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.
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.