Sunday, October 14, 2012


Caucasian hair, African hair, Caucasian hair

So I have pretty typical "white girl" hair.  It's fine, straight, and sort of limp.  I struggle with flatness and grease and a lack of ideas.  I never really know what to do with it, so usually I just tie it back.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I didn't really understand African hair when I arrived in Mozambique, either.  It took me months to realize most of the long hair that I was seeing was fake, and that women would change their hair on a month-to-month basis.  It was impossible to remember who was who just by identifying hair, hair color, or hair styles.

Four little girls with four different hair styles

After living in Mozambique for more than a year, I have learned a lot about styling African hair.

Here is what I have learned:

African hair is super, super curly!  It generally grows more slowly than other hair types, and is more prone to breakage.  To counter this, boys usually keep their hair very short.  Girls wear their hair in short, temporary styles or braid in lengths of fake hair.

Short styles include braids, spirals, spikes, and puffs.  Hair is held in place with clips, beads, caterpillar hair ties, or bits of string.  Because the hair is so coarse, braids will stay in place without being tied.  To create longer hairstyles, hair can be bought and braided into the original hair.  This process takes hours and often yields beautiful lengths of (semi) natural-looking hair.

Short, natural hair: Braids
Short, natural hair:  Spikes
Short, natural hair:  Unstyled
Short, natural hair:  Spikes and Poofs
Short hair extensions
Medium-length hair extensions
Long hair extensions
Fancy hair extensions
Long, natural-looking hair extensions

Women usually change their hair every few weeks.  Because of the cost and effort that it takes to braid in longer extensions, little girls usually just wear short, natural hairstyles.  For little girls, long hair is a mark of maturity.  For older women, well-managed hair is a sign of prestige.  

Here are a few extra facts about hair in Mozambique:
  • Peace Corps volunteers are often asked for their hair!  My neighbors are especially fond of my yellow "American" hair, and have requested that I leave some of it behind when I am finished with my service.   Since it's already 12 inches long (with more than one year left to grow), I am considering it.  
  • Hair extensions can be expensive and they can take hours to tie in.  Because of this, extensions will often be added over the course of several days.  It's not uncommon to see girls walking around with long, raggedy mullets while they wait for the rest of their braids to be finished.
  • Mozambicans are really fastidious about their hair.  A fantastic punishment for secondary school teachers is the old "eraser bop."  Kids hate having chalk dust in their hair!   
  • Little boys rarely grow out their hair, but they are expected to comb it.  Sometimes, if boys don't brush their hair, they get sent home from school as a punishment for being "untidy."  It always looks the same to me, though.
  • Our 6-year old neighbor once begged his mother to let him grow out his hair to look like "Dani." She has flat-out refused him, arguing that his hair would absolutely NOT look the same.  Junho is still not convinced.  

Final Challenge:  It can be really difficult to recognize somebody after they have drastically changed their hair!  This was a huge problem for me in my first few weeks as a teacher.   Can you tell which (older) girl is actually shown twice in the pictures above?  

Monday, October 8, 2012

English Theater 2012

The English Theater venue

My primary assignment is to be an eighth-grade English teacher.  For fifteen hours a week, I am in the classroom.  I teach nouns and adjectives and gerunds and grammar to five overstuffed turmas of rowdy African children.  It has become a part of my life, and I love it.

Every weekday morning, I also teach Informatica.  For between two and three hours a day, I squeeze into my school's tiny "computer lab" and teach computers to adults in my community.  Most of my adult students have never used a computer before, so we start from the very beginning.  It's a huge challenge (and executed entirely in Portuguese), but I love it as well.

In addition to these primary projects, Dan and I are also expected to maintain several active secondary projects.  As volunteers, Dan and I are involved in REDES (girl's empowerment), Science Fair, and English Theater.  We have both agreed to take on positions of responsibility for the 2013 school year, making Dan the Science Fair national co-coordinator and me the provincial coordinator for English Theater. It will be a lot of work, but we are both looking forward to it.  While these extra projects can be exhausting and time-consuming, we are also discovering that they can be a lot of fun.

English Theater is a particularly popular secondary project in the country of Mozambique.  As my predecessors so succinctly put it:

"Mozambicans really love theater and Mozambicans really love English, so English Theater is the perfect Peace Corps project."

This is absolutely true.  What I didn't expect, however, was how much I would love English Theater, or how proud I would become.  What started as a rag-tag team of eighth-grade students became the most diligent little club that I have ever seen-- and the highlight of my first year at site.

The kids wait for the show to begin

Our English Theater group consisted of ten students:  five girls and five boys.  Six of these students were my eighth graders, making our group one of the youngest to compete in this year's competition.  Trust me when I say that, compared to the rest of the competitors, my students were little itty-bitty.  Our group might not have been the most well-spoken, but they were definitely the cutest.

The theme for this year's play was "We are all Equal!"  This could have translated into any number of topics (race equality, gender equality, HIV/AIDS awareness), but my counterpart chose to write a play about orphans.  Armed with a thirty-minute script that later had to be trimmed to bits, my counterpart then selected two of our smallest members to play a pair of maltreated orphans.  For the first few weeks, it was absolute mayhem.  We were trying to squeeze ten different scenes into a ten-minute play, and most of the performance seemed to showcase extra-small eighth-graders running frantically on- and off-stage.

Towards the end of September, the play started to take form.  It was clear that the students had been practicing at home.  They could now say their lines with quite clearly ("You are maltreating us because we are orphans!") and they usually remembered to speak clearly and to face the audience.  I was proud of them, and I let them know it.  For most of these kids, this was their first performance piece, ever.

The introductory performance

On the day of the competition, our group met at 5AM.  Dan and I herded all of the kids onto a chapa bound for Moatize, then sandwiched ourselves between ten noisy teenagers.  The next two hours were spent singing songs, jostling props, and running lines.

"Speak ENGLISH," instructed one of the oldest kids.  "This is the ENGLISH THEATER minibus."

Once in Moatize, we piled out of the chapa and began to help set up.  The competition was being held at a big, fancy mission (with a stage!) but there was still a lot of work to do.  My kids were asked to hang posters, arrange benches, and blow up balloons.  They loved it, of course, and spent the next hour wrestling with a large bag of party balloons (which was, in itself, a fairly foreign concept) and sticking them to the wall with a combination of Bostik and bubblegum.

At about 9AM, the competition was called to order.  We kicked off the ceremonies with a rendition of the Mozambican National Anthem, then drew school names from a hat to determine in what order the groups would be performing.

Zobue was selected to go first.

The Zobue English Theater Group:  Osvaldo (the orphan) and Requito (the cruel uncle)

By the time that the kids were ready to go on-stage, I didn't have a lot of advice to give them.

"Just yell," I said.  "Be really loud!"

And yell they did.  For the next ten minutes, the stage was filled with tiny, noisy children, shouting their lines as loudly and as clearly as they could.  Sometimes they got confused and messed up ("You are maltreated us because we are orphans BECAUSE!"), but the audience was going wild.   In the final scene, where the youngest orphan jumps into the arms of the kindly stranger, the entire auditorium burst into applause.

The Zobue English Theater Group:  The ophans (center) announce their intention to continue their eduction.  Orphans go back to school, graduate with honors, and become very rich.  End of play!

In the end, the Zobue English Theater group took third place (out of eight competing groups), along with the prize for "Most Creative Performance."  My kids each got three certificates, an English Theater T-shirt, and an English-Portuguese mini dictionary.  Every single one of my students was grinning from ear to ear.

Back in Zobue, we were treated like heroes.  The Director of the School collected every certificate from every one of my students and handed them back in a very solemn, official, school-wide ceremony.  The kids have been wearing their English Theater shirts every day for the past week and "cool" English phrases have been popping up on the blackboards in every classroom:

"How to Use Your Oxford English-Portuguese Mini Dictionary"


"Oxford is a Registered Trademark of Helix Publishers, Ltd"

Even better, I have been approached by about fifteen eighth-grade students, all of whom have asked if they can join the group next year, too.  

The girls of English Theater show off their certificates

English Theater was a very meaningful and fulfilling experience.  I'm so proud of my eighth-grade students and I am excited to do it all again (and better) in 2013!

My students are excited, too.

Teacher Lisa and the Zobue English Theater Group

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Year

Dan and I have been living in Mozambique for one full year!  

These past twelve months have been, more than anything else, a time of discovery and tremendous personal growth.  Sometimes I feel like I am here just to observe-- to watch and to take in the things that I see.  

"I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all..."  
 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Through watching, I have learned a great deal.  I have learned that-
  • Little boys and little girls are the same, all over the world
  • Mozambicans are very, very social and are rarely alone
  • This country is generally optimistic, cheerful, and full of hope

During this past year, I have also learned a lot about myself.  As an American girl living as a foreigner in a new country, I have started to see myself through the eyes of the people that I have met.

Let's take a look at the things that I have learned about myself and my country in the past year:

A Profile of Lisa Jo Spencer

Profile of Mozambique

It's been a big year:  a year of pictures, of friendships, and of challenges.  This is the year that I learned Portuguese.  This is the year that I learned how to be a teacher.  This is the year that I set out to change the world and I changed myself, instead.


  • Learning Portuguese
  • Becoming well-known in the community
  • Getting published
  • Completing my first year as a teacher


  • Class discipline
  • Loneliness/Homesickness

Photos:  One Year in Mozambique

Finally, I'd like to close out with a few statistics.  It's hard to encapsulate an entire year in just one blog entry, but I hope that these numbers will help define the scope of my first year in Mozambique and paint a picture of my daily life.  Enjoy!  Here's to another twelve months in Africa.


In the Classroom

On the Home Front

And in Closing...