Fifty-one volunteers-in-training stood around the edge of the basketball court, looking over an ultra-large chalk map of Mozambique. Each of the eleven provinces were outlined in a different color and labeled in bubble letters.
We all held in our hands a full-sized envelope with a letter stapled to the front. The letter read,
“Dear Moz 17 Trainees,
Congratulations on your assignments. We hope that you are as happy as we are about where you'll be spending the next two years of your life. But even if you are not absolutely ecstatic at this moment- even if you are completely nervous about the great unknown ahead of you- let us share something to help you keep some perspective and manage your expectations a bit
Life is calling. How far will you go?
Though many of you took the “opportunity” to tell us what you wanted in a site, “important” things like mountains, cell phone coverage, people you'd like to be near, etc, please know that our first priority in deciding where to send you was finding a job that matched you (and vice versa). So if you happened to get some of these “amenities,” good for you, but that's not why we placed you there. And if by chance, you didn't get something that you really thought you couldn't live without, just know that you will live with out it. AND YOU WILL BE FINE. This is the Peace Corps...in Africa...in one of the poorest countries in the world. If you go back to your recruitment materials for Mozambique, what you agreed to before you ever stepped foot in Mozambique was potentially a life with latrines, without electricity and running water, and yes, even without cell phone coverage or Internet. So in essence, if you are disappointed, we encourage you to refocus your energies on what really matters- why you are here and what you want to get out of this experience.”
We read the letter silently, in unison, and then looked up. Our Associate Country Director stood in the center of the basketball court.
“I will count down from ten,” he said. “And then you can open your letters. Ten..........”
He waited too long. The countdown was instantly out of his hands as we yelled, “Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three!”
There was a flurry of motion as fifty-one volunteers tore at the secure white flap of their envelopes. I shook out the contents of my folder and grabbed hold of a full-page map of central Mozambique. Our future site was highlighted in yellow.
Dan and I looked at each other with a slow, creeping smile. Then, I threw my arms around his neck.
“Tete! Tete! We're going to Tete!”
He kissed me on the cheek. “Are you excited?”
“I don't know!”
“Should we get on the map?”
We happy-danced over to the northern thumb of Mozambique. People were streaming around us, looking equally overwhelmed and excited. Everyone was looking for their sites first, and then their friends.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “We're the only ones in Tete!”
We were standing alone in the very northern thumb of this giant country.
“It's okay,” said Dan. “It's great! People will come visit us. And there are already seven volunteers in Tete!”
I pulled the rest of the contents from the envelope. “Let's read the site description.” The previous volunteers, a married couple named Janet and Lucas, had filled out a form for us with basic information about our future location.
“Site Name: Zobwe, Tete (Pronounced Zob-way, Tett)
Name of School: Escola Secundaria de Zobwe
Dan's Job Description: 10th Grade Math Teacher
Lisa's Job Description: 10th Grade English Teacher
House Description: 1 small bedroom, 1 tiny room, 1 closet, 1 kitchen, 1 living room. Latrine in yard, is almost full. Outdoor shower room attached to latrine. Refrigerator. Toaster Oven. Blender. Electric 2-Burner Stove.
Favorite Things about Site: Great weather (in the mountains, not too hot), good daily market, easy transport, beautiful scenery for hikes, nice medium-sized town with tight-community feel, easy immersion in dense neighborhood, fun to be on Malawi border, safe. We love Zobwe!”
“Are you happy?” Asked Dan hopefully.
“So happy,” I said. “I think it's perfect.”
We looked around the basketball court. Our friends were scattered, but not impossibly distant. Nobody was crying. Slowly, people started to move away from their sites and visit their new neighbors and friends. Adrienne and Lona came to visit us.
“You’re so far,” they said, but somehow, none of us were sad. We had all gotten what we wanted. Adrienne was in Sofala, near Beira. She would be teaching English. To get from her town to the capitol, she would have to take a boat. Lona would be living near the “L” in Nampula, teaching math. Her house would have no electricity and no nearby source of water.
“We’ll see each other,” we promised. “We’ll meet up for Christmas!” We had no way of knowing if that was true or even possible, but when we said it, we meant it sincerely.
Everybody was hugging everybody else. It was apparent right then, in that particular moment, that this was a genuinely kind group of people. From all around us we heard positive statements.
“Where are you? Are you happy? I’m so glad. You are going to do an amazing job!”
Multiple people came up to chalk-Tete and hugged Dan and me.
“You guys have the best site. You are so lucky. I am coming to visit you!”
It’s still surreal to us, that we are going to Tete. It is uncharted territory. On my original map of Mozambique, we will be going where I had written “crocodiles,” not far from “mystery” and “mountains.” We will be far north of the Tropic of Cancer. And we will be there for two years.
Life is calling. How far will you go?
The answer, my friends, is muito, muito la.
P.S. Would you like to hear a crazy story?
In 2007, two friends from Loyola College in Baltimore decided to apply for the Peace Corps during their senior year. They wrote each other’s reference statements and even interviewed on the same day. Alyssa was nominated to serve in Vanuato, an island in the South Pacific. Angie was nominated to serve in Mozambique. Both girls departed in September 2007.
They kept in touch throughout their Peace Corps service. Angie joked that she sent the world’s first letter directly from Mozambique to Vanuato. The girls completed their service in November 2009 and returned to the United States, where Alyssa took a seasonal job at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. She was working at Shaver’s Creek when she met me. It was largely her description of the Peace Corps and of her experiences (good and bad) that inspired me to apply with my husband in March of 2010. Eighteen months later, Dan and I departed from the United States in September of 2011. We received our site announcements in November of 2011.
Here is the crazy part. We are replacing Janet and Lucas, a married couple in Zobwe, Tete. In November 2009, Janet and Lucas replaced a girl named Angelina, nicknamed Angie. Angie attended Loyola College in Baltimore and applied to the Peace Corps in early 2007 with her good friend, Alyssa Thiel. It is her site to which we are headed.
Of all the people in our life, Alyssa has been incredibly pivotal. If she wasn’t there to tell me her giardia story or eating-yellow-paint story or even the dead-cat story, I probably never would have worked up the courage to take that first step in my Peace Corps application. And now, after a year and a half of medical paperwork, interviews, and language lessons, we are taking over her friend’s site in Tete. Of all places on this giant earth.