Two years in Mozambique, one shared dream

When I tell people that I spent the last two years working as a high school biology teacher in a small village in rural Moza-mbique with the Peace Corps, most people pat me on the back and say, “That was really good of you.” They take for granted that I did the “right thing,” that I “made a difference,” and that the difference I made was positive.

Not my grandpa’s sister Frances, a 96-year-old retired farmer in southern Minnesota. She did not pat me on the back. She asked: Why would I try to change the ways of people in a community so far away that has gotten along on its own just fine?

What did I, an outsider to that community, have to teach them?

It’s important to understand why we do what we do. Thank God for wise Aunt Frances, who cares that her family does what is right and who does not waste time with subtlety.

What is the impact of a Peace Corps volunteer in a place like Mozambique?

Josephine Olsen, standing director of Peace Corps by President Obama’s transition team, was asked the same question last week in a speech at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work.

It’s about “interaction, sharing, everybody learning,” she replied. “And it is so important to listen.”

The Peace Corps’ mission-to “promote world peace and friendship”-is elaborated in three goals:

1. Help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women.

2. Promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The fact that Peace Corps volunteers act as vectors of understanding between people of different cultures-the second and third goals-cannot be overlooked. This is, as Olsen pointed out, one of the most important things that a Peace Corps volunteer does.

My primary responsibility in the Peace Corps was to help relieve a shortage of teachers across Mozambique. After a brutal war that ended in 1992, half of Mozambicans today are younger than 18-and most of these children should be in school.

Without enough teachers to educate school-age Mozambicans, the Mozambican government requested help from international programs, including Peace Corps, to meet their need for trained teachers.

Outside of teaching, my biggest responsibility was simply “being there”-interacting, sharing, learning and listening.

“Being there” meant that when a dozen donated computers from a foreign organization unexpectedly appeared at our high school’s door-where no one knew what to do with a new computer-I was able to teach a group of professors how to use and care for them.

One might not think of setting up computers as a cultural exchange, but as an American, I grew up with access to a computer-and most of us, I imagine, could plug one in and turn it on.

“Being there” also meant seeing the effect of my culture on a place thousands of miles away. Some effects were inadvertent-the way 50 Cent, The Terminator and similar images constitute how Mozambicans perceive how Americans act and think, for instance-but others were conscientious.

Development strategists in Washington, London and Lisbon (Portugal is Mozambique’s former colonizer) devise programs implemented in Mozambique to provide food to famine victims, micro-loans to small businesses, school supplies to students, training to teachers, HIV education to youth and drug cocktails to AIDS victims.

I had a unique role in my community, understanding the perspectives of both far-away policy effectors and the locally effected, something that came only from the experience of living with people for an extended period of time, doing what they do, and listening to their stories.

What I did know, what I could teach, was how to help Mozambicans use and react to the influx of Western culture and material things-say, the donated computers that appear unexpectedly at the rural school’s door. Colonizers, globalizers and development workers changed the ways of the people in my community a long time ago-and what is needed now is someone who can listen, an advocate and a bridge between cultures.

That is something that I couldn’t have done from home.

For me, “being there” means that when I read about southern Africa, instead of HIV statistics or images of desolation and poverty, I see people. I see mothers and sons and uncles and best friends. I see laughing and dreaming dreams not much different from my own.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama said, “.as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself, and . America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

One great way that America currently plays its role in ushering in that era is through Peace Corps and the hundreds of international volunteer programs like it. These programs recognize that in a shrinking world, our community has grown.

Mozambique, it turns out, is not so far away, and we are not so much outsiders.

Matthew Rysavy received a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at SLU in 2006. He is one of 302 SLU alumni who have served in the Peace Corps since its inception 48 years ago this week. In summer of 2009, Rysavy will begin medical school at the University of Iowa.

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