Friday, June 29, 2012


Toys are different in Mozambique.

A Mozambican friend once said-- "I think that children in developing nations are smarter because they learn how to make something out of nothing.  They know how to make toys out of dirt."

I think of this sentiment whenever I walk down the path after a rain and find a child, hard at work, sculpting a sandcastle with a broken mug and a stick.  I know that all children are innovative, but the truth is-- children in Africa make the most beautiful, hand-made toys that I have ever seen in my life.  I started taking pictures of children's toys in April and have been enchanted ever since.

Most toys in Mozambique are made of wood, wire, or twine.  Wheels and hoops are popular, as are toy cars and hand-woven balls.  Common toys tend to be representations of everyday objects, like guitars, drums, motocycles, airplanes, houses... and even little sisters! 

This is my favorite blog post, and has been my pet project for the past few months.

Enjoy the pictures!

The Galimoto:  Toy cars made from boxes, sticks, wire, etc.  The car is driven by a stick, which is sometimes equipped with a steering wheel.  Almost anything can be turned into a toy car.  We have seen cans with wheels, cereal boxes with wheels, and yams with wheels, too. 
Wheels and Hoops:  Probably the most popular toy in Mozambique.  Made from bike wheels, rubber tires, and other circlular things, a hoop toy is usually propelled by a running boy with a stick.  Some larger, heavier wheels require a little more creativity.  An empty can or plastic jar is placed in the center of the tire and two large sticks propped within the jar are used to drive the wheel forwards.  
Little Bicycle Man:  Made out of wire and tape, this little bicycle man
actually pedals when pushed along on his stick!
Balls:  To build a football, you will need one condom balloon, 50 million meters of twine, and two or three plastic bags.  A  Mozambican football can last forever, as it can be strung and restrung indefinitely.
Musical Instruments:  From left to right-- oil-can drums (on our front porch, no less), a vodka-bottle guitar, and a single-string guitar made from bamboo, a piece of twine, and a discarded water bottle.
Propellers:  Sticks and mango leaves.  Kids will run up and down the yard with these, making them spin like airplane propellers.
Toy lanterns:  These wire-and-can lanterns serve two purposes.  They are a good way to transport charcoal from one stove to another, and they also look pretty.  Unfortunately, the kids like to swing them around.
Toy Babies:  Children are responsible for taking care of their younger siblings over the course of the day.  It is not uncommon to find the youngest child in the family taking care of a pretend baby.
Toy Marketplace:  The two boys on the far right are playing pretend, selling mountains of dirt in exchange for pebbles and bottle caps.
Swing:  Two sisters under a mango tree
Seni's Condom Slingshot:  From left to right-- the materials (whittled stick, expired condom, twine, and hair bands), the slingshot in action, and the carnage
Junio's and Joaquim's Rag-and-Thread Slingshots:  Made from bits of thread and old clothing
Toy Tops:  To start the spin, the wooden top is wrapped with a piece of twine on a stick.  The stick is whipped and the twine unfurls, forcing the top to spin.  To keep it going, the player will follow close behind as the top spins away, whipping at it until it eventually falls.  Boys will play "War" with their tops, sending their own toy spinning towards that of their opponent.  The winner is the last top spinning.
Mud-Clay Phone:  Seni made this cell phone using mud, a piece of wire, and his own two hands.  It is complete
 with a removable dental-floss cord, charger, and plastic screen (with newspaper underneath)
Toy House:  Sticks, canvas, and twine
Toy House:  Boys making a house out of mud and pebbles.  Note the skeptical look on the face of the boy
 to the left.  That's pretty common.  He smiled at me, though, when I showed him his picture.
Mud-Clay Cars:  While I originally meant to take a picture of the boy in the red shirt and his four clay cars,
his entire family joined in for the photograph.
Mud-Clay Cars:  Complete with four little spinning wheels.
These cars are at least fifty percent spit and sand, by the way.
Bamboo Guns:  I found these seven boys playing war at the high school at around sunset.  Each of their guns was hand-made and unique.  The largest gun boasted five barrels (pictured above).  The smallest was an eight-inch pistol (below)
Bamboo guns:  Mozambican boys love John Rambo
Home-made Trampoline:  This has been a big fad in our neighborhood, recently.  A tire is set up at the edge of a pit filled with sand, straw, or canvas bags.  Then, boys take turns running at the pit, leaping off of the tire, and doing flips.  They're really good about taking turns and not landing on top of each other, but they do make fun of the little ones when they fall down and hurt themselves.  
Sandbag Trampoline:  I caught this boy practicing flips in the fields by the market.  He was launching off of a sandbag and into a bed of straw.
Toys from America:  Dan and I try not to introduce too many toys from the United States, but when we received these balloons in a care package from my mother, we couldn't resist.  One big bucket of water bought them one big balloon, each.    They played with them for nearly two hours.  
Childhood toys in America:  I found these two pictures of me and my brother and sister while sifting through
a set of old photographs.  It made me smile to see that all children are alike, all over the world.
A good imagination is the best possible toy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Pit Latrine

When Dan and I moved into our new house in Zobue, we explored our new outdoor bathroom with caution.  It was a brick building, held together by gratuitous handfuls of mud spackling. Two bricks were removed from each wall, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the dusty cement floor.  Each side-- the shower and the toilet-- had its own wooden door.  The latches were old and could barely connect, but the doors did close.  It was a fine little building, although the stench was wretched.  

There was only one problem with the latrine in our yard, and that was that it was almost full.  It had been in use for years, apparently.  At about ten feet deep and four feet wide in either direction, it was home to nearly 160 cubic feet of human excrement.  

The level of waste was dangerously high under the floor of our new latrine.  It was alive with maggots and worms and churned constantly in the glow of our midnight-visit headlamps (yes, we looked).  The best way to describe level of excrement (or the amount of space that we had left) was to describing it according to "the condom."  

"The condom" was just that-- a discarded condom that, long ago, had fallen flat into the latrine. Instead of sinking, it became puffed full of gas and began to stand upright.  As the level of the latrine continued to rise, the condom rose, too, until it was poking out of the latrine hole like the spire on the Eiffel Tower.  It was right about then that our landlady decided to spring for a new latrine.

At that point, it was still January.  We were knee-deep into the rainy season, and our landlady was loathe to commit to a big, muddy project. Instead, she decided to just "dig out the back" of the old latrine.  This seemed like a terrible idea, but, having little expertise on the matter, Dan and I chose to remain silent.  

Our landlady hired a man to dig a large hole in the back of our current pit latrine.  As the contents of the latrine started to spill into the second hole, the level of waste in the original pit began to drop.  It was working-- to an extent.  It seemed that this was about as far in advance as anyone had actually planned this particular operation, however.  The digger lept out of the new hole in a hurry and surveyed his work.  Nodding and lighting a cigarette, he covered the area with a grass mat and walked away.  

That afternoon, it started to drizzle.  Within a few hours, that drizzle turned into a downpour that continued, unabated, for the rest of the night.  In fact, it rained without stopping for the next three days.  When Dan and I finally went outside to check on the status of our new latrine-hole, we were mortified.  The three-day deluge had ripped open the back of the newest pit, sending the contents cascading OUT of the latrine and down the path, loose in the town of Zobue.  I like to envision that the condom itself washed right to the front steps of our landlady's porch.  

Since our latrine was effectively ruined, we began to share a latrine with our neighbors.  It hasn't been so bad, but I have struggled with the tin slab that is propped up in the doorframe. This tin slab acts as a door but, because it connected at the bottom and not at the top of the doorframe, it has a tendency to fall away entirely, leaving the user groping for privacy.  

Just this week, our landlady has finally scraped together enough money to start building a new pit latrine in our front yard.  Located just feet from the original pit latrine, this building has been built over the course of several days, using wood, brick, and metal from our old latrine.  For your pleasure, I have taken pictures of the construction process.  Perhaps this will serve as a sort of How-To for those who are moved to build their own pit latrines, in the future.  See "Why I Love My Pit Latrine," below, for inspiration.

Building a Latrine, Stage 1:  Dig hole
Building a Latrine, Stages 2-4:  Emerge from hole, add concrete cover,
and demarcate the new walls of the brick latrine
Building a Latrine, Stages 5-7:  Dismantle old latrine, use bricks and mud
to erect the walls of the new latrine, build to desired height, then add doors
 and remove two bricks from each wall to serve as windows.  A new latrine!

Why I Love My Pit Latrine

I had no idea, when I came to Africa, that I would come to love my pit latrine so fiercely.  I would go so far as to say, yes, I am a devoted follower of the Pit Latrine.  I am an avid Latriner, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  

1.  Pit latrines are the world's greatest hiding-place.  They are, in the words of so many volunteers, "A Shit-Filled Hole in the Ground."  Anything can be thrown into a latrine, and it doesn't matter.  A rotten egg?  Broken Glass?  Cockroach bodies?  Bloated ticks?  Toss 'em in!  Everything that goes into a latrine effectively disappears.  Once an object has sunk below the surface, it will never be seen again. 

2.  Pit latrines are simple.  Again, a pit latrine is literally just a gaping hole in the ground.  It is very difficult to get confused and make a mistake when using a outdoor latrine.  For the sake of the simple-minded, most pit latrines even have concrete footprints to demonstrate exactly where the user should stand.  

3.  The pit latrine does not waste water.  While most flushing toilets in Africa are "water down" toilets, demanding buckets and buckets of precious water, the pit latrine is flush-free.  Even better, it can take toilet paper.  Rather than stuff dirty tissues into a sticky-looking trashbin on the bathroom floor, the pit latriner can simply toss all of their waste into the curdled abyss.  This is much more hygenic.

4.  The pit latrine is private.  The user does not have to feel embarrassed about bathroom noises, because the pit latrine is far away from where other people like to congregate.  No more holding your breath and leaning to one side, praying that no one is listening.  You're in a separate building, for heaven's sake.  You could play a vuvuzela in there, if you wanted to.

5.  Finally, the pit latrine is so darn efficient.  It's easier to use the bathroom when the bowels are perpendicular to the floor.  And that's just a fact.

In honor of World Toilet Day (November 19 of 2011 or 2012, take your pick, as it's currently June), I give you an original artwork-- "Pit Latrine Versus Indoor Toilet"-- followed by a bathroom tour of Zobue.  Enjoy!

Pit Latrines vs. Indoor Toilets
Three pit latrines:  The girls' room at the secondary school, a shower-house/latrine combo, and a shower-shack
Our current latrine, which we are sharing with our next door neighbors (note the upside-down WC on the door), two double shower/latrines (on grass and one brick), and another fancy toilet at the secondary school
Grass shower-shack, a double-sided latrine with an iron gate, and brick latrine with slotted windows (note the word MAN carved into the concrete, by the entrance)

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dogs in the Night-time

Tragedy seems to befall the dogs of Mozambique. 

In our neighborhood, especially, the bodies seem to be piling up.  First, it was Bwino’s mother.  Soon after we adopted our 6-week old puppy, his mother was stoned to death by a family who accused her of stealing food.  Next, it was Bwino’s brothers and sisters, who died from parasites and malnutrition.  In February, it was “Dog,” the mother of the puppies next door.  She was poisoned and, the following night, her puppies were stolen from the outhouse where they slept.

After the untimely death of “Dog,” there was brief, peaceful lull.  Recently, though, the turmoil has resurfaced.

Seni, who is our waterboy, yard sweeper, house watcher, and ear to the ground, brought us a piece of worrisome news—

“They’re going to kill Bwino.”

This—the threat against Bwino specifically—took us entirely by surprise.  I’d actually thought, in the way of most mothers and caregivers, that my puppy was perfect and that everybody else loved him as much as I did.  Walking around the bairro, I would often hear a chorus of neighborhood children shouting, “bwino-bwino-bwino!”  What I didn’t realize, though, was that when I wasn’t looking, “bwino-bwino-bwino” often ended with a resounding kick to his little puppy gut. 

“Listen,” said Seni. “Bwino is just too friendly.  You are too nice to him.  You have to be more strict with him to teach him fear.  All of the neighbors hate him because he steals food.  They say that they are going to put poison in his food to try to kill him.”

All of this, of course, we didn’t know.  While the voice of Zobue is always audible (in fact, it grumbles incessantly), it speaks primarily in Nyungwe. Dan and I can listen as hard as we like, but we will never understand.

Our first step was simply to feed the dog more food.  We assumed that if Bwino was eating three giant meals a day, he wouldn’t be tempted to “share” food with the neighbors.  That seemed to be working until we learned that Bwino was now unloading some of his extra waste into the yards of some of our neighbors. 

One of these neighbors, a thirty-year old homemaker with four kids, called Seni into her yard to have a serious chat in Nyungwe. 

“This dog,” she said.  “Has to stop.  This is the third time that he has made a mess in my yard.  If he dies, you or his owners won’t be able to say anything against me, because you have been warned.”

Well, that was a new problem.  How could we stop a free-range puppy from defecating underneath a neighbor’s mango tree?

Dan and I started taking Bwino for a walk every morning, in an effort to coax out some of the offending mess.  It didn’t seem to matter, though.  All of the other puppies poop beneath the mango tree, too.  It was all getting blamed on Bwino.

Then, on Sunday night, something terrible happened.  On our porch, under a bucket, Dan and I found a fistful of xima loaded with broken glass.  It was clearly left there for the dog. 

Things had escalated to a point of real danger. 

In the meantime, Seni’s dog, Diana, fell sick.  She had been growing increasingly thin after giving birth a few weeks ago, but we thought that she was just suffering from post-partum complications.  Then, she started coming home at night with wounds and scabs from where she had been beaten.  She started limping and then, unexpectedly, lost all nerve function on her left-hand side.  She started walking in circles.  She was too weak to climb up our stairs and would stare at us from the sunny patches in our front yard, shivering and holding her head at an increasingly cocked angle. 

Last night, two of her puppies died.  In their lair, Seni found a plate full of xima with broken glass. 

It’s now become a race of detective work—to identify the dog killers and to appeal for help from our district superiors before our dog gets seriously injured.  Unfortunately, though, I don’t know how much that will help.  Our Director’s dog was poisoned and killed, just last week.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Second Life of the American T-Shirt

When I packed to come to Africa, I squeezed exactly 80 pounds of material into two extra-large suitcases.  Eighty pounds was the weight limit, and I was terrified that I would forget something.  I loaded my suitcase in a nervous frenzy.  For hours, I packed and unpacked my belongings, weighing my suitcase every fifteen or twenty minutes.  I was on the verge of tears.

"Everything I need for the next two years," I thought to myself,  "has to be in these suitcases.  I have to pack everything..."

Looking back on this, just eight months later, I can see that my packing list was a little ridiculous.  Among my effects could be found:  twenty T-shirts, four pairs of denim jeans, ten sweaters, fifteen pairs of socks, and nearly 25 pairs of underwear.  I was prepared to never shop again.


It turns out that Mozambicans like shopping just as much as I do.  I would have no problem finding anything in my adopted country.  From market stalls to shopping malls, I have found a wide array of things that I never expected to find in Africa:  non-stick pans, margarine, sprinkles, ankle socks, strollers, stuffed animals, throw pillows, basketballs, can-openers, Teletubbies paraphernalia, playing cards, etc.  Some of these items are few and far between (or show up in unexpected places), but they exist.

Consumerism, I have discovered, is not an American concept.  It is not a "western" concept or even a "first-world" concept.  It is a human concept, and we all seem driven to buy as much as we can, as often as we can.

 The issue of clothing in Africa, though, is an interesting one.

I was still in training when I first discovered clothing in Mozambique.  Market day came to Namaacha twice a week, and I never missed a chance to go.  At 6AM every Wednesday and Saturday, the marketplace would swell to maximum capacity.  Vendors under wooden awnings hawked fruits, vegetables, basketry items, cheap plastic junk, and clothes.  I loved it, all of it.  Everywhere you looked, you would find mountains of old, dusty clothes, from socks to jeans to dresses to shirts.  The clothes smelled like the Salvation Army.  T-shirts and skirts were sweaty and thick-smelling, reeking of skin cells and dust and human oil.

I was in heaven.  

As a child, I wore a mixture of new clothes, hand-me-down clothes, and jumpers that my mother made.  I was not terribly scrupulous, and I remain that way, still.  After college, living as a newlywed in my old college town and spending my own salary for the first time in my life, I discovered the joy of second-hand shopping.  I delighted in selling my old clothes and then using that money to buy somebody else's used clothes.  I satisfied my need for change without actually creating waste.

Upon arriving here, I discovered (to my endless delight) that the African market is the mother of all thrift stores.  This is the end of the line for donated clothing.  This is where your college T-shirt, your stretch pants, your baby bib, and your too-tight dancing shirt go to die.  And it's not as depressing as you might think.

Clothing in Mozambique comes from a variety of places.  Some (cheap) clothing is made in China and India with intent to sell at low-range markets in developing nations.  This clothing arrives brand new and, while not always of premium quality, is always bright and flashy.  My students love this stuff, and they wear it all the time.  Some clothing is made by tailors in the village marketplace, out of long strips of colorful cloth called "capulanas."  Usually, capulana clothing is worn as a covering, wrap, or shawl.  Finally, clothing comes from first-world nations, where it has been donated, sorted, bundled, and sold.  That is the good stuff.

Before I start, I want to admit that there has been some debate over "donated" clothes in Africa.

"It ruins local business!"  Some people insist.  "It edges native competitors out of the market and creates a dearth of employment in the textile and tailoring industries."

Some people protest even further.  "It is positively evil," they say.  "Sending used clothing to Africa sends the message that people in the developing world are only deserving of our discarded waste."

But I am not an economist or a social scientist.  I am only an English teacher, living and working in Mozambique.  Like my counterparts and neighbors, I earn about $200 a month.  And like my counterparts and neighbors, I am not interested in paying $20 for a T-shirt or $40 for a pair of jeans.  I want to dress nicely and I want dignity and choice.  In Africa, the second-hand market gives me that freedom.

This is the story of the used clothing, from the perspective of Africa.

A shirt that is donated in America goes to one of three places.  First, if it is of high quality, it goes straight to the shelves of a thrift store, where it awaits purchase by an American buyer.  About 15 to 20% of donated clothes are actually sold in domestic thrift stores.  If it is terribly ripped, stained, moldy, or unhygenic, it is thrown in the trash.  That is why the dumpsters behind thrift stores are always overflowing with discarded donations.  Finally, if it is of "intermediate" quality or if it fails to sell in-store, it is bundled and sold in-bulk to a trading company.  That is where the African adventure begins.  This is the second life of the American T-shirt.

Low-quality used clothes, or nice quality used clothes that fail to sell, are wrapped up and sold in bulk to distributors like the Trans-Americas Trading Company.  There, the clothes are unloaded and sent down massive conveyor belts where they are sorted into four principal groups:  Premium, Africa A, Africa B, and Wiper Rag.  Premium clothes constitute approximately 3-4% of the total volume of  sifted clothes.  Clothes in the premium category include brand name clothes, barely used clothes, and clothes with the tags still attached.  These are sold in bulk to buyers within the US or to countries in Asia or Latin America.  Clothing labeled "Africa A," will be sent to wealthier African nations, like Kenya.  Clothing labeled "Africa B" (small rips or stains) is sent to areas in greater economic distress, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Once sorted, the clothes are crushed together and vacuum sealed into 100-pound bundles.  Wrinkled, smashed, and unwashed, they are ready for transport.  The bundles, dense and airtight, are stacked and loaded into trucks, which are then loaded onto cargo ships headed overseas.  Once the clothing arrives in the port city, it is then sold to individual distributors in major cities.  In turn, these individual distributors will sell bundles to small-town vendors, who often buy just one or two at a time.

In Mozambique, used clothing is referred to as "Calamidades"  (Portuguese:  calamities).  Whether this name should be considered rather tongue-in-cheek or whether Mozambican vendors truly believe that the original owners died in awful, violent ways, I have no idea.  But calamidades are hugely popular across the entire country, and a new bundle of clothes always creates a big stir in the marketplace.

Walking across Tete City one day last week, I came across a sign above a small, nondescript storefront.  The sign read:  "Calamidades!  Best, strongest calamidades clothes!"  Excited, I asked Dan to wait for me while I went inside.

The inside of the store was darkened somewhat by the towers of bundles leaning against the windows.  The smell was overwhelming and unmistakable.  Everything-- the air, the bundles, the owner-- smelled like skin cells and oil.  The Salvation Army.

I squeezed through the narrow rows between stacks, marveling at the sheer number of bundles.  A woman was perched nearly eight feet off the ground, counting inventory from the top of one of the higher stacks.  I read the labels on a few of the bundles:  "Household Small," "Women's Shirts, Large," and "Socks."

"Excuse me," I said to the owner.  "Do you mind if I take a picture in here?"

The owner, a white man with a grizzled beard and nice, striped, button-down T-shirt, looked at me suspiciously.

"Take a picture," he said, finally.  "That's fine."  He watched me while I did it, though, standing with his arms crossed at the front of the store.

"How much does one of these bundles cost?"  I asked, firing three photos in rapid succession and then tucking my camera out of sight.

"Depends," said the owner.  "On what you're buying."

"Well," I said.  "This one, for instance."  I gestured at the bundle that was closest to me.  Women's Shirts, Large.

"This one is 5500," he said.  "Meticais."  200 dollars.  

200 dollars for 100 pounds of clothes.  One dollar for half a pound of clothing.

I thanked the store owner and headed back into the street.  A young man followed me out, carrying a 100-pound bundle on his head.  I stepped out of the way and the man continued past me, towards the marketplace and out of sight.

Small-time vendors, I learned, will further sort the clothing into their own categories.  Clothing in some piles fetches just one or two Meticais (3 - 6 cents).  Other items are worth up to 150 Meticais (6 dollars) each.  From the rummage heap, each article of clothing is carefully selected, bartered for, and brought home.  Shirts are washed, pants are ironed, and ripped seams are mended.  In Africa, an old T-shirt gets a new life.  What seemed faded in America now seems shiny and loved.  Pinned to the clothesline and blowing in the wind, the recently-purchased dress, skirt, or pair of jeans takes on a new life.  For the American T-shirt, it is a second chance at love.

The following pictures depict two categories of clothes found in Mozambique.  The first category is "US rummage."  These clothes followed a path like the one described above.  Arriving from Canada, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Canada, or Japan, these clothes were discarded by their original owner and eventually found their way to Africa.  The second category can just be considered "Other."  Ranging from funny misprints to wildly inappropriate button-downs, the photos in this category helps paint a picture of "fashion" in Mozambique.  In most parts of Africa, the saying seems to be, "If you've got it, wear it."  And, bless them, do they ever wear it in style.

Calamidades.  Purchased from rummage in Mozambique, from left to right:  Flowered sweater,
 silver tunic, purple T-shirt, spaghetti-strap sundress, and pink baby-doll top.
Calamidades:  Bundles in Tete City
Calamidades:  Mom, your shoes!
Calamidades on a student:  Smith-Means Family Reunion 1991
Calamidades:  Titanic, 1997
Calamidades: Embroidered button-up top for those cold African mornings

In addition to a wide variety of fashions (some good and some questionable), you come across some very strange typos, misprints, and patterns while shopping in Mozambique.  Below are a few of my favorites:

My!  Heroes have always been Cowboys
The World Famous SuperBeaglf:  RNOOPK
A Calamidades Rare Gem:  I am a Wonder Zap

Next, we have some "Obama Bling," which is absurdly popular in Mozambique.

Dan displays his new basketball shirt
Holographic Obama Belt

And, finally, the least appropriate shirt I have ever, ever seen.  This shirt cost me two dollars, and it was a wonderful purchase.  At first, it appears to be a nice, normal, collared shirt.  

What could go wrong?

And there you have it.  Clothing enters Mozambique through a variety of channels (and some are mysterious, indeed), but it always finds its way to the right person.  And it never fails to bring a smile.