A Discussion with David, Volunteer Medic and Portuguese Teacher, St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School, Tete, Mozambique
June 15, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in June 2017 undergraduate student Harshita Nadimpalli interviewed David, a volunteer medic and Portuguese teacher at St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School (Escola Secundária Inácio de Loyola, ESIL) in Tete, Mozambique. David discusses what differentiates ESIL as a Jesuit institution from other schools in the area, the challenges and logistics of teaching classes in Portuguese to non-native Portuguese speakers at the school, and how the school engages with the local community. He goes on to describe his engagement with students as a medic and as a professor.
Can you please tell me your name and about what your role is in this community at ESIL?
My full name is David. I am 29 years old, and I am a medic, and have one year left to finish my specialty to be a general practitioner. So here I serve as a medic and also a Portuguese teacher.
And how did you discover and come to ESIL?
It was through contact with a priest that was here before, and I and the other volunteer did a training with an NGO in Portugal. We finished the training and through the organization Gonçalo da Silveira we came in contact with Father Guerrero, and we communicated with him about this project.
ESIL is a Jesuit school, so what do you think differentiates a Jesuit education and separates it from other schools that may be secular or government schools? Do you have examples to show this? How does the Jesuit education affect the culture and mentality of the youth here?
In my experience I think it’s easier to speak based on comparison with my own experience in school when I was a student, which was not a Jesuit school. Differences: I think one of the differences and concerns is that Jesuits have to think about global formation. It’s a worry that other schools might have also, but here it is more serious. There has to be a certain level of education, formal academic education, and also human and spiritual formation inspired by Jesuits. In this aspect I think the school is more attentive to these things. Not just psychological, physical, but also spiritual. This is a something that sets it apart from other schools. I think something else that sets ESIL apart is that it’s not just Jesuit, but it has a boarding school, a part where students live in the school. I think this modifies the experience on all levels too for these students. And since it’s a Jesuit school we have daily Mass and Sunday Bible study, and of course since they are Jesuits responsible for this it will influence education. It permits a different access to this more spiritual and human component that other schools don’t explore as much. I haven’t spent much time here yet so it’s hard to see other concrete differences. We have a priest close by, and Mass, and that will make a difference in access and make it easier for students who are Catholic to have access to this spiritual accompaniment.
Also because we have priests who work in the school, this is an opportunity for students to explore this path, the sacred life, to finish their studies and maybe follow a more religious life, of becoming a brother. In other schools I don’t know if students think about this as much as an alternative. I’ve spoken with various students who have thought about following a sacred life, and I think that maybe having close contact with people who lead this life have made them feel inspired.
I think that another mark of Jesuits is to set a good example of life. I think that students are inspired by these examples, for example with Brother Laissone [Evaristo Matias] or Narcisso [Mariano Belo], or Father [Heribert] Muller, of what is a life of service for students who might want to do the same. Also there are moments of prayer in the student life that differentiate it from my school, for example. It doesn’t particularly have to relate to one religion. I’m not sure how students who are not Catholic feel in these moments, so we have to be careful and respect other religions also.
Okay, and can you tell me more about indigenous religion in this area?
I think for the most part they are Catholics. But there are also many others. Even with the students, there are some who are Protestant, Seventh-day [Adventists]…Mass is optional.
What do you think are distinct challenges or opportunities that indigenous students face in the local education systems in Tete, in Tsangano? And if you can give examples, they would be useful.
The first challenge that we face is language. Mother tongues are not the same as the official language, Portuguese. So there is a great challenge in Portuguese classes and general education, and also in my communication during medical consultations. Students speak very little Portuguese, and comprehension is also difficult, so this makes my work difficult, whether it is work in the classroom or tests or language evaluations. Communication generally with the students and communication during medical consultations is many times limited. It is necessary to dialogue more about connected problems, for example, psychological problems. It is very difficult. Many times students just respond with a “yes” to everything, because they don’t know [what I’m asking]. So I have to arrange some strategy or maybe a small dictionary to collect some key words to be able to resolve and distinguish main symptoms and diagnoses. That’s what seems to be here. But many times I wish it would be easier for students to come to me so I could talk to them beyond the academic level, on a more psychological level. How are they feeling, are things going well, if they have any problems with things they need, are they feeling sad…it’s difficult for them to come to me with these things [because of the language barrier]. Some things are more difficult to communicate.
And the problem with Portuguese is that all of the classes are taught in Portuguese. So if they have difficulty with Portuguese, they also have trouble with chemistry, mathematics, physics, English, etc. because they have difficulty understanding the teacher. So it’s a language problem, to speak. On the other side, it’s interesting to see how it supersedes the mother tongue. Because the mother tongue has such a strong cultural presence, and the students have to do it at the same time, to not lose their mother tongue, because it makes up part of their identity, and it’s their language, and they learn Portuguese as a foreign language. It’s beautiful to see how the mother tongues...the Chichewa, Cinyanja, and other languages have such a strong cultural face. Such a strong cultural identity. Since it exists, it’s important to reinforce it, so it is a challenge for me, but also an opportunity, because they can learn to speak Portuguese but also value their mother tongue. I have the impression that in other schools there is a lot of repression of the mother tongue. They can only speak the Portuguese language, and they are punished for their mother tongue; it’s a total repression in public and government schools. That’s what I’ve heard.
And where did you learn about this?
The students have spoken about it, about experiences they had in other schools, and the teachers [about schools they worked in or attended] before they came here. They have spoken a lot about this when I advised them to speak more in Portuguese to practice.
Also, often, at Mass [at ESIL], Father Muller will conduct a part of the Mass in Chichewa, the mother tongue, with songs they can sing in Chichewa. It’s one way to stimulate the learning of Portuguese without devaluing the cultural identities that they have. I don’t know if that will differentiate this school from other schools, but it probably is one of the differences—the value that we still give to the mother tongue.
And why is it that the other schools repress the mother tongue so much? What do you think?
I think schools make this decision because they want to stimulate Portuguese, to make the students learn it more quickly. People who only know the mother tongue don’t have as many opportunities so they have to learn to speak Portuguese. I don’t know if this brings more of a resistance from the students, a dissatisfaction. I think schools probably take this decision with the idea that it will be more advantageous for their students if they speak more Portuguese. But I don’t know what the path forward will be.
Have you witnessed any resistance by students to learning Portuguese?
There is, yes. In the breaks, they mostly speak the mother tongue. In the boarding school, amongst themselves, they mostly speak their mother tongue. We need to find a way to train them in the Portuguese language, and have them push each other more to speak better Portuguese. It will be easier if they are having difficulties. That would be a good force in this way. I have hope that we can have positive results. But right now they speak the mother tongue a lot amongst themselves, which I understand. If I had to start speaking now always in English, I would have a lot of difficulty, and I obviously prefer to speak in Portuguese, my mother tongue. I think in these types of changes, oppression only brings more resistance.
And before we continue to other questions, can you speak more on this language barrier in medical terms, since you have a more medical perspective than others here at the school who see it in an education context only?
I am lucky to have contact with students not only in the classroom, but also in times when they are more vulnerable and fragile. It is a gift. It allows me to have more contact with them, and contact that is less formal. This is something I noticed, compared to in Portugal, is that the relationship between the teacher and students here cultivates a distance that is greater than in the Portuguese system, where I think that relationship was closer. But because I am a volunteer, and a medic, it allows me to have a closer relationship with the students. This is really nice. When I talk to them during appointments, I can ask, "Where did your headache come from? What caused it?" Many times it has to do with worries they have, about stress, about studying, something with their friends, that allows me to arrive at a type of relationship that is much closer with them. It’s a symbiotic relationship almost. Being their medic allows me to have a closer relationship to them in class, and being their teacher allows me to continue to have contact with them after their appointments and know them beyond just their name.
Now, for the question of language. The fact is that it is a challenge. I know a few words, I have started to learn, and it is easier now during the appointments. However, realize there is a language barrier many times. It’s difficult sometimes for me to perceive whether it is a physical symptom or something more that they have to tell me. I can’t tell if sometimes they just want to talk about something else. It’s hard to arrive at that understanding. So it’s happened that many students come and want to talk about their headache or other things also.
Another great challenge to being a medic here is that there are some medical problems here that are more linked to their cultural identity. For example, spiritual possession and spirits. At the beginning of the year this happened a lot more. It was always girls, never boys. I don’t know, it has to do with a cultural question, and also gender identity. There were two girls that had this, and others too, without explanation. They had physical symptoms such as hysteria and fainting…but also afterwards they seem to think that if a girl has a crisis of being possessed by some spirit, other girls will also start to have the same thing. Then other girls also start to have the same symptoms. It is new for me because in Portugal I don’t have contact with this sort of problem. It’s also difficult to then get support from other people on this. There are very few resources here, few medicines…we need more profound study and examinations, some type of treatment, a better perception of the underlying problems, whether it is psychiatry, cardiology, orthopedics, that we unfortunately don’t have here. It’s not an easy or quick solution. This is also a great challenge of working here; many times I don’t know what to do. I try to talk to them, or take them to the closest hospital, but we need more specialized centers of study.
And you are the only medic here. What will happen after you leave at the end of the year?
Yes, this is also a big worry. We are trying to think of how after I leave I can continue some type of medical assistance. Maybe some people who will be hired—nurses or general doctors who maybe work in the village and can come here to assist. It’s a big problem, the question of the sustainability of this project.
So how does ESIL try to resolve these various challenges we have discussed?
Other teachers also have this worry about language, because it’s one of the main causes of pedagogical difficulty here. A big barrier is the question of comprehension, of the Portuguese language in general. Some students have better attentiveness and understanding, but they are in classes with teachers who also have to teach to newer students, especially in the eighth and ninth classes. It’s difficult to teach a class in conjunction with having to teach the Portuguese language. So on the institutional level, teachers have this worry. Many students come to this school, to the eighth grade, being 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 years old, with little knowledge of how to speak or read or understand Portuguese. The institution has this worry of how to reinforce the Portuguese language for these students. So there is still a lot of work to be done.
Another problem is that in this school there is no initial evaluation to see the level that each student is at [when they arrive]. [They are placed in a class based on the level they finished in primary school or in other schools before ESIL,] but this doesn’t reflect the knowledge that they have. This is something in Mozambique: that students pass the class but haven’t complied with the minimum requirements to be able to finish that class. This continues to happen. One difference in our school to note is that teachers here are not pressured to pass students. There is no pressure. In other schools, students pay their teacher [money] so they can pass the class at the end of the year. In this aspect, this school is very serious. The students are evaluated, teachers have more control, and they don’t have fear of what will happen [if students don’t pass their classes]. So this schools seems more serious in its commitment above everything. To teaching, education, and assistance. The philosophy of the school, also inspired by the Jesuit philosophy, has much experience in the area of education, and in the area of being a school in a rural area that wants to create equal opportunity for students who would never have this opportunity if this school did not exist. Also to educate girls, to which there is still some resistance. This is how the school can make a difference. To have this promise and mission in this area. The people who work here need to have the same philosophy about work and the same mission. In this way the school has a great opportunity in this site.
Despite the pedagogical difficulties, teachers continue to try to use different strategies. For example, in the teacher meetings we talk a lot about different strategies. What is going well, what is not going so well, how we can improve, and the permanent perspective of self-evaluation and evaluation of each other, which I don’t think exists as much in other schools.
I think another thing is that in the beginning the students have difficulty adapting to the school rhythm: the number of classes they have, the number of hours they have to spend studying, the schedule. In other schools they have fewer classes, they don’t have to do as much work, they don’t have to study as much; other schools are not as demanding. In this aspect this school is very demanding. But I think it’s demanding in a good way. It’s necessary. It’s an opportunity for these students, to be able to have a quality formation, to be able to go to the university that they want, without baggage. This is an excellent opportunity. I think this is what development is. I think we have to take account of this, something that the Jesuits do very well. The educational part, the health part, and the spiritual part. In this school I think these three things are working well. In other schools they are not as strong. They don’t have as many opportunities.
How is ESIL engaged with the community in this surrounding area?
ESIL has students mainly from this area. So people are starting to get to know the school, through the students, and parents are taking more charge of education and having closer contact to the school. I think the school is a motor in the development of this region. Because a school brings people who are more educated, more qualified, and more projects also, development projects that can run parallel to the school. For example, there is a project to bring water to the school, and to the surrounding fields and farms. The education of the students can lift the education in their communities. Whatever students learn here, they will take it to their communities and they can work in their communities, with their communities. Next, the contact this school has started to have with other schools, other regions; it is a collaboration, a way to inspire, reciprocal collaboration. Helping is a way to influence. For example, you can see the number of students that live in Njalanjira, for example. That alone is one form of change in that community. We have 300 students who live in neighboring villages. This brings some type of change, a transformation of their own community. I think that this, although it is difficult for me to exactly know, is the type of change that exists. They live there and have their houses there, but I’m certain that they bring something back from the school [to their communities]. I think since the school began, it began to transform and involve the communities around it.
Do you think there is a difference in the growth of Portuguese language skills of the students who come from surrounding villages and those who live in the school boarding house?
I think there is a big difference that exists, yes, because of the fact that the students in the boarding house have obligatory study hours, they have electricity, they have ready meals, and just more responsibility to study and dedicate time to that. And I think that maybe they speak a bit more Portuguese amongst themselves [than students who don’t live in the boarding house]. There are many students that speak the Portuguese language, and the teachers and volunteers also speak Portuguese, which stimulates them more to speak and study it. They speak more than the students who come from other communities because people in those communities don’t speak Portuguese. The contact with language is greater here. Which is a pedagogical problem, because the non-boarding students in general have worse grades. They have challenges: they have to make their own food every day, they have to make the journey to school, many times they don’t have electricity, so they also can’t study at night, and they are here until the afternoon and get home when it is dark [It gets dark around 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. here], so they don’t have the same opportunity. They don’t have obligatory study time like the boarding students, all of this makes a difference. Also with regard to medical access, for the boarding students it is much easier because they are always here, and the external students can come anytime to ask for help, but it’s more difficult.
What do you think is the attitude and reception of people in this area to ESIL? And what influences this?
I think it’s really good. I think people are very happy and grateful with this school, the people in charge of educating the students such as parents. They feel that the school takes its promise seriously, and it’s doing good work according to this promise, I think that’s the main feeling. They are content and have the feeling that students have a good educational opportunity here. I think in this region they feel confident about Jesuit education and having Jesuits working in this region—trust in our work. Because [in the past] they had good experiences with Jesuit work in this area. This isn’t the first Jesuit mission here, so they have a good expectation for the school based on this positive experience.
What does social justice mean for you?
Equal opportunity, a creation of the number of equal opportunities for any person. And respect for different components of identity, whether it is religion, gender, economics, education, or being human.
And what is social justice for you in this context at ESIL?
The fact that it is a school created in a rural zone, a zone with little access to education, we work mainly with this question. Equality of opportunity and access to an education: this brings development. Whether it is through education or other forms of human involvement or spiritual involvement for those who want it. We are also a school that focuses on human development, and it will bring greater equality between students and teachers, and for people who come into contact with the school.
And where do you personally think you can contribute to this social justice and community development vision of ESIL?
I think one thing that is different that I can maybe bring is the question of health and medical attention, the question of care. By being an example, in the way I am with them [the students], to taking care with the attention I give them. The medical access they have here is very little, and unfortunately many of them had bad medical experiences in their pasts, with worries about communication and accessibility. So I try to be available and accessible for them to create more equality in that regard. There is no distinction between students, boarding students or external students, and in the way I am with them and share their problems. I think in this way I can make a difference in the question of justice and care for the health of all students.
Then as a teacher, I try to diminish the distance between teacher and student. Of course that doesn’t mean mixing our roles, because I will continue to be the teacher and they are the students. But I think diminishing the distance will help. The students don’t have to fear a teacher to have respect. Fear isn’t good, because if they have fear they won’t ask questions or doubts that they have. They won’t come to be if they have some problem or difficulty. So this is another way I think I can make a difference. Teachers don’t have to create so much distance. They have to create equal opportunity and a space to come with doubts, difficulties, a closer relationship. I think this will also differentiate ESIL from other schools, maybe, where this is a large difference, and a very punitive relationship, very constricted; I think that this doesn’t help the educational process, and it only creates greater obstacles.
[This is important] especially in students who have difficulties in speaking. The language barrier creates more distance and social inequality. Students who have more difficulty will always be put on the margin. It’s a worry we should all have and try to help these students.
I think spiritually, as others here I have done, I can try to be an example and pass on the word of God by setting an example through the way I live here and that can create a greater equality for the students. By respecting their religion and way of life, their beliefs, and their mother tongue also.
Can you share with me a moment that inspired you in your time here at ESIL?
I think above all, the community and everyone who lives in this community, and the contact with students. In Portugal I am not a teacher, so a lot of the time I don’t have such frequent contact with the youth, and the contact with students and instant happiness, smiles, jokes, and the fact that they value the smallest things...it’s something I’ve learned and want to take back. I think that in our culture and rhythm of life, the cultural transformation is that we are always moving, always in autopilot. We are not very attentive. And there is a permanent discontent. It is a daily fight for satisfaction. But here, despite the difficulties that they have, they have a smile and carry their difficulties in a different manner. And these are the best moments for me. From the moment that I enter the classroom, [the students greet me] “Good afternoon, teacher,” that they are ready to learn even if they are really tired. It is very gratifying. I think that’s what I’ll take back from here. These are the various moments I think about in my time here that I want to take back home. I’m starting to value every little moment, all the moments we spend together in front of the TV, or at the dinner table, every walk to the boarding school; I think these are the small things that when I leave I will remember. Walking to the boarding school in the dark when I am tired and yet wanting to take care of them, I think these are the moments that I’ll miss the most. The community moments of this small community and also the school community of living in the school with students.
What are challenges you encountered here or in your past work that allowed you to improve how you do your job here, and that reinforced your compromise to social justice or education?
I think this process of being here in a mission, and the process of internal development. In this aspect of social justice I have gotten inspiration, learned that it is possible to construct a school from the roots, with a boarding school, starting with the students, starting to teach. I think one thing that’s different here is that when ideas take place, ideas come out, things happen more easily. I think in other places when someone has an idea it seems more difficult and takes more time to take place. It takes more time to bring equality. I think here, ideas emerge, and there is energy to make them concrete, a natural force and inertia to transform their reality. It exists in Portugal too, but it seems more difficult there and takes more time to make things concrete. Here we are all very close, we are one, a more personal culture, and aspects of how we are and how we exist independent of culture or religion—it was a very easy and quick adaptation for me. The color of skin, race, ethnicity, religion…it’s difficult to explain. But I think it was very easy to integrate and get adapted here, despite the inequalities and difficulties that exist.
How did the colonial past and the colonial and civil wars affect this area? The political landscape, the landscape of education and social justice, and the students and communities here.
I don’t have personal experience. I think they don’t talk much about the colonial time here. And I don’t think I see a type of resistance to the Portuguese language. I hear them say “azungo, azungo,” which means “white person” in Chichewa, but it’s just to tease me, because I am white. I think more than the colonial war we see marks from the civil war, which affected everything, whether it was education, health, many infrastructures that were completely destroyed; they had to rebuild everything after the end of the war. I confess that before I came I had more fear about how the marks of war would affect politics, etc., but now after I am here I don’t feel that much insecurity, although there are still important marks of the war that exist for the people in the communities. Many infrastructures had to be stopped and rebuilt in the process of development. But the students are young, so they don’t speak much about this. But their parents, and people in the community, speak a bit more about it. The difficulty of medical access, which is almost none, and the education in many schools is bad and people don’t study, and they have to find ways to get food and make a living. This school is different in the question of agriculture. It teaches agriculture, and that’s how it’s different from other schools. But I think the question of war itself is an issue that isn’t spoken about much, and I haven’t heard much about it.
How do you think that ESIL can continue to improve? What are ways that you would improve education in Mozambique in general? Whether it is criticism or positive feedback?
I think it’s necessary to think seriously about the question of languages that we discussed, about the teaching of language. It needs to be a separate, parallel formation/teaching, to have teaching of math, chemistry, etc. but to have a separate teaching of language. Because there are very accented differences of language levels within the same grade level. In the same classes we have students who speak Portuguese beautifully and others who can’t speak at all. They don’t know it at all and they understand zero. So this creates a really big inequality, students who have a great disadvantage and don’t have the individual attention they need from the teacher, because in classes with many students the teacher can’t come to help all of them. So this is where we can improve in one aspect. To think about a different way to educate. Portuguese, English, French should be taught in a different way. This should be different.
There should also be more investment into school health, for example, projects that are well thought out and marked sections for extra educational help, logistically planned for this purpose, and to have people who are designated to provide this extra help with regularity. I think this is very important for the students and would help them a lot. Also more teachers, a number appropriate for the quantity of students that we have. The teachers currently have a really large class load and schedule; it’s very demanding. Classes have many students, and they have many classes, so it’s difficult for the teachers to do their work with so much attention or care for the amount of work they have.
But I think the school is very good, and they should continue their work independent of the number of students they receive. To have a strong agricultural component and incentivize students to produce agricultural products, to teach how to cultivate and grow their own food. I think this has an immense value. And this brings differences from other schools, and in this agricultural rural area, this has a lot of connection with the agricultural process that is so strong, and so the curriculum has this value. This is very important that should be continued and reinforced. The spiritual component is also important to take into account, and have attention to the different faiths, not only Catholicism, but to also have space for the students who have their own church or local communities. To create this opportunity for whatever type of religion, there should be space, because the Catholic Church is predominant but there should be space for others as well.
What do you see as the future role of Jesuit education and other Jesuit institutions in Mozambique?
I think it will continue the way it has. Development work, background work, more than anything in the area of education, for education that will continue to reach people and develop from the roots. I think that many institutions do good work, but not from the roots. I think that the work that Jesuits do is a force that takes a long time and we need many more, and it is a sustainable development from the base. It starts with children, and educating all, and carries into the surrounding communities. So I think the future of Jesuits is to intervene more in the education of nearby communities. Right now we are still centered in the school, but it still has work to do in the communities around. More than anything in the question of spirituality and human formation. Working in education is good, but social issues are also important. They should continue the development work they’ve done.
Is there anything else you think would be helpful for me to know about these themes?
It’s an interesting theme but difficult to say as a volunteer that hasn’t been here for much time to see the transformations on a social level. I think projects like this research are good to try to evaluate and try to understand the changes that come, more important changes and transformations that come to the people involved in it.