Nobre comes running up to me with a smile stretched across his face. “I’m here,” he says trying to catch his breath. “And I brought a friend.”
Behind him stands a tall boy, also smiling and struggling to keep his backpack from slipping off his shoulders.
“Now we’re all here,” John says to the rest of the group. “So what’s the plan?”
I tell the group of five that we will be traveling together from our home in Namapa (in the northern province of Nampula in Mozambique) to the Island of Mozambique, the nation’s first capital and now home to historical museums, a blossoming tourist scene, and delicious eateries.
“And we’ll be learning about health?” John #2 (yes, there are two Johns on this trip, making it easier for me to remember names) asks, brows turned inquisitively downward.
“Not only will be learning about health together as our group,” I say to the five students in the middle of a bustling travel intersection just outside our town. “We will be joined by groups from all over the north who will also be learning about health and how to implement health projects.”
The boys eyes light up. They’re not used to meeting teenagers from other parts of the country. Hell, many of them have never traveled outside of Namapa. This trip is an opportunity for them to learn more about their home country, both in terms of sites and sounds as well as health issues.
With the six of us traveling together, we almost fill half a chappa (mini bus used for public transportation in the country). We all sit in the back, and the energy of the trip is filling my students with countless questions about what’s around the next curve.
Halfway through the trip to the island (about a four-hour drive from our site), we make a stop at a nearby town to change chappas. Together we walk one by one toward the chappa station, passing vendors of all sorts: vegetables, candy, hard boiled eggs with salt on the side, a popcorn machine, clothes. Cars, tucks, and busses whiz by, stirring up dirt from the ground as it catches in the wind and blows in all directions. The students take it all in, barely slowing down as we find our next ride.
The chappa eventually reaches the three kilometer, one-lane bridge that connects the continent to the island. The bright blues of the water reflect around the inside of the chappa, and my students, in silence, glance across the water to our final destination of the island.
In the distance you can make out the long pier that stretches off the far side in front of the museum and church. On the other side is a smaller island with a fort, a remnant from the Portuguese rule. The island is a time capsule from another time, and the salts from the water are slowly etching away against its architecture, tearing away at its surface to reveal a rocky interior.
On the middle of the bridge, the water seems close, and you can see that it’s not too deep. A jump from the bridge would result in a sudden impact with the rocky terrain just below the water’s surface. The reflection of the sun dances across the small waves. The wind blows through the open windows of the chappa. Passengers tighten their capulanas (traditional Mozambican cloth) around their shoulders.
We drive through the interior of the island passing the main market, the fish market with various catches of the day, and the bairros (neighborhoods) tucked just below the main road, exposing the roofs to our view but not much else. A secret city just below the main road. Smoke from a fire billows above one home.
The chappa drops us near the hospital, the first hospital in the country with its long staircases, intricate gate, and tall columns stretching toward the roof. We continue walking down this road until we notice familiar faces: other volunteers with their group of students. The volunteers are crouched on a bench eating apa with egg from a nearby vendor.
My students are directed to where they’ll be staying for the weekend, and I share travel stories with the other volunteers while ordering an apa (similar to a tortilla but with a fried egg, ketchup, and mayonnaise on top and folded into a triangle for easy handling). The sun is shining bright above us, but a cool, winter breeze is coming off the water nearby. It’ll be a perfect weekend.
The next day following an evening of introductions, listing our expectations for the students, a discussion on sexual violence, and a dinner that the students were happy to see, we collect our 35 students into the back room of a restaurant for a full-day of health sessions, activities, and discussion. The day begins by allowing students to walk to the hospital to get an HIV test done. A group of 15 walk together to find out their results.
Each student sits with a workbook, notebook, and pen, eager to start taking notes and expanding their knowledge of health & prevention. The sessions for the day cover everything from gender issues to HIV basics and prevention and malaria. It’s a lot of information, and as the day goes on, the students find themselves stepping outside to take a break. However, during the sessions, the students are consistently taking notes, asking thoughtful and important questions, and clarifying main points. The environment is inspiring.
Counterparts and leaders from the community facilitate the sessions and work with their fellow Mozambican students to address common misconceptions about their country and health. The students throw question after question toward the Mozambican counterparts, and they answer in earnest and sincerity.
During a conversation on the basics of HIV, prevention, and treatment, a student stands in front of his seat to ask a question.
“If I’m negative, but my wife is positive, is it possible for us to have a child together who is negative?” The counterpart and I work together to answer the question thoughtfully and accurately. We explain that with proper treatment and care from their doctor, they’ll be able to have an HIV-negative child.
The day is exhausting, but you wouldn’t know from the students. Going two hours beyond our schedule, the final activity involves sitting in town groups to brainstorm ideas for future health projects. My group comes up with the idea of utilizing local radio to address high levels of severe malaria. They’re energetic but thoughtful in their analysis of how to tackle the issue on a grassroots level. I’m proud of my students in this moment. I want to cheer for them, but I also want to keep my cool.
The activity finishes, and the PCV in charge of the event announces that we will pass out certificates for our work over the past two days. To a Mozambican, a certificate is proof of pushing beyond expectations and doing more with their lives and time. While we as Americans don’t see certificates as special, maybe we should.
“Take a photo of me as I’m getting my certificate,” John says as he passes me after hearing his name. “Please!” I point the camera, and he turns as he grabs the certificate and shakes the hand of the PCV. The camera flashes.
Afterward we get a photo of the entire group with their certificates. Nobre looks upset. “They spelled my name wrong on the certificate.” He holds it in his hands and asks if we can fix it. The PCV ensures him we can, and he perks up in time to get another photo.
The next day we hand out t-shirts that have the logo of the program, JUNTOS. The program works with teenagers to educate and empower them to take on health issues in their communities. They look striking in their shirts, and I have another proud dad moment, positioning them in the sunlight to get another photo.
The chappa ride back to our site is filled with chatter about the next steps. The students refer to me as their leader of the group. I turn to them and say, “Listen, you five are the leaders of this group. I am so proud of each of you for this weekend. We are going to work together to make a difference in Namapa.” They smile and continue chatting about next steps.
We pull into Namapa as the sun starts to hang low in the sky, saying goodnight to a busy day. The walk from the chappa station to our homes is about 10 minutes, and in those 10 minutes, we walked through the town sporting the yellow shirts and receiving comments and questions about what our group was about. One of the quieter members steps up and answers questions of community members. A small boy walks alongside our group, eager to be seen as a part of a health group.
We have a final meeting before breaking up and going our separate ways. Nobre asks one last time about his certificate. I ensure him we will get him a new one. He smiles, thanks me for the weekend, and walks away toward his house.
I spend the next five minutes walking home in silence reflecting on the day and the experience. It reminds me of Peace Corps as a two-year experience: it’s over before you know it, you’ll never know really the results of your efforts, but you’ll always know that even a weekend can make a huge impact on the lives of our community.