Perhaps some people wonder what my day-to-day life is like here in Mozambique. Perhaps some little volunteer-hopeful is seeking out blogs and information, just like I did once upon a time (three months ago). Perhaps someone, right now, is saying, “Yes, yes, this information is all very nice, but what is it REALLY like to be a Peace Corps Trainee?”
Well, my hypothetical reader, this is a fortuitous day. Today, I will give you a true account of an entire day in the life of an American girl in Mozambique. If I kept a diary, this would be my entry for November 26, 2011.
I started my Saturday at nine AM. My host cousin Chovito was sitting on the front porch of the main house. He giggled when I opened my front door.
“You sleep a lot,” he said, from his perch.
“YOU sleep a lot,” I said.
“Nao e a verdade,” he said. The equivalent of nuh-uhhh.
Chovito is a relatively new person in our household. He is ten years old and small for his age. Since he moved in unceremoniously and unannounced three weeks ago, we have learned to keep a careful eye on our belongings. Chovito is basically a baby raccoon. He is super cute, but very, very curious. Like a raccoon, he enjoys playing with garbage and is usually a bit scruffy.
Chovito wiggled around to better face me. “T-t-t-t-toma banho?” Take a bath? Our host cousin also has a stutter, which our host mother actually felt the need to point out to us upon his arrival.
“No,” I said. “We aren’t going to take a bath. We took a bath last night. We are going to clean our house.”
“Shato!” said the boy. Directly translated, shato means “boring.” It also means “darn,” or “crappy,” or “golly” or “booooo!” Basically, it’s a catch-all swear word for kids. Shat-ooooo!
Dan and I were cleaning in preparation for our big move. We leave our training village in one-and-a-half weeks. Peace Corps wants us to pack most of our belongings now, because they will be shipped to our sites prior to our arrival. Entao, we are taping boxes and stuffing them with everything in sight- pillows, blankets, extra clothes, books, etc.
“Really?” we had asked our trainer when we read over our packing list. “The pillows?”
“The pillows,” he confirmed.
The first two hours of the morning were spent sifting through endless papers, folding sheets, and finding hidden garbage. We cautiously fished out objects from underneath our bed, remembering the story of one volunteer’s host sister who had found a scorpion in her dirty room. We found no scorpions, but did find that Dan’s sneakers had been sewn shut with spider webs.
“Ew,” I said, swabbing out sticky strands with my finger. “Why?”
“I only wear my sandals,” said Dan. “Look at this tan!” He gestured to the white lines on his feet. It’s true that we have all generated very unique tans. In the words of another volunteer, “It looks like we’re wearing clothes even when we’re not.”
I was in the process of shaking ants out of my rain boots, when my sister yelled, “Mana Lisa!”
Here in Mozambique, they yell exactly as I was instructed not to when I was a teenager. Want to get the attention of somebody in the next room or across the compound? Why would you search for them if you could just let out a soul-jarring squaaack!
“Ooooo que?” I asked. Whaaaat?
“Make your breakfast,” she said.
I had been planning on skipping breakfast, since the night before had been our All-Volunteer-Thanksgiving-Potluck. Suddenly, though, breakfast seemed like a reasonable idea.
“Fine,” I said.
“Make eggs,” she said.
“The pan is here.”
“Make them now.”
Dan drank a warm beer from the night before while I fazer-ed some eggs. Our host family gets a kick out of watching us fulfill our traditional gender roles. To be honest, we enjoy it just as much.
“That’s right, cook those eggs.” Said Dan.
“You just sit there and drink your beer,” I said. “I don’t want you to get hurt. I’m pulling some pretty crazy stunts over here.”
“Just make me my eggs, woman!”
I added in a few pieces of Parmalat Plastic Cheese to make our Saturday morning breakfast extra-special.
Mata-biche is always nice at our host mother’s house. In general, we set aside a full twenty minutes to sit quietly and drink tea. On weekends, we might even stay for a full hour, conversing in English and switching to Portuguese when somebody else enters the room.
I stuck my hand over the thermos of hot water on the table to make sure that the water had been boiled and not just heated up. Though boiled, unfiltered water in Mozambique is saturated with dead bacteria, it tastes just fine with a stout bag of tea and a tablespoon of sugar. As long as the steam coming out of the thermos scalds my hand to the point where I screech and jump backwards, I consider the water safe to drink. I do this every day without fail.
So with our thick, green cups of tea and plastic scrambled eggs, we settled in for a long and comfortable breakfast.
“You know, we haven’t had sex for a while,” said Dan.
“What? I’m just saying.”
“That word is the same in English and Portuguese. Chovito is right there!”
“I’m just saying.”
In an effort to be honest, though, being in the Peace Corps is not the sexiest experience. You might try hard to maintain some semblance of privacy, but that is impossible when both individuals claw their way out of the mosquito net and race to the bathroom at the same time. When this happens, one individual is forced to pace outside, walking pigeon-toed and saying, “you don’t have to get it all out! Just enough so that you won’t poop yourself. It’s my turn, now!”
After breakfast, I took a load of dishes to the washing station in front of the house. If there is anything I hate at my host mother’s house, it is the dishwashing station. They employ the two-bucket method, yes, but they leave the dirty water in the bacias and reuse it for the entire day. This includes four meals: breakfast, little lunch, real lunch, and dinner. I end up washing my dinner plate in cheese water that smells like eggs and chamomile.
I gave the dishes a preliminary rinse in the dirty water, then levantar-ed some clean water from a barrel in the kitchen. I like to think I have gotten clever with my dishwashing technique. I put some soap and water in a mug, clean that, then pour the soapy liquid into the next mug. When it comes time to rinse, I give all of the dishes a quick splash to remove the suds before lowering them into the clean water. That way, I still have almost all of the water that I started with AND it’s still clean, to boot. Whenever my host mother sees me doing this, she shouts out, “Nao, nao, nao!” I have come to dread doing chores in her presence. Luckily, today was Shoprite day. Mom would be selling sugar, salt, and grain outside the market fence until it got dark. Chovito was put in charge of the barraca. Ajuvencia was in charge of us.
We cleaned our house from breakfast until lunch. Most of our energy was spent trying to decide which things we would need over the next two weeks, which things we wouldn’t need, and which things we would never need. Colored Pencils? Won’t need those until we get to site. Malaria medication? Need that. A broken watch bought at Shoprite on our first day? Do not need that.
Adrienne and Lona came over for lunch in the afternoon. The plan was to rehydrate some homemade rice pudding with cream and eat the stuffing and mashed potatoes that we had brought home from the Thanksgiving party. Unfortunately, the power had cut out a few hours before, so it would not be easy to cook. We would have to share the charcoal stove with our sister. Through pure laziness and unwillingness to cook over the carvao, we decided to serve the stuffing and mashed potatoes cold.
The Thanksgiving party the night before had been a big, big deal. Every person was ordered to bring enough food to feed ten other people. In total, we served two turkeys, four chickens, two gallons of stuffing, four gallons of mashed potatoes, three gallons of gravy, two bowls of green bean casserole, fifty sweet potatoes, fifty rolls, cornbread pancakes, rice pudding, cinnamon chips, apple pie, apple crisp, mango pie, and brownies. Adrienne had brought an extra tijela, so we filled that with food at the end of the night, after the party. Unfortunately, we had no way to keep it cold. For lack of a better option, Dan and I decided to leave it on our floor until morning
(Dear hypothetical volunteer-hopeful: You’ll be surprised how quickly you will let go of American standards for food preparation. Here is an example. When Dan and I returned home from the party, he lost his grip on the pot that held my precious cinnamon rice pudding. Without warning, the panela crashed to the ground, deposited the pudding upside-down, and then bounced away. Amazingly, the pudding had molded to the shape of the panela and was sitting there firmly, like the turret of a sand castle. I promptly grabbed the top half of the rice pudding and plopped it back into the pot. The other half I scraped up and chucked into the lixo pile. Then, I stored the pudding remains along with the other food on the cement floor of our house. The next day, Lona, Adrienne, Dan, and I shared a fork to eat these same lukewarm leftovers from the same giant tijela. Happily -and this is the moral of the story- we all survived this questionably-hygienic experience.)
It was just about lunchtime when Chovito came up to me with something in his hand.
“P-p-p-posso ter isto?” Can I have this? He was holding our old broken watch in his hand.
“Is that… lixo?” I suddenly felt guilty. Why did I throw that watch away without first offering it to Chovito? I should have known better. “Yes. Keep it. It’s yours.”
I looked past him and was startled to see that he had sifted through all of our garbage. A pile of hand-outs had been turned into paper airplanes.
“Chovito, you can have anything from the garbage, okay?”
“Okay.” He grinned, then held up his wrist. “Meu reloj.” My watch.
I watched as he proceeded to take all of our plastic bottles out of the trash and form them into a little pile. He sang to himself while organizing all of his new toys.
Chovito’s enthusiasm for garbage is surprisingly endearing. But he has one trait that is even more charming- my host cousin loves to do needlepoint. He saw me making a needlepoint chicken one day and sat down to watch. Aware that this wasn’t the most thrilling of activities, I offered to teach him how to make “passarinhos,” or little birds, of his own. Thus far, he has only stitched a few jerky letters on his embroidery cloth, but he likes to sit out on the front porch with all of the thread and tie knots like a little tailor.
Chovito sews on the front step
Ajuvencia is also learning needlepoint. I tried to teach her how to make “X-inhos” (sheesh-een-yo-sh: a made-up word that means little x’s), but she didn’t have the patience. Instead, she asked for some thread and then disappeared. The next day, she returned with this:
I love you, Mana Lisa
In Mozambique, it seems, spelling is not as important as the actual sound of the words when they are quickly strung together. With or without spelling mistakes, it was a touching gift. Ajuvencia has already started saying that we are not allowed to leave in December. It’s heart-wrenching to hear, especially when the speaker is eight months pregnant.
Lona went home after lunch and was quickly replaced by another volunteer, Stephanie. (Houses in Mozambique are like very busy train stations). Dan and I are awfully fond of Steph. She is little and cute, with short-cropped hair, a quiet voice, and a quick wit. We like to say that she has a great big personality funneled into a little tiny voice. When she talks, we all lean forward to listen. She had come over to play cards. Just before I dealt the first hand, however, we were interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Mario, our host cousin.
“Come in, Mario,” I called. “I can make introductions.”
“Okay,” he said. “Hello.” Mario is twenty-five years old, sort of cute, and very awkward. He is not good at translating my creative Portuguese into real Portuguese, so he often gives me a funny face when I am saying something unusual.
“Mario, this is Stephania and Adrianna. They are my friends. Stephania and Adrianna, this is Mario. He is our cousin.”
“Mario, would you like to play cards?” To my surprise, Mario’s eyes lit up.
“Okay,” I said, shuffling the cards slowly. “We can play… vai a buscar as peixes. Do you know that game?”
Adrienne and Stephanie laughed. Vai a buscar as peixes means “You go to look for the fish.” The actual name of the game, “Go Fish,” is harder to translate.
Mario did not know how to play Go Fish, but he caught on quickly. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon. Dan sat on the floor, sewing a broken sandal. Chovito was on the front step with his needlework. Adrienne, Steph, Mario, and I were practicing our Portuguese in the living room over a rousing game of You Go to Look for the Fish.
By dinnertime, all of our guests were gone. In Mozambique, few visitors stay after six or seven in the evening. Dinner, or jantar, is a time for family.
“Have you ever tried this plate before?” asked my sister, putting a dish down in front of me.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Vegetables all look the same to me.” In the shallow bowl, there was some sort of leafy green floating in a coconut sauce.
“Try it,” said Ajuvencia.
“Okay,” I said. I shoveled a few spoonfuls onto my rice. “I will probably love it.” In my host family, I am known for hating meat and loving vegetables.
“Try it,” said Ajuvencia.
I filled a spoon with rice and sauce and shoved it into my mouth. Then, alarmed, my eyes went wide and my tongue stuck to the top of my mouth.
“Oh, my God. O que e, o que… blehhhhh.”
Ajuvencia and Chovito burst into laughter.
“Is this food?” I asked.
“Yes!” Said Ajuvencia. “It’s food!”
“This is NOT food. Do YOU like this food?”
“It's good!” Said Ajuvencia. She and Chovito were rolling on the floor, laughing. I gave the food a sniff. The coconut smell that wafted from the sauce belied the bitter, sour-pungent taste of leaves within.
“Wow.” I said. “Dan, how do you like it?”
He shrugged, unmoved. “It’s fine.” Liar.
Ajuvencia and Chovito laughed, kicking their legs up and down. “Not everybody likes it,” admitted Ajuvencia.
“But do you like it?” I asked. “For real?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Ughhh. Lies. Well, then, I like it too. I like it so much that I will eat all of it.” I dipped the spoon in and took another giant gulp. This time, I didn’t chew. I forced a smile. “Mmmmmmm.”
“Nao!” said Ajuvencia. “I can throw it away. I made other food.”
Just then, Mom returned home.
Chovito was unable to contain himself. “Mana Lisa n-n-n-nao gosta a cacana!” He giggled gleefully. “Nao gosta!” Lisa doesn’t like the cacana! She doesn’t like it!
I was worried that our host mother would be insulted, but she just laughed. “Americans don’t like cacana,” she said. And so I ate my usual vegetable mixture, which Ajuvencia had prepared in preparation for my reaction.
Looking around at my host family- Ajuvencia, Mae Atalia, and Chovito- I felt sad that I would have to leave so soon. Half of my things were already packed away in boxes. Soon, the little cinderblock house would sit empty. Perhaps Ajuvencia would move in once she had the baby.
It will be so hard to stay in contact once I leave. Mae and Ajuvencia have telephones, but my Portuguese isn’t very good. Mae can’t read and doesn’t have a home address, so sending a letter is out of the question. Sadly, Ajuvencia will have the baby just a week or two after we leave. I’m not exactly excited that this sixteen-year-old is giving birth, but I would like to meet the baby. The mother has a special place in my heart, after all. We told her to name the baby Dan, if it’s a boy, or Lisa, if it’s a girl. Who know? Maybe she will.
I looked a map the other day to try and understand how far away we will be moving. The answer is, sadly and surprisingly far. From north to south, Mozambique is about as tall as the United States. The coastline of Mozambique is twice the coastline of California. From Maputo, the capital, to Zobwe, Tete, we will be traveling 1,660 kilometers, or just over a thousand miles. This is the distance from San Diego, California to Portland, Oregon. It is also the distance from State College, Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida. So the chances of us coming back to visit anytime soon are very, very slim. By the time we return, the baby will be at least one year old. Shato!
The United States and Mozambique, side by side
If you can judge your success in a place by how sad you are to leave it, then I would say that Dan and I have had a very successful homestay in here Namaacha.
So there you have it, my hypothetical volunteer-hopeful. A real day in the life of a volunteer trainee. Most days you will have language lessons and tech sessions, but some days will be open, and those are the most fun. My suggestion to you is this- build a good relationship with your host family. Play cards, show them your sewing, watch a movie with them, talk to them, whatever. Even if you don’t speak the language yet, you can go outside and watch your little brother throw around a paper airplane. Remember that this is why you are here. You signed up to be a Peace Corps Volunteer because you wanted to make friends and change lives. Just sit and watch that boy throw the paper airplane for a little while. I promise that it will be rewarding. I promise.
Chovito and his Needlepoint