Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Things I Wish I Had Known

In just one month, the newest education volunteers will arrive in Maputo, Mozambique.  This group will consist of 55 new volunteers and 12 transfer volunteers from Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde.  The trainees will fly into Maputo via Johannesburg and then be shipped off to Namaacha for ten weeks of intensive language and cultural training.  They will learn a totally new set of skills, including lessons on how to teach in Mozambique, how to communicate in Portuguese, how to teach in Portuguese, and how to bathe in a bucket.  As we prepare to greet this newest group of volunteers, Dan and I are also organizing our thoughts and pieces of advice.  We have learned a lot in this past year, and we have a lot of information to share. 

In honor of the newest group of volunteers, I want to share a list of things that I wish I had known before moving to Mozambique.  It’s difficult to get an accurate picture of Mozambique from just reading a few blogs, but I will try my hardest to get that picture across.

Things I Wish I had Known Before Moving to Mozambique:

Just about now, the newest training class is probably starting to read over the packing list provided by the Peace Corps Team in Mozambique.  It is a good list, but it can be a little overwhelming.  If an individual tried to pack every single item on that list, he would quickly find himself overwhelmed by his own stuff.  The following list is clarification of important (and not important) items, based on my everyday life here in Mozambique:

To Bring
  •  Laptop Computer-  You will use your computer in Mozambique.  90-95% of sites have at least intermittent electricity and Namaacha is fully electrified.  Bring your computer to share pictures from home, to save new pictures, and to watch movies and TV shows.  Also, most of us use computers for school.  It is much easier to calculate grades using MS Excel than by using a paper and pencil.
  • External Hard Drive-  Peace Corps Mozambique loves TV.  Most of us will travel with our external hard drives and stock up on new shows everywhere that we go.  For future reference, Peace Corps Mozambique loves Modern Family, Mad Men, Glee, Game of Thrones, and How I Met Your Mother.  Most volunteers are in their houses by 7PM, so a good television show makes a good friend after dark. 
  • Digital Camera-  The best way to record your Peace Corps experience is with a digital camera.  The scenery is beautiful and the kids are cute.  Don’t worry if you have a big, expensive camera.  Buy insurance and bring it along.  You will be sorry if you don’t.
  • Your Hobbies- You will work hard in Mozambique, but there will also be a lot of quiet time.  Bring hobby materials with you.  Your hobbies will make you happy, reinforce your sense of self, and give you something to share with your new community.

Little Extras
  • Kindle or Nook-  Nice to have and very lightweight. 
  • Bug Tent-  For easy traveling.  Also good for guests.
  • Lightweight Sleeping Bag-  For easy traveling.
  • Pictures from Home-  Great for showing off your family and for starting conversations.  Your students will like them, too.
  • Spices-  Most spices are available in Mozambique, but some spices are hard-to-find or rather expensive.  Spices are light, so bring a few of your favorites with you.
  • Make-up and Jewelry-  You will want to be pretty and professional at work and at conferences.  Bring things that will make you feel like yourself. 

Things That You Can Actually Buy in Mozambique
  • Clothing-  Clearly, you should bring your own clothing from the United States.  It would be silly to buy a whole new wardrobe upon your arrival.  That being said, however, please remember that you don’t need to pack every article of clothing that you have ever owned.  A few nice shirts and skirts, a few nice pairs of jeans, and a couple of sturdy pairs of shoes will actually suffice.  You can buy any article of clothing in Mozambique, and, if you don’t mind buying it used, you can do it very, very cheaply.  Your living space will be cramped and, in the first couple of months, you will be lugging your things around a lot.  Make your life easier and limit the number of clothes that you bring.
  • Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant-  All of these things can be bought in Mozambique.  Bring enough shampoo and deodorant to last you through the first few weeks of training, but don’t worry about supplying yourself for the next two years. 
  • School supplies-  Peace Corps supplies you with plenty of pens and notebooks during the course of your training.  Your school should supply you with the rest—textbooks, chalk, erasers, etc.
You can buy almost anything in Mozambique, so don’t panic about your packing list.  I have bought sweaters, jeans, shoes, shirts, dresses, socks, flip-flops, hats, and even a swimsuit here in Mozambique.  You can buy specialty items, as well, including perfume and solar chargers.  Remember, you are moving to a country that is developing rapidly.  All of the big cities have a supermarket and even the smallest sites have a small marketplace.  You will be able to find almost everything that you need.

One final piece of advice:
When packing your bags, just assume that anything that is going with you is not coming back.  Things will break, deteriorate, get lost, or get stolen.  You will give things away when it is time to leave.  Some things you simply won’t want anymore.  Pack like it is never coming back.

Contact and Electronics
One of the biggest misconceptions about serving in Peace Corps Mozambique is that communication will be spotty or non-existent.  Mozambique is actually developing very rapidly, and connectivity is getting better and better.  You will want to know the following information:

There are three network carriers in Mozambique:  MCel, Vodacom, and Movitel.  The newest carrier, Movitel, provides cell service and fast internet to some of the most remote towns in Mozambique.  Peace Corps will no longer be placing volunteers in sites without phone service, so every volunteer will have access to at least one of these carriers. 

During their second week of training, new volunteers will be taken to Maputo to purchase a Mozambican phone and to set up their phone plans.  Every volunteer receives about $4 a month to pay for phone credit for calls within country and most volunteers use their phones every day.  The Medical Office, Safety and Security Office, and the Country Director are all available by telephone at a moment’s notice.  Friends and family from the States can also call volunteers using Google Voice ($0.12/minute for Movitel, $0.13/minute for MCel, or $0.24/minute for Vodacom) or Skype. 

A USB modem can be purchased in any large city to provide Internet at home.  Internet plans vary between the three network carriers but the best plan is currently with Movitel, who provides a 1GB/1 Month plan for 600 Meticais ($22).  Prices continue to drop as competition between the three carriers gets more intense.  Many volunteers also have an Internet phone for email and Facebook. 

Some volunteers (like yours truly) are online every day.  Most talk to their families about once a week.  Communication is expanding rapidly in Mozambique.  Parents, please don’t worry.  Your child is not going to disappear!

Safety and Security
It’s so easy to feel scared when you are learning about a country from afar.  Reports on rape and theft and vehicle accidents can play over and over in your mind until it seems like these events are commonplace, even imminent.  I want to let you know that this is not the case.  Things feel very different when you are actually living in that country.  Things start to feel normal.  I feel safe in Mozambique, and you will too.  Let’s take a good hard look at the three main threats to Peace Corps Volunteers living and working in Mozambique.

o   Burglary and Theft
Theft is the most common threat to volunteers in Mozambique.  It is very common to have something stolen (either from your person or from your home) and most volunteers will lose something in the course of their two-year service.  That being said, most incidents are small.  Some volunteers will have a clothesline stolen from their front yard.  Other volunteers will lose a sock or a spoon from the drying bin.  Others will have money stolen from their pocket or a phone taken out of their bag.  The most important thing to remember is that thieves do not mean this personally.  They want to use your stuff or sell it to try to improve their own financial situation.  It’s not because they hate you.   In most cases, they don’t even know you.  It happens to other Mozambicans, too. 
o   Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is not very common in Mozambique, but a volunteer should take precautions just as they would in their own American hometown.  Take a cab, stay with the group, and keep your wits about you.  Your behavior is your own responsibility.  There will always be bad people in the world, but there is no more evil in Mozambique than there is in America.
o   Transportation
Transportation is certainly a bit rickety in Mozambique.  Many vehicles are cheap hand-me-downs from other, wealthier nations and are subject to all sorts of interesting malfunctions.  Chapas go too quickly, trucks go too slowly, and everyone seems to drive like a teenager with a brand-new driver’s license.  There are no passing lanes, so a head-on collision always seems like an imminent possibility.  Strangely, though, all of us volunteers have found a way to accept our travel situation.  How is that possible?  Though a combination of pickiness, resignation, and faith, that’s how.  This is the Serenity Prayer for Travel in Mozambique:

Grant me the serenity to accept the vehicles I cannot change
The courage to change vehicles when I can
And the Wisdom to make the most informed decision 
when traveling on the road

While there are dangers in Mozambique, I want to reiterate that is no more evil in Mozambique than there is in America.  Africa is not some dark, scary continent that seeks to devour the American adventurer—it’s a continent of real people living real, ordinary lives.  You will be surprised by how quickly your life starts to feel normal.  You will sleep at night, I promise.

More advice
  •  It gets cold in Mozambique!  Bring a warm jacket and a pair of fluffy socks. 
  • It gets hot in Mozambique!  Be prepared for that, as well.  
  •  Practice your Portuguese!  The more you know, the less awkward your first few days are going to be.  
  • Get excited!  Peace Corps Mozambique is one of the very best Peace Corps countries (No, really.  I wish they gave awards for this sort of thing).  The country is gorgeous, the people are friendly, and the staff is exceptional.  Welcome aboard!  We are excited to meet you!


  1. Hello Lisa!
    My name is Jennea, I'm in the Moz 19 group, and I am SO excited to be coming to Mozambique soon! Thank you so much for your amazing blog posts! You are helping to calm my mom down beyond belief by reassuring her I won't fall of the face of the earth and that I'll still be able to communicate, in addition to posting pictures of potential housing to at least give her an idea of what type of housing I could be in.
    I showed her your blog a week or so ago and she now answers my phone calls with, "Did you see what Lisa blogged about? You might want to think about x, y, z..." :-) My mom's even printed off blog posts to have my dad read "the important stuff". She's also convinced I need to bring rain boots for all the snakes I'll encounter. :-)
    Anyway, I just wanted to say hi and thank you for your awesome blog! You haven idea how much of a help it is!

  2. Hi! It's good to hear from you.

    I laughed out loud when I read about your mother and the rain boots. I used to wear rain boots all the time in the States when I went berry picking in snake country!

    So we do have some pretty cool snakes in Mozambique (the black mamba, Mozambican spitting cobra, and a few GIANT pythons). The sad thing is, I've never actually SEEN one. While people seem to have a crippling fear of snakes, I am finding that snake sightings are few and far between. Actual bites are even less common.

    Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing a few more pythons up here in Zobue.


  3. this is great,thank you!! im in moz 22 and Im soooo nervous but so excited. I cant wait to get there!

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