Sunday, January 29, 2012

Topic 1: Health

Mark Berenberg, my lovely father, had the idea for me to pick a topic for every blog post and write a post about it. This blog is about health matters here in Mozambique. Blogs to come: dogs, religion, student life, "the help," etc. Enjoy!

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. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012


As I learned first-hand in my recent, 3 week, too short, stint in America, the difference between life in the two countries in which I have lived is vast in many ways. Immediately after my last post, I became grossly aware of this fact. In no way is this variance more acute than in the way we get around and travel. Inherent in the word “accident,” car accidents happen. But that does not mean they are ok. On December 21, five Mozambique Peace Corps Volunteers were in a fatal car accident. Three were seriously injured but survived. Two others were killed. Though I never had the great pleasure of meeting either of these I’m sure awesome girls, who were sworn in as volunteers only a few weeks prior, as with all volunteers, we consider each other family. This tragic loss has deeply affected the whole Peace Corps family and beyond, to their families and communities back home. It is intensely sad and a tremendous loss; they were only 22 and 23 years old. It is thus with an incredibly heavy heart (this in addition to saying “until 2013” to my family and friends) that I begin my second year as a PCV.

Not to dampen or diminish this well-deserved and admittedly short shout-out to these volunteers, and to elucidate my point about the differences in life in America and in Mozambique, I have included the following comparison between America and Moz.

Say what you will about Mozambican life, but, far and above, it is uncomplicated. The most complicated technology with which one has to combat is the ATM, and I am hands down, absolutely always, the most competent ATM user in the 40-person-long (and ever-elongating) bank line. The most complicated questions of social concern (“will this person be mad if I…” or “how do I break this bad news,” or “I have a complicated question that I am unsure as to how exactly I should phrase in Portuguese) are easily remedied by the simple fact that Mozambicans have relatively short memories when it comes to usually grudge-inducing situations. Furthermore, in an overwhelmingly generalizing sense, they are surprisingly forgiving and have the overall attitude that “everything is fine, it isn’t a big deal.” “There’s no problem” is a major sentiment here and necessary sentence to have at your disposal. A simple smile and “how are you” goes a really long way as well. The most complicated aspect of travel in Mozambique is securing a ride, but once accomplished, the rest is rather simple: just make friends with the other passengers, hold the babies they place on your lap without asking, sit, and wait for arrival.

My main motto and mantra when in America last month, was “America is rough.” For example, using a debit card and figuring out tip is rough. Also, stairs. And iPhones (c’mon people, let’s play scrabble together and not sit on the couch, next to each other, playing Words with Friends, with each other, on our various Apple devices). Cutting large, genetically engineered produce into small pieces can be rather problematical. Burners actually give off legitimate heat and actually have the ability to burn your food (is that where they got their name??) The facility to trick an automatically flushing toilet to flush when it is being stubborn is not an inherent trait though it may at first glance appear to be. Forgetting that a thumbs-up is not a universally used or cool gesture can make for some awkward moments. Not being able to employ the excuse, “Sorry I didn’t return your text/call/email. The cell service/internet has been slow/shotty/down,” forces one to be social. Airport security and remembering all the rules is difficult. Actually, extend that to the rules in general of standard American society. Traffic. Remembering that being white no longer entails me to practically do anything ridiculous or strange that I want without fear of societal judgment or rejection was a quite grim realization (that and the fact that I can’t say inappropriate things in English without anyone understanding). Conservative politics. And, malls (though that isn’t new for me).

On the whole, however, it was great to visit with everyone in DC, Florida, and California. And despite everything, the awesome-ness of the land of plenty was definitely not lost on me. A three-week eating binge is not only expected, but inevitable. Grocery stores go on forever, and restaurants actually serve every single dish they boast on their menu. Other music exists besides Shakira, Akon, and Brazilian/Portuguese emo love ballads. Beer is served in pitchers and the water never stops running. TV is in English and the advertisements do not appear to have been made on the side of a bush/dirt road or in someone’s front yard. You can just hop into your car and the world magically becomes your oyster. Cars make a sound when someone is not wearing their seatbelt and people generally obey traffic signals and laws (pedestrians even have the right of way!) Your clothes traverse the spectrum of dirty to spick, span, and DRY in an hour’s time. Bathrooms are most commonly stocked and equipped with toilet paper, soap, and working locks. A night’s sleep during the month of December does not entail waking up in the middle of the night bathed in sweat. Sleeping curled under a blanket is not only possible and enjoyable without dying of heat stroke, but it is also necessary. Books stores. Stores and restaurants return correct change to you in a timely manner. Floors are dirt-free and the strength of your water-carrying muscles can deteriorate without repercussions. And I can watch TV marathons on an HDTV sitting in a reclining chair rather than a rock-hard wicker couch or a mattress with a Teacher Ana- shaped divot in the middle of it. And possibly the best parts of America aside from food items and individuals that I love, are three simple words: The Food Network. Maybe America is not so rough after all.

And last, the substantial differences of life between the US and Mozambique can be highlighted in the following anecdote, which was related to me by a former Mozambique PCV: I went home to America last year for a Christmas visit and I guess the variation in food and the proximity of my site to the beach really paid off. Everyone said, “Oh, you look so great! You’re so thin and tan!” Then, after three weeks eating American food and living through the snow, I returned to Mozambique to the joyous response of “Oh, you look so great! You’re so fat and pale!” Awesome...