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JUNTOS: Together in Health / Promoting Youth Development 

  

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.
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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.
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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. 
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On God and Finding Faith in the Shadow of Uncertainty

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The woman points toward an unimpressive house adjacent to the recently constructed gas station parking lot. The cement extends toward the house before breaking up, exposing thick grass that rests upon a lanky, wooden fence that obscures the view of the yard.

“A woman used to live in that house,” she says staring in the direction of the house and barely blinking. “She died last week.”

“That’s so sad,” I say in response, now also staring toward the house. “What happened?”

“She died from some disease,” now she’s looking in her lap and fiddling with her cell in her hands. “Not sure what disease.”

I tell her that I work in a hospital up the road about 100 kilometers and see a lot of patients who abandon their treatment early for various reasons and end up dying from the complications.

Seemingly unsurprised by this information, she raises her eyebrows and rises from her chair to go and help a customer who is putting gas in his car’s tank. “If it’s God’s will,” she says as she continues toward the man, “it’s God’s will.”

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I’m taken aback by the sight of it. A familiar symbol (above) is painted above the entryway to the church: the thick, black cross with the red cloth resting upon the arms. The words Igreja Metodista are painted above the symbol.

Until this moment, I had not seen a Methodist Church in Mozambique. Sure, I’d seen places of worship for other beliefs – Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical – but this was different. This was personal.

It’s a few days before Christmas Day, and I’m visiting close friends in the southern province of Inhambane in Mozambique. I take a moment to let the sight of the church sink into place before continuing on to my friend’s house located next door.

A few days later, I excuse myself from my group of friends and head toward the church. I expect to encounter life and jubilance and, instead, am surprised to find the church completely empty. The front door is propped open, and the wooden shudders that act as windows are spread wide, flooding the interior of the church with the remaining light of the day.

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I slowly move through the small church, taking in the familiar and appreciating the unfamiliar. Long, wooden pews stretch in rows through the room. Tucked in the back of the pews are hymn books. I brush my fingers along the smooth wood as I pass toward the front of the room. Each window I pass reveals something new: a child running past, thick trees producing fruit, the sun setting in the distance.

I find myself at the front of the room looking down at a table adorned with flowers, books, and pieces of cloth. In front of the table is a podium. I let the image of a packed church fill my senses.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I turn it on to find messages from home wishing me a Merry Christmas. It didn’t feel like Christmas before, but today it does.

I sit down in one of the empty pews, lift a hymn book from the back of the pew in front of me, and I open it to a random page. I tuck my nose into the crease of the book and inhale deeply, pulling from the book a familiar scent and welcomed calm.

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I’m standing next to my father in a packed worship hall with the rest of the congregation. We are all singing a hymn while the pastor and co-pastor walk up the aisle and out of the room following the service. I notice that nobody is really singing, and I strain my voice to match the volume and pitch of those around me. I know I can sing better, but I don’t try.

I’ve been going to church with my father and siblings for as long as I can remember. The church is a beautifully constructed building tucked in my small town in my small state. The triangular, main worship hall is home to a towering plate-glass window that stretches from the floor to the highest point in the ceiling.

In front of the window is a sizeable, wooden cross that hangs high above the heads of the congregation, held in place by chains. The pastor stands below this cross in sermon, and during each service, it’s hard not to worry that one day the cross will fall. It doesn’t.

I grew up in the walls of this church, attending summer programs, joining my family for Sunday and holiday services, and volunteering to help younger kids. Some of my closest friends grew up in the walls of this church. Some of the cutest girls in our town attended this church. Each Sunday, I would scan the room looking for a current crush.

We follow the congregation out of the church and head for our car. We won’t return to the church until the following Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that I leave everything inside its walls.

Each night as a teenager I find myself praying in a similar routine before I sleep. Using the same script but splicing in names of people or concerns of the week, I fold my hands together, close my eyes, and whisper my message into the world. I don’t know who’s listening, but I have hope, optimism, faith that someone is.

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The document is opened on my computer at my desk, but I’m staring out the window. On the opposite side is a row of bushes and a patch of grass that stretches to the cement parking lot. A grasshopper has landed on the window. I rise from my seat and get closer to the window to look at the colorful details of the insect, but it jumps away as I approach.

The next day I decide to quit my job at the bank. It’s a great job working with friendly, passionate people, but I didn’t share the same passion for the work. Something inside me had been leading me to this day, shaking at me and alerting me to a life unlived. I pack up all my belongings and make the drive from Nebraska to Washington State.

During my two years in Seattle, I spend my Sundays at a middle school located close to my house that hosts Mars Hill, a popular Christian congregation in the northwest and west. The group isn’t without controversy with some members calling the group a cult and denouncing the church’s leader, Mark Driscoll, for his sometimes radical practices.

For me, the group is a place to find the familiar calm felt growing up. While that calm had since been replaced with stress, sadness, insecurity, and uncertainty, deep within my soul was a faith that everything will turn out fine.

I continue to spend my days living with this notion in my heart, although my faith has always been a private one.

Looking back, the decision to leave Nebraska saved my life, but whose decision was it? For the longest time (and still today), I knew it was my decision, but I also know that it was driven by faith, a belief strengthened through the church.

So I ask again, whose decision was it?

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I’m sitting with a book in a restaurant in my small town in Mozambique. A doctor friend who is visiting from the provincial capital to work with cataracts patients in my area approaches my table. Behind her is a short man with a large smile on his face.

“Alek, I want to introduce you to someone,” my friend says as she gestures toward the man. “This is Jose, he is the pastor at the Catholic church here in Namapa.”

“Nice to meet you, father,” I say and extend my hand.

He grabs my hand and, with a smile on his face, says “It’s very nice to meet you too. I’m very happy that we are able to meet.”

He continues to tell me that he’s been living in Mozambique for about a year, is originally from Mexico, and wants to learn English because he has family in Scotland. I tell him that I’m happy to help, and he leaves the restaurant thanking me numerous times.

A few weeks later, the father contacts me and says he wants to have lunch with me at his house. Joined by another volunteer from a nearby town, we head to the church and meet him by the main road. He leads us through a set of large, metal doors that lead to his house and main yard.

He tells us that 14 young boys work with him at the church, and that with time they’ll be able to preach as well. My friend and I meet a couple of the boys, and we continue into the pastor’s main living area that has a table set for our lunch.

On the walls are pictures of religious leaders, including Pope Francis. The pastor has bookshelves stacked with literature on religious practice, language books, and other materials. Set on the table alongside the plates is a small speaker. The pastor turns on the speaker, raises the volume, and The Beatles’ Let It Be fills the room.

“I love this music,” he tells us. “The Beatles!”

We tell him that we also love the Beatles, and the smile seen at the restaurant grows across his face as he gestures toward the food to help ourselves. The meal consists of corn on the cob, potatoes, salad, and rabbit, which the pastor raises at his house.

We finish the meal, and the pastor tells us how happy he is that he met us. “Thanks be to God,” he says as he raises both his hands toward the ceiling.

“Thanks be to God,” my friend and I say in unison as another Beatles song plays from the speaker.

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Her comment catches me off guard. How could the death of a woman from a preventable disease be the will of God?

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this in Mozambique. When someone passes of old age or disease or accident, it is common for the people to find their comfort in knowing it’s God’s will.

While it’s easy to be cynical of this view (and many volunteers are), who are we to try and tell anyone how to find comfort, how to find faith?

How are we supposed to be strong volunteers without faith in something? Having faith in the better, the stronger, the more righteous can guide our hands, our actions.

Will we be able to work in cooperation with the many churches here to deliver beneficial health information? Information on prevention? Long-term behavior change?

Perhaps the answer is simply: If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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