Saying good byes and such

When I left the United States over three years ago I was at first made of stone. I was so eager to get out that I didn’t realize all that I was leaving behind me for three years. I have missed weddings, the births of two of my best friends babies, birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the many, many family trips that my family decided to plan yearly only during the years I was abroad. My mother moved in with her boyfriend. Both my parents has surgery. All of these are memories of happenings that really didn’t happened to me.

Instead of all these memories that didn’t happen to me, I have a whole new set of memories that did happen to me while I was in Mozambique. I have seen deserted islands, farmer fields, reed houses, rains, not much while at the oh-so-frequent power outages, bonfires at the beach, bonfires in the middle of classrooms, a student punching a teacher, political turmoil, fallen bridges, flooded houses, found great friends, went to the Mosque, learned about Islam, loved and lost. All of these memories are now a part of the fabric that makes me. I have eaten with my hands, tried all sorts of foods, laughed, danced, traveled, seen countless species of animals, traveled by boats, trucks, buses, small airplanes, big airplanes. I can’t even start to think that all of these things will soon make up the great memory of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. They will all probably melt into one, big happy memory that I will forever have.

Forgetting is my main fear. I don’t want to lose track of the names and faces of the people who call me their friend here. Suaibo, Xirikaka, Amiga, China, Americana, Macunha or whatever else. I am already having trouble sleeping because I keep forgetting the names to the faces of some people, and then find myself going through  my phone looking for the names. Isaias, Hilario. Silly me, forgetting already.

And then there’s Angoche.

I have lived in what can only be described as paradise for the past three years. I shared this place for two of those years with my dear friend Anneke. I have also made so many friends here. They still all call me teacher, even though I haven’t been one in a year. They always reprimand me for being sumida. They bring produce to my house when it is plentiful, and many times ask for money in the not-so-plentiful days. They tell me that I can’t leave my familia behind. As I was peeling potatoes for about two hours with one of my friends, I realized I am as close as I can get to being a local in Angoche. Still, she kept making fun of my potato-peeling methods, but whatever.

So here are some of the faces that have made my life better here. I beg never to forget about them. To always remember them.

Advertisements

Working in the field

I have spent most of my time nowadays wondering around the field. I never thought that going out there would make me as happy as I am now. When I was a kid, I remember putting on my machitas rubber boots and my overalls and going out to the potreros in the countryside. I remember going to see the cows being milked, the horses and other farm animals in my grandparent’s farm. I liked being out there with my cousins.

Now, I am going to many farmer field schools around Angoche. In these, farmers get to practice new agricultural techniques so that they are more resilient to natural disasters. The end point of the program I am working for is to provide healthy ecosystems and healthy livelihoods. My favorite part about these visits are the ladies. They always welcome me with open arms, ask if any of the 8 men coming with me happens to also be my husband, assume that my patrão is home in Angoche and that my house full of kids is there too. They are a little disappointed when I tell them that no, I don’t have a husband or any children. In one of the communities, Colocoto in Moma, the secretary of the village offered to marry me. The ladies started calling me cunhada and giving me extra food. I guess he likes his wives fat. I told them I wouldn’t marry him if he is already married, they asked me why not, I told them that I don’t want to be a second wife to anyone. They laughed.

Secretary in Colocoto

I went to many, many kitchens last week too. They were all out in the open, live chickens standing next to dead one cooking in a pot; mothers with their children on their backs and giant wooden spoons to stir the xima; children running everywhere; and the smell of burnt firewood.

Cabrito take-away

Cabrito take-away

IMG_4906

A sure sign that food will be good

A sure sign that food will be good

Mucuna

Making xima de caracata

Making xima de caracata

I went right into the kitchens as I arrived. The ladies will sometimes give me the giant wooden spoons and make fun of me for not knowing how to properly stir xima. Hopefully the secretary noticed that too and gives up his hopes of marrying me.

But in the best Mozambican style, there was also dancing and singing. Plenty of it. Capulanas were tied around the hips for extra bulk while shaking, music was played by a local musician, people were clapping, children started to gather, mothers were cheering and the party was on.  The music was the best part. In one of the communities they had a local musician with a makeshift instrument to provide the musical entertainment. All the lyrics were in Makua, which sadly I don’t understand, but I am told that the songs were cautionary tales for locals to use the natural resources more wisely and to use better agricultural techniques.

Local Musician Makeshift guitar

I also made a couple of good friends. Mena and her sister Muanjuma. They were two girls that followed me around all day. Mena was so close to me, that once I backed up and stood on her hand. She didn’t even say anything and I didn’t notice until I turned around and saw her. They were so sweet. Muanjuma knew how to speak Portuguese. She told me that she really liked school.

Mena Mena Muanjuma Mena and Muanjuma

Thoughts before Good Friday

I saw the “Eid, Pray, Love” campaign online of Muslims giving up things to show solidarity to Christians during lent.

#Muslims4Lent is really cool. Having lived in a predominately Muslim community for this time, I can relate to this interfaith discussions. One of my favorite parts of my Peace Corps service is how much I have learned about Islam and its traditions. During Ramadan, my students would always ask me if I was fasting. I must confess, I have never been the type of person who gives up things for faith. As a Christian, I would give up eating beef on Fridays in lent and ate fish, but that was only when I was a child going to a Catholic school in Colombia. When I moved to the United States, I simply stopped doing all these things. I lost my faith.

In Angoche, I must confess I have been there to celebrate the Muslim faith in the convenient moments when there is food to be eaten. For Eid al-Fitr, I have been going to the Mosque with my good friend Muazareia and her family for my two years here. It has always been a humbling experience to be received with such openness and tolerance. Mothers, sisters and daughters all blessed me and my friend Anneke after the prayers, and the students that I saw there were always surprised to see me praying. They would ask if I converted, but when I explained that I didn’t but wanted to be a part of the festivities and learn about Islam, they would also respect that.

It is very sad to read about all the misconceptions about Islam. And now I am embarrassed to have been so misinformed about this faith in the past. My community, which is about 90% Muslim, are the descendants of a great caliphate that ruled this area for years before the Portuguese arrived. They are amazing people and I have never felt nothing but respect from them. These interfaith discussions are essential to building tolerance towards religious diversity.

International Women’s Day

Having lived in Latin America and in Sub-Saharan Africa for most of my life, I have had my share of catcalls and feelings of inequality. To me, it is crazy to think that this is an on-going fight that women are still having after millions of years of sharing our place as the alpha specie in this planet.

Reading the recent media coverage of cases in India and Turkey really makes me sad that the world keeps regressing in such a way. It is unbelievable that the rhetoric of “it is the women’s fault” and “no respectable women should be out after 7 p.m.” is still a thing. Even in countries like the United States women face sharp income inequality and constant harassment.

In Mozambique, where I have been living for the past two and a half years, I live this every day. I thought that having lived in Colombia trained me well for such insults, but really I had no idea. I have heard it all here and that is only in the language I can understand, Portuguese, I really don’t want to know what they say about me in Makua or Koti. I have had to stand by and bite my tongue so many times I lost count. I have heard comments like “what is the point of sending girls to school, they should be at the home,” said by a person in charge of the education of thousands of girls. I stood by while some of my male colleagues stared at girls as if they were in the catwalk, strolling towards their classrooms, listening to comments like “she should only wear skirts that short (knee-high) at the disco.”

“Can I follow you home?” I guy recently asked me on the street while giving me the head-to-toe look, lingering on the parts he liked best. “What for?” I replied horrified. I am really tired of having people talk to my breast or my tights here, of having to constantly explain my life choices and, frankly, having to question myself for being single and almost 30. Do I reek of desperation? I feel like I don’t, or at least I don’t feel desperate.

I know this pales in comparison to what is happening in the rest of the world but the word is getting out. Women around the world are sharing their experiences; we got tired of living in the shadows. If only this could reach the women in Mozambique a little better too. I feel like I only see the tip of the iceberg and girls here get the worst end of it. I am a professional and a respected member of my community and I still get catcalled to the point where I feel like walking around with a plastic baby attached to my back and wrapped in a capulana. Mothers get some respect here.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking back home from work when I ran into Laura, one of my REDES girls. This group aims to empower girls and teach them about HIV, STDs and pregnancy prevention, among other feminine health and hygiene issues. Laura has recently morphed from girl to woman and men are noticing. One of my good former students was creeping on the female students leaving the school when he saw me talking to Laura. He asked me who my “amiga” is and if he could be her “amigo” too. I told him I would allow him to be her amigo but not her “amigo.” He laughed. Laura was thankfully very graceful and managed to tell him off too. Go girl!

This is not the norm. Women here are sometimes in such a desperate situation that they have to exchange sex for fish, so they could feed their families. And young girls sometimes turn to prostitution for alarmingly low rates.

Teenage pregnancy is rampant. Another of my girls just had a baby. She is 17 and was studying. Now, she has no one to take care of her baby and going to school is proving to be a struggle. She was telling me about this last week, and I asked her if she would tell the other girls about her experience. Her eyes opened wide. Of course she would love to. She has to tell them how much her life changed since she got pregnant, how much she misses school and how her baby wakes her up in the middle of the night.

Things have to change. This week, Peace Corps volunteers received a message from first lady Michelle Obama thanking Peace Corps volunteers for their service and announcing Let Girls Learn. I was elated to see that Mozambique is one of the countries where they will implement this program with Peace Corps volunteers.

Education is really the key to change this. If more women are educated, they will be better equipped to make a living and won’t have to rely on men to feed their families. In the region where I live, 2/3 of female-headed households suffer from severe food shortages. This does not come as a surprise. Even if women have men in the family, men are more likely to spend the money somewhere else instead of with their own family. It is a known fact that when a woman has money, she is more likely to spend it on her family.

So on this International Women’s Day, speak up. Quit playing the victim and be the survivor. Or if you have some power in your hands, I am talking to all of you Peace Corps volunteers and teachers out there, pay attention to girls’ education. Motivate them to participate and to dream of a future for themselves, be an example to them, a good one clearly, and show them that not being a mother past your 20th birthday is really cool and that they can do it too.

Two Years Down, One to Go

After 27 months of Peace Corps service in Mozambique, I decided that another 12 months is just what I need. So a week ago, I said good-bye to my family in Miami yet again in the classical it-looks-like-I-am-getting-deported way. Lots of crying and wondering why in a million years would I want to come back to Northern Mozambique in the light of a regional power outage and horrible floods.

“Stay,” my mother told me, “there’s power here.”

Tempting. But no.

The last minute cortadito and croqueta at Versailles Café at Miami International Airport did not help Mozambique’s case either.

At first, it looked like the universe wanted me back to Mozambique. On my intercontinental flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg there was no one sitting in the two seats next to mine. So for the 16 hours of my journey I could sleep lying down completely. Africa wants me, I naively thought.

Upon my arrival in Nampula, the heat wasn’t unbearable, which is a lot to say because I came back in the middle of the summer. Africa wants me, I kept thinking.

The floods in the area have been affecting a large area of Zambezia and Niassa provinces. Many people have died as a result, other were displaced and the cost of this disaster to the already precarious infrastructure of the region is really hard to grasp. So I am going to say it is big. Things are chaotic around here.

(Side note: The fact that I am going to complain about a power outage may seem really vain from my part, but bear with me. Mozambicans are doing it too. Plus the power outage is really affecting businesses and people in the area as well. So it is a tragedy of its own.)

Then the night time rolled around with its darkness. There has been no power in all of the Northern region of Mozambique since January 12. So by the time I arrived, it has been more than a week with no power. The situation is said to last anything between 2 more days to two more weeks. And in the best Mozambican fashion, no one knows for sure. I don’t even hear the reassuring “ha de vir”, it will return.

I was losing hope and wondering why I would ever come back here to live in the dark when Angoche welcomed me.

Every one has smiled nice and wide as soon as they see me. You are back, they all tell me. That’s what I kept telling every one 2 months ago when I left. Of course I am back and happy to be so. This place is as amazing as I remembered it to be.

The first face I saw in Angoche was the baker’s. He was so happy to see me. I got the usual sumida and went on to explain that this time, I did really go to America.

While I was on the states, I found that things I thought I really missed weren’t that great. Food didn’t taste the same way (except for everything my mother cooked for me, that did not change at all, equally amazing), people in Miami were equally bad drivers, traffic drove me crazy, and crowds gave me anxiety. The usual reverse shock. I really missed Mozambique while I was away.

I missed walking around the street and saying hi to every one. I missed my little secret piece of paradise, unspoiled by tourist and full of Angocheans, the kindest people I have ever crossed paths with. I missed my friends, my students, and my town.

And then there is my new job.

This year I am joining the Primeiras e Segundas team in Angoche. The program is part of the CARE-WWF Alliance to improve livelihoods and help protect the environment at the same time. I am the new Monitoring & Evaluations and Communications officer for the program, and I have gotten nothing but the warmest welcome from every one in the team.

Angoche, another 12 months here looks like the right decision now. Even if it means being far away from my wonderful family and friends, living in the dark for months and sweating 24/7; this place is worth every second of the time.

Parapato love letter

There are very few feelings that can really compare to the joy I feel when I see Monte Parapato in the distance when approaching Angoche.

It is similar to the feeling I experience when landing in the sabana de Bogotá, knowing that in less than an hour, I will be on my father’s arms after months of not seeing him. This is my favorite feeling in the world. I always feel like I kept my promise of returning to my homeland, one I can’t wait to experience this December when I go back to visit Colombia.

But returning to Angoche after the holidays always feels really magical. The return is heralded by men in their bicycles carrying loads of charcoal from the nearby Potone Forest. It still blows my mind to think that those old men in those flimsy bicycles manage to transport all the charcoil needed to fuel a town of 82,388 inhabitants.

There is also the sweet relief of the last 13 km of paved road.

After spending at least 4 hours riding the back of a truck in an unpaved road, the feeling of pavement in my butt is the most soothing thing in the world. And then the glorious stretch of 13 km of paved road is framed by palm trees on both sides of the road. It feels like I am back in the Florida that Flagler explored so many years ago; the one without the malls, Hummers, condominiums and Cubans.

I feel the happiest when I see Monte Parapato because it is where my apartment is located. Some of my students describe Predio Tuque as their dream home, what they once hope to achieve if they concentrate on school instead of flirting with girls after school. To me, Predio Tuque is home. I love staring into the ocean as I sit in my desk writing, the distant call to prayer at 12:15 p.m., the church bells at 7 a.m. on Sundays, the Acacia trees lining my street and the smell of garlic, onions and burning charcoal that invades my house whenever my downstairs neighbors are cooking.

Angoche feels like home. An idyllic home that I am hoping to keep for a little bit longer.

In college, I decided to stay an extra trimester. I was in love with Gainesville, Fla., at the time. Now I am smittened by Angoche. This is a love affair that started since the moment I entered the ample, deserted main street and found myself at home. Unlike Gainesville, Angoche seduced me from the get go. I loved the tranquility, the ocean surrounding my world, the fish market with goodies fresh out of the ocean, the dhows decorating the horizon at dawn and, most importantly, its people. Angocheans are the kindest people I have ever encountered. Everyone greets each other on the street and they love telling you how much they love their city.

“Here, there are no bandits or thieves,” they all declare after asking if you like living in Angoche.

This is why I am over-extending my welcome, super-senioring my Peace Corps service as a third-year extendee in my Parapato. This is the place I have called home for the past two years. Here I found peace.

 

IMG_1855 IMG_7309

Wa-ni-ta

This month my sister and my father visited Mozambique. It was interesting to go into my Spanish-Portuguese-English brain setting, but I am happy to report that if any of my languages is suffering, it might ironically be English. Sorry students.

The highlights of the trip were many. We started the trip off in Gurue, a beautiful town in the mountains in the province of Zambezia. We walked around tea plantations and hiked to a beautiful waterfall. My dad was a total trooper. He didn’t complain about the long walks and managed to cross a log across a tiny river and a pretty steep fall. I was more scared than he was and I weight significantly less than he does. We also enjoyed each others company, for it had been a while since it was only my father, sister and myself. I think it was nice for him to be with his girls.

Here are some pictures of Gurue.

Image

Image

After that we headed to Ilha de Moçambique, where we went on a dhow ride to Chocas Mar, ate a giant lobster, enjoyed copious beers and saw many sunsets. It was really hard to get to the beach at Chocas because we were dropped off at the mangroves and then, as the tide went down, it was a very long walk through them to get back in the dhow that would take us back to the island. But we saw some monkeys on the mangroves.

Image

After that, we finally made it to my lovely town, Angoche. That was the best part of the trip for me because I got to show my dad and my sister where I live and work. The school visit was the nicest part because they got to talk to the students, which was really made easier because they speak Spanish. My dad told them to have lots of girlfriends and boyfriends, enjoy life and not to marry to soon. Not perfect advice in Mozambique, but I can’t filter what he says. Everyone was also asking my sister if she was married. She really made an impression on my male students. Her name was what they liked the most, although they were calling her Wanita, and not Juanita. Even my little neighbor learned her name and is now still calling her in the middle of the night (which for me is past 8 p.m.).

Image

Image

All in all, it was great to have my family here. It reminded me that I have people who care about me on the other side of the world. It also explained a lot about me to the people in town, who for the most part find it very odd that I don’t have a husband and a family. At least now they know that I have people.