Reflecting…

Well, I am back in the states after ending my Peace Corps experience and have had some time to reflect. What the hell did I accomplish? Was it worth it? Did I change? And should I write about it?

Originally, my reflecting didn’t really lead to anything…leaving me frustrated… until I started reading again and listening/observing people. I found myself feeling inspired and brought me to this point of wanting to write something – and then I decided to share it, what the heck. Excuse the stream of consciousness, this is just my thought process and is not meant to draw any conclusions about anything besides my personal beliefs and growth.

First of all, I realized how lucky I was that my first experience in community development was a success — and this was while I was still in college. Three basic things that I learned were:

1. You have to care about what you are doing and the people you are doing it for. Like, really care. Like — sacrifice your precious weekends while in college—care.

2. You can’t do anything long-term without support and then somebody to pass the work to when/if you move on.

3. Excuse my sports analogy: If you want a slam dunk, make sure that you aren’t the only one on the break…because sometimes you need someone to alley-oop to. You can’t always jump up high enough and sometimes you are guarded.

My first community development experience was a gold mine put right into my lap. I was just one of the first ones to jump on, see the potential, and put the pieces in place. What came of it was a program that has grown and gotten better year after year…and I am in no way involved anymore. The only people that know my name are the people who were involved 4 years ago when it started. Which is how it should be.  For this success, I am forever grateful because it gave me the confidence to take a risk and a reduced ego to be able to take myself out of it and know when to leave.

So…I thought, why not try the Peace Corps? I was successful here in the states, I could probably be successful where there are less resources and limited access to information! I could start a project there that helps people that are even more in need. I knew full well that it was going to be a bigger challenge, but I thought with Peace Corps support and grassroots mentality, I would have no problem starting something even more meaningful than I did stateside.

There were three things I underestimated: how culture (which is deeply rooted) affects development, how big the personal challenges would be, and how differently I would measure success. I didn’t realize that solutions that seemed so clear to me, could be foreign and possibly unrealistic due to local beliefs and circumstances.

To give a good example: trying to convince people to use mosquito nets to prevent/eradicate Malaria. Malaria is a huge problem, and the foreign aid solution right now is to promote bed net use. So, there are bed net distributions, campaigns, and tons of money put into this prevention method. It makes sense, if 60% of the community were to use bed nets regularly, Malaria could be eradicated in that community. If we could just get people to understand that, then we can start to make a dent in this deadly parasite. I was among those believers that it was as simple as spreading information.

But, there is one problem, Malaria to people has become like the common cold “everyone gets it.” It is part of normal life, if you get symptoms, hopefully you go to the hospital and get the treatment, and within a few days you are back to normal. I heard a good analogy brought to me by my fiancée, it is like someone from Finland asking people in the states to wear a mask at all times to prevent the common cold because they did and now they don’t have colds. How many people would actually take that advice seriously? These would be common comments: The masks are so uncomfortable, and everyone gets the cold and it isn’t even that bad!…who are you to tell me what to do, are you that much better than me? We have lived without these masks for generations, why should I use them now?

When the Chidenguele community did a project to help promote bed net use (with minimal support and planning help from me), we started to hear these comments that I was dreading: “I don’t know anyone who has died from Malaria”, “Bed nets are so uncomfortable and they make me hot”, “I am immune to Malaria”, “Everyone gets Malaria, I am just careful to go to the doctor”, “Malaria is a myth”, “My house doesn’t have mosquitos, I cut my grass”. These are the opinions about bed nets that are culturally engrained. Can we really change this culture? The international community is going to try, and it might work, but it is going to be harder than just spreading information and giving people the resources. We have to make them BELIEVE in this solution, and that involves breaking some cultural beliefs.

So, what did I get out of this project? Pretty discouraged…I was leaving soon and this project probably only made a slight dent. But, I noticed one thing that made the project a victory. Maybe, the campaign wasn’t as big of a success as I had hoped as far as getting people to use mosquito nets, but it did do something successfully: bring people together. The success was that this was a local-driven project that brought together the community, government officials, and local businesses/organizations for a common cause. Maybe, my idea of success had to lie in the process. This process could be a base for projects in the future and the relationships created could drive action in the community. And that is exactly what is happening as the community is putting together a health fair for June and more projects in the future.

Aaaaaand, going back to my original reason for posting. I was racking my brain about what I had learned in my Peace Corps experience. And then, I looked more deeply at the type of article, the type of quotes that were inspiring me to action and how they related to my service. They weren’t big project ideas or development stories/solutions. The words that were inspiring me, were stories of ordinary people helping a group of people they worked closely together with. It was more about the process of what was being done, and how it has brought change from within. I realized that my biggest success wasn’t just helping streamline the processes in the school’s secretary’s office, it was the relationships I made. It was more that I got a select few people to second guess how they do things and change for the better. (I also gained a life-long Mozambican friend/brother, and that relationship will forever justify my decision to join Peace Corps…not to mention that I met my future wife :-)

I realized that I can’t focus on the big picture, I only get depressed and feel like I failure if I do. I am going to find more happiness if I focus on the small things that I can control. This means smaller sample sizes, smaller groups, one-on-one interactions. Relationships are important. My happiness is not going to be in changing policies or bringing another million dollars of aid to a country in need, my happiness is going to be in the smiles and changes I can see. My happiness is not going to come from changing the curriculum for a nation, it is going to come from getting a teacher to see why it is important. I don’t want to focus too much on the big scale, I want to work on the ground. I am going to find much more pleasure creating programs like my first success, than trying to do something bigger and less hands-on. And that realization is what I got out of my service. Whether I find a job right away where I can do this, I have no idea. But I can definitely say that this is my goal, and something I am going to work my hardest to achieve. And if I stray away from it, I can know that at some point, I thought this was my correct path and the reasoning behind it.

One Year In…Time Flies

Another few months have gone by since my last post, but I do have another reason to write.  I am now completing one year here in Mozambique.

A year ago, I was getting onto planes and making my way over to the unknown land which has since become my home.  This crazy adventure comes full circle, as just a couple weeks from now I will be going back to the training site to help with the training of the new batch of education volunteers.  I have mixed feelings about that.

On one hand, I am very excited; this is something I wanted to do since being in training.  I think visiting volunteers are an essential part of training.  It is great getting a real perspective of what the next two years will be like.  Of course, though, trainees have no idea what they are getting into – and it isn’t a bad thing.

I have said it before, but looking back to me at training, and me now are night and day.  I went from a bright eyed trainee, to a busy ass volunteer.  From not speaking Portuguese, to speaking it way more than English.  From a novice in this country, to feeling like a seasoned veteran (it takes a lot for something to surprise me in this country).   The empty cement box that I came to, is now a home full of life.    The new faces I came to, have now become my new family.  I have had extreme highs, and just as deep of lows.  It all balances out, though, and it is better now than ever.  I definitely could not have foreseen any of this experience.

On the other hand, I have had a gut wrenching realization that I have hit the mid-way point of my service.  And judging by this year, the next year will fly by.  The volunteers that visited our training last year are now leaving in the next two months.  This means that I only have the same amount of time left in this country.  I like life here…I can’t really imagine going to something different.   Everything has become normal, and I am going to miss it when that day comes.

When I dreamed about my Peace Corps experience, I definitely didn’t imagine it like this.  I imagined being immersed in a village community, knowing everyone, and making positive changes left and right.  But, that isn’t what has happened.  My community is small since I am outside of the village, but I have a real connection with that community.  That community is the school; the teachers and the students.  They have become my family.  Once I came to grips with the fact that ‘this is it’, not the grand community I imagined, I let myself fall in love with it.  I also decided to immerse myself in national projects, feeling that I couldn’t do as much here in this touristy town.  That decision is paying off, as a lot of the redeeming qualities of my service have come from those broader initiatives.  Do I wish I were doing more in my town? Yes.  But, I am happy with just focusing on my primary job in Chidenguele (teaching), and leaving the secondary projects to the national level.  Yes, this means that I am spending more time on my computer/phone, rather than giving talks and doing community events – but someone has to do that part and I am happy doing it.  Also, if all goes well in the next year, I will help bring a computer lab to my school.  This will give the students here an opportunity to set themselves up for the future in this rapidly-changing technology-driven world.

To bring this post to a close — Last month, I had a joint birthday party with my amazing roommate, Manuel , while mother and brother were here.  It was traditional Mozambican with an American flair (we even did the electric slide :-).  That day, for me, was a moment of validation of the community I have become a part of.   People from all over the world came together (Mozambicans, Americans, Russians, Germans, French, Congolese) – no matter their cultural differences.  Everyone was there to enjoy the day together –and eat/dance/drink/be merry.  I saw the friends I have made;  I saw the culture I have lived in, accepted, and adopted;  I saw my mother and brother fitting right in; and, I saw how wonderful things really are.  Those moments are priceless, and those are the moments you remember forever.  It is the smaller things in life that we cherish, and I have plenty of those smaller things to be happy about.

Here’s to another year.

Six Months Later

6 months. I have been an awful blogger,I know.

It is hard to believe, though, that it has been six months since my last post…  In those six months, much has happened and I have wanted to begin blogging again but didn’t know how to start.  Finally, I decided I will just bite the bullet, sit down, and write something just to get started.

I have no idea how to close that six month gap for anyone who reads this, but I can say that there is a definite gap between me then and me now. I recently came across a couple volunteers from the new group of PCVs as they visited sites while still in training and their aura is unmistakable.  An aura of someone who doesn’t quite know what they are getting into.  Bright eyed, excited, and open to what is to come.  That newness will pass for them, but a new excitement will come as they start to immerse themselves in their community.  Eventually, their lives will become pretty routine and normal (something I never thought I would say) as mine has.  Nothing like fresh blood to make you feel like an old veteran.

In these six months, there have been ups and downs, and at the end of the day I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  Occasionally, I do need to escape — and that has happened both planned and unexpectedly.  It is easy to get away since I am on the main north-south highway, and I have taken advantage of that… on the other hand, I have had some unexpected non-fun trips to Maputo due to illness.  This country doesn’t seem to want to cooperate with my service as I have had pneumonia twice, parasites, and problems with the malaria meds we have to take.  Welcome to Africa, my immune system!

Professionally, I am getting used to teaching here and it gets easier daily — and thus more and more fun.  Teaching a class of 50 was a daunting task when I first came here, and now it is just another day at the office.  As volunteers, we are also encouraged to have secondary projects and I definitely dove in head-first.  I have a couple of youth groups, was elected as the financial coordinator of JUNTOS http://mozambique.peacecorps.gov/subprojects-VOA.php (we will hopefully have a better website soon), and elected Vice President of the Volunteer Action Committee which acts as the liaison between PC and the volunteers.  These all keep me very busy; a good busy.

Socially, I have adjusted pretty well to this whole ‘being the only white guy for miles’ thing.  My mom and brother will be coming next month and they will get to see my crazy lifestyle here at site.  My house is a revolving door, my colleagues have become my family, and my students have become my life.  As I said before, I do get out of site and explore, and how could you not?   Mozambique is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people —  none more beautiful than my girlfriend :-), the other reason I am always on the move.  I have started dating a fellow PCV and while it has been tough being 6+ hours of miserable chapa rides away from each other, it is well worth it.  Announcement to those who don’t know: we will be visiting the states together in December (which is unbelievably less than 5 months away).  It is hard to imagine I will be back in Americaland  –the land of plenty — that soon!

Overall, I really can’t believe how fast the time has flown.  I need to try to slow it down, reflect, and appreciate everything that is going on in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Hopefully this blog will help me do just that.

Beijos, abraços, e os melhores desejos a todos. Até a próxima!

Am I Dreaming???

I find myself asking this question often…and not because of the crazy Malaria meds we have to take.  No, I find myself realizing exactly what is going on right now in my life and I often can’t grasp that it is reality.  For the past few years, when people asked me what my plan was, I told people my dream is to join the Peace Corps…and most of the time people just asked why, but I knew deep down it was what I was going to do.  Then, almost exactly a year ago, my plan (and thus life) seemed to be falling apart as Peace Corps was looking less and less like an option.  Fast-forward to the present and, all of a sudden, I am at site doing what I love to do: teaching.

In between last year and now is all a big blur and I often can’t even think back to what happened nor the worries I used to have.  All that nervousness, excitement, drama, struggle, etc. has all passed.  Chidenguele, Mozambique, Africa is to be my home for the next two years, and these are to be my students.  This is the first time (probably since high school) that I have a plan for the next two years and I truly could not be happier that this is how I am going to spend them.  Everything has come together flawlessly: from my beautiful site, to my roommate situation, my school, my students, and the surprisingly awesome first days of class.

In Peace Corps, we go through a lot of extreme highs and lows as far as emotion, but this isn’t just an outburst of me on a high note.  I had a moment today when I was teaching that it all seemed to hit me at once: my students correctly conjugated each verb I put on the board after tons of drilling, and I almost shed a tear of happiness.  It made me remember my ESL classes in Minnesota and I realized I haven’t felt happiness like this since then.  And to think of how far I have come since my days in Minnesota…it is truly like I am walking in a dream.

Water: A Peace Corps Story

I often think about if my life right now were made into a TV show.  Not because I am so self-indulgent that I think I deserve one, but simply because I worked for a TV show before coming here…and I watch a lot of TV shows in my down time (guilty pleasure)…and I really like ‘The Truman Show.’  Anyway, when I do think about my TV show, I realize it would have waay too much to do with water.

Most of my time is spent either bringing water from one place to another, transferring it from one container to the next, using it, drinking it, sweating it, and repeating. 

To explain, I get my water from a cistern/well that collects rain water that runs off the school through a system of pipes– problem is that the cistern is at the BOTTOM of the hill, and I am at the TOP. To make matters more difficult, the road up is all sand.  This hill is going to be the death of me…or it is going to give me legs, abs, and a back of steel (I am hoping for the latter). 

(This is not to complain, other PCVs have it worse: I talked to someone who had to wait 3 hours for water at the pump and then walk it home.)

It is amazing how important water is to our lives.  You realize this when you are forcefully conscious of how much water you use.  I use about 16-20 liters a day.  4 liters for baths (one day, one night), 8 for drinking, 2 for cooking, and 4-6 for cleaning.  The water I use to wash clothes isn’t counted because I use a separate, dirtier cistern and I do that at the bottom of the hill.

Never have I been so worried/obsessed with water.  Until a few days ago, the cistern was getting pretty low and I was beginning to get worried…like seriously worried.  But, luckily, “rainy season” lived up to its name and we finally got a bunch of rain.  The cistern is now full just in time for all the teachers to get back and use it all…starting my worry all over again.

That said, there would be interesting parts of this TV show; including transportation, embarrassing foreigner moments, the many wonders of Mozambique, and much more that I will get into in this blog.  I’ll leave it at this for now.

Happy New Year to all, may it be full of happiness, adventure, and successes.

I’M BACK

Yup! I’m back to blogging…since the world is supposed to end after today, I guess that it seems fit I at least throw something out there on the interwebs :-p

On a more serious note, I will catch you up a bit.  I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer and at my site: Chidenguele, Gaza Province, Mozambique. I now call Africa my home, crazy, I know.
 
I am sorry to not have written during training, but it seems pretty insignificant compared to getting to site.  I can sum it up as the second coming of study abroad, except the days were more structured and I learned more.  ‘Twas complete with host families, language struggles, long classroom hours, drama, cerveja intake, and good times.  It was sad to leave site and my new PCV family, but that’s not what we came here for.

I can say, though, that after two months I am very pleased and surprised with my level of Portuguese — too bad people speak the local bantu language (Txopi) most of the time at my site.

My site is absolutely gorgeous: hilly, green, sandy, palm trees, [insert more synonyms for gorgeous], lake 4km away, beach 15km.  It is on the main highway, but it has a small town feel.  I have easy access to the north and south and have a great site for bolea-ing (hitchhiking to avoid taking the slow, hot, crowded public transportation called chapas aka the bane of my existence).  I am currently 3 for 4 on rides out of my site of the bolea sort rather than the chapa sort.  More on my site in another post.

Side note: You will have to excuse my use of Portuguese words in my blog…see it more as an interactive learning experience.  Truth is, I am forgetting English.. I rarely get to speak proper English and when I do, it is with fellow PCV’s who understand the Portuguese I throw out when i can’t think of the English word.

I promise my next post won’t demorar as much :-p Love and miss you all (you know who you are). 

Oh, and Happy Holidays?? It doesn’t feel like Christmas time when its 90+ degrees out, but I guess Santa can come to hot places too…

Quick update

Hey all,

Just a quick update since I don’t have internet and might not for a while.  Everything has been fantastic.  I love my host family which consists of 7 kids and a mai and pai. 

Language classes are going well.  I understand a lot and am *slowly* starting to understand how to speak correctly rather than use spanish.

Looking forward to a break this weekend after a long week of training.

Sending love,
Yuri

Last Night in Maputo

So, tonight is our last night in Maputo as we head off to Namaacha tomorrow afternoon and meet our host families.  This also might be my last post for a little while.
My host family has 9 members with 7 kids ranging from 6 to 19.  That’s quite different from my normal smaller family life!  It will definitely be a different experience, but I am so excited to finally get immersed in Portuguese and meet my new family.

Along with finding out our host family, we also found out where in Namaacha we will live.  English volunteers are kind-of secluded in our own little barrio, which is a bit sad that I won’t be seeing a lot of the people I have been meeting.

ALSO, I just took my first hallucinogenic malaria pills which I will take weekly, every Friday.  Please don’t let me forget to do that…and please don’t let there be nightmares. 

Anyway, all is well.  I will try to take some pictures for next blog.

-Yuri
 

Got to Mozambique

This is just a quick update since internet is off and on at our hotel. 

The trip over here was extremely long but also went off without much of a hitch.  I was so worried leading up to the flight that I am way too tall (and have too many knee problems) to be on an airplane for 14.5 hours — but I ended up only being awake for about 3 of those hours…all to eat and fall right back asleep.

Side note: I have been teaching people how to play the Russian card game “Durak” and it has been spreading like wildfire.  Takes a little while to explain, but people seem to be getting the hang of it and enjoying it!  At least I am making some sort of contribution thus far.

Off to bed and an early day tomorrow…but plenty of time to relax in the afternoon at our beautiful hotel with a view of the ocean (but not from my room…YES I AM BITTER)

Sleepless musings (Staging Night)

Bottom line, I haven’t gotten much sleep the past few days with travel and such + staging…and it doesn’t help that we leave in an hour at 2AM to go to JFK and start hour 26 hour + journey to Maputo.

Anyway, I want to say a few things:

A) Meeting all the rest of the volunteers (even though it has been overwhelming to meet 56 people in one day) has definitely been awesome.  A bunch of likeminded people setting off on an adventure together is definitely a crazy good vibe.

B) With all of the goodbyes I had to say, it got to be kind of numbing and I feel bad that I wasn’t as emotional as I should have been at most of them.  I am so glad to have been able to see so many people before I head out.  The love and support have been amazing.  I love that the word “love” is in the English language as it’s always hard to explain how much people in your life mean to you — especially when you are trying to do so in alarming numbers.  But, with one word, I can at least express a morsel of that in a nice little package.  You know who you are!!

C) I am beyond excited to begin this incredible adventure.  I will try to keep this updated but communication will be limited for the next few months during training.  I sent out an e-mail to many as far as how to reach me and such.  If you would like that e-mail forwarded to you, please contact my mom with a descriptive subject line at elenam@morris.umn.edu and she will forward it to you.

Adeus for now!!

Sincerely,
Officially a Peace Corps Trainee, Yuri Machkasov