Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Support our Preschool!

As many of you know, one of my primary projects here has been helping a local group of women establish a preschool, Escolinha Estrela da Manha (Morning Star Preschool), for the children of Chokwe. Early childhood education is a proven way to improve a community’s wellbeing: children who receive education in the early years of their lives are more likely to complete secondary school, less likely to live in poverty, and less likely to contract HIV. However, very few Mozambican children have the opportunity to take advantage of such programs. Recognizing that all children deserve a head start, we are reaching out to orphans and vulnerable children, to provide them with the opportunity for early childhood education. These children can benefit especially from attending our school, as they often lag behind their peers developmentally, are more likely to be malnourished, and face persistent discrimination.

Just in the last year, we have had tremendous success with our program. Melucha, an orphan, arrived at the preschool so malnourished that her skin was sagging from her arms and legs. She spoke no Portuguese and sat alone, removed from the other kids, watching but not participating. Now, she plays and communicates, in Portuguese, with her peers. She has gained weight, and is full of life and energy. There is also Nelson who graduated from the preschool last year and is now attending first grade at the local school. With a foundation from the preschool in many of the topics covered in the first grade curriculum, Nelson is receiving high marks. His mother has noticed that school is easier for Nelson than it was for her older children, who did not have the opportunity of attending preschool. We have watched Melucha, Nelson, and every single one of our children grow significantly over the course of our school year.

We want to ensure that early childhood education is available to the children of Chokwe for many years to come, and we need your help! Our most immediate goal is to construct our own building for classes to take place. If you’d like to support our project, you can do so by visiting this website . A gift of any size will help us hold classes in our own building by next year. You can also help us by spreading the word about our construction project!

If you have any questions, or to learn how you can support the preschool beyond classroom construction, please do not hesitate to contact me.
On behalf of everyone working to make Escolinha Estrela da Manha a success, we sincerely thank you for your support!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Back of the Chapa

In the tumultuous world of Mozambican public transportation, there is one highly coveted refuge: the front seat. Besides the driver, only two people ever sit in the front of a chapa. You have space for your legs, you’re not fighting the bags and babies for space, and the chicken and goats and whatever else is riding with you are all safely behind you.

The front seat is extremely hard to obtain. You have to arrive at just the right time—just as the previous chapa is leaving but before anyone has started to fill up the next one. Whoever gets there first takes it, although even that isn’t always enough—chapa drivers make friends quickly, and chances are the front seat has been “reserved”.

Last weekend, coming home from our mid-service conference in Maputo, I got lucky—or so I thought. Comfortably seated in my front seat, I was excited for a relatively pain-free ride back home. The chapa filled up more or less quickly, and it wouldn’t be long before we were on our way. It turns out I had started basking in front-seat glory too soon, however: ten minutes later the driver came over, opened my door, and told me to get out and move to the back.

The conversation went something like:
Me: Why?
Driver: This man (as he pointed to a man who had just arrived to get on the chapa) wants to sit in the front.
Me: Why?
Driver: Because he wants to.
Me: I was here first.
Driver: He’s a man. You’re a woman. You have to move to the back.
Me: I’m not moving, I’m the same as him.
Driver: No, you’re not. He’s a man. If he wants to sit there he can.

I stared at the driver, absolutely furious. Of course I’ve experienced gender discrimination before, both here and in the States, but never so blatant. And I’ve seen similar things happen to Mozambican women, which is no less maddening, but I guess I’ve usually been exempt, as many people realize that we Americans have “different ideas”. And something about it actually happening to you feels different than watching it.
In retrospect, I probably should have sat there and refused to move.

But in the end, I wasn’t that brave. As my refusals continued and my lecture on discrimination began, the driver raised his voice, I raised mine, and we were starting to create a scene. So instead I told him I wouldn’t travel on his chapa, and demanded my money back. As I stood outside of the chapa, watching the man take the seat that was rightfully his and waiting for it to leave so I could get on the next one, some of the passengers had some good natured fun: “Crazy white girl, now your trip is going to be delayed for hours, come in the back”. The whole thing was crazy—I just wanted to get home.

I could afford to wait. I didn’t have a family to go home and cook for, I didn’t have a cranky baby to hold, I had money to buy cold water, and I didn’t have a husband who would ask me angrily what took so long. It was annoying, but this was the first time I’d actively had to choose between inconvenience and accepting “the way things are”—but what if I had that choice to make every day?

I made it home, and per usual there were kids playing in my yard. Two of the older girls were calling the shots as the other kids, including the boys, followed their instructions. Baby steps.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Over the Hump

Less than a year left on my time here. Exciting and terrifying! No way I’ll be able to do everything I wanted to, but so it goes. It’s been a busy month. Two weeks of amazing traveling in northern Mozambique and Victoria Falls. Traveling through other parts of the country was interesting: different landscapes, cultures, and day-to-day activities, and logistically there were the transportation nightmares, hitching rides on trucks that wouldn’t start, lost reservations, and blatant bribing of numerous officials (not personally, of course). But considering, everything went more or less smoothly and it was quite an adventure! From visiting the first capital of Mozambique with its abandoned Portuguese style buildings to sitting on the Indian Ocean beaches we certainly ran the gamut of activities. Victoria Falls was equally fun: stunning scenery, of course the waterfall, and rafting (and unintentionally swimming) in the crazy Zambezi water.

I spent the last two weeks helping with the training for the new volunteers. Such a flashback: homestay, Portuguese, a US “get-things-done” mentality that hadn’t yet been replaced by Mozambican concepts of time, and so much energy and optimism. If nothing else it was a reminder that I have learned, or maybe rather experienced, at least something in the past year, and it was extremely re-energizing as there was a complete lack of jadedness from the new volunteers.

So, now I’m back at it until Christmas break. My biggest project will be cleaning out my house of everything that moved in while I was gone: anthills, the accompanying hundreds of ants that are eating holes in the concrete (who knew that was possible?), a few families of cockroaches, and a frog that has taken up residence in my bathroom drain that is a very suspicious color of black and yellow. I finally just made my peace with things crawling on my feet.

Things are quiet as most things stop for the month of December. School is out and many people are either sticking around home or have gone to visit family, though not as many have left as usual as there has been a long wait for exam scores. For the first time ever the 12th grade national exam, needed to advance to university, was given as a scantron. But, the scantron machine processing all of the results, nationally, broke and so the results for the first “epic” (if you don’t pass the “first epic” you have another chance to pass with the “second epic” which occurs a few days after the “first epic” scores have been published) haven’t been released. So far it’s been a delay of a month, and things are starting to get confusing as university applications are coming due. But you can’t complete a university application without the results…

Happy Holidays to everyone! My little fake Christmas tree that I put up in my meat-locker of a house, while baking in the hot summer weather doesn’t quite compare to Christmas at home. Can’t wait til next year!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The American Elections…in Mozambique

As one of the Mozambicans in the Peace Corps office put it, “the whole world will stop on November 4th” to watch America. For some Mozambicans, those involved in government and the aid industry, the chief concern is the next president’s policy stance on PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which is currently providing millions of dollars in aid to Mozambique. But for other Mozambicans that know anything about the American elections, and even for the vast majority that don’t, an Obama victory will have much broader implications.

My friend has a picture of Barack Obama visiting his grandmother in Kenya hanging on her wall. Her neighbor, pointing to the picture, asked who it was. My friend replied that the man, Obama, is running for president and that the woman was his grandmother. The neighbor responded: “she looks like me!” And indeed, sitting outside her mud hut and dressed with a sarong, she does.

Of course I am not suggesting that anyone vote for Barack Obama because a Mozambican woman thinks she looks like his grandmother. But across Africa, and for racial minorities everywhere, an Obama victory would have important significance. In a world where many still internalize “white, good; black, bad” or at the very least understand that blacks often face obstacles that whites don’t, an Obama presidency would help challenge this reality. Clearly, it will not be a panacea. The Mozambicans in my community will continue to express disbelief when I tell them that not only are there (relatively) poor people in America, but some of them are white. I will still explain that white people do not have stronger bodies; we are also capable of contracting HIV. The racism that often prevents minority advancement will certainly not disappear. But it will be a poignant illustration of the fact that while being white continues to confer certain privileges, race does not make us inherently different, or black inherently lacking in any capacity.

On the Xai-Xai beach a few months ago, a white South African came up to a group of Peace Corps volunteers to say “Do Americans realize Obama is black?? Why are you voting for him?” Yes, we realize he’s black. And if elected it will show that we are one step closer to making the American dream truly attainable for all Americans. And for my friend’s neighbor in Mozambique, and millions of others around the globe, it will show that not only do we in fact have black people in America, but that we have successful black people in America. That contrary to the countless examples of white success that they’ve seen on TV, from the rich foreigners living abroad, or even from the majority of Peace Corps volunteers, it is not, or perhaps more accurately doesn’t need to be, the color of your skin that determines wealth, success, or intellect.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Where the Streets are Paved with Gold

A few weeks ago a group of about 20 neighborhood kids congregated on my veranda, eagerly awaiting the name of their very own pen pal. After a short geography lesson, and an explanation of how the letters would get there at all, these usually rowdy kids sat attentively as I explained some basic phrases in English, handed out some vocabulary words, and got straight to work. They sat there for over an hour, painstakingly copying and recopying until everything was perfect, writing whole paragraphs in Portuguese and sitting with me for minutes on end as we went through and translated.

If the seriousness with which they treated this pen pal assignment was unexpected, it was nothing compared to the genuine and insightful questions they generated. Without exception, everyone wanted to know something that transcended the “how old are you?” or “how many siblings do you have?”(which in and of themselves are interesting questions—I am constantly explaining why I only have one brother) that I was expecting. Instead, they ranged from the heartbreaking to the embarrassing, from “How are you going to achieve your dreams? I have big dreams but my family is poor. I’m afraid I’ll lose them” to “Do you like black people?” and “What do you think of poor countries like Mozambique?” and “Is your life hard like ours?” Suddenly what I had intended as a simple and fun cultural exchange turned into, at least for me, a real insight into their perceptions of America, and into questions for which I don’t really like the answers.

After all the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed, after pages were filled with questions, the kids handed in their letters and one after another thanked me for giving them this “opportunity”. I’m talking 12-year-olds independently and sincerely thanking me for organizing the fairly simple task of sending and receiving letters. This is certainly not how I regarded pen pals when I was in elementary school. With minimal effort on my end, these kids participated in something that for them was significant. When it was all over, I sat there for a few minutes, amazed at what had just happened—it was so easy, all I had to do was a little bit of organization and a trip to the post office—and the kids loved it.

This week we celebrated one year in Mozambique. Conversations went something like: “I can’t believe we’ve been here for a year” followed by “Oh god, I can!” As for me…it depends on the day. The idealism has faded into cautious optimism: not enough to keep from banging my head against the wall, but just enough to keep going. Most of what I’ve learned I’m pretty sure I have yet to realize, and the rest is impossible to explain here. But I can say that I am now capable of having a frank conversation about sex, sexuality, and all of its facets anywhere, at any time, with anyone and everyone. And contrary to popular belief, I can, in fact, survive with fewer tricks in my wardrobe than my father.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Little Towt Comes to Africa

As I’ve already broadcasted to the world, Evan was here!!!!!! We had an awesome time. Pictures are posted.

Swaziland was beautiful. And so different from Mozambique. It is much more developed than Mozambique, and, on average, the people seemed better-off (though still indigent). The infrastructure is better, especially when it comes to transportation, which was efficient and well-organized. The cities were pretty developed, and many people were shopping in malls and eating at restaurants. Yet, perhaps contradictorily, Swaziland has the highest HIV infection rate in the world.

And so, highlights. Swazi was full of animals: lion, rhino, elephant, giraffe, zebra, hippo, buffalo, antelope, etc. We went on some amazing game tours that took us up so incredibly close, in some cases we could have touched them. And yes, I definitely flinched, especially around the lions. The scenery was equally beautiful: mountains, lakes, fields. The hostels we stayed at brought us together with such a variety of people: the 60-something Irishman who’s been living in Hong Kong for the last 25 years, the 30-something American, a “burned out” pediatrician, looking for a new direction, the Israeli soldier in his late 20s. Evan and I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we stumbled in on Swaziland’s annual Bush Fire Festival, a benefit for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS that brings together African artists. Together with our eclectic bunch, we had a night of some of the best music from around the continent.

After Swazi we headed up the Mozambican coast to Barra for some time relaxing on the beach under the palm trees. Evan was a trooper through all of the chapa ordeals, including a miscalculation on my part that kept us waiting in a chapa at the bus depot for four hours.

After Swazi and Barra, taking Evan back to my site, I was still excited to have my brother visiting but less excited that the traveling part of my vacation was over. But in actuality, it turns out that having him here might have been my favorite part of the trip. Traveling is great, of course, but I underestimated how excited I’d be to, finally, show someone and say “this is what I’ve been talking about”. More so than seeing animals or lounging by the ocean, sharing my day-to-day with someone—what I like, what I hate, the challenges, and everything in between—was so important. I never thought I’d see the day where I’d be as happy to have someone hang out with me at my home as to travel with them, but it can happen. I thought six days here might be too much, but in actuality it was too little.

Evan did it all: dealt with vendors, colored with the kids, came out to the field to a microfinance group, shopped in the market, tried (and did a pretty good job for having been here less than three weeks) to speak Portuguese, bargained, took a bucket bath, just generally saw how life is lived here. I can’t speak for him, but I think he learned a thing or two. For me, it was an opportunity for a much needed re-evaluation. There are a lot of things here that I don’t love, a lot of things that I miss. My outlook of late on this whole thing has been a little bit less than positive, and it’s all been a bit wearing. But when Evan looked at me after a walk around the neighborhood and said “Katie, I’m jealous, and you better enjoy this because you’re going to miss it”, despite my immediate reaction of “how on earth can you be jealous? Do you have any idea how jealous I am of you?” I realized he had a point. I can, and do, tell myself these things all I want, but having him here, saying it as an outside observer, reaffirmed it (what can I say, I need positive reinforcement!). Hanging out with my brother, realizing what I’ve learned so far, the relationships I’ve made, that I haven’t completely fallen off the face of the earth (at the very least to one person), and that home comes with its own set of frustrations, has given me a little more patience and has restored some of the optimism that I know was here somewhere.

In effect, Evan showed me my life from his perspective; I saw it all through someone else. As for me, showing someone my life made it all the more salient that my experience here is more than just another experience, more than another crazy thing that I decided to do, it is in fact my life now. My actual life. So now, it’s time for me to get back to work and for Evan to go back to school. Life is continuing as normal. And now one more person understands all the better what, exactly, that actual life is. And, of course, I can’t give traveling a bad rap. The animals, and the mountains, and the beach. That was pretty sweet too.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Last week, in a small, very rural and remote town I attended a ceremony to protect a new house from evil spirits. The village curendeiros (traditional healers), gathered in front of the newly made one-room thatched hut dressed in bright colors, scarves, and beads. The curendeiros started to chant and go into trance as women on the ground beat on hide drums and shook rattles made out of gourds and rock-filled cans. As the music escalated so did the dancing of the curendeiros, screams rising as the spirits of their ancestors and other elements (water, earth, etc.) entered their bodies. The rest of the community, surrounding them in a circle, looked on. The chanting, singing, and dancing carried on for over an hour, after which a goat was brought into the circle and thrown on the back of one of the dancing curendeiros, where it stayed for the remainder of that chant. Later, the goat was sacrificed, and it’s liver buried by the curendeiros in the location specified by the spirits. Once successfully completed, the house was fully protected. All of this was carried on in a very specific tribal language, used by curendeiros for these ceremonies, which was then interpreted for my colleague in the local language, which he then translated into Portuguese for me.

We have a select population chosen and educated in spirituality (curendeiros), being watch attentively by a group of followers (the town), who conduct specific rituals to summon spirits to protect a home from evil. Substitute curendeiros for priests, the town for a congregation, and it doesn’t sound all that different than Christianity, or any widely accepted religion, to me. Yes, the rituals are different, and the spirits have different names, but it uses essentially the same principles. And if you think the goat ceremony is strange, well, what would they think about our religious rituals? Take, for instance the consumption of “body and blood”?

Three days later, I attended Chokwe’s First Annual Science Fair, put on by my site-mate who is a biology teacher at the secondary school. She and her kids did an awesome job, and it was so cool to see these kids get so excited about their projects and have the opportunity to do their very own experiments. And their creativity given their limited resources and unfamiliarity with the concept of actually conducting an experiment was pretty amazing. Anyway, one of the projects was to see if chicks exposed to music grew faster than those in a music-less environment. His conclusion was that yes, they did, which wouldn’t seem that unusual to many Americans who have seen a similar experiment displayed by elementary school children in gyms across the country. But to many of the Mozambicans in attendance this was preposterous. Chickens are “stupid”. There is no way that they could have been affected by music. The student might have been able to come out of it all relatively unscathed, but when asked why he thought he got this result, he responded that he wasn’t sure, that it required more research but he thought that, like humans, the chickens were more relaxed when listening to classical music (which, by the way, here is defined as Sting and Celine Dion), and therefore moved around less, gaining more weight. At the very mention that chickens might in any way resemble humans, there was an uproar. One of the teachers told him he would have to redo the experiment, this time without any chicken-human comparisons. I was later told by my site-mate that she often faces problems if she even brings up the fact that humans are animals; many people believe adamantly that they are not. It’s a matter of faith that chickens cannot resemble humans—they just know people are different.

It’s one of the oldest and most enduring conflicts: Intelligent Design versus Darwinism, the Church versus Galileo, stem-cell research. As a matter of science, these matters of faith are blatantly impossible (a body rising from the dead) at worst, and impossible (at least as of now) to prove at best. Yet even with all the science at our fingertips, almost all of us at some point or another push it aside in favor of this faith, things we just believe, with or without proof. Curendeiros rid evil spirits, chickens are inherently different from humans, God created the heavens and the Earth and, for some, had a son. Or even the faith that nothing exists beyond humans, that there is no “higher power”. Even though it exists everywhere, we’re so quick to demonize faith that isn’t our own. Very many would write off the spirit ceremony as superstition. I’ve heard “weird” and “creepy” used over and over again in reference to trance, people being possessed. My comparison of the spirit ceremony to Christianity will, I’m sure, make many wince. But if the West can have Christianity and other mainstream religions as a faith and not a pejorative “superstition”, so too should every culture.

If there’s one thing that all of our faiths have in common, it’s that they’re just that: faith. None is based on rational science, none can be proved, and therefore the legitimacy of each is entirely subjective. So if we’re going to accept one, we have to accept them all. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as legitimate as Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism, and yes, Voodoo, traditional religions everywhere, and witchcraft. And, if I haven’t convinced you, well, what would Jesus do?