There is always a week in the Mozambican school calendars for teachers to correct and hand back final exams. Naturally, I did both tasks on Monday, so I had the whole week free. And despite all the drama with the boy who works for me, Daniel, and his pregnant “woman” Gilda, and I went to visit Daniel’s family in the super rural outpost of Nipive for the second time.
After the truck ride down a broken dirt road and a two-hour hike on foot, we arrived at about 9am (I felt super integrated during the walk because I was only wearing my cheap, flimsy, Mozambican flip-flops). They greeted us and then immediately, the women began to prepare a breakfast of rice and fish for us. After we ate that, it was time for lunch so we ate two meals back to back. Then we tucked in for the long haul, passing the afternoon in the scorching sun with nothing to do. Daniel’s parents have both passed away so their aunt and uncle raised his siblings and him. His aunt and uncle live in the “big” house on the compound, and then there are like 5-6 other houses for various grown daughters or sons and their respective families. It is a happening scene with a constantly morphing population of about 20 as people come and go throughout the day.
Some of the men have some sort of work, though they all kinda hung out with us all day, and all the women always stay at home all day. There was much to be done during the afternoon, as some of the women had spent the morning preparing the cornfields for next year. First, the women started peeling mandioca with homemade peelers that are basically what we use for potatoes. I asked Daniel if I should help and he said no but I did anyway. The women at first declined my offer, insisting that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I assured them that of the many Mozambican household tasks that people do everyday, peeling vegetables is definitely in my comfort zone. So we spent a good long while peeling. Then we had to make it into flour. After grinding it in the life size mortar and pestle, I was shown how to put the pieces on a big flat rock and then use a smaller rock to drag it back and forth on the pieces, grinding it into flour. My participation in both of these tasks gave the women lots to laugh at and gossip about in the local language. I think they liked it though, especially when they made me wear a capulana all day so I wouldn’t dirty my pants. Like eating sugarcane and soaked rice with sugar (my new favorite snack), it is all an activity. The whole family helps out with housework because they are massively bored and starved for entertainment. And I get that now, as I did the same thing and this was only one day in my life. Everything happens outside in village life and you just kinda go with the flow. Now people are pounding leaves, I guess I will help. Now people are sifting yucca flour, I have nothing better to do but pitch in. You are involved in every step of the food production: seed to table. They also do love just chilling on a reed mat in the shade, constantly moving to avoid the attack of the ants that plague this time of year.
Throughout the day, whenever I was sitting around, they would order one of the kids to bring me a bucket of water with which to wash my hands. Apparently, they think I am really dirty. This is probably because I didn’t bathe for the whole 24 hours I was there (I’m sure this really grossed them out). At first, they sent me to the river to take a bath there. Evidently, I didn’t wait long enough before returning (my plan was to just sit there and then pretend I had taken a bath) and my plan was foiled. Then, later in the day, they offered to bring a bucket of water to the house for me to bathe in the outdoor bathroom. Essentially, that is what I do at my own house, but I was just being lazy. And, I can guarantee that I was the only one on the compound that brushed my teeth, put on deoderant, and wore a different shirt the second day. I guess we just have different standards of personal hygiene. Don’t worry I took a bucket bath as soon as I walked into my house the next day. Mid-afternoon meant that everyone went to swim in the river. We went to the swimming hole and I took pictures of the seeming thousands of people of all ages diving into the water and posing. What do Mozambicans swim in you ask? Boys wear their underwear, girls wrap a capulana like a towel around themselves. They had a grand ole time. After our jaunt to the river, I passed out all the things I had brought (I know, I did what I hate about white people, but they were feeding me all day…). I brought sugar, salt, oil, onions, garlic, and soap for the adults, and paper, colored pencils, stickers, and bread for the kids. Then I pulled out two tupperwares full of banana bread. They loved it (thanks mom for the recipe) and devoured it. Banana bread is the perfect Mozambican dessert: Mozambicans all undoubtedly love sugar, bananas, and cake.
It seems like my day was packed, but really, there is a lot of downtime in village life. So what did the men and a few of the women do all day? Drank homemade alcohol that they had concocted from sugarcane and papaya. I did not try it but some of them got really wasted at 2pm on a Thursday. Obviously. They also may have then pulled out some marijuana, which even though I clearly didn’t care, I thought it was quite bold to smoke in front of me. The men also chain smoked cigarettes all day, lighting them with a stick that was slowly burning up that they kept in the middle of the circle. On our walk to the house, Daniel’s brother, who had come to the road to greet us, lit his cigarette from the smoldering ashes of the fields that people were burning to clear for next planting season.
All day, we listened to the same Celine Dion cassette on repeat. The last time I was there, they had a radio, but now they have a cassette player circa 1989. Good thing Daniel had instructed me to bring them new batteries…
Before dinner, I set up my tent. You would have thought it was the most momentous occasion to have happened in Nipive since time immemorial. Children and adults from the farthest reaches of the locality somehow managed to show up and stare in the 7 minutes it took me erect the tent. Then, of course, everyone wanted a picture with it. I love how you can make people so happy just by taking their photo and showing it to them on the camera. They also love to pose in weird body contortions or hold all the household items in front of them: cups, pitchers, the cassette player, what have you. Mozambicans also have make-shift tents: they will put four large sticks in the ground and then drape a mosquito net over them with a reed mat and a blanket underneath as their summer, outside bed. It is borderline genius.
For dinner we had chicken and yucca mush. I used to feel bad when people would pull out all the stops to feed me a good meal. But then I realized that it’s a special occasion for them as well. I always pick the smallest piece of chicken and then they have the rest. They will without fail give me the least broken plate, serve me water in a cup on top of a plate, and cover all the food with a pretty cloth. I have always wondered what life is like when the white lady isn’t around, but I guess I will never know.
After dinner, we watched “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on my computer. Daniel had requested I bring my computer, promising that his family would love it. When deciding on what movie I should show, Daniel asked for, and I quote, “Bruce Lee.” Disappointed that I didn’t have any kung fu movies, and swearing that an animated film like “Wall-E” or “The Lion King” would freak out his family, we chose X-Men, the only semi-action-filled movie I have. And goodness me, it was a hit. Daniel had to first explain to them that we were watching the film on a computer because they had probably never seen one before. Obviously, they couldn’t follow the plot (because of linguistic and cultural barriers, aka how to explain an elevator?), but they reacted intensely to every scene, laughing and exclaiming, often when that was probably not the appropriate response. I am not sure if they had ever seen a film before, and they got bored after an hour, so I just fast-forwarded through the dialog and showed just the fight scenes. And a good time was had by all. Whenever the black guy came on screen, everyone pointed at the screen and said “black guy.” When one of the characters said “but” in a funny way, they spent the next 20 minutes imitating and saying a prolonged “boat” amidst much laughter. And now I am fairly certain that they think all white people are mythological creatures because of this experience. The movie showed them things totally opposite of their world view that are supremely awesome and gasp-worthy: elevators, airplanes that explode and don’t just give out food during the war, men that are half-man, half-wolf, etc.
Before the movie, I wanted to floss, so I started giving it out and demonstrating its use to the whole family. You are welcome Arnstine Ortho. But they loved it, namely the flavor, as many commented that it tasted good. Daniel then slipped it between his two front teeth and left it hanging there throughout the movie. You have to show off what you have I guess.
Obviously, these people do not have electricity so when the sun goes down, that’s all she wrote. They cook dinner in the dark, essentially by feel, which is a highly impressive feat. I had brought my headlamp and the uncle especially loved it. I put it on him and every time he moved his head, he exclaimed loudly and excitedly that the area in front of him was lit. The aunt, on the other hand, hated it and asked me to take it off her. The uncle also has a weird foot deformity in that he only has three toes and the big one is extended and bent over the other two. I am unsure if this was a birth defect or happened during the war. But then another relative stopped by (they all just drop in and eat at all times of day) with a hand deformity so my guess is on the latter.
There were always like a million children everywhere. One of them, named Maezinha (little mother), loved me, to the chagrin of the whole family (they kept calling her “white” because of it). One other child was deeply afraid of the white lady and ran away crying if I just happened to pass by him, which everyone also found highly amusing. Everyone, men included, are great with kids. Daniel was practicing for his unborn child, and it was adorable. But apparently, a week or two before, one of the kids in the family had passed away. From what? Like all deaths here, they said he just got sick and died. Either straight-up malaria, or AIDS- related complications.
The older sisters were all too embarrassed to speak Portuguese with me because apparently they aren’t very good at it. The aunt is, however, because she went to school in colonial times. This younger generation (women in their twenties) grew up during the war and didn’t go to school because there really weren’t functioning schools in the bush at that time. The youngest generation (the kids) now go to school so there is a patent Portuguese and literacy generation gap. It makes for an interesting dynamic.
The whole reason we went to Nipive is because the last time I went there, I promised to come back with my “machine to take photos.” Then, with Daniel essentially getting married in the past week (here you don’t need a ceremony to consider yourself married), Daniel wanted to bring Gilda to meet his family. The whole day was super awkward because apparently there is a tradition here that until the daughter-in-law gives an offering to the parents (or in this case, Daniel’s aunt and uncle), she can’t speak to them. The gift doesn’t have to be big, Daniel said like 50 meticais and a capulana would suffice, but Gilda didn’t bring anything. The only time I saw her talk or smile was at the river with Daniel’s sisters and female cousins.
The second morning, I woke up to the whole family shucking the raw corn off the cob at 5:15am. Now, this is not corn in the American sense of the word; each cob is, like all Mozambican produce, aesthetically unique, and the process is painful on the thumbs. But, having nothing better to do, I joined in and shocked them that white people have thumbs up to the job too. Then I inadvertently joined in on a family meeting. I somehow found myself in a very serious conversation with Daniel, his older siblings, and aunt, and uncle. They were giving him advice now that he is married (from what I gathered, as much was in local language) and he explained how it all happened. Or rather he said, and again I quote, “These things happen. I don’t know how.” Classic Mozambique to remove yourself from all responsibility, as in, well how could I control this outcome? It just happened and I didn’t have anything to do with impregnating this 16 year old. I had taken Gilda to the hospital for her first pre-natal consult the day before we went to Nipive, because she was scared to go alone. Precious. But also, probably indicative of a lack of maturity to be a mother.
Soon enough, it was time to head home, meaning that since no car would be coming within 50km of the house that day, I had to get on the back of a bike for the whole ride. Now, my ass is really not up to village life. All day, my butt hurt from sitting on the ground, or an uncomfortable wooden bench, or a tree log. And the bike was the icing on the cake. Three hours on the back-rack Mozambicans also use to prop up their sacks of corn or beans, with my feet attempting to balance on the back tire spoke. My neighbors were all impressed that I made it as apparently everyone thinks that would have been a rough ride. It was also intensely hot throughout our stay. I ran through my 2 Nalgenes of water that I had brought in about the first hour and a half of arriving in Nipive. And since the water they were drinking was yellow with chunks in it, I asked for a pot so I could boil it. Instead, the aunt walked to the water pump to bring me back some “clean” water, which I drank heartily, and didn’t get sick. Apparently my bottom is not yet Mozambican, but my stomach is. We came away with sacks of rice, corn, and beans, some of which was intended for me, but that I obviously gave to Daniel. The whole experience was sort of reminiscent of my three-month homestay, but I was significantly more comfortable and helpful this time around. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am grateful for the experience.