Teacher, teacher, teacher…

For me, Wednesday mornings are nerve-wracking, but Wednesday afternoons are the absolute best. Why the focus on a single day of the week? That is because on Wednesday mornings I teach English to Portuguese-speaking girls at a local orphanage.  I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I found myself volunteering to do this through the American Women’s Association (AWAA) here in Luanda. You should know, I am not a teacher. My degree is in Geology. And, I don’t speak Portuguese, although I am learning it slowly through this these precious kids.

My only experience with teaching was about fifteen years ago, as a substitute teacher in our local school district. I only did it six times, and it was for a different school and grade each time. When I signed up to be a substitute, I was told the regular teacher would always leave me a lesson plan, and all I needed to do was show up and fill in for the day.

Nope. Never happened.

Each experience was the same. I arrived to find there was no lesson plan, and I was face-to-face with a room full of twenty-three or four kids, all expecting me to know what I was doing.

It was terrifying.

The last time I taught, it was for a third grade class in one of the less-affluent elementary schools in our district. The class had its usual collection of overly-energetic kids, but there was a particularly disruptive boy sitting on the first row. For the entire morning, he could not keep his hands off his fellow students, would not stay in his seat, and refused to complete any of his work. After lunchtime, I gently took him aside and asked if perhaps I had failed to send him to the nurse to take his medicine. You see, I knew many kids on Ritalin, and if ever there was a child with ADHD, this boy was it.

He narrowed his eyes at me and said, “What do you mean, medicine? I don’t take medicine. I’m telling my parents!”  I never went back.  Teaching was just not for me. Some people have math anxiety dreams, public speaking anxiety dreams, or showing-up-somewhere-naked anxiety dreams. For years after that, I had teaching anxiety dreams.

So, you may wonder, why in the world would I volunteer to teach English to a bunch of Portuguese-speaking orphans? No, I have not lost my marbles. The answer is: because I am able. Because I have the time, and they need every bit of help they can get. You see, English may give them a leg-up on getting a job when they are older. Luanda has many hotels, businesses, and English-speaking expats. In each of these situations, a little English would be a big plus when seeking employment.

There are a number of orphanages in Luanda, and they all have more kids in them than they should. The orphanage where I volunteer is called Mama Muxima, and it is run by only three nuns. There are over four hundred kids in school attendance, but some of them live in the surrounding barrio, and come only for the classes taught by the nuns. The one hundred kids who do live there range in age from toddlers to age seventeen. Once they reach the age of eighteen, they have to leave. What happens to them then is very uncertain. Of course, that is very tough to swallow, but there is no denying that Mama Muxima is an amazing operation.

So, how do only three nuns care for and teach that many kids? Each child is on a very strict schedule and the older kids all have chores to do. They have morning and afternoon classes. In between, they clean and do laundry. They help with the cooking and tend to the younger kids. And, you have never seen a happier, and more well-behaved group.

Who pays for all of this?  I’ve been told the majority of their funds come from the church, private donations, and business donations. The AWAA supports them financially as well, through funds raised on twice-yearly craft fairs, dues, and other donations.

Yes, the orphanage is an amazing operation, but it is anything but plush. There is no electricity in most of the buildings, and the plumbing is often broken. Up until recently, the nuns themselves were living without a functional bathroom. The older kids had to haul water upstairs in buckets to the nun’s bathroom so they could wash and use the toilet.

Recently, the AWAA provided the funds to install water purification equipment. Prior to that, the children were often sick from bad water. The kids sleep in buildings with open holes near the roof for ventilation. There are no screens, mosquito nets, or bug spray to prevent bites. As a result, kids often come down with malaria, too. Like I said, this is not the Waldorf-Astoria, but these nuns do so much with so little, and these kids are the recipients of their dedication.

I am by no means the only English teacher at Mama Muxima. The AWAA provides a number of volunteers who teach English, sewing and crafts, all on alternate days. This certainly lessens the load on the nuns, but they are still responsible for the vast majority of instruction. You should know that many of the members of AWAA are not American. We have ladies in the group from all over the world.  It has been so much fun to interact with such a  diverse group of women!

The Wednesday morning class is made up of girls between thirteen and fifteen years of age. I have a daughter, and let me tell you, teenage girls are a different animal. They can be moody, stubborn, and just plain mean. Thankfully, my daughter has grown into a lovely young woman. But, her early teenage years were not a lot of fun. I am sure my own mother would not have fond memories of my teenage years, either.

But, the girls I teach are unlike any American teenagers I have ever encountered. Every single one of them – and my class can have up to fifteen – are polite, helpful, and eager to learn. When I arrive at the orphanage, they come out to greet me, and help carry in my bag and supplies. The class is held in a room with tables and chairs, but no electricity. Often, the girls straggle in, many of them tired from their chores and regular classes. But once they all arrive, they are happy to see me and ready to learn.

Like all kids, they get bored with being lectured to, so we play games and sing songs. They thought the Hokey-Pokey was hilarious.  I used it to teach them right from left and parts of the body. Today we played a game with opposite words (hot, cold, young, old…). I had pictures of these opposites, put the girls in a circle, had them close their eyes before I gave each a different picture, and then had them open their eyes and race to find their opposite. Great fun!

During a previous lesson, my fellow teacher and I were working on numbers and telling time. We gave them a handout with pictures of blank clocks, and they were supposed to depict whatever time we told them, by drawing in the hour hand and minute hand. Surprisingly, they had no idea what to do, even though they knew their numbers fairly well. Finally, we realized that they had never learned how to read a face clock!  None of them own watches, so it should have been obvious to us, but of course we were looking at things from a first-world perspective.

I mentioned that all of the girls are well-behaved, but there is one young lady in the class who can be a bit of a challenge. I don’t know how long she has been at Mama Muxima, but she has a terrible burn scar that covers the front of her neck and part of her chest. One can only imagine how hard her life was before she came to the orphanage.

Every time I have taught, she persisted in loudly calling out, “Teacher, teacher, teacher!” whenever I was trying to answer questions from the other students. When I would walk over to see what she needed, she invariably asked the same questions about where I am from, and how old my kids are.  Then, she would tell me she likes my watch – a very inexpensive one with a rubber wristband that I picked up in the airport. I think these are the only things she feels comfortable saying in English, and that is why she asks them over and over.

Today, she did not show up to class until we were almost finished with our lesson. As expected, the minute she sat down came the usual “Teacher, teacher, teacher” followed by the same questions. The difference today was that we had three other ladies there to help teach, and our group of kids was smaller than normal. Usually, I teach with one other lady or on my own.

So today, when this young lady started in on her questions, I pulled together all of my supplies and we had a little one-on-one lesson on opposites. She was focused and interested, and when we finished, she asked me to draw a star on her paper. For this, I was rewarded with a huge smile. Clearly, all of the “Teacher, teacher” stuff, was just her way of getting some individual attention – a rare commodity at an orphanage. What a blessing that I was able to give it to her today!

After class, I headed to the grocery store in the usual Luanda traffic. It took almost an hour to travel only a few miles, which meant I had plenty of time to people-watch and think about my morning. While sitting dead-still in this bumper-to-bumper mess, a tiny, barely-clad little girl tapped on my window, begging for money. Her hair had a reddish tint to it that I later learned was a sign of malnutrition. Looking around at several others wandering the street, I had a stark realization.

In this country, wracked by extreme poverty, the children at Mama Muxima are incredibly lucky. They may be orphans, but they have a roof over their heads and plenty of food to eat. They are in school, and learning how to take care of themselves. They are not begging for food, standing in the middle of dangerous traffic hawking cheap trinkets, or carrying around huge, heavy baskets of vegetables for sale. Instead, they are loved and tended to, as all children should be.

Now, back to why Wednesday mornings are nerve-wracking and Wednesday afternoons are so wonderful. Since this teaching thing is very far outside of my comfort zone, I spend every Tuesday night and Wednesday morning frantically pulling together enough broken Portuguese to explain my lesson, and hope that Google Translate is not steering me wrong (which it frequently does). Of course, I could start earlier, but that is not how I operate, apparently.

However, once the lesson is done – and especially when I have moments like I had today – it feels so great to help these kids. It isn’t much, and it won’t drastically change their situation, but I am sure they see how much all of us volunteers care for them. It truly does take a village to raise a child, and I am happy to be a small part of the village caring for these girls.

If you want to know more about Mama Muxima, here is a link to their Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mama-Muxima/137732306274730?sk=info&tab=page_info

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

They call him Flipper…

Cruising around on a boat with blue skies and good friends – not a bad way to spend the day. In fact, it’s the best way here in Luanda to escape the city and relax. Since returning from my trip to the states a week ago, I’ve been lucky enough to go out on the company boat twice. The first time was with some lovely ladies who live in my apartment building, and the second time, hubby and I headed out with our friends, Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous.

It is winter now in Luanda, and thus, the days are getting shorter and the weather is cooling off. The fishing season has all but ended, but  the whales have yet to arrive. Still, you never know what wonders will be seen while cruising around.

I love seeing the city from the water. The crescent-shaped Marginal with its tall buildings, a marina filled with huge yachts, and palm-lined walking path, almost looks like the French Riviera. It may take a hefty dose of imagination and some squinting to see it, but the resemblance is there.

Bay of Luanda, Angola
View of the Marginal and Luanda Bay, with ships visible in the distance.
Luanda Marina
Large yachts in the Luanda Marina.

The trip from the marina through the bay and past the port is always interesting too, though not exactly postcard pretty.  Virtually everything consumed in this country comes from somewhere else, and it all comes in to this one very poorly organized port. The bay is littered with all manner of tankers, drill ships and container ships, waiting to deliver their cargo. As our tiny boat passes through the shadows of these enormous, rust-covered vessels, they look almost deserted. The only sign  that they are not abandoned is the bilge water pouring out of a pipe in the hull.

Luanda Port
One of many oil-related vessels in the Luanda Port

Once out of sight of the port, Luanda looks like any typical vacation spot, with its deep blue water and yellow sand beaches. We always cruise along the shoreline, looking at the houses, boats and people playing on the beach, and then head off to open water to see what the day will bring.

P1020275
Luanda beaches look as tropical as any Caribbean island.

My first trip, with the ladies, brought neither fish nor whales, but we did see a number of sharks lazily swimming along the top of the water. This certainly made me think twice about taking a swim! Thankfully, the water was too cold. Once we had tired of cruising around, we headed to Mussulo Beach and enjoyed a lovely lunch at the restaurant/hotel there. It is always a pleasure to spend time with these gals, whether on the boat or not, and it was a perfect way for me to reacclimatize to Luanda after being gone for so long.

For our second trip, we were blessed with more sunny, cool weather. After cruising around for about a half hour, one of our boat motors started making a rattling noise and had to be shut off. The boat has three motors in total, so there was no worry about getting back, but we all knew that this breakdown would take the boat out of commission for several months. In fact, it takes so long to get parts brought in, that it could be well into October before it is up and running again. The second company boat is also broken, and has been for some time, so this could be our last boat ride for awhile.

Regardless of how long the repair takes, this was the last Luanda boat ride for Mr. & Mrs. A, who are retiring and moving back to the states in about a week. We all hoped this trip would bring something extra special to send them off properly, and we were not disappointed.

After cruising around at a very slow speed, due to the loss of our engine, we spied some dolphins in the distance.

Luanda dolphins
Just a few of the dolphins we played with. They were all around us!

Although we weren’t able to race to where they were, they were certainly not playing hard-to-get. We puttered along and easily caught up with them. Then, we meandered through the huge pod, while they jumped and played all around us.

Luanda dolphins
A perfectly synchronized jump. I’d give them a 9.5!
Luanda dolphin
Smile, Mr. Dolphin. You are on Candid Camera!
Luanda dolphin
Showing off for the camera!
Luanda dolphin
I think that one is looking at me!
Luanda dolphin
Playful dolphins racing the boat…

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We had seen a similar-sized pod on a previous trip with Mr. & Mrs. A, but those dolphins were much smaller – and all were headed in one direction quickly. These dolphins were huge and seemed to enjoy playing around the boat. There were also some comedians in the group, especially one fella who delighted in jumping just off the bow of the boat, turning sideways, and splashing down, drenching us all. He did this over and over again, as we squealed from being hit with the icy cold water.

Luanda dolphin
Jump, jump!

I would have loved to snap some photos of his antics, but I had my camera tucked into my shirt to keep it dry. We did get plenty of shots of them just under the water and riding along beside us, and I certainly didn’t mind getting soaked. Just seeing those acrobatics was more than worth the goosebumps!

Dolphin jumping
He got some air on this jump…
Luanda dolphin
Checking us out, up close and personal…
Luanda dolphin
They were all around us…

After more than a hour of dolphin play time, we headed to another stretch of beach, a bit more remote than where I had been a few days before. We anchored the boat and brought our lunches on to the beach, set up chairs and umbrellas, and just enjoyed having our toes in the sand.

Mussulo Island, Luanda
A beach on Mussulo Island.

There were several other large pleasure boats already anchored there, one of which also pulled a jet-ski. This made for some free entertainment when the jet-skier headed out pulling a guy along on a wakeboard. The jet-ski driver was obviously inexperienced. We could see – and hear –  that the wakeboarder was none too pleased at his lack of driving skills! Over and over, the driver sped up and quickly slowed down, which caused the wakeboarder to jerk forward and then bog down in the wake and fall. Oh well, it was fun for us to watch, even if it was not any fun for the guy at the end of the rope.

Luanda beach
Let’s go fly a kite!
Luanda beach
The fishermen in the boat on the left had caught some cuttlefish.

After walking the beach to look for shells, tossing a frisbee and flying a kite, it was time to head back to the city – very slowly, of course. None of us minded the extra time it took to get back, as the weather was still so pleasant. We will miss going out on the boat for the next few months, but will certainly miss Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous a lot longer than that. Luckily for us, they are retiring to a place not far from where our son lives, so we plan to visit them in the near future.

Luanda
I have no idea what kind of bird this is, but it was huge!

Although activities like these are special indeed, it’s the people who make these postings so memorable. In our short time here, we have  connected with some great folks. Our numbers may be getting smaller, but I have no doubt that the “stayers” will work just that much harder to look out for each other. That’s just what expats do!

Luanda dolphin
A farewell jump with the Luanda shoreline in the distance.

©2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Snap out of it…

This has been a rough re-entry to life in Luanda. A few days ago, I arrived back in Angola after six weeks in the good ‘ole USA. Laughing with treasured family and friends, enjoying wonderful meals out, and shopping till I dropped, I had completely settled back into my old life.  And much needed time with my kids had refilled that empty place in my heart.

A fourteen-hour flight brought me back to Africa, and the chaos of Luanda. Of course, it was wonderful to see my husband again, as I had missed him terribly while away, but a severe case of jet lag had put me into a full-blown pity party. After four days, with no more than a couple of hours of fitful sleep at a time, I awoke this morning in a less than chipper mood.

To top it off, the situation in this country has deteriorated sharply due to plummeting oil prices. The economy here is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues, the lack of which means cuts to social aid and fewer jobs. In addition, the lack of incoming dollars means less money to import goods and rising prices.

The people here are suffering and petty crime is on the increase. Stories of recent attacks on expat women are running rampant in our ever-shrinking circle, and this made me none too happy to be back. One such story really had me worried. A woman was attacked while sitting in traffic in her locked car. The assailant had smashed the window and punched the woman while grabbing her purse. Very scary stuff!

Walking into my kitchen this morning, I greeted my housekeeper, whom I had not seen since my arrival. She smiled, clearly happy to see me, and then proceeded to tell me I looked “mais gorda”, indicating with her hands that my backside had expanded from all of those wonderful meals at home. I was appalled, and it clearly showed on my face, but she quickly said, “Oh no, Madame, ees beautiful!”  Oh well, I guess it was to be expected after six weeks of Tex-Mex and not a day on the treadmill.

Still smarting from her comment, I headed down to meet my driver for a trip to the grocery store. I may be “mais gorda”, but we still needed food for the week. My new driver is a sweetheart, but he speaks very little English. I told him which store I wanted to visit, and even wrote it down, but he had never heard of it. This irritated me, as it was a large and well-known store, and I did not like the idea of driving around in circles on these crazy and clearly unsafe streets.

Unfortunately, I could not give him directions.  In this city, it is very difficult to learn your way around as a passenger. Drivers frequently take numerous switchbacks and maze-like streets to avoid the insane traffic. My previous driver took a different route every time we went somewhere, and so, except for a few main roads, I rarely know where I am. Of course, having no sense of direction may be part of my problem, too.

The only option was for my driver to call the dispatch office and ask them where it was. He spoke in Portuguese, so I did not know what was being said, but he seemed satisfied with the directions he was given. As he started out, the main road was familiar to me, but then he drove into narrow streets filled with sinister-looking pedestrians. This made me more than a little nervous, as visions of assailants smashing my window swirled through my mind. My typically overactive imagination was running full-tilt, as I fidgeted and held my breath, looking at each passerby with suspicion. At long last, we arrived at the store and I finally unclenched my fists. All of this round and round had given me a pounding headache to go with my sour mood.

My grocery list was small and filled with very basic items, but several of my items were nowhere to be found. There were tons of hard-to-find veggies available however, so I bought them even though they weren’t on my list. I had heard grocery shopping had become even more hit-and-miss than ever, and my hoarding tendencies really kicked in. As if life here wasn’t hard enough! Now, I won’t be able to count on even the basics when I go shopping!

This is just too much, I pouted. How can it be that there is no stick butter or canned tomatoes? Finally, after several hours and three stores, I gave up and we headed back to my apartment – with a full load of veggies, but no butter.

As we drove along the main road back to town, I saw a man standing at the very top of the hillside which ran along the road. The top of the hill contained a shanty town, and the residents there regularly tossed all of their garbage over the side of the hill. This gave the appearance that this man was standing on a mountain of trash.

Then, something unexpected happened. He began to dance. Here this man was, living in a shanty town, surrounded by refuse, and he was dancing. What a blessing to be reminded that joy can be found in even the most dire circumstances. Never in my life had I been snapped out of a pity party faster!

The awakening continued.

It occurred to me that my maid was being genuine when she said I looked beautiful to her. Packing on a few pounds meant that I had a healthy appetite, plenty of good food to eat, and the leisure time for my body to hold on to those calories. In her world, many people were not so blessed. Pants that were too tight and a lack of stick butter were laughable problems compared to those she faced on a daily basis.

At that moment, I said a prayer of thanks for the reminder of how lucky I am. Life in Luanda can be a challenge, but I trust that He will keep me safe while I am here. And clearly, the Big Man is looking out for my health, too. How wonderful that He presented me with such beautiful veggies instead of more butter for my bloated backside!

I may not be the quickest on the uptake, but even I can’t miss such clear reminders that He is watching out for me, as we make our way through this crazy new life. Now, off to cook a healthy meal so I can fit into my clothes again…

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved