1. Bank lines and chapas! LOLOL ROFL JK.

2. Sunsets: Over the lake, from the back of a chapa when I’m almost home, or just looking out behind my house

3. The interesting fashion choices that Mozambicans somehow pull off, like mixing crazy patterns and colors or wearing ridiculous second-hand tshirts despite clearly having no idea what they say. How do guys manage to look chique in pink v-neck sweaters that were definitely intended for women?

4. Tons of delicious benny (aka chicken stock aka pure MSG) in all my food

5. Awesome dance moves that everyone from tiny kids to grandmas can bust out

6. The singing, clapping, drumming, dancing and harmonies during mass, especially singing in local language

7. Actually noticing when there’s a full moon, because it’s so much easier to walk around at night

8. Having a super flexible schedule and hours every day to cook & read

9. Having a relationship with everyone from the lady who sells me vegetables to the guy at the post office

10. Constantly running into people I know as I walk around town, and taking the time to greet them and ask about their health, their family, how things are in their house, etc.

11. The amazing stars & visible Milky Way (looking up at them is the only perk of having to go use my outdoor bathroom at night)

12. The grace, skill and deftness that Mozambicans bring to the smallest tasks. In the words of Mindy Kaling, I feel as clumsy as a drunk water buffalo in comparison to even the kids here. They never trip or spill & can arrange anything, from getting everyone’s baggage into a chapa to fixing anything that’s broken. Specifically, we call on our friend Dias for help with pretty much anything: yardwork, fixing a bike, or procuring a pet.

13. Mozambican women. I recently read two books by Tana French (highly recommended!) and in one, her male protagonist says:

“I’ve always loved strong women, which is lucky for me because once you’re over about twenty-five there is no other kind. Women blow my mind. The stuff that routinely gets done to them would make most men curl up and die, but women turn to steel and keep on coming. Any man who claims he’s not into strong women is fooling himself mindless; he’s into strong women who know how to pout prettily and put on baby voices, and who will end up keeping his balls in her makeup bags.”

That assertion holds true for all the women I’ve met here. It’s literally accurate– I think even my 9-year-old friend Eva could beat me in arm wrestling, despite my huge biceps– but also in the figurative sense of the original quote. Women here hold together their families & communities with unbelievable amounts of work, faith and wisdom, all while maintaining an incredible sense of humor.

14. Avocado season! And mango season! And peach season, and strawberry season…

15. The moments of pure joy prompted by something that at home I’d take for granted: finding cucumbers in the market, having water or electricity or a working laptop, talking to my family on the phone, or catching up with a friend over a beer.

16. Capulana shopping

17. Custom-tailored capulana dresses, skirts, hoodies, pants, bags, aprons etc. for less than $10

18. Having very few mirrors around & not caring whether I wear the same outfit every week or look particularly glamorous

19. Being content with the bare minimum amount of stuff in my house, and wasting very little (my friend Alan was playing with a rubber band the other day and snapped it; I said indignantly that he must have a lot more rubber bands in his house than I do).

20. Runs in awesome spots: past the reservoir and through the pine forest outside Lichinga or to the ridge where you can see the gleam of Lake Niassa in the distance. Not to mention running through fields of pineapple plants in training, along the ocean at Zack’s beautiful site in Inhambane, around the entire Ilha de Moçambique (passing the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere) on New Year’s day, through coffee fields on family vacation in Tanzania, or by one of the seven wonders of the world during the Victoria Falls Marathon.

21. Conversations that consist mostly of nonverbal exclamations and, let’s be honest, grunts

22. Lichinga’s wide avenues lined with beautiful flowering acacia and jacaranda trees

23. My criança buddies yelling “TIA LAURA! TIA LAURA!” as they race down the street to give me a hug

24. Being able to mix English, Portuguese, local language and slang/abbreves in a way that only really makes sense to Moz PCVs

25. The absolute confiança that, although things won’t go as planned, they WILL work out in the end

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Last week marked the 10th anniversary of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. When I say I work as a Health Volunteer in Africa, I know HIV/AIDS is the first thing that jumps to mind for both Americans and Mozambicans. So I wanted to talk here a bit about PEPFAR, HIV, and the other health issues I’ve addressed during my service. And, of course, use the opportunity to share some pictures!

In a speech (http://allafrica.com/stories/201306190825.html) commemorating the past decade of PEPFAR work, Secretary of State John Kerry reminisced about passing the first AIDS legislation in the U.S. Congress (which was unanimously approved in the Senate). In his words, “this landmark legislation created the world’s largest and most successful foreign assistance program, and today a disease that seemed unstoppable is in retreat.” President Bush has devoted substantial space at his new presidential museum to an exhibit on PEPFAR, and an upcoming trip to Zambia and Tanzania (overlapping with the Obama family) shows his continuing personal commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa. As the NY Times put it, PEPFAR “was called the largest humanitarian health effort ever undertaken by any country. As a result, Mr. Bush remains more popular in Africa than at home.” (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/like-his-successor-bush-is-going-to-africa/)

PEPFAR is indeed a household name here in Mozambique, and provides the funding for almost every project I’ve worked on as a health volunteer. With an 11.3% prevalence rate, prevention and treatment of HIV is certainly a huge issue. Many PCVs work with groups of PLWHA (people living with HIV/AIDS), and we always include HIV testing in REDES/JUNTOS youth group conferences and at Science Fair competitons. The red lasso symbolizing AIDS awareness can be seen on tshirts and murals designed by volunteers, and I’ve even helped make one out of balloons.

In some parts of Mozambique, as many as 1 in 3 people are infected with HIV. My province of Niassa, however, has the lowest prevalence rate in the country at 3%. For this reason, I appreciate the flexibility of our health project framework, which lets us address a wide range of issues rather than being limited to talking exclusively about HIV. This recognizes the reality that malaria is actually the biggest killer in Mozambique, and that 50% of children in Niassa are malnourished. And there are, of course, linkages between HIV, malaria and nutrition.

To commemorate World Malaria Day back in April, I talked with my english clubs (at my office and in my neighborhood) about the disease. We made a “repolho” or cabbage out of crumpled paper “leaves.” The group tossed the cabbage back and forth, removing the leaves on by one and reading the statements written on them. They simultaneously practiced their english vocabulary and tested their health knowledge by deciding whether the statement was a fact or myth. For example, many people think you can get malaria from standing outside in the rain, since it’s much more common during the rainy season. It’s tricky to explain how mosquitoes can transmit malaria after biting infected people, even though they CAN’T transmit HIV that way.

We also talked about preventing malaria, and I mentioned bug repellent. The members of my group had never seen or used it, so I handed out some goodies from the big ziplock bag I’ve stockpiled of sprays, wipes and sticks. We spent a while demonstrating exactly how each is applied, and then took the picture included here!

I’ve also talked to several groups about nutrition recently, from my REDES girls to the beneficiaries of my VAST grant agriculture project. The most important thing to emphasize is the importance of a balanced diet. Mozambicans tend to eat a lot of carbs, from xima to rice to bread. Part of the issue is that, aside from beans, there aren’t many affordable sources of protein– most families don’t have the money to buy meat on a regular basis. Even I rarely do! So, I concluded each of my recent nutrition trainings with a demonstration of how to make peanut butter. It’s cheap, easy, and incredibly delicious. Peanuts are readily available, and all you have to do is roast them, remove the skins, and then pilar them with a few tablespoons of salt and sugar. (A pilão is basically a giant wooden mortar and pestle.) And selling peanut butter can also be a great income generating activity; we’re using it as an example to work through the small business planning process at this year’s REDES conferences. The girls were a bit overwhelmed by calculating monthly costs & profits, but they definitely enjoyed making and sampling the product!

The REDES girls groups are themselves a good example of this multifaceted, holistic approach to health. The REDES project is funded by PEPFAR through the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Office. But we work to prevent HIV within the broader context of empowering and educating the girls to have brilliant futures. Last week I had a great meeting with a group at my site, drawing pictures of where we each want to be in 10 years. And one of the most powerful sessions at a recent conference was about self-esteem. These girls have no problem singing and dancing in front of a group, but when it came to naming attributes or talents that they’re proud of, it was painfully difficult to get them to open up. We divided into small groups and made bracelets, with each colored bead representing a quality that we admire in ourselves or in the other girls at the conference. At the end I explained that “Your bracelets are beautiful because you are beautiful, and because you have so many great qualities.”

So on that note of taking pride in your accomplishments, I believe that as Americans we should all be proud of the PEPFAR program, especially as a bipartisan initiative. But as I finish my service, I’ll also remember all the work I did in other areas, and I hope to see great things happen in Mozambique. “AIDS” and “Africa” may sometimes be synonymous in people’s minds, but I hope that changes in the years to come. Groups here often talk about a “generation free from HIV/AIDS,” and I hope we can achieve that goal. I want my REDES girls have a future not only free from the negative impact of AIDS but also from the negative impact ofaid. Rather than chasing funds from PEPFAR or any other source, they should have the skills and the confidence to build on their own abilities and realize their dreams of being business owners, doctors, and even governors.

As we sang at our conference, “somos raparigas da REDES– nosso futuro brilhará.” We are the girls of REDES, our future will shine.

Posted by: Laura | May 26, 2013

Make it rain

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about money recently. At the beginning of the month, I took my last big African vacation and spent a week in Cape Town with two other volunteers. We had an amazing time hiking up Table Mountain, touring the city and visiting wineries. But our indulgence in mexican food, margaritas, draft IPAs, sushi and other delicious food and beverages went way beyond a Peace Corps budget. Throughout the trip, we made light of our dwindling bank accounts by joking about making it rain, bands to make her dance, and other rap imagery for spending obscene amounts of money.

Luckily, the trip was followed by our COS (close of service) conference, where Peace Corps filled us in on the money we’ll receive for our flights home and our “readjustment allowance.” So I felt a bit better… Until I started getting emails from HKS about student loans.

I look back nostalgically at the days when I could save money, contribute to my 401(k), and spend in one weekend what is now my monthly living allowance. But I’m more proud of a $5,000 grant that my organization just got from the US Embassy that I was of any paycheck I got from the CTA. We were just officially accepted as part of the “Ambassador’s Special Self Help Fund.” The money will be used to train and set up a sewing co-op for single mothers in Lichinga. I think the project will be great for the beneficiaries, and making that connection with the Embassy is great for my organzation as well.

The great thing about the Peace Corps model is that we’re doing grassroots development. Many organizations are just chasing funding, designing projects based on what’s “trendy” among donors rather than based on their organization’s mission or the needs of the community. But as volunteers, we get to know the ins and outs of our community, so we can help set up projects that have a good shot at success and sustainability. We also show our coworkers that you can get results without a lot of resources– community development doesn’t actually require stipends or fancy cars!

On that note, I want to publicize two projects set up by fellow PCVs here in Mozambique. They’re both responding to incredibly important needs– building a preschool in northern Mozambique and recovering from last year’s floods in the south. The websites describe the projects much more eloquently than I can, so I’ll direct you to the links below, but I can tell you from personal experience that all these women have done amazing things in their communities, and these donations will take their work to the next level. I can’t think of a better use for your charitable donation budget (or a week’s worth of Starbucks money). Every single dollar will make a direct impact in Monapo and/or Guija. Even if you can’t donate at this time, check out the websites for so me great pictures and information about my colleagues here in PC Mozambique!

http://justsoyum.wordpress.com/build-a-preschool/

http://www.theguijafund.org/

 

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Posted by: Laura | April 25, 2013

Finish line

In my recent post about Boston, aside from the state of the world today, I also talked about finish lines. As I near the end of my Peace Corps service, the time is definitely racing by. I can’t wait to step off that plane and see my family (not to mention the orderly security lines and the Starbucks). But I also want to make the most of my remaining time in Mozambique. So what am I up to these days?

To answer that question, I’ll return to the specific day I highlighted in my previous post (April 4th, 2013 for those still keeping track). As the acronyms of COS and HKS danced in my head, my visions of the future were balanced by plenty going on in the moment.

I started the day with a run, followed by a chat with my empregada Lurdes as she arrived to do the laundry. Then I met my counterpart Eduardo at the home of Dona Suzana. Suzana coordinates Associacao Kasewah, a group of HIV+ women that we’ve partnered with for our agriculture/nutrition project. Coordination is difficult, because she doesn’t have a cell phone & spent most of the rainy season in her machamba (garden) a few kilometers outside of town. My counterpart and I would stop by her house every few days, hoping to find her at home. We had finally gotten in touch and marked a meeting for that morning. But we drew a blank yet again: her daughter informed us that Suzana was at the health center with a sick family member.

As Eduardo and I left Suzana’s house, we discussed the upcoming visits of both Peace Corps and Embassy staff. Peace Corps is working on site development for the new group of volunteers that will replace my cohort, and the U.S. Embassy is considering a grant proposal submitted by my organization. The grant falls under the “Ambassador’s Special Self-Help Fund,” intended to foster community self-reliance. Our project would provide training, materials and support for young single mothers, who have already dropped out of school, to form a sewing co-op. I’m very excited about the benefits of this project for the community and for my organization. Embassies are sometimes reluctant to fund projects in Niassa province, since staff have to travel all the way from Maputo to conduct monitoring and evaluation. (Case in point: the visit was postponed, and instead I filled out an additional form.) Forging this connection will hopefully benefit my organization moving forward, and the new volunteer will be able to hit the ground running in August & help implement the project.

After talking with Eduardo, I went to my office at the Municipal Council, and picked up my capulana for Mozambican Women’s Day. My colleagues had picked out a certain pattern so that we’d all coordinate for the celebrations. I then sat down in my shared office to work on an upcoming REDES training & prep for my two English clubs. I facilitate one at the council and one in my neighborhood. The topic that day was malaria, given the upcoming World Malaria Day on April 25th. (Look for a separate blog post with more details!)

After my first English club, I headed home to prep for the second one, stopping at the market on the way to buy produce for dinner. When I got home, the neighborhood kids asked if they could come over and draw. They had to make Mozambican flags to decorate their school for the Women’s Day holiday. I put out an esteira & some markers, and they got started while I brought in my laundry & waited for English club participants to arrive.

After English club, my evening followed the usual routine: cook dinner, read my kindle, lock up my door and grates, and go to bed early. So that’s a “day in the life,” and I can’t wait for the rest of them I have left in Mozambique! I’ll be wrapping up my agriculture/nutrition project, facilitating the next steps for the U.S. Embassy grant, coordinating a REDES conference, and solidifying all the relationships I’ve built up with health organizations in the city. I’ll leave these organizations with a final report on my activities, and will hopefully be able to pave the way for several new volunteers in Lichinga & neighboring districts.

That being said, I’m currently getting ready for a vacation, and will be out of site for a few weeks. First I’m heading to Johannesburg and Cape Town with two other volunteers; I can’t wait for our hike up Table Mountain and our wine and CHEESE tour. Then the Moz 16ers have our COS (close of service) conference in Maputo, which will be our last time together as a group. I haven’t wrapped my head around that yet, but I can’t wait to see everyone.

After the conference, my friend Kate Diaz will meet up with me– a fellow NU grad AND fellow PCV. She’s about to finish her third year of service in Peru, and will come almost immediately to Africa for an epic journey across the country, all the way up to Lichinga. I can’t wait to see her, compare our experiences, and visit a few beaches along the way. And somewhere during all of that, I’ll have my 27th birthday! Many volunteers do a “COS trip” and visit various destinations on their way back to the States. But since I only have a few weeks between finishing my service and starting grad school, I’ll come straight home, and am looking at this trip as my last hurrah. I can’t wait to share pictures & updates from the road!

Posted by: Laura | April 22, 2013

Por do sol & papagaios

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When I wrote my last post, I thought I was writing about violence and death in the past tense. I thought things were looking brighter. But then the situation in Boston got even crazier, and several really sad things happened in my community here in Mozambique. Blogging about them won’t make me feel better; in fact, I’m struggling to write this paragraph. I’ve been processing by talking to neighbors and colleagues, to my REDES girls, to my family at home, to my surrogate Mozambican and Australian families here, and to fellow PCVs. I went to church, I ran ten miles, I listened to some good music. But the goal of this blog is to share a slice of my reality here in Mozambique. And no one can live in Africa for two years without seeing a lot of grief and loss. So here goes…

This weekend, two men who live on my street passed away. They had both been sick, and my neighbors reacted with the normal Mozambican stoicism. My neighbor always says that “each of us has a moment to die, and only God knows when it is.” But even this philosophical attitude to death was shaken by the passing of a little boy two streets over: he accidentally hung himself while playing with a swing or cord. The day after receiving this news, I went to the house of a colleague to pay my respects for her loss the week before. Her 21-year-old epileptic son had run out of his medication and had a fatal series of seizures. I was also praying for another colleague, whose wife was in the hospital after having an emergency abortion. A few hours later, two volunteers who I was meeting for lunch saw a man get hit by a car (although he eventually got up). And a friend who’d adopted one of my kittens called to say that a neighborhood drunk stole and killed her.

With all this news coming at once, I felt sadder than I’d been since December of 2011, when almost simultaneous car accidents killed two Peace Corps volunteers in Gaza province, a 4-year-old girl in my neighborhood, and a young man on my street. I actually feel lucky; I can only imagine what volunteers go through in communities with a higher HIV prevalence and/or less access to health centers. So what do you do, when there’s nothing you CAN do? I don’t have an answer, and I don’t know if anyone really does. I certainly wouldn’t be here without my faith, and praying about these events is difficult but important for me. And the silver lining of these sad times, for all of us working here, is realizing the strength of the relationships we’ve built. I sat in my colleague’s yard, seeing the grief in her face but also the strength in the four generations of women sitting beside each other on an esteira. I was glad to share that moment with them. I recently re-watched the series finale of “The Wire,” and a Kafka quote mentioned in the episode resonated with me:

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

So I’ll leave you with a prayer for everyone’s safety, and a picture I took in this middle of this sad weekend: kids in my neighborhood flying kites in front of a beautiful sunset (which my blackberry camera doesn’t do justice).

Posted by: Laura | April 18, 2013

Boston

Exactly two weeks ago (Thursday, April 4th, 2013 for those keeping track) turned out to be a very momentous day. First, all Moz 16ers received an email with our “close of service” dates. We already knew we’d leave in small groups during the last 3 weeks of July, but seeing the specific dates in writing made it OFFICIAL. Excited texts were immediately exchanged between those of us who’ll be together in Maputo for those last few days of paperwork. I’ll add an “R” to my “PCV” status on July 18th, which brings a huge grin to my face every time I think about it.

To make things even more official, that same day I also accepted my offer of admission to the Harvard Kennedy School. I’ll begin my Master in Public Policy there in September, focusing on urban policy and local government. After my very hands-on experience at CTA and Peace Corps, I’m excited to take a step back and return to academics. Living in Boston will also be a lot closer to friends and family than I am now!

I started writing this post a while ago, but now I have to digress. After the marathon finish-line bombing, I’m not the only one thinking about Boston. On Monday evening, I was celebrating the end of a weekend-long training over a beer in Nampula. I was with a fellow PCV who went to Boston University for undergrad, and we were talking about the city & making plans for her to visit. Suddenly, I checked my phone to see messages from my sister & my former sitemate, and could barely make sense of what they were saying. I spent the next two days on the train/minibus back to site, pouring through news articles and facebook posts whenever we passed through a town with phone service.

Volunteers here in Mozambique had already been checking our phones for safety & security updates all week. Peace Corps instituted a travel ban in the central region after a bus was ambushed on the main EN1 highway & three people were killed. The violence brought back memories of the devastating 16-year civil war that ended in 1992, particularly because it seemed linked to recent confrontation between the political parties. A few days earlier, police had arrested several Renamo (opposition) members at their headquarters, and a Renamo attack on the station to free them left four police officers dead.

With municipal elections this year and national ones next year, everyone was concerned. But as things calmed down, PCVs went back to planning the annual “Beach Olympics” event. A flurry of texts and calls went out to see who would still make the trek down to Inhambane. But on Monday evening, it was suddenly our friends and family in the States who we wanted to check in with, as we saw images from home that looked like a war zone.

I wish I could say goodbye to Mozambique knowing that the country is safe from violence, free from fear, and led by a proactive government capable of meaningful action. I’d like to return to the U.S. feeling the same way about my terra materna. But the headlines seem to say– to shout– otherwise. So like many of my friends, I turned to comedian Patton Oswalt’s argument against the “I’ve had it with humanity” mindset:

This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness… [But] we would not be here if humanity was inherently evil… So when you spot violence, or hatred, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

Ultimately, I’ll still keep in touch with my Mozambican colleagues to discuss the elections, and I’ll still run (half) marathons in the States. As one of my favorite Washington Post blogs put it, “This won’t be the last time we gather at the finish line to marvel how much more we can take than anyone ever thought possible.”

Links: http://m.facebook.com/pattonoswalt/posts/10151440800582655 and http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/15/if-you-are-losing-faith-in-human-nature-go-out-and-watch-a-marathon/

Posted by: Laura | March 3, 2013

Happy 52nd Birthday, Peace Corps!

Recently, two blog posts about the Peace Corps experience have made the rounds among my fellow volunteers. Given how much they’ve resonated with everyone I know, and in honor of Peace Corps Week, I wanted to share them here.

*****

http://thesharpiemarkerapproach.tumblr.com/post/42420977797/an-open-letter

Adjusted standards of cleanliness? Um, sometimes I write “tomar banho” on my to-do list and am a liiiiittle too proud of myself when I check it off. Gross bodily functions in general? Let’s get serious, I vomited more than the average person even before I joined Peace Corps. But, true, I never travel without a plastico (and my former sitemate/frequent chapa companion Jon Brown can attest that they’ve often come in handy). A rollercoaster of highs and lows, with anger and despair sometimes provoked by a kid yelling “hey whitey?” Yes, on a weekly basis. But government-issued friends are always there to help you get through it. And it’s always worth it, because:

“You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself… You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.”

*****

http://waidsworld.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/the-real-peace-corps/

Counting up/down the months and fantasizing about food make up 70% of PCV conversations. But, yes, what I really miss is just spending time with friends and family. And blending in with my fellow, wonderfully diverse Americans:

“You will be stared at 24/7 365. I understand what it’s like to be a good-looking girl at a frat party. Stay strong ladies.”

No two days are the same, but they all require an insane amount of patience. Bank lines and transport are the WORST, and sometimes make me contemplate ETing (early terminating my service). At the same time, there are many things about Mozambique that I know I’ll miss every day.

*****

And here’s a third “bacela” link to a post by Acting Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. She obviously has a different perspective than the (R)PCVs above, but is also reflecting on the volunteer experience & on what we take away from our service.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/carrie-hesslerradelet/peace-corps-week_b_2728204.html

*****

Overall, my first reaction after reading the first two posts was “uhoh, I just realized that I’m going to be a bit of a freak when I get home.”

When three of my toenails fell off, I found it interesting and kind of funny. I certainly considered myself lucky in comparison to fellow PCVs dealing with painful abscesses and nasty skin infections. But my sister, whose friends presumably spend less time discussing skin issues, thought my lack of toenails was more gross than humorous.

(And speaking of feet, I’m always amazed by the unfamiliar pinkish color that mine take on during conferences in Maputo, when I trade dusty roads at site for hot showers in a hotel.)

Will friends stateside be similarly appalled when they show up for a visit, only to realize that I expect them to share my bed and/or sleep on the floor? Maybe 10+ people crashing in one house isn’t normal… But don’t worry, guys! I’ll just set up my tent in the yard, roll out my yoga mat & wrap myself in a capulana! And I’m happy to do my business in the latrine, so we don’t use up all the water bucket-flushing the indoor toilet. Nope, still weird? And you’re saying we WON’T be getting up at 5 am to start our trip, with breakfast purchased from guys shoving their products through the minibus window? Oh, okay, cool.

But the bottom line of these reflections is that Peace Corps gives us the tools, experience and resiliency to deal with… pretty much anything. So I’m sure that includes readjusting to life in Americaland (or “Cheeseland” as a friend recently called it). And if being a weird, kinda gross (R)PCV is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Posted by: Laura | March 2, 2013

Challenges

Earlier this year, a friend shared an article about personal responsibility & how cognitively exhausting it is to be poor. All politics aside, this really captured how I see poverty here at my site.

http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/20/what-romney-doesnt-understand-about-personal-responsibility/

As I wrote in a post last year, my service has been all about simple living– I don’t have many possessions, but I don’t miss them. Despite living in one of the poorest countries in the world, I don’t FEEL impoverished. Yeah, PCVs joke about being poor, and my family made fun of my paltry tax return. I do get excited when I find coins under my bed, or when the tomato lady throws in a bacela (bonus) after I thank her in the local language. And I do vaguely remember a time when juice and cheese weren’t considered luxuries. But I also admit to being in the “Posh Corps” as I enjoy the wide range of food that I can buy at my urban site, with my generous living allowance.

What it comes down to, for me and my Mozambican neighbors, is the reality described in this article. Poverty is not as dramatic as people at home may perhaps picture it. But it’s the little difficulties, the trivial obstacles, that mount up until they constitute a serious challenge.

For example, my friend Eva skipped school one day because she didn’t have a clean uniform to wear. I lectured her, but at the same time, her excuse isn’t totally ridiculous. To do laundry, you need to set aside several hours of free time, which will hopefully coincide with the irregular hours when the water is on (if you’re lucky enough to have a spigot in your yard). You also keep your fingers crossed for sunshine to dry the clothes on the line. And of course you need the energy to vigorously scrub each item and dump out big tubs of water. All PCVs dread washing pants, let alone blankets. So what if you’re sick, or just tired out from hauling water or hoeing in your garden? I pay my empregada Lurdes to do laundry, which is the best $10/month I’ve ever spent. Money just makes life so much easier.

But there are many hassles that I can’t subcontract. I once spent an entire week trying to scan & email a document… and never succeeded. If the water, phone service, internet and electricity are all working on a given day, it feels like the stars have aligned. When I get home, will I ever feel that I’ve truly conseguir-ed (accomplished something)? Everything will just be so easy! Even the word “conseguir” conveys so much more than its English translation! I’ll be able to whip out a credit card for almost any purchase, rather than having to hunt down a working ATM (only located in the city center) and wait in line for an hour or more.

Given all these variables, it’s really hard to adhere to any fixed plan or schedule. I visited a friend recently who lives 400 km (about 250 miles) away. It took 14 hours to get there, and two DAYS to get back. So obviously I missed a morning of work; but I just texted my supervisors about the transporte problems, and it was no big deal. The Mozambican attitude towards time can be frustrating, but also prevents you from going crazy when unforseen snags arise. Mozambicans also have amazing perspective; they constantly thank God for their health and family, and accept setbacks with unswerving positivity.

However, the world is full of truly huge disasters that can’t be met by just flexibility and a good attitude. Here in Mozambique, there’s been terrible flooding across the country– the worst in over a decade. Displaced families literally have nothing, which I can’t even imagine. I can barely wrap my head around the evacuations of my fellow PCVs, some of whom will continue their work elsewhere, while others have returned to see dramatic changes and devastation in their communities. Picturing what that means for a Mozambican with no safety net– giving birth on a roof, living in a displacement camp– is almost impossible. Here’s are some links that express it better than I can:

http://www.undispatch.com/not-on-a-1-massive-flooding-in-mozambique

http://facebook.com/TheGuijaFund

And another interesting article about water management more generally, which talks about my province (Niassa) and the huge role of forestry companies:

http://allafrica.com/stories/201303011496.html/

Posted by: Laura | January 8, 2013

Love, actually.

sunset on lake niassa at new years

sunset on lake niassa at new years

I started writing this post on the second-to-last night of 2012. Maybe I should have kept it as a private journal entry, but I decided to share it here, so bear with me when I get emo and/or wordy.

As December came to a close, the following activities were a given: 1) Christmas and 2) todo o mundo taking stock of the past year. However, I found both really challenging this year.

I’ll start with Christmas. I think December is a hard time for all PCVs, especially here in Mozambique as we remember the loss of Lena and Alden in last year’s accident. As Christmas got closer, I couldn’t even decide what I wanted to do for the holidays. Well, I knew what I WANTED: to be at home with my family. For the first and only time since last Christmas, I was homesick. But as I listened to “I’ll be home for Christmas” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” and “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas/everywhere you go/but the prettiest sight to see/is the holly that will be/on your own front door,” I knew it wasn’t in the cards. (Also, man, Christmas songs can really be maudlin).

So, while chanting under my breath “I’llbehomefornextyearI’llbehomefornextyear,” I contemplated my options here in Mozambique. My neighbors were rehearsing with the church choir for Christmas masses, and our Australian missionary friends said I’d be welcome at their various activities, from a ladies night gift swap to an evening of caroling. But Christmas at site had been lonely last year, and despite my vastly increased levels of integration with the church ladies AND the aussies, I was nervous about a repeat.

If I stayed in Lichinga, I’d also have to juggle those activities with the plans of my new sitemates, Jade & Ella, who were hosting Christmas their fellow newbies. They’re truly great– I’m so happy to have the whole Moz 19 crew in Niassa, and I had an awesome time with them at the lake for New Year’s. But I knew Christmas with them wouldn’t be quite the same as the elaborate dinner parties I’d grown used to with Chris and Jon. I miss both of those boys a ton, and haven’t FULLY indoctrinated their replacements into our system of carefully planned events with elaborate themes & many lists posted on the whiteboard. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

In the end, I spent Christmas with my fellow Moz 16ers on the beach in Pemba. I was excited to visit Cabo Delgado province (the last of the eleven in Moz for me to pass through). And, of course, the poolside dance party on Christmas night was pretty fun. It was totally worth the 3 days of travel each way– even with 8 different rides on the last day, including one in the back of a pickup truck with an entire dead cow laying next to us & an old man negotiating the price to marry me.

That being said, I still felt melancholy during my stay in Pemba. And it was more than just the holiday. For the past few weeks, I’ve struggled with anxiety and the blues. I’m not dealing with any particular challenges; as always, my site/job/friends/family are awesome. (Well, my computer did die & my keys fell down the latrine, but that’s par for the course here in Moz). I’ve simply felt daunted by my to-do list & lacked the umph needed to tackle projects and keep up solid routines. So, despite the close of the year & my 18 month anniversary in Moz, I mentally shied away from the summing up & self-evaluation that would usually accompany those milestones.

When a few friends put up year-end blog posts, I felt a pang of that good ol’ inadequacy. I’ll give some examples why. Tory quit her job and traveled through asia for 6 weeks with her boyfriend. Dan ran 1,348.6 miles, kept track of that statistic, AND got married. Jaema declared 2012 her best year ever, with getting engaged as the icing on the cake. And Sam, in her words, “married a wonderful guy and read a ton of books.” (And yes, I will be the only single person left in America by the time I get home.)

But then I read the actual posts by these lovely people. At first, I was overwhelmed by how much I miss my friends. But then I realized they’ve all been a big part of my life this year, despite being far away. Tory’s travel log kept me entertained on my 11-hour train ride after Christmas, and I fiend for her seasonal playlists until I manage to download them every few months. She also reserved the hotel room for her, me & Kate’s reunion at Sam’s wedding. My Victoria Falls marathon adventure clearly showed Dan’s influence on me from afar, and I was honored to be recognized at him & Steph’s wedding as the guest who had traveled the furthest to be there. I got a few shoutouts at Sam’s wedding as well, and her blog has guided my selections from the vast Peace Corps kindle library. An email exchange with Jaema about relationships & gratitude yielded insights that I know will stick with me for years to come, and she was an amazing hostess for several days of running, lattes, yoga, sushi & exploring Brooklyn.

Then I thought about all the people I interacted with on the day I sat down to write this post– within a 12-hour window on December 30th. I met a really sweet older man who coordinated our NYE lake trip. I talked to my 8-year-old neighbor buddy Toria about rites of initiation, and she claimed that her baby brother has learned how to say my name. I taught three ladies how to make American bolo (cake) and showed them pictures my mom had sent of snow in the Poconos. I hung out with the whole crew of Moz 19ers. I had a great chat with two Australians traveling through Lichinga. I wished the mayor a happy New Year when I ran into him at the liquor store. And I ended the day with a hilarious homily from an 80-year-old Mozambican priest about how women shouldn’t drink whiskey.

After considering these experiences from the past year & the past day, I realized that all my worries about where I should be/with whom/doing what were besides the point. The people who are important to me are part of my life & always will be, whether I’m physically with them or not. And the experiences I have wherever I am depend not on my choice of itinerary but on how I engage. The fact that I wish I could be so many places, and that I am in fact here for right now, isn’t a reason to be sad– it’s amazing & shows how lucky I am. And, yes, with such amazing opportunities it can be hard to live up to my standard of how much I should be giving back. But structuring my life isn’t about making to-do lists or finding the best format for my database; it’s way, way more simple than that. It’s about loving people. It’s about loving my friends, my family, my neighbors, all the people I’m trying to serve, and everyone who’s important to me. It’s about loving them no matter where they are, or when I’ll see them, or how much we have in common. This is the way to connect with the people I’m with & the people I wish I could be wish.

This is all incredibly simple, not even worthy of an Eat/Pray/Love movie, but it took a conscious shift in how I was thinking about things. Which, not coincidentally, is what Jaema and Dan both blogged about. To be a total nerd, I will include here a quote from Dan’s running blog:

In the words of a mighty wizard, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  As I continue to move forward in life, keeping close ties with old friends and meeting new people, I’m thrilled that I can do it all by doing what the human body does best: run.  With every additional mile, I am reminded not only that I am fulfilling an evolutionary goal, but that happiness is a choice and not a consequence.  Some people run because they feel they have to – to lose weight or to mitigate the effects of a greasy meal.  I run because I want to, because I enjoy every step.

…And on that note, I bid ye all a Happy New Year.  May you achieve your goals, learn from your mistakes and keep pressing onwards with an insatiable desire to live.  Because we must always remember that whatever we do in this sport, we do ourselves.  Sometimes we receive encouragement from others and in certain instances we might get swept up in someone else’s training plan.  But at the end of the day, what you do and the choices you make are yours.  You plan, you prepare, you follow through and lastly, you learn.

I can truly say that I learned a lot this year, and my resolution to love others is another way of saying that I want to keep learning; I want to be open to people & experiences, and to how I can contribute while also letting them change me.

Running and church are two of the ways I think about important things & keep myself on the right track, so I’ll switch here from the former to the latter. One of the readings at mass on the day I wrote this post said the following:

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.

What struck me is that, after the laundry list of good things like compassion, humility and forgiveness, St. Paul says: “and over all of these put on love.” I have plenty of lists myself, including lists of accomplishments for 2013. Finish my Peace Corps service! Get into grad school! Attend my 5-year college reunion! But over all of these, I should put on love. So what I’m stating as my new year’s resolution, inelegant an simplistic as it may be, is to “love everyone, a lot, all the time.” 2012 was full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’ll never forget, and if I follow my resolution for 2013, I believe I’ll remember this year with pride as well.

Posted by: Laura | December 12, 2012

12.12.12

Today’s date of 12/12/12 is pretty catchy, as is the upcoming end of the world on 12/21/12. But as a Health volunteer, I’ve been more focused on 12/1/12, which marks the annual observance of World AIDS Day. As part of the activities here in Lichinga, my REDES girls’ group combined with my sitemate Jon’s students to present a theater piece.

To backtrack a bit, the two groups initially met when they tied for 2nd place at an English Theater competition in September. English Theater, like REDES, is a secondary project organized by Peace Corps Volunteers across the country. I thought it would be a great opportunity for my REDES group to practice their English and public speaking skills, and to spend a fun weekend in Cuamba with groups from other cities and provinces. And since I was away from site for the 6 weeks leading up to the competition, it was logistically simpler to work with my REDES group rather than forming a new group specifically for English Theater.

The theater piece was based on my REDES group’s discussions of issues faced by their peers. The protagonist is a young girl who is violated by her teacher. The encounter leaves her pregnant, HIV positive, and ashamed of herself. The play addressed issues of harassment/assault in schools, premature pregnancy, and stigma surrounding HIV. The REDES members developed the script themselves in response to the competition’s theme: “We Are All Equal.”

My REDES group was the only all-girls group at the English Theater competition—most groups had one or two girls, if any. In addition to tying for second place, the girl playing the protagonist won Best Actress. It was a huge boost to their confidence and to all the participants’ opinion of what an all-girls group could do. I was really proud of the girls for continuing their work while I was travelling; it was a great demonstration of the group’s sustainability.

The girl who won Best Actress is named Estela, and is actually my empregada’s niece. She participated in the National Science Fair with my sitemate Chris last year, and he referred her to me as a possible REDES member when I first created the group. She was very enthusiastic, and due to her great attitude and perfect attendance at meetings, she was selected to attend the regional REDES workshop in July. After the workshop, she took an even more active role in recruiting other girls & facilitating some activities during the meetings. Her confidence and positive spirit have grown over the course of the year and have been great to see. My family observed it for themselves when they met her during their visit to Lichinga. Seeing her dance up to the stage at the English Theater competition and then fall to her knees and cross herself after accepting the Best Actress award was one of the most heartwarming moments of my service thus far. And after participating in three of Peace Corps’ secondary projects, Estela is a great ambassador to promote these types of activities among her peers, many of whom have never travelled outside Lichinga.

I’ve seen a similar blossoming of confidence in my REDES co-facilitator, Clara. She was a 19-year-old student at the Pedagogical University when we first began working together, whereas many REDES counterparts are middle-aged activists. However, her leadership and communication skills stood out during every training and workshop, and she was selected to represent the Mozambican facilitators on the national REDES leadership team. This is a new role within REDES, which I think will be great for Clara and for REDES as a whole. Since I’m now the REDES Northern Regional Coordinator, I’m excited to work with her to plan meetings and workshops during the coming year.

The World AIDS Day theater piece was another great example of sustainability and the development of leadership skills among the Mozambicans we work with. After their win at English Theater, the students approached me and my sitemate Jon to propose a joint project. They wanted to build on their experience by presenting a theater piece here in the community. They selected a theme, wrote a script, and more or less directed the rehearsals themselves. They even threw a surprise party for Jon after the performance, since it was also his last day in Lichinga. I’m not sure which he enjoyed more—the party, or the pickup line referencing limits that his math students included in the theater script. The students are now using their summer vacation to film a “telenovela” soap opera in my backyard. The storyline follows the romantic intrigues among a group of students as they work on a theater piece… Art imitating life?

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