Malaria is the default word for being any type of sick except stomach sick. “Oh him? He’s sick; he has malaria” is a common utterance, but I always ask if said malaria-stricken individual has gone to the hospital and done a malaria test. Usually, the answer is no, but, they assure me, he has malaria. If you are have stomach problems, however, you tell everyone about it. People stop the chapa all the time and say, “I have diarrhea! I have to get out of the car!” This person has invariably chosen the back corner seat (and the window next to him is, naturally, broken and cannot be opened in order to be climbed through), and therefore every 30 minutes, everyone must disembark and file out of the bus. The person with diarrhea then finds himself a nice bush to cover his ass, does his business, and the process begins anew a little while later. One day last year, I was sitting in my director’s office doing some work for the national exams. My director, you remember, is a very respected and respectable nun. The other teacher who was supposed to be helping me with the work, was, not surprisingly, two hours late. She finally walks into the office and immediately apologizes to the director-nun, “I’m sorry I’m late,” she begins, “I was up all night with diarrhea.” The director-nun, apparently thinking this is an acceptable workplace conversation, replies, “Me too! I have been having some horrible diarrhea recently.” The teacher then offers, “Maybe it was that goat we all bought the other day.” The director-nun agrees and they, having gotten to the bottom of the diarrhea problem, start to work. I guess when stomach problems are as widespread and frequent as is a stuffy nose, people have no shame in discussing it. I still find it a little taboo.
When you say, “I’m sick,” people become very concerned because they know firsthand how quickly a seemingly common bout of the flu can take a turn for the worse. But, being the gossip-fiends anyone would be if living in such close quarters with nothing to do while waiting in the water-line, they have to know with what you are sick: “Is it malaria?” “Or do you have diarrhea?” as if these are the only two options. But they really want to know and to have you give them the juicy details. “I’d rather not say, just please stop knocking on my door when I’m trying to rest!” is clearly not an acceptable response.
They will also relentlessly ask you about your illness for days afterward. Yes, my headache is gone, it only lasted a few hours, and therefore 5 days later, my headache is, truly, I’m not lying, gone. Clearly my allergies are better today; I’m no longer sneezing and can open my eyes. Can you see my elbow-abcess or infected mosquito bite anymore? No? Then it probably went away. But, really, at least they are concerned. And want to offer me corn-mush and greens because they know I’m not feeling well.
My favorite Portuguese-English mishap is the word “constipação,” pronounced con-steep-ah-s-ow, which inevitably triggers the misguided thought that the word means “constipation” in English. No, you would be wrong Mr. English Speaker. It means you have a stuffy nose. This, I can assure you, makes for an interesting first conversation about a not-to-be-named person’s constipação.
As with religion, Mozambicans commonly combine the western approach to the traditional Mozambican approach: they amalgamate the hospital with the curandeiro (traditional healer, witch doctor, you take your pick at politically-incorrect titles). My friend came back from visiting family and promptly told me her sister is very sick and the only thing that can help her is a treatment from the curandeiro that she will receive in two months, which my friend will be returning to the bush to attend. I have no idea what this treatment entails, but my friend seemed totally fine waiting. I, however, was worried the sister would still be alive then. They probably already went to the hospital, because Mozambicans go to the hospital with the slightest problem (and, thankfully, with grave problems as well), and so if the doctors/nurse couldn’t help, I will gladly put my faith in the healing powers of the curandeiro to help her. The only treatments I know anything about are those for children, because they actually tell me about them. When I told a baby that her shell-necklace was beautiful, the adolescent that was carrying her told me it was a medication. “For what?” I inquired. “To prevent a hot body.” Alright, I can dig it, fevers are a common problem for babies everywhere. When I asked my favorite five-year-old, what the hemp rope around his abdomen was, he replied “A medication.” Again, I inquired “For what?” He told me that it was to ward off evil spirits. Yet again, I can dig it, I would also be heartbroken if an evil spirit got to my favorite kid. The only thing that gets me about the curandeiro, however, is the price. It costs 1 metical to go get checked out at the hospital (the price of 3 mangos), 5 meticais to get a blood test done (the price for 4 good-sized onions), and like 20 meticais for a medication (about the price of a kilogram of sugar). This is fairly reasonable and doable for most people. The curandeiro, I’m pretty sure, is much more expensive. But if half the battle is believing in the value of the treatment you are receiving, then by all means, do what you gotta do to get better.
And to end, my favorite act of familial or neighborly responsibility that I have ever witnessed in Mozambique was when I was sitting and people-watching on my porch (naturally…). A man on a bicycle rode by with another guy sitting on the back. This second guy was strapped to the front guy with a piece of cloth, apparently to keep him from falling off because he didn’t look too stable. Now, the hospital is 15km away (about 10 miles through the mountains), and this front guy was going to pedal his sick brother, neighbor, whoever, all the way there. Talk about community support.