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November 2, 2003

Ali's Esisode 7

Over the last few months our school has been expanding in little but proud ways.  The construction students in the vocational school are building us a laboratory, and Tomoko and Jörg are helping to build a playground at our new community center.  Brian recently held a beautiful art exhibit and competition featuring the products of his weekly art club.

Ali among Mozambicans looking on

My classes are going great and I've taken the liberty of expanding the bio curriculum to do an extended class on the reproductive system and sex-ed.  Though I never would have considered myself terribly knowledgeable on this particular subject, after encountering my students' barrage of questions about changing bodies babies and sex, all inspired my myths, gossip, and ignorance, I realized I know a heck of a lot more than they do.  I have to say I held their undivided attention as this was the first, and surely last time, that every student passed the exam!  I have since opened-up the information session for other students and a Girl's Club that Tomoko runs twice a week for young women in the community.

Though we work hard, we are well aware that our work here isn't making sweeping changes across Mozambique, Lamego, or even our school.  "Development" - in whatever direction, beneficial or detrimental,- always happens slowly.  Cultures don't make sweeping movements in any direction, as change is subtle like an ocean shaping a rock over great lengths of time.  But knowing this, the fact remains that working in a place for a time like a year makes slow, constant impacts every second of these many days.  And with this there are uncountable things that get done, that are talked about, that are shared.  When a volunteer leaves this place, they leave a gap, as there is one less person to buy a needed medication, one less night of understanding physics problems, one less hour of mind-expanding cultural exchange.  We are just one person each, but I am seeing that the impact of this is indeed great.

Though I am becoming less sensitive to my role as social outcast here, I am still aware of the funny ways I stick out.  I tower over the majority of my male students when dancing (nearly everyone is shorter here due to lacking nutrition) and I am constantly consuming gallons of water to stay somewhat hydrated.  Then there are my lingual slip-ups, like when I suggested we play "half body" instead of "half court" basketball, or when I exasperatedly exclaimed, "No you can not leave my class to wash your bed!" when a tired student asked permission to go wash her face.  There are also the cultural differences like blowing my nose in a handkerchief, as my students all giggle at the fact that "the whites like to keep their snot".  But I laugh and know I am not alone in my cultural misunderstandings – after all it was just a few weeks ago Brian thought he was being mugged by knife point in Beira, only to find out someone was trying to sell him a kitchen knife for the 20 contos he was demanding.

These last few months have again, almost predictably, been a host to new deaths.  A professor who worked in our school last year passed away (he was in his twenties).  A construction work for our center also died (age 30 something) along with a baby of a professor, and most recently, a student (early twenties).  Though no one is talking about it, it is suspected that all died of AIDS, as they had all been suffering from numerous "opportunistic" illnesses and infections for quite some time.

The state of health here is disparaging.  We are considered lucky because Nhamatanda hospital is only fifteen minutes from here by car.  When I got sick earlier this month I went there to see a doctor, and as usual, it wasn’t a comfortable experience.  The outdoor corridors are always filled with sickly women and children waiting in the sun for hours to be seen.  I, however, immediately got ushered in a room, receiving embarrassing preferential treatment just because I was the only white woman.  I was seen for approximately 1 minute and 30 seconds and was lead out with (I found out later) an incorrect prescription (for the second time this year).  Luckily I have the financial security to go to Beira, two hours away, and visit the city's best clinic.  Consults are 20 dollars, absolutely impossible for the average Mozambican, including all my students.  So they continue to get shoddy diagnoses without proper lab testing, and their illnesses stretch on for weeks at a time.  Our school clinic fills prescriptions for antibiotics and strong, potentially harmful drugs more often than we eat massa and peas in the cafeteria (read: every day).

I said in my last email that I wasn't ready to leave yet, and this last month or so made me realize how true that is.  Biology, Chemistry and English classes will continue until the end of April next year, and it seemed ridiculous to suddenly pick up and leave in the middle of the term because my one year contract is expiring this month.  Because proposals to stay after contract are always denied by Humana People to People, the larger organization I work for, I will be leaving Mozambique at the end of November when my parents visit.  However, I have decided to return on my own ticket in January to contribute to the school as I can for a few more months.  I am grateful and relieved that I don't have to leave for good quite yet!

This isn't to say I don't miss parts of my American culture.  I often fantasize about doughnuts, (though I can’t say I eat them all too much in the States) and I literally dream at night about vats of ice cream.  I have also taken an embarrassing liking to cheesy American pop songs– the slow stuff by Brian Adams or Julio Iglesias with clichéd lyrics that are all the fad now in Mozambique.  Somehow this bit of America available here really touches a nostalgic soft spot in me.  But aside from food and general conveniences like diners and movie theaters with working sound systems, I can honestly say I am not experiencing too much withdrawal from American life.  Each culture has its own belongings to cling to and get habituated to, and so I adapt to these comforts and take them as my own.  I watch my students bat down mangoes from the trees after class, trading them, stealing them, giving them in gestures of love.  I eat dried crab apples while correcting tests, and I watch worn-footed Africa go by through a cracked window on the way home from the city.  People have culture wherever you go, and all you have to do is be there to participate or at least watch.

One thing that I have been seeing here in the midst of beautiful Africa and all her problems, is that a lot of people just need a push in the right (or hopefully better) direction.  I am always talking about the sparse and strange patterns of information flow in a culture that lacks an information highway, and I continue to see the results of this everywhere.  For example I got to talking with a few lovely 12 year old girls from Tomoko's girl's club.  One was very outgoing, absorbing everything I said like a sponge.  The other was shy and averted her eyes, but was curious about our conversations nonetheless.  When we got to talking about their home life and school, I was delighted to hear that curious Berta is in 7th grade, a huge feat for a girl of 12 here.  Her quiet friend Rosa though, had never once been to school, and didn't know how to read.  Her dad passed away a long time ago, and her mother struggles to feed the other 8 or 9 kids, leaving no money for the school fees amounting to 1 dollar and 40 cents a year.  She missed out on 7 years of schooling due to a cost of ten US dollars!  I arranged a meeting with her mother the next day to tell her that our Child Aid Program runs a free school for anyone interested, something she was never aware of.  Rosa will finally go to school starting in February.

Another example of easy solutions being missed is one I encountered visiting a nearby farm.  The farm is small but productive, producing tomatoes, beans, greens, pineapples, bananas and sugar cane.  Located on the river, they are able to use an "advanced" pumping system to irrigate the fields with river water.  They were also, I noticed, using the same water to bathe, wash clothes and dishes, urinate and poop in, and drink from.  Read those last two uses again and it might read something like: diarrhea, cholera, salmonella, worms, etc. etc... In all of their successes as a productive farm, they overlooked the obvious health concern of having a latrine.  Simple and relatively cheap to build, latrines can obviously make a world of a difference in terms of the health of a community.  Since this visit I have had a few contacts with the head farmer and I will meet with him next week with mobilizers from Child Aid to get him started building an outhouse.

Another concern I have for farms such as these is their gross use of pesticides.  Most machambas, (small self-sufficient plots tended usually by one family), are organic, as people don't have the money to even consider pesticides.  The larger farms that sell their produce in the Lamego market, for example, are "FULL of pesticides" (I quote one farmer who smiled proudly with this fact, I think, because pesticide use is a sign of "development"). I, not being a farmer who sees the destruction insects can cause to my much-needed crop, nor an expert on pesticides who realizes the destruction chemicals can cause to my family, community, or environment, really don't have enough information to be preaching advice to anyone.  All I have is my general instinct to go on: use of pesticides in high quantity is a scary thing, especially in places where reliable information about the harms of ANY practice or product is basically obsolete.  It is especially disconcerting when these pesticides could very well be leaching into the river ten feet away, the local water supply for thousands of people.

Being here I become aware of the billions of things I do not know, as well as the many things I have had the privilege of knowing that others haven’t.  But people want this information, and they just eat it up when they get a taste of it, for they are quite hungry after all these years.  There is a wonderful book titled, "Where there is no Doctor", that is a general and very comprehensive health guide for people living in rural and impoverished areas.  I arranged for several copies of this book (the Portuguese version) to be brought to our school.  It is quite beautiful the way people react to this book; it is like they are finally understanding the mysteries of body, health, family, sex, and treatments that have been eluding them their entire lives.  Emilia, our housekeeper, was enthralled by it, reading it is like eating empowerment for dinner.  People just want to know things about their world and the things that are happening to them.  This knowledge is such a gift.

Life is still interesting in the food and animal world of Africa too.  I have tasted quite a few totally exotic foods (ex: charred mice) and fruits recently (and I am talking way more exotic than mangoes, papayas and coconuts).  The coolest part is that I see these treasures being plucked right off the tree or bush in front of me, be it the soft spongy fruit of the cashew nut, or the sour fuzzy tamborino fruits in flaky brown pods.  Everyone here seems to know how to make these things into frothy drinks or morning porridge, and they are aware of the medicinal purposes as well.  My students counsel me on the leaves of this tree or the roots of that, "eat this to stop stomachaches but never give it to a pregnant woman", as do the ladies in the market, saying that, "Malambe fruit, honey, will keep your man going all night long!  Try it!"

The bugs seem to come and go in seasonal shifts, and it seems they are all getting bigger and wormier this time of year.  These include the likes of militarily duped-up grasshoppers and a somewhat grotesque love child of the millipede and scorpion.

Some of my favorite sounds these days are the giggling turkeys chattering away as they stroll past our kitchen on Monday morning, the rattle of dried bean pods as the wind shudders the tress, and the erratic flutter of whipping bat wings as we return from the basketball courts well after the sun has gone down.

Warm wishes,


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