Well hey there amigo, I humbly want to say thanks for stoppin by and takin interest in what this girl is doing! While you read, Keep in mind that the ideas and thoughts expressed in this thing are mine and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Peace Corps or the United States government...blah blah blah...go read!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sexy to someone

I remember reading a comparative study once on the body-image/confidence of 3 groups of American women: latinas, blacks, and caucasians. It was all about how these groups of women both saw their own bodies and also how they thought others saw them. According to the study, black Americanas are the most confident, followed by latinas, and then the white girls bringing up the rear (come on white girls, step it up!). I don't remember the rest of the details of the particular study or how scientifically valid it was (I hope I didn't read it in Seventeen), but in my mind, the results seemed to confirm both stereotypes and my own experiences.

I'm half German, but there's not much of a connection I have with that culture other than my last name and occasional desire to eat cooked cabbage. I would say that most black-Americans are similarly quite far removed from any African roots and so I'm guessing that many culturally African ways of thinking are not deeply ingrained. But it's interesting that during my time in Mozambique surrounded mostly by black women, I often observed a confidence similar to what the study explained.

And I wondered, is it a cultural environment thing or is there just something about being a black woman?

I will say that whatever it is, it was contagious for me. I've never had significant body-image issues, but I personally felt way more confident about my appearance strolling around Mozambique than I do now that I've been back here in America. And I think that's saying a lot considering the fact that there, I was consistently at least 75% more sweaty, dirty, and logistically unable to maintain the kind of personal hygiene habits I enjoy here in the States. Why did I feel better there?

1. In Mozambique, my clothing shopping habits were different. To obtain clothing in Mozambique, an average woman doesn't walk into a clothing store and go to the skinny jeans rack where there are multiple sizes of skinny jeans that she can try to stuff herself into and then blame herself when none of the million sizes available fit her correctly. Instead, she wears a capulana which is incredibly forgiving (one size fits all) or has clothes made-to-order at a tailor (thus a tailor can be blamed if something does not fit) or gets something from a 2nd hand clothing market and just makes it work (she knows that the chances of anyone finding the perfect fit are slim considering the random array of clothing). So there, she tries to make clothes fit herself, not herself fit clothes.

2. In Mozambique, calling someone "fat" is a compliment. This one took a while to get used to. The first few times I heard "epa! Professora esta gorda hoje!", I was pretty pissed and defensive, but then I realized that most of the time, it's genuinely meant as a warm fuzzy. Calling someone gorda or fat is often better translated as beautiful, healthy, happy, content. But even when they do say gorda and really do mean that you look chubby, that is also a compliment. Many women want to be fat, but before I make Mozambicans sound way less intrinsically shallow than Americans, I must make one interesting connection between fat and wealth. In Mozambique as well as some other African countries, having a few chubs means that you're not only healthy (sick people, especially HIV positive individuals stereotypically and in reality are often thin), but also prosperous enough to have enough food to get chubby. So anyway they mean it, fat is good and not the devil.

3. There is not one standard of beauty. When I taught sex ed for the first time with my 8th graders, I remember one boy making the comment, "teacher, I like that kind of girl," as he pointed to some other student across the way who was not of the particular body type that I ever would have guessed a high school boy would be attracted to. And he wasn't just being a smart-ass. As I continued to observe relationships at my high school, I noticed girls who would never get a second look from guys here in the states were still constantly getting attention there. It's like no girl is undesirable. Everyone is sexy to someone. I worked a bit with a woman named Veronica. For a woman her size, Veronica had the largest ass I have ever seen in my life. I always thought the myth of the bootie on which a glass of water could rest was a joke, but it's not. The woman could rest multiple glasses on that thing. And oh how she loved her ass! She would grab it and say it was her riqueza mozambicana or "Mozambican wealth." She also frequently commented that her husband is more than enthusiastic about it also. (To be fair, some Mozambican women feel pressure to be more thin, but to me, it appeared mostly as a result of modernization and Western influences). What relief and freedom those women enjoy when so many shapes and sizes are authentically accepted as beautiful.

Those 3 reasons may help to explain why being in that environment for 2 years made me feel more confident myself.

And then there's Americaland.

Going through high school and freshman year of college, I was sick of hearing people talk about body image crap because I'd never really struggled myself or saw other girls struggle. But later in college, I saw how toxic American culture is for women. As an RA, I was horrified by the percentage of classmates and friends at my college who had eating disorders and are completely messed up in their brain about how they look.

Many blame the media and I will jump on that bandwagon for a few moments. There really is just one narrow definition of beauty in this country. And the media pounds it. In recent years there has been an effort to introduce different sizes as beautiful but it seems like more of a politically correct gesture of pity to people who will never meet certain standards than an authentic celebration of differences. To fill the cast of Glee, they found someone chubby (and hit two birds with one stone because she happens to fill the black quota also), some Asians, a handicapped kid, and an ugly girl (new this season), and a gay kid. But would Americans really enjoy watching Glee without the charming Mr. Shuester, cute guidance counselor, or hot Santana, Brittney, Quinn, Rachel, Puck, Finn, and blond new guy??? No, I don't think they would. The standard of beauty is still Quinn. Everyone else is a concession.
In Hollywood people point to actresses like J Lo, and say "Look, her ass is a couple of inches bigger than the rest" or someone like Kate Hudson and say "Look, her boobs are smaller than the average." A few inches indicate diversity in our definition of beauty.

I usually wake up in the morning and look in my American mirror quite satisfied with what I'm seeing. But if I spend the day shopping, looking at magazines, watching TV, or hanging out with a large group of women, I end my day less enthusiastic about my looks.

But why does all this pressure seem not to affect black women as much? And how do we morph into a culture where all healthy women look at their body and genuinely think, "damn, I look good, and even if that person doesn't fancy me, I'm definitely sexy to someone else."?

Any sistas out there have advice?

Maybe if I stopped looking at pictures and started hanging out with more black girls, I'd feel better again, almost like I was in Mozambique.

What am I going to do with this thing?

So now that I'm back from Mozambique and done being a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm not sure what to do with this blog. After all, the address is erin-in-mozambique, and that's not true anymore. I don't want to become one of those nerds who tries to re-live just one short experience in their life over and over until everyone pukes in their mouth a little every time they have to hear another lame story they've already heard. However, I don't think many individuals were reading my blog (not complaining, just being realistic. Thanks Ben for always reading) and there are certainly fewer now that I'm home. So I'm thinking I won't annoy friends or loved-ones by continuing. And when I think of it, one of my most therapeutic activities while in Mozambique was blogging, so maybe that could help me while I try to be an American again. Let's face it, a lot of me still feels very much like I'm in Mozambique.

I guess I'll start by posting all the entries that I was too busy to post my last month in country and then maybe talk about what I'm doing after Mozambique.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Closet Christian

When I entered my Peace Corps service in October of 2008, I thought most of my cultural dilemmas would be from the mixture of American and Mozambican aspects of life, but I soon discovered that the Peace Corps crowd itself definitely has a strong and distinct culture itself that at times had me feeling a bit out of place much in the same way that being a single white Americana in a predominately black, Muslim community sometimes does. This PC culture seemed even more robust to me with the frenzy of the presidential elections hot underway. I remember sitting in the middle of many intensely lively discussions with my new colleagues who are also subsequently one’s new family and basically everything. I was thinking if these people knew that I didn’t vote in this election, a torrent of hot ridicule and shame would certainly be pointed in my direction. I knew this because I watched it happen to someone else. (Side-note, I do think it’s very important to vote. Americans should vote. I decided not to. During the presidential election, I was more preoccupied with my 6 week notice about my service assignment in Mozambique, getting engaged, and trying to wrap up life in the states. There was no amount of energy/emotion/brainspace left for politics. And part of me was looking forward in many ways to a vacation by way of isolation from Americanish things)

Anyway, when I saw other volunteers so venomously insult people like Sara Palin, actually chucking objects at the TV in our hotel and cry tears of joy when Obama was elected, I knew I was a minority. Not because I didn’t want Obama to win or because I’m a Sara Palin fan (I’m not, please don’t throw anything), I just knew that so many of my passions are directed toward different things.

The stereo-typical PCV walks around in cuffed jeans, Chacos or flip flops, and bandanas with a back pack slung over the shoulder and probably a duct-taped Nalgene bottle hanging off the side unless it was stolen. The PCV is super friendly, helpful, intelligent, super aware of world-happenings, politically passionate, amazingly multi-talented, liberal, upper middle class, 20-something, was/is/at least seriously considered being a vegetarian, creative, hopeful yet slightly bitter about one thing or another, driven, goofy, independent, a little self-righteous, opinionated, and either apathetic toward or opposed to religion-especially American Christianity.

When it was announced at the church I grew up in that I would be joining the Peace Corps, I lost count of the number of people from my church family who asked me why in the world I would want to join Peace Corps instead of choosing to do mission work because Peace Corps doesn’t allow you to tell people about Jesus. This annoyed me. What’s wrong with simply helping someone with anything? But it also made me question things internally about the ultimate “point” of helping people. Why do I help and what ultimately will “help” people the most?

I have grown to enjoy and respect Peace Corps and the PC crowd, but I am such a minority in some ways. I love Jesus and want to talk about Him, call myself a Christian, have quite conservative values, and am rather politically moderate and sometimes apathetic. I don’t mind confrontation when necessary, but generally avoid it. During a lot of hot PCV conversation, debate, and discussions; I haven’t really participated much and I’ve learned a lot listening. So many PCVs (and many ppl from my generation it seems) bristle at Christianity or anything relatively conservative.

I remember in training, I joined a small group of volunteers who met for Bible study. I skipped out one of the last weeks because I wanted to say goodbye to a larger group of volunteers who were meeting at our favorite bar. I never exactly advertised that I attended the Bible study so no one felt inhibited when I walked into the bar to continue making fun of the idea of studying the Bible. It’s such a weird thing. PCV’s pride themselves on being open-minded, but I think it’s more of a selective open-mindedness which really isn’t open. I really think that if it had been a group of people studying the Qur’an, no one would have said a word. Why? My generation and mainly people like PCVs, seem to hate American Christianity. Not that I can blame them. I’m not much of a fan either. And sitting all the way over here for 2 years watching the United States from a distance and talking to a lot of non-Americans, and starting to feel more and more removed from Americanisms, I’ve started to see things a little bit differently. I don’t get what’s going on in the church in America and it’s interesting to hear the rest of the world talk about Christianity in America. Whenever evangelicals are spoken of, it’s to talk about the evangelical vote. People also talk about the “Christian right.” Some people are surprised that I pray because they heard that American scientists don’t pray because of science and religion issues. Oh Galileo, we still don’t have it figured out. Where does faith/religious stuff/spirituality belong?

From here and from other perspectives in the world, it seems Christianity in America is all politics and issues. How does that happen?

In Mark chapeter 12 when the Jewish religious leaders ask Jesus about whether or not it’s lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they were trying to trap him in the often difficult to define relationship between church and state. Jesus responds “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” I think he was recognizing the need for maintaining earthly organizations like governments to keep order (because he’s an orderly God) while also calling people to remember that God is still ultimately preeminently God.

Christians and churches should participate and care about government and politics, but when the American church is seen as a political entity by many people in the world, known only by the political issues that they passionately argue about, I think we’ve gone wrong. I think many evangelicals would rather debate gay marriage than Jesus and participate in a political campaign than devote their lives to serving their communities humbly.

In the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A kingdom of priests. Priests were the intermediary between people and God. When God told them that they would be a kingdom of priests, he was calling them to be the “go-between” the early nations of the world and God. They were to be faithful to God and serve the nations around them so that he could bless the world through them.

In Ephesians, Paul calls the church the “body of Christ” – the organization that is to carry out Christ’s work on the earth.

In his book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell writes “a church is an organization that exists for the benefit of non-members.”

Maybe if churches in America busied themselves with being this priesthood, the body of Christ, the blessing that they are to be to their communities Nehemiah-style, people like PCV’s wouldn’t be so turned off by Christianity and churches might have influence on culture, values, and subsequently political issues because of respect rather than power obtained by vote.

I certainly have failed along with the American church to serve as I should. I don’t mean to be such a Negative Nancy, but I think we can do so much better.

So back to the question of why I did Peace Corps rather than mission work. Learning. Experience.

Being here and doing Peace Corps has done nothing but reinforce by beliefs that people need changed hearts if the world is going to change.

PC is all about teaching behavior change. Education, education, education. I’m a teacher. I think education is important, but it’s not the answer. If it was, there would be no such thing as smart ass-holes. As it turns out, educated people can and often still do really shitty things and make the world even shittier. Behavior change is just behavior.

Here in Mozambique, one of the demographics where HIV is on the rise is young educated professionals in Maputo. The best and the brightest. They know why and how to use a condom. Why doesn’t behavior change work?

People who are strong willed white knuckle their lives and keep themselves in line. Weaker-willed people fail. Still others, don’t care.

A student told me last week that he would rather have sex “carne a carne” (flesh to flesh) than use a condom even with the risk of contracting or spreading HIV.

What more can be taught?

What if our desires changed? What if our hearts were different? What if we could change what we wanted the most so that we wouldn’t have to always fight off everything we really desire?

I certainly don’t know everything, but I have seen Jesus change hearts. I think ultimately people need Jesus. There, I said it. I’m out of the closet. Sorry Peace Corps, sorry PCVs. Maybe I don’t belong, but I loved the Peace Corps experience and learned so much!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dia do Professor

Happy Teacher's Day all the way from Mozambique. October 12th is our day. How do we celebrate as educators? Cancel school for a few days. Again. So the day started off with a motorcycle parade of teachers, ceremonies at the plaza, a lot of cooking and decorating (for female teachers while our bozo male colleagues went to the beach), and a party.
Angoche Plaza
ESA's dance group
Some of my 8th grade kiddos
My boss and an one of the students who was "asked" to help cook for the party
The food was great
We had the party right on the court next to ESA
Me and Celia, one of 5 female teachers in our school
Here in Mozambique, we cut cakes together at every party. Guess what idiot got chosen to cut the cake with the director this year. This gal. Weird

Thursday, October 14, 2010


The roof and wall of half of one of the classrooms blew away today in a strong gust of hot dusty wind. I love teaching in tin huts. I've been waiting for it to happen. I noticed a long time ago how termites have had no mercy on the coconut tree trunk frames. Luckily, no one got hurt. The kids stampeded out of the room. As if we don't have enough distractions here.

I've pulled out all the stops. I even saved the reproductive systems until the end of the year because I wanted to take advantage of their raging hormones to get them to pay attention.

2 more weeks of the chaos I call my job and I'm finished as a teacher here. So sad but a relief in so many ways...

Preach it sister

I remember one Sunday at church when we had a southern baptist minister as a guest speaker. He shared that the first time he spoke in a church like ours (more subdued), he was totally demoralized after his sermon because everyone was so quiet. The most emotional response was a baby crying in the back. Other than that, blank stares. Where were all those re-affirming Alleluias, Amens, and preach-its? After talking to people later and receiving excellent reviews, he realized that his preaching was in fact, very well received. How's a brother to know? Congregations are just different.

Responsiveness varies.

I'm really white and most of the time anywhere from pretty mellow to modestly enthusiastic. But if there's anything that makes me feel like a black southern baptist preacher (sorry if that's offensive to you), its a Mozambican classroom. My self-esteem, as far as lesson delivery goes, has definitely sky rocketed out of control here. The inflation is going to be a real problem when I go back to the states and encounter the types of conservative middle class white kids with a slightly to extremely unimpressed attitude that I was a part of as a high schooler and that I taught during student teaching.

When I first arrived, I was a little bit intimidated and shocked by their seemingly over enthusiastic responses, mostly because I never quite knew what would elicit eruptions of enthusiasm. I got a standing ovation for the first poster I drew of the skeletal system on a rice sack. Anyway, as great as enthusiasm is, it gets dangerous when 8th grade class sizes are over 100.
Little by little a person picks up on patterns. I learned to harness their energy because sometimes it drives me absolutely nuts. For example, I can't ask yes or no questions in my classrooms. The first time I innocently asked "Are you all finished copying these definitions?", I was horrified by the ridiculously prolonged high-pitched nasaly "SIM!" (yes) "NAO" (no) war that ensued between the slow and fast copiers. I at first thought they were just being ornery to me but have since then noticed that they do the same thing to my colleagues and it's totally normal. It drove me so nuts that no one is allowed to respond with a verbal yes or no anymore. We learned how to give thumbs up or down. It kills them. Sometimes when they get too emphatic, they jump up and down with their hand motion. Even in silence, they're loud.

Also, every time I do something a little out of the ordinary, the participation is incredible. It's just normal here. I love it, it annoys me, and I'm still surprised sometimes.

At a recent school assembly on sex, pregnancy, and women's health, I was responding to a student's question about feminine hygiene and trying to use delicate vocabulary. One of my fellow teachers also helping with the assembly interrupted me because I was either not being as graphic as she would have liked or the girls weren't showing clearly enough whether or not they understood what I was saying. She held up her hand giving me a sort of girl-I-got-this signal and then proceeded to prompt the crowd with her big sassy oh-no-she-didn't finger.

"Sometimes...dramatic pause... it stinks!"


"Does it stink?"

Yesssss teacher!!!!


It stinks teacher!!!


It STINKS teacher!!!!!!
cue standing ovation, girls cheering and jumping up and down uncontrollably for nearly a minute

What? I almost peed my pants laughing. Only in Mozambique does a room full of high school girls get so excited about vaginal stinkage.

Oh Mozambique.


This is a conversation I had with our 50 year old, arguably crazy guard, Feliciano.

Feliciano: Do you have any stomache medacine?

Me: no

Feliciano: because my belly is filling with gas

Me: I don't have any meds for that

Feliciano: and sometimes, it leaves like this makes a motion with hand imitating gas coming from his butt and makes a fart noise, spraying spit in my face then wipes the spit off of me

Me: Feliciano, its just gas. Did you eat beans or something that might have already gone bad?

Feliciano: Yeah, I think so.

Me: It will leave your body without medicine

awkward stare-down

Me: ok see you tomorrow

Feliciano: Its just that it stinks

Me: Farts do. bye

Feliciano: ok, see you tomorrow