Saturday, April 21, 2012


Dan and I are halfway through a two-week interval between trimesters, and I wanted to write a quick post to describe where we are in Mozambique, who we are traveling with, and where we are going.  Currently, it is 6:30 AM on a Sunday, and I am in the Peace Corps office in Chimoio.  I have a few quiet minutes to upload pictures and check my email before Mary, Adrienne, Dan and I catch a chapa headed east.

The trimester ended last Friday, and our little house was immediately flooded with visitors.  I still had to teach on Friday afternoon, of course, but visitors came into my class to run races with the kids and to sing a few songs.  It was cute.  The kids were really excited.  

Dan dubbed our gathering "PreConnect," in honor of the Peace Corps Reconnect Conference that we would be attending later that week.  All told, we had six visitors, all from Manica and Sofala provinces in Mozambique.  

There are unique challenges to hosting visitors in a tiny, cement house without running water, but things went surprisingly smoothly.  Our neighbor-helper was overjoyed because we had him working overtime, and, amazingly, we never lost power.  At night, it was like a giant sleepover party.  We had people sleeping on the couch, the spare bed, the spare mattress, and on the straw mat in the living room.  It was a challenge to get up and make a cup of tea in the morning, but I have never, ever felt so safe in my own home.  

Volunteers from Central Mozambique.  Clockwise from left:  Dylan, Mary, David,
Adrienne, Mike, Mac, friendly neighborhood children, Lisa, and Dan

Once everyone had arrived, we took a trip across the border to Blantyre, Malawi.  Initially, we had just planned to make a day trip to visit our English-speaking neighbors and to do a bit of shopping, but we found a fantastic room at a fantastic rate, and decided to spend the night.  Just, you know, to say that we did (and for $2 a person!).

Dormitory (or "Dormetry") room at the Oriental Lodge in Blantyre, Malawi

On the balcony at the Oriental Lodge in Blantyre, Malawi

Five of us also climbed Mount Zobue, which, for Dan and I, had been a long-standing goal.  Though we had hiked through the fields and to the top of smaller, neighboring mountains, we hadn't yet climbed to the top of BIG mountain.

View of Mount Zobue from a smaller, neighboring mountain.  Taken in January.

During the course of our climb, we were surprised by a few things.  First, there was no actual "trail."  To reach the top, we pushed our way through cornfields and tall grasses to reach the base of the mountain, then found a thin, snaking footpath that lead from a "low point" to a "higher point" on the mountain.  The second surprise was the fact that we could find no actual vista point when we reached the top.  In lieu of an actual vista at the top of the mountain, we stood on the tallest rock that we could find and then admired the tree trunks, vines, and tree ferns that were growing all around us.  In terms of vistas, we had to settle for the views along the side of the path on the hike back down the mountain.  The third surprise was the fact that we were climbing into an actual cloud forest.  We had no idea that the forest was so dense and expansive in the crevices between the giant stone domes (there are three) of Mount Zobue.

David, Mike, Dan, Mac, and Bwino climbing the mountain

Climbing into the cloud forest

Along the path to the top of the mountain

Bwino resting in the vegetation at the top of the mountain

The puppy is too scared to go down the mountain by himself

Vista point on the way back down (with Dan, Mac, and Bwino)

Mountain Flower

Mountain Flower

After our three-day adventure in Tete/Malawi, we traveled south to Chimoio to meet with other volunteers for our ReConnect conference.  Usually, Peace Corps volunteers stay at a hotel within the city of Chimoio itself, but this year, due to budget restraints, we were placed at resort and conference center that was located 7km outside the city.  The countryside was beautiful, but cell phone service was sparse.  This was a big disappointment for many people who live out in the bush and had hoped to use this time to talk with family back in the United States.  Still, though, none of us could complain.  It was nice to be together and to stay in a hotel that has hot running water.

The conference ran for three days and gave us an opportunity to discuss the accomplishments and challenges that we have been facing over these past few months.  Also, we didn't have to cook for ourselves.  At night, we watched movies and played cards.

I love, love, love my Mozambican neighbors but sometimes, at site, I just really miss Americans.

Milpark Hotel and Conference Center in Chimoio, Mozambique

Conference Room

Afternoon tea at the hotel.  With volunteers Nic, Dan, Sean, Nate, Zach, and Theresa 

Lunch at the hotel.  With Jamie, Hoang, Valerie, Jonathan, Chris, and Mike

The single, lonely horse who lived at the hotel.  Mostly we would just find her standing around outside our rooms, staring into space.  

I opened my hotel room door to find...

Finally, on the last day of our conference, we received a shipment of packages from the post office in Chimoio.  The mail system here is corrupt and, frankly, disappointing, but three packages did survive the gauntlet (multiple flights, customs, and thieves) and arrived intact.  All three were from my mother and included Easter candy, pajamas, stuffed animals, and (for my students), balloons, stickers, and, best of all, a hard-cover copy of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."

To all those people who have sent packages that have not yet arrived-- don't give up hope!  Mail is slow in Mozambique.  Stories abound of packages that arrive six months to one year after they have been sent.  Although, if you sent a package in September or October, chances are that it is now probably in the care of a nice Mozambican family that needs it more than I do.

Playing with the items from my Easter care package. 

Thank you, Mom!

Over the next few days, I will be traveling south with Mary, Adrienne, and Dan.

Mary (and a baobab tree, in Tete Province)

Adrienne (and the friendly horse in Chimoio, Mozambique)

We will be traveling to Beira first, to visit Adrienne's site in Buzi.  Then, after a day or two, we will catch a boleia to Vilankulo.

Travel Map - Zobue to Chimoio (511 km), to Beira (204 km), and to Vilankulo (538km)
Vilankulo is immensely popular with South African tourists and is famous for its beaches.  It is also home to a string of off-shore islands that constitute Bazaruto National Park.  The islands and surrounding reefs are home to crocodiles, flamingos, sea turtles, and dolphins.  Best of all, it hosts the largest and only viable (reproducing) population of dugongs in the West Indian Ocean.

Dugong!  (Dugong Dugon)

I may be in and out of contact over the next few days, but rest assured that I am alive and well somewhere along the vast and varied coastline of Mozambique.  I promise that I will take pictures.

Google Image Search:  Vilankulo

Friday, April 13, 2012

End of the Trimester

Things have been hectic in Zobue, lately.  We are finishing our final week of school, proctoring and grading provincial exams, and calculating trimester averages.  It’s been exhausting, really, but I have learned a lot about the Mozambican school system. 

The rush started about two weeks ago, with the arrival of the provincial exams. This year, for the first time ever, our final exams came from our district headquarters in Moatize.  This means that our tests were written by people who have no idea what we are teaching, where we are in the curriculum, or how adept our students are in any of their subjects.  In short, the tests were very unfair.  Take this example:

This is what I taught my eighth grade class, during our week entitled Adjectives:

The kids practiced these adjectives and learned how to form simple sentences, like

“Dan is tall!”


“I am short!”

I was proud of them.

Unfortunately, in terms of adjectives, this is what was on their final exam:




More beautiful

When I received this test (five minutes before my students received this test), I wanted to cry.  This wasn’t fair!  I hadn’t taught them this information.  We simply weren’t there yet.  I rushed from turma to turma, breathlessly, practically shouting- “Add ‘-er’!” and “Add ‘-est’!”

Here is the first thing strange thing that I learned about final exams in Mozambique.  In an attempt to counter cheating on the part of the professors, no teacher is allowed to proctor their own subject.  Unfortunately, Dan and I realized that the other teachers don’t proctor our subjects, either.  By this I mean-- they simply walk out of the room when the students start taking a test.  At first, Dan and I were flummoxed by this behavior.  The kids were cheating!  Why didn’t the other teachers realize that?  The students were exchanging tests and flipping through their notebooks!  Then, we slowly came to understand.  The professors knew that these final exams were unfair, and their method of countering this injustice was to let them cheat.  It was an attempt to settle the score. 

Unfortunately, Dan and I only realized this after a full week of being “The Nazi Proctors from Hell.”  The other professors, who were sitting outside on the grass, watching us, must have found us to be despicable.  But we didn’t know. 

Our kids bombed the exam, of course.  Most of them bombed spectacularly, even with the use of their notebooks.  Luckily, as their professor, I have control over their grades.  Final exam worth 5% of the overall total?  Click!

After proctoring, it was time for grading and grade calculations.  In Mozambique, we use grade sheets called “Cadernetes.”  Most of our colleagues seem unwilling or unable to enter or calculate grades in Microsoft Excel, and spend hours on their cell phone calculators, completing their calculations by hand.  Dan and I drew up our grades on an Excel Spreadsheet and were finished with our calculations in a few minutes. 

All grades in Mozambique are out of 20, and, as a teacher, you quickly learn to celebrate any grade that is higher than a 14.  A passing grade is a 10, or 50%.  Standards are low here, but so is ability.  There are reasons for this, and I will address this problem at length in the future.

Example Cadernete for turma 8E

Finally, after exam grades and semester averages have been calculated, there is one thing left to do before the start of the trimester interval:

The Dreaded Final Week of School

The final week of school, that strange, dangling week between final exams and the official start of interval, is really nothing more than a cruel joke played on the eighth graders and their American teachers.  Here is how it works, as I found out on Monday morning.

The two American teachers will come to school, wearing lab coats and clutching their precious lesson plans.  Most of the eighth graders will come to school, too, because they are sweet and innocent and don’t yet understand that the process of teacher absentee-ism.  The students will mill around in the school yard, for a while, looking lost and confused while waiting for someone to lead them in their own national anthem.  Nobody will come, so eventually, they will file into their classrooms and sit at their desks, looking around and wondering if they have accidentally come to school on a Saturday or Sunday.  Oh, sweet children, that is not the case.  It is a Monday, but your teachers are at home. 

A few teachers will come to school to hand back tests or collect notebooks, but they will only stay for a few minutes before leaving again.  Kids will alternately sit at their desks in empty classrooms, sit outside on the grass, or passear around the school, too bored to stay, but too scared to leave and miss something important.

As a teacher, you quickly realize that it is impossible to teach during weeks like this.  Instead of teaching the simple present tense (positive and negative!), you lay your lesson plan aside and rack your brains for a few good games and activities.  Quick!

I ended up teaching the lyrics to “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan and playing noisy, raucous rounds of “Slap the Board.”  For nearly every period, I was the only teacher in the entire school.  My classroom would be packed with kids, and the rest of the school would be hanging through the windows, watching.  Week 13, I have discovered, is absolute mayhem.

Now that it is Friday, however, Dan and I have finally made it through the worst of the storm.  I have one more dupla to teach and one more bag of prizes to hand out.  I have one last round of dictionaries to grade, and one final set of class averages to calculate.  I will sing “Waving Flag” one final time and then, to the lingering tune of the Coca-Cola chorus, I will wave goodbye and slip away for two (TWO!) weeks of inter-trimester festivities. 

Zobue!  Hoye!
Intervalo!  Hoye!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dan and Bwino

I never had a dog growing up.

I was familiar with dogs, I guess.  They skirted in and out of my life.  My mother and father had one when they got married, but he was already old by the time I was born.  Then, when I was five, my mother adopted a large black lab/rottweiler mix that reduced me to helpless, blubbering tears of abject terror.  We kept him for three days before returning him to the pound.  Finally, when I was eight, my cousins moved into the family home and brought their black lab, Shadow.  On the day of our first meeting, Shadow jumped up to greet me and tore a hole in my pink T-shirt.  I avoided him, perhaps unfairly, for the next twelve months.

So when Dan and I got Bwino, I wasn't sure what to do with him.  I would pat him awkwardly and then try to bring him with me to bed to cuddle.  I was flummoxed by fleas ("What sort of strange African creature is this!?") and by potty training.  And what about food?  What do you feed a dog, anyway?  It wasn't like we could go out and buy a big bag of dog food.

We have had Bwino now for exactly three months, and he seems to be healthy and growing.  Our secret?  Revlon Peach Shampoo and a big bowl of scrambled eggs for breakfast!

Here are two pictures of Dan and Bwino, taken exactly three months apart.  Note how both Dan's hair and the dog have grown!

Dan and Bwino on January 1, 2012                                                Dan and Bwino on April 1, 2012