March 13, 2015
In Kyoto, there is a bridge that essentially divides the city in two: one side is typical Japan- tall buildings, bright lights, organized chaos. The other side, while also busy and chaotic, houses the city’s central temple. As such, that side of the city has some building restrictions: they cannot be beyond a certain height (as to not compete with the temple) and colors are much more muted and less bright, as to not compete with the temple’s fantastic and bright orange color. More buildings on that side of the bridge are made of wood in the pre World War II style. Kyoto strives to be two distinct and opposite cities.
I rolled in late Wednesday night with my college friend Armando, and when we checked into the hostel we discovered there was a “sento” nearby. A sento is a communal bath house which is very popular with Japanese all over the country. Japan, it was explained to me, is generally both a nation of social butterflies and evening showerers. Japanese people are expected to interact with coworkers and classmates outside of work and school- if they don’t, they’re sort of looked down upon for not contributing to a positive group dynamic. People host friends at their homes quite regularly, and in a genius effort to conserve water and prevent inconveniencing hosts by taking over their bathrooms, guests spending the night often shower at a nearby sento before going to bed in the evening. Aside from being a more efficient way of bathing large groups of people at one time, sentos are also a way to turn one of life’s most private moments into a social bonding opportunity. There are other explanations for the Japanese phenomenon of sentos, but it’s too much to get into here.
So after we checked into our hostel, Armando asked me if I was okay being naked in front of both him and random Japanese strangers. I figured, “why not”, so off we went down the quiet and serene to the bath house. There are separate entrances and bath rooms for men and women, so it’s a good thing Armando can read the Japanese kanji characters for “men” and “women”. It was almost midnight, and the sento wasn’t too busy, but there were a handful of naked Japanese men submerging themselves in the scalding hot pools to cleanse themselves. Getting into the pools myself, I started to think that the point of sentos was not to wash dirt off but to burn it off. Most of the pools were so hot that Armando and I could only put our feet in. We did soon find a slightly less hot pool in the corner, and that’s where we sat and relaxed after a long day of travel. That pool was also, unlike the others, bubbly and lavender scented. When we left the sento, I did feel a lot cleaner and more relaxed. And smelling like lavender was also a nice touch.
The following day was a whirlwind of temple and shrine explorations. While Japan is not a particularly religious nation, it contains innumerous temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Some are associated with a particular animal and some are not. Our first stop was Kinkaku-Ju, the famous golden temple. It was beautiful, and when we first got there it was sunny, bright, and picturesque. Within the compound, we stopped to partake in a brief green tea and sugar dessert ceremony where a woman in a kimono served us. There were also a few places in the compound where some pots had been set up between rocks- visitors attempted to throw their change into the pots, which is believed to bring good luck. Fortunately for me, a particularly bad throw banked off a rock and right into the pot on my second try!
We also visited a bull shrine, a castle that even had a moat, and a temple that housed a beautiful, iconic painting of two dragons on its ceiling. The painting took about two years to complete.
But my favorite place of the day was the Inari (fox) shrine in the Fushimi region of Kyoto. It was built scaling a mountain (Mt. Inari). The path up the mountain is adorned with thousands of orange gates, all donated by various Japanese business owners, families, and businesses from all around the country. There are various breaks in the path for smaller fox shrines, but the gate path goes all the way up and down the mountain. I wanted to walk the whole path, but Armando and I got to the shrine as the sun was setting and as it began to rain. It apparently takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, and then you still have to turn around! The reason I liked this shrine the best is because the bottom of the mountain is busy, hectic, swamped with tourists. But the farther you travel along the gate path, the fewer people you encounter- and those you do encounter are less animated. Maybe they’re tired from climbing the mountain, maybe they’re in silent reverence of the expanse of the shrine, maybe it’s both. I loved looking at all the individual fox shrines, built right into the side of the mountain. There were also dozens of cats living along the path, and people often stopped to feed them.
The mountain path was so quiet and serene, quite a sharp contrast from the bottom of the mountain where several vendors were hawking their wares. Still, Armando and I were tired from our climb (and I think we only went between ½ and 1/3 of the way up), so we stopped to buy octopus in a ball of fried batter.
That evening we went to the city’s main temple to see the “illuminations”. I wasn’t quite sure what the illuminations were, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was a festival going on inside the temple’s compound- Armando told me it was a festival to mark the transition between winter and spring.
A smaller temple within the compound had a crazy light show going on. It was a little bizarre, and set to strange music, but it was fun to watch.
At one point, we walked through a bamboo forest that had spotlights on the ground, projected upwards. That created a pretty cool lighting effect that seemed to make the bamboo seem even taller. Through the bamboo, I could see a giant Buddha statue on a hill, itself gorgeously lit.
At one point, we spied a procession of people. Curious, we moved closer. At first we just saw people banging some instruments and carrying paper lanterns with fox images on them. But then we noticed someone was being led- and it was person dressed in a white robe and wearing a fox mask. I was told that the white robe was representative of a bride dressed sometimes used in Japanese weddings. The fox woman stopped to ring a bell, and then was led by her posse into one of the smaller temples, where she disappeared from view of the large throng of people that had assembled to wonder what was going on. I apologize for not having any clear pictures of the fox woman, but I’ll post some of what I do have.
We weren’t quite done yet with temples and shrines, so the following morning we made the long trek to Nara, out in the boonies, to see the deer temple. In Nara, large groups of deer graze near the temple. People love to come pet the deer, and some Japanese women even began opening a cart that sells “deer food” for 150 yen ($1.20).
I loved seeing all the ancient temples and shrines, but modern city life was omnipresent as well. Vending machines were in or near all temple and shrine compounds: even as we climbed Mt. Inari! It must be quite a hassle to restock those machines. Japanese and foreign tourists alike took photos of themselves on selfie sticks at all the Buddhist and Shinto locations (myself included, minus the stupid stick). And to return to our hostel, we had to cross the bridge from the traditional side to the modern side, where the buildings were taller and the lights were brighter- but the past was always just a short walk behind us.
March 8, 2015
A year and a half ago, I published my final blog post from Africa, at the end of my Peace Corps service. A lot has happened since then…and I’m happy to say that due to my new job as a flight attendant, I’m back to traveling the world. For a while now, I’ve considered restarting my blog, but I wanted to wait until I had an extensive trip to do so. Well, I’m off to Japan in a few hours, and I’ll be there for a week, so I figure that this is a good a time as any to start blogging again.
Yep, I was able to rearrange my work schedule to have 8 days off, so I’m heading to Japan to see a few buddies and hopefully catch some cherry blossoms. I’ll blog whenever I have a spare moment, so I hope to have a lot of cultural adventures and insights to share here in the coming week!
August 4, 2013
So this is my final blog post from Africa. Tonight at 10:50 PM Ethio time, I start my long flight(s) back to Los Angeles.
I’m a bit nervous to head back to the States. Its been so long…I don’t know how reintegrating will be! I know the pace of life will speed up again, so that’ll take some getting used to.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my service, and I will have plenty more time during my flights. But I can confidently say that Mozambique has changed me more than I’ve changed Mozambique, and I’m completely fine with that. I’m much more comfortable with myself, and I’ve had a pretty zany two years, full of adventures. I don’t think a single day has gone by where I haven’t been frustrated at something, and I did try at first to control these frustrations…but at one point, I just realized that being a foreigner in Africa is eternally frustrating, and it’s easier to just laugh at the tough moments and enjoy the ride. Things went wrong all the time, but I’ve learned to embrace the chaos and embrace the absurdities of life. Saving face quickly became a non-issue once I realized that the mere act of me walking down a street could cause gaggles of children to erupt into laughter.
We all have our own struggles. Being a foreigner in Africa provides challenges, but obviously being a rural African has its own different struggles. That’s why I was sent to Africa: to engage in cross-cultural interaction and try to understand the Africans I was living with, while trying to make my own cultures and experiences understood. In order to do that, it was necessary to take time out of my day to get to know the people around me, and get to know their lives. I hope I take the time to do this back in the States, but I think I will.
And thanks to all of you, dear readers, for following my escapades these past two years. Hope it was entertaining!
RPCV Mozambique, 2011-2013
July 28, 2013
Hey everyone! Trying to give a quick blog update from an internet café in the great Walled City of Harar. There’s so much to write about though, so I don’t know how I’m going to cover it all without being here too long and paying too much for internet.
Thursday night, I arrived in Addis from South Africa. I haggled with a taxi driver to take me from the airport to the hotel for 150 birr (Less than 10 bucks), but the ride was very short and I still feel I got ripped off. The first thing I noticed was that the prostitutes were out in full force. But I also noticed that there were lots of other people walking around, white people included. I could tell just from that taxi ride that Ethiopia would prove to be a very intriguing place. Checked into my hotel room at about 10.15 and went straight to bed.
Friday was all about exploring the capital. Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. When most people think of Ethiopia, they probably think of famine and poverty. I know I did. But in recent years the country has had an economical explosion. There is now a burgeoning middle class, and GDP continues to strengthen every year. A lot of Ethiopians attribute this new age of prosperity to Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of the country from 1995 until his death last year. He fought tirelessly against the poverty in his country. And one way or another, things are improving now.
I ate some amazing food in Addis! Food in Ethiopia in general is awesome. Just walking down any street in any city, my nostrils are constantly flooded with the scents of sandalwood and curries. I went to the touristy Meskel Square, but wandered outside of it for about twenty minutes before I walked into a random restaurant that was advertising St. George beer and its bright yellow label. I only intended to have a few beers, but the food smelled so great that I ordered Special Dulet. I had no idea what that was, and I still don’t, but it was damn tasty. They brought out a small bowl with the spiced food, with what appeared to be a brown sanitary napkin next to it. I unrolled the napkin to discover it was injera (flatbread), which reminds me of spongy naan bread. Like xima in Mozambique, injera seems to be eaten with practically every meal, and you dip it into the food. It was so tasty! The beer, however, was kinda mediocre. St. George beer is way too light for me, though St. George Amber is pretty flavorful. Harar beer is okay, but Castel beer is a bit more Belgian-style (in a Belgian bottle)- heavier and more flavourful.
Later on, I had some traditional tej bet (honey wine). It’s a yellow alcohol that is served in a strangely shaped bottle. It had a wide, round bottom, but a skinny neck and a tiny opening in the top to drink out of. It kinda looked like I was drinking out of an upside down wine glass. But it was pretty tasty, if not expensive for Ethiopia standards (65 birr, $3.61). It was very, very sugary and also had a subtle smoky flavour to it. I’m told that in Addis, tej bet is made with sugar and not honey, but that outside of the capital it tends to be made with actual honey. I’ll be looking for tej bet tonight, and I’ll let you know if I taste a difference!
The tourism industry in Ethiopia is just now starting to take hold. I’m currently writing this from Harar, one of the bigger cities in the country. I expected there to be more tourists, considering how cheap touristy things are here. For example, last night I fed the hyenas outside the city wall, and did so for only 50 birr- less than 3 USD.
One of the reasons for this surprising lack of tourism might be because Ethiopia (like Mozambique) is only just emerging from a devastating war. Mozambique had a civil war in the 80’s and 90’s, but Ethiopia was at war with neighboring Eritrea from 1998-2000. The Peace Corps Ethiopia program shut down once the war started, and only a few years ago opened back up.
Another reason for the lack of tourists? Possibly the proximity to Somalia. I am basically in Somalia’s backyard right now. That being said, I feel very safe and secure in Harar, and feel I have no reason to be concerned. I was speaking to some Ethiopia PCVs, and they told me that Harar was off limits to them until 4 months ago. So maybe things were tense here for a bit, but things have calmed down. That being said, this makes me one of the first Westerners I know to visit the famous walled city, which I’m told is the 4th holiest city for Muslims. Very exciting!
Yesterday I went to a café right to the wall. The wall was built by an emir in the 16th century to protect against neighboring Christians. I pondered this as I ordered a Harar beer (locally brewed, of course), and felt quite content staring at the wall as I drank the city’s beer. Because I was so visible, a few passersbys asked me for money, and a group of children mimed drinking a beer and staggering around drunkenly. I was in a good mood, so it was all pretty interesting.
Last night I wanted to feed the hyenas- this was more or less the reason I wanted to come to Ethiopia. All morning I had asked around town as to where I could meet the hyena men, and everyone told me it was really close to the main gate entrance to the city. I showed up at 6.30, half an hour early. And thank goodness I did, because I could not find the hyena men anywhere. I frantically started running around the wall, asking anyone and everyone where the hyenas were. But most people in town don’t speak English, and I certainly don’t know any Amharic other than the word for hello (hallo/selam). Finally at 6.50, a local kid hailed me and asked if I was going to the hyenas. I said yes, and he said he would take me. We trudged through the mud and the darkness for another 15 minutes before we stumbled across the clearing where the hyenas were fed. I was a bit flustered because I thought I was late, but it turns out I was one of the first people there. I went up to one of the guys in charge, saying I wanted to feed the hyenas. Only then did I see them: about four or five of them, 5 feet away from me. I didn’t see them at first in the darkness. I had a split second of fear, but then I realized they were actually pretty docile. They looked like a cross between a dog and a small bear. I saw a few of them smile once or twice, but for the most part they just looked scared at all the people around them.
Because I was one of the first people there and loudly stated my intent to feed them, I was the first faranji (foreigner) to feed them. A hyena man handed me a short stick, and he placed a piece of raw meat on it and told me to lift it in the air. I did so, and the bravest of the hyenas immediately snapped it up. I did this one more time, and then the hyena man said, “Now it’s time for you to put the stick in your mouth.” Maybe I should have been afraid, but I was still so tired from the power walking from the city center that I really didn’t think and just did as I was told. And yep, the hyena snapped his jaw at the meat that was two inches from my face. It was pretty awesome! Then the hyena man held a piece of meat above my right shoulder, and that too was a very close snatch. Sadly, I didn’t have a camera on me…but there was a Spanish couple there, taking photos. I asked if they could email me a photo they had taken of my feeding sessions, and they agreed to. So as soon as I get that email, I’ll post the photo on Facebook. Not having a camera did make my feeding sessions cheaper though. The hyena men tried to charge me 100 birr ($5.55), but I told them I couldn’t take photos and talked them down to 50 birr ($2.77).
Tomorrow I head back to Addis, because the day after I am going to South Ethiopia to visit some Ethiopia PCVs. I pondered staying in the north, because that’s where all the historical sites are, but after seeing the largest Ethiopia cities, I decided I wanted to go bush one last time before I go back to the amazing land that is the USA. So I’ll be heading to Hawassa and Dila in a few days- in the coffee-growing zone of Ethiopia. Yum!
July 6, 2013
Back in 2008, when I was a junior in college, I led an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. All the previous trips had been to a small community in Mexico. Issues had arisen with the logistics of that trip, so my supervisor informed me in the summer of 2007 that I would be the first coordinator to lead a trip to New Orleans instead of Mexico. All preparation beforehand led me into unknown territory, and I wasn’t positive if I was doing everything I should have, because no one could tell me one way or another. On the actual trip itself, I discovered that the New Orleans culture is very relaxed, and on the numerous occasions when my group had down time, the project supervisors merely encouraged us to relax and enjoy myself- a message my gung-ho group did not particularly want to take to heart. As a result, I was extremely stressed for the entire week we were in New Orleans.
Looking back on the trip afterwards, I discovered that everything did come together in the end, and I satisfied everyone’s concerns to the best of my abilities. By stressing out the entire time, I couldn’t really enjoy the overall experience of being in the South, a part of the country I had never visited before. The part of the trip I remember the most, and enjoyed the most, was eating beignets while watching and dancing to a live band. It was near the end of the trip, and I finally let myself relax and unwind a bit.
All of this crossed my mind during my Peace Corps pre-service training. I heard some volunteers talk about the frustrations of opening a site, but also the great opportunities presented by being the first American to work in the community. I realized that I really wanted to open a site, as a way of sort of redeeming myself for the way I stressed out in New Orleans. I knew I wouldn’t accomplish much project wise, but I wanted to focus on interacting with Mozambicans and sharing my culture with them.
And here I am two years later, about to leave site on Tuesday and reflecting on my experience. I realize that, yes, I did stress out at times about not getting projects off the ground. I stressed out about the lack of organization and the relaxed culture of Mozambique. But I’ve dealt with it all before, so I focused more on just enjoying my experiences and making friendships. I had two years to do some projects, and I did succeed in some areas. I organized a nutrition training for the local women’s organization, and they can now spread the knowledge on their home visits to the communities within the district. I also successfully formed a photography group for high school students, and have even managed to put some of their work online for all of you to see.
Most importantly, though, I interact with community members on a daily basis. I have a lot of friends here. While in many cases the relationship is not as deep and meaningful as I would like (since I am still expected to provide money or provide food at times), it’s an important first step for Mozambicans to understand Western culture. So many people in Mecanhelas have never talked to a white Westerner before. They have lived and worked in Mecanhelas in the past, but they mostly stay in their homes and only travel in a car. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white person walking around town, more than ten feet from their car. I have had a great time showing Mozambicans that foreigners can be willing to mingle with them. It has been frustrating at times, when people ask me, “Where is your car?” But I realize now that those were teachable moments rather than moments to groan at.
As I wrap up my time here at site, I can’t help but think of this year’s Burning Man Theme: Cargo Cult (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult). The term originated on the Melanesian islands, supposedly in the aftermath of World War II. During the war, the islands were used as bases for both Japanese and American soldiers. Both sides often had cargo delivered to them. The islanders had never seen outsiders before, and they were mystified by the cargo that seemed to arrive out of thin air. Then, as quickly as the foreigners and their goods appeared, they disappeared after the atomic bombings of Japan, and Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Unaware of what had happened, some factions arose on the island claiming that all the food and goods they had witnessed would return one day, brought by their ancestors. This visit would usher in a new area of prosperity and material wealth. Some of these cults still exist to this day, with some members mimicking the actions and dress of the soldiers, in belief that acting as the foreigners acted will cause the arrival of the cargo goods.
The Japanese and American soldiers failed to think about how their actions would affect the native islanders, and I can’t help but equate them with some of the aid workers I have seen here in Mecanhelas. Limiting their actions with the Mecanhelanos and insisting on driving everywhere only perpetuates the divide between foreigner and Mozambican. White people are thought to have unlimited sums of money, and we are something to be envious of, as if it’s just our white skin alone that promises prosperity.
I try to be cognizant of what I’ll leave behind. Not just physical things, like my old computer, which I’m selling to my photography club counterpart so that he can use it in the future if he needs to send work-related emails to other Peace Corps volunteers or Peace Corps staff. I know that conversations I’ve had, and behaviors I’ve demonstrated, will have a much longer-lasting impression. I don’t want to leave here feeling like I haven’t given my time in Mozambique my all, that I haven’t done my best to foster mutual understanding between Americans and Mozambicans.
When I first got to Mozambique, I couldn’t help but feel I would work hard and be able to bask in the glory of all the new benefits I would provide to my community. We Americans come from a culture where we like to think that our hard work will create some tangible benefit, but that isn’t the case for a Peace Corps volunteer working in a developing country. You can design all the projects you want, but if the community isn’t involved, no one will want to do it, which I discovered the hard way when I created a nutrition survey in December 2011 and tried to give it to my coworkers to distribute on their home visits. Instead, I have enjoyed all the changes I have seen in my community that I’m certain have had nothing to do with me. When I first arrived here, there were only about three minibuses a day to Cuamba. I had to get to the station before 9 AM or I would have to wait all day for the minibus to fill up and leave. Now, there are usually three minibuses that leave by 8 AM, starting at 6 and within an hour of each other. There are now also rice and bean stands where you can buy quick, cheap lunches or dinners (Mecanhelas fast food, as I call it). They didn’t exist here back in 2011. Electricity is also much more stable now, and power outages are rare, compared to when I first got electricity installed in September of 2011. I can only be optimistic about how much further things will have developed in another 10 years.
I’m happy because I do think I’ve given Mozambique my all. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also played hard and enjoyed myself, traveling cross-country several times and having great conversations with Africans everywhere I’ve gone. I haven’t accomplished any huge technical projects, but I’m damn proud to have opened the site of Mecanhelas.
I know that my time here has created a positive effect on my community, and I have no regrets.
July 5, 2013
The road between Cuamba and Mecanhelas: 90 kilometers of unpaved dirt, at times completely impassable in the rainy season. There are patches where there is absolutely no cell phone signal; maybe because there are a lot of areas on that stretch of road where there is absolutely nothing, just the occasional mud house and water pump. Yet several minibus drivers make the trip every day, sometimes several times a day, transporting people between the two districts. One such driver is a man named Ze, but more commonly known as “The Rasta” because of his “Rastafarian” dreadlocks.
I first met Ze in August of last year. I hired him to transport my English theater kids to and from the competition in Cuamba last September. He took all of us, but when I called him as the competition was ending, to take us back to Mecanhelas, he told me he was already back in Mecanhelas. Angry and unwilling to continue speaking to him, I hung up on him in discuss. A few minutes later, another driver came up, saying Ze had called him to take us back to Mecanhelas. I was really embarrassed, because Ze was probably trying to tell me the plan when I hung up on him. I apologized, but he wasn’t mad at all. I’d say we’ve been friends ever since. He’s a really nice guy and loves talking to me about his work, and sometimes buys me sodas and beers and discounts my journeys with him. He wanted me to give him English lessons, which I tried to do, but it never worked out because he’s always driving so damn much.
Today I got into Cuamba from Lichinga, and wanted to immediately get back to site because I’ve been away for a little while and in a few short days I’ll be leaving for good. I was pleasantly surprised to see Ze behind the wheel of the next minibus headed to Mecanhelas. He was dressed in a bright red shirt and blue overalls, which obviously made me think of Super Mario Brothers. He always has some interesting clothes on- quite often, he’s rocking leather cowboy boots as well. After I got in the minibus, another guy got in and asked someone else if the driver was the famous “Rasta” he had heard so much about. Everyone else confirmed that he was, and the man said, “We should leave soon then. I heard he doesn’t waste time.”
We did in fact leave shortly thereafter. He’s not the fastest driver, but he’s very safe and he doesn’t waste his time on bullshit like most of the other drivers: stopping to chat with another driver going in the opposite direction, stopping to let some random passenger’s aunt or some relation come up to the car to give the passenger some extra money, stopping for twenty minutes in the middle of nowhere to buy a chunk of goat leg that some kid is waving around and trying to sell- the list of possible distractions goes on and on. But Ze doesn’t like to deal with any of that. He just likes to get to the destination as quickly (but safely) as possible.
On today’s trip, he was doing something that I had never seen before. He had bought a bag of assorted hard candies in Cuamba, and whenever a random kid along the road yelled “Rasta!” as we passed, he would throw some candy at them. Maybe he’s done this before or maybe he hasn’t, but somehow he’s earned a reputation, and quite a lot of kids yell out to him. So Ze was constantly throwing candy, and it was amusing watching the kids scramble in the dirt and fight each other for every piece.
It suddenly dawned on me that this is the Mozambican equivalent of an ice cream man. The kids must see the dust clouds picked up from the wheels from far away. They hear the Bob Marley blasting and they run up to the car. Once they see the dreads, they know they’re in luck and scream at the top of their lungs, hoping to get something sweet to snack on.
The man who had asked if Ze was the famous Rasta had been sipping on faux Bailey’s Irish Cream for the entire journey. As we got farther along, and as Ze threw more candy and the man got progressively drunker, he started hooting and hollering along with the children.
“Rasta! The hero of the street!” he would yell. “Everyone knows who the Rasta is! THE HERO OF THE STREET!” And I had to agree that most of the people we passed did seem to know the driver. He’s more famous than I’ll ever be, and that’s saying a lot because I’m the first white person a lot of people in my district have ever interacted with.
I’m only taking one more minibus in Niassa province, when I head to Cuamba next week to start my journey to Maputo for JUNTOS handover/my Close of Service. I hope my final minibus ride in this province is with Ze. It’s comforting to know that even when I’m back in the States and living a more high-paced lifestyle, somewhere out there a man is throwing handfuls of candy at screaming children along a long, dusty road. Some things should never change.
June 13, 2013
Today I found out that one of my supervisors, Bernardo Canhaca, died yesterday. He had been sick for a long time, so it’s not entirely surprising, but it’s still sad. He used to be my supervisor here in Mecanhelas, with Conselho Cristao De Mocambique (CCM), but back in February his illness worsened and he ended up moving back to Cuamba where his family lives. Near the end of 2012, I had seen him get progressively skinnier and haggard-looking.
When I first got to site, my supervisor for CCM was a man named Getulio. Bernardo was his number two, but within two months of arriving at site, Getulio opened another office in Cuamba. He left to work there full-time, leaving Bernardo as my supervisor. We actually didn’t get along that well most of the time- he had a knack for missing monthly report deadlines, and then calling me after the donor organization began hounding him. He would always demand my help writing (not editing, completely writing) the report and claim that completion and sending of the report was “urgent”. At times, I would be working on other projects and would tell him that he would have to wait, and this would make him angry. A few times we yelled at each other- at other times I would silently fix him with a stony stare that always seems to make Mozambicans extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, we managed to repair our working relationship before he began getting seriously ill.
I didn’t see him much right before he left town in February of this year, but I went and visited him in Cuamba in March and he was bed-ridden, emaciated, and losing his voice. He was only able to speak to me in a hoarse whisper. He was deteriorating quickly.
The last time I saw him was May 30th, two weeks ago. I was on my way to Nampula to fly to Maputo to help with training of the new volunteer group. I met up with Getulio in Cuamba, and on our way to Bernardo’s house, I was told that Bernardo was much, much worse than he had been in March. I saw this for myself the moment I walked into the bedroom of his house. He was sitting up, but only with the help of a family member (his mother, I think). Without her shoulder to lean on, he would have collapsed onto his bed. He was breathing heavily, which made me suspect his lungs were damaged. He had lesions on his face, hands, and feet. He could no longer speak, and even though I greeted him when I entered the room, he did not look at me and gave no sign of recognizing me. He was extremely emaciated. Getulio told me that his family members had to carry him to the bathroom so he could do his business, since he could no longer walk. It was obvious that he didn’t have much time left.
The lesions made me think of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, though to be honest, I’m not completely familiar with all the symptoms of the top of my head. But if he did have Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare illness, he almost definitely had AIDS. No one spoke of the cause of his illness, which probably supports my theory that he had AIDS. For all the talk of condom use and the catchy slogans for AIDS awareness in this country, it’s still a frightening and stigmatized disease here. To be one of Bernardo’s family members, taking care of him and watching the illness worsen, must have been truly awful.
The CCM office here in Mecanhelas has since shut down- it shut down in February when Bernardo moved to Cuamba. It was a new office when I arrived at site, only having opened a few months previously. It’s a weird feeling, going by the old office where I used to spend so much time doing reports and giving computer lessons.
Although Bernardo and I weren’t very close, I still saw him regularly in 2011 and 2012, so for better or for worse, he played a large role in my integration here in Mecanhelas. He accompanied me on my first chapa ride from Mecanhelas to Cuamba. Also, he loved Western music. He said it was so much calmer than Mozambican music, which admittedly does often have weird high-pitched noises and sound effects. I once put a variety of music I like and listen to on his flash drive, from Elton John to Okkervil River. A month later I went to Cuamba and he invited me to his family’s house to have a beer. We sat in his yard having a brewski and listening to the tunes I gave him. Because all the music was in English, I’m sure he didn’t understand 99% of the lyrics, but he still thought they sounded great.
What’s sad is that Bernardo’s deterioration is not rare in Mozambique, or Africa as a whole. I became a Peace Corps volunteer to learn about things like this, and to do my best to spread awareness and encourage prevention. Even though it was tough to see Bernardo in the final stages of his illness, I’m glad I did see him one last time before he died.
May 19, 2013
Hey everyone! Really sorry that I haven’t updated this thing in…a long time. I don’t know why that is. I guess I just wasn’t sure what to write about. But I’m going to make an effort to do as many posts as I can in my final two months (!!) in Mozambique. Also, I’ll briefly be in Ethiopia and Egypt after Mozambique, so I’ll try to do a few posts from there as well!
For the past few months, the kids in my photography group have been taking photos of their community that they feel can be used to teach Westerners what life is like in Mozambique. I’m proud to say that a Facebook album to showcase their photos was finally created today. You can see the photos at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100790357164768.1073741825.6711633&type=1&l=074d0e9357
They’re very excited to show off their work, and I hope you find their photos both enjoyable and informative.
This photo project doesn’t stop with them though. I told them I would ask my friends and family back in the States (and elsewhere!) to take photos that can be used to teach them what life is like in the States or other developed countries. So please send photos and a brief description for each one to email@example.com! I know my photography group would love to see snapshots of the world outside of Africa.
In other news, I’ve been selected to help with the training of the incoming Moz 20 health group. I’ll be back in Maputo province for a week in either June or July, and I’ll know next week when I’m going.
March 6, 2013
This afternoon, my sitemate Jamie and I were walking to the market to get some snacks when we came across a mob of elementary school students running away from the elementary school and towards us. As we got closer, they stopped running, and began running back to the school. They all seemed fixated on something at the school, and as we got closer, I noticed they were all staring at a man standing under a tree. The kids were yelling and throwing rocks at him, and he was screaming and throwing rocks back.
I suddenly understood what was happening. Jamie had told me there was a mentally ill man whom a lot of kids in town like throwing rocks at, because he loses his temper and throws rocks back. It’s like a game to the kids: they get close to throw rocks, then run away as he throws them back. Then the process gets repeated. They get a huge kick out of him losing his temper, so they intentionally provoke him. I had already stopped the kids once before, at Jamie’s school. I yelled at the kids and told them that it’s not funny to throw rocks at the mentally ill, and they stopped. That time, anyway. I also tried telling the man that he shouldn’t throw rocks back, but I don’t think he was paying any attention to me.
While mental illness is misunderstood in the States, the misconceptions here in Mozambique are so ridiculous it’s almost comical. There just aren’t any resources to help the mentally ill in my town, so they are left to wander the streets and are either laughed at or completely ignored. When I’ve asked coworkers about the mentally ill people in town, they always claim drug use caused them to get sick. What kind of drug is never specified, just “drugs” in general. People are receptive when I tell them that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but that’s not common knowledge here.
In the case of this man who throws rocks, all the children I stopped and talked to claim that he’s a “bandit” and a bad person. But as far as I could tell, he only throws rocks in self-defense. I have seen him and talked to him in the market when he wasn’t feeling persecuted, and he seemed very friendly. The logic that a lot of Mozambicans apply to the mentally ill seems to be the same logic that is applied to dogs: They are bad because they hurt you, so we should hurt them back. Dogs are routinely abused: children and adults alike kick them, throw rocks at them, and so forth. The dogs get angry and threaten them, which reinforces the abuse even more. Most people seem oblivious to the vicious cycle that arises when they abuse a mentally ill person or a dog.
So today, I watched these small school kids throwing rocks at this mentally ill man, and the man flying into a rage and arming himself with his own rocks. There were dozens of children, maybe even more than a hundred, and I knew I had to say something, even if it didn’t work. So I began yelling at everyone present that the man was sick and that it’s not nice to be mean to sick people. Yes, he throws rocks, but only because you throw rocks at him. Leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone. However, the hooting and hollering and rock throwing continued, so I decided to talk to the man. As I got closer to him, kids began warning me that he was dangerous and that I shouldn’t get near him. When I was only a few feet away, he began biting his own arm in a fit of rage. I decided to try an approach I sometimes used with some of the clients at the mental health clinic I used to work at. I put on a sad face and told him his actions were making me very upset, and asked him if he would please stop. He seemed to calm down a little bit, and stopped biting himself. He put down the rock he was holding in his other hand, but a few seconds later a rock was thrown by one of the bystanders and the man flew into a rage again.
I decided to try to find some schoolteachers to help. Jamie and I were at the elementary school, yet no teachers could be found. We walked over to a classroom to find a room full of children armed with rocks, but no adults. We asked where the teachers were.
“They left,” was the only response we received.
I told the kids not to throw rocks, and they denied that they had been throwing rocks, and that it was “some other kids who already left”. I told them and another group of kids that were outside the classroom to gather round and explained what a mental illness is and how most mentally ill people are only aggressive if you are aggressive to them. I told them to leave the man alone; he woudn’t throw rocks at them if they didn’t throw them at him. After that, Jamie stayed with the kids while I went back to the man to try to talk to him again. I told him that the kids wouldn’t stop throwing rocks, so he should just try to go somewhere else. He wasn’t listening to me, so I got closer; he suddenly threatened to throw a rock at me, yelling at me to stay away. I guess this was the point where the children would retaliate, but having worked with schizophrenic clients who would sometimes threaten me with violence, I knew it was best to be kind, yet firm and direct. I told him that I wouldn’t get any closer, but that it would be best if he left the school. He stopped viewing me as a threat and refocused on the mob of people taunting him.
Feeling unable to do anything else, I walked back over to Jamie. She told me that after I had left, one of the kids tried to get closer to throw a rock, but was reprimanded by one of the kids who had heard me explain about mental illness. Jamie felt that there was nothing we could do to stop the mob, but that we could talk to small groups and try to persuade them to persuade the others to stop. So I spent a few more minutes talking to a handful of kids. Some of them seemed to listen, but others definitely did not. Eventually I moved on.
I know that that man will continue to get rocks thrown at him wherever he goes, just because people think it’s funny that he feels the need to defend himself. It was fortunate that today no one seemed to get hurt, but who knows what will happen in the future? One of my orgs has a kid’s club that sometimes meets on Fridays, so after this incident I asked my supervisor if I could talk about mental illnesses at the next meeting. I may not be able to provide the resources that the mentally ill of Mecanhelas require, but I can try to change people’s attitudes, little by little.
February 20, 2013
I totally meant to write another in-depth blog post on Cape Town, but I’m once again back in Mozambique, the land of limited internet capabilities. Time just kept slipping away, and next thing I knew, it had been two weeks since my vacation and some of the details I wanted to include in a lengthy post have been forgotten. Damn.
But something I will focus on is my hiking of Table Mountain. I hiked the mountain with Alex, an Australian guy who was staying in my hostel room. Compared to Mount Mulanje, hiking it was a breeze! I did, however, hike it in new shoes that are slightly too big for me, so I will forever remember Table Mountain for giving me cuts on my heels that later got infected and required me to stay in Maputo on medical leave. Near the end of my Cape Town trip, all these lesions started popping up on my feet and got really badly infected. It even got to the point where lesions started popping up on other parts of my body, like my face. My body got overwhelmed and was not healing properly. As I boarded the bus to go back to Mozambique, my feet were swollen, though I had more or less gotten used to the discomfort.
Back in Mozambique, I knew I should consult the Peace Corps doctor. I went to go see her and she was very alarmed by the state of my feet. Just the sheer number of infected cuts on my feet (seven) alarmed her, but what scared her the most was the surrounding skin on one of them was starting to turn gray. Apparently the skin was dying. Last year, another volunteer got medically separated from service because he got a flesh-eating bacteria infection (don’t worry, he’s fine now). I guess there were concerns that I had the same thing, though the only thing that really hurt me was walking on swollen feet- not the cuts themselves.
The doctor put me on antibiotics right away and made a surgical consultation for me that day. I arrived at the Maputo hospital for my surgical consultation only to find that the doctor it was scheduled with was AWOL. Another appointment with another doctor was made for me for an hour later, so I sat around the clinic, thinking about my situation. Based off the doctor’s reaction, I knew I was quite possibly facing medical separation. It was quite an emotional hour for me as I reflected on whether or not I was ready to go home. Sure, living in Mozambique has been quite difficult, but I’ve learned so much and felt that I had so much work left to do. I’m the Niassa Coordinator for the JUNTOS youth program, so my departure would have put an extra load on one or all of the other JUNTOS leaders. I also thought of my newly arrived sitemate, and how I’d be leaving her alone. Not that I don’t think she could have handled it, but she’d be the only American at site, like myself when I first got here. Sometimes that can be really tricky, and I know she requested a sitemate, so I’d have felt bad.
The doctor who met with me was surprised at how I could have so many lesions but not be in much pain, which gave him some hope for an easy recovery. He had an aide clean my wounds and then bandage them. He gave me some antiseptic cream and vitamins and told me to take the antibiotics three times a day. He wanted to see me again the following afternoon.
Normally I’m terrible with taking pills, but with the stakes so high, I was very diligent this time around. Within a day, the swelling in my feet had been reduced, and two days later it was gone completely. I’m grateful that my body responded so easily to the antibiotics. By the weekend, my cuts had completely scabbed over.
While on medical leave, I met another volunteer from Gaza province who was also in Maputo for the treatment of skin infections. Unfortunately, her body was not responding to several types of antibiotics. I’ve been keeping in touch with her as she continued to try different medical treatments. Today it was finally decided that she would be sent to the States for treatment and then medically separated. It’s funny to think that we arrived in Maputo on the same day with the same problem, and now she’s on her way out while I’m still here. I feel the roles could have easily been reversed, and that I’d be writing this from California right now.
Back in Niassa, I struggled to cope once again with all the attention. In Cape Town and Maputo, I was anonymous. But anonymity is impossible as one of two white Americans in my town. I also had some conflicts with the family I share a yard with. They once again started using an outside electrical outlet I have to watch television at night, and one night they kept using my electricity even after I announced that I was going to bed. Angry with this, I shut off my own electricity, which greatly offended them. My thinking was, “I’m the one who pays for it, I can do what I want.”
Later on they confronted me about how they felt, which both surprised and humbled me. It’s not like Mozambicans to express their disapproval, so I was glad that they approached me. They said that they had received a new DVD, and that they merely wanted to watch it a little bit longer after I went to bed. Admittedly, I overreacted, so I apologized. I felt that my relationship with the family fractured a bit, though it’s been improving again over time.
Last night, I got a call from my sitemate: one of the kids in the family had told her all he had to eat that day was a slice of pumpkin. She said that he said the family hasn’t been paid my rent for months, and that they currently have no money for food. My main organization is supposed to pay for my housing every month, but they’ve had organizational issues lately, and for the past two weeks the office has been closed entirely. I knew that the family hadn’t been getting paid, but I never really thought about the magnitude of their situation until last night.
Looking back, its been so easy for me to tell myself that this is a collectivist culture, and that people are always lending each other money or food. They are, but I realized that at some point I have to give a little too. I’ve been constantly on the defensive because people don’t hesitate to tell me how much more I have than them. When people ask me for money, I blow it out of proportion and tell myself that if I helped out everyone that asked, I would have nothing. That’s true, but I honestly haven’t been helping out much at all- nor have I been very sympathetic. Life is not easy here: most people don’t have jobs and they don’t have money. And those that do have money are expected to provide for family that doesn’t have money, which often wipes them out. I’ve seen it happen with the supervisor of my org that’s shut down for the moment. He gets a monthly salary, but he has to go to Cuamba to get it, where he also has relatives who take most of it from him the day he picks it up.
I still think it’s important for me to not lend out money to people just because they ask for it, and to stress the importance of saving (a concept which is practically unheard of in my site), but I realize that I’ve been taking this so much to heart that I’ve come across as a cold-hearted bastard to a lot of Mozambicans. I’ve been in American cultural mindset too often and have avoided looking at things from a Mozambican perspective. I’ve been shutting off my electricity to stop a family from using it without thinking about how little they have and how I, who always have enough to eat and travel with, must seem refusing the luxury of electricity to a family that is constantly struggling just to get by.
I pay one of the kids every month to do certain tasks for me that are difficult here in Mozambique: washing clothes, mopping (I have yet to see a mop for sale), carting water. When I first arrived, it was agreed that I would pay him 500 meticais (about $16) a month to do these tasks, but I always seem to be traveling and not at site for the full month. Every month, I pay him a little bit less than the 500 meticais, and every month he complains and I have to once again explain how I’m not paying for the time I’m not here. But the family could really use the full amount every month, so I decided that I’ll just give him more tasks to do. He wants more to do anyway. Last night, he cooked beans and xima for me. It was really good! This way he still earns the money, even if I leave site for a period of time.
I have approached the issue of money with a U.S. mindset. While everything I’ve done is logical from a financial perspective, logic isn’t a culturally valued trait here in Mozambique. I need to realize that, and while overall stress financial planning, be able to put logic aside from time to time to help people that might seriously need the help.
Had I been medically separated, I would have never looked at things from this perspective- so I’m grateful that I wasn’t set home and that I was given the opportunity to learn some new things and approach sensitive situations through a new lens.