Imminent Departure

 

“You don’t have very long left here.”

The four of us were hanging out on a Friday night, leaning against the hatch of his borrowed sedan under the orange monochrome of the streetlights, passing around shots of cachaça cane liquor. The soundsystem’s bass pulsed so strong we could “feel it in our souls”, clashing against the equally loud music from the cars parked on either side.

—I only have four months left!

He must have heard the exclamation in my voice.

“You’re excited to leave; you don’t like Mozambique.”

—Shiiiii. I respond using the local expression for disappointment (or surprise, or agreement, or sympathy; it’s all in the tonal modulation). —You know that’s not true. I like Mozambique. I just don’t like this city.

*       *       *       *       *

But am I excited to leave? I don’t know. I have less than four months left in the Peace Corps, 120 days more or less. I don’t know how I feel about my departure, just as I don’t know how I feel about the last two years here. Sometime in the 11 months since I last wrote (ouch), a fellow volunteer and I had a long conversation about processing this experience of living in Mozambique. I’m not great at processing, never have been, and I’ve gotten worse in the last year. Often here, I find myself overwhelmed, anxious and depressed, and my response is simply to shut down.

The fact is that Mozambique by its very nature leaves me with incredibly mixed feelings. On the one hand, simply living here is often difficult. Mozambicans, men and women alike, work very hard as subsistence farmers, ploughing & planting their machambas manually in order to put food on the table. Women haul water, often over vast distances. All fight the dust, rain, insects, and rodents to maintain the impeccable standards of cleanliness, of both house and person, that are the norm. Family structures are strong, and traditional leadership roles still hold sway even in the 21st century. The people I know here are open-hearted, sharing what they have with the foreigner in their midst, even if it’s not much.

It is difficult to reconcile the unassuming strength and open generosity I see every day with the corruption and abuse of power, the blatant sexism, racism, and tribalism, and the scarcity of opportunity that are regrettably common. Everything has two sides. Strong family ties can become nepotism. The difficulties of agriculture too often lead to environmental degradation. The young mother loves her child so much that she might drop out of school to care for him. There must be some balance here, some way of both resolving the challenges everyday people face while preserving the culture and traditions that are such an important part of life here. But in two short years, I certainly haven’t found that balance, and the longer I’m here, the more I come to realize that as an outsider it’s not for me to find.

*       *       *       *       *

Going back to that conversation…

—I’m excited to leave this city of Mocuba. I don’t much like cities. But I like working in Mozambique.

It’s especially funny that this particular friend should be calling me out. He works with rural schools, and like me, his feelings toward the city where we both live are ambiguous.

“Ah, yes,” he replies. “And this isn’t even a city. It’s a cidadinha – a tiny city.”

Yes! So it is, exactly. It’s too small to have the benefits and opportunities of a city, too big to have the sense of community and safety of a small town.

“You speak the truth. But you still want to leave us.”

(At this point, the conversation fell apart. Between his tipsy habit of speaking Portuglish, my mediocre Portuguese, and the cachaça, something got lost in translation. The night moved on.)

*       *       *       *       *

I was telling the truth. I am excited to leave; I don’t much care for the city where Peace Corps placed me. Though I realize my dislike for citadinhas is entirely personal, that many people – Mozambican, American, and otherwise – genuinely enjoy such an environment, that doesn’t change my reality.

I suppose I’m excited to return to the United States – to have a job with a normal schedule and clearly defined responsibilities; to go back to a part of the world where I don’t stand out in a crowd; to be in a place where what is expected of me has nothing to do with assumptions about my race or nationality.

But at the same time, I dread returning. It feels like my country has fallen apart since I left, with ignorance, racism, misogyny, hatred running rampant. It’s hard to watch, and harder to understand what is going on, while seeing it from abroad. One of the three goals of the Peace Corps is to “promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”. Representing my country in a positive way is hard when approval abroad for the United States is at a record low; when policies put in place by the current administration have a very direct effect on the people of Mozambique; when my friends and colleagues wonder at some new hate and ignorance spewed by certain figures and ask me for explanations; when the kids I work with ask me “why does America hate black people?” and I have no answer; when I am myself extremely critical of the state of the nation. As a friend describes it, “my life when I left was sheltered and fluffy and fun and now possibly the apocalypse has arrived and I’m not sure how to deal with that.”

I suppose I’ve grown in the last two years. I am much more willing to connect with people of different backgrounds. I have gained a deeper respect for types of intelligence that differ from my own. I have a more concrete grasp of the confluence of culture, socioeconomics, gender, disease, and hope, which has had a profound impact on my career choice. I am much less naïve about issues of race, and, maybe more importantly, realize how ignorant I still am and how much more I have to learn. And I know that I can go through major life changes and come out the other side, if not stronger, then at least different. I’m curious to see how these changes I’ve found here in Mozambique manifest going forward.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of changes I hope to leave behind. A friend in the States told me when I joined the Peace Corps that I was sure to become a “more compassionate person”. That has not happened in the least. I am more aggressive, irritable, and confrontational here. In good part this is a survival mechanism (when the communication style is blunt and, to my American eyes, occasionally tactless, communication necessitates responding in kind), but how much of that I situational and how much has become habit? I am much more willing to close my eyes to injustices and suffering, because if I don’t, I am overwhelmed. The empathy and fix-it attitude I have cultivated my entire life have failed me here, where I cannot fix the hardships of life. As challenging as I sometimes find it to live here, for me there is always an escape: at the end of two years, I will leave Mozambique behind me, whereas my friends and colleagues her don’t have that option. And that is a privilege that weighs heavily.

Looking forward, I have four more months. I have few unclaimed weekends left, and my return to the U.S. is imminent. Not knowing how to approach the whole thing, still, I find myself counting down the days.

 

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