Posted by: Brett | May 28, 2010

School Days

At my school here in Ribeira Brava, I teach 6 classes.  For those of you not familiar with the Cape Verdean education system (aka everyone reading this blog) there are a couple things I need to explain.  First of all school runs from mid-September until the beginning of July.  At my school, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classes are held in the mornings, from 7:30 until 12:30.  Younger students, 7th, 8th, and 9th grade then have classes in the afternoon, from 1:00 until 6:00.  The kids have 5 classes a day, but they have 10 or 11 subjects, so they do not have every class everyday.  This year, I teach 7th grade and 9th grade.  I have my three 7th grade classes each 4 times a week, and each of my three 9th grade classes 3 times a week.  On Monday I have 3 classes, on Tuesday I have 5, Wednesday 3, Thursday 5, Friday 2, and Saturday 3.  The kids here do not move around from classroom to classroom.  Instead, they sit in the same class, in the same seat, with the same people, for 5 hours a day.  It’s the teachers that go from class to class.  There are 10 minutes breaks in between the classes.  There is one 20 minute break between the 3rd and 4th periods (during which the kids like to run around and eat candy and beat each other up so that they come back to class sweaty, and thirsty, and having to go the bathroom, and–to sum it all up in one word–overstimulated).  During the breaks the students leave the classrooms and the teachers shut and lock the doors.  Each classroom has a different key.  There are 16 rooms at the school.  After finishing class, the teachers go back to the teacher’s lounge and put the keys on the table there.  It is not uncommon for a key to go missing or to be forgotten in someone’s pocket and then to find yourself frantically searching for a key about 2 minutes before class starts.  It is also not unheard of for students to stick a toothpick or a piece of paper into the lock of their classroom so that the teacher cannot open the door and teach class.  Needless to say, all of this took some getting used to.

At my school, grades 7, 8, and 9 each have 5 different classes.  There is 7A, 7B, 7C, 7D, and 7E.  There is also 8A, 8B, etc.  Classes labeled A or B start studying French in 7th grade.  Then in 9th grade, they also start studying English.  So classes 9A and 9B are level 1 English and level 3 French classes.  Classes label C, D, and E start to study English in 7th grade.  Then, in 9th grade, they start to study French.  So, 9C, 9D, and 9E are all level 1 French, level 3 English classrooms.

I teach 7C, 7D, 7E, 9C, 9D, and 9E and each class has its own unique style.

7C–This is a rowdy, fun class.  There are 33 students in this class.  There were 34 but one student was kicked out of school for behavior issues at the end of the 2nd trimester.  The class has 21 girls and 13 boys.  This class is chatty and late in the day they can be hard to manage, but they love to participate and they love English.  They get the highest grades out of all of my 7th grade classes and they are really interested in English.  All in all, they are a really fun class to step in front of.  There is nothing better than a class full of dedicated students that like to participate and are interested in the subject.

7D–This is a well-behaved, quiet class.  This class also started off the year with 34 students, but 5 students have dropped out as the year has gone on.  This class started off with 21 boys and 13 girls, with 3 boys and 2 girls dropping out.  Although this class is very well-behaved–they are, the best behaved class I have ever taught here–their grades are not particularly high.  There also is a boy who grew up in America in the class, and he speaks fluent English, which is a big help to me when I struggle to come up with a translation from English to Creole.  Out of my three 7th grade classes, 7D has the second highest grades.

7E–Oh my God.  The ‘E’ classes are notorious for being badly behaved at our school and 7E lives up to its name.  They are, by far, the worst behaved class that I have ever taught.  They are a class of 36–they were 37 but one student was kicked out of school for behavior issues–and they are made up of 12 girls and 24 boys.  The class has about five or six dedicated students, but the rest do not pay attention.  I have multiple kids in the class that refuse to open their notebooks and do work.  There are a handful of students that consistently get a 1 or a 2 out of 20 on the tests.  To teach them is a constant battle, they are always talking, they don’t like to participate, they often get into fights with one another over a stolen pen or pencil, they have a classroom at the center part of the school so there are always kids hanging out at the windows and causing distractions, they throw spitballs, they use lazer pens, they play on their cell phones, and to sum it all up…I once had a student spill a bottle of live fish onto the floor during class.  All that being said, I have really enjoyed teaching them because it has been such a challenge.  The common form of discipline here is to kick a kid out of class if he misbehaves.  It is not uncommon for be to kick out 3 or 4 or 5 or more kids in one class with them.  Even when I start to kick kids out of class, kids continue to misbehave.  But like I said, I enjoy them.  I’ve learned the most about teaching from them and no matter what, there is never a boring day with them.

Alright, that’s it for now.

Posted by: Brett | June 26, 2009

Dreaming of America

I often catch myself daydreaming about America. These dreams are usually not made up of anything fantastic, just something I miss about the States. Sitting at Tracey’s Tavern on a Friday night with friends. Watching the Bears. Driving a car. Going to a restaurant.

In the beginning, there were often days were I found myself saying, God, I cannot wait to be back in America.  Days when a class would drive me crazy, or when I wouldn’t understand what someone was trying to say, or when I felt I couldn’t express what I wanted to say.  These days are happening less and less frequently now, but I still sometimes think about what a relief it will be to be in a country where I can understand what everyone is saying; not only understand, but understand without even trying to understand. 

But there are also days when I think, How will I ever be able to handle America again?  I have never been in a traffic jam in São Nicolau.  Never.  There aren’t enough cars.  There is, more or less, only one road.  I have everything I need within walking distance.  And I think that I have achieved a level of independence here that I will never be able to achieve in America.  I have come and lived in place where I knew none of the language (and for those of you that have never experienced this, it is a truly humbling, terrifying thing) and I have made friends and successfully worked as a teacher.  Most likely, never again will I report to work and confuse people trying to ask where my classroom is.

You learn to laugh at yourself here.  I think I’ve always been able to do that, but here you learn to do it on a different level.  You make mistakes everyday.  You say something like “Today were are going to learn a new thing” in Creole because you don’t know the words for ‘material’ or ‘topic’ yet, and the entire class starts to laugh uncontrollably and you are left to wonder if you have just made an inadvertent sexual reference or just not made any sense at all.

I confused words like crazy in the beginning and often still do.  One day I was teaching my 8th grade, level two English students how to write Haiku poems.  I tried to explain the structure in Creole, and did a pretty good job, but I ended up switching two words.  I thought I had said the following in Creole:

“When writing a Haiku poem, the most important thing to remember is the syllables.  The first line is made up of five syllables.  The second line, seven syllables.  The third line, five syllables.”

I noticed my students laughing and trying to hide it–covering their mouths with their hands, looking down into their notebooks–but then someone started to laugh out loud and the entire class lost it. 

“What’s so funny?” I asked.  And then I realized I hadn’t been saying the word for syllables–silabas–I had said cebolas–or in English, onions.  I started to laugh pretty hard, and the class, seeing me, lost it.  People were practically on the floor with laughter.

But slowly, with time, I started to understand more and more.  One day, halfway through the year, I noticed that when I told a specific student to be quiet and pay attention he was not responding “Yes, sir” like I had thought he had been.  Instead, he had been saying all that time, “Yes, mam.”  

Another day in class I noticed the kids teasing a girl and saying that she had just farted.  I went to tell the kids to stop, but before I could the girl picked up her ruler and threw it across the room and hit one of her tormentors in the face.  I had to kick her out of class (the common form of discipline here), citing the rule about not throwing things inside the classroom, and when she left I turned to the entire class and said in Creole, “Don’t say fart.”  They uproared with laughter.  Me saying fart in their native language…well, I think it was too much for them to handle.

And if I’m not switching words in class, I’m doing it in the grocery store.  Asking for a can of pineapples when I really mean mushrooms; a bag of sugar when I really need salt.

And even though it is often tiresome, and my mistakes often seem endless, there is an incredible reward that comes with the language barrier–that moment in which you break it, that moment in which you finally express your point or understand what is being said to you.   And even though there are days when I think, I cannot wait to be back where I understand everything, that is probably one of the things I will miss most about that experience.  Everyday there is struggle, and often, because of it, there is reward.  It makes this experience a roller coaster, and a rather intense one.

We were told at somepoint during Pre-Service Training that studies have found that stress levels for a Peace Corps Volunteer during his\her first three months at site are on par with getting a divorce or losing a loved one.

I have no real comment on that, I just found it interesting and wanted to relay it forward.

Readjusting to life in the States is supposed to be just as hard or even harder than the initialadjustment here.  And I’m sure part of that struggle has do withthe sudden lack of intensity volunteers grown accustomed to living with abroad.  From what I’ve read, another part of it has to do with what was once home, is suddenly foreign.  Washing machines, traffic, the American hustle and bustle, more than three beers to choose from–all these things will be new to me.

Still, I like to think about the States, and little by little, I think I am preparing myself for my return home in August or September of 2010.  I sometimes find myself listening to the song “Homecoming” by Kanye West and daydreaming about my return (Can you say Chi-City?  Chi-City?  Chi-City?….I’m coming home again).  I like to imagine a summer afternoon spent at a bar downtown–beers on tap, cheeseburgers, the lazy him of the Cubs game being broadcast over the television in the background, that stifling Midwestern heat, etc.  I’m trying to think about what I want to do when I get back and right now my two favorite ideas are composed of the realistic–going back to school to become a special ed teacher–and the fantastic–a cross-country bike trip (Seattle to Miami or Maine to Arizona?).  But there is plenty of time to figure these things out.  After all, there are more immediate plans I need to make.  Like which islands I am going to try and see this summer and what on earth I am going to do about that classroom of 30 screaming 15-year-olds.

Posted by: Brett | May 15, 2009

I Didn’t Say It

Here is someone else’s take on their Peace Corps experience that I ripped off of another volunteer’s blog (sorry Beach).  I like this write up…particularly the parts about displacing all those lost Midwesterners and learning to live with a level of chaos.  I also think that a good amount of it rings true…the parts about patience, flexibility, having a sense of humor, etc.  Anyways, enjoy. 

From “Strange Stones,” by Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, January 12th, 2009:

Later, I learned that the Peace Corps had always drawn a high number of Catholics. For some reason, it’s particularly popular in the Midwest . . . It has to do with a solid, middle-country liberalism, but there was also an element of escape. Some of my peers had never left the country before, and one volunteer from Mississippi had never traveled in an airplane . . . The experience changed you, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It was a bad job for hard-core idealist, most of whom ended up frustrated and unhappy. Pragmatist survived, and the smart ones set small daily goals: learning a new Chinese phrase or teaching a poem to a class of eager students. Long term plans tended to be abandoned. Flexibility was important, and so was a sense of humor . . . Sometimes I thought of the Peace Corps as a reverse refugee organization, displacing all those lost Midwesterners, and it was probably the only government entity that taught Americans to abandon key national characteristics: Pride, ambition, impatience, the instinct to control, the desire to accumulate, the missionary impulse – all of it slipped away . . . From the beginning the Peace Corps had represented a type of foreign aid, but another goal had been to produce Americans with knowledge about the outside world, which could benefit their own country. The organization had been inspired in part by the 1958 book “The Ugly American,” which criticized a top-down approach to foreign affairs. At some level, I came away with a deep faith in the transformative power of the Peace Corps: everybody I knew had been changed forever by the experience. But these changes were of the sort that generally made people less likely to work for the government. Volunteers tended to be individualist to begin with, and few were ambitious in the traditional sense. Once abroad, they learned to live with a level of chaos, which made it hard to have faith in the possibility of sweeping change. Many of my peers in China eventually became teachers. It was partly because we had been educational volunteers, but it also had to do with the skills we developed – the flexibility, the sense of humor, the willingness to handle anything an eighth grader could throw at us.

Posted by: Brett | March 28, 2009


Here is something I sent out in an email to a couple of people back in September of 2008, when I was still living with a host family on the island of Santiago.  I lived with them in a small, rural town for my 9 weeks of Peace Corps Training.  Those 9 weeks were wonderful, and all in all, living with them has been one of the highlights of this entire Peace Corps experience.  My host father was in his 70’s and, much like my actual father, he was a full blown workaholic.  My host mother was in her late 50’s and ran a tight ship; there was no crossing her.  I had two host brothers, both of which were my age (25 and 23).  And I also had two host sisters.  They were 21 and 19.  There were many more children, they were all older, and they were spread out across the globe.  One in Praia, one in France, one in Italy, one in Portugal, and the list goes on and on.  They were a great family to live with.  They welcomed me into their home, gave me insight into their culture, sat with me for countless hours when I struggled for a word or a phrase, and filled me to the brim with katxupa and other foods.  I remember, at one of our first meals, when they put a full fish before me, complete with the eyeballs and everything, my host brother Culau must have seen the fear in my eyes because he coolly nudged me in the arm and then demonstrated how to properly eat it.  I feel blessed that I became part of their family for 9 weeks.  I call them once every couple weeks now, and if I forget to call them, they call me.  They always ask when I’ll be coming back to the house, how life is here in São Nicolau, and if I’ve starved to death yet trying to cook for myself.  I plan on going back and staying with them for a week during the summer.  I miss those summer nights spent sitting around their dinner table–the flies, the relentless heat, the conversations, Maria forcing more food on to my plate–everything.  Anyways, here is a brief story that took place around my 5th or 6th week living with them.

I was sitting outside studying Portuguese when my host brother, Zé, came running up the steps to the house and ran inside.  He had been wearing a dress shirt and pants, but he emerged for the house only a few seconds later, pulling a t-shirt over his head and kicking on shorts.  He started down the steps and then turned back to the house, having forgotten something.  This time he emerged from the house with a rifle.  He was starting down the steps again when I called his name.  Here is a re-creation of our conversation, with my broken Creole translated into broken English.  Please note, Zé’s responses may be highly exaggerated.

”Where you to go?” I asked.  If he was going to shoot the gun, I wanted in.

”A monkey is stealing our corn.”

”You go make monkey death?”

”Yes, I am going to go kill the monkey.”

”I need go make monkey death likewise.”

”Brett, you cannot come.”


”Brett, the only thing you need to do is sit here and study your broke-ass Creole.  You are not yet a man.”

”But I want go!  I want see!”

“You are clumsy and stupid.  You will scare the monkey away.  Besides, if you come along, you will want to hold the gun and then you will undoubtedly shoot yourself in the scrotum.”

In the end, I didn’t get to go.  I sat disappointed and trying to mutter ”Zé went to kill the monkey” over and over again in Creole.  I asked my sister if he would return with the monkey if he killed it.  She said he would.  She told me they would give it to another family to eat.  I asked her if she had ever eaten monkey and then hoped that question didn’t sound as perverted as it does in English.  She said no.  And then she asked me if I knew why.  I said no.  She told me that she would never eat a monkey because she imagined a monkey would taste very similar to what a human would taste like.  I agreed with her and then made the following mental note:


After what seemed like forever, Zé returned, but he was without a monkey corpse.  He said he shot the monkey in the chest and then it ran away.  I thought I misunderstood him and asked him to tell me what happened again.  He explained the story to me over and over again, and each time it was the same.  He shot the monkey in the chest and then it ran away.  I told him that it must have been a really big, strong monkey and then hoped that didn’t sound as perverted in Creole as it does in English.  Then my other host brother returned home, and Zé relayed the story to him.  Culau said the same thing happened to him when he went to try to kill the monkey the other day.  He shot it in the chest, it fell, got up, and ran away.  I wanted to ask if the monkey had been wearing a full suit of plated armor, but the language barrier proved to be too much when I asked if the monkey had ”dressed himself that morning with a metal diner plate.”  Instead of getting side-splitting laughs, I got looks of confusion and pity.

Posted by: Brett | January 23, 2009

Cooking In This Country

Most of my meals in the States came from one of three places.  They were:


1. My mother (this is embarrassing to admit, but it is true)

2. A McDonald’s bag (this is embarrassing to admit, but it is true)

3. The microwave (Easy Mac)

But here in Cape Verde I do not own a microwave, my mother is an ocean away, and there is not even a fast food chain in this country (and don’t get me started here.  I have been craving a double cheeseburger like a pregnant woman.  I cannot tell you how many dreams I have had about being back in the States and ordering fast food.  And of course, in these dreams something always goes horribly wrong—the person in front of me orders the last McFlurry, or my Whopper falls ketchup and mayonnaise side down on the floor, or just as I am about to get my tray of food someone pulls out a handgun and decides to rob the place.)

So, I’ve been forced to start cooking.  This has been quite the adventure.  I found that my roommate, Nelson, has done about as much cooking as I have in my life.  We’ve come a long way since we first moved in together in September.  One of our first meals was pasta with tomato sauce and hotdog bits.  It might have been good, but it had no taste.  I mean absolutely no taste.  It was weird, almost concerning.

“Do you taste anything?” I asked Nelson.


“No.  Nothing.”


“But, I swear, it feels like I’m eating something.” 


Then Nelson taught me a dish he had learned in France.  It’s called tunapastamayo.  It has three ingredients.  They are:


1. Tuna

2. Pasta

3. Mayonnaise 


This quickly became our household staple.  We made plans to one day open a tunapastamayo restaurant in either Iowa City, Iowa, or Columbus, Ohio.  Plates of tunapastamayo will cost 50 cents and be sold, primarily, to drunken college students.  They will have the option to pay $6.00 and receive the never-ending-plate of tunapastamayo. 


I also mastered how to fry an egg and claim to be the best American at it on the entire island.  There also may or may not be only six Americans on this island and one of the six may or may not be a vegan.


More recently, we’ve been branching out and trying new foods from the cookbook.  If you ever find yourself 375 miles off the coast of Senegal, feel free to stop by our place and request the “Tuna Creole.”  It’s filthy.


About two months ago we decided to buy a pressure cooker, mainly to cut down the amount of time it was taking us to cook beans.  When Nelson told me he wanted to buy a pressure cooker, I told him to go for it, envisioning a crock pot in my head.  Let me tell you something I have since learned: a pressure cooker is nothing like a crock pot.  Instead of returning with a handy little contraption that you plug into a wall, he came back with a big metal container that looked like something you could detonate a bomb inside and nothing would happen.    


After we bought it, we started to ask around town for tips on using it.  Somewhere in there we heard that a pressure cooker is essentially a bomb.  I grew a little concerned.  One night a friend came over to hang out.  We asked him if he new anything about pressure cookers.


“Yeah, we had one,” he said.  “They cook food well.”


We asked him what happened to it.


“It exploded.”


After that Nelson and I decided to look at the manual to see if to see if it had any warnings.  The manual is half written in Arabic, which neither of us read, and the other half is translated into English.  The English is fun to read.


The title page reads, “Operation Instruction for The High-quality Gland Flame-proof Cooker.”  Please note, I have made no typos here.

            The list of pressure cooker parts includes:

  1. knob                                                                          12. antii blockage nut
  2. elastic ridge                                                               13. spacer
  3. boit sleeve                                                                 14. ears
  4. ball bearing                                                                15. handles
  5. guide screw                                                               16. body
  6. central spacer                                                             17. rubber sealing ring
  7. central lock nut                                                         18. lid
  8. pressure—limiting valve (working valve)                 19. big spacer
  9. lock spring                                                                 20. top spacer
  10. valve base                                                                  21. slice spring
  11. washer

As a general rule, I try to avoid cooking inside anything that has ears, but I’ll let that slide.  My personal favorite is #12. 

Then, later on in the manual, we found what appears to be some advertisement points.  “Safe and Reliable,” it claims.  “NO BURSTING!”  “Scientificly Designed, Grace and Beautiful.”  And then we read, “Operational Safety and Pressure Control are both items exempt from Customs Inspection.”


“How can the operational safety be exempt from Customs Inspections?” Nelson asked.

“How can the pressure control on a pressure cooker not be looked at?”


I told Nelson I was not stepping near that thing when it was over a flame.  He bought it; he could have his hands blown off using it.  Meanwhile, I would hide under my bed in the fetal position.  Yet, the day we first put it to use I found myself in the kitchen, drawn in by curiosity.  It sounded like a dying freight train.  I swear once it murmured my name.  When Nelson went to turn off the stove burner, he wore a long sleeve track jacket, his swimming goggles, and our Peace Corps prescribed lifejacket.  I stood in the doorway shouting nonsense.  “Remember to release the anti blockage nut!” I screamed.  “NO BURSTING!” 


The pressure cooker didn’t explode then, and it hasn’t yet.  We’ve used it dozens of times.  I’ve got more cooking stories to tell, mainly about how we get fresh meat here.  I don’t have time to post it today, but hopefully within the upcoming weeks it will be up.




Posted by: Brett | January 15, 2009

Life, Etc.

Let me do my best to describe my life here:

I can see the ocean from my bedroom window.  From the roof you get a full view of the mountains that encircle us in this hilly town.  There is also a dog on the roof.  Her name is Lassie.  Lassie is awful.  Imagine a giant white rat that pees itself every time it sees you.  This is Lassie.  She ate holes in my Treasure Island, FL, shirt. 

I spend a lot of time reading.  I am reading more and more about that vast, endless continent that sits some 375 odd miles to the east of me.  I often find myself staring at the map on the wall and dreaming about it and its sweet promises of beauty and adventure and danger.  And I find myself thinking more and more about all of its overwhelming problems.

Teaching is a struggle.  I often think about this: which is more important, to teach these kids English or to be a good role-model, to give them a face to put with the obscure images of America they are forming in their heads?  I am doing my best to accomplish both.  We’ve been told to teach here is like teaching in the inner-city in U.S., except that, here, you do not speak the same language as the students.  Out of my five classes, two are consistently ‘well behaved.’ The other three are not.  To step into the classroom is to be prepared for everything to go wrong.  I’ve grown accustomed to hearing, “Mr. Slezak, I love you,” and “Mr. Slezak, hoje bo é bonito,” (today you are handsome) and “Ami ka ta fazi nada” (I am not going to do any work). I’ve had a student tell me that she was going to send her mother to school to hit me (this was said playfully).  I’ve caught a student preparing to cheat on the test in the class after mine and had him tell me, “You can’t tell my history teacher about this.  I like fighting,” (this was not said playfully).

But I enjoy teaching, and I am learning more about it every time I set foot in the classroom.

The language is a struggle.  Some days I feel like I’ve got a good handle on it, and other days I feel like a child.

The people here are incredibly kind for the most part.  The town is pretty, quiet.  It feels like a tiny European village.  Sometimes, now that it is the dry season, I wake up and find it so foggy that I can’t see the ocean or the mountains.  They call this bruhma-seca, or dry fog.  It is the sands from the Sahara desert blowing through the island.  I would have never believed it without seeing it.

Overall, I am enjoying my life here.  On Saturdays, after classes, sometimes my roommate Nelson and I go for a hike to a small town that we have never been to before.  It is a good way to get out and to see students outside of school, in their home towns.  We often pass them on these hikes as they are working–fetching water from the well and carrying it back home on their heads–or as they are playing–usually soccer.  These hikes often lead to some sort of small adventure.  We met people, talk, and more often than not, are offered a drink.  These hikes have given me some of my favorite memories here so far, and I also feel that they are important in that they show the students we run into that we are not just their foreign language teachers from America, we are people that are making an effort to get out and see their county and get to know their culture.  And it’s in these moments that I realize that even though life here can be very stressful at times, and even though I sometimes do get homesick, there is nothing that I would rather be doing with my life right now.

Posted by: Brett | July 10, 2008

About the site

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S government or the Peace Corps.

I’ve set up this blog to document my thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc., etc., as I travel from Westmont, IL, to Praia, Cape Verde, and beyond.  I do not know how often I will have access to the Internet in Cape Verde, but I will try to post whenever possible.  Hopefully, a new post will be up every couple weeks.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve decided to join the Peace Corps to teach English in Cape Verde.  Cape Verde is a small archipelago located 375 miles of the coast of West Africa, in the Atlantic Ocean.  It does not boast the exotic wildlife that often comes to mind when envisioning Africa, but there is other excitement.  On the island of Fogo, for example, there is an active volcano.  From what I’ve read, it’s a country that has suffered from devastating droughts, and has a unique mix of Portuguese culture and West African traditions.  For more information, visit one of the links on the blogroll.