Friday, November 23, 2012

Fishing, Free Stuff and Mangunde Farewells

On the last day I stood atop the open-back truck facing backwards and watched Mangunde get smaller behind me.  It was mid-morning and the refulgent sun had already pierced through the cool morning air, turning the climate inhospitable by 9a.m.  I looked out across the desiccated African landscape and tried to capture the gravity and finality of what was happening.  On my left the first to go was the school and the soccer field.  On my right I saw my house diminish in size until it was gone.  Then there was the professor’s housing area.  Each house blipped by coming into focus and then fading out as hands waved good-bye to me.  At last the truck accelerated past the “Welcome to Mangunde” sign and I saw the massive and iconic baobab tree that marks the entrance to the mission rise up in front of me and then fade out with the rest of Mangunde into the horizon.  

Earlier that morning I had undone in two hours what had taken two years to build in my journey as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My room was dismantled and compartmentalized piece by piece, each picture taken off the wall representing an epoch of my life here in Mangunde.  By the time I was finished reducing all of my belongings into two medium-sized backpacks of only the necessities my room looked exactly like it had nearly two years before when I arrived – an empty box.  I pulled my two bags out onto the veranda to wait for my ride out and stepped back into my room one more time.  I conjured memories of what it was like to arrive here nearly two years before.  I had been greeted by our maid, Gracinda, and shown to my room.  I stepped in to the room, heard the echoes of my footsteps on the bare walls and thought about what my life in this unknown landscape would be like.  On that day, I closed my door and sat down on my bed for the first time.  I looked at the walls and out the window and tried to shore myself in the promise of the unknown – the possibilities for relationships and experiences that lay in front of me.   

Now, two years gone by, each fading image of Mangunde is connected poignantly to an experience I’ve had here.  In my last weeks in Mangunde I had the chance to reflect on the experiences I’ve had in Mangunde and create a few new experiences before leaving for good.  Before I could do that and officially leave, however, I had to get through the painstaking process of national exams, carried out nationwide for 7th, 10th and 12th graders the second week in November every year. 

It’s funny the way national exam time works here in Mozambique.  For ten months out of the year nobody seemed to really give a shit about anything – professors showed up late and didn’t plan their lesson, or maybe they showed up for 15 minutes and dictated a few lines from the textbook to the students, students skipped class to hang out at the market, cheated on their exams, and copied homework, and the director disappeared for literally two month without a trace.  Essentially, the amount of actual teaching and learning that went on during the school year was negligible.   

Then, around came exam time and the school did a full 180.  The district inspectors were there to make sure there was no funny business, all the teachers showed up five minutes early to sign-in in the morning, and all the seriousness, assiduity, and work ethic that was lacking throughout the school year to actually teach the students the material, suddenly appeared to evaluate them.  In order to prevent corruption and the very serious offense of fraud the school took various preventative measures – two professors of disciplines other than the discipline being tested were stationed in each exam room to proctor the students, each one having the sign each test and piece of scratch paper given to the students, any questions the students had were attended to in the inspector’s presence, the exams were to remain in a sealed envelope and only opened with an officially approved razor blade when the bell rang to begin the exam, and any reports of cheating would be reported as fraud and result in automatic failure of all disciplines by the students involved.  Even the grading process was highly controlled.  Students’ names were replaced by codes to avoid any bias on the part of the professors, each test needed to be painstakingly “locked” before grading, which meant that all of the blank spaces left by student on the answer sheet had to be filled in with red pen so that no mischievous professors could fill in the answers for their students.  Lastly, each exam had to be graded twice by two separate professors. 

While some of these measures seemed like senseless overkill and unnecessary work for us professors, I couldn’t help but be a little impressed, given my previous experiences in Mozambique, with how seriously they were taking this process.  And, by in large, I saw very little corruption in Mangunde.  Yeah, teachers often let students cheat off of each other during the exams, or pass scratch papers around to copy each others’ answers, but these were minor offenses. 

It was only when I talked to some of my friends at different schools that I realized how useless some of these corruption precautions are if a school is really intent on cheating.  Here are only a few of the things people told me went on regularly and openly at their schools: during certain exams, teachers would resolve the test and simply walk in to the exam room and start giving the answers to the students.  Also, after the names were replaced by codes on the tests teachers would walk into the director’s office with a list of their family members, or students that had paid them, and would be given the codes for those students.  Later, before the answer sheets were “locked” with red pen, they would go through the tests and write in the correct answers for their preferred students.  On another occasion, the director’s children copied the answers on a new answer sheet at home, copied their code in the corner, and replaced the test they had previously taken in the pile for grading.  Amazingly, not one case of fraud was reported in all of these exploits.  A few weeks ago I was listening to the radio and heard a representative from the Ministry of Education lauding the schools this year for running their exams so cleanly, only 76 cases of fraud reported nationwide!  Congrats, Mozambique, you have successfully eliminated corruption! 

Once I was finished with national exams and was able to see how well my students did (I taught the same group of students in 9th grade last year and in 10th grade this year and they finished with an exam passing rate of 80% - which is quite good and a number I’m proud of!) I was able to focus my last few days on packing up my things, saying good-bye to my friends and colleagues and checking a few last minute things off of my Mangunde bucket list.  My roommate, Mike, asked me in my last week if there was anything in Mangunde that I had always wanted to do but never had the chance.  Without hesitation, I responded that I’d always wanted to hunt ratazana – giant weasel-like rats that people burn the fields for in the dry season and pursue with sling-shots and bow-and-arrows all day and night. I pitched the idea to my friends Alberto, and he didn’t seem too keen on the idea.  Well, more like he didn’t really understand why I would want to do that.  Did you run out of other food?  No.  Do you really like the taste of ratazana?  No, I hate it.  Well… He explained that walking around with bows and arrows in the heat of the day with a slim chance of seeing a ratazana and a slimmer chance of catching one isn’t tops on his list of things to do.  I couldn’t quite articulate my motivation for hunting them to Alberto and I think a few things were lost in the cross-cultural exchange…Because walking around the bush with a bow and arrow hunting giant rats is really bad-ass!  Thus, I abandoned the idea and settled for a close second.  We decided that on my last weekend in Mangunde we would  find the guy in the village who owns a canoe and pay him to take a little river safari while also trying our luck at fishing.   

On the agreed upon day, we set off into the bush in search of Mr. Canoe.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t email or call ahead, so we just showed up at his hut to see if he was available.  We were told that he had just left and was helping the community build a house for an elderly woman nearby.  Undeterred, we set off for the elderly woman’s house in hopes of getting him to put down the sticks and mud and guide us up the river.  We found Mr. Canoe and about ten other men working enthusiastically on this glowing elderly woman’s house.  Unfortunately, few of them spoke Portuguese, so it was difficult to do anything more than just smile, laugh and take funny pictures of them working on the house, but it was an interesting process to observe as we waited for Mr. Canoe to become available.  I asked Alberto about why they were so happy, and he told me that since no one has money and everyone has plenty of time here, they usually work for a local drink called neepa or mapira.  The recipient of the house will make up a couple of batches (usually made from adding corn flour and sugar and letting it ferment until it becomes alcoholic) and every hour or so the workers will take a break, pass a jug around, and then continue on their work.   

When we finally isolated Mr. Canoe he told us that he was busy on the build, but he would send Mr. Canoe Jr., his son, with us in his hand-carved canoe on the river safari.  Earlier that morning Alberto and I had rigged up a makeshift fishing pole – a hook with fishing line I had brought from home attached to a bamboo stick with a ping pong ball in the middle as a bobber, a clump of paper clips as a sinker, and a tear of bread to lure the fish in – and I was pretty excited to toss it in the water and catch us some dinner.  The canoe we took onto the water was literally a hollowed out tree trunk.  You could still see the bark on the bottom and the craftsmen had apparently just taken an axe to carve out the middle of it to give us somewhere to sit, and chipped off the sides to give it a rectangular shape.  We pushed it out onto the water and our adventure had begun. 

Alberto and Mr. Canoe Jr. chose to wait until that moment to tell Mike and I that there are lots of crocodiles in this part of the river.  They were laughing as they said so I didn’t think it was too serious, but I wasn’t necessarily reassured as our canoe was floating only a foot or so above the level of the water.  As we got deeper into the river and the reeds crept closer into sides they would say, mmm, yes, this is where the crocodiles really like to stay…or…yes, this is where the crocodiles will jump out of the river and eat the goats drinking water on the river banks…what about foreigners in a low-riding canoe??  Luckily, we were not eaten, nor did we see a crocodile that day on the river.  Also, despite our efforts, we didn’t catch any fish.  My bread kept falling off the hook and apparently fish don’t just randomly bite on empty hooks for fun. 

After the river safari, I refocused my last few days at Mangunde on packing up all of my things and giving away everything that wouldn’t fit into the two backpacks that I would be taking to Maputo, and then India and Thailand on my COS trip.  I think everyone goes through this stage of regret when they are packing and eventually curses themselves for having brought sooo many t-shirts.  What was I thinking??  Did I really need to bring 800 t-shirts??  Most Mozambicans have one or two t-shirts that they wear everyday (to the point that I usually identify my students not by their faces, but by the t-shirts they always wear) and here I am with a surfeit of useless clothes I’ll never wear.  After a brief hesitation and second looks at those t-shirts with sentimental value I started throwing them into piles to give away.  I wasn’t quite sure how to do it at first.  My original idea was just to walk to the water pump or into the bush with a basket of shirts and start handing them out to anyone who asked.  I thought that this could turn hostile though as t-shirts here are highly sought-after commodities.  Instead, I made a big pile for my friend, Alberto, and a few smaller piles for some of my other friends – Teacher Pedro, our maid Gracinda, and her relatives – and the rest I handed to unsuspecting kids walking by the house who looked like they could use a shirt. 
After my t-shirts and stack of dusty Peace Corps manuals were all off my hands, and my room was once again an empty box, I was ready to say good-bye to Mangunde.  On the morning of my departure I walked through the school and said a final goodbye to my fellow professors who were still busy correcting exams, and got my director to sign-off on my departure.  The whole event was rather unceremonious, and while some professors expressed that they would genuinely miss me and that they couldn’t believe that it had already been two years, the director and the other bosses didn’t even look up from the work when I came into their offices and said, well, I’m leaving now…It’s okay though, I was never under any illusions that I had become friends with many of the professors at Mangunde.  While some were responsible, good teachers, who made efforts to welcome me to their country and school, to the majority of Mangunde teachers, I was just another in a line of Americans who came to teach at their school and they didn’t so much as blink when I arrived or left two years later.  The reality in Mangunde has always been that my most meaningful relationships have been with the student’s I’ve taught and mentored throughout my two years.  I was happy when, the night before I left, my closest student, Patrick, came to my house and told me, in his near-perfect English, how much I’ve meant to him and this school over the past two years.  He told me that I would be leaving a whole in his heart, and that my impact on his life and the life of the rest of the students in Mangunde will be spread throughout the rest of their lives.  

So I boarded the open back truck and waved at Mangunde as it disappeared over the horizon.  Will I ever be back to visit, people kept asking as I was making my final goodbyes?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard stories of PCVs coming back to their village 20 years later not expecting to see anyone they recognize and finding, to their dismay, a student they taught or a kid they helped raise, living and immediately recognizing the PCV, as if they had been waiting 20 years for the PCV to return to show them how much they had accomplished because of the lessons that the PCV had taught them.  Maybe someday I’ll be back… 

For now, though, it’s on to my next adventure.  In exactly 30 days I’ll be back in the States, but before that I still have to make it to Maputo to close my Peace Corps service, and then it’s off to India and Thailand for a few weeks of site-seeing before Christmas.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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