Saturday, March 5, 2011

Laurindo's Lot

Yesterday, I was walking along the main road thinking I was heading towards the agrarian school when a young man greeted me and asked me in the local language, “Munroavai?” Where are you going?
When I said that I wanted to visit the agrarian school, he told me I was heading in the wrong direction and had me follow him, first to his home, then to the school. For the next two hours I learned more about what it means to be poor from this young man than I have learned from any lecture or book about poverty.

His name is Laurindo Francisco da Silva Caixao. He is 22 years old. In Portuguese, his last name “caixao” means coffin. That's where both his parents have been since 2004. Buried two meters apart from each other. His father in a wooden coffin, paid for by the catholic priests who he had been working for when he became sick. His mother in a bamboo coffin, put together by members of the community and wrapped in a very nice cloth. When he talked about it, Laurindo seemed proud of his mother's coffin. She passed away a few months after her husband. Cholera killed them both. One year later, Laurindo wound up in the hospital with cholera. “But the nurses saved me,” he says. They gave him plenty of bottled water to replenish his system. 
Because he is an orphan of both parents, he was given a poverty certificate from the government entitling him to a free education. But he can only attend school at night because during the daytime, students have to wear uniforms and shoes and Laurindo has neither because he doesn't have money. He lives on virtually nothing. Probably a lot closer to zero dollars a day than a dollar a day.

He eats xima everyday. The corn and cassava that he grinds up to make the white mush comes from his home in Iapala, 30km away, where his four younger sisters live. He brings it over by bike every so often. He's had this bike since 2006. Five years. And he got it used. But he didn't buy it. He worked on a man's farm for a few days and the man gave him a bike for his labor. This is probably his most valuable possession and yet he didn't pay a penny for it.

Laurindo lives in a tiny mud hut in the neighborhood of Saua Saua, over an hour walk into the villa of Ribaue where he goes every night to attend his 11th grade class. He built his hut without spending anything. The land was free, he simply had to ask permission from the secretary of the neighborhood, the mud bricks he made himself, and then he hired a mason to build the house. He repaid the mason by bringing him wood from the nearby mountain for some of the mason's other work projects.

He gets water from the pump at the nearby primary school using two five liter gasoline containers that were given to him by someone at the market. Since he lives alone and uses the river to bathe and wash his clothes, he only needs 10 liters every other day, so the school lets him take water without having to pay the monthly  fee of 10 mt (30 cent).

I asked him when was the last time he spent money on something. After thinking for a few seconds he told me that he had bought his notebooks (every Mozambican student must have a notebook for each one of their classes) and pens. He had gotten this money, which should have been just over a dollar, from the nuns in Iapala after working on one of their fields for a day.

He wants to start saving up to buy a pair of shoes since all he had is the pair of sandals he was wearing. That's a 250 mt purchase. I asked him where he would get that money from. His sisters, he told me. They're going to start selling their excess corn and they'll give him one mt every now and then, and he'll save that up until he could get his pair of shoes. I offered to hire him for a day or two to help me and Charlie get our little machamba going, and then I would give him the money for the shoes. He liked this idea. Now I just need to make sure I follow up with it.

On our walk, I bought some roadside guavas. It's guava season right now, so they're dirt cheap. Three for one mt. That's about 3 cents. So I bought two mts worth and offered half the guavas to Laurindo, but he didn't want them. He didn't like them. I found this surprising at first, but then he told me that he had three large guave trees in his house in Iapala, so he had grown tired of eating guavas all his life. But noticing how much I liked them, he said he would bring me a bunch from his tree next time he makes the 30km bike trip to his home. I begged him not to do this, since there are so many available here. But just the fact that he offered to do was very humbling. At no point during our conversation did he ask for anything or even express a need for anything that I could potentially fulfill. Instead, he offered to bring me guavas from his tree 30km away.
We talked a bit more about cholera. I wanted to know what he knew about it, about the way it spreads and the way people get it, and he definitely knew his stuff. Lack of hygiene. Defecating in places other than the latrine, especially places close to water. Then I asked him if he had any experiences with malaria. He did. Last year. Spent a week in the hospital recovering. Then I asked about HIV/AIDS. Did he know of anyone, living or dead, who had the virus? No, he didn't. But he did know plenty about how to not get AIDS. “Have only one partner and use condoms.” I asked him if he used a condom when having sex. He does. He gets the free ones they have at the hospital. And he only has one partner. She's a 12th grade student who lives with her parents in the villa. They get together about once a month at her house and have sex. He spoke of it as a “necessity.” Something that needed to be done. Her parents, who both have jobs (this is very rare), both seem to like him so he's planning to stick around with this girl.

I'm still trying to understand how Mozambicans view sex. In the US, I would never ask a random person, or even a friend, if we're just on a casual stroll, about their sex life. But considering how often people here have inquired about my sex life (they don't believe me when I tell them I'm a virgin), I felt completely comfortable bringing it up with Laurindo.

Continuing the conversation about HIV, he mentioned that it's also possible to get it from the blades used by curandeiros -traditional healers – since they use them on many people and don't wash them. Most evangelicals I've asked have told me that they do not go to curandeiros when they are sick because it's proibido -prohibited. But Catholics are a bit more lenient on this and Laurindo is Catholic, so I asked him if he ever goes to the curandeiro when he is sick. He told me that his mother used to take him when he was a child, but when he began to “ver como sao as coisas” (see how things are) he stopped going. Not because it was wrong, but because of the risk involved.

When we parted ways, he asked me how I would be getting in touch with him to let him know about working on our machamba. I told him I'll find him at his house. He thanked me, we said goodbye and as I started walking home, my mind imploded with thoughts about Laurindo's lot in life. How different it is from mine, from anyone I grew up with in America. When people talk about “the poorest of the poor”, I think they're talking about Laurindo. I hope to come across more Laurindos during these next two years, not simply so I can continue to share their stories with friends back home, but mainly so that their stories can begin transform my own; that their experience can shape the way I see my role in the world.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Let the teaching begin...

Caros Amigos (this means “dear friends” in Portuguese - “caro” is short for “querido”- not to be mistaken for “Amigos Caros” which would mean “expensive friends”) and random readers of this blog,
      I'm having a wonderful time here in Northern Mozambique thus far. The house I'm living in is ridiculously nice even by American standards, especially for someone fresh out of college. It's a 2-bedroom suite with tile floors, hot shower, brand-new gas stove, full-sized fridge, dinner table with six chairs (and a Nelson Mandela tablecloth which I bought), 3 comfy couches, running water (very few of my PC colleagues have running water) and -this is the part that would make any American love this place -the location is amazing. We are nearly at the foot of a majestic mountain that to me looks like the hand or foot of God (you'll see pictures and you might agree) and from our porch, I can watch beautiful sunsets everyday.
      Charlie, my awesome housemate, and I are teachers at Ribaue Secondary School, a school that holds an important place in Mozambican history. It was one of the first schools opened by FRELIMO, the revolutionary front  that led the fight for Mozambique's independence  and that still holds a virtual monopoly on Mozambican politics.  It's purpose was to educate the Mozambican people during a time when access to education was limited to the Portuguese and Assimilados (the black elite who probably talked and acted more like white Europeans than their fellow Mozambicans).  Considering the historical import of this place, it's interesting to see how bad it looks 30 years after its glory days. Windowless, wall-less, desk-less, and door-less classrooms (most of the walls are still intact, but they are falling apart). The past couple of Saturdays, I've had to use these classrooms for my English Choir (I've had over 20 kids each week chanting “We Are Mozambicans, Mighty Mozambicans”-adapted from “we are the titans”-and last week they were singing “I like to move it, move it”-from Madagascar- except I had them replace “move it” with other action verbs and I had them make sure they noticed the difference between “I like” and “He/She likes”. It was awesome.) So since these classes don't have doors, I've been able to use them on Saturdays, since I don't need a key to get in. But during the week, I have the good fortune of teaching in our brand-spankin'-new school building, built adjacent to the old school with the help of Chinese tax dollars and Chinese construction workers, where every one of my 200 students (I teach four 11th grade classes of 50 students each) has their own desk, and where I have a huge green blackboard (I'm supposed to be teaching them British English. So I write on the blackboard and erase the chalk with a duster).
      It's kind of funny how the school calender works here. Classes were supposed to officially start on January 17th, but that entire first week was spent creating the schedules for the teachers and students (this varies entirely by school. Some of my PC colleagues started teaching on that day). The following week, classes kind of started, or at least, I started teaching, but by the end of the week, only about half of my students had shown up. So I just did a bunch of get-to-know-you activities in English, taught them a few songs, and played some games. It was fun. The following week I finally had full classrooms and I started teaching testable material. But it was interesting to note that while all the students had arrived, only about half the teachers were teaching during the first two weeks of actual teaching (which were the 3rd and 4th week on the official calender). Teacher absence seems to be a huge issue here. I'm not sure if my students have ever had a day when all their teachers showed up. I think a big part of the problem has to do with the lack of accountability. It wasn't until the 4th Saturday on the official calender that we had our first teacher's meeting (and we probably won't have another 'til the next trimester) and one of the four main points on the agenda was “Profesores, o ano ja arancou entao vamos dar aulas” (Teachers, the year has begun so let's start teaching). I haven't had one  person look over my lesson plans (of course, they are in English, so only the other English teachers would understand them). But I could really be doing whatever  I wanted to  and nobody would know.
      I gave my first test last week and because of the variation of scores, I think it served as a good assessment to see where my students are at. About 1/3 of of my students failed miserably and I don't see things getting better for them over the course of the year. It's sad to say, but a lot of these kids have a very difficult time reading, so you could imagine how hard it must be for them to learn English, especially when their schedule has them taking French and Portuguese everyday. That's just too many languages. About 1/5 of my students seem to have some sort of idea about what I'm talking about, and the rest are in the middle. Scraping by, not fully understanding what's going on, but I'm hoping that they'll be motivated enough, and that I'll be a good enough teacher, that they'll learn a thing or two. Last week I started using a fourth-grade textbook from South Africa. Our dinky school library had over 100 copies of this book, so I took 50. During class, each of my students is able to have a text book in hand (they have to return it at the end of class). Most of these kids have never had a text book for any of their classes, so this is a huge deal. I've never been so excited about a textbook in my life. So for the past two weeks, my students have been reading about Sabelo (the main character in this text) and his friends Thando, Nkululeko, and a bunch of other characters with complicated African names. My first two weeks were a bit up and down, since I sometimes was not sufficiently prepared, or would run out of material. But this text is helping a lot and I now feel that these kids might actually learn something.
      One of the big issues with education here is the lack of books, or just the lack of reading material in general. The only place to get a newspaper is Nampula, the provincial capital 4-7 hours away from here (the variation in travel time is due to messed up roads, unreliable transportation, wait times, etc.) and that's also the only place someone can buy any book. But the only books that are accessible to the public are the old boring textbooks being sold by street vendors. Any decent reading material is far too expensive for even someone like myself to want to buy. I'm hoping that once our new school library is open, I'll be able to help make it a space where students could go to to just sit down and read a book during those periods when their teachers don't show up for class. I believe that if these students had a chance to read more, it might help them think a bit more critically, and in a country where all learning is based solely on what the teacher says, and not on what other sources say, or what your peers might think, there is definitely a dearth of critical thinking. Observing this here has made me really value the importance that is placed on critical thinking in American education.
      Alright. I think I may have bored you all enough with all this education-speak. In a jiffy, I'll just list some of the other highlights of my time here in my new home thus far:
·        eating cornbread, chocolate cake, mashed potatoes, breaded and fried okra, goat, and salad this past weekend when we had a few other PC volunteers visiting us.
·        Making pumpkin soup and cooking other delicious meals (I've virtually been a vegetarian since getting to my site, except for that goat and one other time when we killed a chicken for a special occasion)
·        visiting a different church every Sunday that I've been in town. I'm fascinated by religion in Africa. While it resembles the same general form as most churches in the US -people in the crowd, minister(s) up front addressing the people, people giving money, singing songs, dressing nice -the way this all looks, in a Mozambican context is soooooo different, and what religion means to people here is something I'm trying to figure out.
·        Meeting a few awesome missionaries when visiting other towns. I met a black Brazilian woman who is serving as a nurse for a Catholic order, a Costa Rican priest who just arrived a couple of months ago and who will be presiding over a catholic church deep in the bush, and a white American evangelical missionary who has been serving in Africa for 25 years and who made us pinneaple cake in her home.
·        Watching movies on the health volunteers projector with my bumpin', usb-powered HP speakers.
·        Listening to This American Life on my long journeys away from here.
·        Admiring the tons of Obama gear (shirts, belts, pants, bags, wallets, keychains, pens and even underwear) in every market I go to.

2343 words. I think that's all I got for now. Hopefully, if the internet is kind to me, I'll also be uploading a bunch of photos on fb this weekend (I took individual portraits of all my students. It was probably one of the quickest and best photo things I've ever done).

Goodbye for now.

p.s. I also have a girlfriend for the first time in my life and I like her a lot. Her name is Patricia Orozco aka Patti and she is wonderful. She is not Mexican, as her name might suggest, but Filipina (when I told my mom this, her response was, “Oh, so she's Asian”). We spent a lot of time together during training taking long village walks, visiting churches, and talking, a lot. But now she is serving as a health volunteer in Central Mozambique which is pretty far from me. While the distance between us kind of sucks, we've been having some great phone conversations and I'm looking forward to spending every break from school with her. Also, her Peace Corps service is part of her master's degree program from the Uni of Washington, which means that she is almost done with her master's degree, which means that she's way more legit than me, and she went to Columbia, which is also pretty legit.