Saturday, March 3, 2012

Topic 4: The Help

Most Peace Corps Volunteers in Mozambique have people who help them with the housework to some extent. It’s not that we are lazy (though occasionally that is so) but it is that there is just so much housework to do here in comparison to the US, and as Americans, we generally have other things we would rather do than wait in line for water for upwards of 2 hours a day. In America, you ostensibly have a dishwasher, a vacuum, a washing machine, a dryer, lawn mower, running water, and more. Here, you (or at least I) do not. The people, most generally high school boys or older-ish women, that help out around the house essentially do all the things that machines do in America. That sounds horrible to say I know, but it is true. And also, as (white) foreigners, we are seen as having money and means. I realize that we do not make a salary any higher than our Mozambican counterparts, but that is still widely considered well off. And it is a very Mozambican propensity to spread that wealth by helping to support other people. Most teachers and other people with steady jobs have someone (or someones) that help their wife around the house. At my old house, an older lady supporting her family worked for me, and now I support 2 high-school boys in exchange for their help. I would be considered even weirder than I already am if I did all the housework by myself. And I do not always outsource all the work: I sweep the floor everyday, wash dishes, and often cart my own water. I never wash my clothes or the floor, however.
One day one of my house boys, yes that is the best way to describe him, was washing the bathroom floor (no, I swear this is not a weird task…floors get dirty here! Especially when water gets accidentally spilled on the floor and dirt gets constantly dragged in by people and dogs, like in said bathroom), and I heard the noise of a cap opening and closing. When I looked in after he had vacated the room, everything was still there so I didn’t really care. Then, before he left for home, he looked all meek and asked, “Teacher, if you use it, it’s fine, but do you need that thing that smells good?” I pointed to the lotion. “No,” he said and pointed to one of my extra deoderants. I asked him if he knew how to use it and he pointed to his armpit. So, I gave it to him, and now an 18-year-old kid has women’s deoderant. Lucky him. But really, I feel that cleaning the bathroom and hanging my curtains that day in exchange for women’s deoderant was a totally fair trade.
Are my houseboys the best students? No. Are they the smartest, or even the most hardworking? No. Not by a long shot. Do they stay out of trouble? Well, considering one of them was kicked out of the boy’s dormitory for getting drunk last year, I would venture a big, fat, NO on that front. But are they still good kids and do they still deserve to have work? Hell yes. The two boys that work in my house are best friends, and grew up together in the same, super small, bush town outside Invinha. They are both the oldest children in families that have been orphaned from both parents. They have both decided that despite the fact that their intellectual abilities and academic drive leave a little something to be desired (through no fault of their own, but rather of the school system that has failed them and those like them), they will do anything to get an education, bring that success back, and help their younger siblings. Only the luckiest few high school graduates actually secure a place in a post-secondary school institution or a job that utilizes what knowledge and skills they have amazingly been able to glean from the shitty Mozambican school system, but I still believe wholeheartedly that an attitude that impels someone to value education as much as the boys that work for me do should absolutely be rewarded. So I hired them. 
The deoderant is just one example of how I pay my boys for their work of clothes-washing, floor cleaning, grass-cutting, and water-fetching. Most volunteers pay their help with a monthly stipend. I don’t, because I was asked by my boys to pay them in goods. I pay for them to enroll in school, buy their notebooks, pens, and other school materials, buy their school uniforms, outfit their new house (a little mud shack) with kitchen supplies, buckets for water, and a mattress, etc. When they need something, like to pay for copies for a test or to go home to the bush to visit family, I give them money or the item they have requested (within reason). Being the granddaughter and niece of orthodontists, I decided one day to ask if they had a toothbrush. They replied that they have one. So I bought them another one so they wouldn’t have to share, and some toothpaste. When one of them came to me and said his sister was very sick, would I mind giving him a sheet so she has something to lie on, I brokenheartedly gave him a sheet, blanket, and pillow. One of them received an old iPod for his work last year, and this year the other will get my digital camera (we are working together even now for him to start a business in which he takes pictures when people have parties and then people pay for him to print them in the city. He is very good with technology and can fix anything, including the camera they day after I decided to start letting him use it, so I thought we should try to capitalize on that skill). I also have them cook once every few weeks and they get to keep half of it. Sometimes, they come and say they don’t have any food for dinner, so I help them out. For us, it works: they get what they need when they need it, and don’t have the temptation to spend their entire monthly wages on beer after one weekend. I treat them fairly, which I cannot always say is the norm for the behavior of the other teachers in my neighborhood towards their helpers, and I make them study with me two hours a week. They get a small monetary reward for every passing grade they receive on a test or other schoolwork. Once, they came over when I was eating bread and peanut butter. I made them each a sandwich, and one, with a smile form ear to ear, said, “I have never had peanut butter before. It is delicious!” Those are the moments.
            Two weeks ago, I attended the Carnivale/ Mardi Gras celebration that is held annually throughout the month of February in my provincial capital. It was an organizational feat if I have ever seen one in Mozambique. A whole street was blocked off and lined with people selling Mozambican street food (grilled chicken skewers, sausages, and plate after plate after plate of corn mush). Oh yeah, and there was plenty of beer. It was delicious. Then at around 9pm, a section of the street was blocked off for the dancers. There was one dance troop from each neighborhood of the city with about 10 guys and 10 girls in matching outfits. Until about 6am (aka for the next 9 hours), these dance troops did choreographed dances up one side of the street until they reached a stage, performed on stage, then danced back down the other side of the street. Once back at the starting point, they hurriedly drank a gulp or two of water (from a HUGE keg of water, I’m telling you the organization and attention to detail was rather surprising and quite unexpected) and then danced down the street anew. They were all great dancers, and it was quite a sight, damn good entertainment, and a grand old party. Some cities of the world build floats and give out bead necklaces for Mardi Gras, and others, like this one in Mozambique, think it is good fun and not cruel at all to mandate people to dance for 9 hours straight without a break, and then repeat it every Friday and Saturday of the entire month of February. Oh Moz, never ceasing to amaze and shock me, and then throw a good party.

The Boys: Leonardo (left) and Daniel (right)

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