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I hope this email reaches everyone healthy and happily enjoying the climax of summer warmth and sunshine! I've decided to not be embarrassed by the lapsing of 8 months since I originally intended to write this final Mozambique Episode. This is busy life - I accept that - and late really is better than never.
It's been more than half a year since my last trip to Mozambique in December, but I am still very connected to the school in spirit, mind, and action and as part of this I'd like to share my stories with all of you. A lot happened in my four weeks there, and much has happened since then.
For me, everything in Mozambique exists in extremes extreme pride and extreme humility and disappointment. Extraordinary disorganization and stress, and extraordinary calm and patience. Oppressive heat followed by a torrent of rain. Joy, love, and beauty. Life and death in their most potent potentials, dancing so close they might as well be holding hands.
This is the story of my last trip to Mozambique in December. But regretfully the story must start with a sudden tragedy that happened one month later, in January of this year. Amy Sosnowski, one of the project leaders who had been co-running our center in Lamego for the past 4 years, was on holiday in Puerto Rico with her partner and their two-year-old daughter. Unknowingly, Amy had left Mozambique with malaria, still dormant in her body. She became very sick several days into her vacation as the disease progressed to cerebral malaria. The severity of the disease, coupled with lengthy delays in accessing proper medication, caused Amy to slip into a coma and she never recovered. She passed away less than two weeks later.
I say the project leader has died and that she was very young only 28, and they sigh and frown. I say she was American, a previous volunteer like myself, that she had blond hair and a baby, and suddenly they are shocked, unbelieving. The weight of death is palpable now that it is in terms we can understand and relate to. They say, near tears, how tragic and rare it is for someone to die so young. And I think of Mozambique , and realize how unfortunately normal this is in most places of the world.
As director of the Teacher Training College, Amy was in so many ways holding the center together. She was one of the most dependable and capable people I've ever met, and surely the size of her heart and care is demonstrated by her total commitment to her work in Africa for nearly 5 years. People came from all around the States and even from Mozambique to her funeral in Chicago, and it became startlingly clear how far and deep the extent of her influence echoed out into the world. In such a short amount of time she had set so many beautiful waves in motion.
Emilio, Amy's partner, was back in Mozambique for the past 6 months, but has just recently left the projects entirely in the hands of the Mozambican staff of teachers and supervisors. This is a very atypical move for Humana People to People and ADPP, the non-profit organizations running the projects, and I think it can be a huge and important step towards empowerment and self-determination. It hasn't been until recently, through many challenges and challenging dialogues in my current work at the soup kitchen that I have really begun to question the role of non-natives (especially whites from "the west") in development projects overseas. This is something I'm eager to explore more, and in the mean time I am hopeful that there will be many new successes in Lamego.
One of my favorite memories from my trip in December was seeing Amy looking so proud of her students on graduation day. As director, she was always juggling so many responsibilities and was often firm with the students; she held people to high standards and wouldn't stand for nonsense. So it was a rare and beautiful moment to catch her looking so soft and humbled, with genuine appreciation and awe as they sang so beautifully for graduation. When she spoke the night before commencement, Amy made a special call of remembrance to those students who had passed away since their enrollment in the school two and a half years earlier. She reminded the students that they were in charge of their destiny, that they could make smart choices to preserve their health. She was alluding to AIDS prevention, a topic she spoke about frequently, bringing the matter into the students' curriculum and daily language. She spoke of how the role of the teacher is not only to educate students, but also to help develop the community around the school. The ADPP philosophy emphasizes that a community mirrors its teachers, so they must lead well by denouncing corruption and abuse. Although it takes generations of hard work to affect any large problem, it's clear that these students are at least hearing these messages. They incorporate such positive ideas into their own choral songs, setting mantras to melodies that soar through the campus. One such song is "Nใo hแ benefํcio sem estudar". There's no gain without study. Even the cool students wearing fancy shades and baggy jeans incorporate encouraging lyrics into the rap songs they write and sing: " Students - you should be the fighters against the disease of the century AIDS. Don't be ignorant, but be those that attack the disease as teachers and combatants ." Though the reality is always far from the hype, the fact that the hype is positive is a great step in the right direction.
Seeing our students graduate was a blissful experience, not only for the joy of achievement, but because at least on that afternoon, those present were healthy enough to experience the moment. I remember so many students being extremely sick over the last two years - so many who thought they'd never live to see graduation.
It's great to see other students and teachers succeeding and reaching their goals as well. Two students Adelina and Alfandego - who left the school last year, were now retaking classes and succeeding. And Fatima the young 15 year old girl who failed out and left the school in tears, telling me she would likely be pregnant and married in 6 months is confident and succeeding in 9 th grade at the high school in the next town. One of the biggest leaps happened for Felizberto, the head of the vocational school. A graduate of both the vocational school and the teacher training college, Felizberto has officially joined the organization of Humana People to People (which runs all of these projects) and has recently had the opportunity to fly (via Paris) to Mexico for a development conference. He was brimming with joy and pride when he was recounting it all to me. In a place where one's ability to travel outside his province, much less his country and continent, is almost impossibly rare, this was a truly amazing opportunity for him. It is apparent in his face alone how his perspectives and visions of the world have changed and grown. I just got word recently that several graduates have gone on to get jobs with the Humana organization doing development work on their AIDS outreach and agricultural initiatives.
It felt so good to be back in Mozambique, the land where bugs invite themselves in for every occasion and banana peel shrapnel decorates the margin of every well-traveled road.
Africa is a place where things are still more or less normal nature is allowed to run her course. She makes her cycles evident right in front of our observing eyes. Things are eating each other all the time, dying, decomposing, birthing, turning into each other in one big organic cycle. In living most of my adult life in the city, being here in rural Africa one more time is a sensual experience. I fall for it all: the pebbles and mud on my feet; the aromatic sweetness of sticky mangoes; the intense stare of mid-day sun and the equally potent ebony of night. Africa is filled with spaces that enchant in ways only magic knows. Man, in these places, wears his natural humanity uncamouflaged - the smell of sweat and sight of exposed shiny skin means life here.
Flying to another part of the world is essentially time travel. How do we in the west mark time and ages if not by changes in culture, lifestyles, standard of living and development? Am I not living in another era when there's no running water or electricity, when travel is by foot, and food is grown and prepared with labor of the back and hands?
Terezinha is one of two women who helps us with cooking and cleaning in our home. She is a one woman Cirque de Soleil act in her everyday life. She can walk with a 40 pound bundle of clothes on her head, breast feed her baby, and shade the baby with a sun umbrella, all while weaving on foot through the village on a narrow path to the river. All of this, and one of her hands remains dangling free by her side!
I stumble behind with my mouth gaping open at her agility and poise. We're going to the river so this silly white girl can see first hand how her own clothes have been getting washed for the past year. The women there jovially make fun of me because I wash all wrong, getting soap stains on my skirt, drenching my legs up to my waist. I agree, it is pretty stupid that I've never washed my clothes in a river in 27 years of life on Earth.
The women are surprised when I tell them that most things they do here in Africa we also did in the US a few generations ago, and in some rural places still do today. I think with their limited exposure to the outside world, it's easy to believe that westerners and whites have always had machines - or other people - to do their work for them.
Before my first trip to Africa my brothers joked about where I'd be going, looking to humor to fill in the gaps for what they did not know: "So in Mozambique , does everyone write with sticks in the sand? Do they call crayons 'computers'?" The funny thing is that my student Joใo Muananhoca, on the other side of the world, has the same approach to these disparities between worlds that he has only a vague sense of. He asks me cleverly, laughing: "Teacher, in America are there computers everywhere for everything that people don't even know how to write with a pen anymore? In school, I'll bet they don't even have paper anymore because everyone just uses computers!"
Though we laugh at our own exaggerations, we are really dancing around ironic truths. I have seen young children crowd around as their teachers write numbers in the sand, and I've seen pencils become somewhat obsolete in circles where Palm Pilots, laptops, and even futuristic laser keyboards now reign.
This is our world, 2005.
As an American girl in Africa I act as an interesting interface between these two eras, and it is bizarre. I remember one time trying to explain silicon breast implants to Terezinha. There is no way to merge these worlds without sounding horrifically ridiculous.
Because the norms of this society are different from my own, humor often reflects this difference. A cheerful minibus driver recounts to me, chuckling, what he yelled to a woman rushing to his bus "Why are you in a hurry? Time is not like food so there is always enough!"
There are so many little things that are completely normal in Mozambique that would make any American chuckle:
For example, names that parents choose for their children are one of my favorite things to discover in Africa. Though many names are taken from colonial languages (like Portuguese) and tend to be quite typical like Elisabete, Sara, and Paulo, others are created with beautiful or even quite humorous results: Lovemore and Peaceful, and in Portuguese, Alfandega ( customs agent); Gerente (manager); Sabonette (hand soap!)
I stop for a snack in a middle-of-the-road cafe in Beira - one of several that oddly, have gigantic Christmas decals on the sun-baked windows all year round. I ask the man at the counter to use the lady's room and he hands me the greasy key to the bathroom padlock. There's a warning sign posted on the door- "Por favor nใo cagar!" Please don't poop! With poor plumbing and scarcity of water, he doesn't want his little restaurant to stink.
In most public bathrooms whether ceramic toilets or mud pits behind a grass wall - there are always two prices one for "necidade menor" (minor need), and for a few coins more you can take care of your "necidade maior" (major need).
And if you need toilet paper, you bring it yourself for it's rarely provided. Toilet paper is available largely for the whites, as the majority of Mozambicans can't afford it. High cost and minimal availability have kept using water to clean one's self the cultural norm. No one at our school uses toilet paper, including the Mozambique teachers who could afford it if they wanted. Not using paper would be fine as long as soap and hot water were readily available, but clearly they aren't, meaning even more disease.
One of the refreshing things about the "developing world" is the lack of organization and ridiculous rigamarole in certain ways. The lack of organization or enforcement can sometimes make life simpler, more autonomous and enjoyable. There aren't really bills to pay, and there's never any junk mail. If you have money in the city, you can easily go to a pharmacy and get medicine without a prescription, much easier than jumping through the hoops of our American system: waiting a month to get a referral, see your GP, and have your insurance not pay for it in the end anyway. In Africa there's less mystery about where things like your food and clothing come from because you know the vendors personally. Of course, the down side is not insignificant. You don't have the countless conveniences we have in America, and there's no guarantee that the meds you take will be correct. Safety is also often left up to chance - the alarm goes off on the metal detector at the airport and the guards wave you through with a smile and no questions.
This sort of laissez faire (a consequence of poverty, corruption, and oppression) is the same thing that can make successes so elusive in development work.
In the night, I walk through the house with a candle dripping wax onto my hands from atop the Coca Cola bottle perch. This is the modern day African torch. What a funny and telling picture. Later the generator lights flicker dim and the rain and wind outside wet the scene for this mess. I'm trying to set up the donated computers for our class tomorrow, and it's proving to be an impossible task. It's hilarious when I'm in a good mood, and can be deeply depressing when I'm not.
I struggle to wire the computers in the hum of the alternating darkness and low light of the school's generator. Even my flashlight is wavering, as if also somehow powered by our bi-polar generator. Sometimes I feel like Africa is cursed. Nothing seems to work here we have cheap knives that work better for ripping than cutting and car steering wheels that are held together with duct tape. During the deluge power outage you rejoice in finding the last candle in the house only to discover that it has no wick.
There come moments when it's clear that "development work" whatever that may even mean to any one person here or there, probably averages a 30% success rate, at best. I say I brought 6 computers to the school and it sounds wonderful. A great success story. So many people went out of the their way and spent a lot of money and time to get their old laptops to me. I lugged these things along with three printers, thousands of miles. And I get here and the one without the hard drive is useless. The one with the faulty power strip now won't start at all. The $100 I just spent to replace the broken CD drive was stupid- i should have bought a floppy. Another one has a glitch that only seems to surface in rural Africa. The computer room's only working outlet blows a fuse, sparks fly.
The next day students file in for their computer prep class, and the Mozambican teacher is nowhere to be seen. There are too many kids for the small (and rapidly diminishing) number of computers. We are only trying to teach the basics - how to turn them on and off properly and how to open Word, but they are an overwhelming crowd to teach, as each computer is different and temperamental. It's a vexing three hours and it seems as if little has been accomplished.
Only at the end is there time to calmly sit down with two students who remain during lunch and explain to them how to sum a column using Excel. They are thrilled and amazed. They see the potential and it excites them. This is the small success.
The computers won't last long. I think of the 12 computers donated to our school two years ago, in which only one is still working. The reasons aren't mystical: fluctuating energy, extreme heat, unintentional misuse, and the fact that all the computers were already used someone else has given them up because they don't want them anymore. Why does Africa only get to receive our hand-me-downs? Donations are maybe a start to help fix the screw-ups (colonization, imperialism, exploitation, racism, ignorance), but in a sense it's almost insulting. I know that at the end of the day, 6 used computers are better than nothing. But it can feel defeating. In all the effort and desire for good that is put into something even something so simple as a modest donation so much is lost in the transfer of energy. To not be totally disillusioned or go crazy, you have to focus on what WAS accomplished, and not what wasn't. You have to be positive. If you get annoyed it's all over. If you laugh, it's just begun.
This volunteer program is so good in so many ways; in a sense it changes peoples' lives particularly of the volunteers themselves. But in other ways, I see how inefficient our efforts are, working within such a short time and with so little continuity. The volunteers just don't have the capability to sustain big parts of these projects. I realize this again as I find part of the English notes I spent nearly two years compiling in a haphazard pile under the broken TV, clearly unused, and it seems like we keep reinventing the wheel. In a way it's disheartening, but I know it's just a concession that must be made for us to have this experience at all.
Noelia, a very funny and endearingly rotund teacher at the teacher training college was in the hospital with a severe case of malaria in December. When I visited she was just coming out of three days of malaria-induced delusions and confusion. With an exhausted smile and an amazing ability to make light of her situation, Noelia correlated her fever dreams to the movie The Matrix, saying her lifeline between her fever world and everyone else's world is her IV drug filled with glucose and quinine. She's "not fully in our world" she says, "and the other one is filled with demons and dark things" that scare her away from sleep.
In the hospital in Nhamatanda patients have to rely on family or friends to bring food from home, and to provide general bed-side nursing care. A nine-year-old girl handles the bedpan chores of the sickly woman sharing the same hospital room as Noelia.
Noelia says that two men came in yesterday with bibles to pray for her. She laughs and says when they asked her to close her eyes to pray, she kept one eye open to make sure they weren't just there to steal her radio! Her sort-of-husband Paulino (a.k.a. the boyish, lazy, and loveable chemistry teacher I worked with last year) came to visit her the other day. The story he recounted to me was about how good he was to her for visiting and staying all night. Her version was that he came in drunk, reeking of cigarettes, and plopped down on her bed with ants all over his pants. By the time she succeeded in shooing the ants, and him, off to the other bed, the doctor doing rounds wondered aloud who this other "doente" (sick person) was! Noelia tells this story with humor, but it's clear she is profoundly hurt and exasperated. Even when women are deathly sick here they are still expected to take care of the men. She says the stress Paulino causes her is nearly killing her, - she knows he is also dating one or two of his own students! - and we joke, with truth, that Mozambican women would be better off without their men.
Every day I uncover uncountable air pockets of my own naivety that pad my existence as I walk around here. My student Luis Morreira tells me that 70% of what people say in conversation is true. "The rest is embellishment, teacher!" he says with a smile. His smile is not cunning or sly, but (maybe), 100% honest. People cheat - in their classes and on their girlfriends and husbands; they may lie to get more money or get a better deal. But I don't sense maliciousness in it. Rather, it's the game you play in society, sometimes just to survive.
Mozambique's presidential elections were in progress when I returned in December. It was a huge event, as the only president since 1992, Jaoquim Chissano, for the first time was not in the running. People were walking around for days with permanent purple ink on one index finger, to prevent people from voting twice. (Because I've worked the polls several times in Boston, and have seen how ridiculously flawed our systems are, I thought to myself that the US should also use such a modern and advanced system like the inky finger!)
Word got around that the FRELIMO party was illegally boosting their numbers in the polls, even though they were projected to win over RENAMO anyway. From my experience talking with a number of Mozambicans, it seems like many election dynamics around the world are pretty similar, as are the voters. Being born into a FRELIMO-supporting household, or living in a RENAMO-supporting district or province, will pretty much determine who a person will support. One could colorize the population's partisanship with blue and red on a map and easily see the geographical divide. Party members from each side do support the ideals with pride and conviction, but may not be able to explain exactly why in elaborate terms. People go by generalizations that they read and hear. In the end they believe both parties are corrupt, and somewhere deep inside realize that not much will change for the better for them and their family, regardless of who's in power.
Little Luis, a 10-year-old beauty of a boy who often comes by the volunteer house, sees me for the first time again and is glowing, more eager to talk than ever before. After we catch up he tells me stories about two volunteers who had been here since I had left. He adored them both. One day they had taken him to Nhamatanda a very modest town fifteen minutes down the road by bus. He had only been there once, a long time ago, and was awed by the new "tall buildings" and was infinitely pleased by the chicken and french fries for lunch, complete with a Fanta and Coca-Cola. It was really beautiful to see him so thrilled by this simple adventure that created such a memorable day. I was left wondering why I hadn't done this type of thing for more people.
Several days later, talking with some of the other volunteers helped me see another side to this story. They noticed a big change in the dynamics amongst the neighborhood kids. All the other children have since become very jealous of Luis, who won't stop bragging to his friends about his special day. They don't understand why Luis was treated to something special when they weren't, and this has caused feuds in their group of friends. Luis is now always asking to go to Nhamatanda, and is complaining because they won't take him to Beira , the big city two hours away by bus. One can only guess how Luis' parents may feel in this situation.
Being in a situation in which you have the resources to give to those who need or want what you have is never simple or easy, and there are never any clear-cut guidelines or right answers.
Even in such a short span of time, I have been able to see my students growing into adults. Like little Nogueira, who in small ways put himself under my wing for these two years. Without a caregiver who could pay for him, he came to me monthly for soap, toothpaste, and praise for his hard-earned grades. He was always the boy with hand-me-down clothes who needed positive feedback and attention, a welcomed teacher's pet. But when he squeezed on the bus with me on the way to the airport that last day in December, it hit me how much older he had gotten. Diploma in hand, he was looking tough with the cubic zirconium earring he requested from my ear, his baseball cap backwards on his big head, and his cousin's stylish jeans slung low on his waist. Suddenly his features are huge, almost obtrusively growing into their adult places. He talks about "pitas" ("chicks") and his education. He says good-bye to me, but does so almost casually. I realize that he doesn't need me, because he's looking forward to his future. It's striking to me, this change, but it feels good to see. What an honor it was to be a small part of this person's life, to watch him grow into something stronger and more independent. I just got news that although Noguiera didn't get accepted at the advanced Agricultural institute, he did land a job working as a technician at a plantation in the province of Manica and is still determined to continue his schooling next year.
I know I was only a teacher to him and my other students, - a role that at times feels so important and intimate, but in the end is in a sense so limited and minor. Surprisingly to myself, I am okay with letting go. I am not disappointed, because I love them unconditionally.
I had a funny experience on one of my last days in Mozambique . I was eating with a richer Mozambican family who used utensils instead of the more typical method of eating with their hands. I picked up a fork and tried eating my food, and for about five seconds, it seemed strikingly unnatural. Instinct knew that I was given hands with fingers to pick up food, and using a fork felt as unnatural and inefficient as trying to run on stilts.
t took me a year or more to start really eating with my hands the way Mozambicans do, and to stop worrying about germs all the time. Though there is reason to be cautious about one's health, I think part of this fear inside was racism speaking out, strengthening my fear of germs and sickness, of different things from a strange land, a black land. I finally learned myself out of it, as the fear of the foreign slowly became the comfort of the known. After working through my prejudices in a land of black Africans, coming back home I realized I still had my ingrained prejudices about black Americans. Our plethora of misperceptions and erroneous assumptions don't just disappear when we learn enough to disprove or erase one. Each one has to be unlearned, and it can happen through firsthand experiences, personal proof to ourselves and our psyches, that we are all essentially the same.
I want to kneel down on the ground and hug this continent. But my arms are too small, it won't understand or even feel my embrace. I only have person-sized arms, so that is the scale I can touch and be felt on.
My trip began in South Africa , and I knew I was someplace new when the taxi drivers, like all people leaving the airport, have to turn the engine off and then on again in the presence of the airport parking attendee to prove that the car wasn't hotwired. Though my stay in Johannesburg was brief, the immobility of class becomes apparent through interactions with the taxi driver. He complains of no jobs, no hope, but can't even venture a guess as to why there aren't jobs. He just says he knows "the government is doing well".
After my overnight stay and all day bus ride across the Mozambican border, I wake up my first night in Mozambique in a town 40 minutes from Maputo , the big capital right over the border from South Africa. I stay with a Mozambican acquaintance in a house that I should consider luxurious. But I am not here long enough yet to have immunity from what I see, so I notice the stained and falling ceiling, the rusted-over mirror, the bareness. The doorway is chipped so much the corners are nothing close to 90-degree angles. There are two fridges and neither work. An old antenna sits on the floor, also broken. I am so sad, and mad. Take your pick Africa : the poorest of the poor live in tidy mud and straw huts swept clean. No rust no chips no mildew. And no electricity no running water no furniture at all. Or aspire to something "better" the cracked, broken, and stuffing-pulled homes with a metal roof over your head. Shouldn't there be a better option here?
Rusted ripped burned stained molded even in the offices of the successful companies of large cities there is more of the same. Once I'm here for a while I literally stop seeing these things, but what does that mean for a people? A culture? Humanity?
Returning to my village of Lamego after seven months was a beautiful homecoming. Usually you can walk from our school to the market in about 15 minutes. My first trip there being back took about two hours round trip. I literally ran into ten people, who at separate times called me over by name to ask about my health, my family, and to share a little piece of their lives with me. Ahhhh, this is what community means.
I don't think I've ever looked so ugly as I did those first several days in Lamego. The heat made my skin break out in itchy red rashes all over my body, and I my lips were adorned with heat blisters. I was pale from New England winter, and with my blotchiness and unrested red eyes I looked deathly ill. It's too hot to wear jewelry and my clothes were forever stained with sweat. Here one can get so filthy, by the end of the day you have to literally shave the dirt off your legs and clip it from your fingernails. My insides were on the same page as my outsides as I was brewing my first bout of diarrhea. And nearly every student greeted me with a "Hi teacher! Wow, you got fat!" comment. (Though I have to say this was sometimes buffered with a "I want to go to America too so I can gain weight!")
I didn't have a mosquito net yet so I slept in full-length pants and a long-sleeved shirt in the extreme heat. I was dehydrated and all four fans to be found were broken. My bed had a total of three thin length-wise slats, their presence not hidden under a thin mattress. It's all pretty uncomfortable, but nothing unusual.
On one of my first days as a guest in the volunteer house, I broke the last working water filter (granted it was precariously poised on a two-thirds crumbled away ceramic base). We were reduced to filtering our boiled water through our t-shirts, but it doesn't work so well. My formerly transparent Nalgene bottle becomes a pale shade of mud, inside and out. My drinking water is opaque and luke-warm.
Despite the uphill start, after a few weeks I find myself better than I have been in a long time. It's so much easier for me to maintain a healthier lifestyle in a place like Mozambique. The sun is recuperative, and it feels great to walk everywhere. The food we eat is natural and right from the ground. Due to availability and heat, I crave fewer sweets mangoes and papayas do the trick. I'm losing weight and feeling healthier than I have in months. Well, save for that Giardia parasite who colonized my intestines somewhere along the road.
I can't believe how attractive Mozambicans are. What we strive for in vain in 2005 America isn't a difficult ideal to attain when you live in a country without excess. In Africa you wouldn't refer to trim and toned as an exceptionally beautiful and sculpted body it's just the body of man and woman. People are able to look lean, muscular, shining and fit under the right circumstances, with the labor of the day and natural wholesome food. But beyond this, though, I do concede that Mozambicans are just genetically beautiful too. They can flaunt expressive bone structures that are as well-defined as their complex arm and leg muscles. Their gorgeously dark skin contrasts starkly with their teeth so white. They take pride in tidy hair and cleanliness. And their smiles, their laughs, their way of being it makes one wonder, how do they do it?
One of the benefits of developing countries like Mozambique is that, in some ways, and if you have the privilege of wealth, you can have direct access to resources that would be too out-of-reach in a place like the US. For example, I had a request from someone to bring lots of African music home with me. So I went directly to the mother source - to the popular city-wide radio station in the city of Beira . I walk right in without an appointment and am able to immediately speak with the three cool young Mozambicans who run the music programs. I explain what I need, and pay them two dollars a CD for unlimited music. Imagine that ever happening in a city like Boston or Chicago!
The radio station has so much character I couldn't help but love going there. The station is composed of three small, dilapidated rooms on the 7 th floor of a high-rise apartment building. There is no elevator just seven flights of crumbling stairs and graffitied concrete walls, made beautiful only by the colorful laundry draped outside people's doors. The radio station is completely unmarked, and to get inside one bangs the padlock against the metal grate in hopes of being heard, or ring the bell by touching two dangling and bare wires together on the stained wall. In the first room there is a green couch coughing up its cushions, followed by two small rooms that hide, suddenly, a Mozambican oasis of technical sound equipment. When the power goes off, usually daily, for minutes or hours all work stops and these three hip dudes hang out on the couch, sending text messages to their girlfriends or making plans to hang out on the beach.
One day while hanging out with some "tecnicos" (the proud title of my recently graduated vocational school students) in Beira, I introduced a personality assessment game to them, one that asks questions about a person's various preferences to draw analogies about how he or she views the world. The answers my students gave were so interesting in how they compare to responses from other Americans that I have played this with. When asked the question what is your favorite animal and why, for example, the answer should indicate what a person looks for in a significant other. Many Americans answer something like dog, because they are loyal and playful and intelligent, or giraffe because they are beautiful, tall and unique. Mozambicans however answer in a very different way. "I like the bull because they are strong, and can provide food, clothes and milk for my family." At first I tried to re-explain the game to my students to get them to answer in different ways that weren't so functional. But then I realized that practicality and qualities advantageous to survival are exactly what Mozambicans hold dear. This is exactly what they need to look for in a wife or husband.
My student Celestino wants to be a passada singer (passada = cheesy Portuguese/Cape Verdean music). His family's house in Beira is large and made from strong cement. They have electricity and even a fridge. Their pretty yard has coconut trees, ducks in pens, and a concrete pit toilet. Their comfort is impressive. But there is still no running water, and tonight there are four people sleeping on the concrete floor of one room. They cook every meal over an open fire. Celestino lets his friends and teacher hang out in his home, and we soon go to the market to buy tomates and massa espagetti . As we jump around massive rain puddles and squint into the haloed light coming from little straw kiosks selling baggies of oil and spices, I notice how beautiful the night is. At home we prepare a late dinner over a charcoal stove in Celestino's back yard. It was always hard for me to conceptualize the statistic I once heard about 50% of the world cooking their meals over an open fire, but now I know it must be reality. It is time-consuming, but as my uncle says, hunger is the best way to season your food. And slow cooking can bring people together. We sit around the little stove and talk as we chop vegetables and boil water. The night is warm, the sky alight overhead even in this part of the city, you can see the stars.
I am glad for the personal time I got to spend with Mozambicans this trip. I feel like it's only through personal conversations that I can get a better understanding of things such as great mysteries like the Mozambican man! My student Jose Chicava is a prime example of typical. He has a four-year-old child with one woman, of which he says they were young and it wasn't planned. He has two other girlfriends who don't know about each other. One is four months pregnant. He clearly has double standards, as he explains to me that if he found out one of these girlfriends was dating someone else he'd report her to the police, or maybe abandon her. Though I don't think his lifestyle is very helpful to any one of these girls he's involved with, his stories somehow don't sound strange or surprising to me any more. Though I wouldn't want to be one of these women he's dating, I like Chicava a lot and I know he is a good person. We all are. And we are all products of the society in which we live, which in turn is structured around what is needed to be done to survive. In societies with scarce resources, little access to education, and few chances at upward mobility, families may not have the luxury of growing from carefully sought out romantic love; they form at a young age as functional units of survival. When one is bound since 16 to a partner he or she is too young to really love, extra-marital relationships are almost expected. When you don't want to be suspected of infidelity, of course you won't ask your spouse or partner to use protection, and of course you will be a little dishonest. When babies are prioritized as the epitome of a woman's worth, of course there are pregnancies galore. Especially when 20% won't live past infancy and you will depend on your future children to help grow food in your prime and take care of you in your old age.
The cultural consequences of a society suffering the stresses of inequality, and inadequate access to information and healthcare, can be seen through the model of the HIV/AIDS tragedy. This same weekend spent in Beira I hung out with other recently graduated students. While relaxing with cold drinks on the sand, they agreed to let me film an interview with them. We spoke at length about AIDS.
Mozambicans have seen enough billboards and heard enough lectures about HIV/AIDS to give their own informational talks. My students voluntarily rattle off to me the methods of transmission. They happily throw in there that it's best to be monogamous, and that one should only be sexually active when married. They energetically regurgitate to me what the health organizations and public service personnel say. But the reality of HIV for them seems to stay there in these two-dimensional places, as they are not actualizing or applying these things in their own three-dimensional lives.
This could be demonstrated by our own Chicava (the Don Juan mentioned a few paragraphs above), who happens to be one of these students preaching to me about celibacy. When I bring up the fact that one of his girlfriends is currently pregnant, he says they weren't using protection because she doesn't like to. I call them out on the ridiculous discrepancy between the (unsolicited) knowledge they rattle off to me with pride and their own personal actions. Chicava and his friend Nogueria laugh.
I pry further asking them to really examine why they are telling me that abstinence is the best way, if they know they are going to continue to have sex. Why preach monogamy when it's so normal to have more than one girlfriend? Instead of preaching things relevant to their own reality, such as condom use, they polarize into extremes a rigid set of guidelines to tout, and then do nothing in their own reality to be safe. I tell them how imperative this is, "Don't you understand that people are dying all around you?" I ask them if they know anyone who has AIDS. They say they don't know anyone personally, though once they saw someone on TV who spoke out about being positive. And this is the problem right here the social stigma around AIDS that prevents people from speaking about it in any personal way. I point out that 6 students and two former teachers at our center had died in the last two years. I remind them that their teachers and fellow students lose siblings, children and parents all the time. I ask them how many people they know who have died from "just being sick" in the last few years.
They are hesitant to step up and make this connection that many of the people dying all around them are dying from AIDS. Nogueira says you never know what the person has because HIV can be confused with TB or malaria or cholera. Though this is true, it's an unfortunate scapegoat. Because no one is publicly admitting he or she is HIV positive, it appears to everyone that no one really has it. This allows the crisis of HIV to remain almost theoretical at least publicly. I know from other conversations with close friends that privately, though, the threat of HIV haunts everyone. You talk about it late at night in whispered voices, or between nervous laughs after you've had too many drinks. And if you know you are positive, you live every day with your burning secret, your hard searing fear hurting inside. Public announcement ads encourage people to "support someone who comes forward as positive." But few are even coming forward, as it takes time for an entire society to change.
In just a short time back in Mozambique I learn the gossip of our school sometimes gossip so thick and shocking you can't even spread it. But much of it is gossip about who's dating whom. It's fun banter, until you realize the potential consequences. I see Adalberto's been getting so skinny, I pray he's not infected. Especially now that his girlfriend Felizmina is expecting a baby (she dropped out of our school before graduation because of the pregnancy). Janu's been gravely sick with TB for months now. There is a good chance he could have HIV. I know he was dating Bazenga last year. Now Bazenga is dating that boy we saw in Beira . He was dating Julieta before that. My mind skips ahead from person to person in this game, and it scares and saddens me.
The conversation with Noguiera and Chicava was in the end productive, as it was a unique opportunity for us all to speak about AIDS openly, honestly and self critically. All of this helps me realize that the only way a person can ever change anything is by interacting with people on a personal level. Personalism - getting to the point of intimacy and trust with someone enough to have these types of conversations - is the only path to understanding on both ends. These conversations are the only things I can say for certain have helped anyone or anything in my year and a half in Africa. They say that you can only change the world one person at a time, and as long as we remember to include ourselves, I think it can't be disputed.
Our interview on the beach uncovered other Mozambican perspectives that seem false and damaging to their own culture and sense of self worth. My stomach knots when Nogueira and Chicava tell me that they think their lives are better off for colonization, especially when they tell me their reasoning - they say that they needed someone to come and teach them so they could be more successful. I point out that their culture had a lot of wisdom and knowledge of its own traditional healing practices, knowledge of living in harmony with the land, cultural traditions that have been passed on for hundreds or thousands of years. But what these guys see is their current poverty in relation to richer parts of the world. They do a surface comparison of their native ways and those of the industrialized world. "Our poor fishermen work all day just to bring in a few fish for their families", points out Chicava. "Whereas big foreign corporations have gigantic boats that reel in thousands". To him, that looks like inadequacy on the part of Mozambicans. It looks like the outside knows how to live better than they do. But this is only a part of the picture. They don't see how unsustainable the west's actions are when it comes to pollution and over-fishing, or the centuries of domination and exploitation that have enabled industrialized nations to become rich and powerful. They don't realize that quality of life suffers when people are disconnected from the very food they eat, the land they depend on, and the families that raise them. Nogueira and Chicava only see flashy cars and big houses compared to their own humble homes. How could anyone not be mesmerized by that?
We talked about how much better "colonization" could be if it was an equal exchange if two cultures shared their wisdoms with each other for mutual gain. Take the oppression and exploitation out of the equation and globalization sounds a lot better. Of course so many things about development are wonderful better healthcare and education, the ability to travel the world and communicate better. But people shouldn't have to suffer in the trade-off.
I had a very eye-opening experience while visiting another American living in the city of Chimoio, two hours away. This former IICD volunteer works in a hostel part time while setting up development projects on the side. A few hours of stories and experiencing the ambiance there made me see a very different side of Africa that of the white African's experience. The bathroom walls had ads for day-tripper adventures offered by the hostel, and I was shocked at how they were basically excursions back to colonialism: a trip to a white Zimbabwean farm, a stay in a Rhodesian resort, and a visit to an "original colonial settlement". Apparently a portion of Chimoio is made up of a very different population than the nearly 100% black Mozambican population that I had been exposed to. "This place is white", confirmed my friend in the hostel, who talked of pretentious luncheons and bourgeois balls for ex-patriot white Africans (mostly from Zimbabwe) living the good life in Mozambique . The strange realization of this made me recognize the importance of my semi-immersion into this culture, where I was living and working with native Mozambicans, befriending and sometimes even dating them. It's not hard to see that many white Africans have subtle, if not overt, tendencies towards racism - mentalities cultivated by separation and division. When one has no daily personal interactions with "the other", then they remain "those people", items to be misunderstood and looked down upon.
This separation happens among NGO workers as well. It would be impossible for someone to understand and merge with a culture if you are distanced from it in your daily life, which is easy if you have money to drive your own SUV to the South African-owned Shoprite and enjoy your weekends in fancy restaurants and resorts. You won't get to know black Africans in the local market, you won't be in solidarity with them on their uncomfortable and eventually broken down bus rides, and you won't understand the way daily life is in their huts if you don't eat with them in their homes. These divisions are perhaps the greatest danger people all over the world bring upon ourselves, for separations create misunderstandings, literal and perceived distancing, and discrimination.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip in December was visiting the village of Macuse near the coast farther north in Mozambique. Humana runs a teacher training college there that is situated on an old coconut plantation the largest in the world, at one point. Macuse grew it's own colonial spot in the bush that was a fully functioning, highly organized industrial complex, despite its separation from other developed areas by hours by car or boat. Macuse was later the site of a major attack by FRELIMO freedom fighters in the '60s during the war for independence. Decades later the expansive grounds are now dense with ghosts, they say. The campus consists of a dozen or so refurbished colonial buildings, scattered amongst the remains of dozens of others. The house for the volunteers is a funny mix of qualities- it's one of the only two-story buildings I've ever seen outside of a city in Mozambique, and the rooms and hallways all seem palatial for a private Mozambican house. The place echoes in its emptiness as it is only sparsely furnished just a table and chairs in the dining room, just a bed and a table in the bedrooms. Despite its relative modernity, with a huge bathroom including bathtub and shower, there is no running water or electricity. Plumbing and wiring long since defunct, everything now carries the faint stench of cheap petroleum candles. A small transformer brought from abroad ironically serves as a candle holder, resting on the bathroom counter plugged into nothing.
I ask Naomi, the young Irish project leader in Macuse, what the small parallel line tattoos are that sparsely dot her body, visible on her neck and arms. She describes working in Malawi a few years ago when she was bitten by a non-venomous snake. The following day, her entire leg was black and numb the blood supply had been cut off. She was rushed by motorbike from her village in the bush to the nearest city several hundred kilometers away. The doctors there said the only way to save her was to amputate her leg. The Malawians she arrived with said that if she returned with them back into the bush the corondiero (shaman, or witchdoctor) could surely heal her. Having only her leg and life to lose, Naomi mounted the motorbike again for several more hours, and relinquished herself to the native healers. After 7 hours of rituals with singing and obscure (to us) uses of plant and animal parts, Naomi was completely healed within 24 hours
As all travels in a place like Mozambique are inevitable adventures, I had plenty of exciting times just getting to Macuse and back again a two-day journey each way.
Traveling on public transportation in such close contact with others develops a sense of automatic community, created by proximity and undeniable dependence on each other. It's not uncommon to doze off on the minibus and wake up with a child sitting in your lap. Sometimes the bus will stop and the two kids who have to pee half way back are passed, arm through arm, up to the front and out the door. They are done in 30 seconds and are passed right on back by the strong limbs of all the sitting passengers. No tears or struggles, these kids accept their part in the whole they comply.
Funny and bizarre things seem to happen on road trips in Mozambique like that time when my hair extensions got caught on the rifle of the black military man who ordered our bus to stop and was searching everyone's bags for cocaine.
So this day traveling from Macuse to Quilimane city was like many others - the truck bed is overloaded until not one more thing can be put on. Then ten more things are put on. The car doesn't pull away until the people getting squashed in the back get so fed up with the ridiculousness of the situation that they start screaming and yelling, and that's when the driver finally pulls out. Of course there are consequences. I count twenty-four people piled up in the back of a small pickup truck. Not counting the four people riding on the roof of the cab, and excluding the three more up front. Ten minutes into our ride, the tire becomes too flat to continue. There is no such thing as a gas station out in the bush, so we stop by a hut and a man with a hand-held bicycle pump starts trying to pump up the tire with all thirty-one of us in the truck. It doesn't work. So after great debate, the driver begrudgingly gives everyone his money back. And seeing as there will be no more transport 'til morning of the next day, we do the only thing we can do - we walk. I search around the small crowd of strangers and latch myself onto two young Mozambican girls who look similar to my age. They reluctantly befriend me because I give them no alternative, I have no idea where I am going. We walk for hours, talking intermittently, through villages and coconut trees. People stare and snicker at me, wondering why the white girl with the big pack is walking along with everyone else.
Although the entire country of Mozambique is considered poor, there are strata within this poverty. There are different economies and different lifestyles. There are the withered women sitting almost motionless on the side of the road with their little pyramids of mangoes neatly in front of them. The fruit is less than a penny a piece, and hardly anyone seems to be buying them. Then there are the two girls I walk with now, on their way home from boarding school. Their family lives in a mud hut, but their clothes are modern and they complain about the walking they joke that this is what their ancestors had to do. But it's clearly a silly comment, because it's what they are still doing right now, and what so many around them do every day. But they are in a class moving upward, so that is what they look toward. And then there are those who live in cement or wooden houses, who live in the city and enjoy meat and elevated beds on a daily basis. They too complain of their situation, because they see how much better things could be, from TV, from advertisements. In my presence they say they are embarrassed by the cracked mirror in their bathroom and the "humble" food they present me, only because they believe where I come from things are newer and not so broken.
When you walk for so long in the hot sun with a heavy load, things start to lose their subjective and relative importance. Dirty hands, nใo importa (doesn't matter). Sunburn, nใo importa. Having interesting conversations, and understanding what's going on around me, nใo importa. All thought is reduced and directed to water (warm water is now completely acceptable), and eventual rest. It's amazing how quickly life is pared down to survival functions.
Three hours later I reach the road where I can wait for the next bus to take me to Quilimane city. After 40 minutes I get on another truck. Twenty minutes into the ride, the car suddenly bumps severely and goes quickly out of control. We blew a tire. We were lucky, everyone in the truck exclaims: we weren't going fast, and the car was weighed down by the ten heavy sacks of corn packed in with us. Otherwise we probably would have rolled over, they say from experience.
Now, relieved and happy because we are still alive, no one seems to mind sitting on the side of the road, the sun rising higher and hotter, waiting and watching as the driver has trouble getting the jack under the car. I think we are all surprised that he even has a jack. He gets right to work though, and a small flurry of kids run down to the road, bringing logs to help prop up the tire, and watch this entertainment in the bush.
Once we're back on the road, it becomes apparent that something is not right. The noises from the axel sound horrible, we are going too fast, and the truck is shaking menacingly. I can only suck in my anger and fear so long before I start expressing this to those in the truck with me, to the point where I start banging on the side of the truck, saying I'd rather walk than die on the last leg to Quilimane! The driver ignores me, the others nervously laugh with me, but everyone wants to get to the city, and they know that most-likely we'll get there unharmed. All of us strangers, we literally cling on to each other and hold each other in the truck bed. They smile and tell me all you can do is pray. And this is when I suddenly realize, again, that poverty takes away freedom. Desperate situations make people do desperate things. There is no alternative, they are stuck with vehicles that don't work, pot-holed roads, and the real discomfort and risk of travel. They cling to the only things in their immediate reach each other and God.
Despite the crudeness of it, there is a weird system of checks and balances in this roughly capitalistic system; the demand of the people will eventually affect the service but it only kicks in under the most extreme situations. Only when things are totally impossible to endure will the voices of the consumers scream loud enough to put enough pressure on to effectively change the situation.
After one more bus ride, this time driving fast in hard rain on unlit nighttime roads, I arrive at the Zambezi River and settle in. My overnight room at the river is about two feet larger than the straw bed inside, and for two dollars my rent includes a little padlock and a mosquito net (albeit torn in many places). The entire room, from wall to bed to floor, is covered with tiny busy ants. It's impossible to be inside and not also be covered. There are seven goats outside my door, and I determine it's perfect.
LAST LEG OF TRAVELS: MAPUTO
After enough times finding myself in the same predictable interactions with Mozambicans who see me as nothing more than "whitey the tourist", I've learned the importance of steering myself out of these tourist/native roll-play interactions. As I walk around the streets of Maputo I am literally accosted by a barrage of vendors. Although I am in the role of the consumer, it's an annoying and impersonal box to be put in so I try to break down those walls; it becomes necessary, as the interactions become so robotic, black and white, and impersonal. Sometimes Mozambicans won't even listen to what I am saying, they respond only to the questions they assume I will ask. Me: "How are you today?" Him: "It costs one dollar". "No, I said how are you". "What? It costs one dollar. It's beautiful, high quality." "I don't want to buy it. What's your name?" "It's beautiful. One dollar." "How can I make you laugh?" "What? One dollar!" (straight face, no smile).
On my last night in Mozambique a young man would not give up trying to sell me some wood carvings. After refusing a dozen times I changed the subject and asked him where I could get a meal, at a local place. He walked with me 5 blocks to a place he insists is where locals go and we arrive at an upscale chain caf้, where half the patrons are old white Portuguese men. "No, take me where you go to eat", I say. After much confusion over why, he finally leads me to the market place. And the moment we enter the winding rows of mom and pop shacks illuminated only faintly by the dwindling light, it's obvious this is where the energy is. People are laughing quietly at dusk, friends and co-workers gather for a beer after a long day. The little nooks with their tables and chairs are homey and welcoming. This is of the people. I invite my new friend to join me and treat us both to beers and a large, cheap meal. Our conversation is basic but enjoyable, and we depart on such better terms than when we met.
Wow, congratulations for reading this far! This must be the longest of the "Mozambique Episodes" yet! I want to thank you for your attention and support all along this complex and beautiful passage. It hasn't quite ended yet, though, as sitting in a duffle bag stuffed in the corner of my tiny room here at Haley House is a whole bunch of video cassettes with dozens of hours of footage from Africa. I know it's not doing much good there, so my plan is to take a sabbatical from my work here to compile and edit the images and sounds that accompany these experiences I've shared with you only in words. Hopefully this will be able to further complete your connection to and understanding of this little slice of one powerful and poignant place in Africa. Please stay tuned!
I will sign off with a simple passage borrowed from a birthday email from my friend Paulino, the Chemistry teacher. The sentiment is quite typical among Mozambicans who value life and health as their highest priorities, and therefore include it in prayers to others:
"With nothing else to say, I wish you the following: That your happiness multiplies for more years in your life, that your joy can be shared by us all and by those who live with you, and that your sadness can diminish for the rest of your journey."
At times I reflect on the sense that Mozambicans feel left out of the rest of the world. So many teachers and students at the school were surprised that I really did return to visit like I said I would. They say it was so good of me to come back to see them, as if maybe they thought I'd stop thinking about them. These friends often say "don't forget us here", and "What are you going to do to help us? Don't forget, we're still here".
Ali can be reached via email: alipinschmidt[at]yahoo.com (Copy & Paste)
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