A Discussion with Tomás Neto Leitão de Cruz, Portuguese Professor at 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 Tomás Neto Leitão de Cruz, a volunteer Portuguese professor at St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School (Escola Secundária Inácio de Loyola, ESIL) in Tete, Mozambique. Leitão de Cruz discussed the language barrier he encountered while teaching Portuguese at the Jesuit institution, which primarily serves disadvantaged rural students. By relaying his personal experiences and ESIL's activities, Leitão de Cruz explains how social justice work and Jesuit principles shape the school's values and actions.
Can you please tell me your name and about what your role is in this community at ESIL?
My name is Tomás Neto Leitão de Cruz, and I’m a volunteer at St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School in Chividzi, Msaladzi, Tsangano, Tete province, country of Mozambique. Initially there was a necessity to have Portuguese professors, and I have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in biology that I got in Portugal, so I was able to give Portuguese classes here in the school, and that’s what I have been doing since I arrived here. This is the greater mission, to commit more time than just a week. So I’m doing some work connected to pastoral. I’m a catechist, helping with the Eucharist where I can, and of course helping however else I can. By giving an example to the children, we can improve this country, and that is my small part.
And how did you discover and come to ESIL?
So in Portugal I did a training to do work with the organization called Leagues for Development. And through this organization, at the end of one year of preparation, I was connected with another foundation, which is Gonçalo de Silveira, which had partnered with ESIL and worked together with them. So that’s how I came here.
And 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?
Yes, I think the cultural education of Jesuits differentiates it clearly from the rest of the types of education. Not just here in Mozambique, but in my country, Portugal, and possibly in other places. But here, it is more evident what the difference is—I can see the difference better between a Jesuit education and other schools. I think the key word is rigor. I think that in in this school there is a lot of rigor, and I’ve seen that students who come to study for the first year here already have a different way of working then they did the previous year. The first year, they have a hard time adapting—to the schedules, the capacity to study, the rigor.
At the end of the first trimester we did a self-evaluation at the end of the term of the students, and the students also did an evaluation of the teachers. And this made a big impression—one student said that they were grateful that I did not miss classes, which was an indication to me that they are used to teachers missing class, irregular instruction. But at the same time they are students who are really eager to learn, to always learn more. I think the rigor that Jesuits impart—indirectly, because it’s not the Jesuits that teach the classes—and the entire school environment that they create, with meetings, complying with rules, that there is no space for corruption…of course corruption always depends on the individual, and it’s difficult for the whole institution to control this, but I think that the institution can create more or less space for corruption to occur. And I feel that in this school, there is very little space to see corruption on the part of any professor or any employee, and we can see this in the feelings of students and the quality of education.
What do you think are distinct challenges or opportunities that indigenous students face in the local education systems in Mozambique and Tete? And if you can give examples, they would help me understand.
That is a very easy question to answer. This school, per what I know, was born from the necessity that existed to offer an opportunity for secondary education in the middle of a very rural area, far from urban centers, where the closest village is about 30 kilometers away. So all of our students come from very small and closed rural communities. This makes it so they don’t have contact with the Portuguese language that students who come from the city or village who watch television or listen to the radio have; these students don’t have that—they never spoke Portuguese. Because Portuguese is the unifying language of the country, the official language for all Mozambicans to understand, but Mozambique has many dialects. It has many mother tongues. So these students always spoke in Chichewa, the mother tongue in this region, and this reflects enormous difficulties when the education is integrally in Portuguese. Not just in Portuguese class, but in all the other disciplines, you have to speak Portuguese. This is a big condition and very testing, because there are many students who clearly need primary education in Portuguese, and we are a secondary school, and some students in eleventh grade don’t know how to speak or read Portuguese. They can’t understand what I say in classes. This is hard because without a primary education in Portuguese it’s difficult to achieve the objectives of a secondary education.
And since you don’t speak Chichewa, do you think it affects your teaching compared with other teachers who do speak Chichewa?
Yes, I think it would be an advantage if I could speak Chichewa. I can only say some words, very basic ones, but I don’t know how to speak fluently their mother tongue. I think it would be an advantage, because in some moments, I would have a word in Chichewa to unlock their thinking or doubts. But still I perceive that it is beneficial that the teaching demands that they speak in Portuguese because they can only speak to me in Portuguese and I can only respond in Portuguese, and they have to do their tests in Portuguese. It can be a help because in this way they have to get used to the language and speak in the language. But I don’t know because my training was not in education. So in this way I don’t know what the best method is [for them to learn Portuguese].
Do you have any specific of classes that you taught in which the students didn’t understand what you were saying or trying to teach them?
Yes, many times I am explaining the material and from their faces I could clearly tell that there were students who didn’t understand what I said. And I ask them to ask if they have any doubts. But curiously, the best students that have the best grades on the tests say that they have doubts and ask questions about what they don’t understand. The students who have the worst grades on the tests don’t have doubts or don’t say that they have doubts, but they are so far from understanding what was taught that even if they had a doubt [about the material] they don’t know how to express in Portuguese what they want to say, which worries them, and so they don’t ask, and it’s a great barrier in this context.
So with this language barrier you’ve mentioned, how does ESIL try to resolve this?
We have meetings every two weeks with the professors where we discuss important matters about the school or the next material that we have to teach, but also the barriers and problems that we encounter in our classes and with our students. And this problem of the Portuguese language is concrete, and we have discussed it since the beginning of the year, and we are trying to find solutions. First, we are trying to find a way to not just develop the students that we have now but also the ones that we will receive later in the year. The truth is that these students can’t pass the primary teaching—they should have received more time in primary school, to understand how to speak Portuguese, because they passed their classes at a basic level, but this isn’t going to be favorable to them later [in their education]. It puts them at a disadvantage because they will continue in their lives and receive grades without knowing how to speak or understand Portuguese. This is something that they have to change in primary schools, in the classes that they have before us, to remove confusion and to understand what the criteria was for the students to arrive here in secondary education.
This doesn’t resolve the problem that we have in our hands now with the students we have in ESIL. So, we are thinking of doing classes of extra support, where we can divide the students based on the level of Portuguese that we find them at, to help and reinforce their Portuguese. Earlier in the year we had a volunteer here who was a teacher of primary Portuguese in Portugal, Teresa, who had various small groups to help students with more difficulties in Portuguese in each class, but the fact is that we need more help like this. The structures we have now are not enough. ESIL is still being constructed; we are finishing construction now on a third block that will offer new classrooms to students and that will allow all of the students to have classes in the mornings, which will allow for the afternoons to be free for extracurricular activities, technology classes, physical education classes, and more importantly, leave some classrooms open and free for us to use for this solution of having extra classes to help them with their Portuguese.
This will resolve the problem until the end of this year. After, the school will open new vacancies for more students, which will imply that eventually the classes will be completely filled with students again all day in the morning and afternoon. For this reason, although the school has many great conditions, because it does, when we compare it with other schools in the country, we have a lack of rooms for the quantity of students that we receive. That’s because education in Mozambique says that a class will have 55 students, but you can’t have 55 students, and we have between 50 to 55 students per class. For professors, this is a huge challenge. Because the classes have so many students, the amount of direct individual attention that we can give to each student is really low. We can’t make sure every student is doing the classwork and responding to the professor’s questions, and it’s difficult to control everyone’s class participation.
Your answer was focused on ESIL, but what about Mozambique as a whole? Is there the same language barrier in other places in Mozambique? What needs to be done, what three things would you change, in language or other educational challenges?
That is difficult for me to answer because I don’t have much knowledge since I have only been here for one year. So the other Mozambican ESIL professors will probably be able to answer this question better, who have more experience teaching in the country than the five months I’ve been here. But I have made some trips, to the city of Tete, and Beira, and without a doubt, the students there have a command of Portuguese that is much better than these students here. Challenges for teaching in Mozambique—they need to try to have better class sizes for better individual attention, and if a student fails or gets a bad grade, they need to find out the family reality of the student. There is a person responsible for this—the director of the class. There is a professor in charge of each class, here too, and in other schools, but it’s very difficult for this person to get to really know 55 students. For this reason I think more personalized teaching would be a big advantage. Another thing in relation to language would be to involve the parents of the students to help us in the house with the homework. My parents were both professors who always helped me a lot in the house, and I don’t think teaching can stop in school—it has to continue in the house.
What if the parents don’t have an education or speak Portuguese?
That’s true, that some don’t know Portuguese very well, especially with the rural reality of our students. But still, I believe that the majority of parents know how to speak Portuguese, and they can help their children in the house.
Other challenges—one that this school needs to try to combat, is education for girls. Education is still much more predominant for boys. We have a lot more boys than girls in this school [especially in eleventh and twelfth grades], but in our school the difference is less. Because according to the knowledge I have, in other schools, the difference is greater. There are many more boys than girls because the girls are needed for housework, work in the farm, to help with taking care of their siblings, so I think it is a great challenge to offer the same educational opportunities for boys and girls.
How is ESIL involved in the community here in Tsangano?
Mozambique is a very large country, and we are in an area where there aren’t urban centers or big communities. There are small communities and small houses constructed from the earth and are responsible for the farmland around their houses. For them to cultivate all of this land that they have, they have to build houses far apart from each other so they don’t have to travel a large distance each day to reach their farms. So their communities are all very separated. They don’t have a community with any associations or schools. So our school arose in an area where there isn’t much community or houses. So in this way, our school is our own community. We have students who live in the internato [boarding house] that is an annex in the school and the community is them. The community is older students taking care of younger students, who participate in Mass, help the priest with Mass, and our professors, too. So the community we have is the one you see here in the school.
But not all of the students live in the boarding house. Only half of them do. So the other half lives mainly in a small village that exists close to the school named Njalanjira, and here there is a slightly larger community. It’s about 30 minutes away by foot from the school. What happens here is that women who own houses in Njalanjira rent the houses to students. They have to pay. Students who come from farther away do this—either live in the boarding house or in Njalanjira. Of course it isn’t very expensive and it is accessible, but for these students it is even more difficult to continue to study. That’s maybe another challenge. We should try to make the boarding cheaper, because they have to pay a matriculation fee. Not only for the boarding house but just to take classes they have to pay. Although it seems like a small amount to us, for them, for some families it might be a barrier or obstacle, especially because aside from this, the student will also need money for food and living expenses. So they might need to work in the farm or help in a house.
What do you think is the attitude and reception of people in this district to ESIL? And what influences this?
Based on the conversations I’ve had when I go to Vila Ulongwe or the city of Tete, the people who know the school have very good impressions of it. They like ESIL very much, and I’ve heard them talk a lot about it. For the most part they haven’t come here because we are in a very isolated and far away site from the urban areas and the Alcatrão main road that people travel by, but whether they have come here or not, all of them are very happy with the new school, and this is good, because the school is education, and education is evolution.
More importantly, it’s a secondary school, which was a major thing that was lacking in this area. Because the small communities, like Njalanjira, have a primary school. But the secondary school is more difficult because they need professors who are qualified—at least a bachelor’s degree to be able to teach in a secondary school. There are very few people with a bachelor’s degree in Mozambique. There is a lack of teachers, and I think an example is that I am a Portuguese professor, and at the beginning of the year, when we received a professor to teach the eleventh grade class, he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. So he couldn’t teach the eleventh grade, he could only teach eighth and ninth grades. And according to the program and strategy that this school has, we didn’t need a teacher for these classes, we needed one for the eleventh grade, and that’s why I am teaching eleventh grade now. So that’s a great challenge for Mozambique—to have qualified professors. People who can give quality classes, because people without bachelor’s degrees are usually not qualified or prepared or ready to teach—it impacts the quality of teaching.
What is the connection between ESIL, the agricultural mission Satemwa, and the orphanages?
The mission of Jesuits in this area includes taking care of orphans and financing the orphanages. The orphanages are often far apart from community and culture. In the secondary school here, we have orphans who come from these orphanages and live here with us in the boarding house and are students in the school. This is the natural progression, and the plan. But I think the connection is unilateral. The orphans come to ESIL, but since ESIL is a school, it doesn’t have any help or influence from the orphanages. The other students at ESIL don’t know about the orphanages or Satemwa. They only know Satemwa as a place of prayer; the students who are in the boarding house and are more familiar and connected to the pastoral and religious side of the school can sometimes go to Satemwa to do a retreat or pray there on the weekend, but that’s it. The projects don’t really have a direct connection.
What does social justice mean for you?
That’s easy to define. Social justice for me is when a person is born, whatever part of the world they may be born in, be it Mozambique, be it in the United States, be it in Portugal, they have the same opportunities. This is a thing that clearly doesn’t exist. Social justice is that all humans, as members of a global society, should be born with the same opportunity—to learning, to health, to security.
These big concepts—of education, social justice, community development, religion—what is the most important here in this community at ESIL?
Of course these are important. But the reality that I know is that health is precarious and health needs to be more stable, and I think in this way Jesuits can help more near the school, maybe create a health center. But if something comes up, the students can go to Vila Ulongwe’s hospital and we will provide transport. Food and nutrition is not ideal, but it’s not a huge problem. As a professor and a member of ESIL I have to say that in this moment the priority is education.
If we want to harvest tomorrow, we plant lettuce or cabbage today. If we want to harvest in one year, we plant a tree. If we want to harvest after many years and generations, we have to educate and pursue education. Education is a ramp to improvement for these students, to have a better life, a profession, stability in life, and of course the Jesuit values that we pass along to them in the school.
Where do you think you can contribute to the social justice and development vision of the school?
I think that as professors we are much more than just people who just teach material and language. I think a Jesuit school marks a difference here too. We don’t just teach, but we transmit values. And this is where we pass on social justice. These young men need to learn values. And of course we do this through a Christian formation and religious formation, and we are going to work also in parallel with Bible study groups, extracurricular activities. For example, with the celebration of Women’s Day, celebrating the emancipation of women in this society, and also Worker’s Day.
How did you celebrate these days?
Well, we didn’t only celebrate International Women’s Day but also the Day for Mozambican Women. There are two separate women’s days in this country—different days, one in April and one in May. I don’t remember exactly when they were. We had a national holiday and we didn’t have classes, but we had a gathering with all of the students, sang the national anthem, and then we had a discussion or a panel with various women we invited, of different social classes. We had a sister [Catholic nun], a professor, a Portuguese woman who volunteered here and spoke about the realities of being a woman in Portugal, and we had Laissone [Evaristo Matias]’s mother, who is a very successful Mozambican woman who has an education and bachelor’s degree. So it was really good to share and talk with everyone about the important of the woman in society and promote equal rights.
So not just with Women’s Day, but always when we have a holiday, we have something for the students to reflect on. On Worker’s Day we had a celebration for the workers in the school who are constructing the school daily, a really demanding physical labor. We had a party and wanted the workers to rest; we offered them food and refreshments, music. I think it is important and that in this school everyone is valued no matter what your work or function is, and each person’s opinion is respected, be it a student, professor, a school employee, worker. This is very important. It creates a school environment, a real school community, in where everyone is here for the same thing, for education.
Can you give me more examples of this community vision?
It’s clear that these celebrations are great moments. But daily, when I pass them at school, there is a friendship, a way to treat people the same, whether they are a professor, a school employee, a student. Of course each one has their own role, and it’s a role that should be respected. The professors might have degrees, but this doesn’t put them above the students. This doesn’t mean that they get more respect. They get to control the behavior in their classrooms, but this doesn’t make them more important than any student, or more important than any school employee, who may be cleaning rooms or completing the requisitions for library books. We are all a family, and we are all important. If the rooms aren’t cleaned, we can’t have class. If people don’t work in the library to complete book requests, the students will have a worse education without access to these books. If the students are not respected as humans, there won’t be an environment for them to learn and to work to their full human capacity.
Can you share with me a moment that inspired you in your time here at ESIL?
I have many. Like I said, I wasn’t trained in education. But I like to teach classes a lot, and I like the moments I get to have with my students. The classroom space is one that is mine and theirs. The relationship we have in the classroom is very close. I have had many special moments in the class that just belong to me and my students, and if someone from the outside came, they would not understand because there is a connection that exists between a teacher and his students. But one day I had a conversation with a student about how his studies and grades and everything was going for him, and he responded that when I enter the classroom, all the students are immediately happy. At first to me that seemed ordinary, because I am always making jokes in the class, always laughing with them. But he said not only are we ready to laugh, but we are happy. And I think that having happy students is one of the best compensations that a professor can have.
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 can’t leave out the Scout Movement [in Portugal, like Boy Scouts in the United States]. I have been a scout since I was 12 years old, always trying to be a better scout. I learned a lot from my family first, of course. But after that, by being a scout, I have always been taught values and to leave the world a little bit better than I found it, however small the difference may be. And in scouting, there was a beautiful community, filled with adventures and experiences and friendships and personal growth. After spending some time as a scout I became a scout leader. That changed my perspective: that scouting wasn’t just about receiving these experiences, and living through these activities, but also I saw the other side, of preparing these activities for others to have. So that others could live through these activities, to help other children to grow. This helped me a lot in the work that I now do here. Of course the difference is a big one—in scouting, it’s an informal education. It’s an education conducted in nature, and it’s an education not through a professor-student relationship, but more of an older-younger brother relationship. But it helped me a lot still. And of course my family always transmitted values to me of service and helping others. My sister is also a great example to me, and she also spent a year similar to mine here in Angola, another African country, collaborating in development projects, so I think these are my greatest bases.
Here I am always learning in this context. I have been here for five months, which is a short time, and I’ll be leaving at the end of one year, which is certainly also a short time, for what this country needs, for what I feel that I can give. But I think there’s a lot more that I learned and received.
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 communities here.
Well, I don’t have experience with colonial times because I was born after. I am the son of a history professor so I am familiar with this history. But I don’t have personal experience. But I have traveled to Angola, to here, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe, which are all three former Portuguese colonies. But with my small experience here, I haven’t found any difference or people marked by war. I found here people who are always happy, always ready to receive and harvest, including the Portuguese, who are associated with a past of exploration; I have never found this. I have always found people who have received everything well although they don’t have an assumed peace, with the two parties who are in political power, the opposition and confrontation between the two. I don’t think there is a climate of war here, of distrust, not in the people nor in their way of life and their communities in the places that I’ve gone to in the country. So for me, Mozambique is a country in peace.
Do you think the colonial past has affected the implementation of the Portuguese language? Is there a resistance to it?
No, I don’t think so. I think that without doubt [the colonial past] affects the fact that they speak Portuguese, but before Portugal, Mozambique was not a country. It was a group of tribes, spread out over an immense territory, that didn’t have any connection between them, because these tribes had huge distances between them—thousands of miles. And so it only became a country with the colonial times and the independence of the country that happened in 1975. The Portuguese language—it doesn’t seem to be to be an imposition. Because in 1975 when there was independence, there was also a necessity to govern the country. So they needed one language that all Mozambicans could speak. There are more than 10 mother tongues that are spoken and spread out in the country. So they needed one language for everyone to speak so that one Mozambican could communicate with the others in the same country. So this is the biggest mark that the Portuguese had in this country. But there didn’t need to be a feeling of needing to abandon the mother tongues. These people didn’t have to abandon their culture or way of living because of the Portuguese language. So Portuguese was something they needed to live and govern, but the individual cultures of each tribe in pre-colonial times continue to be respected.
How do you think that ESIL can continue to improve? Whether it is criticism or positive feedback?
I am Portuguese so I like my country and tradition very much. So I think the future of Mozambique lies with the Mozambican people.
Well, it’s some of the same things we’ve discussed. I’ll be here for one year and then leave. I think that evolution will include more dialogue between people. Between students, including students more in the decision would be beneficial. An administrative council in the school that includes Jesuits, includes professors, and also students. That would be a very good thing to create a student association, students who are responsible and general leaders. Evolution always comes with more dialogue. So it is very important to continue to have meetings between professors and the Jesuits, and the students, and always continue to debate what the progress is in each moment.
It is difficult now to predict the future of ESIL because we are constantly changing. It’s not stable; it is being discovered. Society is always evolving, and the youth are always evolving too. So our own teaching always has to evolve and reach the youth and find the best ways to transmit knowledge to them. This will happen, above all, through dialogue. Stability is important and partly through the Jesuits will help create this climate of stability. Part of this will have to include maintaining a director for more time. Until now in ESIL’s history of two years of regular teaching, there have already been three directors and many other changes. Each director that comes bring new ideas and new ways. There is a plan of continuity, but the way that each person executes this will be different. In this aspect I think we can see more stability from the Jesuits. The rest lies in dialogue.
What do you see as the future role of Jesuit education and other Jesuit institutions in Mozambique?
The Jesuits have always played an important role in education. I think that they always have good quality of education. In this country that is so big and filled with so many people and a huge birth rate, they will need to continue to make their small difference through example to help people improve. Although it is idealistic to imagine a country filled with Jesuit schools, it would be good if that happened. ESIL can be an example, what it has already done in the district of Tsangano, the province of Tete, it can serve as an example of how other schools can improve some aspects or simply at least share ideas and experiences from ESIL with other schools to create the best education possible. Our priority is always the children and the youth.