Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Help Benet go to college!

This is an initiative started by my fellow hard-working Peace Corps Volunteers who worked in Chibuto from 2009-2011. The most rewarding work we did was youth development programs. We discovered some incredibly gifted youth who had not been given much opportunity, but whom were willing to work hard to change their own lives for the better despite the lack of opportunities. And it is paying off for a few lucky ones like Benet...read below to see how you can help him go to college. Benet became involved in the youth programs when I had about 6 months of service left and I was moved to tears when I received this update about how well he has been doing for himself.

Hi Everyone!

Please take a moment to read the letter below about the scholarship
(Todos Pelos Estudos) that Alycia and I are starting in Chibuto,
Mozambique. I also encourage you to forward this to family and


I’d like to introduce you to Bénet André Mutuque. In 2011, Bénet
graduated 12th grade from Escola Secundária de Chibuto in Gaza
province, Mozambique. Bénet is an exceptional student, not only for
his academic achievement but for his self-starter motivation,
community involvement, and unwavering positive attitude.

Mid-way through his senior year, I asked Bénet what he wanted to do
when he graduated. Without hesitation, he said he wanted to go to
University. With a strong interest in technical drawing and art, he
wants to someday be an architect. Impressed with his foresight and
planning, I asked him if he would be able to accomplish this goal.
Unfortunately, he answered that the cost of post-secondary education
prohibited him from doing so. Bénet lives with his sister and
brother-in-law who had the means to support him through secondary
school, but would not be able to do so through University.

The cost for a student to attend University for 1-year is only 735
USD, which includes all costs for matriculation and exams as well as
housing. I had only to think about this for a moment before realizing
that as a returned Peace Corps volunteer and a proponent of education,
I (and by extension, you) could make a real difference in this
student’s life.

With the promise of a scholarship, Bénet has passed his entrance exams
and secured a spot at a University where he will study to be a teacher
for art/technical drawing. In a country with a severe shortage of
teachers, this is a noble endeavor, and we will do everything we can
to support Bénet and other students in the future in their pursuit of
higher education.

--How can you help?--

While we are working to establish this program as a non-profit to
allow for tax deductible donations, we have not yet achieved that
status (we need to find ourselves a lawyer!). In the meantime, we are
reaching out to family and friends to make small donations. Please
forward this to anyone and everyone; the link below will allow you to
donate directly to our scholarship through a PayPal account. Anything,
even $1 helps. All donations will go directly towards the scholarship;
the only administrative costs are those associated with PayPal
payments and the bank fee to wire funds to Mozambique.


--Who is Bénet?--

The first time I met Bénet, he showed up in our REDES room (a room
dedicated to an extracurricular program supporting girls in education,
development, and health) with an idea. Bénet loves to draw, and he
wanted to organize an art show with pieces that showcase women’s
empowerment and healthy life choices. And that was just the start,
throughout my two years in Chibuto, Bénet continuously participated
and led activities and events in the school, the community, and even
at provincial and national events.

In 2010, Bénet participated in an entrepreneurship course that
culminated in a competition to win funding to start a small business.
While the judges did not select Bénet’s business proposal, to raise
and sell chickens, he didn’t give up. He went on to submit his
proposal to an organization based in Portugal, Primeiro Passo, that
supports small business development projects that benefit both the
individual and the larger community. With funding from Primeiro Passo,
Bénet implemented his plan and has been operating his chicken business
ever since!

Bénet particularly drew our attention with dedication to peer
education and raising public awareness about pertinent health issues.
As an active participant and leader in a group called Geração BIZ,
Bénet trained as an Activista (an individual who is educated in health
topics from reproductive health to HIV). He then went out into his
community and to his fellow students to educate and support his peers.

--The Mozambican School System--

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the school system in
Mozambique, completing the 12th grade and passing the national exams,
is a major accomplishment. Secondary school in Mozambique is split
into two cycles, 8th-10th grade and 11th-12th grade. Only a small
group of motivated students are lucky enough to have the opportunity
to continue their education beyond the 10th grade, and even fewer
still have the opportunity for higher education. Upon entering the
11th grade, students choose an academic focus, either humanities or
science, and take core curriculum classes such as Math and Language
Arts as well as classes specific to their academic track. While
8th-10th grade curriculums are by no means easy, the 11th and 12th
grade curriculums are extremely difficult and often comparable to the
AP classes we are accustomed to in the US. While completing the 11th
and 12th grade is an achievement in itself, students are additionally
required to pass very difficult national exams to receive a diploma.

Beyond the 12th grade, opportunities for students are limited,
especially in the rural areas of Mozambique. While there are a number
of universities, technical institutions, and teacher training
institutes, open spaces are limited, costs are high, and often an
inside connection is needed to secure a spot. The best students from
rural areas compete with students from the capitol cities for these
spots, and often times logistical, financial, and academic
circumstances award the opportunities to the city students. Seeing
these challenges first hand, and knowing the potential of the best
students from the rural schools, Alycia and I wanted to do something
to provide an opportunity to motivated and high performing students
who would otherwise not have the means to attend University. We
decided to start a scholarship to be awarded to a student graduating
from Escola Secundária de Chibuto. Initially the scholarship will be
awarded to one student at a time and will cover the costs associated
with attending university for up to 4 years; eventually, with enough
fundraising, we would like to award one scholarship per year.


Update on the cultural center many of you helped fund

Dear friends and family,

 You may be surprised to see this post since I returned from my Peace Corps service in Mozambique over a year and a half ago. However, G-PROIL (The Group for the Promotion of Local Initiatives) shared a report to explain, mainly through pictures, the progress they have made and the events that they have held at the cultural center. I wanted to share it with you because this project would not have turned into a reality without your support and prayers. Although starting a cultural center was no easy task, many dedicated community members came together to create a space to celebrate culture and cultivate talents in youth. I hope you enjoy the photos and hearing from G-PROIL. I am really proud of the successes they’ve accomplished in their first year and hope that they will continue to overcome obstacles in the future. May the cultural center enrich the lives of the community for many years to come! Thanks again for your help and investing in the project. I look forward to visiting the cultural center in a few weeks when I return to Mozambique do so an internship with USAID. I will also be picking up on my blog so look out for new posts!

This report comes directly from the project managers, Binaisa and Benjamin
Gracey Uffman, we want to thank you for all what you have done for this association and for the people in Chibuto. We want to thank too, you family, your church and Peace Corp. We just hope that everything is going, the way you have planned there. Here, we are fine. But, words for what? The pictures are going to talk more than them. G-PROIL wants you to know about the project you have helped us to build here in Chibuto, which is the Cultural Centre “Xiwa Niku Pfuka” which means in English “ Fall and Rise”. But is not just giving information about what we are doing, is to show too, what we are doing. That is why; we have prepared photos that are going to help you to see what we are doing in the cultural centre. By these photos, we pretend to tell a little bit of the story and progress of this project. G-PROIL, represented by Binaisa Maposse at the left side, the president of this association, on February 2011, signed a contract of 5 years with Benjamin Sitoe the owner of the complex, at the right side.
Here is the president of G- PROIL, signing the contract. 
Here is the owner of the complex signing too
After signing, we were all happy with the contract, we have signed 
The place hired to use as the cultural Centre, out side the complex. 
At this complex, we have hired this office, which is the office of the cultural centre and G-PROIL. This was before painting the office.
After painting the office
Besides the office, we have hired this place too, in this complex, where the artists rehearse.
This day, they were dancing Galanga and Xigubo, a typical dancing of the South of Mozambique. 
This is the first group of students we had in the cultural centre, composed by more than 25 students and 5 teachers at the back.
PCVs Erica and Alycia helped out a great deal.
 Of course, we didn’t stop by here, but we have been trying to have a small number of the talents that we discover because of the costs, it takes. We would like to have as much as possible number of students, but is not easy to keep, feed and control a large number of students, still. First, because the group of management in the cultural centre, still learning on how to manage a cultural centre and it should be with a small number of students, second, because buying equipment, instruments and feeding the artists during the travelling, it’s not easy, considering the fact that we don’t have still, a sponsor. Nevertheless, when we can compose or create a group like these, even with the poor resources that we have, it makes us proud and believe that our dreams in a short space of time are going to become true. 
This is the group of dancing
This is the group of fashion show, wearing bags of one of the Chibuto designer 
This is the fashion show in the community
 This is the group of theater
Theater 2
When it comes to painting and drawing, we started producing this type of pictures, which is produced using local material, like reed, paper, paintings, etc. We hope that in future more kids, youths and adults can embrace this activity. The picture was offer to a school to motivate teachers and students to produce them at primary schools.
Through 2011, our first year of work, not everything went as we have planned, we would like to travel more than what we did. Change experience with another cultural groups around Chibuto and outside Chibuto, but conditions do not allowed us to do so. But we want to thank the local government that made partnership with a group of Zimbabwe. They made it possible, for the group to come to Mozambique in Chibuto and we have learned a lot from them. 
Another challenge we had, was to guarantee food for the artists during their rehearsing and when we have shows. Here are the students cooking by themselves, what allow them to learn home economics among themselves.   
This is the dancing group, preparing the table for them to eat. It allows them too to socialize, have  spirit of help and unity.   
They are now at the table eating
The director with a jersey, coordinator with a yellow shirt and the DJ, eating after a long  job at the cultural centre.
This is the group that has been fighting to keep the cultural centre going. 
I hope that in the near future, I’ll send you, other information. But I have to tell you that we already have a land to build the cultural centre, it 40m × 40m. It is at Chimundo, not far from where the cultural centre is now. Unfortunately, our camera is broken, but I’ll find ways to have photos of the land. So, we still have those coming four years to build the cultural centre. On my behalf and on behalf of G-PROIL and all the Volunteers of the Cultural Centre “Xiwa Niku Pfuka”, we promise you to continue fighting to keep this project going. All the best for you and all the people around you THANK YOU GRACEY OBRIGADA GRACEY KANIMAMBO GRACEY

Monday, November 8, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Mozambique

Yesterday Abby, our cat, and I left Chibuto - we packed up our home and said goodbye to all the friends we made in the last 23 months. My last week in Chibuto was very special because I had small parties with my work colleagues and young women's empowerment group, and enjoyed a lot of last visits. We received official word that our cultural center project is fully funded, which is exciting news! (Thanks to all who donated).

My last night I visited the house of a young girl named Aissa. She has been a regular participant in my young women's empowerment group for the past 2 years but for one reason or another I never made it to her house. Perhaps because her house was on the other side of the town. More likely because I had almost written her off (as terrible as it sounds). At age 20, she is still in the ninth grade and does not seem particularly motivated in her studies. Furthermore, she is habitually late, and not just a little bit, which can be frustrating. Aissa is a tiny girl; she does not stand more than 4 feet 9 inches tall, so you would not expect her to have a child, let alone a large 3 year-old son. So right or wrong, I was inclined to invest more time and energy to the girls more dedicated to their studies and with obvious potential for brighter futures. What I had overlooked was how loving and caring she is - always greeting me with a smile and even moved to tears when I broke my nose last year because she hated to see me in pain. Although I did not feel like going to her house the last day because I knew I’d inevitably be forced to stay a long time and endure a lot of special attention, I figured it would mean a lot to the family and was the right thing to do. And boy was I glad I went – late is better than never! I showed up to her house and was offered a chair & promptly asked what my preferred soda was; the routine that had become so familiar to me during any house visit. I sat and enjoyed getting to watch the house dynamics play out while they prepared a special dinner.

I had met most of her family members in town, but never all at the same time. All 8 of them lived in a modest three-room house made of reeds, and without electricity. What was shocking is that 20-year-old Aissa’s 3-year-old baby was older than her mother’s youngest child. The mother’s youngest child was also 3 while her oldest was 28. Aissa and her mother got pregnant at almost exactly the same time and gave birth two months apart. Today the two 3-year-old boys are inseparable – a son and grandson the same age. Family planning is clearly not something Aissa learned from her mother. However, in many ways both the young children Aissa and her mother said came from unwelcome pregnancies, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The two young boys have become inseparable and it was fun to see them playing together. After a delicious dinner, I left so happy I had gone and with a much better understanding of Aissa – her humble abode was filled with loving and kindness, which are perhaps two of her best characteristics.

I also went to watch the 7th week of the 10-week talent show many of my favorite youth have been hosting. They have been putting on an American Idol like show complete with three judges and voting opportunities for the viewers. They have made it as professional as possible – arranging a sound system, microphones, and generator so the show does not get disrupted from the frequent power outages. They charge a $1 entry fee to help cover the costs. It gives the youth a chance to shine and discover their talents while also providing entertainment and a positive way for youth to spend their free time in a community lacking extracurricular activities. It was impressive to see the young people making this happen all on their own and seeing the kids performing songs, dances, and skits. The whole event was exceptionally similar to a talent show in the US minus one crucial difference. There was no one over the age of 25 in the building – no parental or teacher support. I was imagining the audience for a talent show in the States and thinking how it’d be filled with parents and grandparents snapping photos and proudly cheering on their children.

The young adults responsible for the talent show were recently elected leaders of the new cultural center we have started. The cultural center is designed for older youth and adults to teach younger kids art, dance, music, etc. so hopefully it will encourage inter-generational collaboration. It is pretty amazing what the teens do on their own but far from ideal in my opinion; so much would be gained if there was more direction and support from elders to youth. Nevertheless, watching youth in action was such a good way to go out – it gave me a positive feeling that things might be heading in that direction with the help of these young leaders in the future!

On Monday, I arrived to Namaacha to spend my last week visiting my host family brining it full-circle. It never fails to amaze me how despite their busy schedules and financial limitations, they are so generous and give me princess treatment. The children play happily and simply without thousands of toys or expensive forms of entertainment. It always reminds me of what’s most important in this life: family, how you treat others, having food on the table and shelter over your head, and loving relationships on a daily basis; take or leave the rest.

Although my Peace Corps journey is coming to a close, I will never forget how much this experience has marked and changed my life. I have so many fond memories and am so happy I had the opportunity to embark on this worthwhile sojourn.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Young Girls in Action - Lifting my Spirits

I have written far less blog entries in year two; one reason is recently I’ve been in a slump and not felt much like writing. Homesickness is setting in after 2 years of living so far from my family. I also had the privilege of having so many visitors from the States this year, and as soon as they all left in early August, my roommate Abby has also had to move from our home for work-related reasons. That meant a harsh readjustment from having constant company to being very isolated. Compounded with that, I got sick and had an overall bad week during all the strikes and rioting that recently took place in Mozambique. I was feeling really ready to go home, getting frustrated easily and just struggling to keep a positive attitude!
Luckily, last weekend we had a girls’ empowerment conference for my main secondary project called REDES (Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação e Saúde – Girls Developing in Education and Health), and it was just what I needed to drag me out of my slump and get me in a better, more positive mindset to finish out the rest of my service!

I have written about the REDES Project before, but I’ll include a quick recap of our mission and vision statements before writing about how the conference was my saving grace.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to empower young Mozambican women through gender-awareness and skills-based activities, giving them the knowledge to make healthy decisions and build successful futures, thus reducing their vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

Vision Statement

We envision a future in which young Mozambican women are equipped with the skills and self-confidence needed to make their own decisions about what is important to their lives and futures. We envision REDES as a national movement linking young women throughout the country and encouraging them to work together to advocate for women’s rights, learn about women’s health, and become leaders in their communities. We hope to someday soon see young women become their own best and strongest advocates.

September Gaza Provincial REDES Conference

To achieve our mission and work toward our vision, Peace Corps Volunteers and Mozambican professors and exemplary women are working together to form REDES groups in primary and secondary schools for girls between 12 and 23 years old. These REDES groups meet throughout the school year doing a variety of educational and fun activities, giving the girls a safe space to learn. Additionally, twice a year representatives from each group are selected to participate in regional and provincial conferences. I have had the honor of participating in three such conferences and they have been some of the most inspiring and most hopeful days in my whole service. And the latest provincial conference could not have come at a better time to lift my down spirits.

At the provincial conference in Gaza, we had 55 participants and our theme was “Analyzing the Roles of Women in Society.” One of the areas the REDES Project has been focusing on is to allow the Mozambican professors to take more leadership in the project, and have the Peace Corps Volunteers take more of a back seat. I had the opportunity to work with the professors from my town before the conference so that they were equipped to lead all the HIV-related sessions and activities without my help. I was so proud watching them stand in front of the girls explaining the risky behaviors associated with HIV, and helping the girls distinguish the myths from the facts. You could also tell how proud they were of themselves, and how happy they were to be making a positive difference in the lives of the young Mozambican girls.

Another highlight from the conference was watching the young girls present what they learned and practice public speaking. Often in classes, it is difficult to get the young girls to speak up and share their opinions. Many of my PCV friends have shared their frustration that when calling on a girl in the classroom, she will refuse to answer or just giggle and put her head down, even when she knows the correct response. I think one reason is because this culture places more value on the opinions and education of males, although it is beginning to change. I often see males speaking for females, and rarely hear females challenging males or strongly asserting their opinions. But the REDES Conferences provide an all-girl setting that gives the young women a chance to speak their minds and gain self-confidence, hopefully giving them courage to speak up more in their schools and communities after they leave even in mixed company.

Before the public speaking presentations, we broke the girls into four small groups giving them each the chance to discuss different roles of women in society. The youngest group discussed girls and education because it is still common to see girls drop out early to get married to older men and have babies, especially in the rural areas when their parents sometimes give them no choice. We also talked about how many of the schools have many more male teachers, and how sometimes the female teachers face discrimination. The girls are challenged to form an opinion and a plan of action on what they can do to rectify these injustices. The next group talked about girls and sports focusing on an interesting article about a group of Afghani girls who gained self-confidence and new dominion over their bodies through participating in a soccer league. Before the Afghani girls only used their arms to clean the floors and cart water, which is very similar to young women in Mozambique. When the boys saw them playing soccer, it changed their perceptions of the role of girls and helped them see girls more as their equals. The young Mozambican girls talked about how this article parallels their lives’ in many ways, and how sports can be used to empower young women. The third group spoke about women in the business world, debating if women should start businesses and why it is important to have a business skill to be able to support yourself. Too often, women turn to transactional sex or stay in abusive relationships in Mozambique because they have no means to support themselves financially. The oldest group talked about domestic violence and came up with a definition and what women should do about it. It happens very frequently here, especially because there is such inequality between the genders, and all too commonly people turn a blind eye or stay quiet, so the vicious cycle continues. The girls talked about how this is dangerous, how women (and the community) need to stand together in solidarity to denounce it, and provided information on where to go to get help.

Once the girls started presenting and speaking, the flood gates opened and we could not get them to stop! The following activity was for them to create posters with HIV messages to take back to their communities, and so we asked for a few volunteers to come forward and share. It was crazy because they all lined up with big smiles on their faces, and started sharing one right after the other when usually it is like pulling teeth to get them to open up in big crowds!

In the afternoon, we had a special treat because an exemplary Mozambican author who has challenged what the role of women should be in society was our guest speaker. We had the privilege of hearing from Paulina Chiziane, the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel. She is a 55 year-old-lady who was born in Gaza Province and her words were powerful. She has written books on topics such as polygamy, the practices of traditional healers, and her experience of living through the war for independence and the subsequent civil war (she spoke of writing one of her books holed up in her house as bombs exploded all around her, not knowing if she would live to see it published). Paulina’s story resonated with the young women because she was born in the same province as them and spoke of how she learned to write on a dirt floor using a stick as a pen because there were no proper writing utensils at her school. Only later did Paulina learn to write using a pen and notebook, something that she pointed out only totaled about one dollar in cost. Paulina pointed to her appearance; as a youngster, she did not like to spend her money on fancy clothes and hairstyles, preferring to spend them on books – something she sticks to her guns about today. I thought this was a particularly good point because many of the girls choose to spend their money on weave to make their hair long and stylish and fashionable, tight clothes to attract men (same as in the States). Paulina told them she chose reading over vanity, and it was one of the best decisions she ever made. Another interesting thing she shared was that she first wanted to be a painter, but did not have money to buy the materials so decided to instead express her thoughts through writing. Not only that, but after writing, many people discouraged her from publishing saying she could be in danger if the government or people did not like what she had to say. Her dad was not supportive of her decision to publicize at first, but Paulina is a strong woman and felt it had to be done. She drew strength internally and started publishing, and eventually gained the support of her father and many others. Being the talented writer that she is, she has become a famous author and her books are translated into many languages including English, Spanish, French, and Chinese. Paulina’s address captivated the girls as she shared these importance lessons telling the girls to speak up, think independently, read, and value education. You could tell that Paulina really made an impression on them, and I think many of them took her message to heart and will try to follow suit because the potential is there.

In the evening, we had each back home group perform in our FAMA REDES Show, giving them the opportunity to present a song, dance, or theater piece that they can share with their communities. The show started out with dancing, one thing that Mozambicans are not shy about, which was a lot of fun. Other groups created songs with messages encouraging people to get HIV tested. I think the most impressive though were the theatre presentations on domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, and HIV. My friend Emily brought a group of girls who often do theater, and she was shocked at how well they performed during FAMA REDES because although they acted boldly and fearlessly in the environment we had created, she said they often clam up or they are overshadowed when they act in mixed company. This conference served as a learning opportunity for these girls because it gives them an opportunity to shine and see what they are capable of; I think they frequently leave happily surprised by discovering hidden gifts. Emily followed up with the girls encouraging them to continue with their gained self-confidence once back in their communities in mixed company. My group did a theater piece on unplanned pregnancy and I think all our mouths hung open when a young girl named Anatercia, a 17-year-old, ended up being the funniest one in the whole play. My group was asking her beforehand if she was going to actually talk during the theater piece because although there was a general plot, the lines were improvised. Anatercia is generally shy and unsure of herself, but as soon as they started acting she had everyone howling with laughter and we could not get her to stop talking. It really is an amazing transformation to watch, and leaves you with the best feeling.

To round it off the next day, we concluded with a game of writing compliments on the papers we had taped onto everyone’s backs. Again, we asked for volunteers to read some of the adjectives people had used to describe them and we had so many beaming girls. I heard exclamations of “Wow, she thinks I’m intelligent,” or “she thinks I really am capable of achieving my dreams,” or “she says I’m a good singer.” It was so nice to see them building one another up, and all the girls left smiling and eager to go home and share what they had learned during our conference. I left feeling rejuvenated and lucky that I was able to participate in such a special project. Not only do the girls get to travel and see different parts of their country, meet other girls, sometimes take a shower and eat with a knife and fork for the first time, but they learn so much and gain self-confidence. The conference participants and organizers both benefit from this awesome project geared at helping create brighter futures and women leaders in our world!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Vida na Rua

I have had the pleasure of hosting 10 of my family members and friends in Chibuto this year and all of the noted one of their favorite things about being in my town was just sitting in my house or porch and listening to the many surrounding sounds. At any given moment, there will be children banging on their makeshift instruments on the dirt path right outside my front doorstep; roosters crowing at all hours (my dad learned that roosters actually love to crow in the wee hours of the morning); the rhythmic bom-bom sounds of women grinding peanuts in the mortar and pestle; the noisy chaos of the school from 6 am to 10 pm (you wonder how the students ever learn amidst all the commotion); and either waking up to the sounds of our guard sweeping out dirt yard at dawn or the neighbors’ loud eclectic American music blaring from the sound system (ranging from Celine to Michael Jackson to Avril Lavigne to Akon), that is, if we’re lucky enough to have electricity on that particular morning.

However, none of my American visitors experienced being awakened by our next-door-neighbor’s death celebration ceremony. It is customary that family members and the community hold a lively mass to honor the dead in some religious traditions here, and they often happen to kick off around midnight! I had been invited to attend a few of these masses, but always respectfully declined thinking it was better to be in the safety of my house in the middle of the night. One Friday Abby and I went to bed at 11 pm, but woke up minutes later to drum beating, rowdy cries of aye aye aye, and stomping and clapping—it was a powerful noise! Abby and I agreed that they could not possibly keep up the racket that long, but we were very wrong. After about two hours and putting the pillow over my ears, which somewhat muffled the noise, I eventually fell asleep. Poor Abby did not fair as well, light sleeper that she is! She drifted off sometime after 6:12 am (she timed it) when the music and shouting finally stopped. It was some celebration and certainly impressive endurance! It also demonstrates what a strong sense of community there is in Chibuto and what a special tradition of honoring those loved ones who have passed on that takes place!

It will be an adjustment to transition back to the States where neighborhoods and houses are more spread out and life does not happen in the streets, but rather in the big houses with white picket fences and manicured lawns. Everything appears neat and tidy; all the messy parts of life are hidden behind closed doors. Heck, even the cats and dogs are better fed and received better medical care than many of my community members. You get in the car and drive from Point A to B in the States – it is more rapid and efficient, yet very impersonal. You lose the human contact and daily greetings you exchange every time you leave the house walking from Point A to Point B - the market, school, your workplace, your friend's house, etc. Yes, this means that it’s hard to keep your business private but the other side of the coin is that you really know your neighbors and there is a sense of solidarity that, in my opinion, is missing in many neighborhoods in the States. My neighbors are always cooking together, the children roam freely from house to house, and when a large event happens everyone around is considered family. I remember how comforting it was to be on the receiving end of this support on the occasions when our house got broken into and a crazy man kept inappropriately turning up at our house. The neighborhood came together forming a strong bond—a force not be reckoned with—and helped us tremendously in resolving these problems ! Everyone literally circled the culprits; it was life happening on the streets all right.

Last week I listened to some returned Peace Corps Volunteers share their experiences about moving back to the States, and all noted how lonely it felt. People are so busy, concerned with the next step, getting ahead, and have so much stuff to entertain them (TV, internet, video games, expensive toys, iphone) that they really do not spend much time together. Part of me is really excited to get back to a faster pace of life and more comfortable lifestyle. But my time in the Peace Corps has taught me how invaluable the small daily interactions and connections are, which is something that is often lost in our own culture because of our material wealth. I am grateful that I have gotten to see the advantages of this simpler way of life in a way that I would not have otherwise.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Please donate to our cultural center!

Dear friends and family,

I have been serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Southern Africa in Mozambique as a community health promoter since October 2008. My primary assignment is being a community health promoter and I have been working towards the goal of improving the quality of life in Chibuto, where I am stationed, in various capacities. One way is through collaboration with a local group of working professionals as well as other Peace Corps Volunteers in efforts to build a cultural center.

Since April 2009, I have been working with this group to construct a cultural center for youth on the outskirts of my city. Utilizing local materials, labor and expertise, the cultural center will provide an environment where young people can productively spend their free time, thus reducing their chances of engaging in risky or unhealthy behavior.

The center will provide training and development in the areas of theater, music, visual arts, dance, sports and culinary arts. Talents in these areas will be cultivated with the help of Mozambican professionals, creating a form of expression that preserves, appreciates and celebrates Mozambican culture. In doing so, participants will also be developing their fine- tuned motor skills.

The local government has donated the land for the project just outside of the city center. The cultural center will consist of the construction of a small office and stage and eventually a kitchen/café for culinary students. A large space behind the center will be kept open for sporting events and other large gatherings. Phase one of the project will include the construction of an open-air stage, a small building to be used as an office, and a reed fence surrounding the entire property for privacy and protection.

Creating a sustainable center will be an ever-present priority in the creation of this project, its objective, and its methodology. Our request from the Partnership Program will help greatly in the initial start-up cost. It would contribute greatly toward the preservation of cultural pride and other such factors would motivate the local community to encourage healthy and creative behaviors among the younger generation.

This cultural center project is an out-of-the box method of HIV prevention for our community in Mozambique, where the HIV rate is estimated to be 29% in our province. It will also bring the community together through the events we will hold.

Please think about contributing to our cause to make our dream into a reality. If you decide to donate, you may do that through the Peace Corps Partnership Website (https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=640-020). The total amount we are raising for the project is $6,646 while our community is contributing $2,993. The good thing about this cause is that your donation merits a tax-exemption and there will be Peace Corps Volunteers overseeing the project so you can rest assured that your money will go directly to the cause and benefit our community.

Thanks so much for your help and support!
Gracey Uffman
Peace Corps Volunteer
Mozambique 2008-2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Gray Areas & Speaking up about Gender-Based Violence

Perhaps the project I have the most involvement in during my Peace Corps service deals with coordinating women’s empowerment girl’s clubs and conferences that are designed to educate young women about their health and human rights with the following vision. Our vision statement declares that, “We envision a future in which young Mozambican women are equipped with the skills and self-confidence needed to make their own decisions about what is important to their lives and futures. We envision REDES as a national movement linking young women throughout the country and encouraging them to work together to advocate for women’s rights, learn about women’s health, and become leaders in their communities. We hope to someday soon see young women become their own best and strongest advocates.” This REDES Project has become a huge passion of mine, and so I suppose that my friend Callie called for my advice because of my ties to this cause.

Callie began her Peace Corps service about 8 months ago and recently got involved in the REDES Project, helping a group form at her local high school after bringing some enthusiastic students to attend our regional conferences in April. At the conferences, PCVs get a chance to see girls learning and discussing many challenging issues that they face such as domestic violence and sexual abuse (especially with minors). Unfortunately domestic violence and sexual abuse are fairly common in this machismo culture coupled with the fact that much of society, particularly women, have little education and do not know their rights or are not in a position to stand up for them because they are economically dependent (although this is changing). The conference is great because the girls hear from strong, Mozambican women who started off just like the school girls—many growing up in the bush in poor families—who worked their way up to become leaders of women’s rights organizations in Mozambique and who are the exception to the rule in that they openly demand their rights. At our conference in April, two of the speakers spoke about personal experiences, which really touched all of us and served as an example of how any woman can be a victim of gender-based violence, but all of us should speak up! In this particular case, the guest speaker’s husband had tried to use a heavy hand to resolve a marital argument and as soon as he did, she screamed until everyone in the neighborhood came and so did the police. She urged the girls not to keep quiet from embarrassment or to protect the family’s reputation, because once you let gender-based violence happen once with silence then it easily slips into habit. The other guest speaker confessed that she had an abortion after an older powerful gentlemen had used force to sleep with her, and how she had ended up later having two children with another man in her life, but ultimately was raising them as a single mother. The guest speakers’ speeches hit close to home for many girls and after they finished speaking, one confessed a secret she had been harboring a long time and asked them for advice on how she could get help. I have followed up with these guest speakers since the conference and know that more conference participants also called for help with stories of gender-based violence that had happened in their lives who no longer wanted to stay quiet and needed advice on the steps to seek justice. More than anything, these women and girls just needed to know that they were not alone. They wanted to know someone supported their decision to speak up because it is not easy and takes a lot of courage.

When Callie went back to her community after the conference, Alegria, an older woman who had been her Portuguese tutor and had become Callie’s friend, informed her of a grave situation. Alegria’s 49-year-old husband was cheating on her with multiple minor-aged girls! Although sadly this information was not new to Alegria, she had just learned that her husband got a 13-year-old girl pregnant who had given premature birth to a baby boy. Callie went to visit the young girl and reported that he birth was hard on the young girl’s body, which has not yet fully developed, and consequently the girl had dropped out of school. She is an orphan, living with her grandmother, and the older man is paying their family to support the baby. The economic incentive is enough for the family to keep quiet and the girl does not realize that what the man did is even a crime—just imagine the man started having sexual relations with her when she was just 11! He is rumored to be having inappropriate relationships with other young girls in his neighborhood too.

It does not just stop there, but he is a high school teacher and it is pretty commonly known that he goes after students, but it is hard to provide concrete evidence. That is, until this evidence of a baby cropped up! Alegria confessed to Callie that she was sick of it and wanted to draw the line, go to the police and report him, and then divorce him. Callie said that she’d help Alegria, but Alegria responded that she would like to think about it some more. Alegria talked to fellow community members who advised her that the police would not really do anything and that his life was almost already over at age 49, so they should just leave it be and “let God punish him one day.”

Callie called me more and more upset by the day about what she should do in the situation because she felt it was her moral duty to go to the authorities, but also wanted to respect Alegria’s wishes. I was set to meet with the local government representative in charge of gender, Daniela, who has become a good friend of mine, so I invited Callie to come talk with Daniela so we could get some advice from a Mozambican woman that’d understand both the law and culturally-appropriate way to handle it more so than us foreigners involved in this situation. Daniela wanted to take the information to the police as a public crime and get the young girl some help from social services, but Callie wanted to clear it with Alegria first. Daniela said that we could not just sit back or else he was going to continue, and it would one more case adding to the overwhelming silence that occurs commonly when gender-based violence happens in the community.

Callie talked more with Alegria who by that point had shifted completely in favor of keeping quiet because she was worried that her life would end up worse off in the end by turning in her husband. She had decided that a divorce would not be possible or snitching on him because she is unemployed and economically dependent on him. She felt that the community would marginalize her if it became public knowledge and her husband would end up in jail. Poor Callie was torn between taking the case to the police on her own and respecting her friend’s wishes in this gray area, with no clear-cut white or black correct answer. Daniela even proposed a way that they could anonymously tell authorities. In the end, after getting more guidance from the Peace Corps, Callie decided not to go to the police although this story continues to weigh on her heart. She is devoting her energy 100% into the REDES Project, and along with Daniela, we will be holding a training in August to educate 25 local teachers about how to start REDES groups in their schools and use the curriculum. Our hope is that the REDES Project helps empower these women and put them in a position where they can and will speak up in the future, free of economic dependence and full of self-confidence! And where this vicious cycle will not continue to repeat itself.

*By chance, I just so happened to be Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn, which is about the oppression that many women face in developing countries and what is being done about it. I highly recommend it!

*Some names changed to protect privacy

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Local Hero and My Thoughts on the Gift of Reading

It’s been forever since I’ve written and I cannot quite put my finger on why so much time has passed without a post. I think one reason is that things have gotten so normal to me in Mozambique and the other is that I have been busy with more work responsibilities and hosting visitors from the States, but with the end of my service coming in 5 months, I would like to take the opportunity to start writing more. On that note…

I have recently started helping out every once in awhile at a pre-school for underprivileged children in a far out “suburb” of Chibuto. Playing with children is one thing that I have faith will always remain pure in this crazy development culture where it often seems like people forget the primary goal in development is to help the children and not to just pocket money from identifying the children in need and forget about the help. The pre-school is an initiative of an elderly Mozambican nun named Sister Catarina and she puts 100% into helping 30 Mozambican kids age 6 and under learn how to speak Portuguese and care for themselves. She also makes sure they get at least two meals a day while they are at the pre-school.

The pre-school opened just over a year ago and although Sister Catarina has help from the Catholic church and from a Portuguese NGO, she spearheads the effort to take care of the children mainly by herself on a day-to-day basis. I am moved by how she has taken Jesus’ call to heart on “caring for the widows and the children” and how she works tirelessly.

The 30 children attend the pre-school Monday through Friday and start to arrive as early as 6 am and some do not get picked up until as late as 6 pm! Think of all the hours she is putting in with no hope of overtime pay, or much in the way of a “thanks”! During the day, the children receive breakfast, snack, lunch, and a bath. They also spend a lot of time playing in the yard, singing educational songs, and napping. It is a large undertaking and two of her main challenges are lack of manpower and finances. The caretakers and parents of the children are supposed to pay about $6 monthly for the pre-school. (Can you imagine sending your child to pre-school for just $6 a month? You can’t even hire a babysitter to watch your kid for that amount for one hour in the States!) Many times the parents either do not pay in full, pay late, or do not have money to contribute at all. Because of these financial challenges, Sister Catarina has a hard time keeping other professors on board because they earn little for a lot of work and often decide it is not worth their efforts.

In spite of all these challenges, Sister Catarina is doing impressive work and giving such a gift to the children and community. The kids are being fed and watched for hours of the day so the caretakers of the orphans or parents can work or go to school (some of the parents are single teenage moms). The children learn to speak Portuguese, which will help them so much when they start elementary school. All schooling is done in Portuguese although in many homes strictly Changana, the local language, is spoken, especially in lower educated households. This poses a great challenge when the kids start school because they have trouble understanding the teachers and the books.
The Catholic Church in Portugal and a Portuguese NGO have aided Sister Catarina immensely by providing her with resources and enough financial support to stay afloat, but there is a lot to be done to keep her project up. Sister Catarina always welcomes me when I stop by to play with the kids or bring visitors to meet them, but I have the easy job. I show up when I have time and stay for a few hours and play with the kids, but then get to go home and do things for myself. I could not help but thinking about all the traveling I have done in the past two months, and how if I had made it my life calling to do something like Sister Catarina, vacation would be nearly impossible. Sister Catarina has those children depending on her every weekday all year long—talk about exhausting!

The last few times that I have gone to the pre-school, I have checked out children’s books from our recently opened library to read to the kids. As soon as I open up the first book, the children go crazy repeating all the words from the picture books. They are hungry to learn, which is so encouraging to see! I think developing a reading culture is so important, but also recognize it is such a luxury. I think back to my childhood when my parents read me 4 books each night before bed. My grandparents used to send them as gifts all the time recognizing how important they were. I was so lucky to have two parents that had time to read to me and a family with the money to buy books. Reading opens so many fountains of knowledge and gives the possibility for us to educate ourselves and learn about anything and everything! Although reading to a few kids is just a small contribution, I still feel like it is one way I can give back while I am here. I can advocate the advantages of reading to all my Mozambican friends and form a habit of bringing books so that the children and teachers at the pre-school might see how beneficial they can be. My hope is that one day the kids grow up literate and that Sister Catarina continues to meet success and improve upon her pre-school project. Because of putting her dream into action through hard work and continued dedication, 30 children have better lives in this community!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Luxury of Having a Great Deal of Parental Support

In the last few days, I have spent a lot of time with many of my favorite teenagers in Chibuto. What I noticed is that all of them have much less parental support than I did growing up. What impressed me is that all of them work hard to achieve their dreams in spite of the many barriers they have had to cross. What makes me sad is that the teenagers I am talking about actually have more support than most children in our area in Mozambique, although it is not much when compared to the average child or teenager in the States.

Case #1: I went to hang out with my 19-year-old friend Isabel who is in twelfth grade. I have written about her before because last year she often invited me to eat at her extended family’s house and her friendship has made quite an impression on me. Isabel has been very involved in many projects run over the years by PCVs in Mozambique such as REDES (a young women’s empowerment group), the Science Fair, and English Theater competitions. She is a bright young lady who dreams of being a nurse. It was a PCV she confided in almost 2 years ago when she thought she might be pregnant, and who supported her throughout the pregnancy.

These days Isabel rents a one-room reed hut in Chibuto so she can finish high school because there are no schools around her home village that go up to 11th and 12th grade. In addition to caring for her one-year old daughter, she attends school and takes care of all household responsibilities. This year her younger sister who studies in 11th grade also came to live in the small hut with her so she could finish high school and help out. The final person living in their humble residence is a 9-year-old who is an extended family member. This child’s parents left her in Mozambique while they went to live in South Africa, so she remained behind to serve as Isabel’s babysitter. The 9-year-old spends at least six hours a day with the one-year-old baby tied to her back, supervising, which is crazy to me because in the States I used to babysit nine-year-olds!

When I went to hang out with Isabel, she cooked rice and beans for us and offered me a big plate. She nursed her daughter as she talked about her plans of entering in nursing school next year. Isabel expressed concern over the pus-infected wounds that had recently appeared on her baby’s head, which I told her she should wash with clean water and take her baby to the hospital. A few weeks ago, Isabel’s baby was sick with diarrhea for an extended period, causing her to miss a lot of school. (We made plans to get together so I can teach her how to make a home oral-rehydration therapy to help treat her baby in the future, which is one of the roles I like best about being a PCV—the ability to help your friends in the community with the small things). As we sat there eating and chatting, I could not help but realize how lucky we are in the States to have such a high level of support from our parents. And Isabel is one of the lucky ones here in a sense because she does have a home with parents located only about an hour away; and she has a father who gives her money to pay school fees and for food. She just has a lot more responsibility and challenges to face than your average American teen.

Case #2 and #3 are my friends Eugenio and Edgardia. Both of them are smart teenagers; Edgardia just graduated from high school and Eugenio is on track to graduate in the next few years. Although having a high school degree is something to be proud of in any culture, in the States is widely taken for granted what a privilege it is to have that educational opportunity. Being a high school graduate is a huge deal in Mozambique and although more and more Mozambicans are attaining this level of education these days, most adults I know in Chibuto do not have their high school degree. What Eugenio and Edgardia have in common is that they both lost a parent and are being raised by a single parent. They both have another blessing in common, one that would be less likely to happen in our culture, which is that they have many older siblings that have stepped in to help the single parent raise the younger kids.

Case #4 is my 8th grade buddy Shelton who comes over to visit often with a huge smile and a long list of questions about how to say this and that in English. Shelton is raised solely by his mother although his father lives in the neighboring town. Shelton’s father does not play a role in his life. This is a common trend in Chibuto. Often father figures are absent in the lives of children around here. The amount of casual sex that goes on results in a lot of unplanned pregnancies; it then often falls entirely upon the woman as her responsibility to take care of the child and there is little to no social accountability for the man to accept the responsibility for the consequences of his actions. In the States, it is much more socially taboo for the man to get a woman pregnant and then not offer any support (although there are exceptions).

I have spent a good deal of time getting to know these four youth, all of which have touched me and impacted by Peace Corps service in positive way. It recently dawned on me how all of them are either growing up in single-parent families or without a high level of daily parental support, and yet all are growing up to be exceptional people. Why do I think this is, you might ask? One contributing factor that I think matters a lot is that all of these youth have a parent that values education and has done the best they can to support their kids in spite of the barriers.

I contrast that to many of the other children in my neighborhood who have already dropped out or who fail grades on a normal basis, and to my many female teenage neighbors whose early pregnancies became the decisive factor that led to them dropping out. Many of these children come from families with low education levels. They do not have the advantage of having adult role models to push them to do well in school, to help them with their homework, and to provide constructive activities for them to do doing their free time. It just puts in to perspective those moments I had and have seen many American teens have of fussing because your parents are getting on your nerves or pushing you too hard in school. But, now I see that damn were we lucky to have that luxury.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Being Used in Ways that I Never Would Have Thought…

The Peace Corps is an experience about challenging yourself to go outside your comfort zone and then learning how to adapt, which in my opinion leads to a lot of personal growth. If anyone would have told me 5 years back that I would join the Peace Corps, or live in Africa, or be speaking Portuguese, or confidently navigating myself through the daily craziness of the market; I would not have believed any of these things that are my reality these days would have become part of my life story. However, I have always been interested in travel, languages, cultures, adventure and social justice so Peace Corps was not a completely random experience I chose; just an intense one! But if anyone had told me I would be leading an agricultural training, I surely would have laughed in their face. Agriculture has never played much of a role in my background, but I have taken a new interest in it since starting Peace Corps because it is so central to daily life in Mozambique. Around 80% of the population where I live are farmers, food security is a huge issue, and rather than eating many processed foods we buy fresh produce from the market or from or neighbors.

Last April, many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I along with our Mozambican counterparts received a two-day training on the Bio-intensive Permaculture Garden because food security is such an issue here. These agricultural techniques are based on effectively managing water through creation of holes and water-directing swales, deep digging, composting, planting and management of crops to produce a high yield of food in a small space. My Mozambican co-worker thought it was interesting and so did I, and so we went home and put together a powerpoint presentation to show off what we learned and try to generate interest in putting the technique to use. Ultimately though, a permaculture project never got off the ground in our town. I was a little bummed, but my co-worker and I chose other projects to work on and I accepted that was probably the end of that.

So this year when my friend Katie asked me to come help her lead a permaculture training at her school I was excited, but nervous. I am definitely no expert, which I told her, but I was willing to study the manuals and had the overall idea in my mind from last year. We agreed to help lead students in her teacher training institute with the help of the agricultural professor at her school who had expressed interest in learning about permaculture. During the training, we started by teaching the students how to build compost piles and explaining all the benefits of the compost pile. Katie and I tried to explain all this agricultural terminology in Portuguese, which was comical because, who am I kidding, I do not even know it all in English!? However, with the knowledge and support of the Mozambican agricultural professor and because the students were engaged in the practical learning environment, they were able to fill in and add valuable information in our gaps. I showed off some pictures of gardens that had used compost in half versus no compost in the other half to show how much better the vegetables grew with compost to give a visual of the benefit.

We also measured out a good garden size and went to work digging channels and holes to direct the water, and double digging and providing soil amendments to the garden beds, all of which are important techniques for permagardening. At the end of the day, we had a very good start to the project and had generated a lot of interest and excitement in the project, although admittedly Katie and I are not the most qualified teachers. Thanks to Katie’s initiative I agreed to do the project, thanks to a passionate Returned Peace Corps Volunteer named Peter Jensen (who now works in Peace Corps staff in Tanzania and goes all over the world doing permaculture trainings) I learned about this agricultural process that can improve people’s lives, and thanks to the hard work of the students I was helping train we had something worthwhile to show for the day. It just proves that a little effort can go along way (in this case, Peter, Katie, the agricultural professor, the students, and I all had the desire to teach and learn), that with collaboration we go much further than we could ever go alone (neither Katie, nor me, nor the Mozambican professor, nor the students could have done the project alone), and that you only must be willing to go out of your comfort zone to be the difference you want to see in the world.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robbery – Your Ticket to Nowhere

Yesterday had to be one of the most dramatic afternoons in my life thus far. The day started out like any other Thursday. I went to work at my community-based organization in the morning and came home around 1 pm for a lunch break. When I was preparing to leave to teach my English class at 2 pm, two teenage boys showed up to ask if they could borrow my guitar. A few weeks ago, one of my favorite students, a well-mannered 13-year-old boy named Shelton introduced me to his 15-year-old cousin named Alberto. Shelton has been coming to my house for months to practice his impressive English, to borrow my soccer balls, and to use a typing program I have on my laptop. So when his cousin Alberto asked to play my guitar on my porch a few weeks ago, I decided to let him sit outside my porch on a straw mat and play for a few minutes after he promised to be very careful. Since then Alberto has returned to my house a few times with different friends to ask to play my guitar, but always at inconvenient times. Alberto was polite, seemingly shy, and when I told him I was on my way out the door to go to the school, we decided he could come back over the weekend.

At 2 pm, I went two doors down to the high school and enjoyed working with two star high school students who always have a million questions about English song lyrics. I kicked those boys out of our “Youth Room” at 3 pm because our young women’s club meeting was scheduled to start. It was our first official meeting of the year and we had many new participants show up. We had just begun singing our first song about why it was important for the young women to stay in school when one of my star students interrupted. I asked him to return after our meeting to talk, but he said it was a grave matter – someone had stolen our computers and Abby and star student #2 were chasing the robber down. This news shook me up, but I went back to leading my young women’s group. I figured Abby would call if she needed me, but what was done was done, although I probably should have sprinted to my house directly.

About 10 minutes later, Abby called and confirmed that our house had been broken into and a young man had stolen our computers and torn up our house. Abby asked me to come quickly because she had no idea what to do; there was a hysterical lady crying in our living room beating a high school student who was apparently responsible for the crime while half the neighborhood had entered into our fence and were peering in through the windows. I dismissed the meeting immediately, almost as upset about having to leave the girls as I was about the robbery.

I came home to a nightmare of a scene, just as Abby had explained. I ran to my room and saw that a phone and I-pod were also missing from my room. That was distressing, but not nearly as much so as the 30 year-old woman sitting in our floor in the living room sobbing about the senselessness of the robbery. She was lamenting, “For what? I feed him everyday. He has a loving family. He has the opportunity to go to the school. Why would he rob? How could he do this to his family?”

Abby gave me a run-down of what had happened at that point. She came home after being gone less than an hour in the market. She unlocked the gate to our fence, unlocked the metal grated front door, the other front door, only to find that our back door was busted into and everything was in disarray. She immediately noticed the stolen computers and ran outside where she saw them sitting in a computer bag on top of our 6-foot fence. Just as she spotted them, a hand reached over and grabbed them so she sprinted out the front gate, eyed the teen with our computers in his hand, and started screaming, “We’ve been robbed!” The teen started running, but Abby chased after him. Enter our two star students who were leaving English class I had been teaching. They saw Abby running and were in disbelief because they exclaimed to us that they had never seen Abby run like that! So they came to help, recognized the teen, who by then had gotten scared and dropped our computers on the sandy road to escape. But not before, Amerigo, star student #1, had recognized this delinquent.
Abby recovered the computers and then Americo took Abby to the robber’s house, but he was not there. Americo then took Abby to find the guy’s sister, a very nice lady named Angelica who was distraught when she learned what had happened. Angelica went to find her brother, the alleged robber, and brought him to our house where she started throwing our furniture at him and yelling that she might have done a lot of bad things in her life, but never would she steal. When the teen continued to claim his innocence and would not give the rest of our things back, Abby told Angelica she was sorry, but she had to call the police. Angelica not only approved, but also said of course you have to call because he needs to be punished. We will all go to the police together.

I got home right before the police showed up. What was the most traumatic thing was how the police handled the situation! The first thing they did when they got there was yell at the teen and backhand him, push him onto the wall, and handcuff him! This was an Earth-to-Gracey moment because until that point, I had not realized that Alberto, my guitar-playing friend, was the one responsible for the crime! I had not pinpointed in the crowded room who was the perpetrator, and only thought he was there to be supportive—an innocent, unassuming 8th grader who is only 15 years old! Boy, did I have it wrong!

Then began the public humiliation where we started the parade to the police station. When people get arrested, they are not inconspicuously escorted in the back of a police car to the station. Instead, the suspect walks handcuffed in the front with police pushing him along with big guns (AK47s) while the victims follow behind with ever-growing crowds of onlookers. On the walk up, Alberto looks back at me—tears streaming down his face, blood dripping from his lip from his sister’s beating—pleading, “Mana Graça, nao fui eu.” It wasn’t me, using my name with a title of respect attached to it. The nerve.

In the bare police station, the female police officer told Alberto he better confess. The junior police officers made sure Alberto was low down on his knees while we sat with Angelica, his sister, and our two star students on a bench facing him. He continued to deny he was the culprit, and said that some man just gave him a bag and told him to run with it although he did not know what was in it. (Liar)! The police officers, our loyal students, and his sister had little patience with this game and they all told him if he did not confess where he hid all of our stolen belongings, he would be beaten by a crowbar-looking thing. Afterwards, Abby and I discussed how the hardest thing about the whole situation was watching all this violence, which is actually what it took to get the truth out of him. Village justice at work.

The police led him back down to the high school with his sister where he had hidden the rest of our belongings in a baggie in a field by the school. Meanwhile, Abby, our students, and I were asked if we wanted to open a lawsuit and to evaluate the worth of our stolen goods. We said no to the lawsuit and that we just wanted our things back. And they did come, about 45 minutes later, he re-emerged having made his third walk of shame that afternoon handcuffed in his school uniform! Abby and I spotted his sister walking next to him with a whole plastic bag full of our things (besides our I-pods and telephones, he had grabbed various speakers, and even items like my face wash and my make-up). To add to his embarrassment, the police looped a half-empty bottle of whiskey he had stolen from our freezer through his handcuffs. Message: say no to the bottle, kids!

After about 3 hours of this ordeal, we had miraculously recovered all our stuff and went home just after dark accompanied by our star students who walked us to the door. By that point, Alberto’s whole family had come up to the police station and were apologizing for his behavior, wondering out loud why their teen would do that to a neighbor especially when all his basic needs were met and when he had the opportunity to go to school. Apparently, Alberto had been skipping school to drink and getting into trouble at home recently. The bad decision that he made yesterday not only had immediate negative consequences such as public humiliation and being physically beaten, but will really make his future tough. There are no second chances in this culture for robbers who are caught; the school director came to the police station and expelled the boy from school. He has been living in the city with his older sister and extended family, but is now going to be sent back to the bush where he will work to help his mom. Although Abby had signed a declaration saying that we did not want the police to hold him any longer or put him in jail, as we were leaving the police said that wanted to hold him overnight. Americo and his friend told us that it was a form of corruption because the police wanted the family to pay money before getting Alberto out so they would get something out of it. From start to finish, it was just all one big mess!

Whereas Alberto’s decision to rob for some quick money, effectively bought him a ticket to nowhere, our star students were another story. They acted like heroes to us all day by walking us through the unfamiliar (and harsh) legal processes here. Moreover, while we were waiting at the police station they told Abby and I that this is exactly why they take school seriously, participate in extracurricular groups in the school, and stay away from too much alcohol. As they were explaining how often the corrupt behaviors the police were employing take place, they also talked about the ludicrousness of it. How are the police officers going to beat someone for robbing, but then turn around and rob the family of that robber to earn money, they asked. The outstanding students have a theatre group and they write plays that speak out about these injustices.

Although being robbed is awful, most of the community really came through for Abby and me big-time, which is reassuring. The adolescent’s sister, Angelica, came to check on us this morning to make sure we are doing okay, saying, “After something like this, we are family.” In spite of the awful situation, we were so lucky not only to get all of our things back, but also to have such strong community support and genuine concern. That day, the community made an example out of Alberto about how in the end it does not pay to rob, and how school, hard work, and honesty are the things that will take you far in life.