Even though my school year has technically ended, the students at the teacher training institute still have to take época tests in the six main disciplines – Portuguese, Bantu Languages, Pedagogy, Math, Natural Science, and Social Science. For every student who got less than a 80% average for the year in these disciplines, these tests are the last thing standing between them and becoming a teacher. As such, this last week has actually been pretty busy because even though we do not have classes, Kathryn and I have been hosting study sessions to help prepare the students for these exams.
Although these exams will in theory cover all of the material we have covered this year, based on past years’ exams it is clear that some topics are more important than others, and for science, it seems like by and large the most important unit was the very last one we covered, the human body.
I knew that many of the students had been looking forward to the human body in general, but although they were generally pretty interested in the respiratory, digestive, circulatory and renal systems, it was clear that they were really waiting for the reproductive system.
When it finally came time to teach this system, which I had saved for last, I was a little nervous. Although most of the reproductive words are the same in Portuguese and English, many of the ideas around sex are very different in Mozambican and American culture. Although Mozambique is generally more conservative than America, that doesn’t mean that kids here aren’t having sex. UNICEF found that in 2011, in Nampula province, more than 50% of girls had had their first birth before age 18.
Many students in my class, who range from ages 18-26, have kids. Despite this, on the first day of our reproductive system lessons, I was both surprised by some of the questions and misconceptions I heard and frustrated with the fact that every time I used a word like “lubrication,” “ejaculation,” or god forbid “female orgasm,” I would lose control of the class.
Luckily for me, I knew that the maturity level of my students was about that of 7th graders and rather than lecturing about reproduction, we started with three stations: one where students solved a STD crossword puzzle, another where they watched videos about different types of contraception and played a “myth or fact” game at the end, and one where they learned about the reproductive organs and their functions. I floated around from each station and answered questions as the came up, and told anyone who had questions they didn’t want to ask or we didn’t have time for to write them on little slips of paper for me to respond to the next class.
Some of the questions were straightforward and to be expected: when can a women get pregnant, what are the symptoms of an STD, does a women pee out of the vagina, etc.
Other discussions were a bit more complicated because of various misconceptions and sentiments towards sex that exist here. For example, when printing some diagrams of the reproductive systems in the office, a male administrator was shocked that I was printing out penis diagrams, and asked me, “you’re not scared of it?” I confusedly asked him if he was scared of the picture of the vagina and he only replied, “it’s different,” (*eye roll so hard I almost went blind*) and then proceeded to gossip about me with all the other teachers who for the rest of the day kept coming up to ask to see my drawings. One of the written questions I received was “Can women feel sensation during the art of sex?” I was partially happy that this student was at least thinking about how women feel but also really hope he hasn’t had sex with anyone if he needed to ask that question. Upon attempting to answer this question, I learned that many (if not most) of my students (including the girls) do not believe in the female orgasm. I shocked my students by informing them that I have the Implanon birth control implant and shocked them further by telling them that I use it to help reduce symptoms associated with a period, such as cramps and headache. Most of the boys didn’t even know periods could cause cramps.
One thing that has come as a bit of a surprise to me me is that with this topic, my girl students are much much more knowledgeable than the boys. Generally, with far less barriers to education, the boys have more background knowledge than the girls and are generally the higher achieving students. This unit however, I have often seen the boys sitting there with shocked faces as I explained things while the girls nod along knowingly. On a related note, I have been flabbergasted at the man-splaining that some of these kids have been doing. I had one student ask me what will happen to a girl if she goes a long time without having sex after he body is “ready” (???). I kind of blankly stared at him and said, nothing. He continues, “No no I don’t think you are understanding the question,” and proceedes to repeat himself slowly and clearly to which I respond again, yes, I understood the question… The only “consequence” a woman will suffer from not having sex is that she will not have a baby. He tries AGAIN to tell me I’m not understanding him, and thankfully a female student cut him off and told him that I understood and re-explained it again. I jokingly said that this sounds like a myth boys tell to convince girls to have sex with them and all the girls in the room laughed and high fived.
Despite the difficulties and some awkwardness of this lesson, feel like I was able to educate the students on something they have a serious lack of knowledge on. If this wasn’t made evident by my students’ unusually high grades on the weekly quiz, it has since been made clear by the way the word of my lessons has spread. Since giving just 2 lessons on the reproductive system, I feel like I have become a ~local sexpert~ as students I have never even talked to before have begun to ask me incredibly personal questions like, “suppose a person had has unusual fluid coming from their penis, would this be a sign of an STD?” Since giving this lesson, I have not been able to have a single study session that does not end with, or completely evolve into personal sex ed Q&A. Part of me loves this, because the students know I am a source who will answer any question at all and I feel that I was able to make a difference and all, but at the same time, it’s a little hard to review botany and simple machines when someone in the back just keeps asking me to explain the mensuration cycle for the hundredth time.
Had I had more time I would’ve loved to talk about topics like respect, and consent, which are important but unfortunately not part of the science curriculum. If you’re interested in reading more about the premature marriage/adolescent pregnancy situation here in Mozambique, download the PDF of UNICEF’s report here.