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A Science Lesson in Mozambique


There’s a knock at my door.  “Kolby, wake up.  I have the binoculars to give you”.  It’s Zeketwo, my Mozambiquian host family brother.  He’s the person in my host family I’m closest to.  At this point my Portuguese isn’t atrocious, so I usually talk to him in Portuguese and he replies to me in English, that way we both get to practice speaking our second language.

Zeketwo, for the record, is the reason teachers become teachers in the first place.  He is a 16-year-old boy genius who is curious about everything.  If he were an American he’d be taking Honors classes in some suburban High School and deciding which college to attend in the Fall.  However, he’s not an American, he’s Mozambiqian; which means he’s not thinking about going to college because college isn’t an option if you’re Mozambiqian.

That aside, the teacher in me couldn’t pass up the opportunity to teach him about everything he’s willing to learn.  Last week we had a thunderstorm so I taught him about electricity and sound.  This week we’re on to optics, thus the binoculars he’s returning.  They are the first pair he has ever looked through and he’s had tons of questions about how they work.
I step out of my one room house built in the backyard to talk to Zeketwo.  Zeketwo is using the binoculars to look at the full moon.  “Kolby, what is the table on the moon?”

“What?” I reply, “What do you-” That’s when I hear a series of loud cracks, like a bullwhip is being snapped on the back porch.  I spin around and, much to my surprise, I see my host family father whipping a man on the ground with what looks like a long piece of rubber cut from an old car tire.  “Zeketwo, what is Dad doing?” I ask, but the moon still has Zeketwo’s full attention.

“The table.  Look.  On the moon it looks like a table.”  Zeketwo tries to hand me the binoculars, unphased by the sound of the man groaning on the ground.

“Zeketwo, what is Dad doing?!”.

“In Portuguese it is ‘bater’, it means ‘to beat.’”

“I know what the word is.  Zeketwo, stop looking at the moon.  Why is Dad beating that man?”

“Oh,” Zeketwo replied, “He is one of three men that stole bags of corn from Mom last week at the farm.  Last night Mom saw one of the men in the bar so Dad grabbed him and took him to the house.  He beat him until it was very late.  I didn’t like that Dad beat him so late because I sleep in the living room, so I had to wait until he was done to go to sleep.  This isn’t the man Dad beat last night though; he is sitting on the ground over there.  This is one of the other men who stole.  He is the one who knows where the corn is.  Why, do you want to go help beat him?”

“No, I don’t want to go help beat him!  In America, we don’t beat people for stealing.  Why not just tell the police so they can arrest them for stealing?”  Zeketwo looked at me like I had just asked very dumb question.  In fact, I think he thought I was kidding because he went back to looking at the moon through the binoculars.  I decided to answer his earlier question about the moon to keep the conversation going.  “The dark spots that look like a table are big holes on the moon.  They are from rocks that hit the moon.  Zeketwo, now stop looking at the moon for a minute.”

“Could the rocks that hit the moon also hit the earth?” Zeketwo lowered the binoculars and looked over at me concerned about the rocks that might hit the earth, still hardly noticing the man getting whipped in front of us.
“Small ones do all the time, they are the streaks of light you see in the sky at night.  Big rocks have hit the earth too, but you can’t see the holes they make because the rain and wind smooth them over.  So why doesn’t Dad tell the police that the men stole the corn?”

“They pay the police to make it ok to steal from the farmers.  Normally it is ok, but to steal from Dad is not ok.  But they didn’t know who Mom was, so it was an accident to steal from her.  So, why doesn’t the rain and the wind smooth over the holes on the moon?”

“The moon doesn’t have rain or wind to smooth over the holes.  So,-”

Zeketwo interrupted “-but how do you know the moon doesn’t have rain or wind?”

“Because Americans went to the moon 30 years ago.”  Zeketwo looked at me closely to see if he could tell if I was lying.  After a short pause he went back to looking at the moon so I continued.  “We also have big binoculars, bigger than the house, to look at the moon very closely.  So, what if the men tell the police Dad beat them?”

“Father works in the hospital so he is important, so they can not tell the police.”  Zeketwo looked at me and could tell I was still concerned, so he continued.  “Father doesn’t like to beat the men, but in Mozambique the police do nothing.  It is normal in Africa.  If Father does nothing then other people will know so more people will steal from him who are too lazy to work.  These men will work on the farm next week to help Mother, then everything is ok again.”

I was in shock.  What do you do when ALL the police are corrupt?  “What about the Mayor?  Can you vote for a Mayor with good police?”

Zeketwo shook his head, bewildered with the simplicity of my questions.  “I think maybe it is different in America.  There are no elections here I think.  Or if there are, the same people stay, so nothing changes.  If you want, you can tell Father to stop beating him and he will stop.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I stumbled for time as I watched the man in front of me receive another series of whippings from Father.  “Um, you know Zeketwo, I don’t know.  I think, maybe-”

“Kolby?” Zeketwo interrupted me again before I was able to complete my sentence.  This time he’d set down the binoculars and had turned to face me.

“Yes Zeketwo?” I replied, leaning closer to hear him.

“Truthfully Kolby, has an American really gone to the moon?”

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