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February 22, 2004

Ali's Mozambique Esisode 8

Dear friends and family,

So much has gone by in my life since the last letter. I've been ridiculously busy and it's been nearly impossible to find time to write. In late November I had a two-week visit from my parents here in Lamego, followed by two weeks of touring South Africa together, then a month at home for the holidays. I have been back in Mozambique for about five weeks now, and am left with only the mental skids of several very different worlds that never quite seem to exist together, though I guess I now have concrete proof for myself that indeed they do.

Though my parent's visit to Mozambique went well, with no major setbacks or letdowns, it was not always easy. I think my father found it eye-opening, beautiful, and the experience of a lifetime. I am pretty convinced that my mother found it to be the experience of a lifetime, but one that she couldn't wait to be over. She was physically uncomfortable most of the time and was very affected by the sides of Africa that I stopped noticing a long time ago: the smells, the ugly bare walls and sub-par aesthetics of poverty, the roaches on the bathroom floor, and the idea that diarrhoea shouldn't be a normal state of health. Though I didn't usually share in my mom's complaints, I think she and I both learned from the experience. (And I actually do know that when you are hunched on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m. vomiting into a plastic bag, it is very natural and acceptable to think, "I hate Africa! Why did I ever come here?!") I realized too that my experience here as a functioning part of a school community is completely different from that of a visitor with no ability to break the language barrier. So much of my personal satisfaction here comes from the role I play and the attention I get. I have over 65 people depending on me daily, looking to me for help, resources, or a good-morning smile. Though I have an unfair advantage being useful here (with computer skills, a college education, and a drawer full of sticky stuff and post-its), it is what it is, and I reap the benefits of feeling productive and helpful.

My parents did enjoy getting involved with the students in their own ways. My father brought lecture plans and demonstration materials for a few classes on chemical polymers and we enjoyed teaching together, he teaching in English with me translating in Portuguese. My mother had some informal English lessons with a few students who took a liking to her.

On our last night in Mozambique, which was going to be our volunteer house Thanksgiving celebration with everything from turkey to mango pie, a huge storm blew out the electricity (including the generator) and transformed our holiday into a cozy candle-lit night of Triscuits, cake, and red wine.

Our trip to South Africa was vastly different. Though Mozambique and South Africa are bordering countries, the economic differences leave them light years apart. I boarded a plane and left a world where nearly anybody gets giddy over a new Bic pen and the highlight of the weekend is a snack of plain bread and artificial juice. Two hours later I arrived in a touristís blizzard of Holiday Inn strips equipped with dizzying casinos and free shampoo.

I was at first alarmed by the apparent lack of care or knowledge the average well-off white South African seemed to give to impoverished African countries to the north (or the hugely poor underclass within their own country). The first thing our tour guide said to my parents was, "You spent two whole weeks in Mozambique? Why in the world would you want to do that?" But then I realized this is no different than the average Americanís lack of consciousness about impoverished Mexico to the south, or the way an average wealthy Manhattan banker may not internalize the ghettos a few blocks over.

I appreciated a great deal of our South African travels; the country is stunningly beautiful and very diverse. I especially enjoyed the game parks where we saw lions, monkeys, elephants and giraffes all in the wild Ė (sadly) an almost totally foreign concept. It is a very humbling and serenely beautiful experience to see such animals existing in their natural state.

A lot of my experiences in South Africa, however, were colored by my now-discriminating eyes that ring at the sight of inequality. Although only about 1/7th of the population of S.A. is white, in the touristy, richer areas that we frequented, the only non-whites were those people cleaning our clothes and washing our dishes. Talking to some of the black workers, it became obvious that although apartheid is over and people are legally equal in this country, whites and blacks and mixed races are still very segregated along economic and opportunity lines.

I was also upset by the situation we encountered in the huge city of Johannesburg. Most people enter and leave all of southern Africa through this gateway city, but the tourist industry creates an envelope of fear amongst visitors that keeps them locked up in secluded entertainment centers with enclosed restaurants, casinos and hotels. Tourists are too afraid to even cross the street for fear of getting mugged or shot. Though I understand that there is real violence in Jo-burg, like in most large cities, it seems that this promotion of fear further separates people and economic flow, making the city more divided, less understood by visitors, and actually enhances crime in some areas.

Though the struggles of this country are not over, I agree that South Africans can feel proud that their large and complex country could, at least legally, unify their diversity and end apartheid while maintaining relative peace, without a ten year-long civil war or genocide to get to that point.

Though I wonít deny that it was nice to have western comforts as a tourist and then at home in the US, I wasnít as elated as I had anticipated. Within only a few weeks I went from being completely overworked in the midst of a sweaty power outage to cruising around in my dadís new sports car. Oddly, neither of these two situations seemed extreme in my mind, because they are somewhat normal for where they are. So much of our emotions are determined by our expectations. I donít miss running water in Mozambique because I donít expect it, and I am not overjoyed by a freezer full of ice cream in the US because I do expect it. Our bodies adjust rapidly to our surroundings.

Crowd Clapping and DrummingTraveling between these different worlds has reinforced my previous observations about personal memories being locked up in particular people, locations, and situations; it can be hard to tap these memories without the appropriate triggers. Seeing as my life in the US is almost totally unlike my daily life in Mozambique, I found that the 6 weeks I was away I rarely thought about Africa in detail. It smoothly took a back seat to the role I was resuming, almost seamlessly, in my American circle of friends and family. It's quite sad, actually; I thought it would be impossible to forget the way hot massa feels in my hands and mouth after a long day, or the way my student Jo„o Muananhoca smiles through his eyes. But these sensations only invited me in when I was physically here again, inhaling this life in my physical body. I remember what Mozambique is like now when the ticket collector laughs at me and charges me extra for being white, and I remember Mozambique when I hear drums in the distance and watch the students become their African music on Saturday nights. Humans are this way by nature, we usually think only of things that have apparent relevance to our personal lives. This underscores the importance of actively trying to make the outside world personal to our own internal world. I am glad that I can help make Mozambique a part of other people's consciousness, even if in just a minor way. Internalizing a place and people makes their fate important to us, and this is the way it should be. Personalized journalism - admittedly biased writing that includes opinions and emotions - is of so much value in our globalized world where people of different countries are inextricably tied together by cause and effect on every level.

Baby looking around on busSo here I am again back in the world of green lemons, football-sized sweet potatoes and bulging mangos. Back in the place where I am impressed by an 11th grade education, and where intestinal discomfort echoes inside as little black baby feet bob against my thighs on the bus ride to the city.

The first month of being back was very exciting and fulfilling for me. This last week however, my thoughts have been homeward as I am often overworked and the harsh realities of Africa are bogging me down. My student Elisabete is very sick, and has left school for good. I think I've mentioned her in a previous email; I suspected she was HIV-positive from her reoccurring health problems of shingles and a bout of malaria that has consumed her health for months on end. I don't have a lot of hope that she will make it much longer. This is a girl who already lost a child to malaria this past year. Beyond this, cholera - a potentially fatal illness spread by feces-contaminated water, and characterized by the most ferocious diarrhea Ė broke out in our village a few months ago. The risk to us and the students is augmented by the breaking of our water pump, forcing all the students to bathe in the river - the same water the community uses for drinking, cooking, and washing their bums after pooping.

By staying longer, I am very slowly becoming a little bit less of a naive foreigner. As I become more of a permanent part of people's lives, I hear more, learn more, and continue to make huge mistakes. The difference is that I am here long enough to realize them. Shortly before my return home for Christmas, I found out I was being lied to and used for nearly 5 months by a close friend. It was such a sad and ugly disappointment, but an inevitable and useful discovery, rendering me a little less naive about my surroundings. I've realized how much more influential my race and appearance is in every interaction than I've ever thought, and it makes it difficult to ever trust the intentions of others. People will always try to use me here, because I am seen as a door to a land, a place, a concept, of more opportunity. Though it sucks being on the poor, underprivileged side of the door, it also sucks being the door. You are constantly being pushed and pushed a little bit farther. People here lie all the time to get what they perceive they need, and lying is a very culturally acceptable means to getting what one wants. Honesty doesnít pay here, or at least thatís the standard that people seem to live by.

Alice teaching a lessonBut donít worry! I am not hopelessly jaded! I have some happy stories too. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the home of an EPF (teacher training college) student who is a friend of mine. I had a fantastic weekend and realized that Aliceís (Ah-leece) life embodies the fusion of tradition and modernity in Africa today.

Aliceís sisters reflect contemporary lifestyles with their bold jewelry and modestly furnished apartments in the city, and are clearly part of the quickly developing world. When they go in the bush to visit the parents on the machamba (family farm) on the weekend, however, they take off their red heels and wrap on a traditional capulana and help the other barefoot women prepare sadza, chicken, and roasted maize. New and old co-exist because they have to, as both are realities and both are important.

Aliceís parents have lived, worked, and raised 7 kids on this same plot of land their whole lives, and they seem to be healthy and doing well. (His family is a true African miracle: both parents and every child is still alive, even into adulthood.) The family converses in dialect and neither parent has completed more than a few years of primary school. Though the large farm looks lush and thriving like no other I've seen, I learned from Alice that itís barely self-sufficient. The family consumes what it produces, but the parents depend on the children now for extra expenses like new clothes or a trip to the hospital. Their poverty is evident by the decorations on the walls of the houseís main room: colorful Shoprite ads for frozen Christmas chickens, and calendars from 1996.

In contrast, Miquilina, the second daughter, is married to a Mozambican from Maputo who works for an American development organization. The two are very aware of their own country as well as the rest of the world, and he has even had an opportunity to visit the States. Aliceís father on the other hand wasnít quite sure where the US was. But he knew about Canada because they once brought rations during the war and their neighbors still use the tin container marked "Product of Canada" more than a decade later for storage.

The oldest daughter, Cristina, is basically the breadwinner for the entire family of 9 because sheís had a steady job as the announcer on the Chimoio city radio station for 8 years. Alice is attending our teacher training college only by the grace of his uncle, a teacher in EPF, who is paying his way.

Alice himself is such an enigma to me. He has this little photo album of his friends and pictures of himself. I couldnít stop laughing when I saw each picture, because he just looks so cool and tough, with his tight biceps and bright bandana, or sunglasses and a muscle shirt. But he is just an African boy who hated wearing shoes as a kid and thought you earned an A in school by showing up for every class. His life was the machamba - itís in his blood, the big bone structure of his African mouth, his strong hands. He is a camponÍs (peasant), but he is also Alice who writes poems in Portuguese and dances through the air on the basketball court in his sneaks. Traditional beliefs underlie his actions, strongly, but he is able to listen beyond them as well. He is aware of this thing we call globalization, and he knows how unfair the world is. He knows he is poor, but he is proud of who he is. Somehow that gives him strength to accept his situation; he does not cower and he doesn't complain. And at the end of the day, Alice is just a guy like everyone else.

Looking up at full Papaya treeIt's summer time in Africa, and unlike last year, I am beginning to understand the true meaning of "rainy season", as it has rained nearly every day since I've been back. Anyone would agree that an equally accurate name for this time of year is "bug season". The insects in my room last night were so big I honestly thought I had rats. I have bugs in my pants and my hair at all times. I don't understand where they all come from and how they have not completely dominated the world by this point.

Thanks for reading this far. As always, I enjoy hearing about what's going on in all your lives, and please let me know if you have any questions about anything.

As they say here in Mozambique, I wish you health.


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