Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Whale Shark: A shark so large that it eats whales

Off of the coast of Mozambique where I live there occurs a yearly migration of whale sharks. They are the biggest fish in the sea, growing up to 15 meters long. There are very few in the world, and getting harder and harder to find. But you can snorkel with whale sharks right off the beach in certain areas along the coast. It was on the bucket lists of many volunteers. Though whale sharks are technically sharks they feed on krill like whales do, thus their name, and pose no danger to people.

That being said, the idea of swimming with an animal (a shark) bigger than a car and longer than a bus was terrifying to me. I had been having nightmares about hungry beasts in murky water for months in anticipation.

My friends and I met in Tofo to check off the whale shark from our bucket lists. Everyone was excited the morning of, and I acted like I was too. I’m sure that I was white as a sheet by the way my friends kept asking me if something was wrong. I said I was nervous about sea sickness.

There are no guarantees of seeing a whale shark our anything else on these “ocean safaris”. You just drive around on a boat and hope you see something. We met a group of college age guys (fooling around and giggling like kids in a ball pit) who had gone the day before for three hours and seen nothing at all.

The chance that I wouldn’t see one gave me some cowardly hope. Hope that was squelched fifteen minutes after leaving the shore when the skipper shouted, “All right get your fins on!” We scrambled to get into our fins and cram our masks onto our faces, “IT’S OVER THERE GET IN GET IN GET IN!!”

In the grip of terror I fell like a sack of potatoes into the water. I put my head under, my whole body electric with anticipation. The visibility was only a few meters, “IT’S RIGHT THERE OVER THERE LOOK!!!” The skipper screamed at us. I turned numbly in the direction he was pointing.

And out of the murkiness came the sleek, enormous head of the largest fish in the sea, coming straight for me. Every nerve in my body fired at once (no I did NOT soil myself) and I stared wide eyed and helpless. Was it going to hit me? Was it going to eat me? A childlike terror/wonder overcame me. It passed underneath, its dorsal fin cutting the water next to me.

Everyone says the same thing about seeing a whale shark. They move with an effortless grace, not seeming to rush at all as they cruise. They are majestic; despite their size they move in utter silence. I looked down at its skin—so close I could have touched it had I been capable of any motor function—which was a deep grey with white spots, which under the broken light of the surface twinkled like (give me a break here) stars.

I remember the moment when my (baseless) fear turned into wonder. As it passed I turned and swam after it. I followed as long as I could until it’s huge tail swished back and forth back out of sight.

We followed the same shark and swam with it twice more. We later saw humpback whales. Great day.

Cheaters/Team Players

It occurred to me that it’s a little late to update my blog. But my mom has asked me to, and I like the idea of having a few memories written down about the end of my service.

There are many difficult aspects of my job. I teach my students only two 45 minute periods a week, the curriculum is comically impossible to follow, the inefficiency of standard procedure is worshipped, and my students perform poorly. But perhaps the most frustrating part of my job is testing my students, not because they don’t do well, but because they cheat.

They cheat and cheat and cheat. If you look away from the class for a moment, they look at each others’ answers. They are constantly ready for any opportunity. You turn and write something on the board and you can hear their whispers behind you. You bend down to pick up a dropped pen and whip your head up and sure enough their eyes have already begun to wander. Their focus on your focus is impressive, and unwavering.

So you punish them. I have structured, unvarying means of punishing them that they know well. I don’t hesitate to punish them publically, ceremonially, to show the class that cheating has its consequences. I take tests away and kick students out in almost every test I give.

The problem isn’t in actually catching them—as far as we Peace Corps Volunteers can tell (because we ALL have this same problem in all parts of the country), that is to say I don’t think they are getting away with it under my nose. We catch them all the time. It’s easy: who is looking at you? “The test is not written on my face” I bark at them: I know you are waiting for my attention to falter, please just use your brain and suck it up and take the &^%*# test. They use what we call “cabulas”, which are like cheat sheets. Students hide them in their collars, waist lines, under their ties, and up their sleeves. But I still catch them all the time.

And when you do they never EVER admit it and apologize. It’s silly most of the time. Here’s a good example: in one of my tests a student was hiding his notebook under the desk. I caught him looking at it and took it from him, telling him (and all the class) that he would receive a zero and was hereby banished from the room. He denied that it was his. He began to raise his voice in protest at the injustice. I showed him that his name was written across the front. His denials became more impassioned. He swore it wasn’t his, that I just couldn’t give him a zero, that it was wrong and that I was cruel. I threw the notebook on the ground in front of the class. He sat in his desk and refused to leave for a few minutes. Then he got up, took the notebook and left in silence.

I get so angry after test days that I want to scream. I find myself saying they are all a bunch of unrepentant liars and cheaters.

I have a reputation in my school for enforcing cheating. I stalk the classroom in silence, waiting for someone to turn and look at me (the cheaters almost always do). I wear sunglasses so they can’t see my eyes. I bark at anyone doing anything suspicious. But when I walk into the classroom to control final exams the students whoop and shout and sometimes cheer. I never understood this, why cheer?

The answer to that question helps elucidate why they cheat so much. I believe that they cheer because I am one of the only teachers that even remotely enforces the rules on cheating during exams. If you walked classroom to classroom during final exams you would find teachers grading exams in front of their classes, paying no mind whatsoever to the students. It is just as common to see teachers outside chatting to each other, or on cell phones, maybe-sort-of-near the door to the classroom they should be controlling.

Cheating is supposed to be wrong, none of the rules in Mozambique are technically different. But it isn’t enforced at all, so in a way the words “cheating is wrong” are empty, and the honor and morality that those words defend is meaningless. But I remind them of the rules, and my zealous defense of them reinforces their sacredness—or what their sacredness would be, if I wasn’t absolutely the only teacher doing this. That isn’t to say that I am the last bastion of honor in Mozambique, but that in this one little way my behavior does preserve a moral code, or at least reminds them of it. And people like that.

But I come home fuming mad. Why? I ask myself, why do they cheat and lie? Some volunteers have teased out an answer that I think makes sense: they don’t see themselves as disobeying the sacred rules of honesty, they see themselves as helping each other. The students know that grades are important, in some ways they are more important than the material they are supposed to represent. If their friend is failing, they may try to help them. Especially if there are no consequences i.e. if their teacher is outside playing snake on their phone. The educational system here is a disaster, but graduating will at least give them some pedigree, however small. So what I see as cheating and wrong, they might simply see as a good turn. They are more community minded than Americans, they are not nearly as competitive with each other. It’s not so much “why not help a friend?” as “you have a responsibility to help a friend”.

Why they deny it afterwards is still a mystery to me, and it gets under my skin even after two years. I’ll scold them and give them zeros. But interestingly they never hold it against me. After their theatrical displays, accusing me of being unfair and callous, after they storm out of the room, they are never mad the next day. It’s a wonder about Mozambicans in general, they don’t hold grudges. It takes the edge off of everything.

I pondered this as I sat in a meeting at school. I wondered how many of the grades we give were earned with cabulas and cheating, and if any of the other teachers ever thought about it or cared. As my mind wandered I looked down at the desk I was using, a student’s desk from one of the classrooms. And there, meticulously carved into the wood were a matrix of English words, definitions and conjugations. It was all of the material for my final exam.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Matakenha numero cinco

I got another matakenha ("matah-kenya") in my foot. This is the fifth, and the first of this season. I get gauze, a clothespin, some matches, medical tape, a pair of fine tweezers, and some antiseptic ointment. I sit down on my bed and put my foot on a chair in good light.

The lesion is on the third toe of my right foot. It is swollen and purple at it's base, white towards the top with a tiny black dot at the apex of the bump. I sterilize the needle with a match, and poke into the tiny black dot. There is no feeling, there never is. I work the needle slowly under the skin, careful not to penetrate into the bump, and create pie-like slices from the tiny black dot out to the base of the bump.

After sliding the needle in and opening just two pie slices the egg sack pops neatly out, white and gooey. You can't get over excited at this point and yank on it or you can break the sack and dump dozens of little wormies all over your foot and back into the wound.

I press the skin of the bump down with the needle and squeeze out any pus and bodily liquid hanging out around the bottom of the egg sack--the part that's anchored in the wound and to my foot. With the tweezers I gingerly find the base of this little anchor and pull it out. I hold the egg sack between the tweezers and bring it away from my foot with satisfaction.

It's intact, one can almost see the miniscule eggs inside, and a huge improvement over the disaster of my last matakenha, which left my foot debilitated for days and required a thorough clean up to get all of the tiny white larvae that had exploded forth from the bursting sack. I'm proud of myself, and treat myself to a kit kat bar that my mom sent.

It's getting hot again. Ugh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I was teaching my favorite class. Because the Mozambican class system is based on grade level and profession (remember I teach at a professional school), not ability level. There are no advanced classes, a student takes all of their classes with the same class, even in the same classroom. This means that each class has just a few advanced students, far ahead of their classmates.

My favorite class is second year accounting because they just so happen to have just a few more of those super smart kids and it sets the tone for the class. I dote on them a little, and probably give them a little too much slack. They usually don’t take advantage of this (they can tell I like them), but the other day they would NOT stop complaining. Every new word on the board drew a collective groan. I told them to stop whining and they stepped it up. It became theatrical, their moans of faux agony, until I shouted over the din, “I don’t want to hear your complaining! I am NOT YOUR FATHER!!”

Typical teach rhetoric, right? The response I got blindsided me. There was an uproar of disbelief, reproach, and hurt. Some of my best students looked like I had slapped them. Dumbstruck, I said, “What? I’m not.” Class was stopped, and I was admonished for having said such a mean and thoughtless thing. They were sympathetic though, getting that I didn’t understand what I said, that it doesn’t translate in Mozambique. They explained.

I am supposed to be their father. The role of teacher is that of father and mother, it connotes their trust in me and my caring for them. Familial roles are distributed to people however they fit. People refer to their elders by familial titles, like papa, tio, or “mano” for older brother. One does not use “senhor” outside of a very professional setting. Even with people you don’t know, it’s mama, or pae, or vovo (grandma) and so on.

There is a strong respect for elders, much stronger than anything I was used to in the states. I like it. Questioning authority is important—essential—but the middle finger approach to anyone that represents it is juvenile. There are reasons why we respect our elders, and it’s not just to make them feel better, or because we owe them for taking care of us. They have more experience and often have better control over their emotions and insight into themselves and others etc. Respect for elders here is expected and normal. And maybe it’s easier to be nice to the lady when you call her grandma, and easier for her to be nice to you back.

In Moz there is no taboo about teachers touching their students. There isn’t a constant fear of predation. When I want my lazy student loitering by the door, and he ignores me, I shoo him out with an encouraging push. When a student sleeps I sneak over to their desk and scream as I shake them awake (hilarious). That isn’t to say that the system is utopian, one does here rumors of decidedly inappropriate relations between students and teachers (though I have never seen it), but it does feel more natural.

I remember in elementary school when a classmate brainfarted and accidentally called our teacher “mom”. When it happened I’ll never forget looking to the teacher to see if she was scandalized, to see how big the student’s mistake was. But she just waved it off, it happened all the time.

But calling me father is still absolutely forbidden, because it freaks me out. One of my students said, in English, “Teecha Colin is my uncle,” and I got watery eyed.

Congrats on the barmitzmah, Jonathan. I hear you did well.

Next stop: Kilimanjaro

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Halfway through an impromptu meeting with my photography group this morning several awkward gazes to my waistline alerted me that my fly was down. I often arrive at school like this. Colleagues used to pull me aside and discretely tell me. It happens so frequently these days that they just point down. I hope that this isn't some kind of metaphor for my life. At 24 this is not a problem I foresaw having.

Injuries take longer to heal in Mozambique. We were told about this in training, that due to the humidity or the heat or something that wounds would persist. I have some nasty scars from infected insect bites on my legs that I didn't take care of.

Medical problems come easier too. I've had parasitic insects lay eggs in my toes (I removed them myself with a needle, as is the custom. Doesn't hurt), I have had skin problems come and go, and of course there are the toilet issues that plague everyone. Parasites, absesses, infections, blood in your stool are all maladies volunteers have had, just off the top of my head.

Suffice it to say that you can't be a hypochondriac and be here. You have to stay conscious and positive about your health. Getting sick sucks, but is all par for the course for a volunteer, what with Maputo just a day's travel away there are few maladies that are actually scary.

But imagine you are Mozambican, and you get sick. First, let me describe our health center here in town:

You enter the complex with offices on the left, the main treatment center ahead of you and to the right. You see people milling around the entrance. As you approach you begin to see the line to get into triage. It's huge, has a couple hundred people, lines the hallways and wraps around the hospital buildings. It's a lot of mothers and kids. You get charged 50 meticals just for your place in line, the locals pay 1 metical.

There are masculine and feminine wings to the hospital. There aren't enough beds so at least a few people are on the floor on straws mats. Some of the rooms are for seeing patients, others are eerily empty. The prenatal care center is the nicest part of the hospital, which is a relief. The lab where you get tests like stool samples is a treat. The front desk is covered in papers and the back table in blood.

In our entire district there is one doctor. In Mozambique, a country of about 20 million people there are less than 1,000 doctors (most are women), and the majority of those are in the capital city of Maputo, which lies at the southern tip of a 1,500 mile long country.

So imagine you are Mozambican, and you get sick. But first let's think about conception of disease.

You've never taken a biology class of any kind. You might have had some science of some kind in secondary school, such that you you may know that science exists. Now, someone tries to explain to you that a being, so small that it cannot be seen, will enter into your body and begin to replicate itself using your bodies resources and a protein manufacturing blueprint called DNA. Not only this, there are even more infentesimal beings called "viruses" that are hardly alive at all, but are similarly dangerous and hijack your own bodies DNA to replicate themselves. Would you believe them?

Note: here is the most tremendous problem with raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. Without a basic understanding of biology, without a micrscope to see cells, how could you ever believe that a DNA carrying, malignant protein was real? What would sound more realistic, or at least more resonant: some foreigner who barely speak your language explaining the tiny, evil protein, or someone from your community that blamed it on your angry ancestors (or scientology)? I remember my dead father, let's say. I remember what he was like and even now that has an effect on me. His presence in my life is real. Beings too small to be seen? DNA? Or even more basically: the word "protein". The word "cell". Jibberish.

Now imagine you are Mozambican and you are sick. Imagine how stressful and scary it would be. People get sick all the time here, and the vast majority of people die of infectious disease. Infectious disease happens fast, without treatment malaria will kill in days. People you know, family members, have died of these diseases. One day they were fine, and a few days later they were dead. Disease is an invisible, incomprehensible, murderous force. Could there be anything more terrifying than that?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

As the conference approached I realized I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to Inhambane City or Maxixe to check hotels and make reservations. Matt, the national coordinator, had offered to help and lives far closer to those cities, so I asked him to make the reservations and he accepted. He talked about several possibilities, including hotels outside of Inhambane and Maxixe.
The conference was only two weeks away. I was fielding a constant stream of phone calls from the trainers and participants. Sooner or later we would need to tell them where they would be staying. I called Matt about reservations. He talked about several possibilities, including hotels outside of Inhambane and Maxixe. Wait…had he actually gone to these hotels to inquire? He would be going the next day, he said.
Two days passed. My excuses for not telling the technical trainers where the conference would be held were becoming more and more outlandish. Matt, any progress on those reservations? Nope, bedridden. He thought that he might have caught Malaria despite taking his prophylaxis. He was running a high fever and felt like death. Oh yes, don’t worry, he would be going into the city the very next day to take care of some things. Aj recommended that we postpone the conference, it being too late to make reliable plans.
The conference was now one week away and we had no venue for participants that would be expecting food, a conference room, and beds. I called Matt, he was in Inhambane, and claimed that the hotel already had our reservation, which was hard for me to believe considering that it was impossible. Did they have food? Beds? A conference center? Yes, yes, yes, and hearing that I was satisfied. We had cut it close, but everything was going to be fine.
Just one hang-up, Matt said: JOMA had no money. Like no money? Well, the Public Affairs Office of the US Embassy said that they transferred the money on Monday. Today was Tuesday, so the money would definitely be in on Wednesday. So how did you make the reservation Matt? Well, he didn’t technically “make” the reservation, in exactly those terms. But it’d be fine, he said confidently (albeit weakly, running a high fever), no one would show up with actual money and make a reservation for that weekend and bump us. Apparently God had told him this.
Oh, and one more hang-up, Matt said: he fired the Gender Facilitator that would have run the conference. Why? She hadn’t called him back.
So if we indeed got money before Friday, if we succeeded in making a reservation, if this new hyperstrain of Malaria didn’t kill Matt, who would be leading the conference? In Portuguese? We’ll do fine, Matt said.
Wednesday came and went, and the money never showed. On Thursday I went to Inhambane.

I arrive in Inhambane to hear that Matt had been sent to Maputo. He’s fever was getting out of control and he needed blood tests to see if he might actually be dying. That left me and AJ to run the conference. Not that we aren’t handsome, rough-and-tumble badasses, but we’re also idiots. As luck would have it, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Lauryn lived in Inhambane city. She had extended her contract for an additional year and a half beyond the two years she had already served. She was experienced with facilitating presentations, her Portuguese was immaculate, and in a conference that was supposed to center on gender she filled the very needed role of educated, articulate woman. As bad luck would have it she didn’t like me.
Lauryn had no obligation to help of any kind. I’m sure she had many other important things to do. How to best convince her? I would take her and her boyfriend out to the nicest restaurant in town and grovel.
But that was later, first I had to go to the hotel and somehow make a reservation without payment of any kind. This is about as tricky as it sounds. I explained my situation to the woman behind the counter. She said that it would be impossible to make a reservation without payment. I explained my situation again, and began to plead. She got a superior. I explained my situation, pled. No dice, he said. How could we possibly be allowed to make a reservation without money?
I talked to the guy in charge of the kitchen, then his boss, the guy in charge of hotel facilities. No and no. I spoke to a man in the accounting office who flat out pretended I wasn’t on the other side of his desk, he just stared at his blank computer screen until I left. I was channeling my mother (an emasculating sentence to write), and as she does in these situations, you just keep going up the chain to find someone who has the authority or desire to help you. I went to the Director’s office. Her secretary mentioned she was out to lunch. It was two pm, the office closed at 3:30. I explained my situation to the secretary, and lo and behold, she was obliquely sympathetic.
She said that if I managed to send a fax with a receipt of transfer from the bank then everything would be kosher. Thank god! All I would need was a receipt of transfer showing that the money was being transferred to my account?
She balked. She thought the money was being transferred to their account. I didn’t have money at all? How could I expect to make a reservation without money?
At this point, with reasonable problem solving exhausted, I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out the emotional plea (again, though I hate to write it, channeling my mom). I explained the the pressure I was under. All these people would be arriving. They were expecting a conference with mattresses and sheets and food to eat and presentations from educated professionals. It was all a sham, I was just a post college bachelor idiot mouth breather. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to shower every day. I was in over my head. Please, couldn’t she find the pity, the decency, the goodwill in her heart to help me?
No, she said. But I could talk to the director when she returned.
I called AJ. He said that if I didn’t get approval by closing time at 3:30 we had no recourse in good conscience but to pull the plug and postpone. People would start their travel days at four am the following morning to get there by dinner. We had to do the right thing. And he was right, even though cancelling at that moment would still make us look like what we were: a group of headless chickens. Our organization didn’t have money.
I called Matt. He had been calling the Public Affairs Office all day (from the hospital I think). The money had been transferred, they said. They had even sent a receipt of transfer. Matt assured me that the money would definitely be in tomorrow, Friday, the day the conference was to begin.
I sat in the lobby and waited nervously for the return of this Director. Ok, groveling couldn’t be square one. Neither could open-minded problem solving, because what incentive did she have to work out a way to provide us with services without payment? That left only one thing: lying.
Well, not exactly lying. Strategic truth expansion. When she returned I was called into her office. With my shirt tucked in, my back as straight as a board and my Portuguese as sharp as I could cut it I explained to her that I was a working for the American government. My task was a nationwide organization called “JOMA”, of which I was the coordinator of all operations in southern Mozambique. Our problem was a silly one, really. The money simply had not arrived. An oversight. Some bungling intern in some office hadn’t put the paper in the right person’s inbox. Obviously as a representative of the American Government and one of the coordinators in a nationwide organization my word alone that the money would appear the following day was more than sufficient. This predicament was good for a chuckle, not a cause for worry.
And…she bought it! The Director shook my hand and said that we could proceed with the conference. My mask of professionalism cracked slightly as I gushed thank you’s all over her.
None of it was a lie, of course. It was a spin. I do represent the American government, JOMA is a nationwide organization, I am the coordinator for Southern Mozambique. She didn’t need to know that I am also the type of guy that routinely leaves his house with his fly down. The type of guy that misses patches of hair every time he shaves.
I called AJ at 3:30: we were on. And so began the most stressful weekend of my peace corps service.

I recieved my Close of Service date...December 9th 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Preschoolers and the Chinese

"Cacana!" The teacher calls
"CACANA!!!!" 30 preschoolers scream in unison

Every tuesday night I go to sleep with the deluded idea that I will sleep in Wednesday morning. Mondays and Tuesdays have half of my hours, so Tuesday night is the celebrated halfway point of my week. And yet...


Their united scream echoes mercilessly around my house. My roof and walls conspire to reflect the soundwaves directly into my face. It's Portuguese lessons for the preschoolers. Through repetition and exposure they soak up the language like sponges. It's to their benefit to learn the national language young while it's so easy. But I suffer. Red eyed with exhaustion laying sleepless in my bed I begin to have fantasies of putting on a mask and run screaming into their classroom.

Until I see them of course, and heart melts and burdens are forgotten etc etc


I was in Inhambane City having one of the most memorable and challenging weekends of my life when I decided to get something special. Tucked away in the market is a small stand with barred windows. They sell a strange collection of things; a stuffed animal chipmunk between two hamburger buns, fake coca cola cans, enormous pencils, and foreign beauty products. Sitting in the back is a soft serve ice cream machine tended by a kindly and tired Mozambican lady. Sleeping at the table (the one with the fake coke cans and oversized pencils) is a small chinese girl.

This little shop is chinese owned, explaining the bizzare selection of goods available. It is just one of many Chinese owned small businesses in Inhambane city, including a giant supermarket, and represents the larger Chinese presence throughout Mozambique.

The Estrada Nacional #1 is the largest and most important road in Mozambique, spanning the heighth of the country. It's in terrible shape, so bad that cars drive in the dirt alongside it because the road is so far beyond driveable. Or I should say that it was in bad shape. In the time that I have been here huge sections of the road have been completely repared. Along the roadside Chinese workers can be seen, overseeing the reparations.

Mozambique has a brand new soccer stadium in the capital city. It makes an impressive image just outside the city limits, huge and alone on the horizon. On a massive banner hanging from the side are Chinese characters.

As I ordered my ice cream a chinese teenager loitered next to me. The teenager heard my portuguese and in perfect portuguese of her own said, "wow, you speak portuguese very well!" I was floored, a chinese person that speaks Portuguese? The chinese nationals' lack of portuguese ability is famous. This was the first one I had met that spoke any portuguese at all. I was flabbergasted.

And she stared at me in equal disbelief. White peoples' lack of portuguese is, well, famous. This girl must see dozens of large south africans lumber through the market with nary a word of the spoken language between them. I must have been nearly the first white person she had spoken to.

And there we were, staring at each other mouths agape waiting for the punchline. I asked her where she was from, commented that it was very hot outside. Our small conversation drew the sleeping girl outside to join us. She stared up at me mystified, and I'm sure I stared down at her with the same stupid expression. What the hell were we doing there, as far from our homes as we could possibly be, speaking some strange tongue? I said goodbye and sure enough the little girl's portuguese was good too. I wish I had taken a photo.

There is a lot of vitriole towards the Chinese presence in Mozambique, from Mozambicans and Americans. Most of the Mozambican resistance manifests itself as outright and mostly clumsy racism. Americans decry China's exploitation of Africa, and that their donor money is just a lure to sink their teeth into the country's resources. In an open discussion with the American ambassador he mentioned that American aid dwarfs chinese aid in Mozambique, it's just that Chinese aid is targeted at visible, public projects.

But what does that matter to one English teacher and a small shop owner in Inhambane City? Our small exchange was awkward and fascinating to me, because it didn't make me feel like "its a small world after all". It made me feel like the world was unfathomably huge.