A change is imposed on the government and it slowly trickles down to the people. In most places, but especially in rural villages, tradition and customs are far more powerful influences on people’s behavior than anything the government does. As a result, conflicts arise any time government changes are enforced at the local level. As a public school teacher, I essentially work in a government institution and I have experienced this disconnect first hand. The curricula include topics like sex education, evolution and gender equality that seem to be somebody else's idea that the teachers are forced to follow.

So… in our impatience to liberate the oppressed and modernize thinking in Mozambique are we actually stymying their natural development? By enforcing social change from the top down are we preempting grassroots movements that haven’t had a chance to gain their own momentum?

My last example is an experience I had at the regional REDES conference earlier this month. Two nurses came in to teach the girls about the female reproductive system and give them a condom demonstration. Our Mozambican facilitators took it upon themselves to remove the youngest girls from the audience and send them outside. This was a surprise to several Peace Corps volunteers who, infuriated, sent the girls back into the room. An argument resulted between some very opinionated people that later required damage control.

The Mozambicans who removed the young girls (aged 11-13) argued that they weren’t ready to see a penis and would be traumatized. They also repeated the claim that teaching sex education to young girls promotes promiscuity. The Peace Corps volunteers argued that 12-year-old girls were getting pregnant in our communities and needed the information. No consensus was reached.

Personally, I disagree with the Mozambican women’s claims but I also disagree with the reaction of the volunteers. After all, REDES is a Mozambican organization. Granted, much of our funding comes from the United States government, but I think it’s wrong to pick and choose when we want to listen to our Mozambican counterparts. If they’re not ready to accept change, do we really have the right to force it on them? And if we do, will it have the desired effect?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Provincial Science Fair

Friday morning my living room was covered in scraps of paper and cardboard as three students sat on the floor finalizing their posters for the provincial science fair. The days before had involved many hours of revising written reports, making models and finding big cardboard boxes for displays. By Friday afternoon everything was ready and we packed into a chapa and headed an hour away to the school that was hosting the fair.

There, we met students and teachers from all participating schools in Gaza province. There were forty projects in total and as many teachers and visitors. I was quite pleased to find that a majority of the teachers were, in fact, Mozambican. There were relatively few Peace Corps Volunteers. Those of us who were present tried to keep to the background, though PCV’s were responsible for most of the logistics.

By and large I was impressed with the knowledge and creativity of the students. Projects ranged from medicinal uses of the “miracle tree” Moringa olifera to circuitry to seat belts. Our three students, Alexandre, Ercília and Dércio, did an excellent job. They had rehearsed their explanations ahead of time and, though they were nervous, they all performed well. I had also worked with Ernesto, a student at another secondary school in our town, and I was happy to see him win a special prize for the best health-related project. He investigated natural remedies for stomach problems using a native vine (a picture of his project will be uploaded later).

We spent two nights and one full day at the school. There were plenty of activities going on. Population Services International set up tents and offered confidential HIV testing. Geração Biz, a Mozambican peer education group, facilitated sessions about HIV/AIDS and other issues. One of my male students performed a great poetry piece about teenage pregnancy. Other PCV’s and I wrote and read a poem about gender equality. Of course, like with every Mozambican event, there was dancing. I somehow escaped being dragged into the dance contest but my female student won a prize for the best marrabenta.

Aderito, one of my two counterparts from the agrarian school, came to see the fair and was very impressed. We brought a T-shirt back for my other counterpart, Clara. They are both pretty pumped about continuing science fair next year so I’m hopeful this great program will continue after I leave.


Setting up before the guests arrive

Alexandre: "Effect of Light on Seed Germination"

Ercilia: "Methods of Soil Conservation"

Dercio: "Effect of Salinity on the Density of Water"

Ercilia, Ernesto, Alexandre and Dercio (front) with their certificates

Dercio, Alexandre, Me, Ercilia, Ernesto and Aderito

A cool project conducting electricity through cassava roots

A homemade electric saw using a fan motor

Geração Biz demonstration of a female condom

"Use a condom!"

Thursday, June 9, 2011

National Exams: Beating Our Heads Against the Wall

You’re sitting in class, staring into space. The teacher is trying really hard to keep your attention but it’s just so confusing! You raise your hand to read off the board but as soon as you stand up you’re sorry you did. You have to sound out each word as you read it, stuttering on the first syllable. Your classmates start yelling the words at you and saying you can’t read. The teacher tells them to be quiet but now you’re sweating. Finally you make it through the sentence but you have no idea what it means. You sit down and start copying into your notebook. You’re 16 but you still have to concentrate on forming the letters. A lot of what you write is spelled wrong and you never go back to read it because it doesn’t make sense. When the teacher gives you homework, you copy from the smart kids because you can’t do it on your own. You don’t know why you passed all the other grades. Some of your friends slept with teachers but you never did. Somehow you always got a grade just high enough to pass.

You live far away but your parents arranged for you to live with a family near the school. You’re treated like a maid and have to do the cooking and cleaning and babysitting. It’s tough having so many chores and studying at the same time but you do your best. Sometimes you have to leave extra help sessions early to go cook dinner or take care of the kids and there’s not much time for homework or studying.

Teacher Clancy encouraged everyone to get a 14 or higher (out of 20) in the class. That’s the minimum grade to be exempt from the national exam. A lot of kids got to skip the national exam but you barely passed the class. Not surprisingly you failed the first round of national exams. It was so hard it seems impossible that you’ll pass the second round. You’ve been praying every night for a miracle. You go to extra help sessions every day. You’re so nervous that you don’t sleep well anymore. If you fail, your parents might make take you out of school. What would you do then?

This is an example of the struggle that many of my students are facing. When I get frustrated I try to look at things through their eyes. Their persistence in the face of such obstacles is amazing. It breaks my heart that many of them will fail but I cannot allow a student to pass if he or she can barely read and write, has no grasp of problem solving or even basic mathematics, and, as a result, is unable to learn the core concepts of Biology and Chemistry.

What pains me even more is knowing that the administration will change my students’ grades to allow them to pass anyway. I was beginning to see progress in my toughest students. I believe that if they repeat the grade they might have a chance to catch up and gain the confidence and basic skills they need to succeed. Instead, they will move onto the next grade unprepared, forced to sit through classes they don’t understand, feeling helpless and stupid.

Today I graded the second round of national Chemistry exams. Three out of thirteen passed. The other teachers I was working with told me that we’d have to “help out” the other students by giving them extra points. I explained that giving them points wasn’t helping them. They really needed to repeat the grade. They agreed with me that artificially passing students was just perpetuating the problem.

The curriculum itself is a huge problem. It combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade material into one intensive year. The result is an accelerated course that looks more like college than 8th grade. It is impossible to teach that much information even to well-prepared students. Some teachers compromise by “presenting” the material in a massive and incomprehensible flood of information. It’s rather like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping some of it sticks. I chose the alternate route of teaching only a fraction of the material in the curriculum but ensuring that most of my students actually learn it. I made my tests fair enough that a student who learned what I wanted him to learn could easily get a good grade.

The end result was that students with a good basic understanding of Chemistry and Biology passed my course with a high grade and were exempt from the national exam. Those who struggled and lacked basic knowledge and skills were forced to take it. It's not surprising that they all failed.

The national exam is horrible. If I were a kid faced with that exam I’d be crying every night. It tests the most minute details of an insanely over-packed curriculum. The good news for the students is that they only need an 8 out of 20 to pass. The bad news is that it’s so ridiculously hard that most of them couldn’t get above a 6.

What happens next? The administration of the school is faced with demands from the ministry of education. All that matters is statistics and if the minimum number of students doesn’t pass then ministry officials will conduct an investigation (i.e. an inquisition). When the students fail, the teachers are blamed. I experienced this firsthand after my students failed the first round of exams. I was called into a room with exam monitors who asked me to explain myself. I talked about the root challenges with under-prepared students and an over-packed curriculum but they didn’t want to hear it. The conversation shifted to “what did you do wrong as a teacher that caused your students to fail?” You can imagine how angry and frustrated I felt.

I have the luxury of being a volunteer but other teachers have their jobs on the line. The only course of action they see is to boost grades. The reality is that the administration and teachers are just as frustrated with the system as I am. They don’t want to change grades, but the hierarchy is so immutable and the bureaucracy so thick that they are essentially voiceless against decisions made from above.

I acknowledge that the same problem exists in American schools. There are students in our own country who graduate practically illiterate. Still, I count myself extremely lucky to have been educated in the USA. I feel like most of my teachers did their best to help me learn, my parents supported me throughout and the education system, for all its flaws, was a heck of a lot better than Mozambique!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Science Fair

We recently hosted a science fair here at the Agrarian School. The fair itself lasted an afternoon but it was two months in the making. We met with interested students twice a week, teaching them the scientific method, helping them plan and execute their projects and then write up their reports. Students don't often get a chance to think for themselves as most of their schooling consists of rote memorization. Science Fair was a unique opportunity that encouraged curiosity, creativity and independent learning.

There was no direct funding for science fair and students had to be resourceful. One student used cell phone batteries to power his circuit board. Another disassembled old phone chargers to get LED light bulbs. Others used bottles, bits of styrofoam, wood and avocado pits rescued out of the trash. Display boards were made with cardboard boxes donated by local vendors.

The making of the display boards was the biggest challenge. We spent two long nights in the computer lab while the students chicken-pecked at the keyboard. They learned how to format with Microsoft Word and some of them made graphs with Microsoft Excel. All of the computers were virus-ridden and I couldn't save their projects on a flash drive or a disk so we had to carry the school's single printer from computer to computer and print out each project separately. One computer wouldn't accept the printer at all and I had to re-type the kid's entire project onto another computer.

There was a lot of last-minute craziness (two students started their projects the day before the fair), but it all worked out. Only two of the eight judges we invited showed up but we found substitutes at the last minute.

Overall it was a success and I appreciated the opportunity to work closely with some bright and motivated students. I also had a great counterpart, Clara. She's one of the two female Mozambican teachers at our school and has become a great friend.

Below are some pictures and brief descriptions of the projects.

Students preparing their projects

Samuel - Global Warming: a demonstration of the greenhouse effect.

Jorge - Conductivity of various substances.

Ester - Which foods attract more ants?

Helio - Which electrical circuit is more efficient: parallel or continuous?

Geno - The response of rocks when heated by fire

Alexandre - Comparison between corn and been seedlings grown in the light and the dark.

Lino - Comparison of the permeability of different types of soils.

Dercio - Changes in buoyancy with changes in the salinity of water.

Mastel - Growth of been seedlings in soils fertilized with cow and chicken manures.

People checking out the displays

Lino explaining his project

Judges discussing and selecting winners

Clara and me with the two winners: Dercio and Alexandre

The whole gang

The provincial science fair is in July and we'll be taking the two winners plus two female students. Ester was the only girl who actually participated in the local fair. Another female student prepared a project but her guardians prevented her from coming at the last minute. I'm hoping we can convince them to let her come to the provincial fair.

One of our judges was a science teacher from another secondary school nearby and he borrowed the manual so he can start a science fair of his own. Ours was just one of many science fairs all over Mozambique. Winners of the local fairs go on to provincial fairs and those winners go on to a national fair. Last year the winners of the national fair received netbook computers!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Big snake!

Warning, this post is not for the faint of heart! Mom, maybe you should skip this one.

Others of you have been waiting for photos like this. A boa constrictor was caught in a stand of bamboo about 25 yards from our house. One of the professors killed it with a shovel to the head. I think it was living off of the chickens that peck around in the garbage.

The students gutted the snake and dried the meat. The snake skin is on display and the dried meat will be sold for a good price to traditional healers.

It's a beautiful animal, but I don't think I could have convinced my neighbors to let a giant snake live next door...





I used to bristle when I heard these things. I used to be angry. Now I sigh and look inward for strength and try to respond with a smile. I say to myself, “they are just ignorant. They don’t realize how much this hurts me. It’s just a word anyway. I am white, look at me. There’s no denying I’m different. But why do they feel the need to shout it at me?”

Sometimes I just let it slide. Other times I try to open up a dialog, use it as an opportunity for cultural learning. I say, “I’m not ‘mulungo.’ I’m ‘Professora Clancy.’ I am a teacher here. Please treat me with respect.” Sometimes it even happens in my own classroom. There are three students who have the bad habit of chattering about me when I turn to the board, using the terms “mulungo” or “white.” (The word “white” is spoken in English as a whining, drawn out syllable that is incredibly irritating.) Of course I confront them about it. I tell them “words are like rocks. They hurt when you throw them around.” I remind them that in my classroom we show respect for each other. But it still happens. I gave a kid a disciplinary mark yesterday. The bell rang and I was writing the last homework question on the board when he shouted “Tchau mulungo!” (“Bye white person!”).

Whenever I walk out my front door I can count on being the center of attention. People stare at me. Sometimes I feel like a celebrity. Other times I feel like there’s a horn growing out of my forehead. Sometimes people wave “hello.” Other times they wave like they’re waving at a circus freak. They get at thrill when I wave back, giggling and hiding behind each other.

Children are the most shameless. I say, “they’re just kids, they don’t know any better,” but it is still humiliating. They shout “mulungo!” and chilunguane!” over and over at the top of their lungs. They say “howareyouuuuu?” and squeal when you respond. When you run into a group of them on their way home from school, they crowd around you, daring each other to go up and touch you.

Teenagers make me angry. They are old enough to know better and they’re not cute anymore. I have teenagers stick their face in front of mine and shout “mulungo!” as they walk by. Last week I was running over the bridge towards a group of girls. One of them pointed at me and said, in Changana,

“African girls are pretty. White girls are ugly!”

I stopped them right there and said, “I understand you and I don’t like what you said about me.”

“I said you were pretty,” she said.

“Wahemba! You are lying!” I responded.

The girls wailed in laughter, discovering that I could understand and respond in Changana. There was no apology, no remorse. No one ever says “sorry” when confronted.

What bothers me about the children and teenagers is that they would never dare to do anything like that to an adult Mozambican. They would be beaten. Children and young people are quiet, obedient and respectful to their elders. They don’t see me as an adult. They don’t even see me as a human being. I’m like another species, an animal oddity that doesn’t need to be treated with respect or even humanity.

All of this is tolerable for a while, but after months and months of constant abuse you get tired of just taking it on the chin. You get tired of being the bigger person, being culturally understanding, accepting the ignorance of other people. You get tired of trying to bridge the gap and show people that you’re more than the color of your skin. It’s exhausting and draining. I understand why discrimination breeds hate. When the battle of educating and tolerating has worn you out, you are left resentful and defeated.

When I start to feel that way I focus on my Mozambican friends, the people who see past my skin color, who treat me like a person. I have the luxury of living in a walled school compound, in a neighborhood of professors. I feel safe and accepted here. Without this escape I wouldn’t be able to recharge. Without this sanctuary, I might become bitter.

Another Moz volunteer said something to the effect of, “to be white in the United States is to not think about it.” I miss not thinking about it. Sometimes I find peace in remembering what it’s like to blend in. I think about walking down a busy street or sitting on a bus and being completely invisible. I just found a journal entry from a trip to New York City right before I left for Mozambique when I was anticipating the situation I find myself in now.

September 10, 2009 – NYC

There is a sense of freedom, walking around New York City alone, feeling that while people may notice you, you certainly aren’t the most notable person they’ve encountered that day and they likely won’t remember you. You can, amidst millions of people, feel wonderfully alone, more so than in any small town. In fact, the fewer people sharing your space, the less you can avoid their company until it is only you and no one else. In New York City, I am unremarkable. I know that when I go to Africa, I will no longer be able to escape in the crowd. I will stand out and be noticed in any context. So for now, I am enjoying my moments of solitude and ambiguity.

When I go home to New England I will once again blend in but I won’t stop thinking about race. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that people are treated differently. Many minority people in the United States suffer discrimination far worse that what I’m experiencing here. It’s not just humiliation and irritation. They can face violence and unequal access to jobs, education, health care and other basic human rights. I only have to suffer racial discrimination for two years. Some people deal with it their whole lives.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Art Contest

It's been a while since my last post so I thought I'd kick things off with some fun pictures. I organized an art contest at my school a few weeks back. The theme was "World Peace and Friendship" and the contributions were sent off to Maputo for the national contest. I heard one of our students won third place for Southern Mozambique but I haven't yet heard who. Every participant from our school won a pencil, eraser, sharpener and a fancy certificate. The two winners got a set of colored pencils each.

I had a lot of fun with the contest. A few students really got into it and started coming over to my house for impromptu art lessons on the veranda. They don't often get a chance to express themselves creatively so this was a great opportunity for them. It was fun to see what they came up with.
Young people talking about their dreams. At the end it says, "I dream of peace and unity."

My only contribution from a female student. It says "happiness is always in children," "always happy," "world peace and friendship"

He wrote it in English!

A dialog about tolerance and fighting discrimination.

"Communication between people on different continents"

Winner 1

Winner 2

Hope you enjoyed the show!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teachers Demanding Sex for Grades

Usually my entries are somewhat objective but today I can’t be. I care deeply about my students and when someone is abusing them it is very much my concern. Today I had a conversation with my REDES group that confirmed a terrible suspicion: teachers at my school are asking female students for sex in exchange for grades and failing them if they refuse. And I discovered it’s not just a few teachers, it's more than I care to think about. Two out of the girls said male professors had approached them looking for sex. They both had the courage to refuse, but one of them failed a class because of it.

It makes me physically ill to think that my colleagues, the people I work with every day, my neighbors who greet me and chit chat and seem like genuinely nice people are taking advantage of their female students. One of the girls who shared her story today said that when her teacher made an advance on her she responded by saying, “No, you’re my teacher. You’re supposed to be like my father. I can’t do that with you.”

In fact, on my way to the REDES meeting I ran in to some male professors hanging out by the school. They called me over.
“How are you?” I asked.
“We’re not well,” responded one professor.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because you’re not here hanging out with us,” he said.
“Oh, well I will hang out with you later but now I am going to a REDES meeting,” I said.
“But explain to me, why is it that you only like to hang out with our women? You never hang out with men.” He said.
“Well to be honest, it’s because most men want to have a romantic relationship with me. It’s very difficult to find a Mozambican man who just wants to be friends,” I replied.
“Is it normal for men and women to be friends in your country?” He asked.

We went on to talk about the similarities and differences between our cultures in the way men and women interact. I explained that I am constantly being hit on, asked for my phone number or invited to have a sexual relationship with men I hardly know. It happens every day. The professors promised me that they are different and I gave them the benefit of the doubt. “Of course you’re different,” I said. “You are my colleagues. You are very professional. We can have a good friendship.”

So you can imagine my disgust when, after this conversation, I heard firsthand that those professors are having sex with their students. Even worse, they are using their authority to blackmail the girls into accepting. My REDES counterpart, who was also at the meeting, was equally disgusted. The professors the girls were talking about are our neighbors and friends. She explained to the girls that what their teachers are doing is wrong and that they have a right to refuse. She talked about the dangers of accepting that sort of offer. Because the man is essentially paying for sex, he holds the power and can refuse to use a condom, putting you at risk for STD’s and pregnancy. Even if he uses a condom there are other problems. Imagine the awkwardness you would face in the classroom, the damage it would do to your reputation if others found out and the risk that you would be expelled from school.

The system puts the girls between a rock and a hard place. If they accept the teacher’s offer for grades in exchange for sex then they are compromising their values, their health and their reputation. But if they refuse, they risk failing. And if they speak out they risk being expelled! That’s why it’s been allowed to go on for so long. I’m afraid to think that so many professors are guilty of this offense and that they are protecting themselves by creating a system in which the students have no way to defend themselves. Our message to the girls was they must refuse and then report the offense to their parents, to the school administration or to us. I'm also looking into women’s rights groups in Mozambique and places where they can report this kind of abuse.

Last semester, we discussed women’s rights at one of our REDES meetings. Among the rights listed were the right to education, the right to freedom, the right to say no to sex, the right to a life free of abuse and the right to speak your mind. We talked about how the actions of the professors violate these rights and how the girls must assert themselves and demand these rights, as hard as that may be. I was incredibly proud of the two girls who shared their stories of saying “no” to a teacher. That takes so much courage! At the same time I worry about the girls who lack that courage and are at risk of abuse.

On the walk home, my counterpart and I vented our frustrations about the situation. It’s so wrong! She called it a “poison” that had infected the school. Apparently it’s been going on since the beginning. Some of the professors are currently married to former students. What can we do? Too often if the girl reports her situation she is kicked out and the professor stays. But this can’t go on. If enough girls speak up then they won’t be ignored any longer. For our next meeting I want to prepare skits where the girls can act out the scenarios they talked about and practice responses so that when the time comes they won’t be afraid to speak their mind.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hit Happens: Corporal Punishment in Mozambique

This afternoon I set myself up on the veranda to enjoy the fading daylight. Just as I opened my book, the neighbor boys spotted me and asked for English help. How could I say no? They ran off for their notebooks then crowded around my chair. I helped them answer questions like “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” We repeated the pronunciation until I could at least decipher what they were saying. Then they sat at my feet to copy the answers into their notebooks. Their writing was interrupted now and then with questions.

Pretty soon they bored of English and the conversation moved on to other subjects.
“Ugh, tomorrow we have phys ed! Our phys ed teacher is really crappy.”
“He likes to hit children.”
“Oh no! Hitting children is bad.”
“No, hitting children is not bad. You must hit them in the ‘primary area.’ Hitting them in the ‘secondary area’ is illegal.”
“What?!? What is the ‘secondary area?’”
“Private school... I think.”

Clearly the kids were confused about the definition of the “secondary area.” I was just disturbed to find out that hitting was sanctioned by the school system. Hitting children is wrong, regardless of what “area” it’s in. Of course I have seen students being hit, but I had hoped that it was at least technically prohibited even if that rule wasn’t enforced. Perhaps this explains an episode earlier this week.

I had finished my class but stayed in the classroom to write in the grade book. The next period’s teacher came in but said I could stay and continue working while he taught. He asked the students to open their notebooks to their homework and began walking around the room checking, ruler in hand. Whenever a student presented unsatisfactory work, which was nearly every student, he proceeded to whack them repeatedly about the head and shoulders with a ruler. Some students laughed nervously, others flinched, others hunkered down and took it.
“No, you must write ‘y’ here! How can you forget to write ‘y?!’ Hurry up, write it, write it!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“Where’s your ruler? Rulers cost 4,5 MTN! How dare you come to class without your ruler!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“This isn’t your homework. These are exercises we did in class! Don’t lie to me!”
Whack, whack, whack.

I watched silently. Clearly the students were used to such treatment. Clearly it was ineffective. I don’t think it was hurting them physically, but the psychological toll was obvious. When he got to one of the female students she nearly dove under her desk. “What? Are you scared of a ruler? It doesn’t even hurt!” He said, but the girl was gun-shy. I had noticed this early on when I pretended to tap students on the head with a stack of papers. The way they flinched indicated a history of abuse.

Hitting is not confined to school. Far from it. Hitting seems to be the only form of discipline in Mozambican households. If a child has a black eye and you ask where he got it, he will tell you, “I was hit.” If you ask why, he will respond, “because I fell playing and scraped my knee.” As if a scraped knee wasn’t lesson enough.

Valerie and Louise understand the hitting problem all too well. They both work at a preschool here and are constantly trying to get the preschool teachers to employ alternative methods of discipline. When one child hits another, a common occurrence at a preschool, the teacher punishes the child by hitting him. The volunteers tried to explain that hitting a child only teachers him to hit others.
“It is never necessary to hit a child,” they said. “There are other methods of discipline.”
To which the teachers responded, in all sincerity, “there are other methods??”

Living in a place where hitting children is standard practice made me think about what discipline was like in American schools 50 years ago. I was fortunate to grow up in a school environment where hitting was not allowed, but a generation before me hitting was still acceptable discipline. Two generations before me children were whipped or hit with rods. I expect that Mozambique follows the same trend and I hope that the next generation of Mozambican students never experiences this abuse. Non-violent discipline can be far more effective, but it requires creativity, persistence and an understanding of child psychology. I hope that students and teachers will learn from the example of Peace Corps volunteers and see that there is a better way.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Joy of Music

It takes a village to raise a child… that’s an African saying right? I certainly feel like our whole neighborhood is one big family and all the children belong to everyone. I often host neighbor kids on the veranda, playing with blocks or coloring. When they’re thirsty they come ask for water. When they fall they come ask for a Band-Aid. When I return from a trip they call out and greet me with smiles.

This afternoon I was taking a break from lesson planning to play the guitar. I heard some giggling and saw eyes peeking through a crack in the door.

“Well open up the door then!” I said. Eight little boys crowded into the doorway.

“Do you want a concert?” They nodded emphatically so I started playing. It didn’t take them long to catch on. They danced and clapped and swayed.

Mauro shouted, “teacher, I want to sing!”

“Ok, go ahead,” I replied.

They began singing children’s songs in Portuguese and, much to their delight, I picked up the tune and started strumming. They fell right in with the rhythm of the guitar, singing at the top of their lungs and dancing up a storm.

We went from song to song, making up our own concert as we went. It was thrilling, being a part of their music. Mozambican children sing and dance with such pure, uninhibited joy.

When did we lose that innocence? Every Mozambican I’ve met dances and sings and revels in music without the slightest hesitation. I envy them. While I enjoy music and dancing, I find I can never fully let go. I’m always fighting my inhibitions. Who tells us early on that in order to dance we must dance well? In order to sing we must sing well? Talent is not a prerequisite here. It seems like dancing and singing aren’t even conscious decisions. It’s like scratching an itch, satisfying a desire to be a part of the music.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rains: feast or floods?

The rains have subsided and the heat has returned but for once I’m happy about it. Until yesterday it had rained every single day since my arrival back in Mozambique. It never lasted more than an hour but the accumulated effects of rains here and in Zimbabwe and South Africa have swollen the Limpopo River to the top of its banks. My morning runs take me over the bridge and I’ve watched the tops of trees disappear under the rising silty swell. The once shallow, lazy river is now an angry brown snake, swirling violently around the bridge columns. One morning the eastern bend was obscured by mist and it looked like a vast bay opening up to the ocean.

The talk among neighbors is of flooding. The devastating floods of 2000 are still fresh in people’s memories. The renovation of my school was part of the recovery effort and we only re-opened the doors last semester. Broken farm equipment, desks, filing cabinets and other flood-damaged materials littler the school campus in rusting piles. Even the paint on the houses still shows signs of “the night they’ll never forget.” Dona Nelia was telling me that they awoke with water to their knees and had to leave most of their things behind. She pointed up to a faint line in the chipping white paint of my house near the top. “That’s how high the water got,” she explained.

At first this year’s rains were good news. Josefa explained that January is a “month of hunger” because people spend all of their money and eat all of their food during the excess of the holidays and then are left with nothing. The rains have brought excellent yields in corn, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and other crops. “Now the poor people will eat,” she said. But feast could become famine if the Limpopo continues to gorge itself on rain.

This afternoon, after a long day of sweating, I went for an evening walk behind the school. Where there were once plowed fields there is a wilderness of grass and resin plants high over my head. I feel like an insect in the grass. When I got to the riverside I saw that, despite the pause in rains the past two days, the river level had actually gone up slightly. I came back and reported to Dona Nelia and another neighbor who were sitting outside on a straw mat. They said that the upstream dam is discharging little by little. Apparently the halting of the rains has not put us out of danger. Dams in South Africa and Zimbabwe will also have to discharge. People in the flood plains may be forced to evacuate.

Here in my neighborhood we’re going on with business as usual. Watching the skies with a weary eye and praying we don’t hear the loudspeakers calling for evacuation. It’s an unsettling feeling to think that your fate is in the hands of the weather gods or the politicians who decide when and how much water to let out of the dams.

To the folks back home, there’s no need to worry about me. As an American I have the unique privilege of an entire support team monitoring the situation and looking out for my welfare and safety. What I worry about are my friends and neighbors who don’t have the luxury of escape and who don’t deserve to repeat the heartache of the floods.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Photo

A woman stands, arms at her sides, looking at the camera. Her sleeveless blouse sags on her skinny frame. Around her waist is a capulana, on her head a kerchief. Her feet are in flip flops. It’s late afternoon and the light casts a long thin shadow to her left and casts a warm glow on the two mud houses behind her. One house has a thatched roof topped with an old tire and a corrugated metal door painted with words you can’t make out. The words say “Puff Daddy.” I was hoping to capture this incongruity when the woman appeared. She spoke only Changana so I indicated that I wanted to take her picture. She posed as such and I took it and brought it to show her. Normally people are satisfied with seeing themselves in the screen but this woman wanted something. She began talking urgently, with me not understanding a word. Her unknown demand became more and more forceful and finally I excused myself and jogged off.

The mystery woman lives in the mud hut village behind our school. I call it the Riverside because it sounds classy. Really it’s quite beautiful. The houses are made of mud but the yards are tidy and swept and planted with flowers and shrubs. The space between yards is filled up with corn and pumpkins, chickens and goats. The worn footpath winds along the Limpopo River, a million-dollar view.

I used to take that path during my runs. People would wave and say “hi” and neighborhood kids would drop their games and start running with me. By the end of the neighborhood I would have quit a gang of followers. I would run backwards, do grapevines and high knees and laugh as they tried to copy me. At the last house they’d turn back and I’d go on running in peace.

After the photo incident I began having anxiety about running through Riverside. The same woman, if she saw me coming, would run out and block my way in the path, yelling at me in Changana. It happened a few times and I finally stopped going that way.

When I printed some photos for my REDES group, I put hers in the lineup too, thinking I’d mend things by bringing it to her. I never got around to it before the break but on Sunday I decided to do it. It was a hot sunny day, 100% humidity after all the rain and I was dripping with sweat. I appeared in her compound and walked over to the shade where she was sitting on a straw mat. There were children beside her sucking on mangos and a younger man in a chair.

“I’m here to talk to the grandmother,” I said.

He smiled and gave me his chair. I sat down and greeted her in Changana.

“Hello. How are you?”

She smiled, “I’m fine and you?”

“I’m fine. It’s hot!” She responded with something in Changana. I nodded goofily then pointed at the corn, tall and green after the rain.

“Food! Well. Eat.” She said something I didn’t understand then I turned to the man and said, in Portuguese, “I have a gift for her.” He translated and I handed her the photo. She took it, ran her finger over it, looked up at me, then back at the photo. After a minute she burst into a grin and took my hand, squeezing it and chattering.

“You did well!” translated the man. They analyzed the picture and figured out where she was standing when it was taken. She said something about the school.

“I am teacher! I teach!” I explained in Changana, pointing at the school. Her face changed as if she finally understood why a strange white girl appeared at her house in the first place. She grabbed my hand again.

“Friend, my friend.” I said. She smiled and nodded.

“I go,” I said, “see you later.” They offered me mangos but I declined politely. As I walked home in the hot sun, I felt light as a feather. That is likely the only photo she’s ever had of herself. Now I have a new friend and can once again go running through Riverside.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Dear friends and family,

The price of a post office box in my town has gone up to something unreasonable, so rather than renew it for this year I'm asking that all my mail, letters or otherwise, be sent to the Peace Corps office in Maputo at the following address:

Clancy Brown
Corpo da Paz
345 Avenida do Zimbabwe
Maputo, Moçambique

Letters and packages do so much for my morale and I really appreciate them but I have to warn you that some things get "lost" in the system. Corruption is a fact of life here. Please don't send anything large or expensive. Some things arrived in weeks, others in months, others never got here.

If you don't mind the risk, I'd love some snail mail or packages. If not, e-mails are wonderful. News from home in any form is always welcome!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Verdant Transformation

I arrived at the Maputo airport on Thursday to pouring rain which, in addition to my hefty luggage, was reason enough to cough up 350 meticais for a taxi to the chapa stop. It has continued raining on and off since I returned. Rain brings cooler weather and it has helped my transition from Maine winter to Mozambican summer. It also brings the landscape to life. The dry, dusty, dun-colored Mozambique that I left has transformed into a verdant paradise.

This morning I went for a run with Rex. Tall flowering grasses had overgrown the school compound and I picked my way through carefully. When we made it out to the rutted muddy back road my skin was speckled with seeds. At 5:30 in the morning the bird songs were raucous. It seemed that every bird I’ve ever seen was out singing and chasing off competitors. It was beautiful and distracting and I kept slipping in the mud, much to the amusement of women walking to the fields.

I started watching my footing and noticed interesting tracks in the mud: small rodents, goats, birds and something that looked like a weasel. A rodent skittered in front of us and Rex followed him into the grass but didn’t make it far through the thick growth. The trees were heavy with fruit and standing water had created an abundance of insects. The tall grass looked like great habitat for birds and rodents alike.

I wondered if snakes were taking advantage of the abundance too. One time I asked someone why most people’s yards are swept dirt. They explained that grass attracts snakes. That rodent running by would be good snake food, so would bird eggs… The more I thought about it the more nervous I got. I’ve been told that black mambas, the most poisonous snake in the world and a common sighting around here, are territorial and if you make the mistake of trespassing they’ll go after you. Looked like prime territory to me.

The snake phobia finally got to me and I turned back early but I won’t let it keep me from venturing out again later with my binoculars, though I think I’ll stick closer to civilization. You don’t see too many snakes near people’s homes because they’ve all been killed. I respect the mamba but I’ll let her have her territory and we’ll have ours.

From One Home to Another

I’m home! … my Mozambican home that is. It’s confusing when I call multiple continents “home.” I just returned today from a month long break in the United States. While stateside I did experience some “reverse culture shock,” but my overall feeling from the trip was one of comfort and support. I was amazed to see how many people love me and are thinking about me. I’m truly fortunate. I was also reassured that all the things I left behind will be there when I return – family, friends, mountains, good coffee, nachos… I’m a little shaky after a long day of travelling, but I want to take a moment to reflect on some observations of American life after spending a year overseas.

The first thing my dad did after picking me up at the Portland Jetport was to drag me to Best Buy. You can imagine the sensory overload of 50 high definition flat screen TV’s blaring at me at once. Then we stopped at the grocery store. I cannot explain the absolute euphoria I experienced walking through the aisles. Anything I could possibly desire was at my fingertips! Let’s just say I was on cloud nine. It was overwhelming: the choices, the opportunities! I felt like I needed an algorithm to decipher the cereal aisle. I settled on wild Atlantic salmon and asparagus for dinner with a nice bottle of white wine.

Food was a centerpiece of my visit. I was reacquainted with cheese, ice cream and other marvelous dairy products, though my stomach took a while to catch up. I experienced coffee anxiety in front of a café counter while I gaped at the endless menu board. The clerk grew impatient.
“Well, what do you like?” she asked helpfully.
“Coffee… I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
“Do you like milk? How bout a cappuccino?”
I said “sure” but the options kept on coming: whole milk, skim or 2%? Shade grown? Organic? Fair trade? Seasonal flavorings – gingerbread, eggnog, peppermint? Small, medium or large? For here or to go? Restaurants presented the same overabundance of choices, especially a place we visited in Florida that boasted the country’s largest array of beers on tap – talk about variety!

I believe capitalism creates as many problems as it solves but coming from Mozambique, a formerly socialist country, I was able to appreciate some of the advantages of the American system. Offering something to please everyone is part of capitalism’s tendency to fill every niche. For the consumer, it means that if there’s something you want then someone’s bound to be selling it. In Mozambique there are a lot of things I can’t easily get: cheese, good coffee, quality shoes. Even when I can get it, there’s only one option. Cereal? expensive imported Corn Flakes. Another advantage of capitalism is customer service. In a competitive marketplace you’ve got to please your clients. It was so nice to be well attended at a restaurant and be able to order anything on the menu. In Mozambique the waitress acts like you are wasting her time and the menu is just a tease with appetizing dishes that they don’t actually serve and never have.
“I’ll have the pizza.”
“We don’t have that.”
“Ok then, how about the fish?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Right… the seafood stew?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Well, what do you have?”
I usually ask them to make me an egg sandwich. We then wait two hours for our mediocre food while being eaten alive by mosquitos. I prefer to eat in.

Customer service wasn’t the only difference in personal interactions. One thing I noticed while stateside was that nobody noticed me. A few strangers said “hello” or started small talk, but mostly I was free to walk down the street without anyone turning their head. I didn’t mind the lack of unwanted public attention because I had plenty of attention from family, friends and boyfriend the whole time. In contrast, I haven’t been back in Mozambique even 24 hours and I’ve already been called “mulungo,” been surrounded by gawkers at a chapa stop, had my hair stroked by strangers, been asked for money and had two random people insist on taking my phone number and calling me repeatedly.

In the United States we are living in a world that is increasingly connected but with paradoxically fewer personal interactions. One example comes to mind. I was taking a ferry out to an island in Casco Bay with Allie. It was the typical winter crowd of weathered natives: lots of flannel, cartharts, paint-stained jeans, timberland boots, hunter’s orange. Mainers aren’t the most talkative bunch but there is typically friendly conversation and gossip among locals. I was watching Allie play with her iPhone and noticed that it was strangely quiet. When I looked up, six of the eight other people on the ferry had iPhones in hand, busily scrolling and texting and twittering away. Nobody even noticed the people sitting right next to them.

At first felt assaulted by all the attention I received when I returned to Mozambique, but now that I’m back at site I feel welcomed and loved. Neighbors and students heard I was in town and stopped by to say “hello.” The folks at the store and vegetable vendors were happy to see me and asked how my family was doing. People waved, someone stopped to give me a ride home, the neighbor kids peered around my veranda giggling and the dogs flopped themselves on the ground wagging their tails.

I’m happy to be back in Mozambique but it will take some time to readjust. I miss Sean a lot. I miss my family. But I just need to give it time. As Sean said, I still have important work to do and I’ll be done before I know it.