Monday, June 14, 2010

Technology Magic, or Microsoft as Cultural Capital, or How I did One Week’s Work in Two Hours

Our school is extremely fortunate to have several working computers that the students can use for a computer class. Needless to say this is very rare in my part of moz. The students learn computer basics, from how to turn it on to word processing and eventually to programs like Excel.

I happened to be in the computer classroom the other day to use the school’s internet connection, when the computer teacher asked me out of the blue to teach a class on Microsoft Publisher.

Why would this teacher randomly ask me to teach this class? Best guess on my end is that she didn’t know how to use Publisher herself. But the problem is that I don’t technically know how to use Publisher either. In fact, before this class I had never used Publisher, never even opened the program.

But Publisher is a Microsoft office product. With this fact as my sidearm I opened up publisher in a student’s computer and glanced through the menus. I knew vaguely that publisher is for designing newsletters, ads and so forth, I figured there would be an option for adding graphics that were ready-made. Other than that it looked and handled more or less like any other Microsoft product. I agreed to teach the class.

And I taught a two hour lesson on how to use this program. Besides some holes in my Portuguese, it went quite well.

One is tempted (or maybe just I’m tempted) to say, “Wow! Colin you are amazing!” But that assertion is dulled by the fact that I just learned the other day that in Microsoft Excel you can create equations to calculate averages and stuff for gigantic lists of numbers, such that Microsoft Excel will calculate and organize the equations for you, forever cementing Microsoft Excel with microwave ovens, wireless internet, and helicopters in the technological category known as “magic.” I figured out excel could do this literally two days ago, obviously no computer whiz.

So then what’s the deal? Two things: the first and most important was that these kids did not have a better option than me. Secondly just being an American these days—especially one familiar with Microsoft products—is a cultural kind of capital, one that I never went out of my way to learn, one that we just have.

* * *

All week long our work hours have been devoted to grading and inputting grades Because the school’s operations are not computerized, grades must be inputted into certain books and grade sheets in very carefully defined ways. First you write them in pencil in your caderneta (your personal grade recording document), then you pencil them into the grade books (these books have all the information on the students’ attendance and grades; can you imagine what would happen if someone spilled coffee on one? Or if a student decided to steal one?), then in BLUE pen you trace the grades, but not the calculated averages because those need to be double checked, then you trace over your caderneta in pen, then the grades are double checked and traced in pen, then all the grades go on a huge grade sheet called a pauta, which in turn is penciled, double checked, and then traced in pen.

No wonder we have the whole damn week to do this work! Of course I procrastinated on this work and waited until the last possible night. But all I did was input all the grades into excel and politely ask the magic calculator elf inside my computer to tell me the averages, adjust the grades if need be, and tell me the percentage of students who are passing, for a max amount of two hours of work.

So when my colleague asks me if I’m sure there are no errors, I say “of course I’m sure!” because I didn’t do the calculations, the magic calculator elf did, and he’s WAY smarter than me. Honestly what I’d like to do is just print out this document and hand it in, perfect as is. But the school’s one printer is not reserved for this kind of use, and what would they do with my one straggler gradesheet? Staple it to the side of the pauta (the gigantic final grade document) with a note explaining that these are just teacher Colin’s grades?

And that’s how I did one week’s work in two hours. I will qualify by saying it isn’t a full week even for the other teachers, in the sense of five 8-hour days. But I saved a ridiculous amount of time with a ridiculously low margin of error. Technology magic.

In one hour I leave for the world cup in South Africa. I have tickets to Portugal vs. South Korea, and who knows maybe South Korea after their Greece win will be feeling lucky enough to give Portugal a run. Don’t worry mom, I’ll take lots and lots of pictures. If you want a postcard send me your address.

Friday, June 11, 2010


As I write this Munch sits in my jacket with his head poking out, watching my fingers dance over the keys. I don't think it's cold yet, but he only weighs 3 pounds, so this is our nightly routine.

I was walking back to school from lunch when I ran into a student of mine. She is one of my best students, one I probably give too much slack because of it. Our conversation was very basic. I asked about her family. Her mother lives in a village a few hours away, she gets to see her on the weekends. “What about your dad?” I asked.
“He lives here.” She said.
“Oh that’s nice, do you live with him?”
“No. My dad never wanted me since my mother was pregnant with me. He never spoke to me as I grew up. Now that I am older he wants me, but now I do not want him,” was her calm reply.
“Oh,” was mine.

Celeste is one of the women at school. She’s is the oldest, and is very much our mother figure. She is the woman who rounded everyone up on my birthday and insisted we celebrate. Celeste attended my English class for my coworkers and was one of the first people to openly welcome me.
She works more hours than anyone else, by a long shot. Almost forty hours of classes, which is a huge number. She says that she likes to work.
Celeste does not live with her husband. Apparently he began to develop some mental issues and one day left home and retreated into the mato (the Mozambican word for the bush, or the wilderness). He left Celeste and her children, and no one—including the family—heard from him for more than fifteen years. Celeste’s children are grown and she has been living alone for some time. She shows pictures of her once intact family willingly.
Last week he returned, again without warning. Celeste was beside herself, elated. She brought him around the school and introduced him to everyone. He’s living with her now.

On my way to school I often see a little boy whose name I do not know, of maybe seven years. He is mischievous, I can tell by the look in his eye, and obviously very poor. He wanders around the village alone and likes to speak Shitswa to me, probably because he is too young to know any Portuguese.
The other day I had my umbrella. It wasn’t raining anymore so it was hanging from my bag. He approached, “Uvukili ke!” (How are you?)
I saw him and drew my umbrella like a sword, “nzi vukile hante wenau!” (I’m well and how are you?)
He turned and ran, “nzi vukileyo” (I am also fine)
Ï chased him down the street, brandishing the umbrella, “eyo!” (also)
He threw his hands in the air and ran evasively, trying to dodge the umbrella’s pokey end, “uya kuehi?” (where are you going?) He asks me this same question every time we meet.
“Nzia kaia” (I’m going home) I responded as I poked him in the ribs with the umbrella.
“Ate manzico,” (until tomorrow) he said as he batted the umbrella away, still running at full bore.
“Ate manzico” I replied as I chased him down the street.
The chase went on in silence for the last 30 meters until I got home, the smile never fading from his face (or mine). I saw him again the next day and almost every day since.

One of my students, Ilorgio, stopped by my house the other day. Again, our conversation was about basic things, school and family mostly. He’s a first year in the secondary school, meaning he’s about 14 years old. He acts very mature, with a measured step and an even tone of voice, and a slow, deliberate handshake.
Ilorgio lives here in town with his family. He lives with his mother and younger brother. “That’s a very small family” I said, most Mozambican families are quite a bit larger, sharing a house with many generations and cousins.
“Yes it is. I once had another brother, but he died. In school his teacher gave the chefe (the elected class leader) permission to hit anyone that came into the class late. One day my brother came in late and the chefe hit him on the head. In the following days my brother was very sick. We took him to the hospital, and they gave him some medicine. After that he didn’t get better. We went back to the hospital, but a short time after that he died.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But in life these things happen.”
Do they? I wanted to ask him.

I have been trying to get in some hang out time with my colleagues for the last couple of months. It’s not easy, my language still has a ways to go, and making friends can sometimes take a while as it is, let alone through a cultural barrier. I had gotten some numbers, made a few calls, but nothing had come of it. Until yesterday.
A colleague texted me, about something I had mentioned a few days before about celebrating the end of our finals week. I could hardly believe it. I was on a chapa when I received the text, and by happenstance so was another of my colleagues. I showed the text to him, and sure enough we three met up, plus another colleague, for a beer at the small bar across the street.
It started a little stiff, but by the end it was all laughs. Guy time is still guy time. We talked about politics, and girls, but mostly we talked about food. I was actually getting most of the jokes, and had no problem pitching in. I had planned to be out for maybe thirty minutes, two and a half hours later I had to peel myself off. “One more beer!” They insisted, but I still had to cook before bed, so with a prolonged goodbye I walked across the street to my house. It was just what I needed.