Friday, June 8, 2007

So What is it That You're Doing...and Are You Helping?

In short, I'm a glorified English teacher, sent in as reinforcement. Without me, English and Global Studies would be bland, bland, bland. When students describe Mozambique in English, both the subjects of community development and language skills are applied. Moreover, the conversation becomes more interesting for me. As an English teacher, I must demonstrate quality classes (and everyone,s a critic), and this experience influences my approach for teaching far more than English. Teachable moments occur everywhere. However, since the cold season just settled in, I caught some illness and didn't do much this week. Fortunately due to the magnitude of final exams, nobody noticed. This demonstrates how my presence is therefore not essential, which is reassuring news for my replacement. I merely play a part in a large school. Short of sabotage, a person would have difficulty not helping. Most consider a school a helpful sort of place.

On a good day this walking, talking bundle of fun (that's me) interacts with at least a hundred people, the first foreigner for many. I'm more approachable than the average tourist. Whether I like it or not, I'm demonstrating my culture and attitudes every waking moment. (Although some people comment that I'm becoming more Mozambican – success!) English is an important business language, and I'm fulfilling the role of an English teacher, for lack of anything more useful to impart, such as a PhD in water purification and conservation. If only. In truth, I technically lack the qualifications to teach, but I'm gaining my training here at the teacher training college as I go. Handing responsibility to amateurs can easily set a person up for disaster, or allow a person to do a shoddy job that another needs to fix, but most people can prove themselves once given a chance. I'm glad that I have the opportunity. This school often lets people try to learn tasks for the first time, such as constructing the wood+saving stove. Still, it's good that certified building contractors are constructing the buildings. There's a limit to allowing people to develop themselves without experienced guidance.

My position as a "development instructor" is a misleading term because I'm actually still a student. Anyone thinking of volunteering here needs to be prepared for trial and error. I'm learning how to teach by failing to keep my classes simple. I'm learning how to work with others after creating my English curriculum alone. I'm learning how to follow the school plan by losing myself in the numerous changes. As I adapt to the plans, I conclude that the school indeed functions and only needs time for fine-tuning. People need time to cooperate with each other´s quirkinesses. For example, the schedule must allot sufficient time to allow each teacher's plans to materialize. What a feat to coordinate each teacher, who keeps busy with his/her own subjects and areas of responsibility. Although meetings are the mainstay of organization, this extra pair of hands does her best work in informal situations and small groups.

Each morning the students bombard me with "Bom dia professora Tams." Enough sweepers have scolded me to remind me to instinctively kick the sand off my shoes before I step up to the concrete walkway that hugs the classrooms. The teacher's room echoes with the sounds of pop music, the scraping of wooden chairs and various discussions between pleading students and insistent teachers. As I sit down and open my calendar, I'm actually observing the organization of the school. In the foreground, the director leads by force when he´s present, which gives me the chance to skip around and clap people on the back when I notice successes. "That's brilliant, do it again!" I encourage those performers that especially impress me with captivating theatres and lyrical songs, which invoke far more attention than a lecture. When given the opportunity, people are surprisingly talented. Personally, I am not doing anything extraordinary, merely joining in the momentum of other people's projects. My informal role here has no power, and I'm fully aware that I can organize little by myself here.

It's easy to criticize the institution (both the school and the non+profit) for being disorganized or unprofessional, but here on the ground it is difficult to see how any organization can avoid the variety of human faults such as lack of motivation, competency or communication? Yet the people here gather together to buoy up this entire school. For example, large teams of students swarm a tree to collect firewood. In contrast the surrounding neighbors do not cooperate to such an extent. Indeed, perhaps the school demands too much from its students and teachers to live in such close proximity to one another. Sunday is the only free day.

The result is that this institution provides an opportunity to learn and teach, with an emphasis on the individual's responsibility to improve themselves. Everybody´s watching. The education is therefore far more personal and practical than anything I experienced in university, strengthening more than the brain alone. There may be a shortage of materials but the interactions and tasks are confidence-building experiences. Model students are joys to teach because their curiosity is contagious. While individual tutoring is fun, it is far less challenging than managing large groups. In frustration, many (including myself) grow callous. To focus on the more enjoyable aspects of the classroom, the students simulate situations to offer each other advice. We are all gaining experiences which give us a basis to apply the curriculum and teaching methods. Next week each student will have an oral test to explain precisely this relationship between theory and practice. Unfortunately I will be listening to the English oral exams.

English, English, English. Although a volunteer could probably please many people by speaking English constantly at school, Portuguese is essential for understanding many situations and people. Without Portuguese, I could only interact adequately with roughly two dozen people. A language barrier is a sad form of isolation. To include as many people as possible, people speak remarkably slowly and clearly in both Portuguese and English. This helps me do the same. I´m trying to bring the language to life for interest´s sake. Jumping in the deep end to make each class conversational, interactive and lively, I ended up working on the English curriculum alone from scratch. I expected too much from my students and got mixed results, but am now in a better position to talk to the English teachers about reasonable expectations of students. I can now support the English teachers Dino and Guente during the next period, (where the 2006 class focus deeply on their special disciplines and the new 2007 students begin studying all the disciplines). Speaking with excellent control of the language, Prof. Dino knows the pedagogy of teaching (how to teach), and knows the essential elements of the curriculum because he learned it himself two years ago. The pressure is on him to train those students that will specialize in becoming English teachers, but I can relieve some pressure by priming the new class and helping Dino plan the specialization classes. I really wish I brought some English language tapes for people to listen and read, so starved they are of listening opportunities.

I take comfort in the confidence that the school is a viable organ to shape stronger people. Other development projects that I might have joined rely on coordinating volunteers, which involves an entirely different type of motivation. The people here are primary self-interested in finding employment. It's important to understand the lives around me, such as the agriculture, the trade and the energy. For some reason, a Mozambican is simply never sufficiently entrepreneurial or handy enough to compete with all the others. This leaves me wondering about how badly I would flounder without my teaching contract which ends in January, a position given to foreign volunteers from all walks of life. Many Mozambicans are struggling financially to finish the level of education sufficient to achieve the same position. With the exception of education, there is a shortage of jobs. Back in the college town of Santa Cruz, California, I encountered a similar vacuum of job opportunities. Consequently, I traveled to Mozambique to find work. I still don't know how to make the most of all the lucky advantages I was accidentally born with, and could offer little advice to Janette, the school's secretary, who needs to find another job once her contract ends this month.

I'm often told that the Mozambicans fear rich, white people. Given the history, I'm not surprised, but am led to believe otherwise by the warm welcomes I continue to receive. However, many strangers have the gall to ask me for money as soon as I say hello, thinking I'll take pity on them. Clearly nobody's here to give out handouts, but I admit that I've been trapped into lending money to friends who are unlikely to pay me back. One way to help these people, I hear, is to open up a factory to employ a bunch of people to increase the value of the products that grow in abundance here. If Mozambique could only move its own produce from one corner to the next, its internal, trading economy would surely blossom. I'm no economist, and can offer no solutions to the imbalanced global economy. The tight school economy is enough to cause me headaches. Without generous donations from the Netherlands, this school couldn't function. The organization Humana People to People is supported by profits raised from selling second-hand clothes. And my head swims trying to understand this enormously unfair world and what, if anything, anyone can do to improve it. I've bitten off more than I can chew with "development," but I intend to ask more questions to my friend Tennis, a director of the agricultural bureau. An unusual friend, given that in the states nobody would take the time to answer my call, but this guy just loves to explain the relationship between the tourist industry and the community interests at the beach. "What luck, tell me more." Such serendipitous accidents and the calm tenacity of the surrounding Inhambanians allows me to take a deep breath and realize that it's the little things in life that are important.