Friday, January 21, 2011

Rains: feast or floods?

The rains have subsided and the heat has returned but for once I’m happy about it. Until yesterday it had rained every single day since my arrival back in Mozambique. It never lasted more than an hour but the accumulated effects of rains here and in Zimbabwe and South Africa have swollen the Limpopo River to the top of its banks. My morning runs take me over the bridge and I’ve watched the tops of trees disappear under the rising silty swell. The once shallow, lazy river is now an angry brown snake, swirling violently around the bridge columns. One morning the eastern bend was obscured by mist and it looked like a vast bay opening up to the ocean.

The talk among neighbors is of flooding. The devastating floods of 2000 are still fresh in people’s memories. The renovation of my school was part of the recovery effort and we only re-opened the doors last semester. Broken farm equipment, desks, filing cabinets and other flood-damaged materials littler the school campus in rusting piles. Even the paint on the houses still shows signs of “the night they’ll never forget.” Dona Nelia was telling me that they awoke with water to their knees and had to leave most of their things behind. She pointed up to a faint line in the chipping white paint of my house near the top. “That’s how high the water got,” she explained.

At first this year’s rains were good news. Josefa explained that January is a “month of hunger” because people spend all of their money and eat all of their food during the excess of the holidays and then are left with nothing. The rains have brought excellent yields in corn, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and other crops. “Now the poor people will eat,” she said. But feast could become famine if the Limpopo continues to gorge itself on rain.

This afternoon, after a long day of sweating, I went for an evening walk behind the school. Where there were once plowed fields there is a wilderness of grass and resin plants high over my head. I feel like an insect in the grass. When I got to the riverside I saw that, despite the pause in rains the past two days, the river level had actually gone up slightly. I came back and reported to Dona Nelia and another neighbor who were sitting outside on a straw mat. They said that the upstream dam is discharging little by little. Apparently the halting of the rains has not put us out of danger. Dams in South Africa and Zimbabwe will also have to discharge. People in the flood plains may be forced to evacuate.

Here in my neighborhood we’re going on with business as usual. Watching the skies with a weary eye and praying we don’t hear the loudspeakers calling for evacuation. It’s an unsettling feeling to think that your fate is in the hands of the weather gods or the politicians who decide when and how much water to let out of the dams.

To the folks back home, there’s no need to worry about me. As an American I have the unique privilege of an entire support team monitoring the situation and looking out for my welfare and safety. What I worry about are my friends and neighbors who don’t have the luxury of escape and who don’t deserve to repeat the heartache of the floods.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Photo

A woman stands, arms at her sides, looking at the camera. Her sleeveless blouse sags on her skinny frame. Around her waist is a capulana, on her head a kerchief. Her feet are in flip flops. It’s late afternoon and the light casts a long thin shadow to her left and casts a warm glow on the two mud houses behind her. One house has a thatched roof topped with an old tire and a corrugated metal door painted with words you can’t make out. The words say “Puff Daddy.” I was hoping to capture this incongruity when the woman appeared. She spoke only Changana so I indicated that I wanted to take her picture. She posed as such and I took it and brought it to show her. Normally people are satisfied with seeing themselves in the screen but this woman wanted something. She began talking urgently, with me not understanding a word. Her unknown demand became more and more forceful and finally I excused myself and jogged off.

The mystery woman lives in the mud hut village behind our school. I call it the Riverside because it sounds classy. Really it’s quite beautiful. The houses are made of mud but the yards are tidy and swept and planted with flowers and shrubs. The space between yards is filled up with corn and pumpkins, chickens and goats. The worn footpath winds along the Limpopo River, a million-dollar view.

I used to take that path during my runs. People would wave and say “hi” and neighborhood kids would drop their games and start running with me. By the end of the neighborhood I would have quit a gang of followers. I would run backwards, do grapevines and high knees and laugh as they tried to copy me. At the last house they’d turn back and I’d go on running in peace.

After the photo incident I began having anxiety about running through Riverside. The same woman, if she saw me coming, would run out and block my way in the path, yelling at me in Changana. It happened a few times and I finally stopped going that way.

When I printed some photos for my REDES group, I put hers in the lineup too, thinking I’d mend things by bringing it to her. I never got around to it before the break but on Sunday I decided to do it. It was a hot sunny day, 100% humidity after all the rain and I was dripping with sweat. I appeared in her compound and walked over to the shade where she was sitting on a straw mat. There were children beside her sucking on mangos and a younger man in a chair.

“I’m here to talk to the grandmother,” I said.

He smiled and gave me his chair. I sat down and greeted her in Changana.

“Hello. How are you?”

She smiled, “I’m fine and you?”

“I’m fine. It’s hot!” She responded with something in Changana. I nodded goofily then pointed at the corn, tall and green after the rain.

“Food! Well. Eat.” She said something I didn’t understand then I turned to the man and said, in Portuguese, “I have a gift for her.” He translated and I handed her the photo. She took it, ran her finger over it, looked up at me, then back at the photo. After a minute she burst into a grin and took my hand, squeezing it and chattering.

“You did well!” translated the man. They analyzed the picture and figured out where she was standing when it was taken. She said something about the school.

“I am teacher! I teach!” I explained in Changana, pointing at the school. Her face changed as if she finally understood why a strange white girl appeared at her house in the first place. She grabbed my hand again.

“Friend, my friend.” I said. She smiled and nodded.

“I go,” I said, “see you later.” They offered me mangos but I declined politely. As I walked home in the hot sun, I felt light as a feather. That is likely the only photo she’s ever had of herself. Now I have a new friend and can once again go running through Riverside.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Dear friends and family,

The price of a post office box in my town has gone up to something unreasonable, so rather than renew it for this year I'm asking that all my mail, letters or otherwise, be sent to the Peace Corps office in Maputo at the following address:

Clancy Brown
Corpo da Paz
345 Avenida do Zimbabwe
Maputo, Moçambique

Letters and packages do so much for my morale and I really appreciate them but I have to warn you that some things get "lost" in the system. Corruption is a fact of life here. Please don't send anything large or expensive. Some things arrived in weeks, others in months, others never got here.

If you don't mind the risk, I'd love some snail mail or packages. If not, e-mails are wonderful. News from home in any form is always welcome!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Verdant Transformation

I arrived at the Maputo airport on Thursday to pouring rain which, in addition to my hefty luggage, was reason enough to cough up 350 meticais for a taxi to the chapa stop. It has continued raining on and off since I returned. Rain brings cooler weather and it has helped my transition from Maine winter to Mozambican summer. It also brings the landscape to life. The dry, dusty, dun-colored Mozambique that I left has transformed into a verdant paradise.

This morning I went for a run with Rex. Tall flowering grasses had overgrown the school compound and I picked my way through carefully. When we made it out to the rutted muddy back road my skin was speckled with seeds. At 5:30 in the morning the bird songs were raucous. It seemed that every bird I’ve ever seen was out singing and chasing off competitors. It was beautiful and distracting and I kept slipping in the mud, much to the amusement of women walking to the fields.

I started watching my footing and noticed interesting tracks in the mud: small rodents, goats, birds and something that looked like a weasel. A rodent skittered in front of us and Rex followed him into the grass but didn’t make it far through the thick growth. The trees were heavy with fruit and standing water had created an abundance of insects. The tall grass looked like great habitat for birds and rodents alike.

I wondered if snakes were taking advantage of the abundance too. One time I asked someone why most people’s yards are swept dirt. They explained that grass attracts snakes. That rodent running by would be good snake food, so would bird eggs… The more I thought about it the more nervous I got. I’ve been told that black mambas, the most poisonous snake in the world and a common sighting around here, are territorial and if you make the mistake of trespassing they’ll go after you. Looked like prime territory to me.

The snake phobia finally got to me and I turned back early but I won’t let it keep me from venturing out again later with my binoculars, though I think I’ll stick closer to civilization. You don’t see too many snakes near people’s homes because they’ve all been killed. I respect the mamba but I’ll let her have her territory and we’ll have ours.

From One Home to Another

I’m home! … my Mozambican home that is. It’s confusing when I call multiple continents “home.” I just returned today from a month long break in the United States. While stateside I did experience some “reverse culture shock,” but my overall feeling from the trip was one of comfort and support. I was amazed to see how many people love me and are thinking about me. I’m truly fortunate. I was also reassured that all the things I left behind will be there when I return – family, friends, mountains, good coffee, nachos… I’m a little shaky after a long day of travelling, but I want to take a moment to reflect on some observations of American life after spending a year overseas.

The first thing my dad did after picking me up at the Portland Jetport was to drag me to Best Buy. You can imagine the sensory overload of 50 high definition flat screen TV’s blaring at me at once. Then we stopped at the grocery store. I cannot explain the absolute euphoria I experienced walking through the aisles. Anything I could possibly desire was at my fingertips! Let’s just say I was on cloud nine. It was overwhelming: the choices, the opportunities! I felt like I needed an algorithm to decipher the cereal aisle. I settled on wild Atlantic salmon and asparagus for dinner with a nice bottle of white wine.

Food was a centerpiece of my visit. I was reacquainted with cheese, ice cream and other marvelous dairy products, though my stomach took a while to catch up. I experienced coffee anxiety in front of a café counter while I gaped at the endless menu board. The clerk grew impatient.
“Well, what do you like?” she asked helpfully.
“Coffee… I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
“Do you like milk? How bout a cappuccino?”
I said “sure” but the options kept on coming: whole milk, skim or 2%? Shade grown? Organic? Fair trade? Seasonal flavorings – gingerbread, eggnog, peppermint? Small, medium or large? For here or to go? Restaurants presented the same overabundance of choices, especially a place we visited in Florida that boasted the country’s largest array of beers on tap – talk about variety!

I believe capitalism creates as many problems as it solves but coming from Mozambique, a formerly socialist country, I was able to appreciate some of the advantages of the American system. Offering something to please everyone is part of capitalism’s tendency to fill every niche. For the consumer, it means that if there’s something you want then someone’s bound to be selling it. In Mozambique there are a lot of things I can’t easily get: cheese, good coffee, quality shoes. Even when I can get it, there’s only one option. Cereal? expensive imported Corn Flakes. Another advantage of capitalism is customer service. In a competitive marketplace you’ve got to please your clients. It was so nice to be well attended at a restaurant and be able to order anything on the menu. In Mozambique the waitress acts like you are wasting her time and the menu is just a tease with appetizing dishes that they don’t actually serve and never have.
“I’ll have the pizza.”
“We don’t have that.”
“Ok then, how about the fish?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Right… the seafood stew?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Well, what do you have?”
I usually ask them to make me an egg sandwich. We then wait two hours for our mediocre food while being eaten alive by mosquitos. I prefer to eat in.

Customer service wasn’t the only difference in personal interactions. One thing I noticed while stateside was that nobody noticed me. A few strangers said “hello” or started small talk, but mostly I was free to walk down the street without anyone turning their head. I didn’t mind the lack of unwanted public attention because I had plenty of attention from family, friends and boyfriend the whole time. In contrast, I haven’t been back in Mozambique even 24 hours and I’ve already been called “mulungo,” been surrounded by gawkers at a chapa stop, had my hair stroked by strangers, been asked for money and had two random people insist on taking my phone number and calling me repeatedly.

In the United States we are living in a world that is increasingly connected but with paradoxically fewer personal interactions. One example comes to mind. I was taking a ferry out to an island in Casco Bay with Allie. It was the typical winter crowd of weathered natives: lots of flannel, cartharts, paint-stained jeans, timberland boots, hunter’s orange. Mainers aren’t the most talkative bunch but there is typically friendly conversation and gossip among locals. I was watching Allie play with her iPhone and noticed that it was strangely quiet. When I looked up, six of the eight other people on the ferry had iPhones in hand, busily scrolling and texting and twittering away. Nobody even noticed the people sitting right next to them.

At first felt assaulted by all the attention I received when I returned to Mozambique, but now that I’m back at site I feel welcomed and loved. Neighbors and students heard I was in town and stopped by to say “hello.” The folks at the store and vegetable vendors were happy to see me and asked how my family was doing. People waved, someone stopped to give me a ride home, the neighbor kids peered around my veranda giggling and the dogs flopped themselves on the ground wagging their tails.

I’m happy to be back in Mozambique but it will take some time to readjust. I miss Sean a lot. I miss my family. But I just need to give it time. As Sean said, I still have important work to do and I’ll be done before I know it.