Friday, March 23, 2012


Traveling back from Tete City last week, Dan and I were invited to sit in the front of the chapa.  At first, I wasn’t so sure that this was what I wanted to do.  There weren’t any seatbelts, first of all, and, secondly, there were several dead fish strapped to the grill.  Why were there dead fish strapped to the grill?  That was anyone’s guess.

I mulled over my decision for a minute, then shifted my bags and slid into the bucket seat.  The truth is--  my standards for road travel have been lowered considerably since leaving the United States.  Instead of worrying, I smiled at the driver and struck up a conversation. 

The driver was from Malawi, it turns out, and spoke very good English.  I was thrilled.   I decided that this was the perfect time to ask the questions that I have been dying to ask about chapas and their motoristas.  I wasted no time.

“How much money do you make?”  I asked. My sense of curiosity was stronger than my desire to be polite. Luckily, the driver seemed delighted to have this conversation.

“Well,” he said, “I made 100 Meticais a day.  That’s my rate.  My cobrador makes 50 Meticais per day.  That’s his rate.”

“How much money do you bring in every day from passengers?”

“We give our boss 3,000 Meticais per day.”

“How much gas do you use?”

“In one trip to Tete City, we use 60 liters of petrol.  It costs about 2,400 Meticais.”

“What time do you start working?”


“What time do you finish?”


“Do you work on weekends?”

“I work every day of the week.”


This made me think about money and about what people could and could not afford.  I had eaten a cheese pita that afternoon, for instance, and it had cost me 150 Meticais.  I knew that it was expensive, but I had justified it by thinking of the price in terms of US Dollars.  In US currency, it had cost less than 6 dollars.  In terms of Mozambican currency, though, it represented one full week’s worth of groceries. 

After this conversation with the chapa driver, I thought it would be interesting to be honest here, on my blog, about what I make as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Specifically, I want to discuss the value of money and what that money allows me to do here in Mozambique. 

First, we need to know that the current exchange rate is about 1 US Dollar to 27 Mozambican Medicais (MZM).

27 MZM = $1 US

Next, we need to know that, as a teacher in Mozambique, I am paid about 7,000 MZM per month.  This money is deposited directly into my bank account.

7,000 MZM = $260 US

Teachers in Mozambique earn between 6,000 and 14,000 MZM per month.  They also wear snappy white batas like the one pictured above.
To clarify, as a volunteer, I am paid of stipend of $260 US per month (about $60 per week) to cover my expenses.  In the United States, I would be hard-pressed to make ends meet on this income alone.  This is a salary of less than $3,400 a year, after all.  However, I am currently living in Africa.  Things are a little bit different here. 

First of all, let’s think of all those pesky costs that affect our cost of living in the United States.  How does the average person spend their paycheck?

FOOD (13%)

 For us American volunteers living in Mozambique, this pyramid looks a little bit different.

 FOOD (75%)
OTHER (25%)

First of all, Peace Corps volunteers don’t have any housing fees.  Dan and I rent our house for 1,000 MZM a month, but the Peace Corps reimburses that cost.  My husband and I, as far as I know, are the only Peace Corps volunteers in Mozambique who actually have a landlord.  Everyone else lives on school property or in specialized housing.

1,000 MZM = $37 US
1,000 MZM = $37 US
(Payment reimbursed)

Our house in Zobue, Mozambique

So housing costs are out.  Next, we have the cost of transport.  Dan and I aren’t allowed to own (or drive) a car in Mozambique, so there are no upkeep, insurance, or gas costs to worry about.  There is only the occasional cost of a chapa or taxi ride.  Finally, there is the question of insurance and health care.  Peace Corps covers the cost of our health insurance and our health care, should any incidents arise.  Therefore, what had been a large part of my monthly expenditure in the United States is now the responsibility of the US government.

After subtracting all of these extra costs, we are left with just cost of food.

What does food costs us here in Mozambique?


The materials for tonight’s soup (onions, tomatoes, and okra) cost 31 Meticais.

Vegetable soup
31 MZM = $1.15 US

More specifically, ten tomatoes cost 20 Meticais.

Tomatoes are comparatively expensive in
Mozambique, but are available all year
20 MZM = $0.75 US

 Half a pound of okra costs 2 MZM.

Okra is relatively inexpensive and common in Zobue
2 MZM = $0.07 US

Three large onions (not pictured) cost about 9 MZM.

9 MZM = $0.36 US

Nearly every day, Dan and I travel to the market.  We usually buy a handful of tomatoes, one or two onions, and a few green peppers (1 MZM, or $0.04 US).  The cost is rarely more than (40 MZM, or $1.50).  Sometimes we will buy some bread (2.5 MZM, or $0.10 US) or, better, a small, greasy donut known simply as a bolo (cake).

My favorite treat in Mozambique
 1 MZM = $0.04 US

In general, we can get by quite comfortably on about 500 Meticais per week.

500 MZM = $18.50 US

There are some things that we buy, though, that are ridiculous.  By Mozambican standards, these things are unaffordable and absolutely unnecessary.  Most of our neighbors (who eat little more than grits, beans, and tomatoes every day) have never even tried some of the foods that we bring in from the big city.  Dan and I are a little embarrassed to be seen with these things, actually, but we continue to buy them because we are homesick.  That, and we are hungry.  It isn’t very fulfilling to eat ground corn every night for dinner.

On that particular day in the chapa, the day that I talked to the driver, Dan and I were carting:

Nestle Honey Cheerios :             150 MZM        ($5.50 US)
Cadbury Chocolate Bar:             60 MZM          ($2.25 US)
Fanta Grape Soda:                     60 MZM          ($2.25 US)
Orange Processed Cheese:         180 MZM        ($6.75 US)
Processed Mozzarella Cheese:    150 MZM        ($5.50 US)

The total value of our purchases was no more than about 30 US Dollars, or 1,000 Medicais.  Unfortunately, I was sitting next to a man who earned 100 Meticais a day.

100 MZM = $2.75 US

The cobrador behind me, collecting my fare, earned 50 Meticais per day.

50 MZM = $1.35 US

The average person in Mozambique earns about 21,600 MZM per year.

21,600 MZM = $800 US

Suddenly, I felt very guilty taking a swig from my 2-liter bottle of soda that I had bought for 60 MZM.  I thought about how long it would take for Romao to save up 60 MZM for a bottle of soda.  It would take at least a week.  Probably more.

That brings me to the topic of labor and chores.  In the past, we paid Romao 50 Meticais a week to cart water for us and to guard our house while we were away.  He quickly grew lazy, though, and sullen.  As a result, we changed his job description.  We now pay him for the individual chores that he does for us around the house.  This keeps him from getting lazy and, frankly, keeps our house much neater.  Our payment system is as follows:

Anyone, in fact, can do any of these chores for us at any time for the price listed above.  The last chore, of course, is dependent upon whether or not there has been any recent and unusual activity in our showerhouse. 

An unpleasant surprise left in our latrine

So that’s how money works in Mozambique.  Some things (cereal, peanut butter, and other “western goods”) are more expensive here than they would be in the United States.  Other things (mangos, avocados, cucumbers, and green peppers) are much, much cheaper. Labor is inexpensive, and time is worth next to nothing. 

Our puppy, it is interesting to note, cost us 50 MZM.

Cheap puppy
50 MZM = $1.35 US

Though they are only worth 50 Meticais, puppies are stolen in Mozambique all the time.  This really helps to illustrate the value of 50 Meticais.  What we perceive to be "only "$1.35" is worth much more to the people of Mozambique.

Here is an example to illustrate this point.  The other day, Romao came over to our house to hide a 20-Met bank note.  Worth approximately $0.75, he wanted to hide it because he couldn’t keep it “safe” in his own house.

“I don’t have a lock,” he said. “And I don’t want thieves to steal it.” 

It is interesting to realize that the value of 75 cents is variable, depending on your point of view.  For Romao, it is a sum worth treasuring. 

I try to bear all of this in mind every time that Dan and I head into the city to do our fancy grocery shopping.  Often, though, a combination of homesickness, deep hunger, and a desire for cheese will triumph in the end.  Unable to fight the cravings, we will find ourselves standing in the checkout isle clutching wrapped packets of cheese, bars of chocolate, bottles of soda, and enormous 1-kilogram boxes of cereal.  The beep-beep of the checkout machine is strangely soothing.  Try as we may to fit in in Africa, the grocery store is a setting that will always remind us of home.

Homemade quesadillas.  Cheese and flour:  $9.  Salary per week:  $60.  Worth it?  Absolutely.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lisa,

    I'm an incoming Moz 19'er and have been reading your AWESOME blog posts to understand what life will be like beginning next week. Thanks for being a superb and interesting writer, and I hope to meet you in the near future.