Friday, September 21, 2012


Last night, I assisted my friend Cristina in making dinner. They had just built a new bamboo and reed outside-kitchen (after their old one was destroyed by a wind storm) so I was helping to inaugurate it. They had strung a light bulb outside so we were enjoying a nice, leisurely few hours of watching leaves cook down and corn flour become the corn-paste-ball-things that Mozambicans love so much. Cristina is one of my students but also my best friend in Invinha, and her husband is a teacher at my school. Her husband once told me the story of his life: essentially, he grew up super poor about 100km from Gurue and during the civil war, as a child, he walked with his family 250km to the nearest refugee camp to get some food and clothes. Now, he has a great job with a beautiful wife and daughter (though he did impregnate Cristina, when she was a student of his…). Cristina is incredibly patient with my cultural and linguistic mishaps and loves to hear about America. As she removed a pot of boiling water from the coal stove with her bare hands, I gasped to make her laugh and commented on how I am weak because my hands would not be able to handle that. She then made an extremely adept anthropological and cultural observation that resonated with me: “Well, you can put ice in your mouth without suffering and I can touch hot pots.” Cristina grew up in the bush a few hours away, without electricity, and therefore without the ability to make ice, and so she can’t manage the cold like I can, someone who grew up with popsicles. I have grown accustomed to pot holders and therefore my fingers can’t hang with the heat. Well put, Cristina.

Speaking of popsicles, we then began to make some Mozambican ones. Cristina started this business last week and swears to me it has already been lucrative. She mixes juice powder with dirty river water, scoops it into plastic sleeves and ties the top. They spend the night in the freezer, and then a young girl (who I refer to in my head as her “child slave,” though it is culturally normative to hire a girl from the bush to do your bitch-work if you have any sort of monetary means to do so) sells them at the market for a met a piece to thirsty and sweaty passers-by. You bite a hole into the bottom of the plastic baggie and it is near heaven on a hot day. The girl, by the way as Cristina informed me, makes 50mt a month for sitting at the market all day. That is less than $2 for a month’s work. Oy.

I was eager to help Cristina in her popsicle-making business because of what she explained to me a few weeks ago: her husband leaves her some change on the chair in their bedroom on the days she should buy food. When he doesn’t leave her money for whatever reason, she is shit out of luck. One day, she confided in me that her husband had not left her any money and so she didn’t know what she was going to make for dinner. I mean come on dude, dish out a few mets for your wife to make you leaves in a broth of tomatoes, onions, and salt. Apparently this is a typical wife-husband interaction and so I was thrilled that Cristina was starting to do something towards some financial independence.

As I commented on how proud I was of her, the conversation then turned to one of the other students in Cristina’s class, Amede. To put it nicely, I do not like this kid. And he is not even a kid; he is married with 2 children of his own. He’s a drunk: he showed up wasted a few times to my afternoon classes and totally caused a scene. When I brought him to the dean, the dean said he would take care of it, and then he just let it slide. Cristina told me how Amede beats his wife and she keep going back to him. As I attempted to explain the idea of battered woman syndrome and how it is normal for women to have trouble leaving their abusive partners, and that maybe she needs some help to do so from a good person like Cristina, Cristina assured me that it was of no use. I attribute this to a cultural disparity and not a lack of caring. But it is still devastating, as this guy was my student last year and I failed him since he never comes to class or turns in any work, and is continuing the trend into this year. As a foreigner, there isn’t much I can do to help his wife, who Cristina says is super thin because Amede spends all their money on beer, and not food. And it’s not like there is any social support for women in this situation here, so after our dinner of leaves and corn mush, I came home in a somber mood. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happy Birthday Hermínio

A few weeks ago, one of my best and favorite students invited me to his 17th birthday party, through a “formal” invitation that he had scrawled out on a piece of printer paper. Now, I would assume that in America, this would be wildly inappropriate, regardless of gender equivalence, and especially in this case, when they didn’t match. But seeing as many male teachers hold hands at school and have sex after school with 15 year-old female students in Mozambique, I figured I could stop by a male students party to say hi. Except that I forgot about the party until yesterday, when the kid, Hermínio, dropped by to borrow my masking tape and remind me about the party. “Teacher, come you today?” he attempted in English. I scoured my brain for the appropriate response to his valiant effort at communication and replied that of course I would. I anticipated an awkward few hours, and I was right.

The party was due to start at 5pm, so I left my house at 6pm. And it got dark on me fast. Before I had even left my neighborhood, it was pitch black, but I was committed to my gander through the bush to his house. I had his present in my hand and didn’t want to disappoint him; Hermínio was such a sweet kid. But here’s a thinker: what do you bring to the birthday party of your student that lives in the Mozambican bush? I didn’t have any flour and you can’t buy flour in Invinha, so I couldn’t make a cake, my usual go to in situations like this since I enjoy giving people their first taste of chocolate cake. So I pulled out an old Swiss army knife, wrapped it in printer paper, wrote “Happy Birthday Hermínio” on it, and off I went.

And I was quickly lost. I had been to his house before in the daylight, but a dark, starless night offered a different experience. I stumbled upon a few families cooking dinner on some firewood, tripped over the crevices and cracks of the dirt path, and finally made it 45 minutes later. And the smile on Hermínio’s face was ear to ear. I gave him his gift and told him to come by my house the next day so I could explain what it was and how to use it. He then led me inside, past some people who I greeted but couldn’t see their faces, and told me to sit on a reed mat. So I sat.

And sat.

I sat next to a nine year-old girl and the two year-old she had strapped to her, neither of whom spoke Portuguese. So I let my eyes wander. And everything started coming together: a few months ago, Hermínio had borrowed a People magazine circa 2007 from my house, and today he had borrowed tape. When he returned the magazine, it had seemed a little thinner than normal, but I didn’t pay much attention. Now I saw pictures of Johnny Depp and ads for body soap plastered all over the mud-brick walls of his “living room.” But it was tastefully done and he had written some congratulatory messages in chalk on the individual bricks. Hermínio had even borrowed a battery-powered lantern for the event. I’m not sure what I expected from the birthday party of my teenage student who lives off the food his family grows, but perhaps a battery-powered radio emitting static like you often hear in the bush would have livened up the party. And why you would have a nighttime party when you don’t have electricity is beyond me. But though the party was far from raging, I was proud of the kid; he did a good job. 
What seemed like years later, some super bush women walked in and Hermínio gave himself a birthday toast. He then asked if anyone had anything to add, and since no one spoke up and I felt bad for the kid, I stood up to announce how smart and how hard-working he was, and then, in a tip of the hat to my grandpa Art, I made him state his goals for the coming year.

Then it was time to eat. I knew what would ensue and I was nervous about it. Hermínio explained what he had prepared (coconut rice, rice with tomatoes and Mozambican bay leaves, beans, and meat and potato “stew”), overall, a commanding feast. Then he immediately handed me a plate, indicating I was to serve first. Despite my protests that it was his day and that perhaps the other women should go before me, I still found myself awkwardly facing the spread alone and before the other guests, assuredly because I was seen as the most important guest on account of being a teacher, and of course, because I am white. I was uncomfortable and dished out the teeniest spoonful of each item, figuring that the other guests probably needed the protein more than I did. Hermínio then served everyone else heaping plates and we ate. I was the only guest provided with cup of juice and a fork. I handed my fork to the woman next to me, the juice to her child, and ate with my fingers, Moz style.

Soon enough, I decided to leave, and Hermínio accompanied me home, as is the custom. I bid him happy birthday and threw myself to bed. All the birthday sitting had wiped me out.

It is September, meaning we are at the bridge between the two southern African seasons: dry and rainy. It has rained only a few times in the past 6 months, transforming the dirt roads into veritable dust clouds, and meaning that I could sweep constantly, all day, and not keep up with the influx of dust. Everything is covered in dust: my computer, my clothes drying on the line, my face, my feet. In their true, dramatic style, Mozambicans are frequently claiming, “We are suffering and dying from dust.” But I now have a new topic of conversation to invoke on chapas: Mozambicans love to break awkward silences by mentioning the name of the city or town we are in, or at this time of year, simply stating “poeira” (“dust”), letting the “ah” sounds hang in the air a while. It is also burning season, where people start fires to raze their fields, the easiest yet the most destructive method of preparing for next years planting season. Most people live in thatched roof houses, and sit idly by as their violent fires inch ever closer. I think most PCVs have had students say that they missed class because their house burnt down, which I guess is a worthy excuse. At night you can see massive fires in the distance on all sides. And with the wind that marks this time of year, veritable dust storms and mini-tornadoes arise, and bring dust and burnt plant matter into my house via my roof. Remind me of my complaints when the rain starts and I transfer my grievances to the mud that gets everywhere.

I went to say goodbye to my host family last week, and though my host father is now unemployed since the owner of his bakery closed up shop indefinitely, my host mother has started raising chickens. She has over 250 of them and is almost ready to sell them, which will bring in a magnificent income. During the last few weeks of training when I lived with them, my host mother and I had discussed her dream to raise and sell chickens, and at the time, my inexperience had prevented me from helping. Since then, she has built a concrete coop with her own hands, and borrowed money at low interest to buy her first installment of chicks. She has accomplished her dream, and I am immensely proud.

Hermínio literally just stopped by to get his Swiss army knife demo, and he eyes almost popped out of his head. On this list of things I will miss from Peace Corps: shocking and impressing people with the simplicities.