Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

That Strange Little Man January 31, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 11:36 am

Sometimes little things make me extraordinarily happy.  And it’s not until I feel such happiness that I realize how burdened I had felt beforehand.  Like yesterday when our little “estate agent” told us he had his money. 

The process here for finding an apartment is workable but requires low expectations, much patience, and bending to the inefficient system.  There are no listings.  It’s all word of mouth.  There are “estate agents” who can show places that they somehow have connections to, and several of these guys hang out on the sidewalk outside our office building.  One of my colleagues gave me a couple names and numbers before Christmas so that I could get started on my apartment search while I was around for the holidays. 

The one person I was able to get ahold of was a little hobbit of a man who gave my friend and me a complete run-around the first time we met him.  He kept asking us for money for different things, and everything he told us seemed to be a lie.  We agreed that we definitely didn’t want to work with him again.  He just seemed strange, weasly, dishonest, and annoying.  However, in the coming weeks he ended up being the only person who actually followed through with available apartments.  Also, once he realized that we were only going to give him money for passage (bus transportation), he stopped asking for other things.  He also became more punctual once he realized that when we said we would only wait 15 minutes, we meant we were only going to wait 15 minutes.  We also weren’t going to mess around with only seeing outsides of houses.  If he didn’t have insides to show us, then we weren’t meeting.  So between him and us, we established our own little system.  Even though we always had to take his words with a grain of salt, we grew to actually like him a bit.  And he was the one who found us our apartment.

When a client decides to sign a contract on an apartment, it is typical to pay three months’ rent in advance and then for the landlord to pay the “estate agent” a finder’s fee of between half a month’s to a month’s rent.  We took our agent with us when we negotiated the contract with the landlady, and she agreed to pay him half a month’s rent.  However, over the next several days we received several angry phone calls and visits from our agent saying that the landlady hadn’t paid him.  On one occasion, he stopped us on the sidewalk in frustration, shouted, “I’m hungry!” then walked off.  I believe he was, and we were left wondering what our position was in mediating between him and the landlady. 

This past weekend I received call after call from this man.  I never answered as I didn’t know what else to say to him as my housemate and I had already had the same conversation with him several times.

Yesterday he stopped us outside our office.  I walked a few paces away while my housemate spoke with him.  After a minute, she turned around and said, “Senhor Chano has his money now.”  I gave him a thumbs up, and he returned a huge smile and a thumbs up.  He wears the same black Guinness t-shirt and jeans everyday.  He can’t afford a couple dollars of phone credit or even 20 cents for a chapa.  I’m sure he had eaten very little in several days.  But he has his rightfully earned money now.  And that makes me so happy.            


More Thieves January 24, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 12:53 pm

I have mentioned before that December is normally a particularly busy time for theft.  I have also heard recently that January is a bad month as well since people need money for school registration.  It certainly seems to be the case.

Before Christmas break, my Portuguese teacher’s cell phone was stolen out of his bag.

On the way to Mesa’s funeral, a colleague’s cell phone was stolen from his pocket.

Last week, Samuel, one of my teammates, arrived at the office with bruises and scabs on his head.  Over the weekend, he had been walking near his house at night when a group of guys with metal pipes came up to him demanding his cell phone.  He tried to get away before they could take his money as well, but they beat him over the head with the pipes.

A few weeks earlier, Remigio, another teammate was beaten with metal pipes and his cell phone taken.

Also last week my teammate, Jill, received a text from a pastor friend in another town who told her that he and his wife had been to the bank to take out their monthly salary to go buy food and other supplies for the month.  When they got to the market, they realized all their money was gone. 

Another pastor friend informed us that he too had been to the bank to take out money.  When he got home, his daughter asked him why his trousers were cut.  Someone had cut his wallet out of his pocket, taking his money and his ID card.  Fortunately, he did not have that much money in his wallet, but in Mozambique it can take up to a year of bureaucratic hassle to get a new ID card.  And if police stop someone without ID, he or she needs to pay a “fine” (bribe). 

These are not white people being targeted because they look wealthy.  These are all Mozambicans.  They are Mozambicans who do not have disposable income to go out and buy new cell phones or go back to the bank to take out more cash for monthly supplies.  They also do not have the luxury, as I do, to call a taxi or a friend with a car after dark to take them home safely. 

Mozambique is not easy or safe for anyone, but it is less easy and safe for some than others.    


Obtaining a Place in School January 22, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 7:51 am

Until last week my job has been very unglamorous (well, even now it’s only slightly less unglamorous). I’m sure many people back home have an image of me walking through thatch-roofed villages or sitting in open-air classrooms with cute little African children clambering all over me. The truth is I spend most days sitting at a desk working on a computer in a second-floor office near the central plaza in downtown Beira. I do research about corruption online (yes, we have wireless in our office) and plan field research. I feel like I’m back in Brighton working on my dissertation.

My dissertation last year had been about tackling sexual abuse in schools in Mozambique as that is one form of corruption in schools. Originally, in coming here, I had thought there would be more emphasis on this form of corruption. However, my research is currently focused more on financial corruption, specifically on using bribes to obtain a place in school.

Last week I started school visits both to introduce myself to the directors of schools in which Oasis works and also to interview directors about the registration process. The academic year in Mozambique is from January/February until November, so the past two weeks have been registration time. Here is an illustration of how the system works:

At one of the five secondary schools in Beira the director explained that there are 240 places for incoming 8th graders from 3 nearby primary schools. The city director compiles a list of students from the three schools who may enrol in this particular secondary school. For example, there are 88 places for students from M. Primary School. But 700 students graduated from that primary school! The 88 are chosen from the 700 based on age, marks, and whether they are children of teachers at the secondary school. If a student doesn’t make the list, he or she may enrol in a private school, which is obviously out the question for many students who cannot afford it. Or they attend evening classes. Officially, students must be at least 18 to attend evening classes, but we spoke to a couple directors at other schools who said they allow any age to attend evening classes. Each teacher is also given two places in their classes for family members. However, teachers don’t always have school-aged family members…

After we met with the director of this secondary school, we bumped into a friend of one of my colleagues who was at the school trying to enrol his cousin. The cousin was not on any of the three primary school lists. However, a teacher was selling his two family places for 1,500 meticais ($60) each. That’s an extraordinary amount of money, especially considering official tuition fees are $5. My colleague’s friend could not afford that, but there will be someone who wants to study badly enough who will rake up the money (or steal it – theft is high during school registration time).

Last year another missionary called my colleague to discuss what one should do in a situation where someone asks for money to buy a place in school. The missionary was close to a family who wanted to send their son to school, but he was not on the enrolment list. Do you say, “No, I can’t participate in corruption and will not pay a bribe,” thus preventing the child from receiving an education? Or do you say, “Even though this is corrupt, I will buy the place in school so that this child can receive an education.”? This is the type of question we battle with on a daily basis. There are no easy answers.

Unfortunately, there is such a shortage of secondary teachers. But more cannot be trained unless they graduate from secondary school! And because it is a poor country, there is not money in the budget to pay teachers. And one of the reasons corruption does exist in schools is because teachers are not being paid enough. But privatizing education, which would help with teacher salaries and resources, would marginalize poor students further. I could go on and on.

There are no easy answers.


The wonders of the US Embassy January 19, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 9:49 am

Several weeks ago I was very impressed with the US Embassy. A local pastor who runs a school for orphans had applied for a grant from the Embassy and was invited to go to Maputo to present his proposal. One of my colleagues paid for his bus fare down there, but this pastor was hesitant about going. He had been told that he would be provided with accommodation and return fare as long as he could get himself to Maputo. But he had been told this by other organizations in the past and had been left with nothing. In a corrupt society, one learns never to trust any promises. We assured him that the Embassy would be different. Indeed it was.

When the pastor returned on a bus paid for as promised, he was excited to inform us that he will receive a grant. More than that, when he arrived in Maputo, he called a contact at the Embassy who picked him up within ten minutes and brought him to the nicest hotel in the city. The pastor is a man who lives in a two-room cinder block house with nine people and no running water or electricity. He was shocked that everything he had been told was followed up on. And indeed he will receive his grant.

I was left thinking that my country can be pretty great sometimes.

And then there are times that I slap my forehead and shake my head…

Last week I sent my passport by DHL to the Embassy to get new pages put in. I had to call them to make sure it had arrived and the pages had been inserted so that I could go back to DHL to pay for it to be returned. I called twice, on two different days, both during consular service hours only to be told that the consul had already left or hadn’t arrived yet. That seemed typically Mozambican, not American. Later one of the consular officers, a Mozambican man, called me. It was a somewhat difficult conversation as he didn’t speak the clearest English. He called to say I had missed something on my application. He said I didn’t put the state in which I was born. He said, “You only put Bahrain, not the state. What state is Bahrain in?” I said, “Bahrain is a country. It’s near Saudi Arabia.” He said, “Oh, it’s not a place in America?” Why is someone allowed to work in an embassy who doesn’t know that Bahrain is a country?


Hey, what currency are we in?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 8:28 am

I just signed a contract on an apartment which is very exciting.  What is strange to me, though, is that I pay my rent in dollars.  Yes, US dollars.  (I also paid for Portuguese lessons in US dollars.)  For some reason Mozambicans love US dollars.  Do they not know that it’s not the strongest currency in the world right now?  What boggles my mind is how many times my money has changed currencies.  Most of my support was sent in dollars to the UK where it was changed into pounds and deposited into my British bank account.  I take it out of an ATM in Beira in Mozambican meticais.  Then I go to the Indian money changer behind my office and change it into US dollars.  I wonder what percentage of an original dollar that a supporter gives me is in a dollar that I buy here in Beira. 


Texans Sight UFO January 17, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 12:49 pm

I found this headline on CNN but nothing about floods in Mozambique.  Even when I searched under Africa, there was nothing on the floods here.  At least there is news about the rioting in Kenya.  To make that news a little more personal, here is an email from a pastor in Kenya (forwarded to me from one of my colleagues):

“Just aquick note to let you know that all is not well.Last night more than 34 families came to my church from  mt Elgon fleeing fresh violance and clashes for the last two days.We still have 350 and camped in my church for the last two weeks now and the number still increasind daily.We need your prayers for peace and your help in feeding them and providing accomondation for them.You cant stand to hear some things.Those fleeing tells me tjis morning that pregnant women was cut her womb alive and the unborn baby killed and hanged on the tree.Hell has broken loose here.Your quick response will save lives of children and  mothers who are sleeeping on bear  ground.”


An Exciting Time to be a Child January 16, 2008

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 7:59 pm

It’s amazing how we’re taught in the Church either directly or indirectly that as Christians we will not suffer.  That life will somehow be easy (or easier) for us if we trust in the LORD.  Then when we do experience crises, we either doubt God because how could God possibly let such a thing happen to one of His followers, or we doubt our own faith because surely if we had just trusted God more then such a thing wouldn’t have happened.

We also somehow expect that if we are Christians then we should have it all together.  We should be strong and confident and handle every situation well.

I don’t know where these ideas come from.  They are not from the Bible I’ve been reading.  The Bible I’ve been reading tells stories of messed up and messy people.  It shows people who did have it together but become broken.  It details lots and lots of suffering.  Yes, God does eliminate the suffering in some cases, but more than that He asks people to depend on Him, trust Him, and continue to praise Him in the midst of suffering.  If we think about any of our favourite characters in the Bible, I bet they did not live an easy life.  But did they live a life trusting God?

I’m not suffering here.  I know people who are, and I’m not.  But I have been struggling.  Life is difficult in Beira.

I have a colleague here who has been very in tune with my stress and frustrations.  She has been fantastic about regularly checking in with me and encouraging me to take breaks if I need to.  We had a conversation the other night about my recent struggles.  She said I’m in an exciting position to depend on others and depend on God.  But everything inside me screams, “I don’t want to depend on others!”  I’m an independent person.  I want to communicate on my own, get around on my own, take care of my own paperwork, visit schools and do my research without a translator.  I don’t like feeling like a child.

But she’s right.  It is an exciting position to be in, and I haven’t been taking advantage of it.  Depending on others builds relationships.  Depending on God does too.  How often in the States do I need to depend on God?  Rarely.  Life is under control there.

In Honduras I prayed all the time.  I was seriously constantly in conversation with Him because I was alone and because I could do absolutely nothing on my own.  In nearly every situation I would say to Him, “You gotta help me out here because I have no idea how to do this.”  And that year was the closest I’ve ever been to Him.

But here I’ve still been trying to do everything on my own.  I’m forgetting that I need to talk to God all day and say, “I can’t do this.”  And when I do humble myself to say this, He doesn’t magically make life any easier.  He doesn’t take away the heat, form everyone in orderly lines in government offices, stop men from hissing at me, suddenly allow me to speak fluent Portuguese, and never make me wait on any person or document.  If He did, I probably wouldn’t talk to Him that much.  And I would take the credit for getting things done because I would be able to because they would be easy then.  Where is the personal, spiritual, or relational growth in that?

I wrote recently in an email:  “I appreciate that He does not make life easy for me but instead guides me and comforts me through the difficulties.  I learn more that way – about life, about myself, and about Him.”  I didn’t say I like it, but I am learning to appreciate it and learning that it’s okay to feel like a 5-year-old and to not have it all together.