Monday, October 31, 2011

The Great Big American Happiness

It all started with a suggestive spanking from my husband.  With the slap of a palm, what had been a nagging stomachache for the duration of the evening erupted into a bout of rampant diarrhea that sent me tearing at the mosquito net that surrounds our bed.  Hours of retching passed into hours of fitful napping, punctuated by more retching and diarrhea. I kept a leaky plastic bag by my pillow so that I could throw up without doing more than rolling over.  At one point, I crawled to the chamberpot and used the smell of toothpaste and urine to force out more vomit in an attempted purge.  It wasn't until the hour of three or four in the morning that my cramps abated enough to allow me to truly fall asleep.  Unfortunately, though I had successfully made my way back to our bed, I had crawled in the wrong way and was snuggled up against Dan's feet.  I slept backwards for the rest of the night and awoke feeling confused but otherwise unharmed.  It was my first experience with food poisoning.

When I finally struggled to class the next morning, it was plain to see that everyone else was suffering in some way, themselves.  A feeling of sadness and of strain pervaded the air.  One girl was sick, as well, and absent.  Another received bad news from home while in class and burst into tears.  A third was stifling her yawns- the new baby in her house had been fitful the night before.  It was as if our cohort, as a collective whole, had advanced from the honeymoon stage to the rejection stage of culture shock overnight.

We felt overworked and under-equipped.  Our complaints were mounting.
‘I can’t believe we have to garden this weekend,’
‘I’m just so tired, all the time.’
‘I still don’t speak Portuguese’
‘Living with a host family is like a perpetual guilt trip’

That morning, we didn't hear the normal pre-dawn cacophony of dogs and chickens as music, but as noise.  Our towels were wet when we tried to dry ourselves after our bucket bath.  We suddenly and unexpectedly realized that we hated eggs.  And why was it so hot, anyway? 

I feel I need to explain something very important here:  None of us are going home.  At this point, it is unthinkable.  Shameful.  So instead of pondering desertion, we turn to what I will call, “American Happiness.”  American Happiness is a form of tangible daydreaming.  It is a jar of peanut butter or an English-speaking friend.  It can be found at the local gas station in the form of processed cheese or at the bottom of your suitcase as a single, squished-up Twizzler.

Perhaps it’s disappointing to the reader to realize that we haven’t been diving into Mozambican culture headfirst.  Why aren’t we wearing capulanas and making matapa and working all day in the mochamba?  Wasn’t our goal to truly live in and assimilate into a different culture?  What happened to our eagerness and why are we so crazy about peanut butter all of a sudden? 

The peanut butter is easy to explain.  We have switched from a diet that is approximately 30% fat, 25% protein, and 45% carbohydrate to a diet that is approximately 90% carbohydrate.  Because peanut butter is a good source of both fat and protein, it has become an extremely desirable commodity.  Our slow assimilation is harder to explain, however.  The biggest barrier right now is language.  We want to, we desperately want to, speak Portuguese.  But the truth is, we don’t.  Some of us have trouble coming up with the words, others have trouble understanding spoken phrases.  Most of us fluctuate between language-elation (“I made a joke in Portuguese!”), language-depression (“Sorry.  Can you speak more slowly, please?”), and all-out language-rejection (“I’m sorry.  I do not understand.  I do not knife Portuguese.”).  Because we can’t speak very well, we can’t make friends yet in our new community.  Unfortunately, human nature drives us to be social and seek protection in groups, so we have formed a very tight-knit group of American citizens.  Who eat a lot of peanut butter.  This is perhaps not what our friends and families anticipated when they sent us off to Africa.  It’s certainly not what we had anticipated.  It’s nice, though.  No one wants to feel alone. 

Every day, we go to language lessons and try hard to learn.  We greet people on the street and spend time with our adopted families.  We eat the cabbage and Fanta and rice and Coke and oranges and bananas and ketchup that our mothers provide for us.  We are very good little volunteers, even if we are still a little too American.  We have established a rapport with the community, who has accepted our awkward ways and only chides us gently on occasion. 

This weekend, however, we made no attempt to fit in.  This was Halloween weekend.  Thoroughly American in concept, this holiday is impossible to explain in a culture that lives life on the brink of illness and poverty.   Eschewing more complicated explanations, we told our families that this weekend was a special weekend in America and that we would be throwing a party.  And in honor of this admittedly strange holiday, fifty-one Americans in Mozambique treated themselves to one purely American evening, masquerade-style. 

The party was held at the house of a permanent (non-training) volunteer.  Her location was excellent because it was far off the beaten path and surrounded by a tall, stone-and-concrete wall.  All fifty-one volunteers fit comfortably in the compound with room to spare.  The best thing about this party was the fact that we were in Africa.  Every costume had to be individually invented and designed.  A few good costumes included a piƱata, a cheat-sheet, 501 Portuguese verbs, and a plate of matapa (a dish of melty leaves in hot coconut oil).  Being that we are in Africa, of course, our party was quite the neighborhood attraction.  At least twenty kids lined up by the wall to see our costumes and a few were trying to climb inside.  Later in the night, when we had all squeezed inside the house, those same few tried throwing rocks at the roof to entice us to come back out.  It was as if they had never before seen fifty Americans dressed as various household items. 

So the weekend passed in great cheer and festivity.  Now that it is Monday, we will once again throw ourselves back into our studies, trying our hardest to assimilate and pass for Mozambican individuals.  But with all of this language and culture absorption, it is important for us to remember that we are also here to share our culture, and that it is okay to allow ourselves the occasional Great Big American Happiness. 

P.S.  I have included two photographs from our Halloween party.  Below is one of our friends, Lona.  Born and raised in rural Georgia, she is genuinely caring and awfully funny.  She is also a very tricky seamstress.  For Halloween, she was a goat.

And my costume? 

Dan and Chris are two men walking abreast.

Happy Halloween from Africa!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Sweet Sixteen

This week, my host sister celebrated her 16th birthday.  As a surprise, Dan and I ordered a bolo from the German bakery.  With our friend Adrienne, we picked it up and smuggled it through the heartland of Bairro B, guarding it carefully from the hands of the covetous zombies.  Despite our attempts to move quickly, a few observant individuals noticed and pointed to the giant cake in our possession.
“Um aniversario!  Para bem!”  A birthday!  Congratulations!
“Nao e meu aniversario!  De minha irma!”  Not my birthday!  My sister’s!
“Estou a pedir seu bolo?”  I am asking for your cake?
“Nao!”  No!
No amount of zombie guilt could pry this cake away from us.  We were not going to give away this birthday cake.  The three of us made our way into the compound that Dan and I share with Mae and Ajuvencia.  We stood outside the front door of the main house.
“Ajuveeeeeenica!” we called.  She appeared at the door, washcloth in hand.
“Mana Lisa?”  Cool older sister Lisa?
Dan and I held up the cake proudly.  “Feliz aniversario!”  Happy birthday! 
Ajuvencia’s face shined with glee.  “Para mim?”  She asked, pointing to herself in exaggerated disbelief.
“Para ti!”  We said. 
“Obrigada!”  Thank you!  She accepted the cake and brought it inside.  Promptly, she returned with a pair of shiny, high-heeled purple shoes.
“Pode tirar um photo?”  She asked.  “Com o bolo?”  Can you take my picture?  With the cake?
Reluctant to go through the process of portraiture alone, she dragged her sister, Argentina, outside with her.  Argentina, daughter of Ajuvencia’s real mom in Maputo, was visiting for the birthday. She is a big, noisy, busybody with a taste for practicing English.  We like her.  A lot.  On the first day we met her, Argentina crossed her arms and said, “Take me to America with you.  I want to go.”
“But we won't leave for another two years,”  we had protested.
“No matter,” she had said.  “Take me with you.”
Both girls changed clothes and scuttled around one another, tying loose hairs in place.  Adrienne agreed to act as their photographer.  It was a complicated process to set the scene.  A table was brought out into the front yard and covered with a tablecloth.  The cake was set gently on the table and the surrounding silverware arranged just so.  Like in their favorite of my wedding photos, the two girls cut the cake together, joining hands over the knife.  Everything in place, we froze, smiling at the camera.  Adrienne snapped the photo.
Lisa, Argentina, Ajuvencia, and Dan cutting the birthday cake

Luckily for us, Adrienne spent a year of high school in Brazil.  Her Portuguese is very, very good.  That night, we enjoyed a conversation with our sister though the power of Adrienne’s translation.  Between the cake, the setting sun, the warm weather, and the help of our friend, we were a happy group of young people.  We could have been in New York City, in Paris, anywhere.  I promised Ajuvencia that I would print the pictures for her the next time I went to Maputo. 
 Adrienne laughs as she translates from English to Portuguese

It was easy to forget that this birthday was Ajuvencia’s last birthday as a child, and that this cake was the only present she would receive. 
That night, after we walked Adrienne home, we returned to find the two sisters inside the house.  They were still in their best dresses and shoes, dancing around the table in the living room. A Justin Bieber song was playing loudly, thumping the windows and drifting out the front door and down the street, into the night.  Dan and I settled in to join them.  Things that we might not have enjoyed in the United States- teenage  musicians, salty cake, purple high heels- are a luxury here.   Likewise, things that are strange and sad in the United States- a shortened childhood, a  birthday without presents, a pregnant girl turning 16 years old- are common here.  These are all little, unforgettable parts of my experience.

Argentina and Ajuvencia, October 21, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Three Stories

The Zombie Beggar Woman from Bairro B
At the edge of Bairro B, there is a German bakery.  New to town, this padaria aims to teach the art of baking in countries around the developing world.  There, you can buy a loaf of bread for twenty cents or a cookie for three cents.  A sweet bread pastry, my favorite, costs thirty cents- a ten Medicais piece slapped down on the tile counter at the window.
“Ate amanha,” we say to the woman who hands us our bread, with whom we practice our Portuguese.  “Until tomorrow.”
I don’t think we realized that these treats were unattainable for the majority of the population.  To us, they were easy and so tempting, a 10 cent dent in a 600 cent weekly allowance.  Nothing, nothing!  Every day, we spent a new 5-cent or 10-cent piece.  We were slowly growing gorda, forgetting the drudgery of rice and grits.  But one day, as I walked home along a shortcut through the heart of Bairro B, cradling my sweet bread in a wax paper wrapper, I stumbled upon something unsettling.
“Americana!”  A gregarious stranger first greeted me along the road.  “Welcome, welcome!  We are sorry for our roads are so poor.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.  I hate talking to men when I am off-guard and alone.  I am also still coming to terms with the decidedly random introductions I receive from strangers.  “No, I like.  I like Africa.”
“Good,” he said, waving cheerfully, speaking deliberately and slowly in the highly punctuated way of Mozambican English.  “Nice to.  Meet.  You.”  He continued in the opposite direction.
I had been trying to hide my sweet but the warm bun in my hand was distracting.  Glancing around and finding myself alone, I stole a bite.
Then, in a flash of dirty clothes and fingernails, came the zombie beggar woman of Bairro B. I literally gasped.  From behind a grass fence appeared a haggard, tired-looking woman, dragging her left foot behind her in a sort of drag-step, drag-step gait.  Her clothes were ripped and torn and a large chunk of breast was clearly visible.
“Bom dia,” I said, trying to be gentle and unobtrusive.  I changed my course somewhat.
“Estou a pedir sua doce?” she said.  I am asking for your sweet.  What was jarring was that she spoke completely without dignity.  She was begging, her voice whiny and wheedling.
“You are asking for… my sweet?”  I asked, backpedaling, stalling for time.  “But…half for me, half for my husband.”
She thrust her hands towards me. “Estou a pedir sua doce?”
It was as if I had been hit with a twenty-pound weight.  I was drenched in guilt.  Why could I afford this sweet cake?  Why was this fair?  Would giving her the cake make things fair?
“Umm… pouco,” I said, hesitantly, ripping off a piece of the cake.  She received it with both hands and thanked me with embarrassing profuseness.
“Obrigada, obrigada.” She limped away, disappearing into a neighboring compound.  It was with a start that I realized that she had been the same age as my mother in the United States.  I stumbled home in a daze, rethinking my position as an American in Africa.  The rest of the cake tasted like sand.  I gave it to Dan.
In Paul Theroux’s novel, “Dark Star Safari,” he notes that Africans tend to treat Americans with a “weird, rude sense of entitlement. “  It makes me wonder.  Do I owe my community something simply because I am American? Do they feel as if I owe them?  Is it not enough that I am here to teach? There is no easy answer. 
I will still buy sweets, I think, but in the future I will avoid the zombie-infested heartland of Bairro B. 

An Introduction to Snakes
My first introduction to snakes in Africa came from my sister.
“How do you say this animal?” I asked, trailing a finger along the ground and making a hissing sound.
“Aeee!” said my sister.  “Cobra!”  In Mozambique, the word “cobra” comes from somewhere deep in the chest, a guttural expulsion of disgust.  Goe-brrra.
“All are cobra?”  I asked.
“Cobra,” she confirmed.  “Aeee!”
The following week, I was planning a trip to the nearby waterfalls with a few American friends.  One girl called to say she couldn’t make it.
“Oh.  Why not?” I asked.
“My Mozambican family is scared of the waterfalls for some reason.”  She said.  “I’ll come some other time.”
Another confirmed that she would be coming but that her adopted sisters weren’t allowed to come with her- the Cascades were “off limits” to children.  Her family had explained the situation to her.
“At the waterfalls, you must watch out for very dangerous snakes.  Specifically, at the top of the waterfall, you will find a shiny rock.  You must take care to avoid the large snake that lives under this shiny rock.”
Our third friend had also been warned about the exact same beast: The-Cobra-under-the-Shiny-Rock-at-the-Top-of-the-Waterfalls-Aeee.  I made a mental note that this would make a good children’s tale if I needed material in the future.
We had a wonderful trip but never did encounter the mythical serpent.  My first snake encounter, actually, occurred on the same day as my cake-zombie encounter.  I was walking to class alone and nearly tripped on a rock in the middle of the road.  Startled, I looked down to find the toe of my shoe against the engorged belly of a patterned adder.  The snake was dead.  It had been battered beyond belief.  The skull was crushed, the neck and body cavern were torn open.  A rock sat atop the dead body, a superstitious act.  Predictably, I was repulsed.  I was surprised, though, by a sudden flood of relief.  I was glad that snake was dead.
The fear of snakes runs deep here.  The community throbs with a tangible dread.  I have never heard my sister say “cobra” without adding an “Aeee!” at the end.  My professors shudder at the word.  In a world where antivenin is unobtainable and venom is quick, a snakebite can be viciously deadly, much more so than in the United States.  So with a big toe butted up against the shredded belly of the mysterious snake, this reptile-loving American shuddered with relief to find it so cruelly, and unmistakably, dead.

The Time I Stole a Crianca
There is a toddler on my street who loves me for no reason.  The most likely explanation is that she thinks I am someone else.  I don’t have the heart to disillusion her, nor do I have the capacity to explain: First, she is only two years old, and second, she doesn’t speak Portuguese.  I have no other option but to be that girl she clearly adores.
As I walked home from school at the end of a morning session, this girl was waiting for me in the center (the center!) of our long dirt road.  When she saw me, her face broke into a giant smile and her hands went straight up over her head. 
“Ola, menina!”  I said.  “Ola, little girl!”  I can say anything I want to this child but have decided that the best course of action is to stick with very simple Portuguese.  She had on a frilly pink T-shirt and was wearing only one sandal, which was on the wrong foot.  Because the shoe made her taller on the right-hand side, she walked with a very stiff up-down, up-down limp.  She looked like a little old man. 
I picked her up and shook her around a little bit.  She gurgled.  Then, because it was hot and because I really didn’t feel like playing, I put her down and waved goodbye. 
“Tchau-tchau, menina.  Vou a minha casa.”  Bye-bye, little girl.  I go to my house.
But, as is often the case, Little Girl was not done with me yet.  She put up her small hand in a charming “hold hands?” gesture. 
“Bom, menina.  Vamos juntas.”  Fine, little girl.  We go together.
Hand in hand, we made our way down the street.  She grinned at the passers-by, proud to have such a friend. 
“Voce gosta minha crianca nova?”  I asked the school children we passed.  Do you like my new little girl?
We walked slowly.  I was leaning to the right, trying to accommodate the little fist.  Little Girl was shuffling along on her single bare foot, up-down, up-down.  We finally reached my house, about 500 yards down the road. 
“Entao… tchau, menina.”  So… bye, little girl.  I attempted to pry my hand from hers.  She let me let go and stood there, watching me.  Suddenly, I realized what I had done.  I had stolen a crianca!  I had taken a two-year old from her own front yard, walked her down the street, and attempted to leave her a quarter-mile from where I found her. 
This wouldn’t do!  This wouldn’t do at all!  What had I been thinking?
Well, I couldn’t leave her there and I couldn’t make her walk again on her little bare foot.  I had no choice but to pick her up and carry her all the way back up to the top of the road. 
This time, I got lots of stares. 
I realized that I didn’t know exactly where she lived.  I would have to approximate.  I put her down along the side of the road near where I had found her. 
“Tchau, menina.  Tchau-tchau-tchau.”  I started to walk away.  Deftly, like a second zombie in so many days, she began to limp after me. 
“No, menina!”  I said.  “No!”  She continued to follow me.
I broke into a jog.
“No, menina, no!” 
She limped after me, arms outstretched.  Her mouth was stretched into an I-AM-ABOUT-TO-CRY face.  Unsure about what to do, I broke into a run. 
“BYE MENINA!” I yelled.  Most people were staring now. 
When I returned home, I glanced back up the street.  Little Girl was a tiny dot at the top of the hill.  Once again, she was back in the center of the road, staring in the direction I had come from just ten minutes before.  She was waiting, waiting, waiting, for her friend to come back and steal her one more time. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Words that are Better in Portuguese

I have been speaking Portuguese for three weeks now and have recently discovered something wonderful.  Many Portuguese words, whether through design or through a happy accident, are onomatopoetic.  At least, I perceive them to be that way.   

When rain falls on a ceiling, it says “tay-too, tay-too, tay-too” – ceiling, ceiling.  Water sloshing around a 20 gallon jug says “ba-dong, ba-dong” – water jug, water jug.

Other words that are better in Mozambican Portuguese include:
Pao     -     (POW)     -     Bread
Mamas     -     (MAAH-Muhs)     -     Breasts
Sabor     -     (Sah-BORRR)     -     Flavor
Pipocas     -     (Pee-PO-Cahsh)     -     Popcorn
Oito     -     (Wheat-O)     -     Eight
Machim-Boom-Boo     -     (Mash-IM-Bomb-Boo)     -      Auto Bus
Brincar     -     (Brink-AR)     -     To Play
Escolinha     -     (Esh-Co-LEEN-Yuh)     -     Little School
Criancas     -     (Cree-YAWN-Suhs)     -     Toddler or “Little Critter Person”
Note:  This is a “galimoto” or a “TOY TRUCK ON A STICK.” 
It is made of garbage.  It is the best toy ever.

Another good word would be-
Camiao     -     (Cam-Ee-YOW)     -     18-Wheeler
Think of the little boys running along the street with their trucks on a stick, wailing like an ambulance, “Cam – ee – YOW – YOW – YOW – YOW!”

     *              *              *               *               *               *               *               *               *               *

Lessons today started with a discussion about the differences between life in Mozambique and life in America.  One girl pointed out the unsanitary conditions in which the baby of her adopted family frequently found himself.
“He, like, picks up a toy off the floor and just sucks on it!”
Another girl spoke up.
“The kids in my household always have runny noses and, like, stuff on their faces.”
In defense of the people of Mozambique, I felt insulted.  Sometimes, we are so busy searching for differences in our new culture that we miss the similarities that might bring us together.  Babies, all over the world and in the United States, are dirty little critters.  They eat dirt, they eat bugs.  They put their fingers in their bottom and transfer pinworms from one end of their digestive system to the other.  Babies are on a mission to expose themselves to every potential disease known to mankind.  It is a mechanism of survival.
Before I came here, I worked with toddlers at a YMCA in Pennsylvania.  These babies had runny noses, crusty eyes, sticky fingers, and smelly pants.  Like the babies here, they were also delightful and very huggable. 
It is also important to note that parents love their children just as much in Africa as they do in the United States.  For a short while, my Mae had hired a maid to help take care of Dan and I upon our arrival.  This woman had a baby that she would carry on her back for most of the day.  The baby’s name was Marcos.  Because the maid’s name was difficult to pronounce, we called her “Mae do Marcos” (My – Doo – Mar – Coash).  When she wasn’t carrying Marcos, she would leave him on a straw mat with a toy rattle.
“Marcos, Marcos,” she would coo.  “Meu bebe.”
When Marcos developed a bad cough, Mae do Marcos took him to the hospital.  Even though she was busy, she always washed him, wrapped him, and took his temperature.  She was nineteen years old, and a wonderful mother.

               *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *            

I’ll leave you with one last word that’s better in Portuguese than in English-
Picture a triple-toothed crianca staring at you as you walk down the street.  “Ola,” he replies softly in response to your greeting.  Then, as you disappear, he gains confidence, flapping his sloppy fingers. 
Tchau – Tchau!”
Then, you hear him start an imaginary engine and run in the other direction, pushing his toy truck.  
“Cam – ee – YOW – YOW – YOW – YOW!”
Because young children, everywhere, are exactly the same. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Puppy Triste

It is the start of the rainy season and the threat of rain is omnipresent.  The air has been hanging wet and heavy for the past few days.  This morning, we awoke to a grey sky and a cold, foggy rain.  The water made a soft, misty “shhh” as it blew across our roof.  Mae was already awake, rustling around the front yard with buckets of soapy water.
“Dan’s class is coming here today for lessons.  We must clean!”
I took a shower in the mist and Dan washed the floor of our casa.  Mae scrubbed the kitchen while keeping a deft eye on our ovos fritos.  Everything, inside and out, was wet, wet, wet.  My hair was wet, my towel was wet.  Water fell from the sky while I washed myself with water.  I dried myself with a wet towel in the rain.
Mata-biche was a brief refrain from the weather.  My short, wet hair was combed back and secured under a headband.  It was so cold outside that I wore ski socks and a sweater.  I poured myself some tea and ripped a loaf of pao to make an egg and cheese sandwich.  Because the Peace Corps pays our families so much money to keep us, we are provided with food more commonly associated with the first world, including cheese and soda.  This is wonderful and disappointingly unauthentic at the same time.  I shoved together an extra half-sandwich, wiggled into my rain jacket, and did the one-legged hop into my rain botas.  It was 7:15.  I was late and it was raining.  Dan leaned back in his chair and waved goodbye.
At the door, I ran into Chris, the other married volunteer.  He alone has to walk as far as I do to get to classes.  “Did you use your word?”  He asked. 
“Oh, Gosh,” I said.  “No, I forgot.”
My word was o pastor, a shepherd.  The game was to give each other a different Portuguese word each day, and use those words in conversation with our adopted mothers. 
“I used my word,” he said.  “I asked my mom if she was afraid of fantasmas.  She said that she won’t go into the graveyard at night.”
“Hey!” I said.  “That’s neat!  I will use my word today, I promise.”
We parted ways.  Because it was raining, the streets were empty. 
“Bom dia, bom dia,” I mumbled, to no one in particular.  I was wearing Dan’s old rain jacket, which was far too big for me.  I fit my backpack inside the coat with me and I had to roll up a sleeve to eat my sandwich.  The hood kept falling over my forehead and into my eyes. 
I met one woman on the street and quickly caught up to her.  She was older and portly, and I had greeted her a few times before at this time of day. 
“Bom dia,” I said.  “Como esta?”
“Bom dia, obrigada!”  She gestured around and said, in a matter-of-fact manner, “Chuva.”  That means rain.
“Sim, Sim.”  I replied.  “Minha pasta aqui!”  I pointed to my backpack under the hump on my jacket.  Directly translated, that means, “My backpack HERE!” 
I could hear her good-natured laugh as I continued up the hill. 
I arrived at Laurie’s house before my language teacher.  Today was Cooking Day, a special day for us volunteers to cook lunch for our adopted parents.  Unfortunately, it was not going well.  Laurie’s Mae was insulted that a group of American girls were going to “teach her how to cook.” 
“I don’t need to learn how to cook!  I know how to cook.  I have been cooking for 40 years!”  Laurie’s Mae was stomping around, banging various utensils together. 
We didn’t know enough Portuguese to assure her that we were not trying to teach her how to cook, only trying to provide a complimentary meal as a gift.  She wasn’t having it, though.  In order to show us that she indeed knew how to cook, she was busy preparing a labor-intensive meal of her own. 
We stood outside in our rain jackets, taking turns using the mortar and pestle. 
“Nao, nao, nao,” said Laurie’s Mae impatiently.  She took the pestle out of our hands and proceeded to demonstrate the proper pounding technique. 
As we fumbled around the make-shift kitchen, a soft whimpering could be heard from behind a mound of dirt.  As we watched, a tiny puppy limped towards us tentatively.  No more than six months old, he was nursing an injured front foot.  In the rain, he was shivering profusely, his hair clustered in wet little bunches.  The top of his head was bleeding from a fungal infection and his shaky body was hopping with fleas.  Clearly asking for help but uncertain about human contact, he stood outside our circle and cried, favoring his injured paw.
“Don’t touch that dog,” said Laurie’s Mae.  “He will make you sick.”
Just then, our language teacher attempted to enter the compound.  Curious, one of the adult dogs trotted over to greet the newcomer.  Our teacher jumped back. 
“Sheesh, sheesh,” he said.  “Shoosh!”  He waved his hands in front of himself defensively.  “Go away!”
We all started to laugh.  Many Mozambicans have a mysterious fear of dogs, even of small breeds like the identical, short-legged, tan-colored “African dogs” found in our village.  The crying puppy was momentarily forgotten. 
The morning got more and more difficult.  The mothers watched us work with a critical eye (“You must learn to cook!  How else will you feed your husbands and children?”) and one of the girls gave up speaking Portuguese (“Why should I?  My family speaks Xangana around me.”)  Our teacher stayed out of the brewing conflict by watching a speech on the television. 
I tried to communicate with the mothers by using a combination of hand-waving and terrible Portuguese. 
“This is why they love her,” I heard one of my classmates say.  I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment.  I felt ashamed.  Should I be speaking Portuguese or English? 
“Why aren’t you cooking the eggs?”  The mothers asked, pointing to a few eggs that we had considered adding to our salad.
“Oh,” I said, lightly, in my awful Portuguese.  “They said too hard if do more work but you say do it then I can.”
Two of my classmates looked at one another.  One said, “Did she just blame us for not cooking the eggs?” 
I was embarrassed.  “No, no,” I said to the mothers.  “I mean, me cook, I can cook, we all decided, I DID DECIDED, that it was too much work.” 
The mothers raised their eyebrows and nodded to one another.  Lazy American.
I was caught in the middle.  I got the materials together to boil the water.  In my rush, I dropped the egg in the pan far too fast and promptly broke it.  My spirit crushed, I had no recourse but to excuse myself.  Under the guise of dumping a bacia of dirty water, I put on my rain boots and walked to the edge of the compound.  That’s where I found the mass of baby puppies. 
Under a little awning in the corner of the yard were ten puppies, between 2 and 4 weeks old, sleeping in a pile.  I put down my bucket and crept closer.  The puppies were huddled together under a low tin roof, inches away from the drizzling rain.  They sighed and wiggled in unison.  When one would squirm, they would all wake up, whimper, and squirm.  These puppies were too new to have all the blights that mar the appearance of most quasi-feral African dogs.  Their skin was still shiny and uniform.  As I backed away from the sleeping litter, I caught sight of the puppy from earlier that morning. 
The injured dog had backed up against a cement wall in an attempt to stay dry.  He was still shivering.  I realized with a start that this was an older sibling of the current litter under the awning.  As I glanced over his festering wound and crooked leg, I felt a terrible sadness for him and for the ten puppies that would be cast out of their den in a few week’s time. 
Dan and I talk about adopting a puppy here in Mozambique, but we know that we can only take on one.  We have to choose just one to vaccinate, wash, and protect from injury and disease.  But be sure that we will adopt. 
The Cooking Day wore on with no great incidences but plenty of simmering tempers.  The mothers sat on one side of the kitchen and glowered at their American “daughters,” who reciprocated by speaking English to one another.  An event that was supposed to be a bonding experience drew a great divide between the two groups of women, instead. 
Before I left at the end of the day, Laurie’s Mae asked me for 16 Meticais (about fifty cents) to pay for the soda I had shared with the other girls.  I dug fifteen out of my pocket and pasta and borrowed one from a friend, handing it all to Laurie’s Mae.  I was supposed to ask Mae Atalia for reimbursement, but I knew that I would be too embarrassed to request such a piddling amount.
As I left the compound, two little eyes watched me go.  At six months of age, the little puppy mourned the fact that he was too old and too sick for me to adopt.  When I got home, I cried.  I cried both for the failed attempt at cooperation between my colegas, myself, and the Mozambican women, and for the little dogs that would soon be flea-bitten and broken. 
The reason I will be adopting a puppy is this: Perhaps I will make no great difference here in Africa.  Maybe I will fail to bridge the gap between Americans and Mozambicans, and maybe I will be a terrible teacher.  But at least I will have one happy, healthy African dog on my side and will know that I have made a difference in the life of one, measly little critter.
Start small, right?  One day, one animal, one individual at a time. 

P.S.  This is not the first litter of puppies that I have encountered here in Namaacha.  The first group belonged to the family of another volunteer.  I followed their story with interest. 
The volunteer’s family owned quite a few dogs, one of whom was pregnant.  The mother dog first dug a burrow in the yard near a sturdy concrete wall.  That night, she retired to her burrow after dinner.  The puppies were born early the next morning; seven of them, six black, one white.  Soon after the birth, however, the mother began showing symptoms of distress.  She wouldn’t nurse, and would leave the burrow for hours at a time.  Just two days after delivering the puppies, the mother died.  The family buried her under a large, flat rock. 
The babies stayed in their burrow for the entire day and part of the night, crying loudly.  They were still blind, and about the size of a baked potato.  When their mother did not come back, they left the den, one by one, in search of food.  Unable to see, they crawled to different corners of the yard, mewing for help. 
After this, the puppies ominously disappeared.  Everyone assumed that they had been “taken care of.”  It wasn’t until days later that we learned what had actually happened.  Paige Mashman, relax.  It’s a happy ending. 
A neighboring family learned of the Great Puppy Tragedy.  They come over with a box and sought out the lost puppies, one at a time.  The puppies were laid out on a blanket in a cardboard box and brought home to another female dog who licks them clean and continues to care for them.  The family supplies the puppies with milk and will shelter them until they are old enough to fend for themselves.   Dan and I have already agreed that one of these might be “our puppy.”
It’s these small acts of kindness that give me great hope and conviction.  I can make a nice, positive difference to the world.  All it takes is one little act of kindness at a time.  Or, like I told Dan, “tiny pup at a time.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bom Dia, Mozambique

My family and friends will be surprised to hear how often I find myself walking alone in Africa.  Before leaving the States, I promised my mom, “I'll never be alone, I promise! I'll always have Dan with me wherever I go.”  The ironic thing is, I am usually walking alone because I'm here with Dan.  Let me explain.

Namaacha has one main street with a bank, secondary school, soccer field, internet cafe, and a couple of bars.  The street is the only paved road in town.  To the east, it travels downhill to Maputo and the sea.  To the west, it stretches to Swaziland and South Africa.  In the center of town, the roads are broad and shaded.  Several of these roads intersect to form a checkerboard pattern of larger, sprawling houses.  From this patterned epicenter stretch the four main Bairros: Bairro A, Bairro B, Bairro 25, and Bairro 25 Total.  Bairro A, mentioned before, is a collection of tiny houses along a hillside on the Swazi side of town.  Biology and chemistry teachers live in Bairro A with their adopted families.  Dan and I live in Bairro B with the other math teachers.  Bairro B is more spacious and is centrally located, just downhill from the center of town.  Bairro 25 and 25 Total, where the English teachers and teacher trainers live with their adopted families, are located on the other side of the main road. 

Because I live with the math teachers and am a future English teacher, I am obligated to walk from Bairro B to Bairro 25 in order to attend class with the other individuals in my cohort.  That is why, every day, I find myself walking up the broad road of my neighborhood, though the “Checkerboard,” across the soccer field, along the sidewalk of the paved main road, past the Wednesday/Ssturday market, and into Bairro 25.  The entire walk is about one mile long and takes twenty minutes.  Because we eat lunch at home with our adopted families, I do this walk twice in the morning, to and from class, and twice again in the afternoon.  That adds up to about eighty minutes of walking alone. 

I would have panicked at the prospect if I had been told in the States that this would be so.  Just three weeks ago, I had no concept of Africa.  I remember being incredibly nervous.  I was unable to picture myself in Namaacha and assumed that I would feel ill-at-ease and out-of-place wherever I went in our adopted country.  Thankfully, this has only been the case in larger cities.  The people of Namaacha have been gentle and kind. 

I start my walk in the comfort of my own neighborhood.  Our most immediate neighbors, a 25-year-old man, his 22-year old wife, and their six-year-old daughter, start playing music at about 6AM.  The music follows me up the street until I leave Bairro B.  Along the way, I pass a few sets of children.  Some are in their school uniforms and walk in a tight bunch, while others are too young to go to school and watch from the side of the road.  The little ones are doing a variety of adorable (unmonitored) things.  Some roll tire rims around with a stick, while others push toy cars made with bottle caps and wire.  A few criancas (young children- think “critters”) are headed to “Little School.”  These three- and four-year-olds waddle alone down the road with giant backpacks that sag past the back of their knees.

I say “Bom Dia” to everyone.  The schoolchildren reply “Bom Dia!” in chorus.  The little ones just stare- they don’t speak Portuguese yet.  I give them a little wave and a smile.  A few people are sitting in their yards or walking on the road, so I greet them, as well.  “Bom Dia, Bom Dia!” 

They give big smiles in return.  “Bom Dia, minha filha (my daughter)!”

I turn left at the top of Bairro B and make my way through the Checkerboard.  A few people are scattered throughout, walking up, walking down, carrying water, sweeping their yards.  “Bom Dia, Bom Dia!”  I say.

Older women always look so surprised and flattered when I greet them in Portuguese.  “O!  Bom Dia, Obrigada!”  Sometimes they will ask, “Tudo bem?” as I continue to walk past.

As is the custom here, I keep walking and talking at the same time.  “Tudo bem!  (Everything’s good!)  E voce?  (And yourself?)” 

Their voice has almost faded away by the time I hear, “Sim!  Tudo bem!  Obrigada!”

The soccer field is already hot by 7:15AM.  I follow a well-worm path that runs across diagonally.  School children are pouring down the main road and into the Secondary School.  I keep up a brisk pace because, in general, I am late.  “Bom Dia, Bom Dia!”  They say.  “Bom Dia, Obrigada!”

I pass women on their way to work who nod appreciatively when I greet them.  A man putts by on a motorcycle with a pre-schooler on his lap.  As they bump-bump down the road, I hear a little voice say, “Bom deeeeee-ah!”  The dogs in the road scatter to the side as I walk past.  A few puppies limp behind me and then settle into a pothole to rest.  A mother goat tied to a tree “naaaaaaaahs” at me while her two kids “nehhhh” plaintively. 

I arrive at my language class at 7:30AM, out of breath but smiling.  I can’t remember why I was in a bad mood that morning.  “Bom Dia, Professor!”  I say. 

After class, it is the same routine, only backwards.  I say “Bom Dia” until I hear my first “Boa Tarde.”  Then I know it is time to switch.

“Boa Tarde, Boa Tarde!  Obrigada!  Estou BEM!”

“Good afternoon, Good afternoon!  Thank you!  I am GREAT!”

It seems that one never truly walks alone in Africa.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

O Lobolo

I have solved the mystery of Ajuvencia, but the answer is complicated, heavy, and steeped in native tradition and superstition.  In the words of a certain local friend, the results lie rooted in a thing “most ugly in Mozambique,” o lobolo.
It was at lunch when I asked Mae Atalia about Ajuvencia. 
“Lava maos?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she held up the pitcher and bowl with which to wash our hands.  As she poured warm water over our hands and into the round plastic bowl, I said to her, “I have a question." Because my Portuguese is so broken, the question was quite blunt.
“Ajuvencia says that you are not her mother but her aunt.  I don’t understand.  Can you help me?”
Mae Atalia placed the pitcher on the table and folded her hands, searching for a simple reply. 
“Your father,” she replied (the volunteer adoption process is taken very seriously) “and my younger sister were boyfriend and girlfriend.  They had Ajuvencia.  She is the daughter of my husband, so she is my daughter.”
She smiled when I repeated and rephrased her sentence, proving that I had understood.  “Yes,” she reinforced.  “Ajuvencia is my daughter.”
As I walked to class later that day, I grew upset.  “But,” I thought to myself, “Mae Atalia has been married to Pai for 24 years.  Ajuvencia is 15 years old.  How can there be no bitterness?”
I brought the question to my professor, who nodded and wrote one word on the dry-erase board- lobolo.  “This is the situation,” he said.  “I will explain it to you.”
“A man pays a bride-price for a wife.  This is called lobolo.  To her family, he will pay money, cows, gold, or clothes to “buy” her away from her home and into his.  For that bride price, the woman and all of her belongings, including her body, belong to him.  Some men are kind but other men will abuse their ownership. 
If, in the course of a marriage, it becomes clear that the woman cannot bear children, it is the responsibility of the bride’s family to provide sons and daughters as per their arrangement.  After all, future generations have already been paid for.  A bride who cannot have children can be considered “defective product.”  In this case, the sister of the bride must bear a child for the man who paid lobolo.  Neither woman has a choice in the matter- it is a financial and cultural transaction.  According to cultural mores, the child does belong to your Pae and to his wife, Atalia.”
“Oh,” I said, and flushed red.  I now understood.  I had solved the mystery, but the feeling of satisfaction was fleeting.

            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Because mail takes so long to arrive, I am including a small birthday list for interested parties.  These things are things that I can NOT have too much of- don’t worry about overlap.
·        Fabric!  I need cloth to make a cell phone pocket in my mosquito net and a money pouch for my skirts.
·        Skirts!  Everyone wears skirts here.  Any length, style, or color is perfect.  Matching is not a priority here.  I only brought two skirts with me to Mozambique and I wear them EVERY DAY.
·        Simple plastic and glass jewelry.  I did not bring anything “pretty” with me and now regret it.  I am mostly looking for single-string necklaces with colorful beads.  Please, not more than five or ten dollars!
·        Knee-length leggings!  I didn’t wear these in the United States but they are a necessary here.  Especially if I want to wear a skirt that is shorter than knee-length!  I am rather fond of those black leggings with fancy trim.
You’ll notice that most of these items reflect a deficiency in packing.  I thought it would not be important to be “pretty” in Mozambique.  I was so wrong!  I am received much better in my community when I am dressed nicely and look bonita. This is especially true with women and little girls.  Children are more likely to respond and warm up to a pretty foreigner than a plain one.  This is true in the United States, too, but is more tangible here because I am trying harder to gain acceptance. 
Final things to stuff in my package might include photos, magazines, tea bags, and candy.  I like Earl Grey tea, chamomile tea, twizzlers, peach rings, and sour patch kids!  Please don’t feel like you need to buy any of these things, however.  I also like getting emails. 
A few hints for sending packages
·        Write in red ink.  This makes the package appear more official.
·        Refer to the recipient as a religious figure (for example:  Sister Lisa Spencer)
·        Include religious icons on the packaging
·        Attempt to ship in flat packages to cut down on Customs fees
·        Do not list the value of the package as more than $5.  Listing a package as expensive will also drive up Customs fees.
·        Do not get too attached!  The Peace Corps says that only about two-thirds of packages arrive in Mozambique intact.  This is pretty disheartening, I know.  If you are worried but intent on mailing something, trying sending an inexpensive package with just tea or photos and a letter.  ANYTHING is a treat!