Friday, March 27, 2009

What the heck is a Sanitation Committee?

For the past few months my organization has been partnering with UNICEF and AMURT (Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team) in efforts to improve sanitation practices and distribute knowledge of good hygiene habits. What this entails is basically mobilizing the community to build latrines for schools and teaching the kids to use them. Some simply had been defecating in the open, and although many are learning to use the latrines we’ve still got some work to do. It’s not the most glamorous work in the world, but it’s so important to give these kids a decent bathroom at schools! I know the US school system has its share of problems, but in comparison to the bamboo huts and one classroom schools without bathrooms I’ve been visiting, American primary schools are palaces.

Extracurriculars in the States consist of activities such as student government, organized sports teams, and chorus groups to develop leaders and give children constructive manners to spend their time. In Chibuto though, we’re not there yet. The schools are choosing about 15 kids from each school that demonstrate good behavior and leadership skills. These children are trained to be the Sanitation Committee. I like to think of it as the equivalent of Student Government in America, a bunch of overachieving students working together to make their school a better place. Community activists pull committee members aside during school and teach them good and bad hygiene practices, educating them about endemic sicknesses such as malaria, diarrhea, and cholera (there’s a cholera outbreak in our district right now so the work is very pertinent). The Sanitation Committee is responsible for encouraging other kids to wash their hands before eating, teaching you get cholera from dirty water, and for setting a good example for their peers. My first encounter with a Sanitation Committee was listening to them sing a song in the local dialect about diarrhea and how to avoid it…it was truly music to my ears, lemme tell ya.

The activists and latrine builders also hold assemblies with all the school children, leading an interactive discussion about why it’s important to use the latrines. UNICEF distributed illustrations of good and bad hygiene practices, which prove very effective at engaging the children into the material. Friday morning we were having a school assembly, and Maria, an activist was onstage talking about fazer-ing xixi in the latrine and the kids were so absorbed in the drawings it looked like they could have been watching a concert. I looked out from the stage and saw a sea of little faces peering at the illustrations and screaming answers to Maria’s questions, all pushing for a better view. I’m interested to see more of how this campaign develops and hope it successfully improves sanitation habits so that preventable sicknesses like diarrhea will cease to be responsible for so many deaths in the developing world.

I remember being very proud of Maria and Angelica, our two activists who were training the Sanitation Committee and teaching the entire school. The activists are both HIV positive women who are not very educated, living in a culture where women are not afforded equal rights with men, and live with the additional stigma that comes along with being HIV positive. But look at them and what they have chosen to dedicate their time and hearts to! The have not fallen into the potential binds of gender, sickness, or low education levels, but are rising to the occasion and overcoming the odds. They are alive and fighting admirably!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming Home! 3/9/09

Today I’ve been visiting my Mozambican host family for the first time in three months. The day before my visit I got that excited nervous feeling you always get in your stomach before seeing loved ones you haven’t seen in awhile, but as usual when I finally got to their house I instantly felt at ease. The whole experience is much like a college kid going home and being surprised by how much they missed being taken care of and the comforts of home, and how nice it is just to relax in a safe space. The last few weeks of homestay all the PC volunteers were feeling a bit smothered by the love, attention, and advice of our host families. Like a kid about to go off to college, we were ready and anxious for some space (especially b/c in our PC homestay we were treated like little children after being on our own schedules in college). But it’s wonderful to have a kind family to visit anytime I want in Mozambique, a whole world away from NC where this adventure began…

Get ready because I’m about to draw a series of shamelessly sappy comparisons, but that’s just the mood I’m in. When we arrived to our host families last October, Namaacha was barren and brown. The roads were just dust and mud lined with the exposed skeletons of trees. The view from my bedroom window was the bare, brown hills of Swaziland. In the same way, our host families, this culture, and Namaacha meant nothing to us but an empty landscape.

Just three short months later my friend Emily and I were blown away as we traipsed the 30 minute walk to our families’ houses because the terrain was completely transformed into a luscious, green paradise with flowers and crops everywhere; we were following the trail now lined by six-foot corn husks that had shot up from the ground quickly. (Emily was carrying a bag of 20 coconuts on her head to gift our families, so you can imagine we were making quite the entrance). It was touching to hear everyone in the neighborhood welcoming Emily and me by name as they peeked out from their yards where they were doing wash and gardening. Of course we were received with open arms, big hugs, and kisses from our families who kept pensively claiming, “Gracey, you’ve lost weight.” (I think I might have lost around the 5 lbs I gained during training, maybe, but in the US this would normally be a congratulatory affirmation rather than this great cause of concern).

I had not realized how much it meant to our families that we visit until the following happened. During training three of us PC volunteers were next-door-neighbors so all of our moms were good friends. Unfortunately the volunteer in the middle of this row had to go home immediately for family reasons in January and had not had the chance to give an explanation to her host family. When we greeted Mama Rosina we did not know she had not heard the news and so when we broke it to her in the midst of all that celebrating, she started crying. We felt sad she was sad so we are trying to get the volunteer in touch with her, but it hit home with me that I better not neglect these families because they really care a lot about us. As the visit continued, I became reaffirmed how important it is to invest in relationships and how beautiful (and humorous and hard and every other emotion in the book) the cultivation of them can be.

This time when I showed up at midday I welcomed the bucket bath awaiting me like a pro, celebrating the privacy my family learned I liked (but only after some humorous events). When I finished my bath, I noticed they had washed the outfit I was wearing (undergarments too, just gotta go with it); it was hung neatly on the line. The house runs like clockwork and after 10 weeks I was familiar with how it ticked. There was no discussion or arguing the fact that I’d sleep in my room and I’d be crazy to call it anything else even though there are three beds for nine people. Since I’d been gone, my family had also adopted another child who was not being well taken care of so now they have 6 small children to feed. That did not stop them from stuffing Emily and me with food because they had baked cakes and more in honor of our visit. They even killed a chicken the hour I arrived so dinner would be fresh and the kids spent the afternoon munching on liver, which they kept offering and I kept declining!

It was fun to spend the afternoon with my host siblings. The CDs I’d burned for them as presents were blaring, the kids were dancing the jitterbug to “Build Me Up Buttercup” and re-teaching me the dance I’d taught them months ago, they were singing “Hey Jude” by the Beatles which I was learning to play on the guitar with them during homestay, and they were Crazy Eight card-playing champs! Farida defeated me in Speed and promptly trounced the older neighbor boy too; I could hardly hide my smile as she confidently gloated. After an afternoon full of playing, I decided it seems they benefited and learned some about American culture and I certainly benefited and enriched my life through this exchange. I was navigating their language with much more confidence thanks to their help, introduced to another way of living, and familiar with a new culture because they had opened their doors and hearts.

Five months ago I met this family in a bleak-looking Namaacha and now they have grown to be an unforgettable part of my life much like the physical transformation of the land here into a much more welcoming, fertile place. And this morning as a final reinforcement, I saw the water coming out the faucet at their house for the first time. There was no water when I lived with them because of a drought and they had to walk miles carting it everyday, but a few months later it is coming out with no effort. That’s one of the beauties in life that parallels this experience and makes life wonderful – one moment the water finally pours out after a long, dry spell and you feel content. What a good feeling when things that were once hard and took a lot of work, start to flow naturally and you see the fruits of your hard labor! How nice it has been to be laughing with this family in our home like I’ve been part of it forever…