Monday, May 28, 2012

Apparently, I Am Scary

Apparently, there comes a time in every Mozambican baby’s development in which said baby’s optical maturity achieves a certain capacity to discern skin color. They are suddenly aware that the all-too-pale, hominid-like figure disrupting what would otherwise have been a snuggly snooze wrapped against their mother’s back in a capulana is markedly different from the rest. At about 9 months of age, many babies become afraid of me. While we had been buddies just the day before, BAM! I am suddenly scary and provoke a fit of tears, screams, and attempts to hide behind one’s mother. Then, just as magically, a few days or weeks later, the same baby will brighten and cheer when he lays eyes on me and the admittedly goofy face I am trying to win him over with. I realize that I am a rather fair person, but I had never thought that my skin color could incite such horror as to make a baby cry. Alas, I was clearly very wrong. The women of my neighborhood find this sequence of events incredibly funny and love to joke with me about which babies are currently scared of me, which used be frightened of me, and which are soon to assuredly harbor the same terror of my whiteness. Much to my relief, however, other PCVs have also admitted to elicit the same reaction from babies.

            I am also apparently just as capable at alarming the elderly. It doesn’t happen very often but I have been known to stop a crusty old man carrying lengths of sugar cane on his head or a preciously toothless old woman toting around tomatoes in a reed basket right in their tracks. Like the babies that tremor in my wake, they are scared of white people. But, in this case, I believe, they are mostly afraid I will beat them if they don’t show me respect: i.e. stopping to allow me to pass while bowing slightly at the knees and neck, and then meekly offering up an open-hand as if to greet royalty. I am sure this subservient behavior is a remnant of the old colonial days when the white man ruled all and bred fear. Whenever an instance such as this happens, I make a big effort to humanize myself, greeting them in the local language and holding out my right hand, with my left one cupped under my elbow, the universal way to greet someone of a perceived higher societal rank here. Usually, they accept my peace offering and take my hand, though they have also been known to simply stare back unmoving, and I can continue on my way, idealistically thinking I have done something to improve race relations. I try to think of myself as a harmless white person, perhaps even a helpful one, so I usually walk away rather befuddled and pensive after interactions such as this.

            Though I don’t like to be seen as an imposing figure, I am glad I do not rouse hateful words or violence, as do the Mozambicans that are considered “crazy.” Just earlier today, I was sitting on my porch watching the events of the neighborhood unfold (shocking I know), when a shirtless man came storming into the middle of the neighborhood and promptly broke two buckets that people had left near the water pump. For obvious reasons (buckets are a necessary household item and larger ones such as these can get pricy), people got all up in arms, screaming at the guy, at each other, and generally just ranting and raving. Finally, the man left, and from my porch, I saw him terrorizing some innocent passers-by. My neighbors then talked all day about the “malouco,” until, about 5 hours later (again, I was on my porch reading), the man returned. This time, however, people were not as passive in their response. Some of the young men started beating him: punching him, throwing 5-liter buckets at him, and whacking him with sticks. Not surprisingly, as Mozambicans are generally bored and always looking for a good show and some afternoon entertainment, the whole neighborhood turned out and formed a riotous crowd around the fight. And this time, I was also more enraged at the situation. Careful to stay on my porch, I started screaming things like, “You aren’t helping! Stop beating him! He is sick!” as they forced him out of the neighborhood, passing right in front of my house. Finally, he left bleeding and I ran up to some of the guys who had been the main perpetrators and asked them why they had beaten the guy. “He is not sick or crazy, he has been smoking” was their response. I replied, “Even is he has been smoking, it doesn’t mean you should beat him. He is also a person and clearly something is wrong with him.” I do not believe the man’s actions were due to drugs, but rather, I wholeheartedly believe they were a result of mental illness. I do not believe I made any impression on these guys, but I momentarily felt better about my role in it all. Mental illness is not really understood here, as people who are considered “crazy” can get no help, and therefore generally just roam the streets, eating trash, covered in dirt, clothed in rags, and begetting negative attention in the form of taunts and physical abuse at the hands of other citizens. So I will take a few crying babies and bows of respect as the alternative to that which I witnessed earlier today, which was downright petrifying. Mozambicans are not xenophobic and generally accepting and welcoming of guests, e.g. me. Most of the attention I get is wholly too positive: men who find my being here interesting and think I can give them money or sleep with them (warranting smooching noises as I pass by), or the most coveted prize: to take them back to America. Fat chance.

            I have written recently about the water problems we have here in Invinha. The pathetic water pressure of our tap makes water dripping through a coffee filter look like a steady stream. Last week, the chefe do bairro (head of the neighborhood who handles neighborly squabbles like “The dog of Teacher Ana ate my chicken and I need her to pay me back”) called a meeting for the people who fetch water from each of the 20 houses that use our communal tap. Naturally it was all women in attendance. The flawed system was addressed and ideas for improvement were shared. An hour and a half later, the sun had gone down, and there we stood, in the dark, with screaming, hungry children running in circles around us, and no definitive consensus had been reached. I have learned in my 20 months in Mozambique that when planning an activity or trying to estimate how long something should take here, I must double, and at times even triple or quadruple, the amount of time the American version would last. But I was still a little peeved at the situation. Finally, it seemed that some decision had been made and I woke myself from my Portuguese-overload daze and joined back in the conversation, eager to hear the news. But alas, the new and improved system would be exactly that which I had already thought the system to be. Essentially, we would all put one bucket in line and everyone would amiably take their turn filling up four 20 or 25 liter buckets. The extra buckets of the people who had been trying to cheat the system and have 5 different buckets in line were taken out. Some more bickering ensued, and then we all went home to cook dinner. The next day, a Saturday, I noticed early in the morning that I was second in line. Oh the joy I felt. But seeing as I had to go to the city to run a review session some students had asked for, I couldn’t hang out until I filled my quota of buckets. So I asked a student who lives in the neighborhood to watch for my turn and fill up my buckets for me (honestly not a difficult or uncommon favor). He agreed and off I went. I returned 6 or 7 hours later, my line-stand-in bucket had been moved to the end of the line, my empty buckets remained empty, and the kid I had asked to help me out was nowhere to be found. Naturally, I was outraged. Apparently, you snooze; you lose. You are just supposed to aimlessly hang out in line all day, shooting the shit with everyone in the vain hope that you will potentially get some water and therefore, maybe wash some clothes later in the day. It is not laziness, it is just that there is literally nothing else to do so why not hang out at the water pump for 6 hours? Unfortunately for me, 20 months of Mozambican life has not been able to even create the smallest of chinks in the armor established by the 22 years I spent living in a culture that attempts to fit as much productivity into as little time as possible. I stormed home and sent one of my “houseboys” to fetch me some definitely less than sanitary river water that afternoon.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Crianças (Children)

For Mozambican children, the world is their oyster. They live in the world’s greatest playground, complete with endless places to investigate and endless opportunities to make-up games. They can run around with their friends, exploring, romping in the mud and dirt, and playing to their hearts’ content. Only when it is time for a bath or a meal does someone come and wrangle them up. The kids in my neighborhood from ages 2-7 gambol in a pack, making toys from sticks and trash, drawing at Tia Ana’s house with colored pencils or in the mud with sticks, and using their imaginations to pass the time in a state of utter ecstasy. If it weren’t for the alarmingly high possibility of contracting cholera or malaria, being malnourished, and receiving a poor education, I would totally be a Mozambican child.

Kids are constantly dirty, even the “rich” ones, like the children of teachers in Invinha, because they play in the dirt all day. Visiting the US over Christmas, I immediately noticed that my friend Liz’s three-year old daughter Natalia was sparklingly clean. Not a speck of dirt on her. It was quite a shocking and amazing sight to behold after a year of playing with kids covered from head to toe in dirt. And after a long day frolicking through the bush, the kids will inevitably be given a bath before dinner. It is customary to give small children baths in the front yard. So every day at about 6pm, you can scan the neighborhood and just about every house will have the kids standing there in a line of nakedness, as they await their turn in the bucket.

In one of their jaunts through the greater neighborhood, when nature calls, a kid will just go in a bush. But, other times, they will also just poop on the floor. A fifteen-month-old pooped on my floor the other day. And then started to cry as her mother cursorily cleaned it up with a rag. I immediately threw a load of bleach on the infected area. A few days earlier, I had been walking back home from school when I passed the house of my favorite siblings, Belsa, age 2.5, and Gigantinho, age 5 (yes, Little Giant is his given name). Belsa was crying and Gigantinho was just standing there. When I approached them and asked what was wrong, Gigantinho informed me that Belsa had taken a shit in the coal stove. Yes the five-year old had indeed used the swear word “to take a shit” and yes, as I was horrified to lay eyes on, Belsa had relieved herself in the coal stove. Why? God only knows. Where was their mother? God only knows. This was one of those moments when I think to myself, why in hell am I living in Mozambique? And needless to say, I hightailed it home after that. As far as diapers, most people use pieces of cloth that are generally unable to contain the products they are intended to contain, meaning I only hold kids for about 5 minutes because I don’t want to push my luck too far before one of them inevitably pees or poops on me. And as far as potty-training, most mothers use the philosophy that the child will learn when the child learns, leaving a trail of shit wherever they go until about age 5. Mozambican children are absolutely beautiful, but they are also absolutely disgusting.

Some of the teachers in my neighborhood have a child that works for them, usually a 10-year old girl from the bush that is an orphan and is now essentially performing child labor in exchange for room and board. She hauls water and carts around the babies and does any bitch-work she is ordered to do. It is a pretty rough and unforgiving life (without an education!), but unfortunately, I try to ignore it because there is really nothing I can do about it, though it is indeed devastating to be forced to witness everyday. But every kid once they are about 5 years old, often even younger, will commonly be sent to run errands: Give this to so and so. Go buy (insert last minute meal item like oil, salt, some sort of vegetable) at the market. Go sit in the water line. This is not necessarily child labor (though 5 is awfully young) but a manner of teaching responsibility and chores like we do in the US. But it is still odd to me when I see a kid of 6 years with a baby of 6 months strapped to his back, carting a haul of items from the market back home. Apparently, “stranger danger” and the fear of leaving kids unsupervised for fear of kidnapping or accident does not apply here.

I always try to get kids to use their imaginations as much as possible because I know that once they hit 1st grade, all of their creative thought will be squashed out of them by the rote-memorization-filled, mind-numbing, utterly dull school system. I have been told by many a Mozambican that I need to start having children because “children are our riches.” I agree, I tell them, but I probably won’t have any kids for about 10 years, and when I do, I will probably only have two, maybe three. Shaking their head in a combination of dismay and disbelief, they walk away. Mozambican women think that it is a, and I quote, “white woman thing” to only have two kids, and at such an advanced age. I would like to observe this conversation about proper child-bearing age between a Mozambican and a black volunteer. But, it is obvious that children are coveted here in many ways. Obviously, parents love their children. They just have different ways of showing it. I had a kid come crying to my door the other day because the picture he had drawn for his mom at my house had been rejected as garbage by her. I told him it was beautiful and took it from his as if it were pure gold. They love their children but are wholly unworried that the schools are crap and the majority of kids finish 7th grade illiterate and without basic arithmetic skills. So I do what I can to instill creativity and self-confidence in the kids that visit me. They can draw all day if they want, until they poop on the floor, at which time they are swiftly sent home.

            I recently visited Malawi, from a bus that is, as I used the tiny country as a corridor to pass from one Mozambican province back home (Malawi intersects Mozambique to the west of my province) during my school break travels last month. I had never been to Malawi before but can safely make these observations: Malawi is pretty much the twin of Mozambique. The much smaller, heavily-accented, almost linguistically incomprehensible, chock-full of errors English-speaking twin with sweet roads (I don’t think we even came across one pothole in 1 full day of travel!) and brightly painted shops. Malawi is just barely nicer than Mozambique and speaks English as a second language to the local language of Chichewa (meaning the English level is low and many do not actually speak it), but clearly still suffers from the same problems of development. It is, however, an absolutely stunning country, and very reminiscent of my district in Moz, with whole zones dedicated to the cultivation of beautiful-for-the-landscape tea plantations.

            I also recently celebrated my birthday. And do not fret, it was celebrated in true Mozambican fashion: lots of singing birthday and other party songs, me being forced to make three different dramatic and schmaltzy speeches intended to inspire everyone to bring about the “new” Mozambique, hoards of people lined up to “greet” and kiss me, and a ritual cake-cutting ceremony that I had witnessed many times before but never before had to lead, causing me to commit many a cultural faux pas I’m sure. Overall, a very distinctive, but enjoyable day.

            Probably the biggest news of late is that Invinha recently got a tower for the new cell-phone service here in Mozambique, and it has revolutionized the whole town. Welcome to the 21st century Invinha! I can now send texts, check my email everyday, and take phones from my students when they ring during class…

            And finally, my grant to buy a copy machine and printer for my school was filled a few weeks ago. I wanted to send out a big thank you to everyone who was able to support my school. My director shrieked from excitement when I told her that we had secured the money (I thought she was going to jump out of her habit!). Other teachers and students who have heard the news have demonstrated equally exultant responses. Pictures and personal notes are sure to come as I am able to put the plan into action in the next month or so. Obrigada!