Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ponderings and Observations

Mozambicans have a totally different sense of time:
If you ask what time [x] event starts or what time they will be making a stop at your house, you may or may not get a specific time. If you are lucky enough to receive one, they will inevitably extremely late if they arrive at all. If you don’t get a time, your guess is as good as mine. The fact that something starts late isn’t like it will start 15-30min late, but even 3-4 hours late, or perhaps there is no starting time given at all. To Mozambicans, the event, the church service, the party, the visit to your house, etc will happen when it happens. Case in point: one day, my maid offered to come get me the next day to bring me to her house to meet her family. I said “sure, but at what time?” She replied, “tomorrow.” So I stayed by the house all day not wanting to miss her coming to get me and thus miss a rare social opportunity. She never showed. She apparently came the following day when I was out. But I know that one day I will get to her house and meet her family, I just can’t when exactly that will be.

Another example, showing that everything takes time here in Mozambique and the whole concept of efficiency as I know it is lost: I needed to send in this form to the Peace Corps Office that I had been working on since arriving at site that detailed things about what my options were in emergencies, contact info for important people, etc. Luckily my town has a shop where you can make photocopies and send faxes. I showed up Monday morning and asked to send a fax. The lady said, and I quote (through translation of course), “The fax machine works only in the afternoons.” Ok, that does not sound true but whatever. So I went back in the afternoon. I was told, “The fax machine is unavailable today.” (Why I wasn’t told this information on my last visit I am unsure) “When can I send a fax?” I asked, and received the answer, “Tomorrow.” “Tomorrow morning or afternoon?” “Afternoon.” So Tuesday it is. Tuesday afternoon I show up, and what do you know, I was told to come back tomorrow. “Is the fax machine broken?” I inquired. “No” was the response I received. “Well, why can’t I send a fax?” Blank stare. I continued, “I really need to send this so can you please tell me when I will be able to?” “Tomorrow.” A scenario such as this happened every day until the following Monday, the last day to turn in the form, when I was finally granted my wish. Granted, I hadn’t been able to decide if I should use the word for “send” that I looked up in the dictionary (I think used when referring to sending letters) or the word people use when referring to sending text messages. And I’m pretty sure I used the word for “broken” that people use when talking about bones and I’m not sure if that meaning stretches to technology as well. So, all in all, I can’t blame the lovely store workers for refusing my service if I had indeed asked to “order a fax” or inquired if their fax machine was “fractured.”

And a different sense of distance:
If you ask how far some town is from another town or how long it takes, you will get a variety of answers, probably ranging from 2-10 hours. They aren’t trying to give you wrong information, they either just don’t know, and it is not really a Mozambican thing to recognize that you don’t know something, or they have had such varied experiences traveling that road, that each and every person is telling you what has been true for them.

And direction:
There may or may not be street names and signs in a town/city. There definitely are no address numbers outside the really developed areas of the really big provincial capitals. In my town, there are street names in the “downtown” area with the shops and the market, but it is hard to locate where on the actual road the name is given and no one knows them anyway. And furthermore, there are no street names for the windy, confusing streets in the bairros (neighborhoods) where people actually live. Many establishments also don’t have proper names or names that anyone knows or in reality uses. So, if you ask where say, and this is from personal experience, the padaria (bread shop) is, you will get a variety of answers similar to: “La” (far over there) with a hand gesture perhaps in the right direction, “next to the store” (there are a million stores in my town), or some sort of mumbled, contrived directions that are unintelligible to me but that probably would have led me astray anyway. It is just their way of initiating me into the town: if you live here, you know where it is. And I live here.

Mozambicans are very environmentally friendly. Barely anyone has a private car, though many do ride motorcycles, and they recycle. No, there isn’t a formal garbage and recycling pick-up system. But, it is cheaper for a store or bar or restaurant to have a soda or beer bottle refilled and reused than it is to buy new bottles. So in order to take a soda or beer out of the establishment, you have to bring an empty bottle of that kind to them first. So people have in their homes a few cases of soda and beer bottles that they exchange when they go to buy new ones. It works on the honor system, and here it works.

The idea of future planning or thinking ahead is pretty much nonexistent here. There were many days when my host-dad didn’t work (he usually worked at the padaria 6 or 7 days a week from 5am-8pm) because they ran out of flour and thus couldn’t make bread. When I asked if he didn’t see yesterday that they were going to use up the last flour soon and thus should buy more, he had no answer for me. Granted, sometimes people run out of food or water because they can’t afford more or the well is dry, but many times it is a huge surprise like, uh oh, no more, now what should we do? Since it is hard to save money because people might not have a disposable income and this idea of planning doesn’t happen, a group of people (mostly women) who are extremely close and wholeheartedly trust each other, may get together and all pledge to put 100 meticais, or 500, or whatever amount, to the pot each month, and each month, a different member of the group will take the pot to buy big items like a new stove or TV or repair part of the house. Therefore, each person gets the money back that they put in, but it is in a lump sum that they can now do something really productive with. It really is a genius system. 

Another genius system is the pre-pay system they have here for electricity and cell phone minutes. You pay when you are running low (or have run out) and thus only pay for how much you use and also how much you can afford.  But this has lead to a country-wide custom of “beeping” people, meaning you call someone and hang up just before they answer so they have to call you back (and thus use their minutes, because incoming calls and texts are free). It is quite annoying. But this system also makes it so I remember to turn off lights when I leave a room so that I waste as little energy as possible and thus can put off purchasing more for as long as possible. So in that sense I guess its all right.

There is a porch culture here. People cook outside, wash dishes outside, do laundry outside, and just hang out outside. Since I do a lot of stuff on my computer and don’t want to show it off to the whole community (laptops cost the same here as they do in the US, so its about a whole years salary for someone with a pretty good job, thus the not showing off thing), I inevitably stay inside a lot. But when I do force myself to sit outside, I have nothing to do but sit there and talk to the occasional passers-by. I might bring a book and read, which is quite pleasant, but no one here has any books so I am just the weird white girl reading. On one such occasion, I was sitting on my porch reading when one of the many people who live in the teacher’s house that I share a duplex with (another thing is that there are often a huge amount of people living under one roof sharing beds or sleeping on the floor) came over and parked the 3 month old baby in his stroller in front of me and left. 2 things were weird about this: one, this was the first stroller I have seen in Mozambique (babies are without fail strapped to someone’s back with a capulana) and two, I now had a baby to look after without being asked or even told to. So, obviously, I was picked up the baby and played with him; he is absolutely precious. About 45 minutes later, I delivered a quiet, sleeping baby back to them. They looked at me like I was some alien who is old enough to be a teacher but strangely enough, apparently has no family of her own and yet still knows how to care for a baby. Ha.

Here, books are extremely expensive so practically no one has any; students don’t even have textbooks. They have notebooks for their school notes and that is the only available scholastic resource. My host-family, who isn’t rich but definitely doesn’t suffer, had two books: one of pictures of Florida that their volunteer last year gave them, and one of pictures of Washington D.C. that my sister sent for them. Reading is thus not part of the culture, not something people do because it is just flat-out not available (hence why I am the weird white girl reading). Most people are in fact literate, however.

Furthermore, there are simply less leisure activities available. Sure, the better off people have a TV (to watch the 6 Mozambican channels, of which most of the programming comes from Brazil and Portugal), a DVD player (to play the few DVDs they have that are most likely in English and thus they don’t understand the dialog), and a set of speakers (to play slightly outdated American hip-hop, rap, and pop). But beyond that, there is absolutely nothing for people to do for leisure. They also may play soccer or basketball, but that’s it. And beers are about $1. Also, for about 75 cents, you can buy about a flask full of extremely cheap gin or whisky. To put this into perspective: a bottle of water is $1.50 and juice is $3.

Similarly, kids don’t really have toys. But that means that the whole earth is their playground, which forces them to wholly utilize their imagination and creativity. A popular game is some sort of jumping game over ropes (made out of random materials) tied between trees or wrapped behind a kid’s legs. I don’t really get it. They will also make cars or other objects out of wire, attach it to a stick, and push it around. Another game is to take an old tire rim and roll it through town by constantly pushing it with a stick. My favorites, however, are the soccer balls made out of anything and everything and the goal posts constructed out of long sticks. These kids are truly innovative and encouraging. They also spend time climbing trees and picking mangos to sell until they have earned enough to go see one of the terrible king fu or Bollywood films they play at the movie theatre. But, I am happy to let some kid pick my mangos for me and pay him less than 1 cent for it.

As evidenced by the available modes of travel here, personal space invasion is not an issue. When you greet someone and they shake your hand, they may hold onto it for the entirety of the conversation. And it is not totally uncommon to see two men or two women holding hands as they walk. They probably aren’t a gay couple (if they were, the would most likely not be flaunting it), but just demonstrating friendship. Pretty cool I think.

And most importantly, the majority of people are incredibly nice and hospitable and will help you out to the best of their ability. They will feed you, offer you a chair to join them in the front yard, and always, always wish you a good morning and ask how you are. And they love to party. 

1 comment:

  1. In Brazil, there was some code (I think it was like 99) that you could dial before someone's number and thus CHARGE the person receiving the phone call. At first I fell into the trap of losing a lot of my minutes to crafty Brazilians calling me, but then I began to recognize this characteristic beep that sounded right as you picked up the phone to signify being charged.

    How frustrating about the faxing/waiting for things to happen when the happen. But I guess that's part of the culture you will all too soon get used to (and when you come back probably see that the stress of American timeliness is also a little ridiculous).

    I really want a mango. I bet they are delicious and messy and amazing!