Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Observations on Week 1 of CARE

The 6-week program for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in our community that Abby and I created started this week. Each week we focus on a different theme about caring. Week 1 we focused on caring for your body, specifically highlighting good nutrition and healthy hygiene habits. Our idea was to make the program as interactive as possible to get the information across rather than lecture the children.

Abby and I run our program 3 days a week with 3 different groups of children. The first two groups are at our offices located in our town, but the third is far out in the mato, or African bush. Observing the children was interesting because child development is such a different process here in comparison to what it is in the States. One of the major differences is that children are not taught to think critically here, neither at home nor in the school system. Children are taught to be submissive to their elders, which is not all bad. However, in the schools the children either copy directly off the board what the teacher writes into their small notebooks or regurgitate memorized responses to the teacher in class. The typical teaching style is such that teachers usually talk at students with little or no room for questions or dialogue. When Abby and I involved the children in our lecture by asking them questions about what they liked to eat and did not, it definitely threw them for a loop. When we asked them if they had any ideas about when to wash your hands during our lesson, most looked at the ground, only a bold few ventured to respond. Although I think lecturing can be helpful sometimes, I also think it is important to create a space to encourage children to think for themselves, which is one of our project goals. We hope to create an environment where they feel comfortable doing so.

Our program went pretty smoothly all things considered for the first week. The collaboration between Abby and I and two of our Mozambican co-workers was effective. The role Abby and I played was pulling together information and resources and coming up with creative activities while our co-workers’ role was translating into the local language for the children who do not speak Portuguese and gathering the children.

In the first hour of the program, we did a food pyramid activity, which required coloring, cutting, and pasting foods into the correct place in the pyramid. The children were so well behaved and calmly shared supplies, working diligently, making it obvious that access to these coloring supplies was a rare treat. It was amazing though because some of the oldest children in our program were 16 and had never used scissors. They were so timid to try for the first time. Many of the children from 8 upwards lacked the motor skills or confidence to use the scissors and had to be helped by adult volunteers. There were a few exceptionally bright children at each session that assisted the others in placing the foods in the right places, but the activity was overall much more challenging for the kids than we had anticipated.
The second half of the program we went over some basic hygiene practices and then actually practiced doing them to a song Abby had made up to the tune of 10 Little Indians. The children had to wash their hands properly and for a set amount of time while we sang along – and boy, have I never seen such dirty water after hand washing! They also received instruction on how to properly brush teeth, and then we practiced according to the song lyrics making sure to get the back teeth and the tongue too. Singing is money in this culture – it’s a perfect way to connect with the kids. And let’s just say, it’s lucky I have Abby to be the leader in that area!

I look forward to getting to know both the children and the adult helpers more through this program. Some of the difficult life circumstances they come from are unfathomable, especially in the mato. It shocked me today that one of the 16 year-old girls could not even write her own name on her paper. My co-worker Paula told me a little about Marcela, this girl, on the way home. Marcela is an orphan who is the head of her household and takes care of her 3 younger siblings. Marcela stopped studying when both of her parents died long ago so she could work the fields during the day and do the cooking and household chores in the evening. My parents always told me when I was a child, life is not fair, but I’m finding out that saying has a whole new meaning in this part of the world.

Another shocking thing was how small some of the children were for their age. Our program targets 7-12 year olds because we figured they’d be old enough to actually retain information, but not too old for basic content. When we arrived, I thought Paula had gathered a bunch of 5-year-olds judging by their size. I soon learned when we had the children go around during introductions that most of them were 9-11, just with severely stunted growth. Paula and I speculated on the reasons why they are so small after the program, among which are malnutrition, being sick a lot as babies, losing parents as babies (not breastfed, which is particularly disturbing to a baby here without access to clean water and sanitized food because bacteria can cause chronic diarrhea), and being made to carry heavy things starting at a young age (eg. carting heavy water jugs).

Many of the adult helpers were also asking for the worksheets to the art activity we were passing out, which made me happy because you ask yourself, is this 6-week program really going to make a difference? The answer in my head is probably some, but I hope it makes a lasting difference. If the adults can learn as well from our program, maybe they can use that information to take care of themselves, their own children and babies, and hopefully be inspired to teach someone else what they learned. It’s too soon to tell, but I have great hopes and dreams for our program. And if nothing else, those hopes and dreams are what got Abby and me this far. I’d say that’s a pretty good start and all we can ask for at the moment…

Monday, August 10, 2009


One of the most frustrating and disheartening parts of this experience is discovering the sheer amount of people who expect handouts or want to cut corners with work. Lazy, lazy, lazy in my opinion. It is easy to propose an idea and generate immediate interest, but when it actually comes down to the knit and grit of hard work, only a rare few are willing to stick it out for results. I wish everyone lived by the philosophy that it takes hard work to earn the results you want. Things do not just come to you. If this were a more widely followed practice, this world would be a much better place. But we must accept the world as it is and do the best with what we’ve got, so one of my challenge in this first year of service has been doing that. My quest was determining a vital community need, creating a sustainable project to address the identified need, and then the kicker: finding committed people willing to work with you.

I’ve had varying levels of success and failure with this challenge, but I am choosing to tell my greatest success story yet. I managed to clench the 3 part deal – find a crucial community need, create a project, and find a group of people that impress me with their hard work ethic and level of dedication to the project. And like so many of the best things in life, I stumbled upon it by chance one day.

A few months back, my young hardworking coworker Aurelio was correcting a poorly written Portuguese document for me. Most of my coworkers brush me off when I ask for help with tedious tasks like this, but Aurelio has always been the exception. On this particular day as he was doing this task for me, Aurelio and I were talking about how flighty some of my coworkers had been with my attempt to teach them English. All of them said they wanted to learn, so I started lessons, but when lesson time came their attendance was erratic and there were a lot of excuses. Only Aurelio showed up faithfully and always studied. Based on his performance with the English lessons and willingness to work, I decided to confide in him that I wanted to help with a community project, but needed his advice on a few things. The first issue was determining the major community needs because often foreigners come in with the best of intentions and want to start projects, but they miss the mark on what is actually needed. The second issue was that I had available funds, but only wanted to team up with a hard-working group of people. Often PCVs have problems being seen only as money bags. Alas, Aurelio was my jackpot that day. First, he nailed a major community need; there is no place for children to play out of school or a cultural center in Chibuto. Our vision became to change that and ideas started flowing. Secondly, Aurelio was already part of a group called GPROIL (stands for Group for Promotion of Local Initiatives) that had formed a year ago. The group had written a project proposal for a cultural program that had been approved by the government, but the group had lost steam because the funding fell through and they were at a loss for finding more. It was settled then and there that afternoon – we would form a collaboration. The puzzle pieces fit together – myself and Abby, the Peace Corps volunteers would bring funding and organizational development guidance while the Group for Promotion of Local Initiatives would bring the rest, particularly the leg work and knowledge of what works best in their own culture.

That day was less than two months ago and already we have 2 acres of land donated from the government to construct our cultural center. GPROIL is composed of six dedicated individuals, all young local professionals who have their own day jobs but are also committed to bettering their own community. (Additionally, Abby and I are considered honorary members). We have been meeting with GPROIL to come up with our project proposal while simultaneously working to develop their organization.

Abby and I offered our house as the meeting place until GPROIL builds their own office, and have discovered that it’s been a refreshing pleasure to work with them. I am impressed because they are committed to respecting time—usually meetings do not start until hours after scheduled in Chibuto, which is so frustrating, but the members of GPROIL have a pact to be punctual. I am amazed at their tenacity. We meet long hours and our actually productive—sometimes you forget what that feels like in this country. We had a deadline a few weeks back so GRPOIL had multiple 3-hour meetings in the evening at my house after finishing their day jobs. One night the electricity went out for over an hour and rather than throw in the towel, they continued working by candlelight. Usually it is like pulling teeth to get someone to help you write a grant, but all I have had to do is ask them, and they take care of it for me. Although we are still a long way off from having our project of a cultural center turned into a reality, I am confident that it will happen with their drive and dedication.

Many people told me that I’d surely come home disillusioned and jaded after doing Peace Corps, and although I have discovered there are plenty of things I do not agree with in development work and I have witnessed a lot of people just trying to work the system for money, GPROIL stands as a shining example of why I must not allow myself to give up hope. There will always be individuals out there willing to work for their own communities with hearts of gold even though they may be the minority. I know I have a tendency to sound (maybe even be) idealistic, but I think I am fairly realistic; just intentional about choosing to focus on hope. I meet plenty of people who want something from me without being willing to work for it themselves and that can get me down. But you have to stand back and ask yourself why? I’d say a few simply don’t have the means or health to work for it. I’d wager a lot are just lazy, which I’ve already said I have zero tolerance for. Others have probably just lost hope altogether, which deters them from working because they don’t think they’ll gain anything even if they work. Also, one of my favorite sayings my dad always tells me is that, “We’re all mixed bags. We all have some good in us, some bad.” I found some people harping on the good within and manifesting that good outwardly bringing what light they can in this world with the members of GPROIL and I cannot wait to see where this project takes us!

Farida’s Visit

As I approach the one-year marker of my Peace Corps service, I pause to reflect on the recent events that have made my service so worthwhile. At the top of my list of these moments is Farida’s five-day visit to my house. Farida, my 14-year-old host sister, is an absolute delight so when my host mother asked me if I would allow Farida to come stay in Chibuto during her school break, I jumped at the chance. Mama Adelia, Farida’s mother, had confided in me a few months back her worry that some of Farida’s peer group had started getting into things that were no good and that Farida would be negatively influenced. Instead of having Farida at home with lots of free time and nothing to do, Mama Adelia wanted her shipped off to me. What a unique opportunity this visit was for Farida and me – a gift to both of us!

It was funny because culturally Farida and I had very different ideas about her role as a houseguest. I wanted her to rest and not lift a finger—essentially to spoil her and allow her to play free of all household responsibilities for a change. Farida wanted to voraciously clean and cook for me—both as a sign of respect and also because that’s all she’s ever known. I know Americans get a bad reputation for always needing to be busy and doing something, but I am discovering that is not an entirely accurate assumption. I often noticed Abby and me reading a book leisurely for relaxation while Farida dreamt up the next thing she could cook or clean. Aside from all the floor mopping, clothes washing, and water carting she did, Farida and I spent the majority of the time doing many new special activities.

I was able to share some of the skills my parents and other role models in my life poured into me with Farida. Each day Farida wanted to play basketball, so I took her to the court doing all the drills my father showed me as a child. Farida and I also worked on learning computer skills and English. It still shocks me how disproportionate the opportunities granted to us as children in the United States are in relation to the rest of the world. Being trained by knowledgeable coaches in sports, having money to buy the equipment to play each sport, and even having school sports available are opportunities granted to most American children. All of which are virtually unheard of in Mozambique. Computer skills are a whole other ball game because almost everyone in my generation and below is competent in the United States, but knowledge of computers is very limited outside the big cities in Mozambique. Some Mozambican schools get computers labs donated, but often they sit unused or end up virus racked because there is not enough widespread computer know-how. Farida used a computer for the first time in her life visiting my house at age 14, which I know is not that startling considering I’m living in Africa, but contrast that to the average knowledge a US teen has these days about computers. My 14-year-old sister, Molly, in the States has been using a computer for years and can do it all.

The other highlight of Farida’s visit was her first real trip to the beach. Farida had a wonderful time splashing in the water, digging in the sand, and collecting shells (I had the hardest time convincing her she couldn’t take a dead crab home, ha)! All day long when Farida and I rode public transportation together, other passengers asked how we were related. Most people assumed that she was my empregada, or maid, and were thrown from a loop when we replied sisters matter-of-factly. The typical conversation went like this.

Passenger : “But you’re skin is different.”
Bus driver: “But she’s American and you’re Mozambican.”
Farida: “Yeah, but none of that matters. We’re sisters. My home is hers and hers is mine.”
Me: “She’s right, I lived with her family. They taught me their language and culture. They treat me like one of their own.”

When it was time for Farida to leave, we arranged a visit for the next school break. As I put her on the bus, Farida thanked me for investing so much in her to make the visit possible. My reply was that I was only beginning to try and do the same thing so many people have done for me my whole life, which made all the difference in the world. And it still does.