Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog

This African Life – Mozambique

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Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This week, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Mozambique.

Alex Ernst – Age 25

Meet Alex!

Where are you from?
I’m originally from Indiana, but came to Peace Corps by way of New Orleans.
What country and program do you serve in?
Beginning last May, I have been serving as a health PCV in Mozambique. The goal of the health program here in Mozambique is to improve the health of Mozambicans through increased health-seeking behavior and prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria as well as health system strengthening through capacity-building of men, women, and organizations throughout the country. My assignment as a community health and organizational strengthening worker broadly implies that I am partnered with a non-governmental organization (NGO) here in Moz to help build capacity within the organization and the community. The focus of my work with my organization, the ariel glaser foundation, is to improve their monitoring and evaluation and help design and implement various projects dealing with HIV in my town. Additionally, I work at the community level giving health talks (palestras) alongside my Mozambican counterparts, forming groups to provide psycho-social support for PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS), developing projects to improve adherence to anti-retroviral treatment, distributing and improving correct use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and generally working to improve health-related knowledge in my community.
What is your lifestyle like?
I live in a two-room cement house inside a yard (quintal) which I share with my landlord, his wife, and his young son. Being based in a district capital, I have energy (well, most of the time) and access to water nearby via a tap. My house has a corrugated metal (chapa) roof which means during rainy season storms, it is nearly impossible to speak to someone sitting across the table from me. During the heat of the day, chapa-roofed houses act as a tiny hotboxes so generally no one is inside during the sweltering afternoons; instead you can find me on my hammock and most of my neighbors on straw mats (esteiras) under the shade of our mango trees. I have a dump flush toilet, which means that the base, bowl, and seat of a toilet are on top of a pit latrine. Because there isn’t actually a flushing mechanism, I have to dump buckets of water (hence the name) into the toilet after each use. Without running water, I’ve grown very accustomed (and even started truly to enjoy) a good bucket bath.
Between the recently added South African grocery store, the local markets (mercados), and small corner stores (lojas) in town, I am able to buy just about any food item my heart (read: stomach) might desire. That being said, in terms of produce, we are obviously limited by the changing seasons. Thankfully, as one season tragically ends (such as mango), another is beginning soon after (Yay, avocados!). in an attempt to budget wisely given our monthly Peace Corps stipend and to live as my friends and neighbors, my diet is typically a combination of a starch, typically either rice or xima (a maze-based staple), and a sauce of sorts (caril) – typically either beans (feijão), greens (verduras), or a peanut/coconut sauce dish. When i feel like splurging, I’ll head into town and order a piri-piri chicken with xima and salad at my favorite bar/restaurant.
All of that is to say that generally the physical aspects of my life here aren’t the most challenging part of my Peace Corps service. I have good access to energy, water, a relative variety of foods, and even an internet modem at site.
What are your host-country neighbors like as a people?
My friends, co-workers, and neighbors are easily the most fulfilling part of my service thus far, as I’d guess most PCVs might say). The relationships I have formed and am continuing to form with Mozambicans around me motivate me to continue my work even on the difficult, disheartening, and frustrating days. Their hope and courage to improve their country through small actions is truly inspiring.
I spend my days with a few dozen staff members at the hospital here in Manhiça. With the hospital overflowing with patients waiting as early as 6:30am, the staff works all day until the heat of the late afternoon to do their best to see every patient. Unfortunately, due to a lack of human resources, it’s not always possible for every patient to be seen or receive the medications they need, often due to stock outs (running out of supplies). Despite these challenges that the staff see daily, they are devoted to addressing the real, physical and financial barriers that patients face to receiving adequate healthcare here.
Beyond my co-workers, my friends and neighbors are magnificent individuals who constantly open their doors to me for dinners and arms to me when I’m in need of a supportive hug. My 20-minute walk home from the hospital is normally closer to an hour or two because of all of the stops I make chatting with vendors and friends. I love every minute of the warmth I’m exposed to through these interactions. Of course, there are moments where these conversations drag a slow day painfully on; however, they are the living example of how connected and familial Mozambicans are.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
Challenges are inherent in the job of any PCV, regardless of the country he or she is serving in. Many of those challenges may overlap between countries. Here in Mozambique, challenges can range from the slow pace of life to transportation struggles to cat calls and sexual harassment being a white female walking in town. Frustrations one week might be as trivial as coming home with dirty, sandy feet every day and not having water coming out of the tap. The next week though, obstacles may instead be the death of a neighbor due to a chapa accident at night or your neighbor’s five-year old child being diagnosed with malaria for the second time this season despite her having a mosquito net and knowing she should be using it.
In the end though, most of the challenges are to be expected when you begin this crazy Peace Corps journey. Moreover, they are constantly balanced out with the little moments of joy here. Even on the worst of weeks where nothing seems to be going right at work and homesickness is looming, all it takes is the smile of your favorite 3-year old as she runs up to you on your walk home from work calling out, ‘Tia Alexa! Tia Alexa!’ to make it all worthwhile; a gentle remind of why you’re here.
Alex talks with community members.

Alex talks with community members.

Why did you join Peace Corps?
I think this is the biggest, most frequent question every Peace Corps Volunteer has had to answer. Coincidentally it remains one of the most complex and challenging to answer fully. My reasons for joining the Peace Corps were not unilateral nor where they entirely selfless – I love to travel, I love experiencing new cultures and foods, I love learning new languages. For me though, the largest reason was essentially a utilitarian decision: I have skills in the field of public health centered specially around designing and implementing programs focusing on infectious diseases; the largest burden of infectious diseases today still remains to be sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like Mozambique are still combating, both medically, economically, and socially, diseases that we know how to prevent and for which we know the cure. When I think of where my skills can be of most use, Peace Corps offers me the opportunity to bring those skills not only to a country in need of those skills, but to do so in a way that hopefully allows me to share and spread those skills and knowledge long after I leave. As I approach the one-year mark of my Peace Corps service, I can certainly say those reasons still apply to me now. The added bonus is that now I have a handful of other reasons keeping me here as well: I have the beautiful overlook of the river running through my town which takes my breath away some days and reminds me how small I am; I have a family here that is sharing their lives with me as I share mine with them; I have held the babies whose future i might have the smallest, tiniest positive influence on if I’m lucky.Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Undoubtedly. The $379 million budget of the Peace Corps is a small fraction of the overall US government’s budget (of which less than 1% of the $4 trillion is devoted to international affairs anyway!). The benefits of the Peace Corps program are numerous: representing America abroad, broadening the experiences and perspectives of Americans through grassroots work abroad (oh, and employing them and providing them with new skill sets in the process), and fostering future leaders who return to the states to devote their careers to public service work (name an american agencies or organization and odds are they employ an RPCV). Moreover, PCVs have played a large and historic role in terms of the progress in international public health, agricultural, and educational strides in the last 50 years. My list of reasons why the Peace Corps is a worthwhile program could go on and on…

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
First, I’m jealous of how easy your application process will be compared to mine (Ha!). But in all seriousness, you are about to embark on one of the most formative experiences of your life. It is said that Peace Corps is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love.’ Those words could not be more true. You will be tested and pushed to your limits during your 27 months. You will not change the world, but you may just change one person’s world through your small actions – through your teaching, through your community health work, through your involvement in their youth group. Don’t join the Peace Corps expecting to change the world and make the biggest impact; join the Peace Corps because you see the need and the importance of this type of work at the local level, and because you value relationship-building as much as (if not more than) measurable, tangible, outcome-related goals.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Definitely nothing is set in stone right now. It’s still early enough in my service that I’m open to most career trajectories in the international public health field. I am toying around with a few different possibilities these days including finding a way to stay in Mozambique (or another country in sub-Saharan Africa), returning stateside to work for a community-based non-profit, or a life of travel to and from a country with a USAID or CDC job. Who knows!

Want to read about Alex’s service in Mozambique?  Check out her blog!

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2 thoughts on “This African Life – Mozambique

  1. This is a great series you are doing! Thank you 🙂

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