The Multilingual Mozambican: Remembering my U.S. English Language Fellowship
The English Language Programs of the U.S. Department of State is celebrating their 50th anniversary of the Fellow Program. As a former English Fellow to Mozambique, I want to share my teaching English experience as part of the celebration. I wrote about my fellowship in a newsletter while working elsewhere. Sections of the article are provided below. Please note that this information is outdated. It’s a snapshot of the early 1990s in Maputo, Mozambique from the perspective of a foreign worker.
The Multilingual Mozambican (Rogers, 1995)
I miss Africa. It was as great a pleasure as a hardship to teach in Mozambique. From September 1992 to December of 1993, I was employed by the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) in Maputo, the capital city. After interviewing at TESOL Vancouver, the (USIS) United States Information Services provided me with an English Teaching Fellowship (ETF) contract for one year. Having always wanted to visit Africa, the stability of a US government contract made my adventure-in-the-wait a job reality with roundtrip airfare, medical insurance, and a generous stipend. In addition, UEM provided me with housing.
…My (US) salary as a visiting teacher was better than that of the host nationals. Monthly, I received $600 and the equivalent of $200 in their currency (Metical), which suffered from superinflation: one dollar equaled 5K meticais. My first check was for a million meticais.
When I first arrived in Maputo, the country was still at war. There were numerous war orphans and amputees on the streets. During my stay, I witnessed the uneasy steps towards peace that eventually led to a peace accord and democratic elections. I saw the UN tanks replace their army’s. I experienced the rebel leader leaving the bush and taking up residence in the city (my neighborhood). I talked to teachers who after being restricted from traveling outside the city for 15 years, finally got to go visit their hometowns. It was an amazing time in Mozambican history, one that I’m glad I can share. The UN Mission (UNOMOZ) was a success and the troops pulled out. The country was a tropical paradise in ruins that needed to be rebuilt. The major obstacle to rebuilding the infrastructure and a normal lifestyle was the litter of hundreds of landmines. Mozambique had the largest landmine problem in the world.
…Portuguese, as well as many African Bantu languages, are spoken in Mozambique. Spanish is understood by the Portuguese speakers and vice versa. It’s very close. I think it’s important to mentions this because, like most Americans, I was completely unaware of this fact. However, in my humble opinion, Portuguese is a more structurally complicated language.
Being fluent in Spanish helped me meet the language requirement to get the job. Also, my volunteer work with the Peace Corps (PC) in Honduras (1985-87) and an internship in Guatemala (1991) showed my ability to adapt to harsh conditions. Due to severe droughts and a sixteen-year-old civil conflict, Mozambique was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Teaching conditions at the university were definitely third world: no window panes to keep the dust out, sometimes no running water to wash hands or flush toilets, and frequent power outages. Most importantly, transit was limited for the students. Public transit was nonexistent in Maputo. Given these hardships, one must wonder why anyone would want to work there. Well, I knew from my PC experience that no matter how much I put into a job like this, I would gain more from it; and I strongly believe I have.
As a light-skinned, American female raised in a democratic society, I underwent a complete minority immersion. Placed in the Engineering faculty to teach English for Specific Purposes (ESP) to beginners, I encountered a majority of black males as well as a host of visiting professors from Communist countries. Mozambique was a Socialist/Communist country undergoing political change. In the past, they received assistance from Russia and Cuba, as well as other former East bloc countries. Some of my students had received military training in these countries and thus spoke Russian, German, and Spanish. Additionally, many Mozambican professionals had studied abroad…Not many Mozambicans spoke English, but a good number of them were multilingual. One charming example of this was the night I went out with some German backpackers to a simple open-air bar and had half the locals buying drinks for us and speaking German.
Another factor adding to the multilingualism in Mozambique is that many educational materials had been donated to the university in languages other than Portuguese… So learning how to read in English (the language of the largest selection of books) is necessary for third and fourth-year students at UEM. Hence, ESP programs focused on reading proficiency.
To add to the multilingualism, many visiting professors didn’t speak Portuguese and thus lecture in their native language. For example, my students were used to receiving math classes in Spanish because of the numerous Cuban professors employed at the Engineering faculty. Visiting professors make up about 50% of the staff due to the ‘brain drain’ caused by the civil conflict and previous war of independence. In such a case, the majority of management and PhDs are very young and abroad obtaining their credentials.
As for the communication in my classroom, students received instructions only in English at first, but they were informed of my Spanish fluency and consequent comprehension of Portuguese. We exchanged English for Portuguese during free periods. The only formal instruction for non-native (adult) speakers at that time was the Brazilian Cultural Center downtown. I attended classes for one month, but the accent was so different that I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Mozambican Portugues is truer to Portugal given the colloquial insertions and accent. This is because Mozambique was Portugal colony until 1975.
Eventually, I learned to communicate in Portuguese. My students were at ease after my acquisition. It led me to question the ‘English only’ rule: If I’m to be the facilitator, how can I help them if I can’t speak their language? That year (1993) an article appeared in the TESOL Journal questioning the validity and general acceptance of such rule with no empirical basis. In my opinion, this rule creates a high affective filter. I was made aware of this by reading hundreds of my students’ journals each week.
To further expand on my minority immersion, I was the only American teaching English in the city, probably the entire country. British English dominated Africa. This is due to…their colonization…and their continued outpouring of funds for English programs throughout the continent. For example, the British Council had a wonderful library and resource center in … Maputo.
…Teaching Mozambicans was a great pleasure. They were very receptive and gracious. I miss my students and the Mozambican teachers. Together they showed me how to relax and have a good time despite the harsh conditions. Thanks to them, I too have become multilingual. Initially, Mozambique was at the end of the world for me, as it appears to many based on their global location, but now it seems somehow closer with the education I carry of the land and its people.
#ELPalumni #Mozambique #TESOL #fellowimpact
Rogers, S. (1995). The multilingual Mozambican. The Teacher, 1(2). Recife: Brasil: Association Brasil America.
Sandra Annette Rogers, Ph.D.