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!


  1. Did anyone get the Halloween word play without asking first? :) And please keep going with this blog, I really like to read it, it's so exciting. Good luck over there!

  2. You're blog is the most genuine and hilarious thing ever, and I always read it in your voice! I'm as proud as a girl can be of her heroes (yes, you and Dan are my heroes). I know I only knew you a short time as my carpool buddies and summer camp fellows in misery, but you made this summer the best that it could have been. Thank you!!