A common greeting in Mozambique, and one to which I rarely have a good answer. I hesitate to share news of my own life, if only because on a day to day basis nothing really happens. It’s only looking back over weeks or months that I notice how much has changed.
I’ve been in Mozambique for over eleven months now, and I’ve adjusted to life here. Much of what seemed strange when I first arrived in this part of the world is now mundane; it’s only in conversation with the folks back home that I am reminded how foreign many of my quotidian activities are from the perspective of American society. But these things hardly warrant a second thought anymore:
- I haul all the water I use from a shared cistern, because I do not have running water in my house.
- I do all of my laundry by hand.
- I buy most of my food in an open-air market, haggling with the venders when they mark up prices because I have white skin. (I am white, therefore am foreign, and therefore must be rich. At least, so goes the logic.)
- I converse comfortably, if awkwardly, in Portuguese and, to a lesser extent, Lomwe, the native language here. I hardly even think about it anymore.
- There are ants everywhere. When I find them in dry goods in my kitchen, I don’t bother trying to get rid of them anymore. I just cook them with the food and count it as extra protein.
- I kill cockroaches like a pro.
Nonetheless, Mozambique still catches me by surprise. I pass through the market, scouting the best deals on the tomatoes, onions, and cabbage that form the staples of my diet, and find my favorite market lady selling a pile of grubs alongside her usual produce. (I have been told that mashed with peanut flour and boiled, they are delicious.) Walking about in weather of +100ºF, the temperature suddenly drops 20 degrees, rain pounds the roads in sheets, and streets turn into turns rivers.
I visit the woman I call my Mozambican mãe and am invited to dine on a local specialty: field rat stew. I have a rule to try any food offered at least once, but I could not bring myself to try this; the odor of boiling rats is one of the most nauseating things I have ever smelled.
But I don’t write about these things. They seem so inconsequential as to not be worth communicating.
* * * * *
Portuguese has a word, “vontade“, expressing a concept somewhere between willpower, volition, and desire. Idiomatically the word signifies convenience, as in “na sua vontade“, at your convenience or as you wish. As I think of it, vontade is the motivation to finish what one starts.
Mozambique sucks my vontade dry.
As acclimated as I may be to Mozambican life, there is a way of being things here, a way of seeing the world, that is incompatibly foreign to an American mindset. Life moves at a different speed. Time is not so much a valuable resource to be managed, as it is often considered in the western world, but rather is something that just is. Days become space to be filled, rather than opportunities to maximize. The ability to sit patiently is part of adapting to local norms, not to mention guarding one’s sanity in the absence of the reading material and media access on which I, for one, am reliant. We fill time because there is time to fill. Tautological, I know.
And it’s so easy to slip into this mindset, to take things day by day, and cease thinking ahead altogether. To lose one’s vontade. I know it’s not just me. We volunteers jest with one another about the lack of drive, the self-doubt, how overwhelming everything is sometimes; and we laugh. But we laugh because it’s true, and we can all relate.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten about writing a blog. Au contraire, not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I process the world through the written word, so writing is the means by which I understand my own experiences. How to communicate not only my own experience, but the experience of what it means to be Mozambican, consumes my thoughts. But the challenge of sharing the experience of living in Mozambique is one that many days feels insurmountable. How can I explain something that I don’t understand myself? In my grandiose imaginings, I see myself as trying to bridge two cultures. But most of the time, I feel like I’ve swum to an island and gotten myself stuck, and am gazing cluelessly at two distant shores.
And the number of things I could write about! I feel like a fellow health volunteer, the indomitable Margaret, recently transferred the words from my own head onto the page (and more eloquently than I myself could):
“Some days, I think my focus should be on what it is like to be working in the field of health, especially in the fight against HIV, while others, on women and girls, and what is like to be female in an especially male-dominated society. Some days I want to write about religion and the role it appears to play in my community, the ways I interpret its conflicting intentions, and the things I have been learning about myself through the process. Some days I (especially) feel the need to write about race: the ways in which I am so frequently and blatantly privileged here, for which I am both appreciative and very deeply saddened, and the relationship this has [to] the travesty that appears to be happening in the country I left behind. Some days I want to write about food, water, and the realities of poverty, about music, dancing, art and the exquisite array of colors and movement I see around me every day. I want to write about the awesome vacations I have taken and the beautiful relationships I’ve made both within and outside of Peace Corps. I want to note how both exhausting and amazing all of the children are: the anxiety that large groups of them tend to instill in me, and the feeling they give me every single day that my mere existence is so worthwhile. Most days, though, my focus is on how hot it is inside my house, how bored I am in the moment I’m experiencing, or the fact that I often feel like I am accomplishing nothing here. After adequate time to adapt, the day-to-day experience can begin to feel very mundane if you aren’t paying attention, and the things I should be writing about are so easily overlooked.”
Not a bridge, perhaps, but the beginnings of a way off this isolated islet.
* * * * *
So what is my day-to-day like? It’s a fair question, one I often ask myself (usually in the past tense, as in “did I do anything yesterday?”). I’d like to say I’ve figured things out since the last time I wrote before my election post-mortem on writing. It would be at least partially true; I have projects now, and I know people in my community. But as I’ve said before, one of the challenges of being a Peace Corps health volunteers is that there’s not much of a job description. I have no regular schedule and no-one to hold me accountable except myself. I’ve learned I struggle in such an unstructured environment.
My day-to-day varies depending on the week, my mood, who’s around, and generally what’s going on. Most of my work, per se, is project-oriented, so some days are crammed with meetings, activities, and planning. But those days are the rarities. Most days are, well, pretty mundane.
When I first arrived in August and for several months thereafter, I went to the hospital every day. That has since stopped. These days, I only go the hospital if I have a really good reason, which is rarely.
The projects I work on vary. The most notable involve REDES (Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação e Saúde – Girls in Development, Education, and Health), working with adolescent girls on health and women’s empowerment; assisting in a literacy program for school kids; organizational development with a local service organization; and the early stages of expanding a nutrition program in elementary and pre-schools. I am fortunate enough to work with a slew of really wonderful people, Mozambican and foreign, who make my work not just easy but a joy.
That said, projects fill up a few hours a day, a few more if I count the writing, correspondence, and computer work that constitute the bulk of what I contribute to each projects. I am left with a lot of time to myself, which I fill in any number of ways. Unlike when I last wrote, I’m no longer enamored of the site where I live: it’s too big, too hot, and too urban for me. It has its benefits, though; I can find almost anything I want, and the city is a major transportation hub, so it’s easy to travel. I take advantage of both.
I go to market every few days. I am fortunate enough to have a fridge and reliable electricity (far from a given among Peace Corps Volunteers), so I can get by with purchasing perishables only a couple times a week, instead of having to make the mile and a half trek to market every day. It makes me lazy, truthfully, and overenthusiastic about buying veggies. I have a tendency to buy more than I can eat.
I eat out a lot. I could (and may yet) write a full blog on this subject alone! I eat out here at least three times a week, far more than I have ever before in my life. Eating out means fresh samosas and a cold Coca-Cola in an old-school glass bottle while sitting outside a takeaway (think: fast food, east African style) watching the busy market street; rice & beans with fried fish from the market barraca; homemade Nigerian food behind the counter in a friend’s store; or a charcoal-grilled steak served with fries, salad, and the ever present spicy piri-piri sauce as a weekend treat at the local bar/restaurant. Lack of edible variety, a common complaint among Peace Corps Volunteers, is not something I have to face.
I have had a bike since I arrived, but until recently it had been sitting in a corner gathering dust. After some brake adjustments and tube replacements, she’s as good as new, and I have transport to a much wider area than I can cover on foot.One of the beautiful things about Mozambican culture is the ability to just show up unannounced to an acquaintance’s house. People are hospitable, and go out of their way to share whatever food they are preparing. It is always a reminder to be thankful, and be gracious, and remember how fortunate we are.