Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our New Home

Our new home is in Zobwe, in the northern thumb of Mozambique.  Twenty or thirty years ago, this town began as a refuge camp.  During the civil war, Zobwe’s main road was a pathway for thousands of individuals making their way between Tete City, the district capital of Tete Province, and the border of Malawi.  Now, it is a quiet town in the shadow of nearby Mount Zobwe, a double-peaked monolith that crowns this section of the Angonian Plateau.  The community, which functions more like a village than a town, is home to two markets, two elementary schools, and a high school that serves grade eight through ten.  Bairros here are tightly sewn together, with quintals (fenced compounds) laced together like squares on a quilt.  A network of paths connect yards and houses in a confusing knot of passages and cani├žo (reed) ally-ways.

Compared to the surrounding areas (Tete City and the desert), Zobwe is cool and rainy.  Because it is mid-December, however, all of Mozambique is rapidly approaching the high heat of summertime.  Tete City is reaching temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Zobwe is slightly less sweltering, at a balmy 100 degrees and humid.  The thermometer inside our own house has broken 95 degrees by 10:30 in the morning.  Rainstorms sweep across the plateau in a clatter of thunder and water, then sizzle and dry on the parched, sandy ground.  Evidence of each daily rainstorm is erased in minutes by heat and evaporation.

Our new house is in the heart of a friendly little bairro, squeezed between the mountain and the main road.  We are surrounded on all sides by neighbors, all of whom have children.  The front yard is sandy, and, while it is mostly surrounded by a reed fence, the fenced portion has strategic gaps that allow thoroughfare from one side of our quintal to the other.  Our front stoop, it seems, is a meeting place for children.  Our front yard is a makeshift soccer field.  Neighbors are constantly flowing past our house and across the front yard, calling out,

“Good morning, Teach-ah!”


“Bom Dia, Professora!”


“Mwatswera Bwanji!”

in the local language of Xi-Chewa. 

We arrived on Monday afternoon at 2:30PM.  It had taken us eight hours to drive from Chimoio, the district capital of neighboring Manica Province, to our new home in Zobwe.  In Chimoio, we had passed long, green expanses mato (bush) land, bordered to the west by the mountains that separate Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  Further north, we crossed the deserts of northern Manica and southern Tete, then turned east into the mountains of the Mozambique/Malawi border. 

Sun beat down on the roof of our chapa as we pulled through Tete City.  The only relief was the hot, stinging air from the open plexiglass window.  Even at 50 miles per hour, though, I was sweating through the seat of my pants.  As we turned towards Zobwe and began to rise in elevation, we passed through a curtain of rain that refreshed the surrounding landscape.  Vegetation became green and lush, and stark, sudden mountains jutted out of the countryside. 

In Zobwe, we pulled off the main road and onto a dirt path that led past a small health post and a soccer field.  At a cinderblock elementary school, we veered onto a smaller, rutted footpath and rumbled forward until we couldn’t move any further.  At that point, we had gathered a small crowd of neighborhood children.  One child was so excited about the chapa in his backyard that he ran to meet us without his pants.  Or underpants. 

When we stepped out of the vehicle, we were greeted by a sea of smiling faces.  Twenty or thirty sets of hands were waving in our direction.  Every child was excited to help us carry our belongings up the path to our house.  Dan and I doled out objects one by one- a roll of toilet paper, a water bottle, a plastic bag filled with mangoes.  Our belongings were borne up the path like a parade of floating items. 

At the top of the path, we saw our little yellow house for the first time.

Our first house!

“Aww,” I said. 

“Aww,” said Dan.

We used our new keys to open the front door.   The crowd of children politely stopped on the veranda and stared in. 

Curious neighbors

Dan and I peeked in each room and took stock of our situation.  The layout of the house was as such. 

Layout of our new house

Immediately, we could see two things.  One, we had been left a lot of stuff.   Two, we had been left A LOT of stuff.  Slowly, we moved our two trunks, three boxes, two suitcases, two backpacks, and multiple loose items into the living room. 

“What are we going to do?” asked Dan.

“I have no idea where to start,” I said. 

There were several things in the house about which we were extremely happy.  The walls were decorated with a collection of beautiful maps.  On the table, Janet and Lucas had left a jar of peanut butter, a bag of beef jerky, a full set of lesson plans, and a nice note.  In the library/closet, they had left a fully-stocked, four-tiered bookshelf.  We already had a couch, a dining room table, a tiny electric oven, and a refrigerator.  The water filter was up and running and we had about fifteen liters of clean bottled water at the foot of our bed.  The bed itself was made up with clean sheets and already included an assembled mosquito net. 

Unfortunately, we had too much stuff.  The back room was stuffed with boxes, mysterious bags, a charcoal stove, and two bicycles.  The bookshelf in the “library” was laden with cobwebs and dust that had formed and settled during Janet’s and Lucas’s absence.  Underneath the bed were more mysterious objects:  books, boxes, magazines, and old medical kits.  The kitchen shelves, while full of wonderful finds, also held empty bottles, expired foods, dusty caps, and a canister of something that looked like mercury.  On top of all of this, we still had all of our personal belongings.  Our things which had been, until now, perfectly sufficient.

“One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to avoid material things!” I moaned.  “I want fewer things!”

The living room was so packed I could barely move.  I spun around in circles a few times. 

“Okay,” I said.  “First things first.  We take down the maps.”

“I love the maps,” said Dan. 

“I do, too.”  I said.  “We’re not going to throw them away.  We are going to get this house ready to paint.”

My reasoning was this:  In order to feel like we were starting anew, and not just taking over somebody’s life, we had to claim ownership over the house.  We couldn’t spend the next two years living in Janet and Lucas’s house.  This was our first home.  We had to make it our own. 

There was a rap on our front door.  Through the swarm of children, a young man pushed his way into the house.  We knew who he was immediately, through our conversations with Janet and Lucas. 

“Bem vindo.  Sou o Romao.”  Welcome.  I’m Romao.

Romao is a sort of inherited helper.  He could be considered an installment of the house.  The first two volunteers moved to Zobwe when Romao was about twelve.  He was living with his uncle at the time, and, along with his younger sidekick Seni, was the resident orphan of the neighborhood.  He offered to carry water for the first volunteers in exchange for a few Medicais a week.  When the Peace Corps volunteers moved on and were replaced, Romao was handed down to the next generation of girls to live in the Peace Corps house.  He has since seen three sets of volunteers come and go.  Though he is nineteen years old and, as of yet, unable to pass the ninth grade, he is a trusted ally and asset.  He is also famously nosy and annoying.

“It’s nice to meet you, Romao.  We have heard a lot about you.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said.  “I brought you water.” 

“Thanks, Romao.  You can leave it there.”

He looked around at the house and stated, matter-of-factly, “Esta a fazer limpeza.”  You are doing cleaning.  It seems that many Mozambicans make conversation simply by stating the activity being preformed by the other person.   This type of conversation, needless to say, is rarely fruitful. 

“Sim.  Estamos a fazer limpeza.”  Yes.  We are doing cleaning. 

“Okay.  Well, tchau,” 

The crowd of children on the porch did not abate until I stuck my head outside and said, “We are going to clean in quiet, now.”  Luckily for us, Romao was still hanging out by our front door.  He shoo-ed the little ones off the front step for us, then hung awkwardly in our doorframe.

“Um.  Thanks, Romao.”


He swung back and forth in the doorway. 

“Thanks, Ramao.  We’re good here.”


He lingered for a few minutes, then trotted down the stairs. 

Our favorite Romao story has to do with the time that he used up an entire bottle of women’s perfume while house-sitting for Janet and Lucas.  Apparently, his friends though that he smelled so good that he couldn’t resist using the whole bottle.  It’s a relief to know that we can trust Romao to live in our house when we are away, but it is unsettling how intensely curious he is about our belongings. 

It took us a full week (Monday through Friday) to completely clean the house.  We started by emptying out the closets into the living room.

Our living room, in the midst of cleaning

Everything that we considered garbage (old school papers, Janet and Lucas’s training booklets, expired medicines) we placed in a large cardboard box.  It occurred to me that perhaps I should not be placing some of these medicines in a pile of trash that would eventually be burned.  In the end, I repacked the medical kit with everything except the aspirin, which I placed in the trash, and made a mental note to return the entire kit to the Maputo office in the future.   

Here is where I should make a very important note about waste management in Mozambique.  It does not exist.  Trash gets burned.  All of it.  Plastic bags?  Plastic bottles?  Metal cans?  Burned.  It is emotionally damaging.  As such, I was unsure of what to do with my trash bin when it was full.  I consulted Romao. 

“I can take it,” he said, reaching out a bit too eagerly.  Confused, I handed it over.  He took it to the front porch.  I slowly began to realize that he planned on rooting through it.  It also dawned on me that this was the beginning of a bad situation. 

“No…” I started.

Both hands in the box, he looked up at me.  “Yes?”

I shifted guiltily, remembering Chovito’s joy at finding Dan’s old watch in the trash.  “Never mind.” 

I went back inside.  Before long, there was another crowd on our porch.  This time, they were louder and more excited.  I saw scores of kids leap from our front step and run away, hooting and hollering, clutching handfuls of expired condoms and packets of aspirin. 

“This is bad,” I said to Dan.  “I don’t like this at all.”  For a few minutes, I was angry with Janet and Lucas for putting us in this situation.  We now had to either pack and store their trash or create a feeding frenzy by giving it away.  Either way, I was deeply unhappy. 

In the end, I decided to give things away.  I was unwilling to store some items (a ceramic salt shaker shaped like a chicken, a broken snow-globe from Washington DC, an empty PEZ dispenser) for two years, and giving them away made the neighborhood children CRAZY HAPPY.  I gave one boy some ground mustard that expired in 2005, and he ran home, waving it over his head.  This impression, though, that Dan and I were rich Americans who gave away objects freely and indiscriminately, was not the first impression we had wanted to make on our new community. 

For the next few days, I was finding the remnants of our trash around the town of Zobwe.  I saw one little boy in the market playing with an empty bottle of hand sanitizer that clearly had come from the box of trash on my front porch.  One little girl approached me with a packet of aspirin and asked permission to eat it. 

“No!”  I said.  “That is bad medicine because it is old.  Tell you mother and tell your friends that they can not take this medicine.”  I took the medicine away from her, but was aware of my dilemma.  What would I do with it now?  I couldn’t throw it away. 

On the final day of cleaning, Romao made a giant pile of trash (true trash, that even the kids didn’t want) in our yard.  He asked for a pack of matches and then, without warning, started a giant bonfire outside our kitchen window.   Two years of dusty, pockmarked ziplocks, calendars, wrappers, and toys went up in acrid, smeary flames.  I closed the window and pointed the fan out the door.  Inside my heart, I was mad, mad, mad.  In the United States, I used to recycle everything.  I would hold onto things for months until I got a chance to deposit them in the appropriate repository.  I hated that I was the one who had to carry the guilt for this giant trash fire. 

Finally, though, the house was rearranged.  The bookshelf room became my closet.  The adjacent room became Dan’s closet and a makeshift bathroom (We kept our chamberpot there at night and took a bath there in the morning).  The storage room was still a storage room, but with fewer boxes and minus half a bicycle (it had already been salvaged for parts, so we gave the remaining frame to Romao, who took it and ran).  The kitchen shelves were taken down and cleaned, and the bricks supporting them were cleaned and re-wrapped in decorative paper.   The prep table became a base for the portable electric stove, so we had an extra table that we put at the foot of our bed to use as a casual dining table.  The last thing I did was to sweep, mop, and hang pictures. 

After days of cleaning, I finally sat down to look at our new house.  It’s really quite a large house, at least by our standards.  It feels nice to have a house of our own.  The porch is beautiful, and we can do our laundry and dishes while looking down at the neighborhood kids playing soccer in the front yard.  The walls have yet to be painted, but that will come in time.  Now that the house has been arranged and I know what’s inside, I am beginning to feel some pride in and ownership of our new home. 

I am no longer angry with Janet and Lucas.  I understand that it’s hard to move out of a house.  They were unsure of what things we would want or need and, in true Peace Corps fashion, were unwilling to throw anything away that might be useful in the future.  They were also kind enough to leave us clean linens, tablecloths, dishes, and tons of amazing spices and food. 

It’s just, in the words of Romao, “Janeti did NOT like to fazer limpeza!” 

Honestly, my opinion of the previous volunteers is closely tied to my opinion of myself as a volunteer.  It’s hard, when replacing another volunteer at site, not to compare yourself to them.  After all, you are constantly being compared by everyone else you meet. 

“Janeti, Janeti!”  cry the little girls I pass by on the way to the market.  Some, the littlest ones, just point and shout, “Mzungu!  Mzungu!”  White person!

“Lisa!”  I say, still patient after just a few days.  “I am Lisa.”

“Janeti, yayy!”

I worry about my language skills and my ability to control a classroom.  I happened upon Janet’s grade for her final Portuguese oral exam and was put out to find that it was much, much higher than mine.  All of the pride I had been feeling for my measly “Intermediate-High,” evaporated.  More than once, I thought to myself, “what am I doing here?”

It isn’t just the Portuguese language with which we struggle, either.  In Namaacha, people were very pleased when you greeted them on the street in Portuguese.

“Bom dia!”

“Bom dia, obrigada!”

Now, though, we are expected to take it to the next level.  People want to be greeted in their native tongue.  Here, that language is Xi-Chewa. 

“Luka spoke Xi-Chewa,” said Romao.  “You need to learn Xi-Chewa, too.” 

I know that, in the end, Dan and I will be fine and very, very happy in the beautiful little town of Zobwe.  We can already greet people in rudimentary Xi-Chewa, and they just think that it is the cutest thing ever.   After a just a few days, Romao is as annoyingly attached to us (and our stuff) as he was to the other volunteers in the past.  The children who play in our front yard have stopped calling us “Luka” and “Janeti” and have begun to call us “Lee-zuh” and “Dan-ee.”  We have been to the market every day and can refer to some vendors by name.  I am also proud to announce that I have successfully cozinhar-ed some chili, scrambled eggs, tomato soup, French toast, and homemade mango syrup.  This list of accomplishments, while seemingly small, helps us graduate from one day to the next during this period of integration. 

*                     *                        *                         *                         *                       *                      *

After finishing the house, I made a map of the finished product and took a picture of each room in turn.  I hope this will give you some idea of our new house and our surroundings.  Dan and I are really quite lucky.  Conditions vary wildly here in Mozambique and, while I would have liked to live in a little mud hut in the deep mato, I am willing to admit that life is so much easier with an electric teakettle. 

Our house, with furniture

This next series includes two pictures for each room:  a photo of the room itself, and a drawing of the viewpoint. 

First, the library (my closet):


Next, Dan’s closet (the makeshift bathroom):

The storage room:

The living room:

(And from the other direction)

The bedroom:

And finally, the front porch:

And that is my very honest account of my first week at site.  Truthfully, it hasn’t been easy.  I am not always chipper and, this Saturday, I spent most of my day hiding inside my room.  Overall, integration is an exhausting prospect.  Every trip out of the house- to the market, to the church, to the latrine- is an adventure.  Sometimes I am up for the challenge and sometimes, like this Saturday, I use my chamberpot in the middle of the day because I am unwilling to go outside in the heat and face my new neighbors. 

Most of us (the new volunteers) are going to make it through our two years in Mozambique.  Even when things are bad- we are confused, we are lonely, we are tired- we are strong enough to stay here and make it work.  But I think that it’s normal, too, to sit on your front porch every once in a while and wonder, “How did I get so far from home?”

Oatmeal, mangoes, and a fried egg in our "canopy" bed


  1. I love your blog, Lisa. I'm a future PCV scheduled to leave for Kenya in October and really enjoy reading your posts. I'm wondering what program you use to create the cool diagrams like the ones of your house that are included in this post.

  2. Hi future PCV! Good luck with your departure and have fun in PST!

    About the diagrams, I use MS Paint (haha). It's very easy.

    Dan and I would love to visit Kenya some time in the future, so let's make that happen!