And just in case this isn't already evident: 'the views expressed in this blog are not representative of the United States Government or the U.S. Peace Corps but are my personal expressions and experiences" :)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wedding Bells and Monkey Tails

First thing's first: gotta brag ;)

Totally ran about 24miles this week (now if I can only cram 7 days worth of mileage into 1 morning I'd be almost ready for this race!)

Also, I won that position I was nominated for with the youth groups in Mozambique! You are currently reading the blog of one of the Southern Regional Coordinators for JUNTOS! (There are two people in that position.) I was totally shocked but I think it'll be fun to have an extra job -especially one that allows me to travel around the southern provinces, has a lot of public speaking to large groups, bunches of logistical planning, and requires some bomb people skills. The hand-over and training is in 2 weeks down in Maputo.

Now for some anecdotal updates :)

Last Friday I was invited to a meeting with another international aid organization at the provincial capital and it went great! My primary organization here doesn't receive funds from them so I was never on their radar before, but they heard that I was trying to start up a GAAC program with my district hospital and they want to support me. They provided me with transportation to and back (door to door in a private SUV instead of 6 hours in public trans), the meeting was thorough yet quick and to the point (something almost unheard of here), and it looks like they're going to help me train the rest of the hospital staff and give me the materials necessary for implementation. Fingers crossed!

On Saturday I decided to visit my “site mate” who lives about an hour away (but he's technically still my site-mate because we live in the same district). The only way to get to him is to sit on the back of an open pick-up truck for about 20-30 minutes (depending on how many stops it has to make to pick-up and drop off other passengers), to get off at a small wooden sign on the side of the highway (one of those things where if you don't know what to look for you'd never find it), and to then walk 4km into the bush through a winding maze of dirt paths until you stumble into his community. I, however, caught a lucky break that day. In exchange for purchasing the truck driver a beer (which he promised he wouldn't open until he arrived at home) I got to sit inside the truck, didn't have to pay the 75 cent fare, he offered to drive me INTO the bush, and he even picked up my friend on the way for free who had been walking to the road to meet me. Although I hate buying people alcohol, I was pretty happy with that deal.

The tuck driver dropped us off in the middle of a rolling field of coconut trees with music drifting from over a hill. When we reached the top of the hill we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a wedding and before we knew what was happening our bags were taken from us and we were seated at the one of the head tables with plates heaping of food in front of us. Unlike back in the states where we have RSVP lists, here wedding crashing is totally acceptable – especially for two white people out in the middle of the bush. Since my friend has lived in this community for 2 years now he knew a lot of the people at the wedding, which meant we were even more obliged to stay and eat and drink with them because he didn't want to be rude and insult his community members. So even though we had food already prepared back at his house for dinner we buckled down and dug into our plates of rice and beef and made small talk with the head men of the community we were sitting with. Weddings here are full weekend-events: on Saturday everyone accompanies the happy couple first to register and attain their official wedding license from the state, then everyone follows the couple to the church for the religious ceremony, and finally it's party-time at the bride's family's home. The following day everyone meets again to the groom's family's home and spends the entire 2nd day just giving presents, eating and dancing. Quite the event. At this wedding there was music, hundreds of people dancing, lying on reed mats under the coconut trees, playing soccer, cooking and eating. One of my favorite moments of that meal was when I exclaimed how lucky I was to get a potato in my curry and then bit down into a big chunk of pure white beef fat. Luckily, living in Mozambique for 2 years has altered my friend's standards of what is edible so we sneaked all of my fat-potatoes onto his plate the rest of the meal.

Long after sundown we were finally able to sneak away through the trees, and then continued on our trek back to his reed house where another friend of ours had been waiting for us. Let me just insert a few words here to describe this community.... it's absolutely gorgeous. It's located on the coast and is all sand and hills and coconut trees and flowers. I really don't think there's a single place where you can't see a view of the ocean. There's no electricity but I was lucky enough to visit on a cloudless night with a huge bright full moon. So for our second dinner the three of us threw down reed mats on the sand outside my friend's house and ate soup, salad and bread under the moon facing the ocean out beyond the coconut trees. Totally worth the full stomach :)

Last Tuesday was Mozambique's Independence Day and I went to the ceremonies with some friends. For hours and hours on end we stood in the hot sun watching theater plays and dances, listening to speeches, songs, and poems, and shifting from foot to foot. Most of the ceremony was in local language which was a bummer but to compensate for that was the fact that the entire event was held outside under a huge budding mango tree.

The next day was Morrumbene Day so it began with the same general ceremonies, only this time after the first few songs, salutes, and speeches we all migrated to the club (which is kind of like a community center). The JICA volunteer in my town who works with the agriculture department had organized my district's first Farmer's Market and I'd asked my JUNTOS kids to participate. We were going to perform a play about trash and sanitation but in the end the kids lost their nerve and instead we all just wore our t-shirts and one of their friends sold bead jewelry that she makes. The fair went great, and people from the local radio even came and interviewed my kids about what our group does and our mission. After the fair I invited my kids back to my house and we made a chocolate cake :) They hung out at my house watching english tv shows and listening to my music, then the boys found some computer games and spent hours playing mortal combat and racing games. All and all it was a great day :)

This past Friday I went to a near-by beach town to meet up with some girl-friends from around the province and we had a girl's night dancing and catching up with one another. The next morning, although sore and sleepy, I still pulled on some shorts and a sports bra and went down to the beach for my morning run. I started off slow and a bit queasy but after 10 minutes all that was forgotten. All there was was me, the waves, the wind, and the little crabs scurrying into their holes in front of me. I was feeling strong enough to set a goal: I'd run to the point in the distance where the coast disappeared. I knew it'd only be about 2 or 3 miles away, but what I didn't count on was the fact that the farther away I ran from the town, the less of a “beach” there was to run on. Eventually the beach had completely disappeared to just tall steep sand dunes at the edge of the water, water which was chock-filled with sharp black rocks and just a few yards away were huge waves as tall as I was. But no matter, I'd made up my mind to run to the point and it didn't matter that I was running in sand up to my ankles at a 45 degree angle – I wasn't going to turn back. Of course, the trouble of saying you're going to run to a point in the coast is that you never actually know when you've reached it. I'd reach one bend only to see another a little farther off, and then another, and another.... At one point something moved in the corner of my vision and I looked up to see a gray and black monkey frolicking up on the sand dune next to me, and then another joined him, and then 3 more... Soon there was a family of monkeys running along side me up on the sand dune :) They didn't accompany me for long, and after about a minute they stopped and silently watched me trudge along through the waves. Finally, long after the amount of time I'd planned on running, I decided it was about time to turn around and head back (especially since I couldn't even see the coast I'd started from on any more). I stopped for a moment at my final bend to take a deep breath of the ocean air, and what did I see on the other side but two old white tourists walking along with sun caps collecting sea shells! (I guess they must have been walking from the next beach town along the coast?) Oh wells, not completely alone with the crabs and the monkeys but that's the price you pay for staying at a tourist town!

Okie dokie, time to wash some laundry. Before I go though, just want to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAMA! Can't wait to see you guys in 3 weeks!!!

Big hugs :)


Monday, June 17, 2013

Lacing up

So me and my running buddy in town took that next step and signed up for the Cape Town marathon! I'm a little scared it still won't happen since having lived in Mozambique for over a year now I've come to accept that nothing is ever certain and I must always be ready for plans to fall apart at any moment. Yet having that said, at the same time I'm equally scared it WILL happen! I just signed up to run 26 miles in 3 months and I've never ran over 13 miles in my life, I hadn't been running very often these past few months, and I don't necessarily have the ideal running accessories available here... I've been running with my 2-year-old minimalist shoes and for long runs I tape my cell phone around my arm so I can listen to the local radio, which more often than not is in local language I don't even understand! Thanks to my best friend back home I DO have a brand spanking new camel pack I can use for water, and next month I'm going to meet my family in South Africa and will try to hunt down some new running shoes and a distance tracker to monitor my millage. So yeah, I'm currently a mixed bag of woo-hoo-I've-always-wanted-to-do-this and oh-my-goodness-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into feelings ;)

Being the dork that I am, I did a little research and made myself a 16-week running schedule that I've successfully followed for 2 weeks now, the first week reaching 14miles and this last week totaling about 16.5 miles (that's assuming I'm running 10-min miles but I have no idea what my actual speed is running through the dirt paths.)

On another front, we had a big workshop for our youth groups in Inhambane this past weekend! I took 5 of my kids and my counterpart (so really I had 6 kids ;) to a university about 2 hours away from Friday to Sunday. OOOOPA was that tiiiiring! I love my group but I have new-found appreciation for teachers who have to deal with teenagers every day. We had a great weekend learning about STDs, (with a big emphases on HIV in particular), pregnancy, gender issues, puberty etc... My group also performed the drug and alcohol abuse play they'd put together and was able to network and share ideas with the other groups in neighboring districts. It was a lot of fun but man was I beat by the time I got home Sunday evening.

During the conference one of the facilitators asked me to apply for a coordinator position next year so last night I sent in my “application” to be the southern region coordinator for all youth groups in the 3 southern-most provinces of the country. We have votes right now so I'll know by next week if I have a new activity to do in my free time (I'm not too optimistic but we'll see! If I get the position there are definitely a few things I'd like to beef up for next year's trainings and conferences...)

Did I mention that the workshop venue was on the coast? One of my favorite parts this past weekend was waking up before everyone else in the mornings, lacing up my running shoes, sneaking out of the university campus in the gray-dawn light, stretching my legs while holding onto a big tree with a bee hive on the first branch so the buzzing noises filled my head, and then climbing down through the thickets and flowers to the water.

The first day I ran north and soon came upon a group of men pulling a fishing boat out into the water. For awhile I chatted with the men in the boat about our respective schedules for the day: mine was to sit in a auditorium with about 100 teenagers while there's was to sail out to a nearby island and fish out on the water under the sun. It was hard to decline the invitation to jump onto the boat with them. Then I caught up to the men pulling the boat out and they asked me for a hand. Without breaking stride I picked up the rope and started pulling the boat along with the men until they were all jogging along with me and the boat behind us had picked up enough speed. When the cheering of the men died down I bid my new friends good bye and turned around to return back down the coast. On my way back I came across an old man with a big wooden post for the sail on his boat so I asked if he'd like a hand. Together we dragged it out to his boat on the water. Once it was by the boat I again bid adieu and continued on my way. As I jogged this last stretch I watched the sun finally rise it's head over the water and through the morning clouds, and then I found my way back to the path through the thickets, climbed up to the big tree with the bee hive, and slid through the side door returning back to the campus....

The next day I ran south down the coast and faced a wall of wind with every step (later that day there was a big storm.) Every step felt like wading through water in a dream and I watched dried seaweed and leaves dance over the white sand. I ran through a graveyard of old abandoned boats with the paint chipping off where their names had once read and large holes pocketing their sides like battle wounds. There was one monster of a boat taking up half the beach so I had to climb up the beach and over the sand mound through the wind to get to the other side. Once I climbed over the little hill and was safe on the side sheltered from the wind I looked back to find a tree growing right through the heart of the boat. It was beautiful. Eventually I gave up battling against the wind and turned around to be literally flown back to where I started in half the time it took me to get there.

The funny thing is, the teenage boys in my group also ran both mornings that weekend but they refused to join me on the beach in the early morning hours because it was “too dirty.” Instead ran in circles around the basketball court.

Big hugs, especially to my father and abuelito – happy belated father's day!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

From the mountains to the mangroves

First thing first: Bush Fire. I don't know what I'd expected, I guess I hadn't thought too much about what I'd find down in Swaziland expect that I wanted to add another country to my list.

(Country list explanation: a friend / former colleague had had a big map of the world in his office covered with colored pushpins, explaining that a person must always keep track of where he/ she's traveled in the world because as you grow older and your list grows longer memories can get hazy. His rule of thumb was that you could only count places you've slept over in (and layovers & cruises don't count!) I keep a running list in my head for the day when I'll finally settle down and purchase my own map of the world. My current list: the USA, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Mozambique, and now Swaziland!)

Swaziland was GORGEOUS! Absolutely breathtaking. The first things I noticed upon arrival:
  • there was no garbage on the streets! This fact in itself blew my mind....
  • there were flowers everywhere, even in the cities
  • the buildings weren't falling apart in disrepair, with paint chipping off and coal smoke stains crawling up the sides
  • and, wonder of all wonders: there were occupancy limits to the public transportation!!!!! In several countries in Africa they use these 15-person vans for public transportation, however in Mozambique we cram 19 – 25 people in them (not including the babies, chickens, bundles of coconuts, etc...) Oh sweet glory to sit in a bus and be able to move my legs!!!
Swaziland is a very beautiful country being situated up in the mountains with quaint little villages in the valleys and wide open agricultural fields speckled throughout. The music festival venue was situated high in the mountains so that when you turned your gaze from the stage you'd see fields upon fields rolling out up and down the mountain-sides. The festival itself was quite impressive as well: extremely well organized, great food, an array of unique arts and crafts to appreciate and purchase, and an impressive line-up of musicians and performers from all corners of the globe. It was also a treat to meet and chat with the people who attended the festival; like myself many people there were from foreign countries traveling and/or working in the southern horn of Africa. I spent countless hours exchanging stories and travel tips with my fellow globe-trotters :)

I rushed home on Monday, waking up at 5am to pack up the tent and not stepping into my house until 23hours (!!) But the travel-packed day was worth it because by 8am the next morning I was out the door running to meetings and activities. From sunrise to sunset all week I've been super busy and productive, and you know only too well how much of much a treat that is.

I made 2 blackboards this week (bought a big plywood board, sawed it in half with my trusty swiss army knife, and then made a chalkboard paint with paint, black dye, and this white powder I got from a peace corps supervisor during my travels last weekend.) One board I left in my association to use for our English Club meetings, and the other I brought over to my friend who has recently started her own pre-school business.

The English Club started this week, we're offering free classes 3 nights a week for 2 hour sessions. It's only been one week and I don't want to jinx anything but attendance has been high, participation strong, and we've all been having a great time laughing and working together. This group so far is on top of they're game and seem like they'll stick with it.
We had 2 REDES meetings this week, each about 2 hours long and with different groups (one day is girls 10-12 years old, the other girls 15-17 years old). The girls are very shy but my counterpart (the woman who started the pre-school) is great interacting with them and the two of us had a great dynamic feeding off the others' energy. By the end of each session we'd played ice-breaker games, gone around the room having each girl talk a little about themselves, and had a good discussion about our group's goals and activities.

My JUNTOS group this week has been on FIRE! We've met for at least an hour or two every day practicing on a theater piece they put together about youth drug and alcohol abuse. Another kid wrote a poem about HIV and a girl finally finished her first news article about sanitation in our town. I'm so proud of them :) We have a workshop in a town about 45min away this coming weekend so they're all pretty psyched about performing the theater piece there!

Not much to update for my primary projects. Tomorrow we have one of our monthly meetings with the all of the association's activists and supervisors so I'm going to work with the OVC activists and make up a more concrete plan of our intended activities, materials, and costs of the project we've been discussing. Meanwhile the president and some of the leadership in the organization has been working on starting a sewing project, to teach our clients how to sew and offer classes to the general public to raise venues. I personally haven't been pushing this project too much because it's not based out of community needs, and we're not taking advantage of the talents available in our current workforce... but on the other hand the association seems to be really heart-bent on the idea and I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm. We'll see how it pans out. On Tuesday we're all going out into the bush to harvest some mandioca that we planted there earlier in the season. Originally we were supposed to have planted the tubers in order to give to our OVCs for food security purposes but now the association has changed its mind and wants to sell the produce and use the funds to purchase notebooks and pens for the kids. Again, I'm not too thrilled about changing the plan at the last minute and expressed my hesitations, but, as always, my concerns were brushed aside. I conceded that I'd be on board with the new plan as long as the funds are ACTUALLY used to buy school materials for the kids and not thrown into the coffers to use for “other” purposes.... I'll be keeping an eye on where that money goes.

On the personal front I started running again this week (woo hoo!) On Tuesday after English Club I went out with the Japanese volunteer in town and a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was crashing with me on his way traveling back up to his site. While drinking a beer, snacking on cacana (ground peanuts, mandioca, coconut and sugar mixed together), and grabbing a late dinner of rice, salad and curry we chatted about our respective upcoming travels this year. My Japanese friend mentioned a marathon coming up in September in Cape Town, and half joking proposed that we should go do it. I jumped at the idea, did some research on it the next evening after work, and now have been pushing him to sign up with me. No definite affirmative or negative yet, but I've been looking for motivation to get back in shape for awhile now so just having a prospective race has been enough to get me out of bed at 5:30 these past few days for 45-60 min jogs. Every time I re-start running I'm always amazed at how beautiful the world is in those early morning hours; I watch the sun rise up through the mists over the mangroves in the river where the women wash their clothes and the children bathe, running through the sand footpaths through forests of coconut, papaya, avocado, lemon, orange and mango trees (the mango trees are beginning to blossom again!) Children in school uniforms try to keep up with me running in fits of giggles for a few minutes at a time, men and women old and young call out good morning, sometimes I even hear people yell out my name which always makes me smile. Already I've had a few people approach me and ask to run with me, this morning I was supposed to run with one of the guards in the town prison but he overslept and only came out in his running sweats when I was already on my way home. The doctor in town has also asked to run with me, a cook in the official administrative kitchens, and one of the kids in my JUNTOS group. Hopefully this running frenzy doesn't fizzle away like all the other times! I've also been talking up doing some work-out videos with my neighbors, activists and JUNTOS kids. I have a fellow Peace Corps friend who does Insanity work-out videos with her OVCs and activists and I'd love to copy her!

Okay, this update is sufficiently long and tedious enough, if you've read this far you deserve a congratulatory pat on the back! (By the way, is this boring to people? Is there anything else in particular you'd prefer to read about besides my day-to-day??)

Big hugs to my far-away friends, family, former colleagues, old college and grad-school classmates, workout buddies, passing acquaintances, and curious strangers!

tia emilia

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On a roll

Man, I got such a positive reaction from my last blog post – thank you guys! It's great to know that people actually read these things :)

And so, thus empowered from your emails and messages, (and because I currently have internet credit and am postponing packing) I'll write another for y'all!

Yesterday was a slow day since it was one of the weeks when I don't go out into the field to visit my OVC activists. In the morning the vovo (granma) who helps me with my house cleaning popped in (we tried to make a schedule for her to come on the same days at the same time every week but it didn't stick). I used to have young girls help me with washing laundry, carrying water, and washing the house but after the first or second payday they'd split

a gecko just plopped down from the ceiling and Pippin had flown off my lap and had it in his paws before I could even realize what was happening. The only proof of the event is a wriggling gecko tail on the floor (actually no, Pippin is now carrying his prize from his mouth into a corner of the house... poor gecko!) Last week a similar event had happened when he leaped off my lap to catch one on the wall. Only difference was that time the gecko had been on the wall right above my big 20 liter bucket where I keep my water and, unfortunately, I'd forgotten to put the top on it. Mister meowmers was literally inundated up to his ears and jumped a mile high to get out! I was still ringing out his tail out a half hour later, and I'd also found a wriggling gecko tail floating in my drinking/ washing/ everything water - blegh! But back to this victim at-hand, I guess the poor thing is still alive because Pippin's chasing something around. No need to have cat toys in Mozambique when there's reptiles, rodents, and big bugs galore!

Anyways, so yeah the young girls would split which would stink but it seems pretty normal here. The vovo doesn't speak Portuguese and she's this frail little old woman but she's my neighbor's granma and needs the money so I don't want to deny her the job. I do however feel horrible having her do the housework so I inevitably end up spending those mornings she shows up at home as well helping out where I can. And let me justify myself a little here: washing your clothes by hand every week SUCKS. I learned how to do it and suffered through it the first few months here at site though it would seriously take me all day to do 1 week's worth of clothing and I would always have my hands covered in band aids the following day.

Eew, there's the crunch-crunch. Guess Pippin got tired with his playmate, buh-bye mister gecko.

But yeah yeah delicate prissy-girl hands, I've heard it, but you know what? it's true. These women have spent their entire lives washing clothes by hand, working in their farms, making all their ground flours by hand with huge mortar and pistols... So yeah, they got the hand-washing thing down a little better than I do

annnnnnnd there goes Pippin throwing up the gecko in the middle of the house. Lovely. Yep, you go outside and play kitty, just leave me to clean that up. Thanks.

Where was I? Anyways yeah so I helped vovo wash my floors (she does that once a month) and then she washed some sheets and brought me some water while I finished cleaning up the house. Spent the rest of the morning at the office helping a colleague research a homework project for his nephew online and then listen to some mozambican music while I made friendship bracelets for a guard at the prison and a lady at a corner store down the street. After work and before heading home I took my ritual afternoon stroll around town. I always have to stop at the same fruit and veggie stands, talk with the same mothers and grandmothers, say hello to my friends at the bakery... it's funny, even though most days I don't even buy anything if I don't go and say hello for a day or 2 I'll get called on the phone and chastised up the wazoo for disappearing. Earlier this week the women by the bus station selling bananas and cashews to travelers yelled at me for abandoning them all week so I had to apologize and explain that the bananas in my house were ripe so I hadn't thought to visit; my bad!

And speaking of bananas, I headed home that afternoon (I live about a 15min walk from the main road) and taught my neighbors how to make banana bread with all the bananas we had in our yard. It came out a bit condensed, but I don't know if banana bread can really ever be light and fluffy so I told them it was supposed to be that way (?)

This morning only 3 activists showed up for my Wednesday Health & English lessons but 3 is better than 0 any day. This week we did child malnutrition and the letters of the Alphabet complete with the ABC song and a game of hangman. Last week we did vertical transmission prevention, personal pronouns and the verb to be. Funny mixtures right? That took all morning so afterward me and a friend went to the shop in town where I can print out papers and make copies – I wanted to print out fliers for our English club that officially starts up again next week and make photocopies of a few medical sheets for my OVC activists in the field next week.

At home I had a pineapple a friend had given me last friday; all week I'd been cutting off slices for me and the kids in the neighborhood but there was still half of the darn fruit and I'm traveling tomorrow so after lunch I decided to make a pineapple upside down cake. It's funny how the kids just magically appear at my front door when they smell a hint of bolo (cake). One little 3 year old named Batista just came in and sat at my table waiting for the cake to finish.

Actually, Batista deserves his own paragraph. Besides my cat, Batista spends the most time with me. I don't know where he comes from or much about him at all really because he doesn't speak yet (hasn't even actually reached 3 years but is is close enough to it that the other kids say he's 3). Every morning he silently shows up standing at my door and follows me around as I get ready for the day, and the same thing every afternoon. I usually give him a fruit or veggie to snack on because I'm afraid his late speech development may be due to a lack of vitamins in his diet. He usually plays with a starwars toy car a friend had sent me in a care package last year and a GI-Joe figurine a fellow PCV gave me. I do have a few Japanese cartoons I got from my friend in town so at times I'll put that on for him while I work. The other day we pulled out the esteira and sat out on the verandah and snacked on roasted peanuts. Today I read out-loud to him in English from a book on the history of TFA (good thing he couldn't understand). Batista, Pippin & me. We're a happy family.

The cake came out me and Batista sat at the table and ate spoon fulls of hot pineapple gooieness from empty jam jars. Not missing a beat, after our first few bites two 5 years-olds came in and demanded some as well, though after a taste declared it wasn't as good as the one I'd made yesterday so I kicked the punks out. Sheesh!

This evening I had a JUNTOS meeting and even though we hung out for 2 hours only 4 of us were there the whole time while 3 others came and went. Seeing as we weren't being all that productive due to the low attendance, instead I sat Fyra down on my computer to type up an article she'd written by hand about sanitation and trash situation in town. Sent the photographer of the group, Inocente, out into town with my friend's camera to gather some pics for the website. Then I took the remainder kid, Amilton, into town with me to help me post the English Club fliers and to knock out my daily salutation rounds. After exchanging music and talking about a theater piece the kids want to write we headed out into the dusk. Some kids came home with me to eat some of the pineapple cake (they didn't like it either, maybe Mozambicans don't like pineapple upside down cake? Can't possibly be my cooking!) and take some more of my English music and look at pictures I have of New York City.

And that leads me back to the present. I mentioned procrastinating packing early; I'm traveling to Swaziland tomorrow for a music festival there called Bushfire. Ironically this weekend will be the first time I'm leaving the country and also my 1 year anniversary here (I arrived last year on my May 31st). Funny how things fall like that. It doesn't feel like a year's gone by, though life here doesn't seem all that special or weird any more either. Just... normal.

Okay, should probably go pack up & prepare for hitchhiking and camping for 5 days in another country...


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ups & Downs

I swear, my friends and family must think they're talking to 2 different Emily's over here. One week I'll gloat and beam about all the wonderful projects I'm working on, then the next week I'll rant about how impossible it is to get anything off the ground and how the only thing I'm accomplishing here is catching up on my reading and perfecting the art of baking without an oven or measuring utensils. One day I can't stand another minute of the corruption, lies, and unreliability, and then the next day I'm on cloud nine daydreaming about staying here forever.... No, I didn't bump my head or become bipolar. I can say that with some confidence since my friends and family who are themselves returned peace corps volunteers (RPCV's) tell me they experienced the same roller coaster of very high highs and utterly low lows. Of course, knowing that I'm not crazy or alone doesn't make the ride any easier to stomach. It's the faith (or sometimes desperate hope) that even when nobody shows up for my meetings, all the projects we were working fall apart, and I've hit another brick wall with bureaucratic red tape, lies, or corruption that yes, despite the very steep fall, if I stick with the ride and don't give up and get off then sooner or later things will turn around again.

I recently had one of those steep dips. In the beginning of this year I'd sent a few letters back to the states with laundry lists of all the awesome new projects I was starting:
  • a new food distribution project for our OVC's (orphans and vulnerable children) that I was trying to set up with a contact that worked for a private company.
  • a clothing project for our OVC's where some friends of my mother's back in the states wanted to donate dresses for our girls and from there we could teach the recipients how to recreate the dresses for themselves for their own clothing needs and also to sell.
  • my English Club had almost 30 participants and we were getting ready for a Peace Corps national competition of English Theater where the students had to write and perform a play in English in relation to a theme (like HIV/AIDS, women rights, or choosing your own future);
  • I was starting up a youth group called JUNTOS in my town and the kids showed great enthusiasm and interest of performing songs and dances, theater, and starting a newspaper in town to move behavior change in topics like HIV/AIDS stigma, domestic violence, alcoholism, etc...
  • I was approached by another international organization to work with my district hospital and the several HIV/AIDS service providers in town to create a GAAC program which would create small groups of 2-6 HIV-positive individuals in the remote rural communities where once a month 1 rotating member of the group would travel to the district hospital to pick up the ARV medications for the rest of the group.
  • my primary organization that I was originally sent to assist was promising to finally start utilizing my skills, to start implementing my organizational recommendations, to aid me in finishing our CNA (community needs assessment) and to sit down with me in order to learn how to plan and implement a successful community development project.

It looked like I was finally going to start working! Ah, ignorant bliss....

As you can probably tell from the subtle foreshadowing, things didn't fall out as planned.
  • The food distribution and the clothing projects are still an open possibility and the members involved still show interest but we're no closer to implementation than we were back in March.
  • The English Club hit a wall of red tape and we had to move location several times until the club was officially canceled by the local government (evidently the school board was afraid being held liable in case anything happened to a white girl or young students on school property at night despite the countless letters and phone calls I made explaining our club's autonomy.)
  • My youth group JUNTOS, which was so full of optimism and vigor, little by little lost its steam. A fellow peace corps volunteer (PCV) in a near-by town and I had planned a full day of activities for our two groups. Despite having planned the weekend trip weeks in advance, the night before our trip my fellow facilitator called me to let me know that every one of our kids had called him stating other last-minute things they had to do. I felt horrible having to call my fellow PCV in the nearby town and tell him with my tail between my legs that my group was going to be a no-show. After that first let-down our attendance rate plummeted.
  • The said other international organization had promised a training session for my hospital staff to introduce them to the GAAC project but last minute they rain-checked the training once, twice, and then on the 3rd time they indefinitely canceled the training. Some of the staff in my hospital were able to get the training eventually but not as many as we'd expected. Then when it came time to start implementing the project I felt like I'd brought to life the phrase “herding cats.” The hospital is so horribly under-staffed and overwhelmed that getting all the necessary people together in the same room once a week was nothing short of a miracle. That's not even taking into consideration a little thing we Moz PCV's like to call the “chefe-mentality,” meaning that nothing can happen without the person designated to be the “chefe” (or boss), who in of himself tends to always magically be way too busy and important to come to the meetings. The result of course is that nothing ever gets done.
  • And, no shock here, nothing ever actually changed with my primary organization. Let me clarify though that it's not that my organization doesn't need me or want to work with me, quite the contrary, but that in reality they are so busy “chasing the money” that it's hard to get their attention for more than occasional spurts. My organization has an international donor that mandates projects and requirements that takes up 99% of my activists time and energy. It's not that this international donor organization doesn't have good intentions, but it's counteractive to community development for a small-scale social aid organization like the one I'm assigned to to blindly do everything a foreign organization tells it to do instead of looking to its own community's needs and addressing the problems that actually exist. Also, it hurts long-term human capital development when my organization only follows orders coming from above instead of learning how to research, choose, implement, and evaluate its own projects. Not to mention that these big international donor organizations never seem to have any consideration for my small grass-roots organization's time; at least once a week the president of my organization will receive a call the morning-of informing her that the donors are coming to do a surprise training/ meeting/ auditing, that they need such-and-such report by that afternoon, that they need to acquire statistics for this-and-that by the end of the week, etc. etc. Half of the time when I have planned weeks in advance an in-house activity with my activists they don't show up because our donor called that morning and demanded xyz. And then they have the nerve to preach the importance of planning in advance and having a calendar of activities.... grrrr.

Anyways, last month I was back to spending looooots of time reading at home and cooking with the kids in my neighborhood that were too young to go to school yet. Seeing as I had nothing else better to do, I decided to take a long weekend and visit a few fellow PCVs who were having more luck at their sites; man did I really feel like a big old loser after that weekend! Why could they get people to participate in their activities when I always heard the crickets chirping in my trainings and meetings? I decided to shift tactics; up until that point I'd been so used to blaming my failures on external causes (see above bullets for point in case) but my fellow PCVs faced similar obstacles yet were still able to accomplish their projects. I decided that I needed to stop focusing on these external factors that I had no control over and instead focus on the things I could change; mainly my approach and methods. What was I doing wrong? How could I avoid going home next year a complete failure? I came back from that long weekend with a new-found determination – I didn't dream about being a peace corps volunteer for years, leave my work, family and friends, and travel across the world to sit around on my bum!!!

  • The first thing was to get more serious and stop acting like I'm on vacation. I cut down the amounts of weekends I traveled out of site to visit other volunteers, and the trips that were absolutely necessary (like work trainings or birthdays) were made into day-trips or 1-nighters. Staying at home more now I could plan work meetings on Saturdays when people had more free time and catch up on housework on the weekends. I also got rid of all the movies and tv shows on my external hard drive to get rid of temptations to hang out in my house alone. Little by little I let neighborhood kids hang out more and more in my house with me, making cookies or popcorn with them, showing them how to draw, making bracelets with them, etc. I up-ed the number of house-visits I made to my Mozambican coworkers and friends, started visiting churches again, having dinner parties with Mozambicans (not just foreigners), and going to more community events (a few weeks ago there was a big talent show in town!), among other things...
  • Meanwhile, me and a friend were able to convince my org to let us use our meeting room to host the English Club 3 nights a week if we installed electric wires and lights into the room and payed for any increase in the electric bill (due to the extra lights and hours of electricity used). Me and my friend then set off to buy and install the wires and lights, we bought a big plywood board and next week we're going to paint it into a blackboard, frame it and hang it up in the room. Seeing as we're no longer using a school classroom to host the club the government no longer has any liability over our actions and therefore no authority to stop us :)
  • After weeks of relentless pursuit I was able to coerce some colleagues on the hospital to at least plan out our projects but (of course!) we wouldn't go forward with them without the okay of the chefes. The process still took forever and a half but at least we were able to make progress and go in the right direction. The GAAC program hasn't started full-swing but we're a lot closer to implementation than even just a month ago.
  • I prepared all the documents solo for our possible food distribution project, got the leadership of my org to sit down with me and review them, and then we emailed them out together. Not as much collaboration as I would have liked in organizing this but in this particular case I'd rather have the project come to fruition and help with our OVC's food security instead of waiting for another several months until my coworkers have time to do it with me.
  • I decided that my youth group JUNTOS needed more instant gratification instead of planning for big future events. I invited some of the kids over one Saturday (participation bribe complete with cookies and all) to create a website to showcase their website, and had a foreigner friend lend me an extra camera he had so I could let my kids record their work and take pictures of their work. And voila! Soon participant at our meetings was at 100%,new members were coming every week, kids were preparing poems, songs, news articles and dances in their free time to share at the meetings, and my kids were visiting me at my house on weekday evenings and weekends just to hang out and show-off their work!
  • I also met a new social activist in my town who was interested in starting another youth group with me specifically for girls called REDES (something I'd wanted to do for months but couldn't find anyone to do it with me.) (Let me clarify that as a Peace Corps Volunteer we're not supposed to do any projects on our own due to sustainability purposes; the idea is to create these projects and groups along with a Mozambican counterpart so that they can learn how to do it and so that after I leave the group will be able to continue without me.) Anyways, she also just recently started a preschool which is awesome because preschools for some reason are very rare here and the few that do exist are usually run by foreigners, are very expensive, and hard to get into. She's teaching the kids how to read & write, basic health and hygiene, and does arts & crafts(!) Again, this may not seem all that impressive to people reading this back in the States but a single woman in rural Mozambique who has the entrepreneurial ambition and creativity to do something like this pretty unheard of here and I am so psyched that I found this woman! I plan to help her get more health and artistic materials for her preschool, I want to also make a blackboard for her like the one I'm making for our English Club, and I also want to work with the preschool kids a few hours per week. Not to mention there's already a huge amount of interest in the girls community to join our new REDES club just from word-of-mouth. I have high hopes with this group :)
  • In terms of my own organization, well I'm implementing the same chefe-sidetracking methods that I used with the hospital. I can't wait for the leadership in my org to find time for me any more so I'm just going to bribe the activists on my own to work with me. For example...
    • I told my activists that I'd teach them an English lesson once a week if they participated in a health lecture before each English lesson. I put it on the calendar, reminded the activists every time I saw them, asked them to choose the health lessons based on their interests, etc. Of course, like the several times I'd tried giving English classes or health lessons in the past nobody showed up for the first few weeks, but I kept at it and pushed and pushed and finally this past week 3 people showed up! And then 4, and then 5..... Can this be the beginning of something??!!
    • I also made a deal with some activists that live out in one of the rural towns that if I travel out to them once every other week they'll meet me for a health lesson and to offer activities for our OVCs there (we have a center there that isn't being used and those activists complain that it's too hard for them to come into the town every week for activities here.) I'd like to increase our meetings to once a week, and eventually have them offer activities for our OVC's at least 2 or 3 days a week without me, but I'm taking the small victories as they come. We've had 2 health lessons so far, have made a solid comprehensive list of activities they want to provide for our OVCs, and I've allocated responsibilities to each member to research the feasibility and cost of each activity. I hope to find a grant for them in order to acquire basic materials (like crayons and paper for arts & crafts, a ball for sports, a drum for music & dance, rope and a tire to make a swing, some chairs and a table for homework tutoring, etc). The grant would also be good to compensate them a little for their time and energy (even though they're volunteers, they already have to do home-visits for each OVC several times a week, so to also provide activities for them doesn't leave them a lot of time to work on their farms or sell products in the market.)
    • In terms of the CNA, I've utterly given up hope in getting my boss to assign someone to help me complete that. Ideally PCVs are supposed to realize the community needs assessment with a counterpart so that the organization learns how to perform a CNA, but I've been here for almost a year and, like the food distribution program, at this point I just want to finish this instead of taking the risk of waiting forever for someone to help me. At the very least after I finish collecting the data and write up the report hopefully they'll be able to use the results to focus future projects on the community's actual problems instead of always just reacting to donor mandates.
  • Also, my constant popping into different sectors in town that work in health or youth development and reminding everyone and their grandmother to call me if they need help has finally payed off! This past week a contact I have in the Education Department called me up and asked me to help him plan and realize a training for all the professors in our district on student oral and visual health. I helped him create the budget, write up the objectives of the training, and next week we're going to investigate possible areas to get funding for the training (even though the training curriculum came down from the national government, funding to actually implement the training wasn't included!)

It's pathetic but I cannot tell you enough how happy I was this week having something to do every single day! Today I even made a schedule of my routine week-day activities: Mondays evenings are Eng Club, Tuesday mornings is health training and OVC activities in the field, Tuesday afternoons are REDES, Tuesday evening Eng Club, Wednesday mornings health training and Eng lessons, Wednesday afternoons JUNTOS, Thursday afternoons meetings in the hospital, Thursday evenings REDES (and of course all the times not specified is spent at my primary org or at other meetings.) Can you believe it, I'm almost busy!!!

Needless to say, I'm pretty darn happy right now. I know that in a few weeks all of this may fall apart again, but I'm going to bask in the momentary glory of feeling like a successful Peace Corps Volunteer! And when the next inevitable dip in the roller coaster comes again I'll remember this moment and struggle to climb back up here again.

Big hugs!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Small steps

I created a group called JUNTOS (Jovens Unidos no Trabalho para Oportunidades e Sucesso) (or in other words Youth United in the Work for Opportunity and Success) with a fellow community member in my town. We have a handful of young adults all between the ages of 18 and 21 and we get together about once a week. We like to set aside at least 30-60 minutes during each meeting in order to discuss at least one controversial topic that the members would like to learn more about. The purpose of this activity is to create a safe environment for the young adults to discuss sensitive subjects among themselves. The monitors, myself and my counterpart, are there to gear the conversations towards healthy and productive debates, and to answer any questions that we can. The goal is to open the members' horizons beyond assumed truths and falsehoods so that they in turn learn to advocate behavior change in their communities.

During one particular meeting a soft-spoken male requested the day's topic be homosexuality, which is a great subject to discuss because it fulfills the requirement of being a taboo topic that is not usually brought up in public. The discussion went very well for the first 10-15 minutes and the members of the group discussed what homosexuality is, if it's a product of society or something innate in a person, the life of a homosexual person in Mozambique, etc.

Another member of the group arrived late and joined the discussion at this point. The late-coming member is usually one of the more boisterous participants and in past discussions he would usually sway other club members towards his opinions. His “honcho” personality had never caused any problems in the past in mine and my counterpart's opinions since it always appeared that all the other club members were in fact in agreement with him.

I did not, however, realize that this member was a very staunch religious individual and that his religion was in fact one of the more vocal groups in our community against homosexuality.

When the late-comer joined in the debate I was shocked to hear his views on homosexuality and feared he might undo the progressive and open-minded attitude the debate had taken up until this point. Or worse yet, that the negative intonation of this new viewpoint might dissuade members like the soft-spoken boy who offered the topic from voicing future opinions or even attending JUNTOS meetings at all. Just as I was starting to jump into the conversation and steer it in a different direction one of the female members who barely ever talks spoke up. She proudly defended the previous viewpoint and also explained to the late-comer why the group as a whole had come to that opinion before he had arrived. The group then continued on with a very positive and productive discussion on the rights of a homosexual couple to have children or get married and how to support any friends or family members they may know who are homosexual but afraid to tell their families or community members.

Although not everyone agreed with all the subject matter posed, the group as a whole was able to respect one another's opinions and have a healthy and productive conversation about a very sensitive subject. I congratulated the members at the end of the discussion and explained that these are the exact skills they will need to carry with them out in the community if they want to accomplish real behavior change: patience, respect, understanding and courage to stand up against the status quo.

Not the way we do things in Mozambique

“No, no, no. You don't understand. Maybe that's the way you do thing in your country but here we do it this way....”

I don't think this is a characteristic exclusive to any one country, in fact I'm pretty sure that every community in every country thinks that they are in one way or another unique and special from the rest of that wide, barbarous world out there. It's not xenophobia, just an elevated self-worth which, in moderated quantities, really is quite healthy. Up to a point. For there are certain things in this world that in fact are NOT done differently in different parts of the world. Like science (the chemistry of cooking isn't dependent on your language), math (no matter where you were born, to find the percentage of a number you have to multiply by the percentage, not divide), and some universal terminology...

I had a bit of a skiff with my organization this week when we were preparing a big report of all the work they've realized since their funding in 2005. I don't know how I'd missed this up until now, but when we were gathering the data of their clients I asked them to explain to me how they came to each number for each trimester, and there arose a small hitch in their reporting techniques. They have 4 trimesters. No, not 4 quarters, but TRIMESTERS. But they never talk about the 4 trimesters out right, they only ever talk about the 1st, the 2nd, and “the last” (since evidently the 3rd is just included into the last, which is another problem in of itself.) When I tried to explain that “trimester” by definition means that there are 3 equal parts of the whole they simply shook their heads and said “no, no, no Emily. Maybe where you're from trimester means 4 months but here in Mozambique a trimester means 3 months.” I drew out pie charts and tables and explained the differences between trimesters and quarters, giving different examples like the school calendar (where in fact there are 3 months periods since they only work 9 months out of the year).... nope. They all just laughed and continued with their head shakes. I called 2 fellow peace corps volunteers just to make sure I wasn't going crazy, and finally, I called in the highest hospital staff member in our hospital, university educated and all, to come over and clear the air. Well didn't I look stupid to my coworkers when he said, “of course, trimester means 3 months (tri means 3 of course) so in complete the year we have 4 of them.”


Ultimately, we agreed to disagree, removed all talk of trimesters from the report citing instead the yearly totals, and rain-checked the debate for a later date when there wasn't a report deadline looming above our heads. Not sure how successful I was that day in human capital and organizational development, but the argument was a reminder that even though hings aren't always as easy as I may hope I can't allow that to discourage or impede me from doing my job.

And the luta continua of trimesters vs quarters!!!