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.