Saturday, December 31, 2011

Catandica Christmas

It was a Wednesday morning when we heard about the accident in Gaza Province.  Unfortunately, it was also the same day that we realized we had absolutely nothing to do at site.  Every room was clean.  Our laundry was finished and hanging on the line.  Our little dinner table was set up at the foot of the bed.  Lunch and dinner were already cooked, sharing a giant pot on the stove.  Romao was swinging in our door frame, staring at us.

We considered leaving early and traveling to Catandica, but it was already nine in the morning.  We had been up since five.  By the time we arrived in Tete, it would be noon, and it was at least four hours from there.  The chances of us making it to Catandica before dark were slim.  We were nervous to travel at all, but we were especially nervous to travel at night.  The accident had taken place after dark.  

We stayed in Zobue, but were impatient and uncomfortable.  I read a book and roasted peanuts.  Dan superglued a peg on his guitar.  We both were caught somewhere between tears and not talking.  It wasn't that we had been especially close with Alden or with Lena during our ten weeks of training.  We hadn't.  For me, I think it was the fact that they were so young.  Both girls had been younger than me.  Lena was 22 years old.  Alden was 23.  I am already 24.  What if I had died last year?  The year before?  What would I have missed?  For Dan, it was the fact that it could have been any of us.  Travel is so scary and difficult in Africa.  Chapas and buses barrel down the road, manned by drunk drivers or impetuous boys.  There are no seatbelts.  There are no “no passing” signs.  Everybody is governed by the fatalistic principle, “We are all going to die someday.  Why not today?”

We passed a final, unhappy night in Zobue before donning our travel packs and handing our keys to Romao. 

“What will you do while we're away?'  We asked.

“Maybe I will read a book,” he said.

We felt a little sorry for him, because we had packed away everything interesting.  The spices and medical supplies were locked in a trunk underneath my bed.  I had taken my shampoo, razor, and make-up.  We had even taken the stove, because the girls in Catandica had asked to borrow it.  There was nothing left for him to explore while he was house-sitting. 

We walked to the border, where an armed guard was standing by to inspect the vehicles that were crossing over from Malawi.  After a bit of give and take, he agreed to help us flag down a personal vehicle. 

“Sit on that wall,” he instructed.  “I will find you a boleia

We sat on the stone wall, overlooking the slow trickle of vehicles that chugged across the mountainous divide.  Most were large trucks (cam-ee-yows) en route from Blantyre, Malawi to Harare, Zimbabwe.  There was also a lot of foot traffic, as vendors from just over the border carried fried dough and grilled corn to the Zobue market.  Only one car looked promising. 

“Where are you going?” We asked the driver of the vehicle, a South African man on vacation with his family.

“We are going to Tete City and then south to Chimoio.”

“Do you have room in your car?”

“Oh, I'm sorry, but we're all chock-o-block.”

After about an hour of waiting, it was starting to get hot outside. Dan checked his watch.  8:00. 

“It's getting late.” He said.  “We should just catch a chapa.”

We agreed, and then headed towards a chapa near the border that had been trying to flag us down.

“Boy, we sure are lucky,” said Dan, squeezing into the second row.

“Why is this chapa empty?”  I asked.

Slowly, I started to notice things.  The last row was missing a back rest.  Our own seat was sliding forward and backward.  The driver was impatient and rude.  And, worst of all, nobody else wanted to get on. 

“Stop!” I said, shifting my bag onto my lap.  “I want to get off.”

The driver glanced back at me, but kept moving.  He was careening up and down the road by the marketplace, searching for passengers.  A chapa will not depart for good until it contains at least 19 people.   The fact that we wanted to exit the vehicle was, to him, counter-productive and stupid. 

“Let us OUT,” I said.  I pushed my way to the door. 

“Stop,” said the cobrador.  “Let this lady out.”

We found ourselves dumped by the side of the road, surrounded by passing villagers who stared at our large packs and weird clothes.

The cry went out, “A'zungu!  A'zungu!”  White person!  White person!

We sighed, hefted our bags, and began walking to the nearest chapa stop.

Our next chapa had an equally impatient driver, but it also had seats that were firmly affixed to the floor and a bar across the window that, theoretically, keeps you from flying out in the event of an accident.  Nobody in their right mind would want to test this theory, however.  Even Mozambicans don't trust chapas. 

It was about one hundred degrees outside and getting hotter.  We headed down from the mountains and into the desert that surrounds the sorrowful city of Tete, stopping every five minutes to pick up or drop off another passenger.  Sweat ran across my top lip and along the crease of my elbow. 

Zoom, slam, stop, went the chapa.  Zoom forward, slam on the brakes. 

We arrived in Tete City by mid-day.  A fellow, more seasoned volunteer was waiting for us to help us catch a boleia to Catandica. 

“We’ll have to get to the main road,” she said.  “I hope you don’t mind walking.”

And so, in that raging inferno that is the Godless city of Tete, we dragged our heavy packs and our limp, sweating selves along the highway. 

To hitchhike in Mozambique, one does not simply point the thumb in an upward direction.  Oh, no.  The hitchhiker must flap their hand enticingly at the wrist, indicating distance with a pointed finger.  The hitchhiker should also gesture left or right, if they will need to make a turn off the main highway.  In Mozambique, the “thumbs up” sign indicates that “everything is just fine here, thank you, no need to stop!”   It is not intuitive.

After an hour or so of walking and waiting, we came upon a seedy-looking row of trucks.  I walked by briskly, but Dan was stopped by man with a low, husky voice. 

“You lookin’ for a ride?” 

“Sure!”  said Dan.  “Where are you going?”

“I’m headed for Chimoio.”  The man spoke perfect English.  I backed up and tried to nudge Dan away, but the wheels were already spinning in his mind.

“How much to take us to Catandica?”  He asked.

“200 Mets.”



Dan nodded his consent and we all shook hands with the driver of the truck.  His name, it turns out, was Allen, and he was from Malawi.  He had been driving trucks for six years. 

To ride in the back of a tractor-trailer is an amazing thing, especially if you have just stepped off of a crowded chapa.  The truck driver uses his truck as a sort of rambling house.  That is why, directly behind the driver’s seat, you will find a full-sized mattress.  A giant, full-sized mattress just waiting for tired, stiff-legged hitchhikers.  We were swamped with luxury. 

All of this- the cheap ride, the giant bed, the English-speaking driver from Malawi- would have been perfect if we didn’t have to wait for Allen to get his travel documents stamped.

“When are we leaving?”  We asked.

“Ten minutes,” said Allen.

“Okay,” we said, leaning back against the truck wall.  Then, to each other, we said, “it is REALLY hot in here.”

The truck did not have air conditioning, so we were baking within the four metal walls of the cab, parked along the road in the desert purgatory that is Tete City.   Minutes passed, then hours. 

“We should have left to find another boleia,” Dan said.  His arms and neck were shiny with sweat.  

“We can’t leave now,” I said.  “We’ve already been here for an hour and a half.  We have to leave soon.” 

Finally, two hours later, we pulled away from Tete City.  The three of us gave a great cheer and air began to pour in through the vents in the cab wall.  We spent the next few hours bouncing along in comfort. 

The ride passed without incident, and we arrived in Catandica just as night was beginning to fall.  Once more, we shook hands with Allen and hefted our bags over our shoulders. 

“I’m coming back through on the 27th,” he said.  “You should give me a call.” 

A Description of Travel in Mozambique

It was a thirty-minute walk to the house in Catandica.  Luckily, the girls who lived there were more than happy to meet us halfway and guide us home. 

The house in Catandica belongs to two girls named Joanna and Mary.  Visiting were Mike and Mac, from Sofala Province, and Jamie, Hoang, and Bitsy, from Manica Province.  Adrienne and Dylan, also from Sofala, would arrive thirty minutes later.  The eleven of us constitute the central region of Peace Corps Mozambique.  We are the smallest group. 

Hugs were given all around, along with solemn, ‘How are you’s? 

“We’re okay.  We’re doing alright,” was the answer received. 

Most of us were in the English or Math training groups, and hadn’t been especially close to Alden or Lena.  The exception was Bitsy, who had been Alden’s best friend. 

“How are you?” We asked Bitsy.

“I’m okay,” she said.  She wasn’t. 

That first night was hard.  We didn’t talk about the accident.  Nobody really knew what to say, so we didn’t talk about it.  There were a few silences, but somebody would quickly bring up a new topic.  Joanna and Bitsy had made us pizza, and there was a barraca down the street that sold beer.  The night passed quickly, and soon it was after midnight. 

“We kind of have to sleep on top of each other,” said Mary apologetically. 

“Some of us can sleep outside,” Mac volunteered. 

“Yeah,” Dan said.  “We brought an extra mosquito net.”  After some shuffling, we had our sleeping spots arranged.  Joanna and Bitsy shared the bed in Joanna’s room.  Mary slept in her own, twin-sized bed.  Dylan slept on the floor in the living room, Jamie slept on the table, and the rest of us slept on the front porch. 

“Goodnight,” we said.  “Goodnight, everyone.”  It felt nice to be together. 

Jamie sleeps on the table in the living room

Dan sleeps on the front porch

Morning dawned early.  By 5:30, the sun had risen and the front porch was hot.  One by one, we started to stir.

Now that we had daylight with which to inspect our surroundings, we were in awe.  The house was securely surrounded by a tall, metal fence.  Behind the house was the school, and behind the school were the mountains that separate Mozambique from Zimbabwe.  Everything was bright, bright green.  The Peace Corps house itself was located on the school property and the school, a World Bank School, was comparatively wealthy and well-furnished.  Surrounding the school property was the town of Catandica, running from the brim of the highway to the foothills of the mountains. 

The house in Catandica, from behind

The view past the school and beyond the mountains

A hike around the town yielded sloping gravel paths and traditional houses made from mud and straw. 

“This is beautiful,” Dan said. 

Hills of Catandica

There wasn’t much time to explore, however.  There were twelve people staying at the house and we were out of water. 

In Zobue, Romao handles our water situation.  Lugging a 50-pound drum of water is not fun, under the best of circumstances.  In the searing Christmas sun, however, it is downright painful.  (In our defense, this is Romao’s only source of income.)

In Catandica, there is a well in the schoolyard, a set of six water drums, and a wheelbarrow.  The Catandica waterboy was on vacation, so it was up to us to carry our own water. 

Getting water from the well

In Mozambique, women carry everything on their heads.  I have seen logs, rakes, hoes, baskets, and even cell phones perched upon the heads of these mighty Mozambican women.  Water is no exception, and is always carried on the head, never in the arms.  A true Mozambican woman has no trouble carrying fifty to one-hundred pounds of weight on her head, and she usually does it hands-free. 

Adrienne and I decided to take this opportunity to practice carrying water, Mozambican-style.  We were not surprised to find out that this was just as hard as it looks.  The fifty-pound jug sways with every step you take.  The vertebrae between your neck and upper back strain to support the extra weight.  Your hands and arms begin to hurt from the strain of holding the drum in place above your head.  Finally, though, with tiny, tottering steps, we made it back to the house and dumped the jug triumphantly into the waiting arms of the other volunteers.  It felt like such an accomplishment that we carried water this way for the rest of the Christmas visit.

Adrienne waits for water

Lisa, Dylan, Adrienne, Nate, and Mac bring water back to the house

Because it was so hot, it was difficult to summon the energy to hike or to even walk around town.  We would travel to the market and buy supplies in the early morning, then spend the rest of the day cooking and playing games.  Nighttime was reserved for drinking and conversing. 

On one day, we traveled to see a small pool and waterfall that flowed from the surrounding mountains.  On another evening, we traveled along a mountain path to see the fields and huts outside of town.  All in all, Christmas was pleasant and quiet.  It was impossible to be sad all the time, so we had moments of happiness interspersed with moments of sad and silent reflection.  For us, it couldn’t have been any different. 

A countryside hut

On Christmas day itself, we exchanged plastic bags with stocking stuffers inside.  Dan and I gave small tins of hot chocolate mix.  In exchange, we received Bon-Bons, Starbursts, Tic-Tacs, and, our personal favorite, individualized business cards.  Dylan bought one beer for everyone, and we made a nice afternoon of it.  Outside, though, it was so hot that even the lizards went into hiding. 

A new friend

Another new friend (Hurley, the dog inherited from the previous volunteers)

While we were in Catandica, we received the news that we would be traveling to Chimoio on the 28th for the memorial service.  We didn’t have enough clothes packed for the trip, but we loaded into the chapa, regardless. 

We were overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from other volunteers present at the service in Chimoio.  Ten volunteers from our training group traveled to the central region to attend our service, and another ten volunteers from other training groups made an appearance, as well. 

The service itself was simple.  We sat by the hotel pool and wrote and read memories about Lena and Alden.  Afterwards, when the group had fallen silent for a while, we went inside to look at pictures.  It was absolutely heartbreaking.  We made scrapbook pages for the families and held a candlelight vigil.  Finally, when the wind blew out our candles, we ended the service.  We were left standing in the dark.

“Lena and Alden are telling us that it’s over,” said counselor. 

We hugged each other.  Then, without warning, one volunteer pushed another into the pool.  Another volunteer jumped in, and then another. 

“Hey, Moz 17!” Yelled Bitsy.  “If every single one of you gets in the pool, then Jamie will get in, too.”

“No, I won’t,” said Jamie.

“Oh, yes, you will,” said Bitsy. 

And that is the story of how Moz 17 Central ended up treading water in the deep end of the hotel pool, still wearing their dresses and skirts and button-up shirts.  It was as good an ending as any.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Accident

On Tuesday, there was a bad road accident in Gaza Province.  Rumors of the crash began to circulate just after midnight on that same night, but it was morning before the truth was confirmed.  The story, as I understand it, is as such:  Peace Corps Volunteers Alden Landis, Lena Jenison, Mary Lager, Derek Roberts, and Mark Goldfarb hitched a ride with an individual in his personal vehicle.  The driver and the five volunteers were then involved in a horrible accident wherein their vehicle overturned.  Alden and Lena died that same night.  Derek, Mary, and Mark survived but were evacuated to South Africa for treatment.

The Peace Corps confirmed the deaths on Wednesday afternoon in an official Press Release:

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 21, 2011 – Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams is saddened to confirm the deaths of Peace Corps volunteers Elizabeth Alden Landis and Lena Jenison. Alden, 23, and Lena, 22, died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident on Dec. 20, 2011 in Mozambique.

“Alden and Lena were both committed and dedicated Peace Corps volunteers who were excited to teach in their new Peace Corps communities,” said Director Williams. “This is a tragic loss for the entire Peace Corps community, including their fellow volunteers in Mozambique. Our thoughts are with both of their families during this difficult time.

Alden of Yarrow Point, Wash., and Lena of Hartland, Wis., arrived in Mozambique in September 2011 for pre-service training and were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers on Dec. 8, 2011. They were scheduled to complete their service in December 2013. 

Alden served as an education volunteer and was recently assigned to teach chemistry at a rural secondary school with about 300 students. Prior to serving with the Peace Corps, she had worked as a tutor in Montpellier, France.

Alden graduated from Boston University in 2010, where she majored in biochemistry-molecular biology and minored in French. She is survived by her parents, brother and two sisters in Washington.. 

Lena also served as an education volunteer and was assigned to teach biology at a local high school. During her pre-service training, Lena lived with a host family and enjoyed learning the customs of her new community. After being sworn in as a volunteer, she moved to her community in southern Mozambique. 

Lena graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, where she majored in biology and Spanish. She is survived by her parents and a brother and sister in Wisconsin.

This accident is painful and pertinent to all of the volunteers in our training group.  We knew Alden and Lena very well.    They were both very young, pretty, and funny. 

Lena had these crazy green glasses and long blonde hair.  She kept a funny blog, called her “MozamBLOG.”  I remember that one entry was entitled, “MozamBUGS in my MozamBED!”  My favorite quote of hers was this, in discussing resiliency strategies:  “It helps me to remember that somewhere, out there, is a posse who really, really likes me.”  Her best friend in the Peace Corps was named Anna, and they had been stationed only three hours apart.  Lena had been planning Anna’s wedding, which was set to take place in the summer of 2013.

Lena Jenison

Alden had crazy, wavy blonde hair.  She was effortlessly pretty and laughed a lot. Dan and I first talked to her in the airport in Philadelphia, while we were waiting for our plane.  Her first name was Elizabeth, but she chose to go her middle name, Alden.  “I’ve always liked it,” she said.  “Alden.  Like Walden, without the “W”.”  When we had our Halloween party in Abby’s compound in late October, Alden was the first one to return to clean the house the following day. 

Alden Landis

In the aftermath of the accident, volunteers are slowly beginning to assemble into groups.  This is a hard week for the remaining volunteers in our country.  Two of our original fifty volunteers are dead.  Two more are in a hospital in South Africa.  The fifth volunteer, from Moz 15, is still in critical condition with a head and spine injury.  Between the mourning, the heat, and our distance from home, it doesn’t feel like Christmas at all.   Even so, we are all together.  As of last night, all eleven volunteers in the central province had safely gathered together in Catandica.  We will be together until Christmas and then will travel to Chimoio for the memorial service on December 28th.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our New Home

Our new home is in Zobwe, in the northern thumb of Mozambique.  Twenty or thirty years ago, this town began as a refuge camp.  During the civil war, Zobwe’s main road was a pathway for thousands of individuals making their way between Tete City, the district capital of Tete Province, and the border of Malawi.  Now, it is a quiet town in the shadow of nearby Mount Zobwe, a double-peaked monolith that crowns this section of the Angonian Plateau.  The community, which functions more like a village than a town, is home to two markets, two elementary schools, and a high school that serves grade eight through ten.  Bairros here are tightly sewn together, with quintals (fenced compounds) laced together like squares on a quilt.  A network of paths connect yards and houses in a confusing knot of passages and cani├žo (reed) ally-ways.

Compared to the surrounding areas (Tete City and the desert), Zobwe is cool and rainy.  Because it is mid-December, however, all of Mozambique is rapidly approaching the high heat of summertime.  Tete City is reaching temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Zobwe is slightly less sweltering, at a balmy 100 degrees and humid.  The thermometer inside our own house has broken 95 degrees by 10:30 in the morning.  Rainstorms sweep across the plateau in a clatter of thunder and water, then sizzle and dry on the parched, sandy ground.  Evidence of each daily rainstorm is erased in minutes by heat and evaporation.

Our new house is in the heart of a friendly little bairro, squeezed between the mountain and the main road.  We are surrounded on all sides by neighbors, all of whom have children.  The front yard is sandy, and, while it is mostly surrounded by a reed fence, the fenced portion has strategic gaps that allow thoroughfare from one side of our quintal to the other.  Our front stoop, it seems, is a meeting place for children.  Our front yard is a makeshift soccer field.  Neighbors are constantly flowing past our house and across the front yard, calling out,

“Good morning, Teach-ah!”


“Bom Dia, Professora!”


“Mwatswera Bwanji!”

in the local language of Xi-Chewa. 

We arrived on Monday afternoon at 2:30PM.  It had taken us eight hours to drive from Chimoio, the district capital of neighboring Manica Province, to our new home in Zobwe.  In Chimoio, we had passed long, green expanses mato (bush) land, bordered to the west by the mountains that separate Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  Further north, we crossed the deserts of northern Manica and southern Tete, then turned east into the mountains of the Mozambique/Malawi border. 

Sun beat down on the roof of our chapa as we pulled through Tete City.  The only relief was the hot, stinging air from the open plexiglass window.  Even at 50 miles per hour, though, I was sweating through the seat of my pants.  As we turned towards Zobwe and began to rise in elevation, we passed through a curtain of rain that refreshed the surrounding landscape.  Vegetation became green and lush, and stark, sudden mountains jutted out of the countryside. 

In Zobwe, we pulled off the main road and onto a dirt path that led past a small health post and a soccer field.  At a cinderblock elementary school, we veered onto a smaller, rutted footpath and rumbled forward until we couldn’t move any further.  At that point, we had gathered a small crowd of neighborhood children.  One child was so excited about the chapa in his backyard that he ran to meet us without his pants.  Or underpants. 

When we stepped out of the vehicle, we were greeted by a sea of smiling faces.  Twenty or thirty sets of hands were waving in our direction.  Every child was excited to help us carry our belongings up the path to our house.  Dan and I doled out objects one by one- a roll of toilet paper, a water bottle, a plastic bag filled with mangoes.  Our belongings were borne up the path like a parade of floating items. 

At the top of the path, we saw our little yellow house for the first time.

Our first house!

“Aww,” I said. 

“Aww,” said Dan.

We used our new keys to open the front door.   The crowd of children politely stopped on the veranda and stared in. 

Curious neighbors

Dan and I peeked in each room and took stock of our situation.  The layout of the house was as such. 

Layout of our new house

Immediately, we could see two things.  One, we had been left a lot of stuff.   Two, we had been left A LOT of stuff.  Slowly, we moved our two trunks, three boxes, two suitcases, two backpacks, and multiple loose items into the living room. 

“What are we going to do?” asked Dan.

“I have no idea where to start,” I said. 

There were several things in the house about which we were extremely happy.  The walls were decorated with a collection of beautiful maps.  On the table, Janet and Lucas had left a jar of peanut butter, a bag of beef jerky, a full set of lesson plans, and a nice note.  In the library/closet, they had left a fully-stocked, four-tiered bookshelf.  We already had a couch, a dining room table, a tiny electric oven, and a refrigerator.  The water filter was up and running and we had about fifteen liters of clean bottled water at the foot of our bed.  The bed itself was made up with clean sheets and already included an assembled mosquito net. 

Unfortunately, we had too much stuff.  The back room was stuffed with boxes, mysterious bags, a charcoal stove, and two bicycles.  The bookshelf in the “library” was laden with cobwebs and dust that had formed and settled during Janet’s and Lucas’s absence.  Underneath the bed were more mysterious objects:  books, boxes, magazines, and old medical kits.  The kitchen shelves, while full of wonderful finds, also held empty bottles, expired foods, dusty caps, and a canister of something that looked like mercury.  On top of all of this, we still had all of our personal belongings.  Our things which had been, until now, perfectly sufficient.

“One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to avoid material things!” I moaned.  “I want fewer things!”

The living room was so packed I could barely move.  I spun around in circles a few times. 

“Okay,” I said.  “First things first.  We take down the maps.”

“I love the maps,” said Dan. 

“I do, too.”  I said.  “We’re not going to throw them away.  We are going to get this house ready to paint.”

My reasoning was this:  In order to feel like we were starting anew, and not just taking over somebody’s life, we had to claim ownership over the house.  We couldn’t spend the next two years living in Janet and Lucas’s house.  This was our first home.  We had to make it our own. 

There was a rap on our front door.  Through the swarm of children, a young man pushed his way into the house.  We knew who he was immediately, through our conversations with Janet and Lucas. 

“Bem vindo.  Sou o Romao.”  Welcome.  I’m Romao.

Romao is a sort of inherited helper.  He could be considered an installment of the house.  The first two volunteers moved to Zobwe when Romao was about twelve.  He was living with his uncle at the time, and, along with his younger sidekick Seni, was the resident orphan of the neighborhood.  He offered to carry water for the first volunteers in exchange for a few Medicais a week.  When the Peace Corps volunteers moved on and were replaced, Romao was handed down to the next generation of girls to live in the Peace Corps house.  He has since seen three sets of volunteers come and go.  Though he is nineteen years old and, as of yet, unable to pass the ninth grade, he is a trusted ally and asset.  He is also famously nosy and annoying.

“It’s nice to meet you, Romao.  We have heard a lot about you.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said.  “I brought you water.” 

“Thanks, Romao.  You can leave it there.”

He looked around at the house and stated, matter-of-factly, “Esta a fazer limpeza.”  You are doing cleaning.  It seems that many Mozambicans make conversation simply by stating the activity being preformed by the other person.   This type of conversation, needless to say, is rarely fruitful. 

“Sim.  Estamos a fazer limpeza.”  Yes.  We are doing cleaning. 

“Okay.  Well, tchau,” 

The crowd of children on the porch did not abate until I stuck my head outside and said, “We are going to clean in quiet, now.”  Luckily for us, Romao was still hanging out by our front door.  He shoo-ed the little ones off the front step for us, then hung awkwardly in our doorframe.

“Um.  Thanks, Romao.”


He swung back and forth in the doorway. 

“Thanks, Ramao.  We’re good here.”


He lingered for a few minutes, then trotted down the stairs. 

Our favorite Romao story has to do with the time that he used up an entire bottle of women’s perfume while house-sitting for Janet and Lucas.  Apparently, his friends though that he smelled so good that he couldn’t resist using the whole bottle.  It’s a relief to know that we can trust Romao to live in our house when we are away, but it is unsettling how intensely curious he is about our belongings. 

It took us a full week (Monday through Friday) to completely clean the house.  We started by emptying out the closets into the living room.

Our living room, in the midst of cleaning

Everything that we considered garbage (old school papers, Janet and Lucas’s training booklets, expired medicines) we placed in a large cardboard box.  It occurred to me that perhaps I should not be placing some of these medicines in a pile of trash that would eventually be burned.  In the end, I repacked the medical kit with everything except the aspirin, which I placed in the trash, and made a mental note to return the entire kit to the Maputo office in the future.   

Here is where I should make a very important note about waste management in Mozambique.  It does not exist.  Trash gets burned.  All of it.  Plastic bags?  Plastic bottles?  Metal cans?  Burned.  It is emotionally damaging.  As such, I was unsure of what to do with my trash bin when it was full.  I consulted Romao. 

“I can take it,” he said, reaching out a bit too eagerly.  Confused, I handed it over.  He took it to the front porch.  I slowly began to realize that he planned on rooting through it.  It also dawned on me that this was the beginning of a bad situation. 

“No…” I started.

Both hands in the box, he looked up at me.  “Yes?”

I shifted guiltily, remembering Chovito’s joy at finding Dan’s old watch in the trash.  “Never mind.” 

I went back inside.  Before long, there was another crowd on our porch.  This time, they were louder and more excited.  I saw scores of kids leap from our front step and run away, hooting and hollering, clutching handfuls of expired condoms and packets of aspirin. 

“This is bad,” I said to Dan.  “I don’t like this at all.”  For a few minutes, I was angry with Janet and Lucas for putting us in this situation.  We now had to either pack and store their trash or create a feeding frenzy by giving it away.  Either way, I was deeply unhappy. 

In the end, I decided to give things away.  I was unwilling to store some items (a ceramic salt shaker shaped like a chicken, a broken snow-globe from Washington DC, an empty PEZ dispenser) for two years, and giving them away made the neighborhood children CRAZY HAPPY.  I gave one boy some ground mustard that expired in 2005, and he ran home, waving it over his head.  This impression, though, that Dan and I were rich Americans who gave away objects freely and indiscriminately, was not the first impression we had wanted to make on our new community. 

For the next few days, I was finding the remnants of our trash around the town of Zobwe.  I saw one little boy in the market playing with an empty bottle of hand sanitizer that clearly had come from the box of trash on my front porch.  One little girl approached me with a packet of aspirin and asked permission to eat it. 

“No!”  I said.  “That is bad medicine because it is old.  Tell you mother and tell your friends that they can not take this medicine.”  I took the medicine away from her, but was aware of my dilemma.  What would I do with it now?  I couldn’t throw it away. 

On the final day of cleaning, Romao made a giant pile of trash (true trash, that even the kids didn’t want) in our yard.  He asked for a pack of matches and then, without warning, started a giant bonfire outside our kitchen window.   Two years of dusty, pockmarked ziplocks, calendars, wrappers, and toys went up in acrid, smeary flames.  I closed the window and pointed the fan out the door.  Inside my heart, I was mad, mad, mad.  In the United States, I used to recycle everything.  I would hold onto things for months until I got a chance to deposit them in the appropriate repository.  I hated that I was the one who had to carry the guilt for this giant trash fire. 

Finally, though, the house was rearranged.  The bookshelf room became my closet.  The adjacent room became Dan’s closet and a makeshift bathroom (We kept our chamberpot there at night and took a bath there in the morning).  The storage room was still a storage room, but with fewer boxes and minus half a bicycle (it had already been salvaged for parts, so we gave the remaining frame to Romao, who took it and ran).  The kitchen shelves were taken down and cleaned, and the bricks supporting them were cleaned and re-wrapped in decorative paper.   The prep table became a base for the portable electric stove, so we had an extra table that we put at the foot of our bed to use as a casual dining table.  The last thing I did was to sweep, mop, and hang pictures. 

After days of cleaning, I finally sat down to look at our new house.  It’s really quite a large house, at least by our standards.  It feels nice to have a house of our own.  The porch is beautiful, and we can do our laundry and dishes while looking down at the neighborhood kids playing soccer in the front yard.  The walls have yet to be painted, but that will come in time.  Now that the house has been arranged and I know what’s inside, I am beginning to feel some pride in and ownership of our new home. 

I am no longer angry with Janet and Lucas.  I understand that it’s hard to move out of a house.  They were unsure of what things we would want or need and, in true Peace Corps fashion, were unwilling to throw anything away that might be useful in the future.  They were also kind enough to leave us clean linens, tablecloths, dishes, and tons of amazing spices and food. 

It’s just, in the words of Romao, “Janeti did NOT like to fazer limpeza!” 

Honestly, my opinion of the previous volunteers is closely tied to my opinion of myself as a volunteer.  It’s hard, when replacing another volunteer at site, not to compare yourself to them.  After all, you are constantly being compared by everyone else you meet. 

“Janeti, Janeti!”  cry the little girls I pass by on the way to the market.  Some, the littlest ones, just point and shout, “Mzungu!  Mzungu!”  White person!

“Lisa!”  I say, still patient after just a few days.  “I am Lisa.”

“Janeti, yayy!”

I worry about my language skills and my ability to control a classroom.  I happened upon Janet’s grade for her final Portuguese oral exam and was put out to find that it was much, much higher than mine.  All of the pride I had been feeling for my measly “Intermediate-High,” evaporated.  More than once, I thought to myself, “what am I doing here?”

It isn’t just the Portuguese language with which we struggle, either.  In Namaacha, people were very pleased when you greeted them on the street in Portuguese.

“Bom dia!”

“Bom dia, obrigada!”

Now, though, we are expected to take it to the next level.  People want to be greeted in their native tongue.  Here, that language is Xi-Chewa. 

“Luka spoke Xi-Chewa,” said Romao.  “You need to learn Xi-Chewa, too.” 

I know that, in the end, Dan and I will be fine and very, very happy in the beautiful little town of Zobwe.  We can already greet people in rudimentary Xi-Chewa, and they just think that it is the cutest thing ever.   After a just a few days, Romao is as annoyingly attached to us (and our stuff) as he was to the other volunteers in the past.  The children who play in our front yard have stopped calling us “Luka” and “Janeti” and have begun to call us “Lee-zuh” and “Dan-ee.”  We have been to the market every day and can refer to some vendors by name.  I am also proud to announce that I have successfully cozinhar-ed some chili, scrambled eggs, tomato soup, French toast, and homemade mango syrup.  This list of accomplishments, while seemingly small, helps us graduate from one day to the next during this period of integration. 

*                     *                        *                         *                         *                       *                      *

After finishing the house, I made a map of the finished product and took a picture of each room in turn.  I hope this will give you some idea of our new house and our surroundings.  Dan and I are really quite lucky.  Conditions vary wildly here in Mozambique and, while I would have liked to live in a little mud hut in the deep mato, I am willing to admit that life is so much easier with an electric teakettle. 

Our house, with furniture

This next series includes two pictures for each room:  a photo of the room itself, and a drawing of the viewpoint. 

First, the library (my closet):


Next, Dan’s closet (the makeshift bathroom):

The storage room:

The living room:

(And from the other direction)

The bedroom:

And finally, the front porch:

And that is my very honest account of my first week at site.  Truthfully, it hasn’t been easy.  I am not always chipper and, this Saturday, I spent most of my day hiding inside my room.  Overall, integration is an exhausting prospect.  Every trip out of the house- to the market, to the church, to the latrine- is an adventure.  Sometimes I am up for the challenge and sometimes, like this Saturday, I use my chamberpot in the middle of the day because I am unwilling to go outside in the heat and face my new neighbors. 

Most of us (the new volunteers) are going to make it through our two years in Mozambique.  Even when things are bad- we are confused, we are lonely, we are tired- we are strong enough to stay here and make it work.  But I think that it’s normal, too, to sit on your front porch every once in a while and wonder, “How did I get so far from home?”

Oatmeal, mangoes, and a fried egg in our "canopy" bed

Sunday, December 11, 2011


We departed Namaacha on Thursday, December 8.

When staying with a host family, it is appropriate to give gifts either at the beginning of a visit or at the end.  Dan and I didn’t know what to buy for our family before having met them, so we waited until the end of our homestay to present the gifts we had been collecting throughout training.  On our last day, Dan and I packed three plasticos (literally, plastic bags) with gifts, one each for Mae Atalia, Ajuvencia, and Chovito.

In Mae Atalia’s plastic bag, we put
  • A jar of Nutella (she once provar-ed ours and announced “Animada!”)
  • A sharp kitchen knife (The family was always misplacing their only knife)
  • A blue 50th anniversary Peace Corps shirt (Dan and I have matching ones)
  • 10 Earl Grey tea bags that my family had sent from home (Mom and I had a tea-bag-sharing operation.  And by this I mean, I would make my morning tea and then hand her my used tea bag.  She was also “Animada!” about Earl Grey Tea.)

In Ajuvencia’s plastic bag, we placed
  • A beautiful pink shirt (flexible for a changing belly)
  • Baby rattles (a gift from Dan’s Aunt Wendy in the United States)
  • A music CD

In Chovito’s plastic bag, we placed
  • A bootleg copy of the Lion King 2 with subtitles in Portuguese (we had let him borrow the computer to watch the Lion King and he loved it)
  • Two miniature plastic pets from a vending machine in America
  • A roll of spearmint LifeSavers
  • A pack of playing cards (falta um Queen, which he had lost earlier)

We also gave them a handmade card, a picture of Dan and me on our wedding day, and a CD with pictures from our homestay.  The CD would play the pictures as a slideshow on the television.  We gave the presents over dinner and the reception was HUGE!  Dan put our pictures on the TV, Ajuvencia pulled out the baby toys, and Mom put on her new shirt.  Chovito was just shy and smiley.  He was too timid to play with his new toys in front of us, but we found the cards spread out on the table the following morning. 

Ajuvencia made us a brown-sugar cake and Argentina and Mario came over to say goodbye.  We sat together as a family and watched one of the many Brazilian telenovellas that air on Mozambican basic cable.  As always, Mom sat wedged between us, and, though her language comprehension is low, narrated what she perceived to be happening on the show.  Often, she would get in arguments with Ajuvencia and Chovito that would last far longer than the scene or incident itself.

“I see three helicopters.”

“There are two.”

“I saw three.”

“There are only two.”

“No, there were three.”

“You saw a shadow.”

Meanwhile, the show would continue.  Suddenly, Mom would notice what was going on and would comment in her matter-of-fact way,

“That woman just killed her husband.”

You would think that this would be annoying, but it’s actually adorable.  Because the Brazilian actors speak so quickly, she has no idea what’s going on.  Sometimes her comments are so off-base that it’s hysterical. 

“That woman killed her husband because he had sex with a monkey.”

Sometimes, her comments are simply practical observations of the things that she sees.  For example, we watched a pre-operational transsexual give a tearful monologue (in full drag) from her hospital bed before her ill-fated surgery.  Mom’s comment was:

“That woman is sad.”

We are going to miss her unnecessary, and usually inaccurate, running commentaries.  Honestly, it is comforting to know that there is somebody else who doesn’t understand these Brazilian telenovellas, either.  Plus, we often like her version better.

We awoke on our last day at 5AM.  It was already bright outside.  Our neighbors switched on their sound system as soon as I turned my key in the door.  Mom had boiled water the night before and left it in a thermos in the kitchen.  We did all those things we always did in the morning:  filled an orange bacia with half-cold, half-hot water, shampoo-ed our hair, dunked it in the bath water, dumped the chamberpot in the toilet, chased it with soapy water from our shower, poured tea, cut a loaf of pao, inserted scrambled eggs, and brushed our teeth with a mug of hot water along the side of the house.  This time, though, we were just a little bit sad.

Before long, we were standing at the gate of our compound, a tall, lightweight slab of sheet metal that swung shut and locked with a padlock.  Mom stood with us, in her new Peace Corps shirt.  Ajuvencia and Chovito were still asleep.

 Mom in her new Peace Corps T-shirt

And thus we left Namaacha the way we entered- alongside our host mother, laden with bags, and uncertain about the months ahead.  We were emerging, however, with a certain new set of skills.  We understood the Mozambican education system.  We knew the history of Mozambique.  We understood the culture and people of our new country.  We knew where we were going.  Most importantly, we now spoke Portuguese.  Dan and I had both earned a grade of Intermediate-High on our final Language Proficiency Interview.

Just before we left, our host mother called our Pai, whom we had never met and who was still working in South Africa.

“Aqui,” she said, handing me the phone, “say goodbye.”

“Oh, um,” I said, taking the cell phone.  “Ola, Pai.  Estamos a sair.  Adoramos a Namaacha e adoramos a Mae.  Obrigada e adeus.”  Hello father.  We are leaving.  We love Namaacha and we love Mom.  Thank you and goodbye (Go with God).

Mom was pleased.  She handed the phone to Dan, who said the same thing.  Strangely, I felt like that was the last piece of the puzzle.  I was now ready to leave.

I was feeling feverish as we walked to the chapa, but I chose to ignore it.  Mom had this belief that I was stronger and healthier than Dan (who had had numerous stomach issues) and I was intent on maintaining that image until I left Namaacha.  Luckily, we left exactly when we did.

I broke into a cold sweat on the chapa ride and my skin began to tingle.  My head was hot and heavy and a creaking pain crept into my bones.  I spent the ride to Maputo pouting quickly on Dan’s shoulder, rattling back and forth on the plastic seat of the chapa. 

Technically, this was an important day for all of us.  Today, we would swear in as official Peace Corps Volunteers and begin our service in earnest.  But, as one other volunteer said as we left the ceremony,

“I never really doubted that I was a real Peace Corps Volunteer.”

The swear-in ceremony took place at the Ambassador’s house in the capital. Chairs were placed around a pool in the backyard, facing a central gazebo.  All of the volunteers, 50 in total, were wearing outfits made of matching material.  One person spoke after another, and, to me, it was becoming interminable.  A rash of goose bumps broke out along my arms while drops of sweat rolled down my back.  I wiggled in my chair, inexplicably sore in every muscle.  I knew that I was running a fever.  I stayed long enough to stand with the others, left hand raised, and pledge the oath of service to the United States.  Then, I quickly escaped to the bathroom where I burst into tears.

It’s not a coincidence that I get sick every time I move.  I hate change.  It makes me sad, and it makes me nervous.  Every time I make a life change, stress shuts down my immune system and leaves me vulnerable.  Being sick in Africa is worse than being sick in the States, too, because you can’t tell if you are feeling the common flu or something more dangerous, like malaria.  Why did it have to be today, I wondered.  I had been looking forward to this ceremony.  Now I was in the service bathroom at the Ambassador’s house, squeezing out tears and leaning on the towel rack, considering lying down on the tile floor.

Luckily, two people had seen me leave: the Peace Corps doctor, Izzy Sacramento, and the Ambassador’s husband, Ted.  Izzy sat me down and looked at me firmly.  She felt my forehead.

“Take off that sweater,” she said.  “It’s making you hot.  Now, tell me your symptoms.”

She did a rapid consultation and gave me Grippon, a combination of anti-histamine, Tylenol, Vitamin C, and caffeine.

“Drink this full bottle of water,” she said.  “And give it thirty minutes.”

The Ambassador’s husband came to greet us and offered to let me nap on the couch in the main room of the house.  I think I laughed out loud at the suggestion.

“No, thank you.  I’m not that bad,” I said.

He invited me in to take a seat, and I obliged.  The house was gorgeous; grand and tiled in that stiff way of government mansions.  There was a koi pond in the corner and a running set of French doors that overlooked the festivities below.  Slowly, I sat myself on a prim, sky-blue couch.  People filtered in and out of the house, so I was never lonely, but I did miss the group photo of the new Mozambique 17 volunteers.

Finally, after two glasses of water, two doses of Grippon, and a full-length nap at the post-ceremony hotel, I was no longer hunched over like an old woman and could have a conversation for longer than five minutes.

Later, while staying at the hotel, Dan and I sat down to talk with the volunteers we will be replacing.  Janet and Lucas have lived in Zobwe for two years.  We are lucky that they have been exemplary and dedicated volunteers.  They had an English theater group, a REDES (girls’ service) group, and a JUNTOS (after-school) group.  They spoke the local language and were fairly fluent in Portuguese upon arrival at site.  The four of us talked for about three hours, ironing out details and logistics.  Finally, we parted ways with a hug.  It was hard not to feel intimidated, but I think Dan and I will do a good job at our new site.  We are feeling optimistic and excited. The school director is thrilled to be getting another married couple.

Janet, Lucas, Lisa, and Dan

After the swear-in ceremony, we took a flight on a small domestic aircraft, complete with propellers, to Chimoio, the capital of Manica.  Once in Chimoio, we began a two-day conference with our future supervisors, covering topics such as Peace Corps policies, volunteer projects, and supervisor duties.  Perhaps the conference itself was not thrilling, but it was wonderful to meet our new supervisor (in our case, the financial director of the school) and to spend a few last days with the vestiges of our once-mighty cohort of volunteers. 

Tomorrow we drive from Chimoio to Tete City (6 hours) and then from Tete City to Zobwe (2 hours).  We will be traveling on a rented chapa with our two suitcases, three cardboard boxes, two black lockboxes, two book bags, standing fan, stainless steel electric teakettle, extension cord, and two chocolate bars (the latter few objects were purchased here in the regional capital).  Tonight, we make our final round of despedirs before beginning a life-changing round of introductions. 

P.S.  Tomorrow’s temperature in Zobwe, Tete?

105 °

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Minha Mae

My host family has been an absolutely integral part of my training experience.  For ten weeks, Dan and I have lived with them, eaten with them, and struggled through conversations with them in our ever-improving Portuguese.  And now, when it finally seems that everything is coming together-the baby has almost arrived, Dan and I can finally communicate in Portuguese- we are packing our bags and moving one-thousand miles away.   

It seems like we are always moving.  First, we left some very good friends in State College to live in Santa Cruz for the summer.  Then, we left our new friends in Santa Cruz to move to Mozambique.  Now, after getting close to this particular family in Namaacha, we are moving to another province, this time in the far northwest of the country.  Honestly, it’s been very painful.  This time, however, it will be a little more painful.  Before, we were leaving friends.  This time, we are leaving a surrogate family.

Dan with Ajuvencia and Chovito at the Host Family Celebration

When we stepped off the bus in Namaacha, dragging our backpacks and plasticos and rain boots, we didn’t speak a word of Portuguese.  We were overwhelmed in a new country.  Everything was new.  Most of us were sick.   Some of us were already homesick.  When we met our host mothers, we were like baby chickens hatching from an egg.  We imprinted on our host mothers immediately.   

On my first day, I couldn’t say much more than “me,” “want,” and “no!”   I had learned the phrase “posso ajudar?” (can I help?) from my handbook, but couldn’t understand mom’s answer whenever I was brave enough to ask.  Somehow, though, we developed a working relationship.  I would try to help whenever I could, and when I couldn’t, I would sit with her in the kitchen.  I would tell her where I was going and when I would be back.  Perhaps most importantly, I always made sure to find her and say “goodnight.” 

In the end, she adopted our friend Adrienne, too.  Adrienne’s own host mother was apathetic to the young volunteer living in her household.  By the end of training, Adrienne was buying breakfast and lunch in town and making her own dinners alone in the kitchen.  Adrienne’s host mother chose not to attend the Host Family Celebration and left Adrienne to pick up her certificate and pose for pictures sozinha (alone). 

Adrienne poses alone with her Family Certificate

When my host mother discovered that Adrienne’s mom was not exactly behaving like a loving, protective parent, she took over immediately.  She served Adrienne dinner for three days straight and even packed her a lunch on our last day of school.  When we took family pictures in our last week, our host mother insisted that Adrienne be in all of them. 

Adrienne, Lisa, Mae Atalia, and Dan

Because my host mother is an amazing and delightful woman, I wanted to record all that I could about her before leaving Namaacha.  Furthermore, I wanted to share her with all of you.  In the spirit of the third Peace Corps goal (teaching other Americans about the people and culture of Mozambique), I give you my host mother, Mae Atalia. 

Candid photo of Mae Atalia in front of her barraca, taken in October

For this segment, I asked my host mother to pose for several portraits and to sit for an interview.  Before we begin, I have a few notes about each of these things.  First, my host mother chose her best outfits for her portraits.  These are church outfits, and most are so precious that I never saw them before these photographs were taken.  In general, Mae Atalia wears a simple cotton dress with an apron or a T-shirt and capulana wrap.  Usually, she wears her hair up, but in most of these pictures, it is curled and oiled for picture day.  Second, this was mom’s first interview, ever.  I have translated it into English.  Some answers might seem simple, but they are honest and reflect the scope of her life and desires.  In other words, Mae Atalia has not been given many choices or many opportunities.  In asking some broad questions, her answers might not seem very creative or ambitious.  This is because she is aware of the limitations that bind her life and choses to answer within these boundaries.  She is a very pragmatic individual.

Mae in her Sunday best

Where were you born?
          I was born in Massinga, Inhambane province, on January 1, 1965.

How long did you live in Massinga?
          Until I was 25 years old.

What grade did you reach in school?  Did you like school?
          I went to school until third grade.  I liked school very much, but my parents died when I was little so I ran out of money to pay school fees. 

When did you get married?
            I started dating your father when I was 27, in 1992.  We stayed together for many years but didn’t get married until 6 years ago, when his company in South Africa asked for a marriage certificate. 

What are your hobbies?
            I like to go to church.  I like to sing in church and I like to dance in church, too.

What is your favorite food?
            Xima (watery ground corn), chicken, and vegetables

If you had one billion Meticais, what would you do?
            I would go to Maputo and buy more things, then come back to Namaacha and sell these things.

You can’t use this money to make more money!  What would you do if you won money as a prize?
            I would use it as capital

No.  You can’t do that.  Spend it on something that is just for fun.  What have you always wanted to buy?
            I would give it away to the people in this neighborhood who have no money

And if you had to spend it on yourself?
            I would build a sidewalk from the barraca to the house so that we would not be muddy when it rains.

 Mae in her Sunday Best

What is your most prized possession?
            I don’t understand.

What thing in this house is most important to you?
            Everything in this house is important and special to me.

If there was a fire inside this house, what is the first thing that you would save?
            My bed and blanket.

Where would you like to visit one day?
             South Africa

Where have you already visited in the past?
            South Africa

Finally, what do you want for your future?
            I want to live with my husband for the rest of my life.

Mae in her Sunday Best

            *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

By the time we return, Ajuvencia will have had her baby.  Our Pai will have returned home for his one-month’s leave and then will have left again.  Chovito, our cousin, will be gone, living once again with his parents in Massinga.  Hopefully, though, Mae Atalia will still be there, singing in her mother tongue while shelling peanuts in the barraca.  Maybe, if the temperature is anything less than balmy, she will be wearing her funny red woolen cap.  And maybe, if we're lucky, she has been missing us as much as we have been missing her.  


Dan and Chovito playing in the rain at the Host Family Celebration

Dan and Lisa together at the Host Family Celebration

Chovito dons his Sunday best and asks permission to be photographed