The bus ride from Maputo to Namaacha was a crowded mess, but that’s not to say that we weren’t enjoying ourselves. My camera sat on my lap along with my backpack. I stepped on my rain boots to compact them in the small area that was available for my legs. Dan sat on my left, equally forced into place, holding his winter jacket, backpack, and three pairs of shoes. When the bus would swing to the right, I would crash into Dan’s scab-encrusted arms and he would rub his vaccinations reproachfully. I’d had vaccinations, too, but they didn’t hurt me as badly. Dan had a low fever and had been sick in bed all morning.
I tried to be gentle but the roads had pockmarks, bumps, and scalloped edges. Dan sweat, I swayed, and we all mumbled phrases from our language survival sheet.
“Faz frio! Nao quero tomar banho” - It’s cold! I don’t want to take a bath
“Nao conheco Van Damme” - I don’t know Van Damme
“Anima esta comida!” - This food is delicious!
There was a degree of desperation in our last-minute practice. Abby stood up in front of the bus.
“Are you guys ready to learn some Portuguese?” She asked.
“Yes!” We said. Our voices sounded big in the little bus.
Abby would read a word or phrase in Portuguese, then we would repeat.
“Boa tarde!” “BOA TARDE!”
“Boa noite!” “BOA NOITE!”
“Bom dia!” “BOM DIA!”
As we approached Namaacha, the plains gave way to hills and gorges. We were gaining confidence. Somebody put on music, and for a few moments, we forgot ourselves and sang along.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you, babe.”
The bus rolled and pumped though the main street in town. We were unloaded at the Teacher’s School and shepherded onto plastic chairs where we faced a row of colorful, well-dressed Mozambican women- the Mamas. A few of us used the bathroom while the two crowds, African and American, talked amongst themselves, waiting for some ceremonial announcement to bring us together.
“How to you say ‘I need to use the bathroom’?” I asked the girl behind me.
“Preciso (I need) fazer (to make) xi-xi (pee),” she said.
“Pray-See-Zhou Fah-Jher Shee-SHEE,” I said. I copied the phrase hurriedly. Preciso fazer xi-xi. The low rumble of voices faded.
“You will now file past the host parents in a line and find your Mae or Pae,” said Abby. We stood up awkwardly and shuffled forward.
Dan was the one who found her first. Probably the smallest woman in the line, Mama Atalia was holding a typed card that read, “Lisa Spencer.” Under my name, it said, “Dan Spencer” in Magic Marker.
“Ola!” I said, ending up in a sort of one-armed hug around my adopted mother. “Como estas?” I should have used the formal “esta,” but I was grateful to know any words at all.
“Bem, Bem, tudo bem,” she said. “Vamos.” I expected her to hold my hand but instead we walked abreast. Mama Atalia walked briskly with a sense of purpose, a pace unusual in Mozambican life.
As we walked to the house, I came to a sad and honest realization. No matter how many times I listened to the Peace Corps audio files, no matter how many times I copied down “Survival Phrases,” and no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that four years of Spanish counted for something; I do NOT speak Portuguese.
We walked along the streets of Namaacha. The sidewalks, though present along every main road, are uneven and crumbling. Most people were walking on the street itself. We passed two large houses in gated compounds along a shaded street, then made a left turn downhill into the sunlight of Bairro (Neighborhood) B. Mama Atalia guided us to her compound, a quarter-acre of dirt floor surrounded by grasses lashed together into a frame. Inside the compound were four main buildings- Mama Atalia’s house, a guest house, a barraca (vendor’s stall), and a cocinha (kitchen). She pointed to the guest house.
“Sua casa. Uma quarta e uma sala com uma mesa e duas cadeiras.”
Dan and I shuffled nervously. “Um,” I said. “O que? (What?)”
“Sua casa. Compreende? Quarta. Sala. Sim?”
I bit my lip. I felt that, with my background in Spanish, it was my responsibility to communicate with Mama Atalia. “Um. Sim.” I said. Yes.
|This is the compound in which we live|
She led us to the door of the small concrete house. “Sua chave,” she said, placing a key into the flat of my palm.
“Oh. Sim. Okay,” I said. “Obrigada (Thank You). Chave (Key).”
|This is our house|
The red wooden door swung open into a foyer/living area. Our new house was a sturdy square of concrete with clean, shiny concrete floors and a corrugated tin roof. The living area measured about ten feet by five feet (about the size of a van) and included a rectangular table and two plastic chairs. The next room, the bedroom, was a little large (10 feet by 10 feet), and included a queen-sized bed, two trunks, a square window, and a few nails protruding from the concrete walls from which we would hang our towels, outfits, and mosquito nets. Both rooms had a light switch that would operate a light bulb suspended from the metal ceiling.
“Que suerte,” I said to Dan in Spanish. “How lucky.”
We started to unpack. The Peace Corps had delivered sheets and blankets to fit the queen-sized bed. They were decorated with giant roses. Using the rope from the bed clothes, we draped the mosquito net like a canopy over our mattress and tucked the edges between the mattress and box frame. Our toiletry bag and nice shirts (one apiece) were hung on a nail by the door. From afar, our mosquito net made our “cama” look like a four-poster bed. In fact, when I’m feeling sad nowadays, I crawl inside the drapery of my four-poster bed and eat licorice sticks until I feel better. It is an oasis of privacy in an otherwise pervasive culture. (Example: Today, a woman rubbed me all over to demonstrate how I should wash my husband in the shower).
|This is our room and our mosquito net|
Mama Atelia had lunch waiting in the sala (living room) of the main house. “Casa grande!” I say proudly to other volunteers when they come to visit. “Muito grande! (A very big house). The main house is the perfect size. Mama Atalia has two bedrooms, a pantry, and a comfortable living room stuffed with red loveseats like a tea room. This meal was to be the first of many Mozambican-American dinners designed to appeal to American taste. Abstaining from traditional curries, Mozambican mother try to recreate the foods they think we want, including rice with ketchup, potatoes with mayonnaise, and boiled salads in vegetable oil. These are some of the most careful and thoughtful meals I have ever eaten. I understand why they wean us onto solid Mozambican food-- no good Mae wants their filhos (kids) to get sick.
|This is the living room of the main house, where we watch Brazilian Telenovelas|
After a meal of potatoes and rice and mayonnaise (God bless Mae!), we picked our way to the Math and Science Hub for language interviews. My interview went something like this (translated for your enjoyment).
Interviewer: What is the name of the family with whom you will be living for the next 10 weeks?
Me: Mama Atelia! No. Lisa Spencer.
Interviewer: What did you have for lunch?
Me: MUCH BIG FOOD
Interviewer: Do you have brothers and sisters in the United States?
Interviewer: Do you have brothers and sisters in the United States?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t knife Portuguese.
Interviewer: Do you have any questions for me?
Me: Yes, questions
Interviewer: You may ask me your question now.
Interviewer: Yes. You may ask me your questions now
After no deliberation whatsoever, my interviewer directed me to a Level 1 Portuguese workbook. This was not insulting. Most volunteers were having similar experiences in their interviews.
After interviews, Mama Atalia let us accompany her to the Shop Rite marketplace. The conversation went like this:
Mae: I go to the market
Us: WE can?
Mae: I go to the market. Then I will return.
Perhaps she was reluctant to take these two bright-eyed, goofy Americans, but she complied.
The Shop Rite Market was boiling over with vendors and activity. There were more salespeople and goods than available stalls, so vendors sat on the side of the road or sold product from the back of a pick-up truck. Each product is only offered in a single brand, which makes identification easy. For breakfast, everyone will have Five Roses tea. For lunch, we will have Tangy Mayonnaise and All Good Tomatie Sous, “Live Real Good.” All volunteers bring the same juice box to lunch. By necessity, Mozambicans also eat local. Right now, potatoes, carrots, and onions are in season.
We enjoyed the market but were generally incapacitated in terms of communication. Attempts at salutation were uncomfortable.
Kind Stranger: Good afternoon! How are you?
Me: I am how you are. Thanks!
Most of my mistakes I don’t, and may never, understand.
By 6:30PM on our first night it was dark outside. Still wet from my first bucket bath, I sat down in my little foyer and cried. It wasn’t the bucket bath that made me sad (no, I liked that), but my inability to understand the people around me. It hurt to listen and listen and listen, only to blush pink and say “Desculpe. I’m sorry,” at the end of every conversation.
“I’m so embarrassed,” I said to Dan. “I feel stupid and helpless.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Everyone else feels that way, too.” It was true. While we were desperate to learn the Portuguese language, we were also greedy for English. A few days later, I still lick my chops every time I see another volunteer on the street.
“Get ready for English,” I think. “VERY BIG ENGLISH!”
The next day, we attended church (igreja). Mama is an Apostalic Christan.
“Church is at nine,” she said. There was no question about whether or not we would attend. She was wearing a white suit and a white satin hat. She looked like Easter Sunday. Taking our cue from her, Dan wore a tie and I wore my new capulana (a length of cloth wrapped as a skirt). The capulana is actually what women wear to work around the house, but mine was new and, more importantly, not wrinkled. Mama yanked a hat over my ears before we left the front gate.
The stone church was too small to fit the entire congregation so half of the attendees sat outside on straw mats. We entered amidst thunderous song and were guided to seats near the front. Most of the service consisted of swaying and singing. The final song included some dancing, a sort of “petal to the left, petal to the right,” motion with balled fists. The women looked so pretty and immaculate in their white satin. Mozambican culture is a culture of cleanliness. East white suit was pressed and washed for church. Holes, tears, and missing buttons are acceptable, but dirty clothing is not. In Mozambique, it is disrespectful to be dirty.
After lunch, Mae took us to the market. “Do you want a popsicle?” She asked.
Dan and I looked at each other and nodded. “Yes. We want a popsicle, please.”
Mae handed the vendor 10 medicais (med-ee-caish)- about 40 cents- and ushered us forwards toward the refrigerated cart.
When I had finished eating, I asked Mae where to put my wrapper. She gestured across the litter-strewn street and said, “Anywhere, anywhere.” Popsicle wrappers and plastic bags and glass bottles and aluminum cans clogged the gutters and cracks in the sidewalks.
“Um.” I said, faltering. “No, it isn’t pretty.” Then I squeezed out a phrase similar to “With more trash, I will put. Bucket.” Bless her, Mama found a barrel labeled LIXO (lee-shou) - trash- on the next street corner. Namaacha is a beautiful town, full of colors and churches and wonderful songs, but it is also home to itchy dogs, littered streets, and smelly garbage fires.
Dan and I are living in Bairro B, a more affluent neighborhood. Here, the dirt roads are wide and smooth. There are fewer dogs and goats roaming the streets. Compounds tend to be larger, with high fences. Neighbors, while still loud and sociable, have a degree of privacy and security. Another neighborhood for volunteers, Bairro A, feels more tight-knit. The houses in Bairro A are smaller and closer together. Walls are short or nonexistent. Paths between houses are narrow and rough. The entire neighborhood is built along the sides of a gulch, at the bottom of which is a mutual water pump. When Dan and I took a walk through Bairro A, everybody was out of their houses- talking, yelling, or singing.
“Boa tarde,” we would say. “Good afternoon!” The littlest kids would just stare as we walked by. The older children would smile shyly- some would follow us. The adults would respond with “Boa tarde!” and “Tudo bem? (Everything’s good?)”
“Tudo bem,” we would say, and would continue on our “passear (walk).” The passear is a way of life here in Mozambique. Everywhere you look, the citizens of Mozambique are out of their houses and on a walk. The pace of life is slow, but churning. Not only does everyone “passear,” but they are incredibly polite and punctual with their greetings.
“Until 12:30, you say, “Bom Dia,” Mae Atalia told us. “From 12:30 until 17:30, you say “Boa Tarde.” After that, it is “Boa Noite”.”
|Children play in a broken-down car in Bairro A|
So, basically, everybody in Namaacha walks around greeting each other. This happens in the morning, during lunch break, after school and work (especially), and on weekends (especially after church). The interesting thing about the “passear “ is the pace. The people of Mozambique walk about as fast as chickens pecking at the ground. Luckily, Mae Atelia has no patience for the “passear.” With her, we walk fast, like little goats.
* * * * * * * * * * *
School started on Monday. Mae Atalia woke us up at 5:45AM with an abrupt rap on our window.
“Unh. Bom dia, Mama. Obrigada,” we said. It had rained all night over our tin roof. Whenever the rain abated, the roosters began to crow and the dogs began to howl. When one rooster would crow, it would start a chain reaction of roosters and dogs around the neighborhood. Then the rain would return in a rush and drown out all other noises in the night. The morning was clear and cold.
“I will shower first and Dan will shower second,” I said to Mae Atalia as she poured a kettle of hot water into my bacia (bucket).
“No, no,” she said. “Juntos.”
“Toether?” I asked.
“Sim, Sim. Podem tomar banho ajunta."
“Um. Okay.” I looked at Dan. “I think she wants us to shower together, but I’m not sure.”
Our shower (casa de banho) consists of a 4 foot by 4 foot cement square surrounded by a 6 foot grass fence. A sheet hands across the door frame and “locks” with a looped length of rusted wire. Dan and I hung our towels on the wooden posts that supported the grass walls of the “shower house.”
|This is our shower (foreground) and toilet (background)|
Our orange bucket contained about three gallons of warm water. In the bucket floated two plastic coffee mugs. There is absolutely nothing sexy about a bucket shower. Dan and I stood hunched over, shivering, with sharp goosebumps across our necks, backs, arms, and legs. We hastily scrubbed our genitals and armpits, then cleaned the floor of the shower with the extra water in the bucket. We wrapped ourselves in our towels, still wet from the night before, and slosh-sloshed in our sandals back to our house. This is one of the best parts of the day. Our concrete house retains heat well, and it feel good to duck inside, close our door, dry our hair, and put on clean clothes.
“Hurry up!” said Mae Atalia. “You have school. Mata-bicho!”
Mata-bicho (literally “kill bugs) is the Mozambican equivalent of breakfast. Mama fried two eggs and made two sandwiches from a tough, round loaf of pao (bread). The sandwiches waited for us on a plate under a white lace doily. While we were eating, Mama packed a juice box, banana, and piece of cake for our morning snack, then shoo-ed us out the door, locking it behind her.
Thank goodness Mama doesn’t “passear.” We were delivered to the escola (school) on time. Mae took my rain boots and said, “I will return at 12 o’clock with your lunch.”
“Thank you," I responded. “You are a good Mae.”
Our first session was entitled, “Homestay Processing.” Despite the formal name, it was really an opportunity for us to debrief, ask questions, and share stories about our weekend homestays. Most of us do not speak Portuguese, had never been to Africa, and were placed with families who did not speak English. It was an effort just to ask for water, much less have a conversation. Needless to say, we had a lot of questions for Abby and for our trainer, Claudia.
“I think my mom wants me to use my chamber pot to take a bath.”
“I haven’t used the bathroom since we left the USA. Is that normal?”
“Church lasted for more than three and a half hours! Do I have to go?”
After debriefing, we were assigned to our language groups. I am paired with Laurie (the other married woman in our training group), Allison (a Yale graduate who goes by the name of TJ), and two other girls, Laurissa and Gabby. Our teacher is named Matusse. This will be my language group for eight hours a day, 3 days a week, for the next five weeks until weeks until we have our LPI (Language Proficiency Interview). Dan is with Chris (Laurie’s husband), Sam (A future math teacher from New Jersey whose fluent Portuguese is admittedly "just Spanish"), and two others, Mary and Ariel. His teacher is named Nelson. Language lessons will take place in each group member’s house in turn.
I will now revert to an idea I brought forth earlier- the chamber pot. Dan and I are now the proud owners of our very own pequena (small) casa de banho. Every night, we rinse it out and put it in the corner of our living room by the front door. First, we brush our teeth into it. Then, we blow our noses, use the bathroom, and change into our pajamas. If we have to “fazer xi-xi” in the middle of the night, it is not necessary to put on a sweatshirt, find a flashlight, unlock the doors, and pick our way to the outdoor latrine. In fact, this entry ends the way it began- with our first rainstorm in Africa.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a roaring thunderstorm. It was hard to fall back asleep. The rain was deafening on our metal roof and I was worried about the effects of lightning on our little metal cottage. Occasionally, the sound of the rain was punctuated by the cry of some miserable, soggy rooster, “CROOOOOD-A-LOO.” I untucked the mosquito net and slipped out from underneath, sliding into my house sandals. As I squatted over the brown plastic bucket, warm and safe from the rain outside, I thought to myself, “This is even better than America.”
The kids on the street are starting to accept us. Two days ago, Dan and I were on our way home when we came across a crying toddler. From what I could see, her older brother kept tipping over the bucket that she had been playing with. Her face strewn with tears, she lumbered toward me as I walked down the path and crashed into my legs with her arms outstretched. I picked her up and bounced her a little bit.
“Hey,” I said, “it’s okay. What’s your name?”
She just sucked her thumb and watched me with big, watery eyes. Her older brother, no more than three, stumbled over Dan. He held out his arms, wordlessly requesting the same. We learned later that these two, like many other children in Namaacha, do not speak Portuguese until they enter primary school. At this point, that is great. I do not speak Portuguese, either.
Yesterday, Dan and I were passear-ing down the street with a large group of volunteers. We were pretty aimless- I think the goal was to stop by my house, pick up a few dollars, then grab a Coca-Cola. The same two children were playing outside with about six others. The children were milling around, watching us. One stepped forward shyly to show us the plastic bottle caps in his pocket. I’m not really sure how we started interacting, but I think it started with the littlest ones. I knelt by the girl I had picked up the day before and held out my palm, face up.
“High five!” I said. She blinked. Gently, I took her hand and gave myself a high five. “High five!”
I held out both hands. “High five,” I said. She blinked. Other kids came into join in the game. From this, we progressed to a game called (if I’m not mistaken) “I AM A MONSTER AND I AM GOING TO PICK YOU UP. THEN YOU WILL BE MONSTERS AND I WILL RUN AWAY AND FALL DOWN WHILE YOU CLIMB ON TOP OF ME.” Finally, I handed each kid in turn to a fellow volunteer.
“One for you, one for you, and one for you.” I was pretty tired. Children are universally exhausting. Still, though, it was a thrilling experience. Perhaps I can’t communicate with adults, but I can still play with kids.
They say that “Culture Shock” happens in stages. There is a honeymoon stage, where everything is perfect, amazing, and new. Then there is a homesickness stage, where everything is terrible and dull compared to the country that was left behind. This stage is eventually followed by the acceptance and integration stages.
I suppose I am still honeymooning in Mozambique, but it has still been a rocky ride. Yesterday, my water bottle slipped out of my backpack and fell onto my head. Unexpectedly, I burst into tears like a child.
“Hoje, nao quero falar Portoguese. Quero falar Ingles. Quero descansar.” (I don’t want to speak in Portuguese today. I want to speak in English. I want to rest.)
My downs are countered by my ups, like sharing pictures of my family in the US with my host mom.
“This is my brother and this is my sister. They were born on the same day so they are twins.”
Sometimes I am elated and sometimes I am ill-at-ease. I have had a cold for the past few days, but nothing worse. I still haven’t totally accepted the idea that I am in Africa and that I will be here for more than two years. Some mornings, I say, “Just today, just today.” Other mornings, I say, “This is the very, very, very beginning. There is a long way left to go.”