Infections and Opportunities

February 20, 2013

Hey everyone,

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.




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