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November 10, 2004

Ali's Mozambique Esisode 9


It’s been six months since my Africa. It's a little ridiculous that I haven't yet had/made time to write up these scattered notes, dating back from February and March in Mozambique. But it is from this craziness of American life I find myself in now that I will tell, in retrospect, more about my time in Lamego. It is a little difficult to capture the prose of Africa from a nearly insect-free brownstone in Boston, but if all goes well this will benefit me as well as you.

It is the custom of my friend Alice in Mozambique to keep a mental tally of his felicidades e tristezas –his happinesses and sadnesses. So this is how I will begin.


My joys are that I have been healthy. And so have my family and friends. My joys are that I stayed in Mozambique until the 10th grade curriculum came to an end, and nearly all of the students passed. And there are of course a million small joys that stay inside of me, hidden but present: So many nights spent whirling around the basketball court long after the sun had continued westward, spinning and laughing so hard the stars dance around my head and the fireflies take off into the heavens. So many mornings opening the kitchen doors to the sun and early heat of daybreak, students sleepily doing their chores outside my open window, slashing the rough grass short with machetes. Watching my students make bracelets, earrings and necklaces with extra supplies from the US, seeing their smiles and pride and amazing creations. Eating one last lazy and prolonged lunch with the students on kitchen duty that day, gossiping by the open fire, peanut sauce and corn meal hot in our hands. So many innumerable joys.


The sadnesses are fewer, Graças a Deus, but also memorable. One sadness in recent months has been the military recruitment of a good student and friend of mine, Fazenda Marcos Tendezai. Fazenda, now in his early twenties, was born into a family with 10 other kids, five of which have died. It is claimed that his father was killed by a homicidal poisoning, something that is not entirely rare in Mozambique. Fazenda was drafted to “as tropas” for a term of four years. The tragedy of his forced departure was enhanced by his extreme potential; he is one of Mozambique’s brightest, full of entrepreneurial thought and unusual vision. A real progressive in Mozambique is one who sees his future so clearly that he decides to postpone marriage and women until he’s ready to provide for them; he strives to preserve his most valuable possession - his health; he studies hard and works diligently. Strangely enough, not even bribe money could convince the corrupt government from drafting him. I sent him off with hugs and hopes and a twinkling cubic zirconium guardian angel for his lapel, and for now, Fazenda’s smiling face is mounted on my cranberry-colored wall in Boston.

Another sadness: the death of my student Elisabete, victim of AIDS at 26. My friend, my student, my age. I had written of her in a previous email, suspecting she was sick, encouraging her to get tested. It was no doubt her 40+ “husband”, who was known to be busy with drink and women at home, who infected her. Elisabete liked connecting with me, and treated me with love. When my parents visited in November, she spent all day preparing dinner for us. She was in a desperate state when she left our school, too sick to do anything. I wrote her a hopeful letter and talked to her a few times after that; we both remained optimistic that she would return.

One more sadness came to me this month in the mail. Over a year ago a smiling young man, eager to speak English befriended me and my travel companion in Gurue, a gorgeous village in the mountains. We conversed all day as we wound up and down through the village, bathing skinny in the cold river, eating coconut candy with kids, and laughing over beers at night. His friend sent word that he passed away this April in a car accident.

This is what happens to Mozambicans.

Our organization, Humana People to People, also saw two big disappointments this year. The sports school for street children in the city of Beira closed down, leaving a bunch of kids to be redistributed to other schools. Though the details are foggy to me, I think the downfall was partly the fault of the management and also a question of land rights for this prime property in the city. The second major setback was the withdrawal of all World Food Program funding for Humana projects in Mozambique and Angola. The decision to stop food donations was apparently in response to negative publicity Humana has been getting concerning dubious claims of tax evasion and corruption on the upper management level. It is frustrating to be in the middle of such a purported scandal with an aid organization. Although it is impossible for me at a lower level to know the truth of what goes on above, I could see first hand that the projects I was working at were succeeding and implementing valuable services in a place where they were needed. The regional monitors for the WFP also knew that our projects were running competently and successfully, yet they must bow to the decision of their headquarters that views our larger organization in a questionable light. Though the project leaders in Lamego and I wrote letters to the editor of the Chicago Tribune in response to an unfair and tabloid-style exposé that surely helped the WFP make their decision, it was to little avail. In this case the exposure of the so-called scandal had little to no effect on the profits of the potentially corrupt individuals at the top, but only unfairly worsened already precarious situations in the poorest areas of the world where projects were doing what they should. ADPP in Lamego is now covering their orphan food costs with a new joint project through World Vision, and the two schools at our center are stretching to making ends meet to cover the meal staples for the students. It’s disheartening to learn that many non-profits are not very organized or more ethical with their money. It’s also a shame when questionable and sometimes completely false information spreads easily. In the case of our center in Lamego, problems from the top flush down to the people at the bottom trying to make things work in the field. It is already difficult enough implementing positive sustainable changes amidst the cramping perimeters of bureaucracy and cultural and technological disparities.

Once my original team left Mozambique after our first year, the dynamics of our home changed subtly but significantly. I was now living with two Europeans, a girl from South America, and a guy from Asia. It wasn’t until I was the only American that I became very aware of my Americanism, or had any idea of what that may even mean. Over time there were tinges of jokes – usually about the US government’s bullying policies and our ethnocentrisms. One housemate told me that I was the first person from the States that she ever got along with – every other American she had met thought s/he automatically knew the best way to do everything. I never felt personally attacked, but I ended up being able to see myself as an American in a clearer light. I was definitely the consumer of the house; I went to the market more often than anyone – and had a new wardrobe of African-print clothing to show for it. I was often over-worked and had critically high standards for myself and my students. I let myself get stressed. I liked being independent in my endeavors. I definitely had the luxury of having the biggest personal spending budget among my housemates, and as a result I often thought of solutions to things in terms of money. These are very American traits – obviously generalizations, but somewhat accurate, as stereotypes often are. It was interesting to see cultural traits of my friends come through as well: thriftiness and a concern for resources in those growing up in eastern European countries, and perfectionism and immaculate tidiness from the German and Japanese.

Many Americans – and I think to a less extent Westerns - are what Mozambicans call "nervosa". I am unfortunately a shining example of this – sometimes getting visibly upset over unimportant things, like when I catch so many students cheating. It’s hard to remember that you're always being watched there – and they (rightly) think we are ridiculous for taking things so emotionally seriously. In comparison, Mozambicans are so calm most of the time. When I inadvertently erase a colleague’s entire night of computer work (something that would make me scream out loud, or internally writhe with pain), he simply shrugs it off. Mozambicans don’t really know what stress is. There is no equivalent word in local languages, and the Portuguese word is borrowed directly from English. I would guess that people in the developing world are used to things not working out according to plans, and they live close enough to "serious things" on a daily basis, that losing a night of work is not among those life and death defining moments.

As foreigners living in Mozambique, we represent something different, and we are watched closely. Our reactions, our movements, our decisions can never go unnoticed. As cheesy as it may sound, it means being an ambassador of one’s culture and land, in some cases not only representing the United States, but sometimes the world outside of Africa. To the thousands of people I briefly came into even fleeting contact with there, I am one more sparse data point they collect about "whites". (Note that often times this category of whites can include anyone of any race who is not from Africa). Most rural Africans have not had much real experience with white or foreign people – so race remains a misunderstood factor that affects everything.

It is no wonder that a Mozambican would see me or any mazungo in a very skewed light when all of their interactions or impressions of whites/foreigners have been shaped by a small number of distinct, often unattractive, images: Portuguese colonizers occupying their country for 500 years; later to be followed by another type of oppressor- typically racist bosses from large South African, Portuguese, or Zimbabwean companies there to use cheap Mozambican labor; tourists – inevitably synonymous with (comparatively) extreme wealth; missionaries, whose huge presence has Mozambicans assuming all whites are Christian and are in Africa for this reason; Hollywood images of Rambo and Chuck Norris that Mozambicans see in grass shack movie houses, and the input my students acquire from rap videos and upscale travel commercials on the school’s satellite TV. It's pretty impossible to gain a more open perspective of foreigners from this scant and slanted information. My American reality is surely an enigma to them. My students think that I personally know Ja Rule. And strange truths like the legitimacy of Arnold Schwartzeneger as figure in the political arena only reinforces such skewed perceptions of who we are.

One important thing gained in working at our school for over a year was providing another real reference for people that went beyond the above list. I stayed long enough to become a small part of a community. At least within the context of our campus, I wasn't just a tourist or a boss. I was called colleague, teacher, friend, and even a Mozambican term of endearment – mãe (mother).

Outside of our center however, I remained a stereotype. Living amongst 20 million black people, you don't see Africans in terms of color anymore. You just see people. I cried my eyes out the night I finally realized this. The difficult thing is realizing this doesn't happen the other way around. I obviously don't make as big of an impression on the country as it makes on me. I never stop being the white girl. I am differentiated in the village because I am seen as privilege. They assume I drive a 4 x 4 jeep even if I don't have a car. I am handing out bible leaflets even if I've never read one. And I am a celebrity, even if I don't even watch TV. Though this won't be changing anytime soon, I accept it, because in the end, I am a stranger and a guest in a place that is not my home.

Everything we learn and know is through comparison. And so it's in rural Africa that I realize the freedom I've always had. I am not talking about the jingoistic freedom carelessly touted by the Bush administration and supposedly symbolized by a barrage of made-in-China American flag paraphernalia. I am talking about personal freedom that many people around the world have, and many more don't, that comes not only from a democratic society but from one in which poverty and its millions of roots don't drag one down to suffocate. I think about the freedom to date without commitment to marry, pay a bride price, or be paid for. Freedom from being seen only as a body for carrying, cooking, and baby-birthing. Freedom to get an education that includes critical thinking and choices. Freedom to choose a profession because it interests and stimulates me, not because it's the better of only two options. Freedom to have my own bedroom and own bed. Freedom to escape on the weekend to a good movie, an art exhibit, and to then drive home on relatively safe roads, unafraid of bandits. Freedom to go with friends to a diner at 2 am and choose from a menu with so many options. These things don't exist in the lives of the people I know on the other side of the globe. Women in Lamego, without even the freedom of electricity, rock their crying babies to sleep in the 8pm darkness. They will turn in shortly after.

Another liberty limited to most Africans is the freedom to be healthy. The sickness continues all the time. It's so hot in Africa’s summer, it's all I can do not to walk around the house naked. But students come to our house in winter hats and sweaters shaking cold with raging fevers. Maybe it's malaria. Maybe it's dysentery. Maybe worse.

I don't miss the fear that comes with living in a harsh reality. Car accidents and sickness, death around every corner. Thinking about AIDS all the time in places you forget to remember – sewing needles, razors left in the bathroom, open cuts on the football field. Donating blood. Okay, maybe that last one should have been a no-brainer...

The red-cross blood bank visited our school and I wanted badly to set a good example for my students. This country needs blood for emergencies just like any other, and a big part of me wanted to have faith in Mozambique and not be afraid to do the things Mozambicans themselves have to do. I would obviously be watching like an eagle for the first sign of anything unsafe. Though the blood bank used new, sterile needles for everyone, the technicians lacked gloves and even band-aids. Though I don't think any contamination occurred, I was wary of their methods throughout, as all the tubes were cut and tied with the same pair of blood-dappled scissors, and bags of blood were thrown carelessly into open boxes. This ordeal caused me to get an(other) AIDS test several weeks later, the goal of which was to calm my paranoia that I had become infected while giving blood. But when I went for the test I ended up leaving the clinic ten times more worried from the HIV testing site's suspect health practices than I was from the original fears. The technician actually reached in the biohazard blood sample box and pulled out an HIV+ slide to show me what it looks like. She hadn't changed her gloves since I'd been in the office... touching me in preparation for the needle stick, touching contaminated samples. Is there no thought about cross contamination here? The worry sat in my gut for hours until I eventually had to get over it. And just wait until the next test. Of course the chances are virtually zero that anything bad has happened here. But the fear is always 100% real.

The one uplifting thing about blood donation in Mozambique is the incentive to give blood – an entire feast of homemade chicken, rice, potatoes, salad and even beer is doled out for each donor, courtesy of the blood bank. If only our American Red Cross would catch on to this one.

Though Mozambique is not the safest place on earth, there is something honest in the precariousness of life. And sometimes it arises in almost humorous ways as well. My journal entries from April, my last month in Mozambique, describe these gigantic and weighty fruits that hung menacingly like ticking bowling ball bombs in the great tree over my head. "Aren't people afraid of getting knocked out by these things?" I ask from underneath. "Well you just go to the hospital if you do", my colleague responds with a shrug. I couldn't argue with that. Why worry until it actually happens?

Fear can be ubiquitous when living outside of one's comfort zone – and can often surface as fear of embarrassing encounters. Living abroad becomes defined by learning not to be constantly humiliated. Not to be embarrassed when I'm in front of a chemistry class of 60 and they tell me my dress is transparent and all the boys are snickering at their teacher's ass. Learning to not be embarrassed when the local kids erupt in riotous laughter seeing the white girl try to dance ku duro (a type of African music and dancing, which literally translates as "hard butt"). It will eat your pride right up.

For those of you who know me, I am no skinny chick, - but I am not all that big either. But the tailors in my village just don't know what to do with a girl of my height and hips, compared to trim, small- framed Mozambicans. My favorite tailor proudly told me one day that he has never had a client as fat as me (his exact words). The first time I went to him, I watched carefully as he took my measurements and wrote them down correctly. The next day he handed me a skirt literally 5 inches too small around the waste. I couldn't believe what I saw. "What is this? I watched you measure me!" He said, very seriously, "I had your measurements, but when I went to make the skirt I couldn't believe you were really that fat, so I just made it smaller."

But I had my ways of taking subtle revenge on this country, in any small way that I could. In addition to all the science classes, I really enjoyed teaching English, when the ball was fully in my court. I could teach useful phrases – (new adjectives): "Teacher Ali is very intelligent and beautiful." (superlative):"Ali is the best teacher." and (comparative): "Ali's students are smellier than Ali is."

But really, it was great for every one to have so much fun. I taught vocabulary that my students would find practical and cool: "I would like to be a farmer. But I really want to be a rockstar!" For our English class finale, by popular request, we studied and sang (two dozen times) the Brian Adams song, "Please Forgive Me". All Mozambican boys think Brian Adams is an amazingly smooth and poetic guy.


I now live and work in a soup kitchen in Boston. I am enjoying very much the supportive and thoughtful community I live with and the wonderful community we serve. Though I have become very sensitive to the social and political sores pulsating throughout our own society, the gravity of these things around me are difficult to compare with those of Africa. Though our problems are very much linked to those of the rest of the world, they are weighty for our society on a completely different scale. I would sometimes tell Mozambicans that the poor exist in my country too: the homeless, the disenfranchised, the welfare mothers with no partner. But sometimes I was embarrassed for saying anything. Homeless people get dollar bills handed to them and soup kitchens give out free food. Yes, the cycles of poverty and dis-privelege are often times inescapable in the US, but we remain irrefutably the richest country, leaving little to say in the face of absolute poverty of Africa and the rest of the world.

Although I am now living again in the land of excess, I don't notice my wealth like I did when I was in Mozambique. My room, even in Africa, was littered with enough books, clothes and an entire apothecary of preventatives and combatants to lose myself, my time, and the objects themselves in the mess. You know there is something grossly wrong with the world when an upper-middle class girl from one country can weed out the toys and junk of her youth to furnish enough small gifts for each student in an entire school. It's not just that I have a lot and they have a little– the polarity of our differences is excruciatingly mind-boggling.

The differences in health problems at these two different ends of the earth are also impossible to ignore now. Though AIDS, malaria, TB and malnutrition have brought the life expectancy of Mozambicans to the low 30s, the diseases that plague our American culture are almost non-existent there: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, ulcers - our stress and diet-related diseases (read: easily preventable) that not only cost us lives but billions of dollars every year.

Since being back I've become more emotionally invested in our foreign policy, especially with a fresh consciousness of a country so affected by war. People around the world wonder why the US went to war with Iraq – even people way out in the bush of Africa care about distant countries and express concern for the people who live there. If only we were as concerned about international news as they were. If only Americans would be as conscious about the Mozambican elections on December 2nd as they were of ours on November 2nd.

Part of this picture is clearly our media's fault. Anyone who has traveled knows that coverage abroad is vastly different from coverage at home, even if it's the same news network. Our government and our buying power imbeds our fingers in every country in the world to some extent, which makes us partly responsible for global consequences. The average American doesn’t see this, though, because he is distracted by the likes of the next American Idol and what’s happening to Martha Stewart. Even so many of those who apparently take an interest in current events and politics are caught up in partisan rhetoric and carelessly defined ideologies like "freedom" and "moral values". Meanwhile people are dying by the millions under our ignorant eyes. It's our responsibility to stop being distracted, start thinking critically and take thoughtful action.

Living outside of our normal realm can be so helpful in deconstructing myths fed to us by our own culture. The American fear of communism and the evil we were taught it embraces is greatly debunked living in a place like Mozambique that for a time was guided by a Marxist-Leninist influenced government called FRELIMO. Under this system Mozambicans benefited hugely from alliances with Cuba, the USSR and eastern Europe. Thousands of Mozambicans were able to benefit from years of study and work training in allied countries, giving a chance for Africans entrenched in poverty a chance to explore the world outside of their own and gain the tools to improve their own country. The country as a whole also benefited in terms of health, construction, and education aid at home. The fall of communism around the world in the early nineties played out in innumerable ways, affecting even the end of apartheid in South Africa. But it also signaled a loss of opportunity for those in places like Mozambique and Angola, who benefited significantly from international alliances with communist countries.

The future...

A woman with a basket on her headI remember the thoughts in my head before leaving Africa: the only way I could imagine leaving was if I could come back again. And so I will! After working various odd jobs on top of my full time (non-paid) work at the soup kitchen, I recently purchased a ticket to return to Mozambique for a month before Christmas. I will hopefully bring a few laptops, printers, and English dictionaries. Hopefully I can raise some funds for scholarships. (Don't miss the other email I sent out!) I will make sure our lab is stocked and see if my curriculum is at all being used, and, (insert drum role here) I will be present for my students' graduation.

But mainly I am returning to remember my life there, this place that was my epicenter for so long. The best part is always hanging out with Mozambicans in their element – in their homes and neighborhoods, meeting their families. Going to the places that a mazungo could never find on her own. Meeting fellow teacher LuLu's father, a diamond miner who travels to South Africa and lives in a company town for 10 months of the year, making $1000 annual salary. Meeting his mother and wife, the women who carry this country on the their heads, backs, and in the arches of their callused feet. Visiting the home of my student Micas, the sweetest boy I've ever met, who honorably takes me to his mother for "the best matapa (traditional dish) in the world". Meeting his big-shot older brother, an endearingly egotistical aspiring rock star with a gig in the capital that night. He sings us a heart-swelling song about HIV as the sun sets in his yard. These are the moments I am going back for.A woman with a basket on her head

I wait with excitement to return to the wonder of Mozambique, where babies find comfort wrapped in close to their mother's back. Where wristwatch repair men but batteries in their mouths to test the charge. And where the sound of crickets is almost deafening outside the nighttime window.

Thanks for your time and care.

Until next time, stay well and thankful,


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