When we met with Janet and Lucas in December, Janet had a way of saying a certain line that I will never forget. Whenever she would state an unusual or interesting fact about Zobue or its inhabitants, she would finish by saying,
“It is hilarious.”
For example, she told us that Romao once tried to keep a scorpion as a pet in a mayonnaise jar.
“He tried to feed it xima,” she said. “It was hilarious.”
Her way of looking at our new friends and neighbors has been infectious. More and more, I am noticing things about this town that are, in her words, hilarious.
Things are done in ways that are, to us, strange. People say things that seem strange, and often do things that seem stranger. I could fill a bingo board with the strange things that I see every day: Men in women’s clothes, men in women’s sandals, babies with the top half exposed, babies with the bottom half exposed, women who forgot to tuck a breast or two ….
And those are just clothes-related incidents.
And so, without further ado…
I give you “Things that are Hilarious: A Celebration of Differences”
The Cell Phone:
There is no concept of privacy or personal space in Mozambique. Doors are left wide open, people stare into windows. Kids crawl onto our porch and loll about in our door frame, edging ever closer. This concept, of personal space as public property, is even evident in the way that Mozambicans use their cell phones. I think that most volunteers will agree with me- Mozambicans will make use of their free text messages! To the extreme.
It is not uncommon to get a text message from a Mozambican friend that says simply,
“I am eating,” “I am at home,” or, “I am ill and vomiting.”
We have a good friend that takes this one step farther. Zachariah sends the most wonderful and hilarious text messages, and they are especially valuable because of his command of the English language.
Take this message that I received two weeks ago.
“Hi Lisa! How are you doing today? As for me, I am worse. My head is in pain, my stomach is aching so that I’m defecating nonviscous excrement. My bones are tedious and my body is feeble. I can’t go to the hospital ‘cause I had the same problem last yr while I was here. The weather here isn’t tolerant to my body, sometime my body itches due to the fierce searing of the sun. I’m in hell and I doth imbibe lukewarm water.”
Or this one:
“Hi Lisa! It’s zach. I’m unconscious today! Im coughing a lot.”
Oh, Zachariah. How we doth love thee!
Dan and I love our students, but we are having trouble keeping track of their names. At first, we blamed ourselves.
“We just need to try harder,” we said. “Maybe we can practice their names at home.”
But one day, I took my attendance sheets home to enter them onto the laptop. As I started to type up the name of each student, I had a sudden realization- it’s not us, it’s them. I have never encountered such a collection of odd names in my life! Apparently, the students feel the same way, because they clearly don’t know how to spell them.
I have one girl who alternately signs her name as “Linda Rock” and “Lindia Roque.” I have another who can’t decide if he is “Camanula Mapemba” or “Kamnula Mpembo.” A third fluctuates between “Ana Santo Jose” and “Ana Santos Josse.” One of my favorites, a certain Margaret Andre, has signed her name in four different ways on four different attendance sheets- Margret, Margreti, Margrety, and Marget.
Not only are they unclear on the spelling of their own name, they have some of the trickiest names I have ever seen. And they mumble! Very difficult, believe me. Try these names:
And, my all-time favorite:
Poor Jubertanzia. He or she (we’re still not sure which) has no idea how to spell his own name. And can you blame him?
Names also have funny translations. Take the following five names.
Mesa Vincente - Table Vincent
Jose Toalha - Joe Towel
Maezinha Paulo - Little Mama Paul
Hamilton Almoco - Hamilton Lunch
Portamao Joao Portamao - Door-hand John Door-hand
Hamilton Lunch? Very funny.
Mozambicans will wear anything. Yesterday, I saw a teenage boy in a pair of bell-bottoms with embroidered pink flowers. The cuffs were rolled up, but I could see the back side of the embroidery.
I see other good examples, too. We buy bread from a man in women’s rhinestone-studded sandals. Romao has a V-neck camisole that he pairs with a heavy orange vest. Gift Mponda has a day-glo yellow road-worker’s vest that he wears with his shiny black dress shoes.
It’s not just the men, either (although they do have an unusual predilection for women’s clothes). Just a few days ago, our landlady came to talk to us wearing a dress that must have been about three sizes too small. Her chest was spilling out of the top. On the right-side, she was not entirely tucked. In fact, we could clearly see a burger-sized chunk of nipple. Nobody else batted an eye, though. Breasts are always out and about. I have seen babies gnaw on a breast for hours at a time, almost absentmindedly.
Whenever I take a good look at the clothes around me, I see strange combinations. Pink socks are paired with loafers, raincoats with long underwear, and overalls with woolen hats. I am reminded of the wizards in Harry Potter, trying to dress like ordinary Muggles but not quite making the cut.
In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, “In Africa, the general idea seems to be, ‘if you’ve got it, why not wear it?’ ”
Two things are important here, though, and it is best to remember:
1. Knees are strictly forbidden. A female who shows a pair of knobby knees might as well show her bottom at the same time. I could walk around with my top off as long as I was wearing a hefty pair of knee pads.
2. Clothes can be torn, but not dirty. I have seen clothes that hang in tatters, like the netting on a goal post. This is acceptable, as long as everything is nice and clean. In all, this makes a statement that I rather like. It’s as if the Mozambicans are saying, “We may be poor, but we have standards.”
Restaurants are not terribly popular in Mozambique, but most towns have one or two establishments that are trying their hardest to at least appear to understand the concept. Like in the United States, you can ask for a menu when you sit down at a table in a Mozambican restaurant. You can even look over this menu and choose anything you want. The only problem is- and this is where the concept of “restaurant” seems to differ- they probably don’t have it.
A restaurant will create a big, elaborate menu with descriptions, side dishes, and prices, but then never carry that particular type of food. A conversation with a waiter might very well look like this:
“I would like the hamburger, please.”
“We don’t have the hamburger.”
“Then I would like the steak sandwich.”
“We don’t have the steak sandwich.”
“I would like the egg sandwich?”
“We don’t have.”
“What do you have?”
“I will have the chicken, then.”
At this point, if Dan and I go out to eat, it is because we want to eat chicken and we don’t want to kill one. It is not because we are craving diversity in our diet. Variety in our daily diet is entirely our responsibility.
You can always count on a Mozambican woman to be honest with you. Just last week, I encountered a woman in the market place who said she liked me because I was skinny. Specifically, because I was,
“Not ugly like that fat one.”
Who could she have been talking about? Certainly not Janet! Another teacher, perhaps? A volunteer long gone? An American visitor? We will never know.
Over Christmas, Mary, Adrienne, and I went over to a neighbor’s house to borrow a pot for cooking. The dona of the house came out to talk to us.
“I like you girls,” she said. “You are pretty.”
Then she pointed at Adrienne.
“She is the most pretty,” she added.
The three of us sputtered a little bit. I giggled.
In America, that sort of honesty is rude and unthinkable. Here, it is common. Yesterday, Romao pointed at my nose.
“Your skin is coming off,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I got a sunburn. My skin is peeling.”
“Well, it’s ugly,” he said.
In fact, that brings me to my fifth and final entry…
Romao is both a Godsend and the bane of our existence. I’ve never had such mixed opinions about a person in my entire life.
Let’s take yesterday, for instance. A drunk man followed us home, muttering unintelligently and pointing at our dog. I had yelled at him multiple times in my very clear, very simple Portuguese, but it did no good. He staggered after us, grabbing at the back of my shirt.
“Nyehhhh, nyehhhh. Vende-nyuhhh, paga-nyehhhh.”
Dan and I grabbed the dog, picked up our pace, and headed straight for Romao’s house.
Once there, we explained the situation. Romao’s family gathered around us to watch.
“We’re going inside,” Dan said to Romao, tucking the puppy against his chest. “You talk to this man.”
To his credit, Romao took the drunk man to our front porch and conversed with him for about thirty minutes. Eventually, and without incident, the individual left of his own accord.
“What did you say?” We asked Romao, poking our heads back outside.
“I lied for you,” he said, rather cryptically. “And now he’s gone.”
“… Okay,” we said. “Well, whatever. You’re amazing. Thank you.”
Then, immediately afterwards, he added, “Your papaya got ripe today. I ate it.”
“Romao! We were waiting for that papaya!”
“Yeah." He said. "It was good.”
Never before have I wanted to hug a person while simultaneously strangling them with my bare hands.
Romao also has been having fun with Bwino’s new chew toy. Unfortunately for all of us, it is a squeaky toy. Imagine being woken up at 5AM to the sound of-
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek. Eke Eke Eke Eke Eke. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek.”
“We need to hide that squeaky toy,” said Dan. “He just can’t leave it alone.”
He, of course, meaning Romao. Not the puppy.
We are lucky enough to have inherited a boy who will guard our house carefully and conscientiously during vacations and extended weekends. The downside is, of course, that while we are gone, he is liable to eat an entire shaker of cinnamon.
It’s like having two puppies. One is small and helpless, the other is large and hopeless. Either way, we feel somewhat responsible for the well-being of both.
The goal this year is to get Romao through the ninth grade. At the age of nineteen, this is his third attempt.
* * * * *
When attempting to write this post, it was hard to draw the line between what was funny, what was a little bit sad, and what could actually be considered nausea-inducing. Here are a few things that didn’t make the cut:
Funny/Scary/Didn’t like: The mouse that tried to nest in the pillow of the spare room. When I picked up the pillow, the mouse fell out! The plan is to drown him in a pot of water, but as of last night, he was still at large in our house.
Funny/Sad: Our house is crumbling around our ears! Large, fist sized chunks have been falling off the wall and bursting into pieces on the floor. This is due to swelling of the wooden frame during the last few weeks of rain.
Funny/Nausea-Inducing: A chapa ride. Imagine 27 people packed into a mini-van. Imagine that there are only 20 seats, so you are one of the lucky few that gets to ride with an adult male sitting on your lap. Picture, if you will, the armpits, the crying babies, the dripping perspiration, and the
Of an unexpected pothole. Imagine, during all of this, the urine of another individual slowly soaking the hem of your favorite skirt. Imagine it pooling in the toes of your sandals.
Nausea-Inducing: A goat head on a stick. This is used in the marketplace to announce the goat-meat stand. As if we couldn’t find the goat-meat vendor on our own, without the pickings of decapitation.
And, finally, the Not-So-Funny Moment of the week:
Dan and I traveled to Tete City this weekend to visit the bank and to stock up on supplies. The plan was to flag down a boleia instead of taking a chapa. We would, we decided, be more comfortable in the cab of a truck than crammed into some stinky old mini-van.
We sat on the side of the road for about an hour, playing cards, but there were few vehicles passing through at that time of day. Our options were dwindling. It probably didn’t help that a pack of boys noticed us and decided to join in on the fun. Every time that a truck passed by, some fifteen boys would plug up the roadway and try to entice the trucker to slow down. Needless to say, that must have been an alarming sight, and we had no takers. Finally, Dan and I agreed to take the next chapa and were bundling down the road by noon.
About forty minutes outside of town, our chapa driver slowed down to a near stop. There had been an accident directly in front of us. A large tractor-trailer had crashed and flipped onto the side of the road. Other vehicles were pulling over to help. As we pulled by, slowly, I could see that the cab of the truck had been crumpled and destroyed. The passenger’s side was smashed in like a soda can. The driver was nowhere to be seen and, strangely, the windshield seemed to be missing. As I glanced backwards, I had a sudden realization.
I had tried to flag down that same truck just one hour before.