Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fun, Germs and Studying Zeal

Everyone on the island seems to have the flu so the face masks are out in full force. I don't wear one because I like to think that since everyone else is wearing one, that frees up all the clean air for me. Flawed, I know. This line of thinking has worked out so far (find me a piece of wood to knock on, stat!). But I can't help but recoil every time I am within a ten foot radius of a child who sneezes or coughs without covering their mouths and then I have to sing the "Hello Song" with them. The "Hello Song" consists of marching around the room with about 12 first-graders and singing/yelling "Hello, hello, hello, what's your name? Hello, hello, hello!" At this point, you have to find the nearest person and say "My name is Ayami. My name is Erin." And then you shake hands as the music goes "hello, hello, hello" and you find your next partner/flu victim. In the last class, I told them that we were going to play a fun game where we pretend to shake hands but do not touch each other. Also, at the end of class, they all want to give me high fives. Afterward, I race to the antibacterial hand spray and practically hold it up in the air to shower under it to decontaminate, like some horrible lab experiment gone wrong.

With the high school students, it is just more difficult to understand them with a mask covering their mouths. A lot of the students wear masks as a form of prevention. It seems like the third year students, who are in the midst of heavy studying for university exams, are in isolation in a room in a separate wing of the school. I am sure that it's a very crazy time for them with exams. In Japan, the system for graduating students is much different than the system for American kids. American kids apply to three or four universities and then when they go to university, they have a vague idea of what they want to do and then actually decide their sophomore year. In Japan, they begin asking what you want to do with your life when you are in seventh grade and by the time you enter high school, you must know whether you want to go to university or not. If you decide to go, you enter the "alpha" class, which has a more rigorous study schedule than the "beta" class. And you cannot change your mind once you enter the "beta" class. You cannot take the exams for universities. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Their choices at 16 years of age are all a bit too permanent for my taste.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Visiting my old students in Mozambique during this last holiday season really opened my eyes more than ever to the wonderful opportunities I have had because I was born in the United States. My students are entering 12th grade this year and they are already thinking of what they will be able to do once they graduate from school. They all have dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, engineers or activists, but the question that constantly lingers in their minds is whether they and their families will be able to afford to go to university or a technical school. Some people say that this is the problem everywhere. But it is much worse and a much more complicated problem in Mozambique, where there are few jobs for high school graduates, few scholarships properly distributed and no such thing as a student loan.

Although many students have difficult stories and circumstances, one student really has my attention. Fabião is currently 20 years old and just graduated from high school in Monapo, the town in Nampula where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008-2009. My roommate was his teacher but I grew close to him as he would come over to practice using my computer. The oldest of six siblings, Fabião is soft-spoken and always has a quick smile. I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. He and his family are humble and kind.

In the two years after I left Monapo, his older brother passed away and as the next oldest son, he began working to help support his large family. During the 12th grade, he switched courses so that he could study at night. Studying at night in Mozambique isn’t always easy, because often, the level of instruction falls because teachers and students often don’t show up for classes. While going to school at night, he began working at a banana farm some 20 km away from Monapo during the day. Every morning, he woke up at 3:30 and got on a company truck to go collect bananas in the hot sun for 11-12 hours. He returned home at around 4 or 5 pm to bathe and have a short rest before going to school from 6:30 until 11:00 pm. After school, he would return home to get a little sleep before having to wake up early again to repeat the same process the next day.

He has graduated now, despite the struggle that stood in his way for getting his high school education, but like most others in town, he does not have the money or the opportunities to go to school. So he continues to work at the banana farm, collecting bananas every day and hoping to save enough money to one day be able to go to school in the city to study English. If he were to go to school, he would also leave Monapo, leaving his family without the income from his job on the banana farm.

Fabião is kind and intelligent and I have been thinking about him a lot. He deserves better opportunities than what he has in front of him, as do so many of our old students who have graduated from Monapo but now remain “parado” - stopped. He and the others students are why I want to go into development and education as a career. Time and time again, visiting with old students, the frustration of limited opportunities and resources was evident. Only a select few with money and connections are able to study when there is so much intelligence, creativity and potential in these young people.