Thursday, December 16, 2010

Posh Corps

Apparently Peace Corps Mozambique is considered in some circles to be the “Posh Corps” of Peace Corps Africa. I’m not sure exactly what separates Mozambique and qualifies it as such but I do sometimes feel spoiled since at my site I can buy luxury items like peanut butter and the occasional frozen chicken. And I’m not what you might call “suffering” which to some is a prerequisite for effective Peace Corps service. But to me, only a happy volunteer can be a successful volunteer, so I will relish my mini-refrigerator and my concomitant ability to preserve leftovers and drink cold water, thank you very much. After all, when you are walking home from the market and the sunny sky suddenly turns to a torrential downpour, your flip flop gets stuck in the mud and you have to fish it out with a stick, some man follows you for 10 minutes trying to get you to buy a kebab with 5 grilled rats on it, and you pass two naked men fighting on the side of the road, you realize that yes you are in a whole other place, and the fact that you can occasionally flush your toilet (only when the water happens to be running of course), doesn’t mean this isn’t Peace Corps. Besides, the heavy rain-pour could in fact lead to an interesting conversation with the lady next to whom you are huddled under a shack-roof like thing to wait out the storm. I have at least started to learn and appreciate to look for the good in an initially bleak situation. And also, there are and will always be times when I go do my nightly chore of filling up the four large buckets with water from the spigot in the bathroom to find it isn’t running (and hasn’t for the past 48 hours), is a disconcerting and uncomforting shade of brown or black, or perhaps, it is only relinquishing the slightest trickle of water, meaning I watch an entire episode of Friends and come back to find a less than half full bucket, so I trod off to bed hoping for better water pressure tomorrow. So even though I don’t have to journey a ways to pump water (or pay someone to do it for me since I have yet to master the carrying a large tub of water on your head trick), my day still revolves around the availability, or lack thereof, of water. Nothing here is very certain, or even always reliable, and I would like to work on my ability to be patient, flexible, and spontaneous in the face of this, so it looks like I will be forced to be on my way towards this goal.

In the U.S, I don’t really like farmer’s markets. I am an extremely lazy shopper so I would rather just go to the one place that I know will have everything I want. But, here, I have no such option. You have to go to one place to get pao (bread), different lojas (shops) have different items so you have to remember who carries what (as far as packaged items) and go there, and to buy produce, you either have to go to the market, which is pretty much a farmer’s market with a bunch of crowded stall all huddled together, or buy from the randoms on the side of the road. I prefer the latter option because once you buy one thing from one person at the bigger market, all the other vendors approach you and try to convince you to buy their potatoes or unidentifiable leafy green vegetable since you clearly have money and are in the market for some produce. But I learned very quickly to scope out the scene to see who has the best tomatoes that day, or the best bananas, before purchasing anything, and to not formulate a plan for a meal until you see what that’s days vendors have, since maybe the pineapples look great today, or someone actually has green pepper, cucumber, or green beans for the first time all week. I do, however, eat a lot of fruit because it is so cheap (mangoes are the equivalent of less than 1 cent, which I find awesome. Also fantastic is that avocados go for about 2 cents). But it also forces me to be a more creative cook, and a less overwhelmed one, because I have no choice in what to make: I have to come up with meals with the limited produce available that day. Quick: what can you have for dinner when all you have is pasta, peaches, onions and peanut-butter? Maybe by the time I come back to the US I will be a Chopped Champion.

People seem very concerned with the fact that I am always home alone, and most importantly for them, that I have to cook and eat by myself. They ask what I had for lunch or dinner and when I tell them, they are shocked and say it is not good enough. I however believe that my lunch of an egg and avocado sandwich with assorted fruit was delicious (I eat probably an unhealthy number of bananas a day). But they do not offer to teach me how to cook or to eat with them, so I am very confused as to what they expect. I even tell them that I don’t know how to cook Mozambican food (which is not really true, I just don’t have the desire to spend 3-4 hours preparing a dish for only myself), hoping for an invitation to a meal with them or a cooking lesson, but so far, no such luck.

I had a heart wrenching conversation today with a lady who followed me for about 10 minutes and then asked if I live at the Secondary School. I said yes (it still doesn’t cease to amaze me that people either know who I am without me ever meeting them, or that they can guess I am a teacher by the way I look- aka am white, even though I’m pretty sure my roommate and I are the only non-Africans that work at the school) and then she asked if she could work for me. When I told her that I already had an empregada (maid- most Peace Corps Volunteers have them to do random household chores, and it puts money in the community by supporting the informal economy) she said she could cook for me. When I said I knew how to cook, she protested that she has children and needs a job so they can eat. Her baby, which was wrapped to her back, was awfully cute, and stared at me. Tons of people ask me for money (and I reply that I give lessons, not meticais- the Mozambican currency- and they are usually satisfied) but this was different and I didn’t know what I could do for the young mother. So I awkwardly apologized and hurried away. I have been in Gurue for about a week and have a while still to go before I start actually doing anything. My task for now is just to start to “integrate” into the community, both that of the school and at large. But aside from awkwardly wandering around the school until some random teacher talks to me for a few minutes, integrating calls for going up to my neighbors or other people in the community who are sitting in their front yards and striking up conversation. Mozambicans don’t find this too odd, being exceptionally kind and community-minded, but I find it a tall order since I often have trouble understanding them and am not that naturally forward a person to really put myself out there; I’m more of a let the party come to me type of person. Integration is supposed to be my first goal; I have no way of actually doing anything productive or helping anyone, even this lady I met on the street. I probably wouldn’t have hired her off the street had I been looking for an empregada but I still felt for her, and others like her. This isn’t the first time I have been pedir-ed (asked) in this manner and won’t be the last, but for the first few months, I should probably focus on getting settled and accustomed to life on my own in this totally new setting, before I start any secondary projects with the students at school or a income generation project with women in the community like the one I met today. I just have to keep telling myself that that day will indeed arrive.

Highlight #1: The rain knocked out the power the other night, so I couldn’t use my little electric stove. Only one burner works, but it is still a hell of a lot easier than the charcoal option. But, because I was hungry for dinner and wanted to be able to heat up water to take a warm bucket bath, I had to go old fashioned. Using my headlamp, I stood on my front porch (which thankfully has a little covering from the rain) and eventually got the charcoal to light. The neighbors got a kick out of watching me struggle, and were obsessed with my headlamp. That’s a lesson in making “friends” in Mozambique (in this case, I mean getting them to remember I’m here and alive and enjoy the company of others): struggle at a task that is extremely everyday and routine to them so they can laugh at you, and then have some sort of ridiculous foreign gadget over which they can ogle and ask to try out.

A small cockroach just crawled out from inside my computer and onto the keyboard as I was typing. Ew.

1 comment:

  1. Tiggs,

    Don't feel guilty that you have the 'posh' PC assignment. Trust me, what you are doing sound anything but easy.

    Integration sounds hard when that is your only goal (for the time being). I think it would be a lot easier if you had a different task to focus on and integration was a bi-product of performing that task. But I'm sure that in a couple weeks you will suddenly realize that woah, you are integrated (to a certain degree) and won't even know when exactly that transformation happened. Boa Sorte!!!!