Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's Over...

As I sit here in the air-conditioning of the Maputo Peace Corps office, using high-speed internet, gazing at the stunning Indian Ocean through the windows of the PCV lounge, listening to some program on DSTV in the background, and knowing that once I post this blog I can retreat to what I have determined to be the world’s most comfortable couches, I can only think about how I wish I had had a site anywhere near this haven.
I kid.
Mostly, I am thinking about Invinha, and even though it was unnecessarily far from any regional Peace Corps office and the small comforts of home they strive to offer, and even though I definitely had my (VERY) despondent moments, let’s face it, I absolutely loved it. Before I go travel around Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania for almost a month, I am here in Maputo, the capital, for a few days of administrative tasks: medical exams, bank closures, a Portuguese assessment, the final filling-out of paperwork, and an exit interview with the country director. On Thursday afternoon, I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am not actually going back to Invinha after this trip.
Downright unbelievable.
But has to happen.
The two years are up.
“Real life” is calling.
Am I ready?
Can’t answer that.
How do you actually prepare to leave somewhere that has challenged you to go beyond your previous conceptions of where you could have possibly hoped to go, that you have grown to love and call home, that afforded you a community and a range of experiences that you will never be able to recreate even if you come back to visit or work later in life, in which resides some of the most amazing people you have ever met, that taught you 17 new things every day?
You don’t.
You can only hope to take the memories of the people and the experiences with you and trust that it is enough to sustain you through your transition back to America-land and beyond. Memories like chatting with Cristina in the shade on a hot afternoon on her reed-mat, helping to prepare the next day’s batch of Mozambican popsicles for sale. Like eating leaves and xima with your fingers out of a communal pot with Daniel’s family out in the bush. Like having a student come running and screaming up to your house to announce that he passed the entrance exam and got into a teacher-training institute to be an English teacher. Because of you, he says. Like teaching some orphans to count and add and subtract on your porch. Like having a woman hold your hand as she gives birth. Like talking to girls about women’s health issues. Like having Daniel call you his mother and say you saved his life. Like scaring the shit out of a little old woman carrying a large bundle of firewood on her head, as you run by with your pasty-white legs, showing off your knowledge of the traditional local language greetings. Like having the whole girls dorm sing the cake-cutting song to you on your birthday or the song that goes “what an immense joy it would be if you took me with you” on your last night in Invinha. Like the reactions, both positive and negative, when you make a Mozambican eat something definitively American. Like the chorus of Tia Anas that you can hear across the neighborhood as the kids come gallivanting up to your porch wanting to color. Like watching the student who had only one line to memorize and deliver in your English Theater play, and who never quite got it at rehearsal, bang out every word perfectly at the competition. Like singing REDES songs with the girls in the back of a truck on the high that only the REDES conference can exude. Like having the whole neighborhood begin to refer to you as “sister of Cristina.” Like the sun rising over the tea fields, with the majestic Gurué mountains splashing the background: an image that photography has time and again failed to sufficiently capture.
But how do you physically walk away from it all?
Apparently you have a hard time closing your door, especially since the day before, Daniel had sat on your uncomfortable wicker couch and cried for nearly an hour.
And Mozambicans don’t really know how to react appropriately to you leaving, as they are not so good with goodbyes. Not sure they really get the finality of it all as they are more community-minded than we are and create families wherever they happen to be.
So amidst the (minimal) tears, and the awkward stares and hugs and kisses that the tears caused, you wait for a ride with Daniel and Cristina and ultimately take a chapa to the provincial airport, 6 hours away, to board a plane that will take you away from what was your home and your family for two years.
You know its over.
But it doesn’t feel that way.
It hasn’t sunk in yet.
And it won’t.
Probably not for a while.
Months even.
Because when an experience as powerful and shaping as Peace Corps Service ends, there is no way to adequately ready yourself. You just have to give away all your clothes and hope for the best.
At least nowadays, I can take the phone numbers and/or emails of my Mozambican friends back with me.
As I told them, Teacher Ana will always be here for you, even when we are separated across oceans.
I sure hope I can be.
Thank you for reading my blog. If you are reading this right now, you are incredible and I appreciate you and your commitment to taking in my words and putting up with my complaining. I sometimes think that blog-writing is rather self-indulgent, but I do also think it has been a great way to think about and resolve all the craziness of Peace Corps service. Not sure if I will turn this into something beyond Peace Corps. I am open to ideas. Again, thanks so much for reading. It means a lot.
Dedicated to Grandma Ruth, my most loyal blog-fan, who from a year and a half of reading, learned that “Africa is not as backwards a place as [she] thought” and diligently printed out each entry to take to the country club and pass around to her friends. Love you Grams. Everyday.

Random comments from my last week at site:
-Mozambican nuns love matzo-ball soup (I called the matzo-balls “xima balls”) and Grandma Ruth’s World Famous Cornflake Stuffing
-Daniel does not
-Watching “Schindler’s List” for the first time ever, under my mosquito net in the dark by myself was an interesting way to spend a Friday night that I never hope to repeat
-As I learned in my two weeks of doing all the administrative preparations for the 10th and 12th grade national exams, I can organize papers in numerical order and staple at a rate that is two or three times that of the average Mozambican.
-As a parting gift, I let Daniel wash my running shoes, something he had been asking to do for months. He said, “Now people will stop thinking I am bad at my job.” His smile would have made you think I had just given him a thousand meticais.
-On Teacher’s Day, in October, Cristina and I threw ourselves a party. Cristina is not a teacher but no matter, we cooked a feast anyway. One of the neighborhood kids, who is an orphan and taken in by the secretary at the school (though she treats him horribly: withholds food, beats him, and makes him do an astronomical amount of the housework), was visiting with Cristina’s younger brother outside, so naturally, we gave him a plate full of food. And then seconds. I mean, this kid is always more dirty and scraggly-looking than any of the other kids, we had so much food, and it’s the right thing to do. The secretary, known for getting drunk and causing scenes, did just that. She stormed into the house and started yelling at Cristina and I, that we can’t give Justino food. She pulled him out by a piece of his already ripped shirt and apparently, as I learned last week, sent him away. She had been punishing him by denying food, and he knew that but ate with us anyway. When I found this out, a month and half later, I asked Cristina if we were at fault. We decided that we couldn’t let a kid go hungry, especially not with the massive spread we had to offer. But I couldn’t help but feel awful. I hope Justino, though not the world’s most well-behaved child, is being treated better and fed more wherever he may find himself now.
-After being friends this whole time, I finally admitted the other day to Cristina and Benvindo that I do not take a bath before I eat at their house. I take my daily bucket bath right before I go to bed, I conceded. They then reprimanded me, insisting that I must always bathe before I eat, not after, or I will die, like what happened to Cristina’s uncle. I am more than a little skeptical of that story, but they would not explain further.
-While going through all my stuff and cleaning out my house, I found some mascara. So I called Cristina over and taught her how to use it. Yes Neely Norris and Eileen Allen, I know more about makeup than at least one other person in this world.
-Cristina’s sister-in-law Odete, who is 17, is staying with them. When chatting one afternoon, the conversation turned to why I don’t have a husband, naturally. I then asked Odete if she “namorars” (“hooks-up” I guess is the best estimation of a translation), she admitted to doing so. I warned her about pregnancy and STIs. She confidently told me “prevenção existe” (prevention exists) and strode away. I was blown away, impressed, and proud. Well-put.
-There are often random infestations of various bugs here, asserting scientific and experiential proof of the plague of locusts in Egypt. For a few days, there was an invasion at dusk of these moth-looking bugs that formed clouds so thick and elongated that I had to walk a good portion of a run because they were entering my mouth. Other nights signal the arrival of a swarm of bugs with un-proportionally large wings that they shed overnight into piles on your porch, as the bodies lay squirming in nearby mounds. They are highly annoying. But they lizards on my walls love to eat them. After watching one lizard stalk and kill one of these bugs, I decided to open my door a peep to let in a few more. The ensuing action, live discovery channel, entertained me for a good hour. Afterwards, I decided that if I have truly come to believe that this is an acceptable way to pass a Saturday evening, I need to get the hell out of here.
-I was jokingly (sort of) telling Cristina that I would save money to send for her to come live in America with me. At first she seemed excited about the prospect, even though she realized that it was never actually going to happen. Then she thought for a moment, and asked, only half-kiddingly, “But how will I be able to make xima?”
-I have also gotten myself into conversations with Cristina recently about all the “machines” we have in America. My attempt at explaining a breast-pump failed miserably, probably because I am a little unsure how they actually work. I did successfully convey to her the idea of dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers. But then Cristina pondered for a sec, and said, “But why don’t they have a machine to iron things?” Food for thought.
-I got a ride home from town in a truck with no windshield the other day. And I didn’t realize that it was missing this, normally, essential auto-part until I was getting out of the truck. Like I said, I think its time for my jaded-ass to go home.
-I am passing my dog Devin on to the next volunteers in Invinha so I decided in my last week to renew his rabies vaccine. So I called up the vet and said I would pay for his transport and a little extra if he would come out to my house with the vaccine. After vaccinating Devin (he had been unhappily tied to my window grates for like 5 hours so he wouldn’t run away before the vet got there), the vet and I hunted down all the other dogs in the neighborhood to vaccinate them. I just kept a tally for how many I would have to pay for later (each vaccine is about $1.10) and we romped through Invinha on a mission, duping dogs into getting their shot and running away from their growls. I then had to take claim to about 8 dogs and fill out all their paperwork, assigning names, ages, and sex at random. I thought vaccinating dogs was a fitting good-bye present to the community. But tramping around a neighborhood, procuring random dogs to vaccinate while women laugh at us is something I will never be able to do in America. Oh Africa…
-My school threw me a “surprise party” to say goodbye. But, either they don’t like me that much or they decided to throw the party at the last minute because only about seven teachers showed up and the cake wasn’t ready. And you can’t have a Mozambican party without dry, sugarless “cake.” In any case, we drank sodas and ate “cake” (after like an hour of waiting around) and they criticized how I cut the cake and passed it out, naturally. The cake-cutting song, however, was sung only by men because my school only has one other female teacher, and thus it was a less than superb rendition, women normally providing the choral aspects of a party. They gave me two matching capulanas and made me wear one as a skirt and one as a head-wrap, to the chagrin of everyone involved, and then it was speech time. I’m not going to lie, I don’t have the best relationship with the teachers at my school. It’s a boys club and many of them are straight-up jerks. Some of us have had our words and of course, they decided my goodbye party was an appropriate forum to discuss our difficulties. One teacher even equated our relationship to that of the Frelimo president (the ruling party) and the opposition leader. Awkward. But still sad and I will miss my colleagues.
-I would like to make an addendum to last week’s post about things I will miss:
            1. Calling people (strangers or not) the Portuguese equivalents of mother, uncle,      older brother, son, etc
            2. The fluidity of ownership: people lend and borrow things to pay homage to the  cultural and societal collectivism that is also responsible for why Mozambicans are            bad at             goodbyes (they may love you and miss you but they become less attached to    individual people than Americans do, moving around and quickly making new     friends and “family”
3. Having a guy for everything: the peanut guy, the green pepper guy, the flour and rice guy, etc
-But my biggest accomplishment of my whole service has been securing Daniel a job at one of the biggest restaurants in the city. We had been working on it for a few months, with me pestering the owner and saying I knew a kid who was a great worker and needed a job. And finally, out of the blue when we had decided randomly to go to town to see him, the owner said, “Come back at 2pm in a white shirt with black pants, and black shoes.” Apparently an unsolicited recommendation from a white person can get you a job. So we went to the market to buy the clothes (the pants ended up being H&M women’s skinny dress pants) and get them taken in by a random street tailor. And off Daniel went to his first real day of work. They taught him to be a waiter and Daniel loved the tips he got (the restaurant is the most popular in town with foreigners and “rich” Mozambicans). In a country where unemployment is around 85%, this is an indispensable opportunity for him and I almost cried when he came by after his first day, showing as much excitement as Mozambicans ever show. Kid is legit employed now. #Proud.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What I Will Undoubtedly Miss

Think about it. When I left for Mozambique in September 2010, the iPad came in only one size, none of this “mini” bullshit, and barely anyone had one; the Pac-12 was still the Pac-10; the Giants had never won a World Series in San Francisco, and now they have won two of the three since I have been away; New York didn’t have much personal experience with hurricanes (now they are up to two?); and Carly Rae Jepson was just an unknown Canadian pop-star. In less than six weeks I will be returning to a whole different country. And though I have done my share of bitching and complaining over these past two years, now that it is almost over, I am immensely sad. I always insist to people who challenge my leaving that I’m going home to go back to school and once I have the money to afford the expensive plane ticket, I’ll be back for a visit. But who knows? I just have to make the most of my last week at site, all the while knowing that come January, I will be devastated. It’s been a hell of a ride: the seminal experience of my life thus far. I have met amazing people, Mozambican and American, I have failed miserably and yet also felt success, I have undergone the lowest of lows and the highest of highs, and I now understand the Peace Corps advertisement: The hardest job you will ever love. Have I helped? Tough question and one I think only hindsight will be able to concretely determine. Was it worth it? Hell yes. Love you Moz, and so here is a tribute to all the things I will miss:
Speaking Portuguese
Being called Ana
Being called “shtora,” the slang, endearing nickname for “professora”
My crappy Internet phone that has veritable mood swings, often just not wanting to load gmail, or ever load pictures
Being able to sweep all the dirt and debris from my house right over the edge of my porch
My mosquito net
Agua e Sal crackers: the Mozambican version of a Saltine
Buying snacks through chapa windows and from the back of trucks
All the time in the world to read (I’m on book 124)
Being viewed as the definitive expert in English, technology, and various other things, apparently enough so that I am allowed to help deliver babies
Making friends with strangers, mostly women and their babies while traveling
Beautiful children, and coloring and learning the alphabet with them
The resourcefulness: Mozambicans can fix everything and nothing gets thrown away as it can all be useful in some way; my students are always coming over to ask for tape or glue or something to fix their falling apart shoes
The stunning scenery, especially in Gurué
A true neighborhood feel- you can just show up to someone’s house and hang out with them on the reed mat; they will always offer you food, which I sometimes deny but sometimes I take, unless it is rat, like was given to me the other day. Awkward. But I thoroughly enjoy the communal lifestyle.
Professional freedom
My English Theater and REDES kids: I threw them a small party the other day to say goodbye. We ate some chicken and drank orange Fanta, added each other on facebook, for those that had it, and in very Mozambican fashion, gave long-winded speeches about how great Teacher Ana is…
Eating random proteins: gazelle, rabbit, rat, termites, etc. The other day, my friend Cristina made me rabbit that had previously been dried (not just in a strip like jerky but the whole body). I thought it was the best meal ever. This indicated to me that it is time to come home…then the next day, my empregado Daniel made me termites. Surprisingly, they are not that bad tasting or weird texture-wise, but I could only get through a few spoonfuls because I just couldn’t shake the fact that I was ingesting termites.
Cooking and baking all day on Sundays
Waking up at sunrise (and still getting at least nine hours of sleep)
Being in bed and reading by headlamp by 8pm, Fridays and Saturdays too
The binge that is a Peace Corps Volunteer party (our lives are centered around a feast then famine mentality)
My Peace Corps uniform (skinny jeans or black pants, the same v-neck tee in any of the many colors I own, and Mozambican flip-flops)
Jeans and Toms being considered fancy attire
Riding in the backs of trucks and hitchhiking
Bringing my American consumerism to Mozambique: I have become addicted to going to the various feiras (flea-market meets farmers-market-esque experiences) that happen on different days in various locales within an hour drive of Invinha each week. It is the equivalent of going to the mall: I am bored so I get in a car going to the feira and spend an hour or two just browsing the second-hand clothes in piles and hanging on bamboo fences, the sprawls of Mozambican flip-flops, and the produce. I took Daniel last Saturday to the Saturday feira in a town called Incize and for $12 took home this haul: two baby-onsies for his unborn child, two shirts for small children for when his unborn child grows a little (one that said “Feminist-in-Training” and one with Justin Beiber’s face on it…classy), about a thousand peaches (the ensuing peach jam was awesome), clips for holding together cloth diapers (again for Daniel’s unborn child), a deck of playing cards, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of onions, some peanuts, a capulana, our chapa fare each way, and best of all, a bag of termites. At one clothing stall, I asked Daniel if he liked anything, and he started browsing the men’s shirts. I told him that if he wants to be a father, he has to start thinking of his child first and I was only going to buy baby clothes that day.Feiras are awesome.
The horrible music Mozambicans love, and that 2 years has taught me to love as well
Awkward silences being broken by a Mozambican uttering the name of the place we are currently in, letting the last sound drift off into the air and hang there
A cold bucket-bath on a hot day
The fact that once the gossip train learns you are not feeling well, everyone turns up at your door in 5 minute intervals to say hello, forcing you to drag yourself out of bed to attend to their ever-rotating visits. It’s one of those things that is really nice but also makes you want to scream at the same time. But I’ll miss it.
Watching a group of 10 men and women from the bush jog by most days at about 4pm, in a military formation, chanting, and holding sticks like they are guns. After asking my neighbors what they are doing, getting the response, “They are preparing for the next civil war…”
The fact that PCVs, Mozambicans, and in short, everyone, loves to talk about poop
Having low standards about what constitutes acceptable lodging, food, and company
Sitting: there are many types of sitting that I do in Mozambique. There is the sunrise-watching, tea-consuming, book-reading, people-watching, porch version of sitting; the Sunday afternoon beer-drinking, soup, chili, or mukapata (lentils and rice in coconut milk)-stirring over the coal-stove on the porch type of sitting; the watching kids color on my porch genre of sitting; the young-coconut snack on a hot day sidewalk-sitting; the watching of the sunset over the Indian Ocean-sitting; the waiting for the chapa to leave or while hitchhiking-sitting; the magnificent view-taking in from the car or train-sitting; the 2-hour wait for the chicken you ordered at the restaurant to be killed, de-feathered, and cooked-sitting; the waiting for the meeting to start 1.5 hours late, book-reading-sitting; the reed-mat, shooting the shit with the neighborhood women-sitting; the candle-lit dinner, no power, book-reading, listening to heavy rain on a tin roof-sitting; and so much more. If you don’t like to sit and people-watch, don’t come to Africa. Sitting is even listed in the Southern Africa Lonely Planet guidebook under actual activities to partake in when at the legendary Victoria Falls
How people hold your hand for awkward lengths of time, and hold hands with each other like it ain’t no thang
Eating so many different species of bananas
Adding pumpkins to every dish for four months of the year
Young coconuts being the best hangover cure and re-hydrant under the scorching African sun
Buying litchi by the arm-full
Fresh produce not genetically engineered and being forced to cook with whatever that day’s Markey haul could provide
How people call another member of the family or whatever person they are trying to get the attention of and that person responds not with “yes?” or “what’s up?” but with the title of the person calling them in an interrogative tone, as in my aunt will call “Ana” and I reply, “T-tia?”
Making people so happy just by taking their photo and showing them on the camera, and the poses they strike for the camera (usually with some sort of household object that is nearby)
Sentiments about things I will miss from the party I threw my English Theater kids before our competition this year: People feeling comfortable in anyone’s house; eating “American beans,” aka chili, with “cake,” aka cornbread;the kidsnot liking piripiri, aka spices other than salt; the kids having a great time because I gave them magazines, a camera, and a play-list containing only Bruno Mars and Rihanna; remembering that aside from all the crap that comes with planning events like these here, you are giving the kids an opportunity to do what they never get to do and what we did on a regular basis as young people: hang out and bond with their peers, and go on trips and compete; the girls helped me cook so I made the boys clean up and they flipped out (sorry guys, but the theme of the our play is “we are all equal”); having so much leftover food after the kids gorged themselves (the next day, they were all complaining of stomach aches…) that we started offering food to everyone who was passing by
Because they are worth mentioning twice: my English Theater kids, even though we have lost soundly each year at the competition
Also because they are worth mentioning twice: my REDES girls, even though I just found out one is pregnant at the hands of a teacher from my school (prompting me to leave all the extra condoms I had at my house leftover from various youth events in the teacher’s “lounge.” The teachers all commented that it was “the best gift ever.”)
The lizards that live and mate on my walls
Eating fresh baked bread everyday
The kid that brings by his inappropriate and slightly provocative poetry in English for me to correct
Being outside- everything happens outside here
My students funny English and the funny things they write and say. One of my 9th graders wrote the following, direct quote on his final exam this year, “Teacher Ana like estudentindeligent. Teacher Ana not like estudentstupit.” Spot on. And deserving of full credit. Sometimes, however, “What did you used to do as a child?” warrants the response, “run Maria table verb) The, boktgear am is are chak,” (essentially word vomit) from an 11th grader. Amazingly enough, a different kid wrote, “I used to do a child” as an answer. That my dear student, is a profession of pedophilia and a simple reorganization of words found in the question, but it is also a perfectly grammatical sentence, so I will award it all four potential points.
Though it sometimes makes me want to pull out my hair, I will miss the Mozambican, chill work ethic. My friend Cristina’s little brother, Sergio, lives with Cristina and her husband. The kid is 18 and in 8th grade (I know…), and helps out around the house (hauling water, sweeping, babysitting Cristina’s daughter Zuria, assisting in their new nightly ritual of popsicle-making, etc) and receives virtually nothing in return. Cristina’s husband refuses to pay for his school enrollment or school materials, even though he does so much for the house. Cristina has therefore told me that she thinks Sergio should take a year off next year and “rest.” I told her no, and that I would pay for his school if that keeps him studying. She still insisted that Sergio would get sick since he works too hard. On second thought, I guess this is one of those instances I hate. But Sergio, I will miss Sergio: he’s a sweet kid.
Saying “good morning” and “how are you” to everyone you pass
When greeting people and they say in Portuguese, translated from the traditional greeting in the local language, “I’m fine. But I don’t know from your side?” That’s right, you don’t know. And I appreciate you not assuming…though you will think I am crazy if I express any emotion in my response other than a deadpan “I’m fine.”
The thumbs-up being hip and in
Running smack into a herd of grazing cows or goats when on a run in the bush, and my cow-herding friends who direct the cows away from me so I can pass
The nuns’ inherent knack for misconstruing weight: if I have just come back from a Peace Corps party where all we did was eat and drink, they will comment on how thin I am, but if I have been diligently running and not eating rice, they will call me fat.
Teaching people how to high-five
Daniel’s daily visit to see if I have enough water in my buckets
Watching the girls who live in the nuns’ dorm be locked in on the weekends, and resort to holding hands with their boyfriends through the chain-link fence on Sunday afternoons
How my normal gait has slowed tremendously to meet that which the leisurely Mozambican lifestyle dictates
The ridiculous conversations that come out of our sex ed programming at REDES
The fact that the other day, three of the nuns ran with me for a good half kilometer
And above all, I will miss my friends: essentially Cristina, her two year-old daughter Zuria, the nuns, my smart students, my houseboy Daniel, and his pregnant 16 year-old wife Gilda. Unlike when I said goodbye to people before coming to Moz, I really don’t know when/if I will see these people again. For two years, they have been my family and even though Cristina once tried to bathe me when I was sick, I will never meet anyone like any of them, I hope we can stay in touch, and I will deeply miss not seeing them everyday.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Party It Up

I have three weeks left as a Peace Corps Volunteer and thus I have obtained graduation goggles. Everything that normally pisses me off now seems like no big deal and is something I internally mark as something I will miss. My chapa stops nine hundred times to exchange passengers and baggage and I think how great it is that people can just sit on the road and someone will come to take them to their destination. A man tries to argue about the price of all the shit he had on top of the chapa and I just ogle at how cute his 8 children are. The ubiquitous drunk man starts yelling at the driver, causing a scene, and then forgetting his rant to hit on me all because the driver had picked up three people to take them 10km for free (it was pouring rain and they said they were returning from a funeral) and I just think how it was a nice gesture. Where were these goggles in July?
I recently traveled to the central region (about a 15 hour travel day if you are lucky) to say goodbye to most of my volunteer friends. And I traveled on many different qualities of road. There was a stretch of road about 75km long that was horrendous when I first traversed it in January 2011. Half-dirt and half-pot hole, it used to take 2.5 hours. Now, because of the a year and a half road construction project, you only drive on dirt for 10 minutes and the rest is beautifully paved. It is awesome. There is a lot of road construction happening right now in Moz. Many of the previously unpaved roads are in the process of getting paved, which is highly promising. In 10 years, I bet most main thoroughfares will be paved, which will tremendously help to develop the country as a whole. But there are also some roads that are horrible but that won’t be getting fixed imminently. Many roads are essentially giant potholes, with craters big enough to swallow whole cars, and one in particular, that leads for 160km into Mozambique’s second biggest city, Beira, will remain in disrepair because during the civil war, this area was rebel territory and is still very much sympathetic to the opposition. Other sections of the main north-south road in the central have tons of potholes that won’t be fixed in the near future for the same reason. Who knew road construction could be so political?
It is also interesting, and horrifying, to note that it is these same roads that have transmitted HIV throughout the continent. Long-distance truckers are vilified as carrying the virus with them on their epic journeys to transport goods throughout their region, sleeping with prostitutes at truck stops (then their wives back at home), and condemning condoms. Their rate of infection is significantly higher than the general population, though obviously, I cannot denounce the profession as a whole. But it was transient workers: truckers, miners, traders, etc, that initially secured the virus in society and as a major contributing factor to the cycle of poverty and pain in the early years of the epidemic, the 70s and 80s. Read 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen if interested in the topic. It highlights 28 different accounts of people living with HIV throughout Africa and you get a real feel for the spread of the virus, the stigma that coincides with it, and the ravage it begets on those infected as well as their familial survivors. It is easy to forget about HIV amidst all the problems a PCV sees on a daily basis. No one talks about it: here, people are just “sick;” people just “die.” There is always someone going to a funeral, always someone ill who needs taking care of, always some dirty kids playing in the street that may or may not be orphaned due to AIDS, may or may not have been taken in by a family member or may or may not be living in a child-headed family. Many of the difficulties I have observed here would be greatly alleviated without the involvement of HIV: when most people in a community die before their 40th birthday, a whole generation is lost, children grow up without the intrinsic love and protection of parents, and progress is inevitably slow. But unfortunately, from two years of personal experience (though I admit I would need to stay longer to really be able to make a definitive claim), I do not believe that behavior change (getting people to use condoms, to not have multiple concurrent partnerships, to acknowledge their positive status, to eschew their denial that AIDS does in fact kill, etc) will completely conquer the epidemic. Because of the sensitive manner in which it is transmitted, HIV is here to stay until there is a vaccine. That is my personal opinion, though I still maintain that efforts should be made to save individual lives via prevention campaigns in the meantime. Due to a lack of health and science education (and understanding) as well as a downright fear of what it inescapably does to its host, HIV is not viewed the same here as in America. And I do not blame people. But it is still horrendous and upsetting and demoralizing to see it around you everyday. HIV tests are not always administered or read correctly and not many people get them, as I have witnessed in my time at the hospital. The 10-40% positive statistics of most Eastern and Southern African countries is probably low (did you know that even a 1% stat would qualify an epidemic?). But as pervasive as the virus and the syndrome are, it is easy to overlook and disregard, as I know I have done at times during my service, because there isn’t much I can do beyond conversations with individual youth. Read 28. It is highly informative, though difficult to get through. But read it nonetheless. The only problem I have with the book (aside from geographical mishaps in the Mozambique chapters) is the emphasis it shows people placing on securing money for their children’s education. Perhaps education systems are not as pointless in other African countries as in Mozambique, but education is not a magic cure, as Western aid perceives it. Yes, it is a means to a more developed end, but when so many people are sick and dying, and students are not actually learning much in school, I do not believe it should be placed at the highest of pedestals. I don’t have any idea what the answer is beyond a vaccine, and no one does, or I wouldn’t have to write this paragraph, but read the book. It will affect you and make you think.
Getting back to the lighthearted parts of Peace Corps: Overall, I had great luck hitchhiking the whole way down to central and back up, in cushy private cars that didn’t charge me: living the dream. On the way down, I traveled with another volunteer and at one point the driver of the car we were in stopped to buy some road food. I think I have mentioned it before, but Mozambique has the best road food, with venders thrusting baskets of their snacks through the windows of your vehicle. Who needs drive-through fast-food when you can get hard-boiled eggs with spicy salt, orange soda, cashews, mangos, Mozambican falafel, bananas, and my new favorite that I tried for the first and only time on this trip, grilled gazelle meat. A kid came up to us with a bucket of gazelle meat and we bought some. It was delicious: tender and with a good flavor. The whole rest of the trip we talked about how we wished we had bought more. It didn’t make us sick, surprisingly, but at this point in my service, I just eat and drink whatever I want, as I now view stomach problems as more of a minor nuisance rather than an inhibitor.
Before I came to Peace Corps, I didn’t prepare very well. I didn’t begin to learn Portuguese, I didn’t read blogs, I didn’t learn too much about the country, and it all worked out. But I also had no idea what it would be like to be a volunteer. I thought I would just sit in my town and never party with other volunteers. Boy was I wrong. Peace Corps Volunteers throw damn good parties. This time, we rented a cabana between a beautiful river and the Indian Ocean (you took a boat across the river to get to this unique strip of land, and therefore had river on one side and beautiful, white sandy beaches on the other) and 30 of us camped in the front yard. Other times, we gather at a PCVs site, but it is always a version of the same thing: to celebrate Halloween, fourth of July, the Kentucky Derby, a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just generally, August, and we do our best to recreate American food and traditions, always with things bought from the market or sewn and somehow constructed together. Each person was in charge of bringing a certain part of a meal, and we ate well: burritos, hamburgers, potato salad, tuna salad, veggie dip, pasta with meat sauce, etc. And for the whole weekend, we just hung out, playing card and ultimate Frisbee, drinking, etc. Americans don’t usually do this: travel extraordinary distances to just be together for 48 hours. And we were the only ones there. We would walk to the beach and just stumble upon a massive stretch of unadulterated, white, sandy, Indian Ocean beach, with absolutely no one on it. It is quite stunning and a concept I will dearly miss.
One of the days, however, I was walking shoeless back from the beach mid-day (since I have developed a habit of losing my shoes at functions like this, my plan was just to put them in my backpack and not wear shoes all weekend). At first, the sand was just hot, and then it became the most unbearable pain I have ever experienced. It was like walking on hot coals, to the point where I had a meltdown halfway home and could not physically continue. I just sat down in the sand path clutching my feet until another volunteer came to my rescue. She gave me her capulana and her sundress to tie around my feet and I trekked on. I then sat in the cabana kitchen with my feet dead-set on the cool cement floor, throbbing in pain from the veritable burns I had obtained on them. And I was not the only one to have this problem, as it became a natural sight to see people running and screaming into the house because of the hellish sand. We couldn’t go to the beach after 12pm. I now have a great fear of being stranded in the desert with no shoes, as I think it might kill me.
Throughout the weekend, we had a Halloween party, bobbed for apples (which I had never done before and hated: it is unnatural to stick your head in a bucket of water and open your mouth), and just hung out together, isolated on a beach for two days. We would just sit and watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean with a beer in hand, I mean, really, what could be better? I will definitely miss the binge (food and social) that is a PCV party.
On the way back, about 15 of us were sitting on the road in the bush, willing a car to turn up to take us to the main road, when we glimpsed some monkeys in the trees. The locals also saw the monkeys and started trapping them. Upon succeeding, one of the men started killing a monkey with a machete and it screamed bloody murder. We were all shocked at seeing something so striking and new: this dude was straight-up killing a monkey like 5 feet from us to take home and serve to his family for dinner. I had never felt more like I was in Africa. And this, one month before I leave this amazing country.
And finally, Cristina went on a visit to her family out in the bush the other day. When she came to my house to say goodbye, I went with her back to her house to accompany her to the road, as is the Mozambican custom. Again in line with social norms, I offered to carry her suitcase for her on our walk, assuming she would deny me the opportunity since she generally shows deference to me as I technically hold a higher status on account of being a teacher (yes, my best friend here doesn’t address me by name, but by “professora.” Its weird). Amazingly, she allowed me to carry the suitcase, confirming our equal friendship and my integration into the community. Such a small gesture of letting me do something for someone else but it meant so much. The next day as I was enjoying my morning tea-drinking, porch-sitting, I saw Cristina’s husband bent double, washing the floor of their house with a rag. Since Cristina and her younger brother, who do virtually all the housework, are both gone, this full-grown man must now contribute, a rare sight here. I walked over, kiddingly congratulated him on his hard-work and asked him if he will succeed in cooking for himself. He replied, “No, Professora Ana will cook for me, right?” with a knowing smile.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nipive 2.0

There is always a week in the Mozambican school calendars for teachers to correct and hand back final exams. Naturally, I did both tasks on Monday, so I had the whole week free. And despite all the drama with the boy who works for me, Daniel, and his pregnant “woman” Gilda, and I went to visit Daniel’s family in the super rural outpost of Nipive for the second time.

After the truck ride down a broken dirt road and a two-hour hike on foot, we arrived at about 9am (I felt super integrated during the walk because I was only wearing my cheap, flimsy, Mozambican flip-flops). They greeted us and then immediately, the women began to prepare a breakfast of rice and fish for us. After we ate that, it was time for lunch so we ate two meals back to back. Then we tucked in for the long haul, passing the afternoon in the scorching sun with nothing to do. Daniel’s parents have both passed away so their aunt and uncle raised his siblings and him. His aunt and uncle live in the “big” house on the compound, and then there are like 5-6 other houses for various grown daughters or sons and their respective families. It is a happening scene with a constantly morphing population of about 20 as people come and go throughout the day.

Some of the men have some sort of work, though they all kinda hung out with us all day, and all the women always stay at home all day. There was much to be done during the afternoon, as some of the women had spent the morning preparing the cornfields for next year. First, the women started peeling mandioca with homemade peelers that are basically what we use for potatoes. I asked Daniel if I should help and he said no but I did anyway. The women at first declined my offer, insisting that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I assured them that of the many Mozambican household tasks that people do everyday, peeling vegetables is definitely in my comfort zone. So we spent a good long while peeling. Then we had to make it into flour. After grinding it in the life size mortar and pestle, I was shown how to put the pieces on a big flat rock and then use a smaller rock to drag it back and forth on the pieces, grinding it into flour. My participation in both of these tasks gave the women lots to laugh at and gossip about in the local language. I think they liked it though, especially when they made me wear a capulana all day so I wouldn’t dirty my pants. Like eating sugarcane and soaked rice with sugar (my new favorite snack), it is all an activity. The whole family helps out with housework because they are massively bored and starved for entertainment. And I get that now, as I did the same thing and this was only one day in my life. Everything happens outside in village life and you just kinda go with the flow. Now people are pounding leaves, I guess I will help. Now people are sifting yucca flour, I have nothing better to do but pitch in. You are involved in every step of the food production: seed to table. They also do love just chilling on a reed mat in the shade, constantly moving to avoid the attack of the ants that plague this time of year.

Throughout the day, whenever I was sitting around, they would order one of the kids to bring me a bucket of water with which to wash my hands. Apparently, they think I am really dirty. This is probably because I didn’t bathe for the whole 24 hours I was there (I’m sure this really grossed them out). At first, they sent me to the river to take a bath there. Evidently, I didn’t wait long enough before returning (my plan was to just sit there and then pretend I had taken a bath) and my plan was foiled. Then, later in the day, they offered to bring a bucket of water to the house for me to bathe in the outdoor bathroom. Essentially, that is what I do at my own house, but I was just being lazy. And, I can guarantee that I was the only one on the compound that brushed my teeth, put on deoderant, and wore a different shirt the second day. I guess we just have different standards of personal hygiene. Don’t worry I took a bucket bath as soon as I walked into my house the next day. Mid-afternoon meant that everyone went to swim in the river. We went to the swimming hole and I took pictures of the seeming thousands of people of all ages diving into the water and posing. What do Mozambicans swim in you ask? Boys wear their underwear, girls wrap a capulana like a towel around themselves. They had a grand ole time. After our jaunt to the river, I passed out all the things I had brought (I know, I did what I hate about white people, but they were feeding me all day…). I brought sugar, salt, oil, onions, garlic, and soap for the adults, and paper, colored pencils, stickers, and bread for the kids. Then I pulled out two tupperwares full of banana bread. They loved it (thanks mom for the recipe) and devoured it. Banana bread is the perfect Mozambican dessert: Mozambicans all undoubtedly love sugar, bananas, and cake.

It seems like my day was packed, but really, there is a lot of downtime in village life. So what did the men and a few of the women do all day? Drank homemade alcohol that they had concocted from sugarcane and papaya. I did not try it but some of them got really wasted at 2pm on a Thursday. Obviously. They also may have then pulled out some marijuana, which even though I clearly didn’t care, I thought it was quite bold to smoke in front of me. The men also chain smoked cigarettes all day, lighting them with a stick that was slowly burning up that they kept in the middle of the circle. On our walk to the house, Daniel’s brother, who had come to the road to greet us, lit his cigarette from the smoldering ashes of the fields that people were burning to clear for next planting season.

All day, we listened to the same Celine Dion cassette on repeat. The last time I was there, they had a radio, but now they have a cassette player circa 1989. Good thing Daniel had instructed me to bring them new batteries…

Before dinner, I set up my tent. You would have thought it was the most momentous occasion to have happened in Nipive since time immemorial. Children and adults from the farthest reaches of the locality somehow managed to show up and stare in the 7 minutes it took me erect the tent. Then, of course, everyone wanted a picture with it. I love how you can make people so happy just by taking their photo and showing it to them on the camera. They also love to pose in weird body contortions or hold all the household items in front of them: cups, pitchers, the cassette player, what have you. Mozambicans also have make-shift tents: they will put four large sticks in the ground and then drape a mosquito net over them with a reed mat and a blanket underneath as their summer, outside bed. It is borderline genius.

For dinner we had chicken and yucca mush. I used to feel bad when people would pull out all the stops to feed me a good meal. But then I realized that it’s a special occasion for them as well. I always pick the smallest piece of chicken and then they have the rest. They will without fail give me the least broken plate, serve me water in a cup on top of a plate, and cover all the food with a pretty cloth. I have always wondered what life is like when the white lady isn’t around, but I guess I will never know.

After dinner, we watched “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on my computer. Daniel had requested I bring my computer, promising that his family would love it. When deciding on what movie I should show, Daniel asked for, and I quote, “Bruce Lee.” Disappointed that I didn’t have any kung fu movies, and swearing that an animated film like “Wall-E” or “The Lion King” would freak out his family, we chose X-Men, the only semi-action-filled movie I have. And goodness me, it was a hit. Daniel had to first explain to them that we were watching the film on a computer because they had probably never seen one before. Obviously, they couldn’t follow the plot (because of linguistic and cultural barriers, aka how to explain an elevator?), but they reacted intensely to every scene, laughing and exclaiming, often when that was probably not the appropriate response. I am not sure if they had ever seen a film before, and they got bored after an hour, so I just fast-forwarded through the dialog and showed just the fight scenes. And a good time was had by all. Whenever the black guy came on screen, everyone pointed at the screen and said “black guy.” When one of the characters said “but” in a funny way, they spent the next 20 minutes imitating and saying a prolonged “boat” amidst much laughter. And now I am fairly certain that they think all white people are mythological creatures because of this experience. The movie showed them things totally opposite of their world view that are supremely awesome and gasp-worthy: elevators, airplanes that explode and don’t just give out food during the war, men that are half-man, half-wolf, etc.

Before the movie, I wanted to floss, so I started giving it out and demonstrating its use to the whole family. You are welcome Arnstine Ortho. But they loved it, namely the flavor, as many commented that it tasted good. Daniel then slipped it between his two front teeth and left it hanging there throughout the movie. You have to show off what you have I guess.

Obviously, these people do not have electricity so when the sun goes down, that’s all she wrote. They cook dinner in the dark, essentially by feel, which is a highly impressive feat. I had brought my headlamp and the uncle especially loved it. I put it on him and every time he moved his head, he exclaimed loudly and excitedly that the area in front of him was lit. The aunt, on the other hand, hated it and asked me to take it off her. The uncle also has a weird foot deformity in that he only has three toes and the big one is extended and bent over the other two. I am unsure if this was a birth defect or happened during the war. But then another relative stopped by (they all just drop in and eat at all times of day) with a hand deformity so my guess is on the latter.

There were always like a million children everywhere. One of them, named Maezinha (little mother), loved me, to the chagrin of the whole family (they kept calling her “white” because of it). One other child was deeply afraid of the white lady and ran away crying if I just happened to pass by him, which everyone also found highly amusing. Everyone, men included, are great with kids. Daniel was practicing for his unborn child, and it was adorable. But apparently, a week or two before, one of the kids in the family had passed away. From what? Like all deaths here, they said he just got sick and died. Either straight-up malaria, or AIDS- related complications.

The older sisters were all too embarrassed to speak Portuguese with me because apparently they aren’t very good at it. The aunt is, however, because she went to school in colonial times. This younger generation (women in their twenties) grew up during the war and didn’t go to school because there really weren’t functioning schools in the bush at that time. The youngest generation (the kids) now go to school so there is a patent Portuguese and literacy generation gap. It makes for an interesting dynamic.

The whole reason we went to Nipive is because the last time I went there, I promised to come back with my “machine to take photos.” Then, with Daniel essentially getting married in the past week (here you don’t need a ceremony to consider yourself married), Daniel wanted to bring Gilda to meet his family. The whole day was super awkward because apparently there is a tradition here that until the daughter-in-law gives an offering to the parents (or in this case, Daniel’s aunt and uncle), she can’t speak to them. The gift doesn’t have to be big, Daniel said like 50 meticais and a capulana would suffice, but Gilda didn’t bring anything. The only time I saw her talk or smile was at the river with Daniel’s sisters and female cousins.

The second morning, I woke up to the whole family shucking the raw corn off the cob at 5:15am. Now, this is not corn in the American sense of the word; each cob is, like all Mozambican produce, aesthetically unique, and the process is painful on the thumbs. But, having nothing better to do, I joined in and shocked them that white people have thumbs up to the job too. Then I inadvertently joined in on a family meeting. I somehow found myself in a very serious conversation with Daniel, his older siblings, and aunt, and uncle. They were giving him advice now that he is married (from what I gathered, as much was in local language) and he explained how it all happened. Or rather he said, and again I quote, “These things happen. I don’t know how.” Classic Mozambique to remove yourself from all responsibility, as in, well how could I control this outcome? It just happened and I didn’t have anything to do with impregnating this 16 year old. I had taken Gilda to the hospital for her first pre-natal consult the day before we went to Nipive, because she was scared to go alone. Precious. But also, probably indicative of a lack of maturity to be a mother.

Soon enough, it was time to head home, meaning that since no car would be coming within 50km of the house that day, I had to get on the back of a bike for the whole ride. Now, my ass is really not up to village life. All day, my butt hurt from sitting on the ground, or an uncomfortable wooden bench, or a tree log. And the bike was the icing on the cake. Three hours on the back-rack Mozambicans also use to prop up their sacks of corn or beans, with my feet attempting to balance on the back tire spoke. My neighbors were all impressed that I made it as apparently everyone thinks that would have been a rough ride. It was also intensely hot throughout our stay. I ran through my 2 Nalgenes of water that I had brought in about the first hour and a half of arriving in Nipive. And since the water they were drinking was yellow with chunks in it, I asked for a pot so I could boil it. Instead, the aunt walked to the water pump to bring me back some “clean” water, which I drank heartily, and didn’t get sick. Apparently my bottom is not yet Mozambican, but my stomach is. We came away with sacks of rice, corn, and beans, some of which was intended for me, but that I obviously gave to Daniel. The whole experience was sort of reminiscent of my three-month homestay, but I was significantly more comfortable and helpful this time around. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am grateful for the experience.

Monday, October 15, 2012


One thing that never ceases to surprise me is that even after two years in Mozambique, things still surprise me. And recently, these things have arisen in the realm of marriage.
Really my only friend in the truest sense of the word here (and the only one who has not taken a vow of celibacy and service to God), my friend Cristina is about 20-24 years old (who really knows) and in 11th grade. What she lacks in natural academic ability, she makes up for in effort. She is married to a teacher at my school named Benvindo and has a two year-old daughter with him (I recently tried to explain the concept of the terrible twos to them to rationalize their daughter’s newfound argumentative phase but they didn’t really get it). Apparently, a few years ago, Benvindo was teaching in the rural district in which Cristina grew up, and her parents were steadfastly prohibiting her from continuing her education. Willing to take any opportunity to get the hell out of her house and fulfill her dream of going to university, Cristina married Benvindo. But Benvindo, a good 10-15 years older than Cristina, did it right. He went to her parents’ house and asked for her hand before he slept with her. With a veritable soccer-team of kids to raise, Cristina’s parents assented and off she went. Cristina was 18 and had the promise of being able to go to school; so in relative terms, the marriage was pretty legit. And overall, Benvindo is a good guy (note my low standards for men here): he pays her yearly school fees, usually treats Cristina and their daughter alright, is employed, and doesn’t drink excessively. He has, however, also been known to refuse to buy Cristina her school notebooks and pens, and steal money from her popsicle earnings, all in the name of claiming poor (but then he will go and install satellite TV or buy a desktop computer circa 2001…whatever). On the whole, however, Cristina is one of the lucky ones.
Her younger sister, on the other hand, is not so lucky. She is about 14-15 and recently got pregnant at the hands of a teacher at her primary school (girl is in 7th grade…when Cristina came to my house asking for advice on this subject, I got to teach her some new vocabulary words: pedophilia and rape). We weren’t sure for a while if she was in fact pregnant, but she is. And the teacher is about 40, already with a wife and kids. So this girl, if he accepts her and her unborn child into his house, will be the second wife: essentially a sentence to being treated poorly by all involved parties. And since her parents have kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant in the first place, she is kinda shit outta luck if she doesn’t move in with said rapist-teacher. I asked Cristina if her sister could come to live with her and Benvindo in Invinha, and she said that people will invariably gossip that Benvindo is now sleeping with his sister-in-law, though she and I agreed he probably wouldn’t do that (but who knows). This girl has no future of continuing school (Cristina said she is a smart girl), and overall, the situation is rather upsetting, though unnervingly common in Mozambique. Cristina is going back home this week to see what can be done and is rightfully distraught in the meantime. I also do not have any ideas for her, except the ever-elusive time-machine.
And to add a third example to the mix, my houseboy, Daniel, is getting married to a girl his aunt and uncle arranged for him. The poor kid (he is 22) was apparently extremely nervous about telling me, as he thought I would fire him. He explained that he had been rejecting arranged marriage proposals for years because he wanted to finish school first, but his family had put too much pressure on him recently, especially since he now has a house (an unintended consequence when I promised to fund it’s construction). And I can’t really blame him: 22 is old here, since people only live to be like 40-50 and he’s a good kid. He said he actually likes his “fiancée,” Gilda, and has promised to bring her by for me to meet her. When cleaning the other day, he pointed to the blanket that is on my spare bed and reminded me that I had promised the blanket to him when I leave, as he wants to have one to welcome his new wife to his house. Oy. When we first discussed this situation, I told him that before they get married, he must secure a job that is not washing clothes for Invinha’s resident PCV (we are almost sure he has a job at a restaurant in the city), he must treat Gilda well when they get married (i.e. help with the housework since he knows how to, treat her equally, and not waste their money on beer), he must wait for her to turn 18 before she moves in (sometime next year), and not get her pregnant before then. Other than those stipulations, what was I supposed to say to him? However, two days later, when he brought Gilda over to present her to me, I noticed, with Cristina’s knack for gossip, that she was in fact pregnant. So Daniel had lied, and made his future tremendously more difficult, and I was devastated. People call me Daniel’s “mãe” (mother) because I basically look after him and take care of him. I therefore initially felt the pain as if my son had just gotten his high school sweetheart pregnant, which is essentially what he had done. My first inclination was to fire him for lying but then I realized that with a wife and child to support, that probably would not help anyone. So I calmed down to have a talk with him. Through tears from both parties, I tried to get him to realize what a big responsibility all this is: he has to now secure food for 2 extra mouths, when I know he does not eat on a regular basis even now when I give him food rather frequently, and they will both ideally still be in school without steady work. I explained that he can’t cheat on her, so as to not bring “illness” into the relationship, and can’t start drinking. Basically, he should do exactly the opposite of what he sees all other married men do. The whole time he looked as if he had not actually thought about what this all entails, because I’m sure he hadn’t. It is hard for me to criticize, as the underlying reasons for this situation are just our cultural differences, as marriage so young and sexual promiscuity are downright expected here, but I can’t help but be disappointed. His life, or less pessimistically, simply his youth, is ceremonially over. And when I suspected he had a girlfriend months ago, I had told him, no judgment, he could come ask for condoms from my house. Apparently not man enough to ask for condoms, but man enough to take care of a family?
In other news, we are having a cockroach infestation in Invinha. And they only come out at night it seems. I was woken by one on my face in the middle of the night the other night (so I now tuck in my mosquito net extra tight) and Cristina warned me that they eat clothes. I’m not sure yet as to the validity of that statement, but I’ll keep you posted. And one of the nuns, who is from Swaziland, a tiny, English-speaking country with a king and a queen that borders Mozambique, came over to visit my house yesterday. Marveling at my bookshelf, I told her to choose a book to take home. Which book did she select? Eat, Pray, Love. I only hope she doesn’t get to the “love” part before I leave.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Last night, I assisted my friend Cristina in making dinner. They had just built a new bamboo and reed outside-kitchen (after their old one was destroyed by a wind storm) so I was helping to inaugurate it. They had strung a light bulb outside so we were enjoying a nice, leisurely few hours of watching leaves cook down and corn flour become the corn-paste-ball-things that Mozambicans love so much. Cristina is one of my students but also my best friend in Invinha, and her husband is a teacher at my school. Her husband once told me the story of his life: essentially, he grew up super poor about 100km from Gurue and during the civil war, as a child, he walked with his family 250km to the nearest refugee camp to get some food and clothes. Now, he has a great job with a beautiful wife and daughter (though he did impregnate Cristina, when she was a student of his…). Cristina is incredibly patient with my cultural and linguistic mishaps and loves to hear about America. As she removed a pot of boiling water from the coal stove with her bare hands, I gasped to make her laugh and commented on how I am weak because my hands would not be able to handle that. She then made an extremely adept anthropological and cultural observation that resonated with me: “Well, you can put ice in your mouth without suffering and I can touch hot pots.” Cristina grew up in the bush a few hours away, without electricity, and therefore without the ability to make ice, and so she can’t manage the cold like I can, someone who grew up with popsicles. I have grown accustomed to pot holders and therefore my fingers can’t hang with the heat. Well put, Cristina.

Speaking of popsicles, we then began to make some Mozambican ones. Cristina started this business last week and swears to me it has already been lucrative. She mixes juice powder with dirty river water, scoops it into plastic sleeves and ties the top. They spend the night in the freezer, and then a young girl (who I refer to in my head as her “child slave,” though it is culturally normative to hire a girl from the bush to do your bitch-work if you have any sort of monetary means to do so) sells them at the market for a met a piece to thirsty and sweaty passers-by. You bite a hole into the bottom of the plastic baggie and it is near heaven on a hot day. The girl, by the way as Cristina informed me, makes 50mt a month for sitting at the market all day. That is less than $2 for a month’s work. Oy.

I was eager to help Cristina in her popsicle-making business because of what she explained to me a few weeks ago: her husband leaves her some change on the chair in their bedroom on the days she should buy food. When he doesn’t leave her money for whatever reason, she is shit out of luck. One day, she confided in me that her husband had not left her any money and so she didn’t know what she was going to make for dinner. I mean come on dude, dish out a few mets for your wife to make you leaves in a broth of tomatoes, onions, and salt. Apparently this is a typical wife-husband interaction and so I was thrilled that Cristina was starting to do something towards some financial independence.

As I commented on how proud I was of her, the conversation then turned to one of the other students in Cristina’s class, Amede. To put it nicely, I do not like this kid. And he is not even a kid; he is married with 2 children of his own. He’s a drunk: he showed up wasted a few times to my afternoon classes and totally caused a scene. When I brought him to the dean, the dean said he would take care of it, and then he just let it slide. Cristina told me how Amede beats his wife and she keep going back to him. As I attempted to explain the idea of battered woman syndrome and how it is normal for women to have trouble leaving their abusive partners, and that maybe she needs some help to do so from a good person like Cristina, Cristina assured me that it was of no use. I attribute this to a cultural disparity and not a lack of caring. But it is still devastating, as this guy was my student last year and I failed him since he never comes to class or turns in any work, and is continuing the trend into this year. As a foreigner, there isn’t much I can do to help his wife, who Cristina says is super thin because Amede spends all their money on beer, and not food. And it’s not like there is any social support for women in this situation here, so after our dinner of leaves and corn mush, I came home in a somber mood. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happy Birthday Hermínio

A few weeks ago, one of my best and favorite students invited me to his 17th birthday party, through a “formal” invitation that he had scrawled out on a piece of printer paper. Now, I would assume that in America, this would be wildly inappropriate, regardless of gender equivalence, and especially in this case, when they didn’t match. But seeing as many male teachers hold hands at school and have sex after school with 15 year-old female students in Mozambique, I figured I could stop by a male students party to say hi. Except that I forgot about the party until yesterday, when the kid, Hermínio, dropped by to borrow my masking tape and remind me about the party. “Teacher, come you today?” he attempted in English. I scoured my brain for the appropriate response to his valiant effort at communication and replied that of course I would. I anticipated an awkward few hours, and I was right.

The party was due to start at 5pm, so I left my house at 6pm. And it got dark on me fast. Before I had even left my neighborhood, it was pitch black, but I was committed to my gander through the bush to his house. I had his present in my hand and didn’t want to disappoint him; Hermínio was such a sweet kid. But here’s a thinker: what do you bring to the birthday party of your student that lives in the Mozambican bush? I didn’t have any flour and you can’t buy flour in Invinha, so I couldn’t make a cake, my usual go to in situations like this since I enjoy giving people their first taste of chocolate cake. So I pulled out an old Swiss army knife, wrapped it in printer paper, wrote “Happy Birthday Hermínio” on it, and off I went.

And I was quickly lost. I had been to his house before in the daylight, but a dark, starless night offered a different experience. I stumbled upon a few families cooking dinner on some firewood, tripped over the crevices and cracks of the dirt path, and finally made it 45 minutes later. And the smile on Hermínio’s face was ear to ear. I gave him his gift and told him to come by my house the next day so I could explain what it was and how to use it. He then led me inside, past some people who I greeted but couldn’t see their faces, and told me to sit on a reed mat. So I sat.

And sat.

I sat next to a nine year-old girl and the two year-old she had strapped to her, neither of whom spoke Portuguese. So I let my eyes wander. And everything started coming together: a few months ago, Hermínio had borrowed a People magazine circa 2007 from my house, and today he had borrowed tape. When he returned the magazine, it had seemed a little thinner than normal, but I didn’t pay much attention. Now I saw pictures of Johnny Depp and ads for body soap plastered all over the mud-brick walls of his “living room.” But it was tastefully done and he had written some congratulatory messages in chalk on the individual bricks. Hermínio had even borrowed a battery-powered lantern for the event. I’m not sure what I expected from the birthday party of my teenage student who lives off the food his family grows, but perhaps a battery-powered radio emitting static like you often hear in the bush would have livened up the party. And why you would have a nighttime party when you don’t have electricity is beyond me. But though the party was far from raging, I was proud of the kid; he did a good job. 
What seemed like years later, some super bush women walked in and Hermínio gave himself a birthday toast. He then asked if anyone had anything to add, and since no one spoke up and I felt bad for the kid, I stood up to announce how smart and how hard-working he was, and then, in a tip of the hat to my grandpa Art, I made him state his goals for the coming year.

Then it was time to eat. I knew what would ensue and I was nervous about it. Hermínio explained what he had prepared (coconut rice, rice with tomatoes and Mozambican bay leaves, beans, and meat and potato “stew”), overall, a commanding feast. Then he immediately handed me a plate, indicating I was to serve first. Despite my protests that it was his day and that perhaps the other women should go before me, I still found myself awkwardly facing the spread alone and before the other guests, assuredly because I was seen as the most important guest on account of being a teacher, and of course, because I am white. I was uncomfortable and dished out the teeniest spoonful of each item, figuring that the other guests probably needed the protein more than I did. Hermínio then served everyone else heaping plates and we ate. I was the only guest provided with cup of juice and a fork. I handed my fork to the woman next to me, the juice to her child, and ate with my fingers, Moz style.

Soon enough, I decided to leave, and Hermínio accompanied me home, as is the custom. I bid him happy birthday and threw myself to bed. All the birthday sitting had wiped me out.

It is September, meaning we are at the bridge between the two southern African seasons: dry and rainy. It has rained only a few times in the past 6 months, transforming the dirt roads into veritable dust clouds, and meaning that I could sweep constantly, all day, and not keep up with the influx of dust. Everything is covered in dust: my computer, my clothes drying on the line, my face, my feet. In their true, dramatic style, Mozambicans are frequently claiming, “We are suffering and dying from dust.” But I now have a new topic of conversation to invoke on chapas: Mozambicans love to break awkward silences by mentioning the name of the city or town we are in, or at this time of year, simply stating “poeira” (“dust”), letting the “ah” sounds hang in the air a while. It is also burning season, where people start fires to raze their fields, the easiest yet the most destructive method of preparing for next years planting season. Most people live in thatched roof houses, and sit idly by as their violent fires inch ever closer. I think most PCVs have had students say that they missed class because their house burnt down, which I guess is a worthy excuse. At night you can see massive fires in the distance on all sides. And with the wind that marks this time of year, veritable dust storms and mini-tornadoes arise, and bring dust and burnt plant matter into my house via my roof. Remind me of my complaints when the rain starts and I transfer my grievances to the mud that gets everywhere.

I went to say goodbye to my host family last week, and though my host father is now unemployed since the owner of his bakery closed up shop indefinitely, my host mother has started raising chickens. She has over 250 of them and is almost ready to sell them, which will bring in a magnificent income. During the last few weeks of training when I lived with them, my host mother and I had discussed her dream to raise and sell chickens, and at the time, my inexperience had prevented me from helping. Since then, she has built a concrete coop with her own hands, and borrowed money at low interest to buy her first installment of chicks. She has accomplished her dream, and I am immensely proud.

Hermínio literally just stopped by to get his Swiss army knife demo, and he eyes almost popped out of his head. On this list of things I will miss from Peace Corps: shocking and impressing people with the simplicities.