Messages from the Heart: Volunteering in Mozambique with Action Aid

We got back from Mozambique on Wednesday and it has taken a few days to catch up on ourselves and process our experience as volunteers. It is really hard to put into words how profound our trip was. It is a bit like trying to capture a picture of a beautiful sunset/ sunrise when you know the image is not going to do that moment true justice.

The opening ceremony was a full community welcome to the Condlana Primary School. As our minibus bounced down the sandy road, we could see a crowd and a group of children stood up and stepped forwards with their Choir Director. They started singing and I felt my heart pound and my eyes fill before I had even climbed off of the bus! It was also hard to get off of the bus as we were swamped by everyone eagerly wanting to welcome us with a smile and a high 5.

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The whole school and the local community had come out to see us to put on a welcome ceremony, on a Sunday afternoon, to bless the building site and project before we started the next day. We were treated to songs from the pupils, speeches from the community officials, a theatre performance from the school’s girl leadership group, and dancing from the local community. Which of course we were obliged to join in with!

Community 1

Seeing the reality for ourselves for the first time, emphasised why we were there. The school serves 450 pupils. The school has 3 classrooms. The pupils attend school in shifts, morning or afternoon sessions, or are taught outside, under the trees on the school grounds. Our fundraising and volunteering would create 2 new classrooms for the school and the community to use. More space than they currently have but still not enough in reality. Mozambique is by far the poorest African country  I have visited and the reality of how little resources the community have was stark.

We could really see and feel the difference the classrooms would make to the children and the community. We felt the pressure to rise to the challenge and do our best for them in the short time we had there. We also felt compelled to fully invest in this community and not just donate some money and leave.

Before we could start the building work we needed to pay our respects to the stakeholders invested in the project so we  visited the Action Aid Mozambique office to meet the team and went to the District Governor’s office, where we learnt about the challenges they face in the district where their budgets dictate their teacher training and deployment, where they are handcuffed by the state over school expansion, repairs and resourcing. Education is valued, but not prioritised. They expressed their sincere thanks to our team for helping to provide a better education for the children in the district.

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We could then finally head to the school site and start the building work. Our first job was digging trenches and flattening where the classroom floor will go. We also spotted the school farm/ garden area which was a patch of wilderness and we decided to help tame that by clearing the surrounding area and defining the boundary.  Our enthusiasm, spirits and energy were high and we could quickly see the fruits of our labour begin to take shape.

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As the week progressed we moved from digging and hoeing to metal work to create the supporting structures that would be concreted in to create the shape of the building and to reinforce the supporting walls. Everything was done by hand, everything was moved by hand. We developed lots of new practical skills and found muscles we did not even know we had!

It is fair to say that nothing is easy in this context, in this climate. As a team we moved truck loads of breeze blocks, sand, stones, water and concrete back and forth across the site in buckets, wheel barrows and by hand. As we did this the locals watched and followed, we communicated with smiles and hand gestures as they had no English and we had no Portugese! Despite this we operated as one team. It is funny how relationships and friendships can be built through eye contact and facial expressions alone. There was laughter, a lot of laughter, as the local women with babies tidied to their backs in a cloth, carried more water on their heads than we could carry in a bucket in two hands!  And yes we did the obligatory try and carry water on our heads in a bucket!

 

Moreover, everything we did had an audience, as the children who were not in lessons shyly observed our every move. They grew in confidence and were desperate to help us. Again with no language, through modelling, they quickly understood what we needed and would help us collect sticks for the fence, stones for weights. They were keen to be involved, eager to please and followed our every move. Every time I turned around from doing a task, a support group of smiley faces and helping hands would appear.

The school site was littered with debris, as there is no bin collection in this area and there are no school bins, litter is a real issue throughout the country in fact. We wanted the school community to take pride in their space, so we started a litter pick. A few of us started it quietly, quickly filling bags up with food wrappers, broken glass, decaying fruit and ripped sheets from old school books. The word spread and a large group of children came running, picking up bin bags, buckets and wheel barrows, keen to help us. In less than an hour we had filled 20+ bags. The smiles on their faces as we high-fived them all to say well done and good job really touched us. As we went to take a water break, the litter picking continued in our absence and the new game became one of them being the teacher high-fiving everyone saying “good job” which made us smile.

Cement mixing to form concrete for the next layer of the floor became the next mammoth task before we could start building the walls and really see the classrooms coming together. The team of local builders said with 20 extra pairs of hands that they achieved in a week what they would have achieved in a few months. As you can imagine when they heard they had a group of 20 women coming to help them build they were a little bit alarmed, but we showed them how tenacious and hard working we are.

We might not have been skilled and we might have lacked experience on a building site but we made up for it in enthusiasm and energy! There was no whingeing from the team, no-one gave up, the resilience and the ‘can do’ attitude was testament to what a brilliant group of volunteers we had.  If anything Ant, our building project lead, a volunteer from the UK had to keep telling us to pace ourselves and take a break. We applied ourselves as we do in our schools, making every minute matter!

Alongside the building work there were also opportunities to connect with the community and understand more about the challenges they face as children and as adults. We sat in on lessons, we met the Girls’ Leadership Group, we met the local teachers and we met the Women’s Reflection Circle. It was meeting 35 adults who walk 3-7km once a week for Literacy lessons that really moved me. They were so grateful for our support in expanding the school site. Before they started the adult classes, they could not read and write to the extent that they could not catch a  bus as they did not know the destination and they could not sign paperwork. Over the 2/3 year programme they had closed the gap on the skills they had missed out on at school.

In Mozambique only 40% of children stay on for secondary school and only 10% of the country are employed. The local Women’s Circle shared their gratitude in improving the life changes for them and their families. This safe space enables to them to support each other through issues of domestic violence and learning literacy.

They were keen to show us their new skills. As they stood up and moved into a circle around the black board, they broke into song. They sang a beautiful harmony together as they passed the chalk between them and came to the board to show us they could now write. It is moments like this that we will not forget. It is moments like this that donating money to a charity without seeing how it will be spent and without appreciating the impact it has on the lives on others does not capture. It really made us realise the wider impact the classroom build will have on the wider community.

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The song was poignant and uplifting, so with tears in our eyes we went back to continue our work on the school site. The classroom walls finally began to take shape and we saw the building rise above ground level! We took it in turns joining the mortaring team to cement the gaps between the breeze blocks.

As the school’s classrooms progressed we also finished off sourcing and creating 90 meters of fencing around the school garden we had rejuvenated for the community. We planted maize, peanuts and cassava with the help of the local women.  We are proud of what we have achieved, but we are also conscious that we are just scratching the surface of the external support that this community needs.

The farewell ceremony from the community was emotional to say the least. We had arrived as a group of strangers, to do our bit, we were leaving as a team of friends, with a special place in our hearts for this humble village community in southern Mozambique. Maria, the headteacher and her school community, showed their gratitude to us through singing and dancing. The speeches from each community stakeholder group were moving. Our translator explained the heart felt thanks. The “messages from the heart” of each person who spoke heightened the emotion in the community circle, under the trees, beside our build. A teacher representative thanked us for working shoulder to shoulder as equals with the community. A community representative thanked us for not “bringing fish, but bringing fishing rods and for teaching us how to fish”. The impact of us getting our hands dirty, of teachers giving up their summer holidays, of mothers leaving their children behind to volunteer were sincerely appreciated. The legacy we had co-created was the beginning, not the end of our collaboration.

Nancy impressed everyone by learning a few words of Portugese to articulate our gratitude for the  warm welcome we had received. We then handed over our gifts of books, pens and pencils, balls. Basic school resources for us that would be treasured in their community.  Our final gift as a group was to sing. Overnight we had learnt the lyrics and the tune to ‘Lean On Me’ to perform to them in exchange for their singing and dancing for us. We gave it everything we had and sang our hearts out –  we stood and took our applause with smiles on our faces and tears in our eyes. Apparently there is video footage which we are yet to see/ hear!!

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The women of the community then gifted us all beautifully patterned wraps, which they dressed us in to sing us and dance us off to our bus to much hilarity from everyone!

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Following the closing ceremony we headed to Maputo for our final night together, and we were joined for dinner by staff from Action Aid Mozambique and the local partner Nadec. I had been too emotional on our last night in Bilene to give a speech but had promised Jill and Nancy I would say a few words after dinner. I emotionally thanked everyone for joining us on this project. When we talk about being #10%braver in the #WomenEd community this experience and journey has been more like being #100%braver for some of our group. Many of our team were totally out of their comfort zone flying alone, fundraising a large sum of money, leaving their families at home,  travelling with strangers, using a hoe/ shovel/ trowel, singing in public, eating local cuisine to name just a few of the experiences and challenges each person faced.

#10%prouder does not really encapsulate what a wonderful group of friends we have made, what brilliant memories we have made, but more importantly what a significant impact we have made on another community. We are already talking about arranging a return visit in summer 2020 so watch this space.  If you are interested in potentially joining us send me an email to wilsonh@glfschools.org and we will be in touch once we know whether it is possible to develop the connections we have made.

So a big thank you to everyone who has supported us and this project – your generosity has really helped this community. Action Aid are a brilliant charity and the work they are doing for girls’ education globally, but for us in Mozambique is significant, but it is going to take a lot of time, energy and resources to maximise their impact. We are going to continue our fundraising to ensure these classrooms are resourced and that future projects are full funded. A family in Mozambique lives on 90p a day, any contributions would be gratefully received here.

Hannah, The Hopeful Headteacher

Currently feeling hopeful about:

  • The difference that charities like Action Aid make.

Currently reading and thinking about:

  • I read my first fiction book in a very long time this summer – the new Dorothy Koomson.
  • I still have a pile of EduBooks to read once my head is back in work mode!

Currently feeling grateful for:

  • The generosity of the volunteers who gave up time and energy to help the building project.
  • The support of our PLN who donated to fund the project.

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