Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Memorial Service

The second and final memorial service for Alden and Lena was held on Sunday, January 8th.  All 45 of the remaining volunteers were flown in from around the country to attend and by Thursday, January 5th, we were gathered together on the USAID compound in Maputo.  That sounds dry, I know.  Trust me when I tell you that it quickly became an adventure.

Dan and I left out home in Tete at around mid-morning.  We could tell that Romao wanted to take over our house, because he kept asking us when we would be leaving. 

“Our plane doesn’t leave until three-thirty,” we said.  “We don’t want to get there too early.” 

“Oh, okay,” he said.  “I will just wait here until you leave, then.”  He lay down on our couch and stared at us, smiling.

Finally, at about ten in the morning, we decided that it might actually be more comfortable to wait in the airport.

“Fine,” we said.  “We’re going.” 

“Byeeeee,” said Romao.  If he were our teenage son, I would swear that he was planning to throw a party in our house that very same night.  He had guilty, twitchy fingers and a too-big smile.  Whatever, we didn’t care.

“Feed the dog,” we said.  “That is your only responsibility.  Oh, and fight off ladroes.  That, too.”

We took the first chapa to Tete City.  Our options were limited, but the vehicle we chose was reasonably clean and had seats that were firmly affixed to the floor.  I sat myself next to a nervous looking teenager in the last row, and made an effort to be as small as possible.  Our row had three adult males, so shoulder room was scarce.  In order to fit, actually, I had to lean forward or sit diagonally.  If I had wanted to, I could have squeezed my shoulders into a U-shape, but that position would not have been sustainable for an entire 2-hour chapa ride. 

What we didn’t realize when we chose our chapa, however, was that we had selected the single worst chapa driver in the history of cut-rate public transportation.  This was, without exaggeration, the worst car ride of my life.  There was a slight drizzle outside, and I could tell as we careened out of Zobue that our tires were bald.  The driver would pick up speed on every stretch of straight road and race until my knuckles were white and my teeth were clenched.  I stared resolutely ahead, trying to pretend this wasn’t happening.  It was so bad that I was constantly on the verge of yelling, “stop!”  The funny thing was, I would reach my fear threshold and then the driver would slam on the brakes, send us into a skid, and stop to pick up another passenger.  For the first five minutes or so after collecting a new passenger, he would chug slowly down the road and I would begin to calm down.  At the next straight-away, however, he would start to gain speed again.  I could feel the back wheels slipping on the road and everyone around me would start to become tense.  I shifted my knees forward into crash position, just in case. 

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I felt something wet and warm dripping on my foot.  I glanced to my right and, to my shock and disgust, saw that the young man sitting next to me was


In an attempt to hide what he was doing, he held one palm over his crotch and looked out the window.  A wet stain was spreading between his fingers and outwards from his groin.  Liquid was running down his pant leg and into my sandal.  Amazing and incredulous at the audacity of this character, I widened my eyes and wrenched my foot away.

Very calmly, I said to Dan, “I am getting peed on.”


“The man next to me is peeing on me.”

Unfortunately, we were still an hour and a half away from the airport. 

By the time we arrived in Tete City, my entire left leg was soaked in urine. The puddle had spread under his buttocks and had travelled along the length of my skirt.  Luckily, the sun was hot and we had a long way to walk. 

Now, usually, I hate planes.  I hate their noisy engines and their tiny wheels.  I hate that they are very heavy while the air surrounding them is very weak and thin.  I hate that under my feet I there is nothing but seven miles of freezing, diluted atmosphere.  On this particular Thursday, however, I loved planes.

I loved that people on planes were rich and cultured.  I loved that people on planes were clean.  I loved that planes offer leg room and magazines and little sandwiches and Coca-Cola.  I loved that people on planes do not PEE ON YOU WHILE STARING NON-CHALANTLY OUT THE WINDOW. Ah, the luxury of planes. 

We were the last ones to arrive in Maputo.  We could quickly see that this was not going to be a normal weekend in Mozambique.  For one, we were not staying in a hotel.  We were staying at Miramar, the USAID complex on the Maputo oceanfront.  Specifically, we were staying in a gated neighborhood with government workers in their government-appointed houses.  And it was wonderful.

All of the volunteers were separated into two empty houses, male and female, with beds set up orphanage-style (10 to 12 to a room).  The exceptions were the married couple, who would be staying with actual families. 

At first, our reaction was to be disappointed.  “All of our friends would be together,” we pointed out.  “Couldn’t we just stay and join in on the sleepover?”  We quickly changed our tune, however, when we went to visit with our appointed families.

Robert and Michaele had been Peace Corps Volunteers in Zambia in the early 1990’s.  They had met during their service, gotten married shortly afterwards, and then had had two little girls.  On that Thursday night, they welcomed us warmly into their house. 

“Here is your room,” they said, gesturing towards a beautiful four-poster bed with a delicate, designer mosquito net.  “And this is your bathroom.  Don’t mind Robert’s stuff in there.  He brews beer.  Actually, would you like to try one?” 

After spending the past week alone at site, this grassy, gated community felt like heaven.  In Zobue, we had been searching for something, anything, to fill our time.  Now, we had warm showers, washing machines, cold beer, and all the company in the world. 

“Am I a bad Peace Corps Volunteer if I say I never, ever want to leave Miramar and that I want to stay here forever and ever with this washing machine?” 

“Yes,” said Dan.  “You are a bad Peace Corps Volunteer.”

The next day was Work Project Day.  The best way, the Peace Corps had decided, to get us back on our feet was to give us a community service project. 

“You’ll be sorting sugar bags,” they said.  “It will be a nice day of service for all of you.  Now, you don’t actually have to do anything with the bags.  You just have to sort them.  It should be a pretty easy task.” 

Well, it certainly sounded easy.  Unfortunately, we were not given the whole story.  The whole story is this:

The little town of Catembe, across the bay from the city of Maputo, has a giant sinkhole.  The army is working to fill that sinkhole with thousands of sandbags.  They have a limited number of days before the rainy season commences in earnest.  Last month, a shipment of 300,000 empty sugar bags were shipped in on ten tractor-trailers from Beira.  These sugar bags will be used to create the aforementioned sandbags.  Sadly, the bags were dumped and abandoned before being sorted.  Some are usable.  Others are not.  It would be our job to sort them into piles according to potential future use. 

My question for you is this- have you ever seen three hundred thousand sugar bags?  Three hundred thousand sweaty, sticky, hot, and stinky sugar bags that form a mountain that is taller than a human male?  I think not.  It is a daunting experience. 

“We have to sort… that?”  Somebody asked. 

We set to work.  By the end of the morning, our hands, forearms, faces, and shirts were coated in a sticky, sugary grime.  We smelled like rotten mangoes and we looked like barn animals.  For the most part, though, we were happy.  We had a sort of self-satisfied glow, they kind you get when you are dirty, but proud. 

It was a good idea, after all. 

A hotel nearby was kind enough to cater a lunch for us and let us use their beach and swimming pool.  The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a touristy experience.  We put on our swimsuits, poked around on the beach, and lounged by the pool.  I don’t think it was what any of us were expecting, but it was nice. 

Good job, Peace Corps. 

Thank you.

That night, Dan and I spent time with Robert and Michaele.  Robert poured us a home-made beer and we shared cheese and crackers and talked about the Peace Corps experience. 

“After two years as a volunteer and four years as an Associate Country Directory in Zambia, you must have some amazing stories,” we said. 

“Oh, I do,” said Robert.  “In fact, I have one fantastic story.  I like to call it the Hippo Meat Story.”

“Wow,” we said.  “Please tell us the Hippo Meat Story.”

And so, Robert began to tell us the Hippo Meat Story.  Ten minutes later, we were staring at him in awe, mouths open, food forgotten.

No.”  We said. 

“Yup,” Robert confirmed.  “And that’s the Hippo Meat Story.”

The Hippo Meat Story made me realize that every volunteer has a collection of amazing, ridiculous, and incredible stories to tell about their service in a foreign country.  I decided then to compile a collection of Peace Corps stories and publish them together in a single blog entry.  I apologize, but I would like to get permission before I give you the full version of Zambia Rob’s Hippo Meat Story.   

The next day, Dan and I went with Adrienne to Namaacha to visit our host family.  We were three out of six people who chose to return, but we felt like we had a very good reason for wanting to visit.  Ajuvencia had had her baby. 

I printed out photos in Maputo to give to my host mother as a gift, and we loaded into a private bus with a Peace Corps driver. 

“Is this air-conditioning?” we said, taking up three seats apiece and lounging into the aisles.  “What is going on here?”

The road to Namaacha was greener than ever in the height of the African winter.  We rolled and bounced over the hills to our little training village which we had only just begun to miss. 

Namaacha was just the same, but perhaps a touch quieter.  The bar was empty.  Mom was at home, and was found in her usual spot.  She was hard at work behind the barraca, elbows-deep in dishwater.  She had pretty new hair extensions from South Africa.  Gleefully, she cried out, “My children!” and gave us a quick, sudsy hug.   I hoped that Ajuvencia had warned her about our arrival.

“Is Ajuvencia here?”  We asked. 

Mom nodded and gestured towards our old little house, the casa pequena next door to Mom’s big house. 

“That’s Ajuvencia’s house, now?”  We asked. 

Mom nodded her assent.

We knocked on the door, and were told to enter.  We just barely remembered to take off our shoes before coming inside. 

Perched on the bed, wearing a cheerful red tank top and spikey new hair extensions, sat our host sister and her new baby boy. 

“Ajuvencia!”  We said.  “Oh, my God.  He’s wonderful.

He really was a very cute baby boy.  He was, of course, very spindly in the way of new babies, and awfully long and skinny, but he had a nice face and a nice set of baby fingers and toes. 

“When did you have him?”  We asked.

“January 2nd,” she said. 

I did some fast math in my head.  “Ajuvencia!”  I said.  “That was five days ago!  This baby is only five days old?” 

She smiled and nodded. 

“Your cousin played a trick on us,” we said.  “She told us you had the baby on December 23rd and that it was a girl!” 

“Mentiras,”  said Ajuvencia.  Lies. 

“Clearly!”  We said.  “I can’t believe you had that baby five days ago.  You look absolutely fantastic.”

And she did.  She was up and walking around, carrying the baby, and doing simple household chores. 

“How do you feel?”  We asked.

“Fine,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. 

“What about labor?”  I asked.   “How long were you in the hospital?” 

“Well,” she said, thinking, “I went in at midnight and I had him at five.  So I was in labor for five hours.”

“When did you return home?”

“The next day.”

The next day?  How did you get here?”

“I walked.”

You walked?”

We looked at her fondly.  “You’re crazy,” we said.  “You know we love you, right?”

She dressed up the baby for photographs, which was a bit funny.  He was too small for his giant diaper, and when he was buttoned into his foot-pajamas he looked a bit like an eggplant or squash.  She wiggled a cap onto his head even though it must have been 95 degrees outside.

“The heat will make him fat,” she said. 

“Um,” we said.  “Okay.”  The baby seemed content enough. 

Suddenly, a man knocked on the door. 

“Hello,” he said, rather shyly.  “I’m Atalia’s husband.”

We were dumbfounded and excited all at once, reaching out to shake hands vigorously with this tiny, unassuming stranger.
“You’re our Pai!”  We said.  “It’s so nice to finally meet you!” 

Mom called us inside for lunch.  It was just like old times.  Mom had made four plates of fried eggs and ordered me to bring four rolls of bread from the barraca.  Pai sat down with Dan, Adrienne, and me to eat our egg sandwiches. 

We passed a delightful day with our host family, and left all too quickly that afternoon.  We each held the baby before we departed, giving Ajunencia a final, goodbye hug.

“Does he have a name yet?” We asked.

“Not this month,” she said.  “My sister is going to name him.  Parents in Mozambique do not usually name their firstborn.”

“When can he leave the house?”

“Not until February.”

“And then you’ll take a bus up to Tete?” We teased, gently. 

“Sure,” she said.  “Then the baby and I will take a bus up to Tete.”

“Okay,” we said.  “Then we’ll see you soon.”

It was a bittersweet departure. 

“I worry that she’s lonely,” I said to Dan.

“I worry that, too,” he said.  

Ajuvencia and her new baby boy at home in Namaacha, January 7, 2010

Ajuvencia and her baby, January 7, 2012

Tiny baby in a giant diaper, Namaacha, January 7, 2012

Ajuvencia, Lisa, Dan, and the new baby

That night, in Miramar, we were being switched to a new household.  Robert and Michaele were headed to South Africa on vacation with the girls, so we would be staying with Kayla and Christine and their two children.  Their house was equally delightful. 

“Make yourself at home,” said Christine.  “You guys are going to be staying in my son’s room.  He has been sleeping in his older sister’s room lately, so he won’t even mind.  Here is your bed, here is the bathroom.  You can see that the shower is the same… it’s all pretty simple.  Would you like some quiche?”

Kayla and Christine had also met while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Zambia.  They became partners while in service. 

“Kayla actually appointed me to her region,” said Christine.  “That’s our love story.  She totally dictated the outcome of my entire Peace Corps experience.”

Their two children were very young and very energetic.  They expressed some interest in the strange Americans, but not very much.  They had received Marble Madness for Christmas and were lost in a flurry of construction. 

Sunday was the day of the memorial service.  The 45 volunteers of Moz 17, their training staff, Peace Corps employees, other volunteers, and other invited members returned to Ambassador’s house for the solemn occasion.  It had been almost exactly one month since we had sworn in together as official Peace Corps Volunteers.  Dan and I were wearing our nice clothes, but I felt stiff and out of place.  I didn’t know what to say to anyone, about anything.  What was I supposed to be talking about?

We took our seats for the ceremony and I sat near the back.  I didn’t want to be visible.  Suddenly, as I read over the program, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned my head to see our training manager, Claudia, smiling sadly down at me.  As usual, her hair was in crazy curls around her head.  I don’t know what happened to me in that moment, but it was if a dam had burst.  I began to cry. 

Claudia was the first person who greeted us at the hotel in Maputo on the first day that we arrived.  On that day, we had been confused and tired.  Claudia was a guiding force for all of us new volunteers, somebody to imprint upon and to ask questions.  She was the Momma Bear.  I loved Claudia, and I trusted her.  If she was there at the Memorial Service, then it was true.  Then it was real.  For the first time since the accident, I cried for Lena and Alden.    

I continued to cry throughout the service.  They had predicted that it would take two hours, but to everybody’s credit, they didn’t force it or draw it out.  Everybody said everything that they needed to.  Other volunteers spoke, the volunteers that had been closest to them, and then a letter was read from Alden’s parents in Seattle.

“Stay and do your work,” the letter urged.  “Live Alden’s dream.  Do the work that she can’t do in the beautiful country of Mozambique.” 

Then, each volunteer took a flower and placed it below the photographs of the two girls.  Every single one of us was crying silently.

It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. 

Dan and I left that Maputo on that very same night.  We were the first ones to leave, so Kayla fixed us a goodie-bag for our flight. 

“Because you won’t be here for dinner,” she explained.  “Say, would you like a ride to the airport?”

Mac and Adrienne crowded with us into Kayla’s personal SUV, and we departed from Miramar.  I had a backpack full of laundered clothes and a paper bag full of chips, candy, and apples.  At the gate, we hugged everyone goodbye.  I felt a little bit teary, but I was so grateful for everything.  For the goodie-bag.  For the ride.  For the washed laundry and the happy families.  For Adrienne and Mac, who came with us to say goodbye.  For the memorial service, which finally did justice to the memories of Lena and Alden. 

We flew up, up, over the city of Maputo and one-thousand  miles north to our home, the province of Tete.  It was dark when we landed, but still warm. 

“Okay,” we said.  “Back home.”

Back to the heat, back to our house.  Back to the latrine and the bucket baths and the occasional bouts of electricity.   Back to the sand, back to Romao.  Back to being real Peace Corps volunteers. 

P.S.  I feel the need to thank Carl Schwartz, the Country Director of Peace Corps Mozambique, for his role in this memorial service weekend.  He pushed and pushed and pushed to bring us together.  As a training class, we were struggling deeply with this unprecedented loss so soon after swear-in.  When we got the news, all of us were alone at our new sites, without friends, without direction.  Carl Schwartz recognized that we not only needed to be together, but that we needed to be reminded by we were here in Mozambique.  I think that every single one of us briefly considered quitting and going back home to our families.  How could we not?  What was keeping us here?

More than anything, it was the letter from Alden’s family that reinforced my belief in the Peace Corps.  If Alden’s mother, in her grief, was capable of writing us a letter that urged us to stay, then I feel that I owe it her, and to Lena’s family, and to Alden and Lena themselves, to stay and be a successful volunteer. 

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