Juntos. “Together”, in Portuguese.
Estamos. “We are”, from the same.
In Mozambican Portuguese, “Estamos juntos” – we are together – is a catchall phrase that crops up everywhere. As an expression of solidarity: “Estamos juntos.” To check understanding: “Estamos juntos?” To validate a partnership: “Estamos juntos.”
When you imagine a Peace Corps volunteer, the picture that probably comes to mind is some American (let’s be honest, probably white) living in a remote village, where she is the first foreigner the inhabitants have ever seen; without electricity or amenities like cell phones or internet; standing tall among a crowd of smiling children. This was certainly the picture I imagined before I joined the Peace Corps.
Something along these lines is true for many volunteers’ situations, realizing that this is the Facebook photo: the vastly oversimplified snapshot capturing the best moments of a complex and often challenging situation. But (you knew there was a “but”), volunteer experiences are as diverse as volunteers ourselves. Not all volunteers are white, and volunteers of color face different challenges that I cannot understand. Not all volunteers like working with children (for example, yours truly). And not all volunteers live out in the boondocks.
This image that I once had of the Peace Corps Volunteer is not the image of my Peace Corps service. My site could hardly be more different.
I live in a city of 150,000 people, the biggest in the province of Zambezia (red in the map above). And I love it. My house has electricity, tiled floors, and the luxury of an indoor bathroom. I have an indoor kitchen, rare in a place where most people cook over charcoal stoves outside. While I don’t have running water, there is a faucet in my yard. My cell phone connection is better here than at my parents’ house in the States, and data is cheaper, and I can find almost anything I want in the city, so long as I know where to look.
Peace Corps harps on the idea that “integration” [link] may mean coming to terms with the intense scrutiny and continuous curiosity of neighbors and acquaintances; the challenge that one will inevitably be grist for the gossip mill, the funny outsider who does stupid stuff. That experience is very familiar to me, but not from the Peace Corps so much as from growing up in small-town America. Here, the large population of the city where I am gifts me a certain degree of anonymity. For all the challenges I may face, a shortage of privacy is not one of them. Some days I think I have the opposite problem, too much isolation. But truth be told, I’m okay with that.
My host organization is the district hospital (a district being the equivalent administrative division to a U.S. county). As the referral facility for nineteen outlying clinics in the district, serving a population of nearly 400,000, it is a rather large hospital, though not as large as those of us accustomed to U.S. healthcare facilities may expect.
As to what I’m doing at the hospital… that’s a great question, one I am myself trying hard to answer.
In general, Peace Corps health volunteers in Mozambique (and much of sub-Saharan Africa) work with HIV, malaria, and various projects. (I will definitely talk about all of this in a later post – or rather, many later posts – but that’s not for today.) As far as our instructions from the Peace Corps go, that’s it. We are given a lot of theoretical knowledge in training, and then released into the wild; told to “represent America”, whatever that means; and have little to no hands on practice with utilizing this knowledge on the ground. And that’s largely the purpose of these first three months: to figure what on this green earth we are actually doing.
It seems to be a nearly universal experience among Peace Corps volunteers: the first three months in a new place are hard. Despite our diversity of backgrounds and situations, we share this common experience with the challenges of finding ourselves in a new country/culture/position/what have you. Estamos juntos.
As for me, that’s where I am: still in the early stages of figuring things out. I know what I want to do – be useful, somehow, someway, to the people in this place. But how to do that when I’m working in a large facility and an even larger city? Everyone, myself included, seems happy I’m here, but no one quite knows what to do with me. What does it mean to be an American volunteer when I’m surrounded by locals, activists, and assorted other people, all of whom know this community far better than I ever can as an outsider?
But people are welcoming, and glad that I’m here, which feeling I share. Estamos juntos is a phrase I hear on a daily basis, a constant reminder of why I am here. Because, really, despite different backgrounds, despite the challenges of Peace Corps service, despite none of us *quite* knowing what I’m doing, we are, truly, together.