The Birds and The Bees

The Group

The Group

Twenty-eight people from around the province came together to get the talk. Granted, they didn’t sign up for the stereotypical sit down with the parents: “So son… this is what sex is.” That sort of awkwardness conversation doesn’t exist; parents often avoid the topic and leave the kids in the dark about the changes happening to their body during puberty. The kids are left with no other option but self-discovery, and if you remember yourself as a teenager, you know that probably is not the best decision.

The weekend started with teenagers ready to impress. Introductions were accompanied by dances and songs, and when I say accompanied, each person would have an entire routine planned after the quick glance over their name. Also, these dances weren’t a quick one trick; each dance and song went on for its entirety. They knew how to get a conference started. Immediately following the club-like atmosphere, the energy kept going through some high paced games.

As the laughing turned into smiles and people began to settle down, we started planning out the rest of the weekend. Each group was responsible for an area of puberty or sexual health. They were free to decide on presentation method and choose a topic; the topics included sex and gender, violence, AIDS/HIV, or STDs.

Imagining something like the classroom, we were ready to have to start assigning a topic for each group. However, peoples hands were shooting up when we were presenting the topics. “Oh. Oh. Can we do that one?” “Can we do that one?”

After each group received a topic, they didn’t skip a beat. People were running off to get supplies and going to their special spot to plan. They were ready and excited to have the opportunity to learn and present. “Where was this energy in the classroom?” I thought to myself. Letting the thought float out of my head, we were excited to see their enthusiasm. This was something new to them and something they wanted to teach about.

After corralling everyone back into the room, we had to tame the crowd for the order to present; everyone wanted to be first to share all of their information. After the dust settled, we began our presentations, and the rest of the day was filled with skits, condom demonstrations, and presentations.

After the sweeping round of applause for each presentation, there was a time for questions for each group. These questions helped to taper the conversation to what the participants really wanted to know, and they had plenty they wanted to know. One of the biggest round of questions that we had was surrounded around menstruation.

When talking about menstruation, the participants were more on their toes than ever before. Apparently, no one had taken the time to explain the basics while they were a child. It was a whole new world for them, and they wanted to understand. Fortunately for the curiosity, people in Mozambique are not shy about sharing very personal details with each other.

Some of the girls decided to take charge and sit up front for an open forum. The questions poured in from sex while you’re on your period to a pad demonstration. Looking around the room during the question time, I noticed that all of the men were fixed with open eyes and curious expressions, just looking for any little bit of information. They were truly amazed at what the girls had to say. This session could have gone on for days with further explanations and demonstrations, but we had already extended the sessions for two and a half hours and their dinner was getting cold.

However, leaving the conference room did not stop them. The conversations continued through the night, but the structured session were over, and in Mozambique, there is no better way to end a conference than with certificates. As the participants filed through one by one, the joy radiated throughout the room. They knew they had something to be proud of; they had participated in a workshop about sexual health and were ready to take what they learned back to the community. Many people came up to the other leaders and me throughout the rest of the night just to express their gratitude. “My parents are going to be so proud of me” was the sentiment that I kept hearing.Certificates

After the rounds of certificates, we went out back and went wild with the pictures.

Overall it was a successful weekend with some incredible kids, and I can’t wait to see where they’re going to take things from here.

Reflecting on the Weekend

Reflecting on the Weekend

“Tea” with a Side of Sugar

IMG_5028Coming to Mozambique, I had no idea how central tea was going to be to my life, and days like today are when it becomes more apparent. Days like today are days for reflection; days where everything is quiet: no music, no kids running around, and only the tip tap of the rain hitting its puddles. Days like today allow me to reflect on how teatime went from a thought of Victorian era dress with crumpets and teacakes to laughing with my community members.

Flashback to the first day of training…

With butterflies in our stomachs, we unloaded from our bus to a chilled hiss of rain coming down to this new home. Eyes wide and goosebumps all over, we walked into a memory. Drum beats and sweet songs filled the air as we searched to find our new family. Living in the moment with nothing to prepare us for this, we embraced our new families.

Clueless and lost, I followed my sister hand-in-hand to our house. Not wanting to just walk in silence we tried to muster any conversation we could in Portuguese; when all failed we started singing one through ten with our arms swinging back and forth. Then I was there. Home.

My House During Training

My House During Training

The rest of my family welcomed me in, and I was sat in a chair. “Tomar chá? Tomar chá?” my host mother kept repeating to me. I looked around the room for help, and then proceeded to nod out of confusion. Everyone started to move around me, and as I tried to get up, I felt hands on my shoulders push me down. “Okay. Not moving,” I thought to myself.

Moments later a steaming cup of tea was laid before me. After lifting up the cup, the steam spread across my face as a calming blow left from my mouth. After a day in the rain, this was the needed warmth. After a day of confusion, this put my mind at ease. After a day of miscommunication, this allowed for a welcoming silence. As I sat there enjoying my tea, as I would learn to do at least twice a day during training, I started to understand how blended teatime and Mozambican culture have become.

Flashback to being dropped off at site for the first time…

With nerves at an all time high, we were loaded into the car after dropping off my closest fellow Americans. I didn’t know what was before me or how far away my new home was going to be, but there was only one way to go.

Through the five hours of floating in and out of consciousness to my site, the anxiety turned into a blissful peace. The peace settled in as we wound through the mountains; we caught glimpses of small communities and tea fields. I reminisced on all precious teatime moments with my family and neighbors in training. Any doubts floated away as I remembered the comfort of a fresh batch of tea, the company of the people around, and how each teatime led to deepening relations with the people around me.

Tea Fields Near My House

Tea Fields Near My House

Flashback to tea at someone’s house…

After the first couple of weeks of wandering around like a lost puppy, people started to realize I wasn’t going anywhere. And when they realize you’re not going anywhere, they welcome you with open arms, literally; hugs every five meters. What comes next are an overflowing series of invitations: “Will you come over to my house?”; “I want to show you my life and become best friends.”; “Come meet my daughter.”. The last comment may have had some hidden intentions, but all seemed equally enthused to have the new person in the community come to their house.

Before going to the first house, my nerves were everywhere. “What do I say?”; “Am I going to be able to keep conversation flowing with my Portuguese?”; “What are we even going to do?”. My thoughts were racing, so I cranked up the Space Jam Soundtrack and jumped around singing around my house. “Shake out the nerves Thomas. Shake ‘em out,” I told myself. I slipped on my shoes and headed out my door hyped-up, nerve ridden, and ready to talk about anything, and when I entered the house, any hint of nerves left immediately vanished.

The table was set for tea. This was perfect.

I sat down and was ready. I had been through this before with my host family – the perfect blend of conversation, silence, and the comfort of a warm cup of tea.

As the sugar was passed around the table, people were scooping countless heaps into their cup. As the sugar finally came around to me, I scooped in my usual amount. Before I could pass it along, confused eyes stared back at me. “No take more. Take more,” they insisted. Not wanting to overpower the tea, I poured one more teaspoon in. “Ohhhhhh. You don’t understand,” someone let out.

“Wait what?” confused, I muttered.

“We don’t use leaves in our tea. The leaves are too expensive, so we just use sugar and water. That’s how we do tea.”

Others around the table looked confused. One person decided to chime in.

“What? There are supposed to be leaves in tea? What do you call it when there are leaves in the tea? What is it supposed to be called how we drink it? What do these leaves look like?” and the questions rattled on.

Silently, I leaned back and listened in on the conversation about the different between “proper” tea and tea defined by Mozambique’s standards. My friends around the table did not know the word chá (tea in English) consisted of anything beyond hot water and sugar. The cultural exchanged that ensued was eye opening.

The poverty around Mozambique has changed the vocabulary of the people in country. Although tea fields surround where I live and many other places in Mozambique, the people did not see the connection between the plants and the drink that share the same name. This disconnect allowed for an opportunity to have a cultural exchange in a calm and welcoming environment of teatime.

As we sat around that table for a couple of hours drinking our “tea”, I realized how easy this was. They welcomed me, the cultural exchange was fluid, and I felt at home.

As I reflect on these moments watching the rainfall off my veranda, I can’t help to be comforted by the experiences and opportunities I’ve had just with a cup of “tea” and a side of sugar.

Death is Different

That sound. As the cry becomes more pronounced, it progresses from a murmur to wail. The sound registers in my head: “I’ve heard this before.” This is the sound that occasionally echoes outside the hospital and lingers in the hearts of people close by. It’s the sound that is synonymous with death. However that night was different. The murmur of one turned into the cry of the community.

Looking out my window, I saw my neighbor collapse to her knees as tears uncontrollably fell from her face. Her body throbbed as her sobbing took control. This loss is different.

Racking my brain for the difference, I reflected on previous loss in the community. Mothers losing their child, losing their baby, losing the one with so much life ahead of them. There was lament. There were tears. There was community support, but there was not this hopeless loss of everything.

In the morning, I went to check in on my neighbors. Approaching the house, I caught a glimpse of how the loss still waged on. Puffy eyed, sluggish, and disconnected, she was monotonously doing the morning cleaning; the weight of the death carried on.

“Laura. Good morning. How are you doing today?” I managed as I approached the woman ready to fall apart again.

“I’m sad.” She managed to choke out.

Before getting ready to go over to her house I reflected on the image of the night before; however, I was not ready for this statement. Not once have I heard someone in Mozambique say that they are sad, just being okay gives people enough concern.

I approached the next few lines with caution.

“Oh no. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Keeping her eyes fixed on the ground she whispered, “No Thomas no. There’s nothing anyone can do.”

Not knowing where to go with the conversation, I asked the question I feared the answer to, “What happened?”

Taking a deep sigh she managed to whisper such a simple but powerful statement. “He died.”

As she slowly squeezed it out she lifted her head to look at me. Eyes red and tears streaming down her weathered face, she couldn’t contain herself any longer. The scene from the previous night made its second appearance.

After a long embrace, we took a seat. Through silence, tears, and periodic talking, the story came out. The man, the oldest man in the community, died at the age of 106.

Not realizing the impact of the elderly in the community, I took a mental step back. A 106-year-old man has this much effect on a community? What did he do? Isn’t it pleasant that he died in his sleep? He lived a full life and was ready to die, right?

Little did I know how engrained my Western view of death was. Traditionally in the States, the loss of a child is heartbreaking because the missed opportunity of the life before him or her, and an older person dying in their sleep is peaceful and eliminates any suffering that they may have had. We focus on the future. Death is different here.

People here celebrate the past; history is what defines them as a people, and they rejoice knowing their mutual history. In their mind, a child had little to no history on the Earth; therefore they unfortunately did not have a chance to contribute to the future of their people. On the other hand someone that had lived many years has experiences that go beyond the minds of much of the community. They hold secrets, legends, and insight into the past that go beyond the masses. In a community where oral history dominates, this man was the gatekeeper.

He told stories of Mozambique under colonial rule, the War for Independence, the Mozambican Civil War, and how this community survived through everything. This man held more knowledge about my community than any history book, and now it is gone.

My neighbor, Laura, was beside herself because someone died, yes. But more than that, she lost a part of her when this man passed. She lost a bit of something that defined her. She lost a bit of her community. She lost a bit of her past.

Moments like these require proper reflection. Moments like these humble you with the little time that you have experienced on the earth. Moments like these make you want to go out and here people’s stories. Everyone has something unique to offer, and it’s about time we go out there and discover the past that has been around us just waiting in the memories of our neighbors. It’s time to go out and create a history for the future.IMG_3829

Fact Check Episode 1

No instant gratification. No fact checking. No quick Google search. Just a nod in agreement when someone says something. Some of us may remember a world without “all” answers just being a quick click away. A world without internet and a world with a greater since of belief and wonder. To experience such a phenomenon you could take a time machine back before smart phones, SIRI, and fact checks or you come on over to my neck of the woods in Africa.

Without this instant access, things are perpetuated into a realm of truth that would not stand a chance in more developed worlds. Not everything is bad though. It provides a since of entertainment and curiosity. Sometimes I wonder where someone could have come up with these thoughts; the people have quite a knack for creativity. Well in order to not keep all the imaginative lines to myself, I would like to welcome you to episode one of Fact Check Mozambique Edition.

“A lady turned into a snake at the local restaurant”

Before one of my university classes, one of my students asks me if I heard what happened that day; this is what happened. “A lady in the community turned into a snake at the local restaurant.” The things my community finds truth in shocks me everyday, but this? From a university student? No matter how much I insisted its impossibility, reasoned with science, and tried to make light of the situation, he would not believe that his friend could have been lying to him.

“After someone in the community took medication from the traditional healer, he turned into an eagle and flew above the community. Now he has a better view on the community and how things can be run.”

According to the boy, there was nothing short of the absolute truth in this story. The man flew over the community. What I didn’t have the heart to tell him was that the traditional healer probably just gave him some medicine that got him high. However, if somehow all of this shape shifting is true and keeps happening, I’m going to have to try and learn. I wonder what my spirit animal will be.

Maybe he just got the view from the mountain

Maybe he just got the view from the mountain

“You can cure malaria by spraying all the mosquitos you can see with bug spray”

Sure. If there are no mosquitos than you can’t get bit and can’t get malaria. That’s nice and all, but you’re not going to kill them all. The more concerning part about this statement is that it came from someone working in the health field. Someone that Mozambicans rely on for health information wholeheartedly believes that you can prevent malaria by spraying the mosquitos you see. Looks like we have a little bit of malaria education we need to do before our next session.

“There are no black people outside of Sub-Saharan Africa”

This belief was universal for all of the people around me; according to them, in order to be black you have to be born in Southern Africa or Central Africa. After naming Libya and Egypt as examples, they all concluded a definite region to qualify.

“White people can’t be poor”

On a recent bus ride, this debate ensued for two hours. Yelling so loud, I could feel people hurl their thoughts as spit consistently landed on my face; the person beside me must have had a gleeking problem. As example after example rolled out, the passengers decided to agree to disagree. The people that have not seen a poor white person refused to believe that the white people that they see in movies or television have counterparts that are poor. Of course the white foreigner (me) was not permitted to contribute in this debate.

On the things about the United States

“Barack Obama is not African American”

When I heard this I turned my head just to clarify that they were talking about the same person. Yep turns out it was. According to the people around me, in order to be considered African American you must have both parents and all relatives from Africa. Since President Obama’s mother is from Kansas, he had no chance according to them. As much as I tried to reason, this was one that was had to agree to disagree on.

“Michael Jackson died black”

Apparently, according to the man on the bus, Michael Jackson had surgery and was white, but miraculously he turned black again before he died. After being shot down from disbelief from the others, he changed his story to the fact that Michael Jackson had another surgery before he died to change him back to having black skin. His claim apparently stemmed from something he read on the Internet, and as we all know, everything on the Internet is truthful and factual. Not.

“Michael Jackson only had a white face. The rest of his body was black”

Okay this idea what shut down pretty fast by the people around me; however the instigator stood his ground that it was fact. I’m honestly not entirely sure how this would work or where he got this information from. However, this rumor could have been shot down in a heartbeat with a quick Google image search.

“Michael Jackson is still alive”

Okay, so this statement wasn’t on the bus ride, but since we are talking about Michael Jackson, we might as well touch on the biggest Michael Jackson myth in Mozambique. In the South, Central, and North you can pole five people that know who Michael Jackson is (it is a surprisingly large number of people) and will find at least one person that will argue this point for days. From the many conversations I have had on this subject, it is impossible to convince someone otherwise. They heard it on television, heard it on the radio, one of their friends saw him, or a friend of a friend knows for sure. From all the reports, Michael Jackson is allegedly living in Kenya, Senegal, Cabo Verde, or some other islands; reports vary on location.

“The Americas is one continent” “Europe and Asia are one continent” “There are only five continents” “What’s Antarctica? (After an explanation it is always followed by) Oh no there’s nothing like that that exists.”

Most times when I tell people I’m American they think that I am from somewhere in North or South America; the clarification of the United States is lost to most. People often ask how long it takes to drive home. Geography is definitely not Mozambique’s strong suite. After breaking out a world map, the people are astonished. “Wow what’s that.” “Oh that’s where that country is?” “What is that thing on the bottom.” Out of all the geography books and maps that I have seen in Mozambique, I have never once seen Antarctica; don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it exists somewhere. But take a step back and think about it, there is just a massive block of ice at the South Pole? If you take a step back and think about it, especially to people that have never even seen snow before, it sounds absurd. Geographical skills are lacking and most of my student’s can’t even identify Mozambique on a map. However, with the Postcard Project and others, we are slowing changing this unfamiliarity at my school.

Pangea all over again!

Pangea all over again!

A Father’s Love

The Family

The Family

One thing that you must first understand is a stereotype exists in Mozambique about fathers; fathers in Mozambique are generally regarded as drunks and do not care about anything in their life except for themselves. This neglect sadly includes caring for their wives or children. However, like many stereotypes, there are instances where there is truth and instances to the contrary. Every time I see this stereotype proved false it warms my heart. This example is just one of the many that I have seen.

I noticed the father and his daughters during one of the many speeches during the welcome to school ceremony. One of the girls was playing peekaboo with me around one of her father’s legs. She kept giggling around every corner. The father noticed what was happening and gave me a wave and a grin from ear to ear. He seemed like a friendly enough guy, but I wasn’t sure why he was there. He was clearly not a student or a teacher. Most all of the children came alone, but I suspected he must have brought his children along. It is always nice, especially as a teacher, to see a parent caring about their children’s education.

Later that day there was a ceremony for a playground opening. While the kids stormed into the first playground in town, all of the adults stood outside and continued to chat with their friends. However, I spotted the father holding his daughters’ hands walking them in. The nervous little girls were comforted by their father’s touch.

At one point while everyone was playing, he asked me to take a picture of him and his daughters (shown at the beginning of the post). As I took their picture, we were swarmed by other children that wanted to get in the shot; it ended up that you couldn’t even see his daughters.

The Crowd

The Crowd

I caught up with him later to show him the picture of him in his daughters. He was blown away, and asked for a picture of his daughters by themselves. As he was lining them up to take a picture, one of the girls scurried off. I snapped the picture of his eldest as he tried to fetch the younger.IMG_2028

After seeing the picture of his eldest and losing all hope in getting them both in a picture together, he responded “Wow. I just wish the world could see how beautiful they are”.

Well he is getting his lucky wish.

As we round out the days till father’s day, I cannot begin to express how great these children must think their father is. As we look at this one example, let us reflect this week on moments when we have experienced a father’s love or had it shown out as clearly as this man did that day.