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June 29, 2003

Update from Ali

Even though I have left Mozambique nearly 2 months ago, I am still able to post 'updates'.  My former housemate, Ali, writes email updates.  Her outlook and perspective are always profound.  I would like to be able to share them with you.

Ali writes:

As I am now looking with unease over the pages of illegible journal notes I've collected over the last many weeks, I've realized too late again that I should be writing shorter, more frequent, emails...   But here I am, and here you are, so lets go!

I'll begin around the time I left off last time, though it's not an uplifting story.  These last 6 weeks or so have left Lamego and our school with many fewer lives.  Our happy return from the beach-party farewell for one of the volunteers was jostled into sadness as we found that Felizberto, the head teacher in our vocational school, had suddenly lost his three- year old daughter.  This was actually the 4th child of a teacher to die since I've been here....  and there are only about 20 teachers in total at our school.  This month we have also lost a student, and students have lost babies.  Everyone seems to have lost relatives or friends of some sort, as the words absence due to "infelicidade" are written on our blackboards far too often.

Little girl in front of houseThere is a particular unease that I, and I imagine the other volunteers, feel when someone dies here.  We know that in most cases, had these people had the luxury of western hospitals, medicines, and health information, so many of them would still be living today.  Our director Amy, a young woman from the States, was due to have her baby around the same time as a Mozambican teacher from our school.  Amy delivered a healthy baby in the advanced hospitals of South Africa a few months ago.  Cristina however lost both her babies while giving birth, as no one even realized there were twins inside of her in the 9 months proceeding.  She even had the school's help to visit the best hospital in Beira for an ultrasound, but apparently they "missed" this crucial information.  It seems impossible that I can have a consciousness of how life is in the States, and still see with my own eyes what is happening here.  Nothing seems to make sense and nothing equates.  There are no standards that are true across the board, as there is no justice or fairness in anything.  White babies live and black babies die, because some have access to opportunity and others don't.  It is a math problem with no resolution, as two ends never seem to meet.

FelizbertoI attended the funeral of Felizberto's child.  One student arranged for her husband to transport all the students and teachers to the next town in his gigantic work truck.  People here bind together and make things happen in times of crisis.  Though this is surely true of people everywhere, I am becoming more aware of the amount of time and energy that goes into things like this here.  Making contacts and plans in a place with few phones, personal cars, and little extra money to spare is never an easy task.

Once we arrived for the funeral, we walked 15 minutes out into the middle of the bush, through tall grasses and past mud huts where women were cooking for their children.  We filled the family's entire yard, and women sang constantly.  The coffin was a wooden box wrapped in a white sheet and tied with old pink strips of cloth.  The coffin was impossibly small, and rested on two opposite facing chairs.  The men sprayed perfume on the box before the viewing, and three-year old Joanna looked like a sleeping doll, in all perfection.  After many prayers from the man with the bible, dressed in a Muslim hat, a worn wool turtleneck, and green flip-flops, the procession of song and people carried the coffin another 10 minutes through the reeds and trees to a small, secluded clearing.  A small girl-sized hole had been dug in the ground. The mother of the child was completely capsized by grief, she could not stand, she could not look, and the sight of her pain brought a constant stream of tears to my eyes.  All of Joanna's possessions were brought to the grave as well, and the women continued to sing.  The sparse moments of silence in between songs seemed to me hollow and sad, and I clung to their voices, waiting anxiously for them to resume.  The men began to cut and rip all of the child's belongings in half, and laid them in the grave with the coffin.  Little shirts, dresses, booties, and even a plastic doll were halved, to encourage her spirit to leave these earthly things, to move on.  Everyone present helped throw handfuls of earth over the coffin, and the most beautiful arrangement of natural flowers and leaves I have ever seen was arranged on top.  A simple wooden cross with the child's name written in magic-marker was nailed into the ground.  As we each collected leaves from nearby trees and handed them to one man collecting them, we left the site, still singing, still crying.

When my students get sick enough to go home for a few days, I am actually quite afraid that they will never come back.  One student who was enrolled in EAO (the vocational school) left in the first few weeks of school with tuberculosis, and we just recently got word that he had died.  Another student in EPF (the teacher training college) left recently, also sick with TB, and he too just passed away.  It is absolutely ridiculous the number of people dying all the time here... Nuerongue's child, Dulce's aunt, Duarte's brother, Elizabeth's baby,...  It's estimated that someone dies every day who is related to our school or our town.  So many times the cause of death is "unknown".

Recently one of my students had developed a horrible scabrous area of lesions all over her torso and waist - triggered by apparently nothing in particular.  This viral infection, shingles - a related form of the chicken pox virus - is most often apparent in people with compromised immune systems.  In an area such as here, it is extremely likely that she is HIV positive.  When I encouraged her to go for a free test, she wholeheartedly agreed.  But it's been well over a month now since that conversation and she still hasn't mustered the "time" to go... Though I know it's best for everyone to know his or her status, in some ways I also don't blame her for her paralyzing fear.  When there are no medications available to you, when your society (including your family) will probably shun you if they knew, what real incentive is there to know that you will likely be dying sooner rather than later?

The students and teachers are constantly sick.  I sign between 2 and 6 hospital slips per day, just for my 60-some EAO students.  The biggest culprit is malaria, as here in sub-Saharan Africa it is as prevalent as the common cold in the US.  Although most people recover with the appropriate medicine, it can be completely debilitating for days, weeks, or more.  Though it's hard to imagine the effect these harsh and somewhat toxic medicines, chloroquine, fanzitol, and quinine, have on the body, even greater is trying to imagine what this place would be without access to these life-saving medicines.  Malaria can surely be fatal if not treated.

I've been fortunate enough to escape malarial mosquitoes thus far (though some of the other volunteers haven't been so lucky).  I've been making a concerted effort to spend a good five to ten minutes before my nightly bucket bath, jumping around the bathroom making a bloody mess of my hands as I slap these well-bred mosquitoes around.

Mozambican house in foliageAs my time here has rolled over onto the downward momentum of "the second half", weeks fly by, days disappear, and my senses are acutely tuned to all the things I love here.  There is no doubt about it; I am in love with Africa.  The rolling plains and mountains, the houses made as direct extensions of the earth, the ivy-covered roofs and mud-molded windows.  Everything seems to be where it belongs... the reddest tomatoes piled high in the market place, and the hundred fresh heads of cabbage by the side of the road.  The women there make the most precise pyramids of impossibly orange tangerines.  It's all organic and much of it is sold within miles of where it was harvested, often times by the same hands that raised them from seed.  Goats walk around as if the land is theirs too - and it is of course.  Music with the lilted up beat of Africa slides out of the tinny transistor radios, and it's the soundtrack to all of our lives here.  The smell of charcoal fires cooking massa and onions and maybe meat if your lucky fill the air.  Walking through a village seems human, because all of the houses are human-sized and all the people are right there, in front of you, with you.  We all see each other and interact with each other.  We even sit on each other's laps to save space in the chapa when it's raining.

People are working so hard to just live here.  I went to the mountainous village of Messica in Manica Province to stay with a student and his aunt and uncle during the Mozambican Independence Day this week.  Spending time with a Mozambican family helped me realize how quiet life is, how calm, how based around food, water, heat and shelter it is.  We sat by the charring coals outside and watched the rain collect in the basins; we waited for the rice to boil, and talked intermittently about daily life and how old the kids are.  This was the day - buying, preparing, and eating food.  Procuring water, heating it, bathing with it.  Walking.  Resting.  I spent the next day in and out of crazy chapas with Olimpio and his cousin, making our way to Manica city, and to the border town on the fronteira of Zimbabwe, Machipanda.  We walked up and down hills, through towns, seeing the school, the railway station, and the apparent pride of the city - the large unfilled swimming pool.  When it comes down to it, there really isn't that much to actually do.  The country's favorite past time is to passear, just walk around and hang out.  Though this life lacks the stimulation of interesting films and books and sophisticated technology, there is something very beautiful in it's simplicity.  Fewer distractions mean more time to just be.

This same minimalism in distractions makes the little ones they do have so very special.  A friend of the family had sent several little gifts to our school, which we used as prizes for evening program games.  It was the greatest thing watching the teachers in EAO marvel over things like stickers and pencil sharpeners.  One professor, Correia, was making up stories about them, showing them off to the others.  "And this little thing (referring to a yo-yo) is for when you are tired or when you just failed an exam, you can relax by swinging it up and down.  And this here, (as he demonstrates how to use the temporary tattoos) are for when you want to look pretty at work."  I swear he showed off the free airline eyeshades and earplugs to each and every teacher separately.  They are so cute sometimes.  I love their energy and their delight in little pleasures.

The desire for impressive novelties is as great here as in anywhere in the world... it just manifests itself differently here.  Instead of kids wanting to pose for a picture in front of a baseball stadium or a new sports car, my students pose seriously by our television set, or the computer, or the bookstand with an obscure psychology text opened in their hands, thinking they can't wait to show their parents this photo.

We are nearing the end of the first of three terms at our school, and my classes are going well (save the numerous encounters I've had with the other chemistry teacher- like the last instance when he was literally making up students' grades at random after the last exam!)  I've realized too that I've spent these first 7 months learning HOW to be a decent teacher... I have made my fair share of mistakes, in keeping on track of our schedule and keeping the information simple and appropriate.  I've realized that what is standard information in the US isn't necessarily relevant here.  For example, I feel a little foolish about teaching nutrition in biology class.  Yes, it is useful for these kids to understand concepts of nutrition and vitamins and what a calorie is.  But, when I warned about the dangers of excess sugar, and excess caffeine, I realized the ridiculousness of it all as I currently consume more caffeine and sugar than any of them probably would at any point in their lives.  They do not have the money to drink two cups of coffee with artificial non-dairy creamer a day, and they don't have the influence of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbuck's to make them think they want to.  Sure a few of them enjoy a Coke now and again, unaware of how this giant corporation is literally changing the face of our world, but they don't buy it by the liter at the grocery every few days.  No, its not good to overdo it on those colored frozen sugar pops at the chapa stands, but they are no match for the packaged processed snackpack food we send our kids to school with every day in the States.   They haven't even heard of artificial western normalities like NutraSweet.  So why am I lecturing about this stuff to them?  WE are the ones with the information, the knowledge that this stuff isn't good for us, but do we listen?  We could draw the food pyramid in our sleep, but we are the ones so often abusing our bodies by choice.

I think I was humbled most abruptly when I casually asked Emilia, our house helper, if she likes coffee.  She said no, the smell of it makes her feel uneasy.  And then she added that she doesn't like sugar or cocoa or margarine or dairy products either.  The funny thing is, I don't think she's even aware that these things ARE unhealthy for us; she just instinctually doesn't like them.  (She had no idea that excess sugar and fat could make you put on weight until one of the volunteers was talking about it).  Emilia, who lives in rural Lamego and picks her vegetables from the earth on her own machamba, who cooks all her meals over an open fire, and who will probably never know the taste of ice cream, seems to me like a person who can still guide her health by instinct.   She's not tainted by the unnatural societal habits and pressures of processed everything that we live among in the west, and she doesn't even want them.  Something is becoming clearer to me: we may have the means to knowledge and advanced technology in the US and in various places around the world, but when it comes to using it in intelligent ways, we often times fail miserably.  Whether this relates to sugar intake or nuclear output, we sometimes seem to do the exact opposite of what is good or right with our knowledge. Why are we wasting our time?

For anyone interested more in thinking about strange collisions between the west and Africa, I can recommend a totally captivating, educational fiction set in Africa (in the Congo, in late 1950s), The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. (Find it here)

Also, for a good read on Mozambican history, particularly the "civil" war in the 70s and 80s, a good, personal narrative by William Finnegan, is A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique. (Find it here.)

People playing at beachsideBut enough of that.  Onto the less weighty things!  Our school recently held a regional Olympic Games on our campus - a weekend of 500 feisty teenagers dueling it out in basketball, soccer, and running events.  Of course, the weekend also hosted Jogos Olimpicos events, Mozambique-style: the cha quiente (hot tea) drinking event, the "push the Toyota" contest, and the eating the boiled egg competition.  And of course, only here will you find students ridiculous enough to throw the event because a boiled egg is an extra treat here.  Instead of forking it down with the others, I spotted two clever kids taking their time with that egg, shelling it slowly and carefully, enjoying their free afternoon snack.  I love it here!

Overall, as I'm very conscious of my time here slowly slipping away (Christmas may seem far away now, but it will come so fast for me), I am in some ways not looking forward to a total reality shift.  Though life is a challenge for so many people here, there is a realness to it that reminds you that you are living.  I always feel very alive.  I guess it doesn't help that I am in the midst of reading Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men", a very honest, upbeat look at who makes up the US government, and where their time and our money is going.  I very highly recommend this book too (let's call this "Ali's book list" episode), as it's truths are funny but nauseatingly frustrating. (Find it here.) It makes me in some ways not want to return to what everyone keeps calling "civilization".  Caitlyn, one volunteer who recently returned to the US after a year here, has found it very difficult to adjust to the change in life: the ignorant comments, the materialism, the blatant societal waste, and general oblivion to the fact that the US does not live isolated from the rest of the world.

I don't mean to sound overbearing or pouty or unpatriotic.  But it is true that you can't remain completely unchanged living in a place like this.


Anyway, in general I feel like I am assimilating a little more into normal Mozambican society here.  I'm conversant enough now for most types of conversations and I've actually made a good friend, outside of our school, who has been kind enough to show me around Beira.  I finally feel like a friend, rather than a tourist.

Lastly, our baby kitten has grown into a rather fat house cat, surely the most spoiled animal in southern Africa.  It is sadly, and almost embarrassingly, ironic that our kitty gets a big belly from leftover fish heads and goat bones when half the kids in Lamego have swollen bellies from malnutrition.  Another interesting animal phenomenon is the elusive Mozambican termite.  Though I can't actually recall ever seeing a live termite here, they make their presence known in narrow columns of dirt mound on our teacher sala walls, and more boldly, in the form of gigantic seemingly innocuous mounds, the color of wet sand, all over the countryside.  Sometimes these mounds are tall and thin like telephone poles, but most times they are just lumpy and large as motorcycles, blending in with their surroundings.  I haven't tried, but I hear running into one of them would be a huge sorry mistake.

As always, I apologize for the length and greatly appreciate your interest.  Be safe and have fun.

Ali can be reached via email: (Copy & Paste)