So because our sitemate is a biggy-wig at the city council of Lichinga, we now have a working mailing address in town. Huzzah!

Laura Melle
Conselho Municipal da Cidade de Lichinga
C.P. 3
Avenida Filipe S. Magaia
Lichinga, Niassa
MOZAMBIQUE

Just send it to her name to make things simpler, and include some extra chocolate in any package so I can pay the Laura tax (she’s a demanding postmaster).

Also, please keep any packages you do send fairly small and light, as I have to pay customs on what I receive. Currently requesting a resupply of school materials for next year: good pens, sharpies, colored chalk, stickers, are all good. I should be teaching 12th grade bio again, so any cool materials you find for citology and plant and human anatomy would be awesome. And if anyone finds a baby microscope I’ll love you forever.

For myself, good magazines are always welcome, hard candy, Peanut M&Ms, running water, a car and/or small hovercraft (Americaland has those by now, não é?), you know, little things.

A couple weeks ago the Peace Corps gods (a fickle bunch) granted me a tidy capstone to the end of the school year by shipping me back to Namaacha, where I did my best to terrify/comfort/enlighten the new group of trainees. It was delightfully refreshing. I felt like a less-bearded Moses, come down from on high (Lichinga) to share the commandments of Peace Corps life:

Thou shalt have Patience, for shit’s gonna take a while. A long while. Learn to chit-chat and find a good book.

Thou shalt be Flexible. As the prophet Tim Gunn advises us, “Make it work.” And stretching beforehand is always a good idea.

Be not afraid of having the Stupid. You will be laughably ignorant and butcher the language. Every day. Embrace it.

Worship no god above the glorious Small Victory. She is all you have to protect yourself against the big bad African reality knocking at your door. Also, showers: relish them.

Finally, thou shalt remain vigorously optimistic. Life here will wear you down (see commandments 1-4 above). Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.

Blasphemy aside, helping with training the new group of volunteers really was a wonderful opportunity to recharge, see how far I have come during my first year in Mozambique, and solidify many of the amorphous thoughts and values and virtues I have picked up along the way.

Plus it was just fun. I had one night in transit in Maputo, where I was taken to a house party full of Portuguese and Brazilians and French and Mozambicans dancing together until dawn, making my life momentarily far more glamorous than it truly is. I wish more people could see this Africa, more Great Gatsby than Heart of Darkness, with its own slightly out of focus beauty. Mozambicans possess some uncanny magic which obscures everyday frustrations and deprivations and brings into focus the acute joy of food and drink and friendship and dance and sexuality. Their unstinting embrace of the present and passion for living immediately awes me, and the greatest of those aforementioned Small Victories come when I am swept up in the wake of that magic.

Back to training, the new group of Americans is young and fun and appropriately bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I am now on the hunt for a skilled feticeiro (witch-doctor) in Lichinga to ensure that my favorites are placed in Niassa province, otherwise I’m not likely to see much of them again. I suppose that was the one downside of the trip, getting a brief taste of some of the luxuries missing from my life in northern Mozambique makes the return a bit deflating (namely, easy access to lots of other young Americans with whom I can be relaxed, unguarded, sarcastic, and honest. Also, cute gay men.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am still entirely enamored of Lichinga and so happy to spend two years here. And I am lucky to have a wonderful, small, tight group of friends in town (now including Laura, our new Health volunteer, with whom I am quickly falling in love, although we shouldn’t tell her that yet, don’t want to come off desperate). But I do often wish it wasn’t hellishly painful and logistically impossible to get out of Dodge.

That particular problem, however, will also soon be alleviated, as at the end of November I will be running away to travel throughout southern Africa for nearly two months. On the itinerary is safari-ing with Mom and Lena (I am indecently excited), Victoria Falls and Cape Town with Meaghan Hughes, and hopping between volunteers’ sites all over Mozambique. If anyone else would like to join in on my African escapades, the calendar still has plenty of openings!

So I got hit by a truck today. Just another mark against my arch-nemesis in Moz: motorized vehicles. Sidewalks are generally non-existent here, so this morning I was walking to the bakery along the edge of the pavement, like all Lichingan pedestrians, listening to my iPod (less like all Lichingans), when the side mirror of a large cargo truck decide to play tag with my shoulder. Don’t worry, the iPod is just fine. I’m good too. Luckily the mirror was made mostly of cheap plastic so it exploded rather than my shoulder. I’m not even that sore and it made for a good show for all the nearby crianças, so all’s well I suppose.

Other than the occasional hit and run it is remarkable how unremarkable life has become. In about a week I will have my one-year anniversary here in Mozambique, which doesn’t feel nearly as momentous as I expected, and I am cool with that. I feel like I have reached an equilibrium, like I am anchored now, so that the random waves of craziness that still show up every week aren’t able to knock me off course. I have built a pretty steady routine of classes, lesson planning, reading, walking around town, and weekend dinner parties and/or hikes with the girls from Medicins Sans Frontieres. In writing this is coming off a little depressingly boring, but it’s not really, it’s . . . comforting.

Anywho, school keeps on keeping on. We are in the third and final trimester now, which is a bit of a joke, since literally every other week in September and October there is a national holiday that cancels classes. I probably have half the time that I should, and there is absolutely no way that I will make it through the entire curriculum for the year, so now I just pick and choose the topics I like the best and which show up most often on the national exam. I am still having a lot of fun teaching, however, which is the most important consideration obviously, and I think, at least relative to their other classes, the students enjoy mine the most. Since the entire point of joining the Peace Corps was to fan my ego, things are going swimmingly.

There have been a couple of “big events” in the past couple months. Well, basically a big event is defined by me getting out of town for a few days. I flew to Maputo for a week to participate in a Peace Corps training, which was a relaxing break, and I chapa-ed to Beira for the National Science fair, which was less than relaxing.

Peace Corps volunteers actually founded the Science Fair here in Moz, but the past few years there has been an effort to transfer the organization of the event over to the Mozambican Ministro de Ciências e Tecnologia, which is a great idea, in theory. In practice this means that I was quasi-responsible for organizing the Niassa delegation’s trip while running everything through the official organizer, a local representative of the Ministry. Fun times. Well after a couple weeks of meetings, and emails, and lots of headaches, we embarked on a chapa trip across half of Mozambique. Jesus Fodoring Cristo I loathe and fear travel by land in this country. During the 48 cumulative hours we were on the “road” (I use that term loosely) we passed four of the most horrific traffic accidents I have ever seen. The highlight was the two eighteen-wheelers that had decided to play chicken on a narrow bridge, leaving half of one truck hanging off one side of the bridge, and the other truck leaning against the opposite guardrail. Luckily, there was just enough room for us to squeeze in between them and continue on our way. Once we arrived, the Science Fair itself was a huge success. My students even won Second Place! They were insanely excited and everyone in Niassa is crazy proud, so again, all’s well that ends well I suppose. I also got to see a lot of gorgeous Mozambican countryside on the trip, and one spectacular sunset behind the mountains in Gurué, which was another perk.

Really not much other news from the past two months. Oh! HUGE obrigado to all of my favoritest people at UT (Liz, Megan, Emily, Ashley, Dane, Jillian, Alex, Mauro, and Mary) for the care package, it made my dry season. I swear I am slowly but surely working on individual emails to all of you. And special thanks to Vicki Chang for sending the only individual letter that has successfully made it to me. I love you all muitíssimo!

Hmmm, in reviewing this post it feels a little more negative than I intended, so I am going to add a few things that make me super feliz on a near-daily basis, in some particular order:

Apa com ovo or galinha – So at the gas station just down the street from my house there is a little take-away stand run by Sonita, my Indian-Mozambican maezinha, who makes the street food of the gods. Think a flatbread hybrid somewhere between naan and tortilla wrapped around a fried egg smothered in ketchup, mayo, and piri piri (the Mozambican riposte to tabasco sauce). Mind-blowing. And just to ensure I somehow get fat in the Peace Corps last week she introduced a variant with pulled chicken and some magical spicy Indian coleslaw. I struggle to limit myself to three or four a week.

Dias, Justina, Ana, Ibraimo, Issa, Ericsom, Isabel, e João – I started Moon-style study groups at the house a couple months ago, and now it has filtered down to only the most dedicated students. Now that my coffee from home has run out, these kids get me awake for class in the morning. They are smart, and determined, and fun, and ambitious, and they give me hope that my being here might actually leave some lasting benefit.

Senhor Director Pedagógico Govene – My direct boss at school (he’s like an assistant principal) is one of my favorite people in town. He’s warm and funny and looks out for John and I, but most importantly he is honest and responsible and genuinely cares about education and our students’ futures, which stands out. It’s especially endearing because we have been dealing with some significant corruption lately, which I can’t really get into, but it’s depressing, and he mitigates that somewhat.

Biology – As I anticipated I am falling deep, deeply in love with Biology all over again through teaching. It is simply wondrous, which has always been my favorite of the ous-es. I am also appreciating de novo Mr. Dennison and Moon and all of the incredible teachers I have had, because as rewarding as giving classes can often be, this shit is hard.

Fitz & the Tantrums – Unsurprisingly, I love all the new music Liz and Megan sent me (Obrigado mais uma vez) but I am absolutely obsessed with these guys. This album was the key to maintaining sanity during my recent cross country chapa adventrauma.

Alright, now this post feels balanced. Will try to get back to regular posting every few weeks rather than every few months. I should have more new and interesting things to write about after classes end I have time to travel a bit.

One of the teaching strategies that Peace Corps stressed ad nauseam during training is Community Content Based Instruction (CCBI), basically building classroom examples around the mango tree in João’s backyard rather than the Apple store at Johnny’s local mega-mall. A sensible idea overall.

If only I was a physics teacher, today I would have hit the CCBI jackpot, ensuring that my students mastered the hell out of Newton’s Laws of Motion. So here’s what went down: Sua Excelência Senhor Presidente da República Armando Guebuza is visiting Niassa Province this week, which of course means that classes were cancelled today as the school must send a delegation to the airport to greet Mr. Prez as he lands. Seeing as the airport is quite a ways north of town, the school arranged for transport in the Mozambican version of a schoolbus (a borrowed flat-bed 18-wheeler with a fittingly bright yellow cab).

Anywho, this morning John and I crammed into the back of the truck with about 200 standing students and we set off (f = ma!) Of course, there’s no automatic transmission for vehicles here, so every time the driver slowed down to shift gears then sped back up, 200 students and 2 branco professors would fall forward and back en masse (Inertia!) It was chaos, but of course that’s old hat for Mozambicans, so no one actually fell off and the kids had as much fun as Americans on a roller-coaster.

Arriving at the airport, we lined up on the tarmac with other representatives from pretty much every professional, social, or cultural organization in Lichinga, everyone trying to out-welcome everyone else. There were flags and home-made signs waving, as well as dance groups, drum circles, jump-rope, lines of military officers decked out in medals and AK-47s and everyone looking chique de matar (dressed to kill) in their nicest uniform or traditional costume. Obama should be sooooo jealous.

My favorite part: the Lichinga airport is usually dead, like rigor-mortis already setting in, one arrival a day if we’re super busy sort of dead, but we certainly can’t give Senhor Presidente that impression, so two prop planes were specially flown in today and staged to give the appearance of a bustling transport hub. Seriously, I saw them carefully arranging and rearranging luggage beside one of the planes, to get the best effect.

The big event itself was super quick. Guebuza landed, waved, hustled down the line of welcomers shaking hands and kissing babies and whatnot (sadly I wasn’t close enough for a shake or a kiss or a whatnot) then he hopped into one member of his waiting fleet of helicopters and flew off to tour the district. Fun times had by all. Except John, because unfortunately his camera was stolen out of his coat pocket as we were standing around. Doubly sad, that means we have no pictures of all the excitement.

In other news, a couple of weeks ago I attended the first ever Niassa Provincial Feira de Ciências, which was a delightful hot mess. Science Fair is one of the main secondary projects I want to take on at my school, but as this is my first year and I am still only 75% at best with my Portuguese, I was not up for taking charge of the event right away. Besides, this year the government has stepped up its own efforts to organize various fairs and mandated that all secondary schools participate, so I was wary of accidentally stepping on anyone’s toes, especially the Mozambican professor assigned to head things up at my school.

Then, two days before the fair, this professor asks me to help out a pair of students with their presentation. Translation – feed these students some sort of simple demonstration and basically tell them exactly what to do and say (it’s an alternative form of the Scientific Method). Not really ideal, but oh well, they were two of the best kids from my classes so I helped them out. At the fair itself, it seemed pretty obvious that the exact same thing had happened with pretty much all the other presentations (i.e. some professor said here, do this, this, and this and throw in a scientific word or two). The judging similarly eschewed any relevance to genuine scientific inquiry (two girls won second place by demonstrating how to make mayonnaise), but hey, at least this means the Feira I organize next year can only be an improvement. Also nice, the kids who won 1st place are in my class, so I am helping them polish their project and in a few weeks we are traveling to Nampula to participate in the Northern Regional fair, which should also really help me for next year.

I hope my snarkiness and sarcasm in describing a lot of my adventures here does not belie my true fondness and respect for Mozambique, most of the crazy/messy/nonsensicalness I encounter is endearing. Besides, I just finished watching all of The Wire (unquestionably the best, most depressing TV show ever), which is a stark reminder that Moz is no more screwed up and irrational than the US. At least this country has damn good excuses.

Some things, however, are harder to shrug off than others. About two weeks ago I found out that five girls in my turma, including my best female student, were transferred to night school for the heinous crime of teen pregnancy. At a teacher’s meeting prior to this the director of my school reminded all the teachers that we needed to be vigilant about kicking out the preggers girls so that they don’t “contaminate” the other girls by their example. First of all, I do teach Biology, so I’m pretty sure you need a boy somewhere in the equation for any “contaminating” to occur. Second, I don’t think derailing these girl’s chance at an education is an appropriate response to some unlucky sexytimes. Those who do actually go through the trouble to continue on in night school face class sizes up to 150 students and lessons canceled half of the week because there is no energy for lights. Completing secondary school while in the possession of ovaries is already hard enough in this country, adding more challenges just seems callous. Blergh, this is one of the only situations I have encountered here that has truly pissed me off, especially since one of the girls was Carla (the same Carla who’s mom just died). I’m sure anyone who knows my family can appreciate why this would be especially frustrating.

Hmm, I hate ending on a downer note. Oh I know, I’ll post pictures of the Science Fair and other randomness. Enjoy!

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Tragedy! Horror! Terrible inconvenience! A couple of weekends ago now I ran away to Lake Niassa with a fellow volunteer, and just as I got to the beach on a glorious day, I pulled my Kindle out of its case to find the majority of the screen had morphed into a monochromatic Piet Mondrian painting. All lines and random blocks of grey and abstract portions of the screen saver image taunting me. Now, despite multiple optimistic resettings and promises of sacrifice to the gods of technology, I am slowly moving into the acceptance stage of grief. Luckily, I backed up all of my book files, so I can still read on my computer, but that is not nearly as satisfying an experience, or as portable.

So yeah, I was feeling rather woe-is-me-tastic for a few days, until Africa bitch-slapped me with perspective. First our empregada (who brings us water from a nearby well, among other wonderful things) failed to show up for week, which we found out from her husband was because one of their children had contracted a serious case of malaria and been hospitalized. He survived, so tudo bom, but then in class yesterday one of my students (Carla, ironically enough) apologized for missing the previous class because her mother died. This is the second student so far this year who has told me a parent died, could I please give them the notes they missed. Stone-faced. No surprise. Move along. The life expectancy here is still in the low 40s, so statistically most of my students will not graduate high school with both of their parents still alive.

Can. Not. Fathom. It. Of course, just to fuck with me even more, the Larium (my anti-malaria drugs) took this little tidbit and had a grand old time in my subconscious, so after some very vivid and terrifying dreams I stayed awake most of last night. There is still a wall between me and any given Mozambican, and no matter how much I learn about this country, no matter how fluent I become in Portuguese or integrated into my community, that wall will always be there. And honestly, I am glad for it, because I (luckily, thankfully, unfairly) have not had the lifetime of skin-thickening experience each of my students has had, and I could not handle the reality they face every day.

On a much lighter note, I feel like after getting past my Reconnect Conference (its for new volunteers to get back together and talk about lessons learned in our first four months at site) and starting the second trimester of classes, I have passed a very important milestone. I am a real Peace Corps volunteer now, in my own eyes. Lichinga truly feels like home and I have figured out a pretty comfortable groove with school and classes (actually, my most recent classes have gone exceptionally well). I have plans in motion that I am really excited about – more house remodeling, starting a Science Club/Fair at school, Portuguese tutoring to kick me up another level, Moon-style study groups with my students, hopefully shadowing a Brazilian doctor at the hospital – and overall I am probably happier and less stressed than I have been in a long time. They should just put me on a poster for Peace Corps already.

One last comment, I was sitting at the one cafe in town on Tuesday, working on lesson planning, when I found out about Bin Laden’s death, from Al Jazeera news of all sources. Not really going to get into all my thoughts on it, since this is not that kind of blog, but I will say it felt exceptionally surreal to learn the news in a foreign country. I take my nationality for granted most of the time, and it really is not one of those core characteristics by which I would immediately define myself were I asked to make a list, but being isolated from such a landmark American event made me feel that nationality in a visceral way that was very different for me. I’ve got the passport and the gadgets and pictures and all this tangible evidence of where I come from, where I belong, but none of that makes me feel it in the way that the shock of that seeing that news headline, surrounded by Mozambicans, living in the U.S.Antipodes, made me feel American.

So I vote we start with my most Peace Corps-tastical accomplishments over the past two months.

On the MacGyver front I am a rock star. Our electric stovetop had been on a murderous rampage ever since we bought it, due to a combination of the hugely vacillating electric current here in Mozambique and an apparent hatred for two-prong plug adaptors. After melting to death five or six different adaptors over the first two months in Lichinga, the stove’s plug finally collapsed in on itself in a molten plastic mess. Undeterred, our intrepid adventurer (that would be me) used his handy Leatherman™ to pry off the plug, splice the copper wires, and plug them directly into the wall socket. We haven’t had any electrical fires yet, so I am going to call it a stunning success. It may not sound that impressive in writing, but this is a pretty big deal for a guy who would previously throw anything away as soon as it got a little dusty. Progress!

Accomplishment the second: I caught my first tropical parasite! It’s called myiasis, which is a general term for any parasitic infestation of fly larvae. More specifically, I picked up a case of cutaneous myiasis on the sole of my foot, probably from walking barefoot on the sand at Lake Niassa. Contrary to the horrors that a Google image search will show you, my case was relatively mild. Basically it just showed up as a boil on my foot with a small hole in the center so my larval guest could get air. All I had to do was put polysporin over the hole and pimple-squeeze to force the larva out for air, then tweeze him to death. Apparently the bigger concern is secondary bacterial infection, but basic cleanliness and antibacterial cream takes care of that, so I’m all better now. Expecting a merit badge from Peace Corps to arrive soon.

Otherwise life has settled into pretty comfortable normality revolving around school. After a final count of six different schedules within the first four weeks of classes, the powers that be finally got bored with throwing the school into chaos every few days and I was able to actually do some longer term planning for my classes.

Teaching itself has been a blast. This first trimester is all about cytology, and I am loving getting back into basic Biology. I put a lot of energy into all of my lesson plans to make them interesting and engaging, and I feel like the students have generally been enjoying my classes, and participating more and more. I also felt that as we moved further into the trimester, the majority of students were really starting to understand the material, rather than simply memorizing facts or relying on cheating to get by, which tend to be their two default options.

Not sure if you noticed the important verb tense of that last sentence: past. Yeah, this week I gave the final exam for this trimester, and it was a bloodbath. A really disappointing, depressing massacre. Despite the fact that I explicitly told my students the exact material that would be on the test and we played a review game in which I used probably half of the questions from the test, still the vast majority clearly did not study at all and didn’t retain much from the past two months. Let. Down. What’s more, I felt like the attempts at cheating during the test were even worse (both in quantity and quality) than during the first exam. What’s more more, although my second and third Turmas during the week did slightly better on the test, I strongly suspect that this was only because they got a heads up from the first group of kids, and so were able to cheat a little better. I am not at all a cynical person, but this week was, to date, my worst Peace-Corps-gutpunch-of-ineffectuality-and-all-around-uselessness, and I’m glad I have a couple weeks off of school to recuperate. I know that these sorts of setbacks are part of the experience and I’m still hopeful about the remainder of the school year, but that future optimism is superseded by a whole lot of present sturm and drang.

On a more pleasant note, most of my time outside of school continues to be spent on a lot of reading, plowing through all of the movies/TV shows on my hard drive, and hanging out in Lichinga, all of which are delovely. Especially the reading. Sweet Baby Jesus I love my Kindle, and it is beyond awesome to actually have time in my life to read whatever interests me. My only complaint is that in Lichinga we are extremely isolated from the other volunteers and the rest of Mozambique, so I get jealous when I hear about the other PCVs weekend trips to visit each other or cool parts of the country. Oh well, at least I am isolated at probably the best site in Moz.

Also helpful, John and I have become good friends with the people who work at Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) in town, including Maura, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who is now a nurse and also my new favorite person in the world. We spend most weekends with them, hiking around town, having pizza making parties, drinking caiparinhas (awesome Brazilian cocktails), occasionally dancing at the Hot Chilling Club (the best named, and only, discoteca in town), and traveling up to the Lake a few times. Tá bater.

Tangentially related and exciting: in a few weeks (after our Peace Corps reconnect conference in Nampula), I am going to start shadowing the Brazilian doctor who works for MSF around the hospital in Lichinga, which should be super-interesting/depressing.

Alright, that’s a decent update. Why don’t we end on an especially gay note (in all the best senses of the word): yesterday was beyond gorgeous, so John and I decided to take a walk in the hills behind our bairro. I frolicked a little, I picked a bouquet of wildflowers for the house, and we even played jump rope with a group of girls that live at a convent/orphanage just outside of town. It was one of those Peace-Corps-epiphany-this-is-why-I’m-here-and-I-love-this-country sort of afternoons, which balanced well with the rest of the week.

Want to know something hilarious?! White people. Soooo funny. That’s what I picked up from my school’s opening ceremony on the 17th. After speechifying on the past year’s challenges at Escola Secundária Paulo Samuel Kankhomba, my director began introducing all of the professors by discipline. Everyone was very quiet and respectfully-bored as he progressed through Portuguese, Chemistry, Philosophy, etc., but when Biology was called and the lone arrungo (white person in the local language) stood up, the hundreds of students watching the ceremony collectively lost it for a full five minutes. Divertíssimo I tell you.

Want to know what else is laughable?! The concept of a calendar. After that very official opening ceremony we very much so didn’t actually start even attempting classes for another week and a half. The remainder of week one of ano lectivo 2011 was filled with organizing the students’ turmas and the professors’ teaching schedules. I managed to nimbly dodge that bullet of responsibility through a handy combination of suddenly degraded Portuguese (You need help doing what? Eu não understando.) and some well-honed hide-and-seek skills.

My roommate John made the mistake of actually appearing competent and so was sucked into a week-long marathon of scheduling for 6,000+ students across three grades, three sections (Economy/Arts, Medicine/Sciences, and Engineering), three time blocks (morning, afternoon, and night classes), and three or four different campuses (due to classroom shortages). Add in severe professor shortages, the midweek transfer of a dozen professors to and from our school, and a slap on the wrist from the city government about overtime hours, and we are currently on the third schedule, with a fourth version probably going into effect this Friday.

At various points during this process I have ranged from the dream schedule, with only nine morning hours a week teaching 12a Biologia, with Mondays off and no other responsibilities, to a not-so-dreamy 18 hours a week, morning and afternoon every day, teaching 12a and 11a Biologia as well as the administrative-y roles of Director de Turma and Delegado de Disciplina. Confução, não é?

Luckily some school politics played in my favor and the only other Bio teacher demanded my 11a classes, so now I have a rather comfortable schedule that will allow me to actually get to know my students (since I have only 225ish rather than 600ish). Of course, that requires them showing up, which a full zero of them did the day classes actually started, exactly a week after classes officially started.

Three weeks in, I’ve finally managed to have a handful of classes with regular attendance of 50-60 kids. And by class I mean circus. It’s 45 minutes of madness, but surprisingly enjoyable madness. The kids seem to be generally forgiving of, and amused by, my butchering of Portuguese, and really just happy to have me here. Honestly I feel like my theatre background is going to be more useful than any knowledge of Biology I bring to the table. Every class has that performance feel to it, which is quite familiar and comfortably uncomfortable for me. This first semester is clearly going to be a shitshow, but one I think I will enjoy starring in.

In other news, I finally have the mailing address for the Peace Corps office in Nampula!

Christopher Smith, PCV
United States Peace Corps / Corpo da Paz
Rua dos Continuadores, #24-A, Bairro Central
Nampula, Mozambique
Caixa Postal 526

A few special requests – Wongstar please send me all the Oscar Best Picture nominees and any other good movies that have come out recently, Megansss I need new music from bands that no one else has heard of, and everyone else from UT just ship yourselves because I’m in desperate need of a potluck/dance party.

Also, Peanut M&Ms.

Well clearly Africa has not put a dent in my mastery of procrastination. Also this first month at site has been pretty high on the whelming-scale, hence the slack in reporting. When last we blogged, caro leitor(a), I had just arrived in Lichinga, which has grown on me immensely in the past month, and is feeling more and more like home.

Our house has also undergone a home-tastic transformation, the possibility of which I was somewhat dubious. The first day we arrived in town, our school director told John and I that another professor was currently living in our house, but he would be moved out and the place would be cleaned for us by the end of the day.

Yeeeeeah, so it turns out that in Portuguese, “end of the day” translates to “two or three weeks, maybe, you know, if it doesn’t rain too much.” We nicknamed the former tenant George Go-Away, whom we had the distinct pleasure of seeing about every other night for the first couple weeks here as he slowly cleared away most of his crap, although he has left us four or five giant burlap bags of charcoal (which is kind of handy).

Want to know what else George Go-Away left us?! A big-fucking-mess, that’s what. I could probably do geographic dating based on the strata of dirt and grime that covered every possible surface in the house, including the walls, which in my room also included a giant, smudgy-red cave painting of a face that terrified me every time I woke up in the middle of the night. The kitchen was a roach-utopia; the bathroom, well, let us not speak of such things; and everything was accompanied by a wonderfully pungent eau-de-musk.

Now, despite the slanderous claims of my parents, I’m actually an exceptionally clean twenty-something male, so this did not exactly endear me to my new home. John and I dutifully armed ourselves with Ajax, Handy-Andy, Javel, and Baygon (Mozambican equivalents of Comet, Mr. Clean, Chlorox, and Raid, respectively) and went to WAR. The first battles were harrowing, and involved a lot of me squealing (very manly-squealing, mind you) and instinctively running for the nearest chair every time I saw a new roach/spider/unidentifiable-freakish-African-mutant-bug, but I acclimated quickly to life in the trenches.

After three rounds of aggressive sweeping and mopping I discovered the floor of my room. After multiple coatings of bleach and two hours of destroying my knuckles with scrubbing I discovered that the tile in my bathroom is permanently stained and will always look grody, but at least I know nothing can live on it. And after liberal bug-spraying in the kitchen, I discovered a roach massacre every time I woke up for a week – literally 50+ new, twitchy roach corpses spread throughout the house every morning. Fun times!

So yeah, most of our energy this first month has been dedicated to making the house livable, which I am happy to report has paid off quite nicely. I now only see two or three roaches daily, which is an admirable level by Mozambican standards. I am most proud, however, of my room. Those gay designer skills that you get with the welcome-to-the-team toaster really kicked in nicely, and I have put together a cozy little sanctuary for myself. I painted over Mr. Scary-red-face, and the rest of the walls, in a dark blue; I Maria Von-Trapped some custom curtains out of a nice geometric capulana pattern; and I even MacGyvered a closet out of the side rails and ladder from the bunk bed kit that the school gave us. It’s really quite impressive, you should be impressed.

In the midst of all this homemaking, the holidays showed up. As a present to ourselves, five of the Niassa volunteers spent Christmas at Lake Niassa, at a little cottage resort called Mbuna Bay, otherwise known as paradise. I melt a little bit just thinking about it, and really the only appropriate description would be gurgly, mostly-incoherent sounds of pleasure: mmmmgggrrrumptious or hawwwwluuurvely come close. It was three days of relaxing on the beach with a cool breeze and my kindle, relaxing in a hammock under a giant mango tree, relaxing in the most incredible-never-want-to-leave-you bed, relaxing while watching a sunset that should make all other sunsets hang their heads in shame, relaxing under a night sky with more stars than I ever thought possible (and my first shooting stars! like six of them!). Sigh. In between the relaxing I also ate a lot of shockingly good vegetarian food, snorkeled, made friends with a cat, and took utmost advantage of a fabulously functioning bathroom with running water.

Ups and downs in Peace Corps, ups and downs.

For New Year’s Eve we were invited by Alsina, a local shop owner that we have become friends with, to a party in town. It was a big potluck, with lots of good food and booze, but the main event was the dance party that broke out at midnight. Sweet baby Jesus I love Mozambican dance parties. Hands down my favorite thing about this country so far. Absolutely everyone gets into it, from three-year-olds to grandmothers; Africans, Portuguese, mestiços, Indians, and now two Americans, all together shaking their asses with an incredible, palpable joy covering the place. It’s just magical.

So yeah, those are the big events of the past month, otherwise it’s just been a lot of getting to know Lichinga better. On the school-front we helped out with matriculation this past week, which widened my understanding of the concept of chaos. Classes are technically supposed to start tomorrow, but I’m 95% positive that’s not gonna happen. Probably next week. Some big news: my director pedagogico confirmed that I will be teaching twelfth-grade Biology, which I’m super psyched about! I’m terribly excited/ready to start teaching, more on that next time.

Oh, so quick recent entertainment review:

Music:
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – he’s a total douchebag, but also a genius, and this album really showcases both of those things. Can’t get enough.

Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday – I believe the hype.

The XX, XX – I’m way late to them, I know, but I was missing Megan one afternoon and needed some hipster comfort, which this album provides quite nicely.

Books:
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything – Love this book hardcore. An incredible well written layman’s tour of all of science that reminds me why I love it so.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy – So this is the new “it” Young Adult series, and it gives me hope for all the 12-year-old girls in America. A great antidote to the horror-show of the Twilight brain-vomit-disguised-as-books. The sixth-grader in me thought this series kicked ass.

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I feel confident that if you were to open the Oxford English Dictionary to the entry on Clusterfuck (Royal) you would find a detailed account of my life this past week.

It started out deceptively 5-star with the Peace Corps putting all the Moz15 trainees up in one of Maputo’s swankest hotels for the night of our swearing-in ceremony. I lost track of the number of scalding hot showers I enjoyed during my 24-hour break from PC life, each was deliriously wonderful.

The ceremony itself was nice, but did not quite live up to the magnitude of expectations I had built up. The Ambassador’s house was appropriately chic, and it rained (good luck in Mozambique), but most of the speeches/formal bits seemed hollow and formulaic, like fill-in-a-name letters of recommendation.

Anywho, I am now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Celebrations that night were pretty mild, and mainly I just made good use of my lovely hotel bed, air-conditioning, aforementioned shower-from-heaven, and BBC news on the TV, for all of which I have grown infinitely fonder during our time apart.

Let us pause here to discuss an important new concept in my life: the Third Law of Motion (Peace Corps variant). In physics, as Mr. Newton so handily described, every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Within the unique physics of Peace Corps, this translates as every comfortable, successful, or fulfilling day must be paired with an equal period of frustration, inefficiency, and confusion.

So yeah, on Saturday I said goodbye to all of the south and central region volunteers (whom I probably won’t be seeing much of over the next two years) then all of the north region volunteers (i.e. the cool kids) loaded up to fly to Nampula, the largest city in the north of Mozambique.

Clusterfuck the first appeared at the Maputo airport, where the concept of orderly lines apparently goes to die. Thankfully we had PC staff with us to shove everyone in the right direction. Our flight only took off two hours late, which is pretty admirable in MMT (Mozambique Mean Time). Paradoxically, the in-flight service/food on Linhas Aereas de Moçambique was far nicer than any US carrier I’ve flown on.

Nampula is a cute city, and we stayed in a decent hotel for our Supervisor’s Conference. Unfortunately for my roommate Jonathan and I, this turned out to be (Clusterfuck #2) the Useless & Bored Conference. You see, the entire point of this two-day series of presentations was to introduce the volunteers to an administrator from our respective schools, and introduce them to the purpose, policies, and expectations of Peace Corps. One slight problem – no one from our school showed up. In their defense, Lichinga is close to absolutely nothing and national exams were wrapping up the week of the conference.

So I spent two days surreptitiously reading a Terry Pratchett novel on my Kindle (The Color of Magic, think the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets The Lord of the Rings, Liz you would like it).

The lack of a supervisor also meant that as we set out for our site on Wednesday I still basically knew only the name of my destination for sure. But of course that couldn’t be the only thing we were lacking. (Clusterfuck #3) Because Mozambiqe raised the cost of work visas ten-fold after we arrived and the U.S. Embassy is still trying to get Peace Corps an exception, we were delayed in Nampula for four hours waiting on official explanatory paperwork in case we get stopped by the polícia.

So finally made a delayed exit from Nampula in a PC Land Cruiser over-loaded with the combined luggage of me, Jonathan, and Kyla (the nearest volunteer to Lichinga). And I just have to say – snaps to Japanese engineering. We drove 600+ kilometers on the most godawful road imaginable and that Toyota performed admirably. As did my stomach, thankfully.

I had anticipated both a painful and beautiful drive to Lichinga, and my expectations were well exceeded on both counts. All in all it took sixteen extraordinarily bumpy, occasionally terrifying hours to reach my new home, including a short sleepover at the Bates Motel of Mandimba, Niassa. But the view! Ansel Adams and Robert Frost together would have waved a white flag in surrender, as neither photos nor words could do it justice. I had to stop myself from saying wow every ten minutes.

Keeping in mind my above statement about words and insufficiency, I will try to describe: once outside of the city, green covers everything, a great blanket of life spreading to the horizon. This is dotted with small communities of mud and cane huts, with the occasional twelve-foot tall (and delightfully phallic) termite mound. Most arresting, however, are the inselbergs – towering mountains that spring up randomly from the otherwise flat plains, as if God had a hippie African brother who thought that forming mountains in a range was just way too square, man. But these aren’t just traditional mountains, each is wonderfully unique – some are thin spikes and some have smoothly-rounded rock bellies, some are covered in trees to the summit and some have massive sheer rises of naked granite. There was even one with several peaks that looked like a face in profile, like some rock giant from Norse mythology decided to take a nap in Mozambique. Just stunning.

But yeah, the shit-show of site delivery must go on, so where was I. . . we made it safely to Lichinga Thursday morning and took a brief driving tour around the city (I think in order to give our director time to get to school to officially receive us). Lichinga is a Goldilocks town, not too big or too small, with wide avenues lined with Jacarandas which will be gorgeous when they bloom. The buildings are the usual Mozambican mish-mash with a general veneer of disrepair, but some early passear-ing confirms that we will be able to find most everything we need/want here. To one side of the town is a large pine tree plantation from the Portuguese days, and mountains are visible in the distance, so overall it’s meningue charming. Best of all, we found a delightful café with real espresso and all kinds of good food which I will be patronizing far too often.

So after the tour we met our school and director, both of which I quite like (Jonathan and I established that I will be the optimistic one while he reserves judgement, just to keep things balanced). Escola Secundaria Paulo Samuel Kankhomba got a facelift last year, so it looks awesome. Of course, because we are in Niassa and there are far too few schools to serve the student population, I will have 100+ students in my classes (less awesome). Currently we don’t have seats for those students, but the Director assures us they will be here by the start of the school year.

Speaking of whom, Senhor Director Sousa gives a great first impression. He’s well-spoken, gregarious, not overly formal, and seems genuinely excited to have us here and help us get settled.

Alright, this post has gone on wayyyy too long, and I haven’t even broached the subject of our house, which is its own separate series of clusterfucks, so I’ll save that for next time. Suffice it to say that the picture is optimistic here at the fim do mundo, and I’ve still got a Little-Engine-that-Could mentality.

Well the final two weeks of training have felt exceptionally pointless yet (paradoxically) specifically engineered to frustrate me and the other volunteers. It’s been Peace Corps Purgatory. We all mentally checked-out after site placement and all anyone can focus on is getting to their home for the next two years and settling in/starting to integrate into our communities.

The second week of Model School was pretty sad as most of the students stopped showing up for the first two periods everyday and even the PC staff just lost interest. Oh well, I feel like I got what I needed from the first week.

For Thanksgiving we had a big Peace Corps potluck, complete with Turkey. The food was generally excellent but it still felt very off. It’s summer here and there was absolutely no Thanksgiving build-up so it really just felt like any other day, only fatter. Got a call that night from Mom and Mike and Charlotte which made me feel more blah since I couldn’t be in Atlanta with everyone. It was probably just the lack of pumpkin pie and crescent rolls. I mean family is an added bonus, but Thanksgiving is really all about the pie/Pillsbury for me, and their absence was sorely felt.

Not too much other exciting news to relay, as this week has mainly been an exercise in patience as we tie up lots of random loose ends before the official end of training. I passed my Portuguese Language Proficiency exam (as did very nearly all of the Moz15ers). We leave Namaacha for good on Friday and head to a swank hotel in Maputo. That night we formally swear in as Peace Corps volunteers at the U.S. Ambassador’s house. I’m really looking forward to the ceremony (and the open bar).

For seriously though, as glib as I prefer to be in relaying this experience, these past 9 weeks have crystallized for me how much I believe in what I am doing and how proud I am to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. I think it will be a really emotional evening.

Then dark and early on Saturday (as is the PC way) I fly to Nampula city with the twenty-or-so other north-region volunteers. Next Monday and Tuesday we have our Supervisor’s Conference, where we meet our school/organization directors and listen to some more undoubtedly-thrilling speechifying. But then the real action starts, on Wednesday I load up in a bus with the other Niassa volunteers to drive to our respective sites. From what I can tell the trip could take a full day (or more) on not-so-great roads (Niassa is known to Mozambicans as o fim do mundo, the end of the world, and apparently the road-conditions uphold that moniker). On the up side, while my butt may try to stage a coup after hour twelve in a chapa, my eyes will apparently have a fabulous trip. All the guidebooks say that the view on the road between Nampula and Niassa is beyond gorgeous. The area is known for its Inselbergs, which get my vote for the best-named geographical formations ever and are basically randomly placed reverse icebergs made of granite. Badass.

I promise a major photo dump given available internets when I arrive in Lichinga.

That’s all the new news, but returning to our regular segment – Christopher gives a book report – I finally finished reading And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. It’s about the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (mainly focusing on America) and the government/scientific response during the first five years (1980-85). Well, lack of response to be more accurate. Shilts was a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle and the book reminds me a lot of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote in the way it personalizes and novelizes a non-fiction news story. It’s one of those books I would stop at almost every time I went to Barnes and Noble and have been telling myself I must read for years and just never felt up to it. And it knocked me out. Quite possibly the most emotional and personally-affecting book I have ever read. Getting through it felt like watching Schindler’s List four times back to back, painful and terrifying and exhausting and visceral but in the end incredibly worthwhile and necessary in retrospect. But I think I’m going back to some relatively happy fiction for a while to recuperate.

Again, so happy to be reading so much here (which should only continue, because the PC Moz15 external hard-drive exchange program has now pushed me to nearly 1000 books on my Kindle).

Finally, some random randomness: the light switches here are up-off and down-on. This feels completely wrong and bothers me to an inordinate degree and I’m worried that it reflects some sort of deeply ingrained up/down, north/south bigotry in me that I’ve never noticed before. Am I a downaphobe? A southist? I’ve really been preoccupied with this all day, further evidence that it’s time for training to end and my actual Peace Corps service to begin.

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