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August 19, 2003

News from Ali

Dear everyone - Greetings to all of you!

Ali with two students, smilingWe volunteers are remaining pretty healthy and happy in general, but as always we are facing a number of new things to deal with. Our first school term has come to an end at the vocational school, and it's been quite a dynamic eight months. As the novelty and exotic factor settle down, I am becoming a more fixed part of the faculty. And as my ability to understand Portuguese slowly increases, so does my ability to understand arguments, criticisms and the general ways in which things work around here, and I have to admit that realizing my honeymooning period is over here has left me a shade jaded.

My fellow chemistry teachers have been incurring more and more of my disappointment lately. One has been allegedly sleeping with our students (while his girlfriend was giving birth in the hospital no less), and the other is rumored to have been doing the same. Not only this, but the former is also proving himself to be quite incompetent… He has virtually no grasp of the material and is literally unable to even correct an exam properly – much less 60 of them – even with a detailed answer key. There is absolutely no reason that he should remain a teacher at our school here, as he is causing numerous degrees of harm. But like every other school in the country, our director is feeling the crunch due to the huge shortage of teachers, so he says we have no other choice but to keep him on faculty until the end of the year.

Some of the other volunteers and I have been feeling worn by the apparent laziness, immobility, and lack of creativity of many of the teachers here. Simple tasks take weeks and still never get done, basic plans are executed in confusing or senseless ways, management of time and resources are poor, and initiative is nearly unheard of. It is totally clear that people here haven't had the years of practical preparation that our education system affords us in the States. There, making schedules and plans and calculations becomes an automatic part of our brain matter, knowledge inseparable from up and down and how to write our names. But things here are on a completely different wavelength.

Though these things can be aggravating to us, on the other side of this picture is imagining how frustrating WE must seem to the faculty here. We are young "broncos" (whites) who just come in with quickly accessible knowledge, apt reading, writing, and organization skills, the ability to calculate grades relatively effortlessly and draw analogies and examples from the top of our heads. If that's not enough, we drape a web of high standards of honesty and work ethic on top of everyone else. We must be so annoying!

These dualities have seemingly been the source of new tensions building for me and for Brian lately. We work in two separate schools but encounter similar problems - competition, rudeness, and strain in the relationships between the teachers and us. I am always trying to walk this mysterious line – on one side I try to impose hopefully helpful strategies that I know work in my world, and on the other side I need to realize or admit that so much of the time I really don't know what I'm talking about. I haven't been working here for years at a time, I am not Mozambican, I do not speak Portuguese or any indigenous language fluently, and in truth I am unaware of anything but the simplest of cultural behaviors.

I am sure there are countless social rules and codes of normalcy that we break every day. Beyond this, too, is the fact that we are just so different. I am becoming conscious of how awkward and white I look when teaching, walking, shopping, eating, dancing, anything. I think of how they might see me, toting around my silly pink water bottle all the time, with my blonde mexa-braids, my overweight gait, my un-Mozambican linguisms. Sometimes it's really hard being this person. I don't like being misunderstood, and equally misunderstanding so frequently.

But at the same time, I feel like someone has to protest the corruption in the classrooms and discriminating decisions at teachers meetings. Though I don't like it, I have no choice but to take on the work of three teachers simply because I can't accept the errors, the inconsistencies, and the misinformation. By fighting the lies and cheating and asinine complaints, I know I distance myself from the other teachers, but at the same time, I can't sit here quietly and take it. It is everything but easy sometimes.

Something I see more and more here is a sense of entrapment in the people living in Mozambique; they are caught in the inescapable grasp of poverty. Not only is there nothing to really do on a daily basis, but go to the road and buy a beer with bummed money, but there seems to be concrete ceilings above everyone's head…. so few people even dream of finishing high school, much less going to college. The cycles of hardship are endless; the trials of one's strength continue to pelt the body and mind on a daily basis. Just one day spent in the city with a friend, I see a sister suffering from a miscarriage, a neighbor burned badly in her sleep by a fallen candle, a loss of employment, a cousin who died, and the familial pressures of an arranged marriage. There are cyclones that destroy schools and invisible microbes that remove family members, shards of metal accidents that breed nightmares and the hunger in the pit of the stomach that never seems to be satiated. Everyone I know here has a nebulous dream of escaping this, and all of these dreams bring tears to my eyes and a sick feeling to my belly. How easy it is for us on the other side to work a part time job for a few months, save up some extra cash and take a flight across the world. How impossible it is for an African to save for ten years and pray for a visa or miraculous passageway into another country that hopefully furnishes more than this one is providing. I try to cushion the hopeless blow of inescapability by telling people it's better to stay here and improve their own country, but they know just as well as I do how hindering the corruption and lack of opportunity of Africa can be.

It's hard to believe that certain societal problems we hear about so often in an almost clichéd way really exist, but blatant evidence of them jumps out at me all the time. One recent example is what happened last week with Fatima, a 16-year-old student in the vocational school. Like a handful of other students, she was not making passing grades in 5 of the 10 classes, and anyone failing more than three classes at the end of the first term has to leave. When I went to say good-bye and encourage her to return the following year, telling her the information will sink in much better the second time around, I was shocked to hear her response. She told me she was finished with school and that she was going off to the community to find a husband. She said, "Teacher, I am going to be out of school for 4 months before the next school year begins. It's impossible for me to not get pregnant." I explained that this was not her inevitable fate, that she did have a choice in the matter, and at the very least she should be using preservativos – protection. She told me flat out, "I don't like using condoms, the situation is hopeless, I have no more money for school, and I obviously can't achieve here anyway, so off I go." Another volunteer, Tomoko, and I talked with her for quite some time. In the end she reluctantly made an appointment to talk with the director and me about setting up a scholarship for her next year, and she made a loose promise that she wouldn't do anything stupid in the months between now and then. Arrrh! These girls!

I believe I've mentioned before how a society such as this allows certain information to spread easily while so much other information is stymied. One thing I've noticed over the months is how this affects religion here in central Mozambique. There are no reading materials, as books are expensive and hardly available and libraries are virtually non-existent; consistently the only personally owned reading material that people have is the bible or other Christian pamphlets. I don't inherently disagree with pamphlets and letting people share their beliefs with others, but objectively speaking here it seems to be somewhat of an easy "sell"; one subject of information is made ubiquitous, when no other counter ideas, or really any other ideas at all, are being disseminated in the same way. It's easy to proselytize here because you will have everyone's undivided attention. Hardly anyone has televisions or any other form of entertainment, so of course they are going to want to read a bible if it's free. It seems as if no one hesitates to believe that this information is unquestionably correct, for the whites who are distributing it and swearing by it seem to be doing everything right - they have nice clothes, big cars, fancy houses, and plump bellies. They seem to know everything with their advanced education and general knowledge about the world, and if nothing more, they come from the land of those amazing Chuck Norris movies. Why would anyone think that this reading material wasn't totally infallible?

This is not a criticism of the church or the efforts of missionaries, as I have heard numerous stories of people whose lives were very drastically and positively affected by these types of workers. I know children who owe their good education and literally their lives to missionaries, my best friend here claims the sound moral fabric of his life came from the church, and I've heard of whole villages that were given jobs and income from missionary help. I also know so many people who look to a spiritual god on a daily basis to get them through their struggles with poverty, inequality, and disease. And, be it a small reason, no one in our house is complaining that we can now buy freshly ground peanut butter from an income-generating project started here by a missionary last month. It just makes me sad that there isn't an environment as rich in diversity of ideas and views here as we have in so many other parts of the world. Personal truths are always formed by collections and assimilations of information, and the more we have to go on, the greater an opportunity we have for expanding our minds.

Though so many people are Christian here, it seems that it hasn't impinged on African traditions and superstitions. For example, curandeiros (medicine men) and feticeiros (witch doctors) seem to play an important role in everyone's life. People trust the skill of curandeiros as a more serious treatment when western medicine doesn't work, and people fear the wrathful spells of feticeiros if they think a foe wants to hurt them. People believe one can get tuberculosis for not following African traditions and lifestyles of their ancestors, and people change the course of their lives to evade potential actions or spells that they think will kill them or their families. Just as one example, in our last teachers council to discuss the term grades and decide who will pass on to the next year, the teachers overwhelmingly decided to boost the grades of one student (even though he was technically failing 5 classes) in part because his father is the school cook and they fear he will, perhaps with the help of a curandeiro, poison the teachers' food if his son fails.

* * * * * * * * *

There is a certain beauty I have the luxury of seeing here in Moçambique – the beauty of old, worn and falling apart things, shells of buildings, basketball courts, and sidewalks. I find these things beautiful because they have history ingrained in them; they carry the parts of the people who worked, played, laughed and cried in these spaces, the lives of those who left their paintings, dirt, or blood. Tree limbs grow inside the broken windows and wrap their strong thick vines around the metal beams, and these same trees provide shade indoors, nature stepping in where man's roof failed. I know I'm seeing these things as I do because my world back at home is constructed by the opposite. In the US our eyes are bombarded by the ubiquity of new, generic, pristine. There is subconscious wonder living among strip malls and fluorescent supermarkets - where is our history, where is our humanity? People here laugh when I tell them I like the crumbling soccer stadium because it shows its age. But I don't think their laughter is strange. They are surrounded by ruin and dirt and exposed bare walls every moment of their lives. To a Mozambican, beauty is what they don't have: newness, comfort, cleanliness, function. And thinking of this makes me eternally sad, how much they deserve a room without chipped paint, a ceiling without a 2 foot leak, a shoe with out a thin flapping sole, and a toilet that is more than a horrific dumping site that reeks of shit and disease. They deserve un-rusted pots and watches that don't die prematurely. They deserve a chapa ride that isn't cramped, loud, and life threatening, just as the driver deserves a radio that functions without manually holding the face in place. Come on, even just a t-shirt free of rips and stains. I am able to tolerate and even grow to love many of these things, simply because they are not mine. They take on an exotic appeal because where I come from; these things are not the norm. Even the grossest bathrooms in all of the US are far nicer and cleaner than the more respectable ones here. This is just one more strange inequality... that I can feel a sense of organic charm in the crumbling structures of everyday African life.

Despite all my ramblings about how different I am and will always be here, with my foreign perspectives and my mismatching body and behavior, in many ways I feel like I've gotten inextricably involved with Africa now. My contract ends in few months, but quite simply, I don't want to leave. Changes have crept over me leaving me in a new person's outfit. I can no longer live the carefree life of a chump here. I can't bring myself to pay a dollar for brewed coffee in Beira's one nice café because I can only think of the huge fish and rice dinners I've consumed a few blocks down for 60 cents. It's no longer so easy to relax in my house at the end of the day and escape into my western movies, for my mind may be fixed on the hardships of my close friend who's life is now intertwined with my own. Everyone has a name now, and a story, and that's a big thing to turn away from.

But such is life.

The heat is returning again and the bugs are getting notably bigger. Just between you and me, I am beginning to question the judgment of my housemates who have not relocated their bare-bristled toothbrushes from the bathroom cabinet - what seems to be the main clubhouse of our indoor cockroaches.

This month, we've discovered the depth of Mozambicans' fear of snakes. For my biology class we bottled and preserved a medium sized (and very dangerous) spitting cobra that one of our workers killed near our community center. The fear instilled by walking around with this dead snake in a jar was unbelievable and outright funny. Some people would not come within 30 feet of the thing, and our housekeepers Emilia and Terezinha literally ran away in screeches of fright! Though it's a little nonsensical to be scared of a dead animal, their instincts are keenly right on. Emilia was once bitten by a much smaller snake when she was about 12, and nearly died from it. She endured horrible pain and for six months her legs were so badly swollen that she could only get around by crawling. She refused to work until we relocated the snake out of our kitchen.

Also, I'm trying to post some pictures of my life here on the following websites: Photos Page 1 and Photos Page 2. I'm having some troubles from here, but check in a few weeks. They are a little crooked, but they're good.

Lastly, Brian's (another volunteer here) brother has just launched a fantastic website about the prevalence of AIDS in Africa. It's beautiful and very informative.


Ali can be reached via email: (Copy & Paste)