A Discussion with Laissone Evaristo Matias, S.J., Teacher at St. Ignatius of Loyola Secondary School, Tete, Mozambique
June 14, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in June 2017 undergraduate student Harshita Nadimpalli interviewed Laissone Evaristo Matias. Matias is a Jesuit who teaches philosophy, information technology, and English and organizes extracurricular activities at St. Ignatius of Loyola Secondary School (Escola Secundaria Inácio de Loiola, ESIL), a Jesuit secondary school that primarily serves disadvantaged rural students. Matias details the conflict between the use of Portuguese and Chichewa, the native language of many students, at the school and the difficulty of teaching courses in Portuguese to students who do not know the language. He also explains the impact of the civil war on education in Mozambique.
Can you please state your name and tell me what your role is in this community at ESIL?
Laissone Evaristo Matias, I come from here, Angonia, and I am a Jesuit. I’m teaching philosophy, IT, and English. I also help in extracurricular education here in the school. I organize all the activities for students and teachers when needed.
And how long have you been here?
This is my second year here. I came last year in January.
And since ESIL is a Jesuit school, what do you think makes a Jesuit education stand out, from maybe other secular schools in Mozambique or anywhere else, and how do you think being in a Jesuit schools affects the culture and mindset of the youth?
There is a characteristic of Ignatian spirituality that people should know the ways an Ignatian education leads to an integral education of the whole human being. One of the things that Jesuits usually emphasize is magis, and magis is the state of not being comfortable with what we are getting, to always try to strive to not just be stable in one place, but rather to try to do more. That is the essence here and what we are expecting students in the school to follow. And that will differentiate us from the other schools.
Do you have examples of how you’ve seen that in the youth here, especially since they mostly don’t come from Jesuit schools before?
One thing that students talk about is having study time and being accompanied by teachers during that—which they don’t see in other schools. When it comes to marks [grades], there is no [difference between] what you earn and what the teacher records as the mark. That is one thing the students themselves comment about.
What do you think are some challenges and opportunities that local students face in local education systems?
One of the challenges we are finding here especially is the language. In this area we speak Chichewa. That’s our mother tongue, and when a child is born, he first speaks that language. And then when we encompass other places, like Vila Ulongwe, there are many people coming from different places, so they get in touch with Portuguese, but mainly it is Chichewa. So when they enter into school, Chichewa is their first language. But the problem is when students come from far away from Vila Ulongwe and go to school, where mostly Portuguese is used only in the class. When the teachers want to explain something well to the students they use Chichewa to help them understand. That is the challenge we face at the school—the language barrier. Everything is being done in Portuguese. So for a student who does not know Portuguese very well, it becomes a problem. If you don’t hear Portuguese often, you will not understand. We try to give them help to solve this challenge.
Can you tell me more about the Portuguese educational standards in Mozambique? What is required of each grade in terms of language or levels of Portuguese they come in with? And how do the students individually use Chichewa in their interactions with teachers or other students?
Well, it depends. Sometimes teachers can see that the student is not getting their point. You want him or her to understand. One of the things that I use [to help me teach] is Chichewa, to use some words that they can understand easily so that they understand the lesson. Otherwise I’ll just be speaking to myself, and I’ll say the class is finished and leave [without the students having understood my lesson]. It gives me an advantage that I know the language [Chichewa], and I feel for those who do not know the language, to have to make a point and make the students understand [without being able to use Chichewa]. From primary school on they emphasize writing and speaking in Portuguese, but when you don’t have contact every day with speaking Portuguese, you don’t practice it. Even here, the language they use is Chichewa.
Now talking about general education, the government has a barrier. How do you make the students understand that their language is not useless? So what the government did was introduce a program of local language. Not in this school, but in other primary schools, especially grades one to seven, they do some Chichewa studies so they get a sense of what they are learning in both languages. But generally that is the difficulty we are finding; we don’t have the Chichewa program.
What is the mindset of the students towards the fact that everything is taught in Portuguese?
The government says that the official language is Portuguese, because we are Mozambican and here we have 43 different local languages. Here in this area we have Chichewa and Cinyanja, which are very similar. We have Sena, but in other parts of Mozambique, we have Shona, Shangaan, or Tewe, and they are used also in Malawi, Zimbabwe. So the government, to unite the country, used Portuguese. For the kids, it comes later without realizing. You stop appreciating what is yours. You see your language as useless because when it comes to official languages, yours is not used; it’s only Portuguese. And even if you speak Portuguese to the children, they feel shy to express [in Portuguese] because their language is not used. But if their teacher knows their language, most of the time they feel more free to express themselves. That is the feeling I get most of the times when I talk to them. They want to say or express something, but they can’t because they don’t know the word or the meaning in Portuguese.
How does ESIL try to address and engage with that? Are teachers allowed or encouraged to speak in Chichewa, or no?
Usually we don’t advise them to speak in Chichewa, because there are some students in those classes who come from different places and they are not Chichewa-speaking people. And to keep that unity, we need to speak Portuguese. How do we make those who don’t speak Portuguese well understand better? We give them extra classes—we previously had a volunteer who was helping and working at that program to help the students and build up their vocabularies and grammar in Portuguese so they can understand more easily. When we do studies at the boarding school, which I’m directly connected to, we encourage the students to not speak Chichewa, and to get used to Portuguese. And sometimes it is working, because you see the students build up their language, and their vocabularies are slowly coming out. That is very encouraging; it means that after one year, they will know what we are teaching about.
Just differentiating between last year and this year, there is a very big gap. Between grade eight and grade nine there is a very big gap, because last year we did the same Portuguese help and last year’s [eighth grade students who received help] speak very well. Talking to Tomás [Neto Leitão de Cruz, who is teaching Portuguese], he says they are building their skills very well. Last year if you knew the students, you could feel that they were suffering. Now they read very well, and it’s one of the good consequences of the program.
Do you think there is a divide between the students who speak Chichewa and those who come from other places and don’t speak it? Are their groups that form around that?
When you see them in the beginning of the year, there is that separation—they want to be with someone who speaks the same language. That happens in the beginning. But of course friendship is not [something that results] because we speak the same language, but because of connections, so after three months, you will see a separation slowly, and students clicking with different people even though they don’t speak the same mother tongue. So in the beginning yes, but afterwards they start reconnecting with other people independently of languages or background.
How do you think ESIL is engaging with the indigenous community, the others in this area?
That is not a big question because all of the workers you see here are from the surrounding area. Our policy is that interacting with people helps you to serve God. They feel that they belong to this development of ESIL. They take an indirect ownership of the school. When we talk in different stages of the school, we think of the people surrounding us. First, it has to be their children that use the school so they don’t have to go all the way to Tsangano/Vila Ulongwe [for school]; our first aim is their children. The second one is their trust in us. How do they get to trust us? If it is to invite them to anything—to work the land, and when we have different events, the local chiefs come here. On April 7 this year and May 1, the first people to be invited to the talks about extracurricular education were the local chiefs who came here. That is how we make them feel part of the school. We say—let’s go together and work together. When we have some work, they are the first ones we ask, and if they don’t have someone available who wants to work, only then do we go outside to ask.
What is the role of local chiefs in the communities? What do they do?
They are the governors of the place. The first part of what they do is they solve local problems, disputes, but when it fails, that’s when they go to the police. They connect the government and the people. Because they are in charge of the land in their area, they are the first to be asked even by the government; when there is a new development and they want to do this or that, they ask the chiefs. When there is a dispute of land, they are the first to be asked. They also resolve family problems.
How are the chiefs chosen?
Well, it’s not everyone. They have to be a person with good qualities of course, who participates in the lives of the people. It’s not just choosing, because it’s a lineage. It is not everyone, and they are trained from the beginning until they reach that.
Since the start of ESIL until now, how do these local chiefs and other locals receive ESIL in terms of attitude/receptiveness?
I feel that it’s not a problem to them—they like to help us. I feel that they are happy, because when we want to do something, we include them in the decisions. That’s what I feel makes them feel happy and respond well to the development and program of the school. They feel proud in most cases.
What is the connection between ESIL, the agricultural mission project of Satemwa, and the orphanages?
The general idea, because our area of Angonia and Tsangano is more agricultural, was to equip the people with agricultural knowledge so they can apply it in their villages. The connection is that we get their parents to get trained in Satemwa and then they go back to their villages and apply that. That is the connection we have. That’s why the agricultural project and agricultural technicians of the school are important, because we work for the same people, some taking their parents, and others the children. Here we are preparing the children from the ground so they grow up with these skills of agriculture.
What does social justice mean for you?
As a Jesuit, it would be to first make people understand what their rights are. And the way to make them know is through education. Another part is for the people to be participants of the political and economic development of their country. One of them is education. The social justice in this case is to equip the people around you to know and be equipped with the skills to know what should be done, and to train them to participate also in some political decisions of the country or local chiefs.
To link these ideas of education, social justice, community development, and religion, what is the relationship between all of them? What is the most important in your work here?
The fusion of all of those is education. If you are educated, really, you’ll be connected to those economic and political discussions. But if you are not, you are marginalized. And the key is education.
What does the education of Portuguese language do specifically for these students to be able to receive social justice and religious education, since all types of education and work and political processes in Mozambique are conducted in Portuguese?
The participation, like I said, the government itself is trying to create a connection between the local language and Portuguese itself. And to make them know that even though you can speak Chichewa, you can still participate in the government; that is one of the big solutions. When I was talking to my students, one of the things to marginalize people is to refuse them the right to their language. If you refuse them the language, you refuse them their culture, because all of the concepts of their life are in their language. All of the heroes of their lives are [in Chichewa]. So what you can do to boost that spirit is to give them back their language. Because there are some concepts you can’t even explain in Portuguese, and you have to try to translate, but it doesn’t give meaning. That’s why in some literature, you put the local language as it is, and explain in the notes what you wanted to say there.
Where do you think you personally contribute to building the community here at ESIL?
Most of the times I am more connected to the students. I talk to them, and I interact with them. All my classes, I make sure that I bring all these concepts so that we grow together. I speak as a person who knows the culture and language and to try to help them get consciousness of where they come from and what they are expected to do in life. I am almost everywhere: I play football with them, I dance with them, I wake up with them in the mornings at 5:00 a.m. and go to the garden to work with them, and I have two classes. In the morning I teach grade 11 and in the afternoon I teach grade 12. I think that’s one of the ways I can contribute to show them that life should be like this. Not only talking in class, but participating in wherever the life of the school is.
Can you share any personal stories about why you chose to work in education or work at ESIL?
The first was in Zimbabwe, an attachment. One thing is that if you interact with the students, you’ll see that they look for something—in most of the cases, they are hungry for good examples and good teachers. First I didn’t think I would come to a school. But when I arrived here, I saw that—the students, they like a person who is part of their life. And I think that’s one of the ideas that I like in education, and I want to be a part of that education for them. Because one concept is that human beings pass on ideas—we pass knowledge on the way we pass on genes to our children—knowledge has to be shared. One of the ways of sharing is educating them. So after 10 years, they take up the same action to make their wives, children, their community, and the country and the world one of the best places to live. That’s what gives me happiness—that I should be a good example to them, so tomorrow they can say there was somebody who helped us to be good people.
Can you share any specific moments that inspired you since you came here?
Most of the times when they have problems they come to me. It will be either that they want someone to share about problems at home with, and [give them advice about] what to do. They say, “Teacher, my house has this problem, and I’m not succeeding in solving it.” Most of the times it is about how difficult their family life is and how their parents are striving [for a better life], and they want to know if they will be able to do what I am encouraging them to do, because of their economic background. They say I give them good ideas, but when they look back home, they don’t think they’ll be able to carry that out and manage it. And that’s when I feel for them—when they share those stories. Because here we are giving them an expectation of a life that needs to be worked on and trying to illuminate them to become good people. And in those studies they also reflect on their own stories and their own homes.
For example, they told me that they think that in order to become a good person, you don’t need money. When you are good, you work hard to study, or work hard to do something in your life. Money is just a complement. And that’s one of the stories that gives me happiness to hear. But even to pay to go to university, for example, they sometimes can’t manage. I try to make them see that it’s not only money, because there are scholarships, and I tell them to work hard to get a scholarship to get into university. Also if you don’t succeed now, you can do some other formations, but you have to look forward and not stop, so next time you can get to university. Those are the touching stories that I hear. We give them expectations and tell them how they can do it, but when they look back home they are unsure if they will manage. Their parents often haven’t gone to school but they succeed in being able to pay for at least one person’s tertiary education, and that person will be able to help others, to at least get a technical education, and work and go back to school.
What do you think is the reality of the university system in Mozambique?
I think people can succeed and manage to pay for university—whether it is through agriculture, working in the farm, or someone else working. But they have to make a good plan. There are products that you can sell and plan for your kid, for at least one year. I know people who did that and managed. It’s not as expensive as it is sometimes viewed by the people. If you want your kid to go [to university] it’s possible. I know people who did that. There are people who go and know they have to help their brothers and boost up education in the future. Because usually through education you can succeed. You can participate in the economics and politics of the country because you know what they are talking about and you know the reality.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your time here that you’ve learned from and have allowed you to do your job better?
I think one of the challenges is the first one, of language. For me language is a big barrier, for the students. I am teaching in Portuguese and the government expects me to teach in Portuguese and all the exams come in Portuguese, and here the students don’t know Portuguese. How will they get good marks when they can’t understand even if they put in effort? It’s quite difficult. The strategy I use now is whenever I give a class they know that they can ask me any time they need for me to explain if they don’t understand some material. I think that helped me a lot to overcome. Not totally, but that is one of the ways that it helps to develop a good sense of understanding of the material, not just the ones I’m teaching, but others as well.
With Mozambique’s past with many wars, how have these affected the political landscape, and also education and social justice? In this area, especially?
Definitely the war had an impact—both the colonial war and the civil war. I think it had a bad impact on the people, because the first thing is that war traumatizes people. Development does not happen when there is conflict. That is what decreases education, because people who are supposed to go to school run away to neighboring countries, and people who are supposed to study run away, creating an instability in the person and in the country. They have to wonder, “How long will I be here? How long will the war go?”
For example, with the recent instability that was happening here in 2013 and 2014, it gave people fear and they left places because they already know the consequences of war. Production did not go well that year. That is one of the bad impacts. Of course education is also affected. Instead of receiving five or 30 people in a class, you receive only one. And there is no material for the school. There is no safety at all. And that is a bad impact. And now, fear makes people not trust the government and not participate in political decisions, because they know that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we don’t know what is going to happen. A good education and good development happens when the country is safe and the people are safe and they can participate and know that if they plan for five years, that’s what will happen.
How do you think ESIL reassures or engages with this problem of instability?
There is a student we have whose father was kidnapped because he belonged to RENAMO, the opposition. He got kidnapped. You can see how the kid looked when this happened—he talked to the other students as well and told them that his father was kidnapped, and they didn’t know whether they should remain here or leave to the safety of their parents. Because they didn’t know whether one party or the other would come here or do something else to them. They are in the middle of the bush, the forest. So if something happens, where would they go? Who is going to take care of them? So because of that uncertainty, some students started asking for transfers to go to their own villages. What we are doing now is telling them that we are safe here. We asked the local government representatives if we are safe and whether we have to ask for security, and they said no. They said to tell the students there is no problem or threat, and we told them, and they calmed down. One soldier actually came to visit us, and those are the questions the students were asking. That is our work, to assure them that this place is secure and we don’t have any problem, and that those conflicts are happening in specific places.
What about your family, your parents and grandparents—did they have to leave from this area?
Yes, they went to Malawi for some time. I had family in Malawi already, and first my parents ran away to Malawi in 1986. I was born in 1988 in Malawi in a hospital with better infrastructure, and then they came back here with me once I was born. That’s how they were affected—I still have some relatives that are in Malawi. But historically speaking, we speak the same language as those in Malawi—Chichewa. The chiefs still interact even though there is a country division. We are the same people, after all. All of Tsangano, Angonia, Malawi—we understand each other. If it were a division through language we would be the same country.
How do you think ESIL can continue to improve, and if you could change the education system in Mozambique, what would you change?
I think in terms of education in Mozambique they introduced a system which doesn’t help children to learn more. We need to create a system that is not an automatic pass. Right now it does not depend on the marks you get in school, but the teachers and parents participate and decide whether the students pass or fail. [Education] should be to educate the child—if a child does not know, he should not be allowed to go further. Even the parents should not be asked if they want the child to pass. [Parents can give permission for their child to enter the next grade even if they do not pass the educational standards for a certain grade level]. Especially for first through seventh grade—that’s when you need a strong base, of Portuguese, math, other things. That is one of the things that needs to be corrected.
Also the system now that teachers have to achieve a percentage of passing marks in their classes [is not beneficial]. If less than 50 percent of students pass, they will say that it is not the students, but the teacher who is a bad teacher. It isn’t true, because it can be that the children did not learn and know before. That is the thing that should be corrected. If you don’t know, you should be given more opportunity to learn, through failing. With automatic passing there is no energy spent to study more or do more.
What are some specific ways you can see ESIL improving in the future?
One specific way is to not give in to that automatic passing system. It has to be that what [grades] a student receives are his, and find ways to help him or her grow in those areas that he isn’t comfortable—by directing and accompanying him. The students should be accompanied.
What is the future of Jesuit education as a whole in Mozambique, or Tete?
I think there is a very big hope that we can have more Jesuit institutions, to increase the quality of the local education. That means we have to increase the number of schools so it is not only Tsangano that is getting that Ignatian spirituality, but more places also get that education, and one such place is Satemwa. That’s one of the hopes I feel, is that Jesuit education [in this region] is not only ESIL.