Here in Mapinhane, sometimes your day ends with a three-hour long teacher’s meeting (in Portuguese) in which nothing is accomplished. Sometimes your day ends with giant praying mantises flying into your dinner. Sometimes your day ends with a neighborhood cat jumping on the table and knocking over a lantern, blowing out your light source and sending glass chards in every direction. So, when your day ends with the sound of twenty young Mozambicans singing in harmony about working together, all seems right in the world.
Last week I had my second JUNTOS (roughly Youth United in the Work for Opportunities and Success) meeting. It was our first real meeting since the first only served to guage interest, and I was super nervous. I teach 8th and 9th grade at our school, but JUNTOS caters to the older students. I was afraid I didn’t know enough of them to have rapport or warrant a good turnout. On top of that, my counterpart happened to be out of town for a funeral and left it very open-ended as to whether he’d be back in time. Lo and behold, 5’o clock rolled around and he was nowhere to be found, so I sucked up all my courage and walked over to the school.
One thing you should know about the culture in Mozambique – nothing ever starts on time. Nothing. Even getting a scheduled meeting to actually happen can be a struggle. If it looks like a bust to the folks outside, they’ll bail. Thus it is key to get those first few attendees early on (which often requires rounding up a few old faithfuls by name). These first few people serve as a sign to others that the meeting will indeed take place, but even then you’re not in the clear. It’s best if these early birds are relatively popular, or have friends they can quickly gather. The group won’t start to multiply until at least 15 or 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, and people will really start to pour in once the meeting has begun. Honestly, I get it – people want to be involved in groups that are cool, groups that draw a big crowd. Whether in Southern Africa or in the United States, high school students care a lot about their peers and their reputation. I’ve been there, which is likely why it made me all the more nervous. Here I was in high school again, trying to impress the cool kids and get them involved in my cause… but luckily, it worked!
Around 5:20, we had just started the opening activity with 10 or 15 kids, and students were still coming in. The theme for the night was “Education as the Key to Success.” We started with an icebreaker version of musical chairs, set to some danceable Rihanna (Mozambicans LOVE Rihanna). Every time a student was left without a chair, I had them tell the group what they wanted to do with their life. The responses were all over the board – these kids want to continue their education, they want to travel, they want to be doctors, priests, and lawyers. It was so great to hear these lofty aspirations in a country where most people can expect to have children in their late teens and start work on the farms or the fishing boats soon thereafter. After the icebreaker, we had two excellent student presentations – one a poem, the other a song. We applauded the contributors and moved on to discussion questions. With the first few questions, responses were limited and came only from the most outspoken kids, but as time went on participation increased significantly. We talked about inspiring teachers and role models, inequality of education access for girls and for the poor, the difference between a job and a career, the importance of studying, how our education can serve us in the future, and so much more. At some point during the meeting I had one of those step back and reflect moments – I couldn’t believe I was sitting in a classroom in Mozambique with twenty enthusiastic and proactive students, discussing the importance of education in Portuguese (and English, and Xitswa). Sometimes my life here feels so unreal. Eventually the discussion wound down and we picked a theme for our next meeting. Everyone liked the song that was presented earlier so much that we decided to end with it. The student taught us our parts, and we sang a couple rounds with big smiles on our faces. After, we went out into the night and walked in our many directions with hearts full of courage and minds full of new ideas. The milky way sang our song back to us:
“Jovens unidos no trabalho para oportunidades e sucesso, somos jovens, e estamos juntos”
“Youth united in the work for opportunities and success, we are the youth, and we are together”