Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Six Months

Sunset over Zobue, Mozambique

I started writing this blog entry by hand, sitting on a rock outside of the elementary school.  It was 3:10PM on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was waiting to meet a colleague.  I was late, but she was even later. 

As I sat there, writing, a small group of primary school girls tiptoed over to spy on my work.  They were carrying their chairs on their heads.  I noticed them watching me, and smiled at them.  I scribbled a few numbers on the top of my page and tapped them with the tip of my pencil.

"Podem dizer estes numeros em Portugues?"  I asked, gently, cocking my head at them.  Can you say these numbers in Portuguese?

The girls clamored onto the rock with me and  leaned over my lap, peering at my open notebook.  Slowly at first, then louder, they recited the numbers in Portuguese.





The girls’ excitement and attention began to drew a small crowd of children, which, in turn, drew an even larger crowd of children.  I was forced to put down my notebook as kids poured in and surrounded me on my rock.  They were all carrying their chairs on their heads.  Dan and I have described this phenomenon-- the chair-carrying phenomenon-- as the “plastic chair parade.”  If the kids don’t bring their own chairs to school, they have to sit on the floor.  They don’t have desks, of course.  Who could carry their own desk to school?

The kids looked like a flock of sheep, jostling and staring at me, wordlessly.  I felt a little awkward. Should I say something?  I swiveled around and was surprised to find that there were more kids behind me, too.  

"I really should count," I thought.  "Nobody is going to believe me that I was mobbed by this many kids."

“One,” I said, pointing at the girl closest to my lap.  I then pointed at the kids standing behind her.  “Two, three, four.  Five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten.”  The kids started to giggle.  I stopped counting at fifty.

Fifty kids?

“Okay,” I said.  “Who here knows a song?”

What better way to start my celebratory sixth-month blog entry than with a scene from absolutely normal, everyday life?  Just those few paragraphs are packed with things that, six months ago, would have been totally foreign to me.  It’s strange and wonderful how quickly things start to feel normal.  Comfortable, even. 

CELEBRITY:   Like it or not, Dan and I are relatively famous in the small town of Zobue.  We aren’t the first Peace Corps volunteers to be living here, and we won’t be the last, either.  Janet and Lucas were famous before us, and Angelina before them.  Chelsea and Katie, the first two volunteers in Zobue?  Well, they were famous, too.  There’s something about being the only white people in a town of 8,000 people that makes you rather special. 

We can’t walk down the road or to the marketplace without greeting everyone along the way.  We juggle a combination of languages- English for our students, Portuguese for the younger children, and XiChewa/Nyungue for their parents.  We wave at babies and give high-fives and skirt the crazies who like to get too close.  The apple vendors mob us because they know we like apples and Jorge, the appliances vendor, likes to wave at us because we’re white.  Visitors from Malawi will meet up with us on the road to try to practice their English.  It’s a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it will be strange to move back to America.  At this point, I can hardly remember what it’s like to be anonymous. 

TARDINESS:  I have always had trouble arriving on time.  It’s one of my worst traits, and is possibly made worse by the fact that I make no effort to actually fix it.  I am late to work, to meetings, and to dinner with friends.  When going to the movies, I am lucky if I can catch the credits, much less the trailers at the beginning.  Dan likes to trick me by giving me time estimates that are thirty-minutes ahead of schedule.


In terms of tardiness and irresponsibility, I have met my match here in Africa. 

In Mozambique, time is not really a very solid concept.  It is more of an idea, really.  Many people don’t even have watches or clocks and will glance up at the sun if you say Bom Dia, after 11AM.

“I think it’s Boa tarde,” they will say, with a tip of the hat.  “Sun’s getting high.”

I have arrived for 2 o’clock meetings that didn’t start until 3:30.  I have started teaching a 12:30 class with less than twenty-five students, knowing that the rest of them will trickle in by 1:15.  I have even caught a 3AM bus that left at 5:30. 

You know you are adjusting to life in Africa when you arrive at your own class ten minutes late, feeling fresh and calm and not at all rushed.  Twenty-five students greet you when you walk in the door and the other twenty-five students greet you thirty minutes later. 

“Why arrive on time if my students don’t?”  You think to yourself.

“Why arrive on time if my professor doesn’t?”  Your students think.

And the cycle continues on and on. 

CHILDREN:  People in Mozambique have a very relaxed attitude towards parenting.  Some might say that child-rearing is a community effort, but I would beg to differ.  I think that in Mozambique, children raise themselves. 

The children that met me on the rock (all fifty of them), were done with school for the day.  They were between the ages of four and seven and were totally, completely unsupervised.  Their teachers had gone home, but the children had opted to stay at the school and play in the schoolyard, waiting for something interesting to come along.  That “something interesting,” of course, happened to be me.

There’s a bow-legged baby that lives by the high school, and she is probably no more than two years old.  She hobbles from foot to foot, and is easily recognizable amongst other children by her wide-spread gait.  I think of her as the “Baby-girl Cowboy,” or the “Cow-Baby,” for short.  Places I have seen her without her parents include: sitting on the ground in someone else’s latrine, limping alone through a cornfield, sitting alone on my porch, and standing on top of a boulder, crying.  In fact, I would like to repeat that last line-- I have found her, alone, standing on top of a boulder, crying.  How did she even get up there?  For all I know, she’s still there. 

Dan says that no child knows freedom the way that African children know freedom.  In some ways, it’s true.  While little girls, in particular, have a lot of chores to do at home, they experience total and utter freedom as soon as they are out of their homestead.  They run barefoot down the sandy paths and bounce joyfully into the sugarcane.  They stay out until it is nearly dark and then bound home again, with dirty hair, sticky fingers, and bellies full of who-knows-what.  Nobody asks them where they’ve been.  The life of a child in Africa is a secret that only other children know and understand. 

Sometimes, I can’t help but interfere when these same children are playing in my yard.  Once, I came home to find a boy drinking soapy water from my empty peanut butter jar.  I had been leaving it to soak on the railing.  Another time, I found a baby crawling in my garbage pit, licking at a chocolate wrapper.  Just this morning, I stopped a toddler from putting a mirror shard into her mouth.  All of Bwino’s favorite toys, of course, have been sucked on by every single one of the neighborhood children. 

Somehow, these children survive and grow up to become stable, sturdy, and healthy human beings.  Most of them, at any rate.

PORTUGUESE:  Perhaps the hallmark of my Peace Corps experience has been the fact that I have finally conquered a new language.  I’m not perfect in Portuguese- it is still difficult for me to tell a story, for instance, because stories are told in the past tense- but I can communicate.  I am especially good in the classroom, because I have mastered every single piece of classroom vocabulary that I need to use to teach eighth grade English. 

Six months ago, I remember sitting in a hotel in Maputo, reading over the list of Portuguese “Survival phrases.”

Ola, como esta?

Estou bem, voce?

I was dismayed.  The accent was so different from the Spanish accent, and it had been a full seven years since I had even studied Spanish.  I tentatively tried every word on the list, and they all sounded wrong.

Como esh-tah?

Esh-toe bayn.

Now the words roll off my tongue.  Spanish sounds wrong.  French sounds wrong.  Sometimes even English sounds wrong.  The other day, when trying to say “Vista,” I pronounced it “Veesh-tah.”  I find it difficult to say “Pasta,” without saying, “Pash-tah.”  I call myself “Lee-zah,” when introducing myself to new people.  

It is as easy to communicate a simple message in Portuguese as it is to communicate in English.  Sometimes, after a conversation, I’m not sure which language I have been using. 

“Was that English or Portuguese?”  I wonder.  “It must have been Portuguese, because he seemed to understand.”

I slip in and out of English during class, not because I don’t know the words in Portuguese, but because I forget which language I am speaking.  The two languages have mixed together in my mind.

I find it easiest to communicate with other volunteers, because I don’t have to channel my thoughts in any particular language.  Dan and I speak in a combination of English and Portuguese, depending on the depth of our conversation (Existential?  English.  Cooking dinner?  Portuguese.).  When speaking with my mother and grandmother on the telephone, I make a concerted effort to converse entirely in English.  Some words- chapa, cobrador, bacia- don’t even have good English equivalents.  For me, they exist only in Portuguese. 

So I have lived in Mozambique for six entire months.  I’m not going to say, “I can’t believe it’s been six months!” because I can believe it.  It has felt like exactly six months, in fact.  We arrived on the seventh day of spring.  We spent the spring in Namaacha and the summer at our new sites.  It’s fall, now.  As the days are getting warmer in America, the nights in Africa are getting longer.  The sky is orange by 5:30 and dark by 6:15.  Soon it will be winter, and there will be frost in the mountains. 

I live in Zobue, Mozambique.  I speak Portuguese and I have many, many neighbors.  I live in the most beautiful site in the world, and I am surrounded by the nicest children.  Sometimes I am unhappy and sometimes I struggle, but there are always fifty children waiting to surround me and sing at a moment’s notice.

I am a celebrity, after all.  And this is where I live. 

Zobue Flower

Zobue Flower

A candid moment in a posed picture- neighborhood girls on my front step.

Wary of me and of my big camera

Going through a karate phase...

This toddler, named Gilda, waddled up my front steps with a runny nose,
no shirt, and a blanket on top of her head.  Just another day for little Gilda.

Bwino (right) and his best friend Scrappy Little-Dog

Zobue, Mozambique.  This is where I live.

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