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!