Mónica has a stutter. When I call her name for role, she responds with a quickness born from anxiety, “Six-six-six-sixty-eight.” Her grades are average – low test scores buoyed up by attendance and homework completion. Like most of my students, I would rate her literacy level as extremely low, perhaps non-existent. Sometime during the second trimester (May or June), Mónica approached me after class, nervously asking if I would help her master the pronunciations of the English alphabet. I taught the alphabet to my students in the first weeks of school in February. Five months later, her hesitant request for help filled me hope: firstly, a student actually wanted help, not an answer key; and, secondly, she wanted help with letters, the most fundamental building blocks of language. So often in Africa, people search for corta-matos – shortcuts – to meet their goals. They think after one sitting with me, English will rub off on them like a genie from a lamp. On a larger scale of development, the contrast between the “first” and the “third” worlds generates a tendency to want to hop from mud huts to Empire State Buildings. But a countdown can’t move from three to one without first passing through two.
Moreover, I recognized that Mónica’s goal is a noble one. After an honest assessment of her own abilities, a girl with a stutter pursued, of her own volition, pronunciation of basic sounds as her first step towards self-development. As I reflect on this now, many months later, I feel a creeping sense of guilt for not allocating more time to Mónica’s humble endeavor. However, in the spare time after class on Thursdays, I did make an effort to practice the alphabet with Mónica, betwixt Rajabo’s questions about random words in English that he encountered throughout the week (“Teacher, what is ‘footballer’ mean?).
In the final weeks of class, Mónica’s efforts came to fruition. I paused during a lesson to ask the students what is the first letter of the word “He.” After a moment of silent lips and stunned faces, some of the boys tossed out random sounds, sounds I’m not even sure I could reproduce. I shook by head, holding my finger underneath the letter on the chalkboard. Mónica’s voice cut through the humid silence, a clear, single note: “H.” The class continued as normal. We did not stop to celebrate. I said, “Great job,” and resumed the lesson, filled with a certain pride at Mónica’s achievement, like a parent watching his child walk for the first time or score a goal in a soccer match.
“Little by little” – I mentioned this common expression in one of my first blog posts about my site, the equivalent of the idiom “baby steps” in the States. Success comes little by little here, as it does anywhere. After a year of teaching, that much has become clear to me. I arrived boasting the presumptuous slogan, “moving mountains in Mozambique.” A year later, taking a cue from Mónica, I’ve had to self-assess. I ask myself, what mountains have you moved this year? The majority of moments that come to mind arrive like small anthills on a savannah – the work of insects, tediously constructing a mound that blends into the landscape. I collect these moments, keeping my own ant colony of “successes.” Most are on a similar scale to Mónica’s alphabetic achievement. But to an ant, that mound on the savannah must surge from the dust like the Empire State Building. All goals are relative, shaped by the means of the individual in his/her current environment. This is my environment:
As I exit the market, I encounter Chana, one of the brighter students in Turma C. She wears a bright pink blouse. I’m not used to seeing my students without their peach school uniforms, but classes have ended now. Nervously, she asks if I might have time to see her house, it’s just here close by. She points down the street. I tell her that I do have time, and we walk towards the fence of dried grass that surrounds her home. She laces and unlaces her fingers as we walk, rubbing her palms. A (white) teacher is coming to see her home. This is big. We cross the threshold into her yard. There is a small hole in the center of a mound of compacted dirt with a rope and bucket next to it; they have their own well. Two low-roofed, mud-brick rectangles face each other on opposite sides of the well. They sleep in the one on the left, she explains, and the other they use as a kitchen. Behind the window of the kitchen – there is no glass, just an open square in the wall – the faces of three little girls ogle me shyly, like kittens in a cardboard box. “It so dirty,” Chana says. “Such a mess, I just don’t know how it gets this way,” she reiterates. The yard is not dirty at all. I ask where her parents are. She tells me that she lives with her uncle. Her father died when she was young, an evil curse cast upon him by his own father. Three years after that, tuberculosis took her mother. She lives with her uncle, who is out during the day doing odd jobs. She is the oldest of four girls, the other three peeping at me from inside the safety of the brick kitchen, so it falls upon her to care for the house, to care for her sisters, to care for her uncle, to care for herself. Chana walks me back to the main street. I don’t know how to express how impressed I am with her fortitude, partly because teenage girls make me uncomfortable, partly because her situation is, sadly, so normal here. As I walk home, I wonder how she even has the time to come to school.
My goals have adapted to my current situation. I no longer identify with the term “development,” which gets thrown around like the key to a locked chest with the name “Africa” written on top. I seek to be adept at my task of teaching: to prepare and present material in a manner than engages and informs my students, bearing in mind the conditions of their lives and the unrealistic demands of a corrupt system. Development cannot be given, as the aid industry – entrenched, more self-serving than anything else – seems to imply. I believe quite strongly now that development work must come from within. The mountains here are not mine to move. Their slopes I am here to appreciate, their peaks perhaps to point at from the base and offer insights to local climbers. But the mountains are rooted in Mozambican soil, and the tectonic shift cannot come from outside. Little by little, the ants must construct their own colony.