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 Gra├ža, 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.

A Serious Case of Writer’s Block and Dealing with Disillusionment Before Finding My Saving Grace

When I first arrived in Mozambique, I had lots to write and share because everything was new and there were so many observations to be made. One of the reasons I have stopped updating my blog so often is because all the crazy ways of living and ludicrous scenes have become normal parts of my daily life. It has become commonplace to pass women who walk for miles balancing large loads of wood on their heads while carrying babies on their backs. I have all but forgotten that all the goats, pigs, chickens, and roosters that roam freely in the streets were ever an unusual sight to me. Bathing under the starry night sky is routine.
Another reason I have stopped writing is because I vowed to myself that I would not allow myself to get totally disillusioned with development work before I left to begin my Peace Corps service. Some of my well-meaning friends told me to think twice about going because I would surely come back completely jaded. I shrugged them off, figuring I would be able to handle the challenges, and saying the good would outweigh the bad.

But lately, I have been straining not to lose hope with development work. I have always liked to think of myself of someone with both idealistic and realistic views, heavy on the optimism. All my I’m-here-to-change-the-world hopes, have been doused with some major barriers in the past year and a half. I have been meeting many hurdles while working on my projects, and have now come to a crossroads where I have to decide how to move forward. Do I just give up on my projects and let pessimism and cynicism sink in? My heart tells me that is not the right answer. But then what is?

I have been searching for the answer to how to deal with my frustrations high and low. Most Peace Corps Volunteers experience my same frustrations and so we were given a manual with 25 Tips to refer back to when necessary.
I find it important to remember that:

•Development is disruptive. Most poor people cannot afford to change radically. It takes a huge amount of energy (physically and emotional) for average rural folk to maintain daily life, let alone try to break out of the poverty cycle.

•Do not give up and do not give in. Unfortunately, the process of development cannot be shortened. Respect that those you work with drew the short straw, appreciate that you did not. After you die, you can ask God about all this. For now, your anguish, guilt and questions about this will just from the task at hand and are really rather self indulging, if you think about it.
(Peace Corps 25 Tips)

One of the challenging situations which affected me the most this week is the work my co-worker Paula and I do with a group of orphans and vulnerable children in a small community 7 kilometers outside of my town in a community called Uahamusa. The community is mostly women and children, many of the men are migrant laborers and either have left permanently or died off from HIV and AIDS related causes. Although my organization has been working with them for the past years, Paula and I only began our basic health education program last year. This was our first week re-starting the activities and it proved a difficult day for me. One of the reasons that we took a long break over the Christmas holidays is that the transport there is a huge problem. We have to cart the materials back and forth each time to Uahamusa because the unfinished community center is not yet a safe space to leave materials (the man who was supposed to finish died last week). This includes carrying heavy backpacks full of paper, pens, colored pencils, snacks, toys, and balls. It takes at least 1.5 hours to walk each way. After the hassle of toting all our materials there, we usually work with two groups of children. First we work with the children who study in the afternoon until they depart for school, and after the children who study in the morning come to the community center.

I found our work Tuesday to be particularly disheartening because Paula and I decided to do a very basic activity. We wanted to read and look at some pictures books in Portuguese that the town librarian had lent us and then allow the children to draw pictures of the objects in the books or whatever else they might like to draw. The children ranged from 7-18 years old, so I figured a picture book intended for toddlers would certainly be on their level. But Paula and I were both surprised to see how little they seemed to grasp the concept of learning, I felt like an alien (and in a sense I am, because I’m probably one of the only foreigners they met but I have worked with them for months already) when I was in front of them pointing to pictures and then reading them aloud in Portuguese. After our failure with the book, we decided to let them draw and so they drew pictures of houses and people and trees. This is good, but every time they draw, it is always the same thing – a house—and I get discouraged with how difficult it seems to get beyond that. At this point, Paula asked them in the local language how many of them still go to school. There was some arguing and lying, but the general consensus seemed to be 7 out of 16 children are still enrolled in school. The others, many of them only 7 or 8 years old, stopped attending and just stay at home or do not have anyone looking after them. I find it disheartening that these children drop out at such a young age. The other thing I find to be exasperating is that the only thing they seem to get is the snack provided at the end (although I guess that’s not much different from the States), and that my organization expects me to handle that every time, which is a whole other issue!

Compounded with the fact that it seems our progress has been minimal with these kids and that each week there is a constant struggle to find transport or walk both ways in the blazing heat without much food all day, I have been facing many other difficulties in my three other main projects. I returned feeling blue and dealing after my day in Uahamusa and was having an internal crisis about coming all this way and feeling that I have not been able to actually help that much or been that successful with our projects!

I did not realize I was even that upset until I marched over to my friend Filipe’s house where he graciously allowed me to skype my father using his Internet. Thus, begin a pour-my-heart-out to my dad conversation about how I was not feeling like I was in a good place and how I definitely was not cut out for development work long-term. First, we started with the children and my inability to get through to them and how it made me question whether it was worth the effort. My dad was great in that he challenged me to ask myself what, if any part, did my faith play in helping me determine if this was a worthwhile use of my time. Thinking back to my study of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible, and reflecting on the greatest role models I know, both famous figures (ie Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi) and people who have personally touched my lives (my parents, exceptional teachers and coaches, and Alamance Presbyterian church community members)…one of the most important lessons I have taken away is to help the poor. Jesus expressly states that extra care and attention should be given to widows and orphans, because as my dad pointed out, “Gracey, many of those orphans were never really given a fair shot at life.” I find strength in my faith to keep hoping and trying to make a difference rather than giving up despite disappointments.

We then transitioned into talking about why it might be so hard for these children to go deeper with Paula and I, past drawing pictures of houses and eating their cookies and juice at the end. “Don’t you think the children are trying to tell you something when they draw houses? Shelter is probably something that is not a guarantee in their lives, Gracey.” Good point – I guess it would be an understatement to say that their lives have not been a walk in the park. He then directed me to think about the hierarchal needs diagram I learned about in my psychology class and try and look at it from that angle. Whereas I seek to meet the needs at the very top part of the pyramid such as self-gratification, most of these kids are just trying to keep their heads above water and have their basic needs met such as shelter and food. I guess I should focus more on trying to provide simple activities consistently for the children and the fact that these programs are something out of the ordinary, and less on seeing unrealistic miraculous successes in the short time I am here. Patience never fails to be a challenge for me.

The phone conversation with my dad certainly helped, but there is no instant cure for my disillusionment with development work. Before hanging up, my dad challenged me to focus on working with the people that were motivated to work and just loving the rest for who they are and where they are at. Also, I needed reminding that these are common problems that anyone who does human development faces that exist all over the world, and they are not unique to poor countries like Mozambique. This all sounded like good advice, so I went home, mulled over it, and woke up with a fresh start the following day.

One of my other projects is running an “Extracurricular Activity Classroom” at the school with the other PCVs in my town and other high school professors that help out when they can. We open the classroom in the morning and afternoons at least 4 days a week where the youth can come to learn English, have homework help, participate in our jewelry-making project, and borrow sports balls to constructively occupy their free time. As I was teaching an English lesson and watching young women creatively design jewelry that next afternoon, I realized that the inspired, eager learners in the high school that come everyday have become my saving grace and they make this experience well worth it. I may not meet success in every project I try to help with in this community, and more often than not it seems like we have faced failures or things not working out the way we planned, but in the end I have met and been a resource to some youth that remind me of all the light and good shining through the dark in this world.