Monday, September 19, 2011
The question I am most frequently asked (followed closely by, “Have you seen any animals?,” which other than the chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats of my neighbors is a no). Also a difficult question to answer, as my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer is pretty unstructured.
Generally speaking, I work with 2 small organizations, one community-based organization and one faith-based, in the area of public health. I attend meetings and participate in programs, like home visits or children’s activities. My role is mainly to build capacity; to strengthen both organizations so they can better assist the vulnerable populations in the community. So far, this has meant a lot of organizational development (creating forms, improving meetings, assisting with planning). I also help to train members in various areas (health information, monitoring & evaluation, basic business skills). I hope to culminate this work by helping both organizations to design well-planned projects, apply for funds, and manage the projects effectively. For example, one of my organizations is currently discussing various ideas for an income-generation project for its members (ideas include sewing school uniforms or raising chickens).
Beyond this, I do some other work in the community. I give English lessons and will help students prepare for the high school English national exams. I run a youth group for girls as part of a nationwide program called REDES and hope to take on a very active role on the national level this year. Finally, I spend a lot of time with kids in general, coloring or baking or just hanging out. And if all else fails, I walk around the market, visit people, read, or fulfill my duties as a crazy cat lady.
A hurricane couldn’t stop my return to Mozambique. Neither could accusations of importing tampons and daily contact lenses for sale at customs (Megan Lawless, International Tampon Smuggler would make an awesome business card). But I made it back, and there’s no culture shock like going from complimentary roast beef sandwiches served on an hour-long flight (the Jo’burg – Maputo connection) to being mobbed by chapa drivers, fighting for the attempt to rip off your white ass, in Junta (a giant chapa/bus park). I’ve been back at site for a few weeks now and have readjusted, but it’s amazing how different life is, just a couple plane rides away.
Signs I knew I was back in Mozambique:
- Hearing myself yell “LIE!” in someone’s face (those chapa drivers couldn’t rip me off)
- Having my aforementioned sass result in a marriage proposal
- Bruising on my knees from chapa rides (too tall)
- Being told repeatedly, by every acquaintance in Macia, that I “disappeared and got fat”
- Having to physically carry kids out of my house to get them to leave
- Being regularly mocked for bathing daily (which I see as an accomplishment) only
Ants in My Pants (or Lack Thereof)
One night, half-asleep and desperate, I ran out to my latrine. I had barely sat down however, when I immediately yelped and leaped off the cement seat. Fire ants. Hundreds of them. All over the seat and now all over the places one least wants to be bit. Apparently they had started some sort of invasion during the night, as they were all over the bathroom as well as kitchen. I ripped my pants off and just stood there in shock. Should I try to kill them? Shit in a bucket? Risk falling in by squatting on top of the toilet? Finally, I straddled the damn thing, on my tip-toes (the floor was also covered with them). And for good measure, I even peed. Completely upright. Like a dude, but facing away from toilet as ants nipped at my toes. The silver lining, though, is that when someone has some inane complaint about their life in America, I can respond, “Oh that sucks you were mildly inconvenienced. I was sexually assaulted by fire ants,” and smirk, in true Lawless fashion.
Circle of Life
I had a lot riding on my cat’s pregnancy. I had proclaimed it to all of Macia at week 3, so when Simba continued not to show, at all, for the next month, my credibility was on the line. I regularly say things that people are skeptical of, like “Yes, I eat potatoes without peeling them; they have more nutrients that way,” or “No, a person won’t get sick if they go more than a few days without having sex.” I usually get a discerning look that says all too clearly, “The white girl must be crazy,” but at least it starts a discussion. However, if Simba didn’t have any pão in her oven after all, I would take a serious blow.
Thankfully, when I got back from America, Simba was, as fellow volunteer described, a “watermelon cat.” And a week later, I came dangerously close to having to scrub placenta out of my coworker’s clothes. She wanted to give birth in my counterpart/host dad’s closet, but upon seeing a sac poking out, I grabbed her and sprinted to my house just in time. Thus, on Wednesday, September 7th, the anniversary of the Lusaka Accords (which granted Mozambique independence from Portugal), 4 precious kittens were born. They all appear to be thriving, though Simba honestly does not look too thrilled with motherhood. When she returned one afternoon to her kittens, all crying and climbing all over her, she shot me a look that clearly said, “Fuck.” I had tried to keep her away from the dude cats (not even joking, I would throw rocks when they were hanging around, not to hit but to scare them), but this pregnancy is just further evidence that abstinence-only education fails.
The REDES conference was, hands down, my favorite week in Mozambique so far. As I’ve previously mentioned, REDES, which stands for Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saúde (Teen Girls in Development, Education, and Health), is a nationwide program in Mozambique run by Peace Corps Volunteers and some Mozambican women. Annually, there is a conference in each region, and each group can send 2 girls, a Mozambican facilitator, and Peace Corps Volunteer (if applicable; there are independent groups as well). After some difficulty getting caretaker permission (I later learned people were concerned it was ruse to steal their daughters), the 4 of us loaded onto a bus packed with singing girls to Barra, Inhambane, a beautiful beach in a neighboring province.
The conference, which felt like overnight camp and reminded me greatly of Camp Dreamcatcher (if you live in the Mid-Atlantic area, look it up and volunteer as a counselor for the weeklong camp for kids infected or affected by HIV/AIDS), was a great success. Each day had a theme (self-esteem, health, education/planning for the future, women’s rights, and development) that included various sessions led by Mozambican facilitators. Additionally, there was a skills session each day led by volunteers (Mozambican facilitators had a training session during this). I led the nutrition session in which the girls learned the basic food groups and made peanut butter. My real claim to fame, however, was for “pulling the potato,” a Mozambican dance move that I have no problem making a fool of myself attempting to perform. I may have even jumped over a chair at one point to partake. Clearly, I had a blast and cannot wait for conference next year. And since I did in fact return with the girls, caretakers have already given advance permission for next year.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
This past Sunday, I attended my first Mozambican wedding with my counterpart’s family. After trying on every capulana I own at the insistence of my host sisters, we decided on an outfit. I was dressed as a traditional Mozambican woman, with a capulana as a long skirt and a lenço on my head, and everyone loved it. I went to church with the family to see the ceremony, and afterward the wedding party moved in procession to a nearby house for the reception. And by procession, I mean slow wedding march on straw mats, with women constantly running mats from the back to the front of the wedding party, creating a path for them. After a lap of the premises, the bride did a ceremonial mixing of the vat of xima with a giant wooden spoon, serving the first plate. Then, the bride and groom fed each other, followed by my counterpart and his wife (the padrinho and madrinha, a best man/matron of honor and godparent hybrid). The couple then linked arms and drank Fanta out of champagne flutes, and kissed when the crowd chanted.
Some of the adults were then invited to sit at the tables for the meal; as a guest of the padrinho and madrinha I snagged a seat (everyone eats, not everyone gets a chair). If I wasn’t a foreigner, though, I would have been serving dinner along with my host brothers around my age. Then came a several course meal. Quick note: after a couple traumatic experiences of being in church with my counterpart for 4.5 hours and becoming manically hungry, I had eaten a giant breakfast in preparation (much more appropriate then my previous strategy: stuffing my mouth with cashews while everyone was praying out loud with their eyes closed). So when I was served lunch, I was uncharacteristically not very hungry. The samosas (fried puff pastry with a meat filling) were delicious and I ate everything but the chicken foot in my soup. But then came a full plate of xima with a generous serving of cow stomach. It was by far my least favorite thing I’ve eaten here, beating out pork liver. I’ve actually tried cow stomach before and didn’t hate it, but the caril (sauce) this time was Fear Factor-level. I ate it quickly to get it over with, and was left with half a plate of xima. My relief was short-lived, however, as the servers came around to dole out more of the meat, and it was hard to mask my panic when I adamantly declined. This course was followed by full plates of rice with beef, more beef with French fries, and finally cake. [Special note to Jesse, Diamondstone, and Berko: Yo dawg, I heard you like stomach. So I put a stomach in your stomach.]
Once everyone had eaten absurd quantities of food, it was time for the presents. Mozambican gift giving is fantastic; each group (grandkids, neighbors, etc.) sings and dances as they present their gifts. They can often goes as far as elaborate choreographed numbers and matching capulanas. The couple received sundry household items, dozens of capulanas, cash, and the grand finale, a bed complete with pillows and a heavy fleece blanket. Told at the last minute that I would be presenting that gift with the rest of the padrinho and madrinha’s guests, I was sweating it out, having now idea what we were going to be doing. So when they unloaded the mattresses from a pickup truck, I rushed over to grab a corner. People still didn’t understand why I wasn’t singing along, because not knowing the language let alone the lyrics was apparently not a valid excuse. The bride and groom were then told to lie down on the bed (which they did head to foot, rather awkwardly) and the blanket was draped over them as everyone laughed. Finally, the dance floor was opened to the wedding party, and the madrinha/my 50-something-year-old host mother/grandmother shocked everyone with her sweet moves.
With the exception of the cow stomach, the wedding was a fantastic day. I’ve never felt so integrated, and I can’t wait until the next one. Dressed as a Mozambican woman, I was a huge hit, and I was even propositioned to be someone’s second wife (and introduced to the first wife). Everyone expects me to dance at the next wedding, unfortunately, so I better start practicing.
The very first Changana (local dialect) word I ever learned was mulungo, the somewhat derogatory term for a white person. And for a while after I first arrived at site, it was yelled at me regularly. I say “somewhat derogatory” because like most other words, it depends on the context. Kids yelling it in my face? Derogatory. Being introduced as one to a congregation of hundreds at my organization’s church? Not. Even when it bothers me, there’s not always mal intent behind it, and usually people simply don’t realize that I don’t like the term.
Being a very small, but very visible, minority has been a very eye-opening experience and frankly, pretty tough at times. Normally it’s easy enough to brush off; I’m quite obviously different, and for many people, I’m the first white person they’ve seen with the exception of some South Africans and Portuguese passing through town. But occasionally it reaches the breaking point, like when co-workers mockingly called another co-worker a mulungo for having lighter skin and compared his arm to mine. And sure, the fact that my pale face was the only thing to show up in a dark picture was funny, but not when everyone else was joking about it in a different language.
No matter how integrated I am, I will always be different. However, now that I’m much less of a curiosity in town, being called mulungo generally only happens when I’m going on home visits in more remote parts of town for the first time. I explained to co-workers who take me on home visits why I don’t respond to the word, and at a meeting with the organization mentioned above I asked people to call me anything else but not that word, and everyone’s been very understanding. Most successful of all was telling kids that they couldn’t color for a day if they said it; after one incident in which all the other kids yelled the equivalent of “OOOOOOOOHHHHHH you can’t color!” in Portuguese, I never heard the word again.