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!

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