Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Let me tell ya a little something…The Presbyterians in Mozambique know how to get down! 2/24

Yesterday morning as I sat at the kitchen table, I stared at the world map on our wall, noticing that the African continent is literally the most colorful in the world (mostly due to the colonial legacies when the Western powers just to decided to divide it up, but that’s another story). I couldn’t help but wonder, is there something more to that? Could it be because they do in fact have some of the most colorful, richest cultures in the world?

Soon after this thought, I walked the five minutes to the local Presbyterian Church, trying to time it so I’d arrive early, but not too early because you all know how uncomfortable it is to feel all eyes on you in the pew when you are the obvious newcomer. My goal was to minimize this time, but failing miserably and in true Gracey-time, I instead got to slip in with a few others through the back because the service had already started. This worked to my best interest because I altogether managed to avoid the waiting period when you inevitably think to yourself, “It would have been easier to stay at home.” But then again, a little discomfort isn’t always bad for me..

I had finally motivated myself to make it to church because it is a huge part of Mozambican culture, (everyone goes!) and while I’m here I intend to experience it fully. The service lasted two hours and was entirely in Changana, the local dialect. However, that didn’t matter much because most of the service was dancing and singing, more universal languages.

First, a group of around 20 young adults in their twenties danced their way up to stage singing a song about going to the promise land tomorrow, in English. The song was a pleasant surprise, entertaining because it was sung with a Bob Marley-like accent, and the energy was incredibly rejuvenating.

Next, the Big Mommas (if you will) bounded onto the stage belting “Amazing Grace” in Changana. If there were ever a choir I was meant to belong to, it would be the Big Momma Choir because although most of them were a little off key, it didn’t matter because they were praising with all they had just the same. They were dancing, and clapping, and having a good ol’ time…

Finally, most of the church sauntered onstage and at this point the church was really celebrating. I sat, watching them smile their toothless grins, some dressed in Western suits and others in traditional capulana dresses, swaying as one, and I imagine this scene was the image of the Body of Christ Paul envisioned. Here are a people oppressed by poverty and AIDs, yet their spirit did not seem crushed at all. Quite the contrary, just like that cheesy worship songs says, I think they could sing of His love forever…

I left feeling uplifted by their energy and inspired by their faith. Maybe I was not worshiping with the most educated people in the world, but that didn’t mean I didn’t stand to learn something from them. Oh, and, maybe there is something more as to why that map of Africa is so colorful on my wall. At least I like to think so based on these experiences.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Silver Lining Amidst the Suffering

I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books by Phillip Yancey
entitled Where is God When it Hurts? This book helps me to view pain
in a new light and encourages me to find meaning in suffering. I
accept I’ll never know why the world is full of so much pain (age-old
question), focusing instead on how it can be transformed. I am
reminded that it can be destructive to provide cop-out “Christian”
answers to the suffering when we really don’t the know the reasons
behind it and the situation seems unfair and nothing we can say will
resolve the pain. Despite all that, this book challenges me to hope
that this life is not really the end and teaches me how pain can
sometimes be a gift. For example, pain is a warning system to inform
us when something is wrong and alerts us to take action to try and
make it better. I could continue, but Phillip Yancey puts it better so
if you’re interested then I urge you to check out his book.

Even if I had not been reading his book, I still think I would have
noticed a silver lining in the fight against AIDs. Please understand
that I do not wish this upon anybody, but it’s here and we have to
respond to it. As an observer and participant in the crusade to
combat AIDs, I’ve witnessed people joining together in a beautiful way
to care for one another. Brought to their knees, humbled out of
necessity to be cared for, coming together because their sufferings
are too great to bear alone – people leaning on people. I see it in
the Chibuto community as the sick, the healthy, the locals, the
foreigners, the educated, the uneducated, young and old link hands.

For the last month I have been participating in home care visits and
support groups. At every meeting the participants sing, dance, and
pray. During the home visits, local community members routinely check
up on the sick in a gesture to say, “You matter to me. I share in this
pain with you.” (I would like to point out that the caretakers are not
under family obligation, and that the care is not institutionalized.)
Genuine concern. Love in action.

During the support groups, all the HIV+ people share their pain,
complaints about their symptoms, anguish over hunger, and ultimately
comfort one another. Sometimes they cry in sadness and yell in anger
because they don’t understand and they hurt. There is always someone
else there who has been through a similar experience with the disease
and can provide a testimony on how they made it through. I was
particularly moved by a young, pregnant woman who feared that she
would transfer HIV to her baby. A woman bouncing a toddler on her knee
responded that she had experienced that same fear, but that she had
prevented the transmission by following the recommended protocols
she’d learned at the support group.

Often the group laughed and smiled. Another young woman said she was
done for good with men because they’d never done anything good for
her. When she adamantly proclaimed she was swearing off sex, the group
teased and laughed with her telling her surely she’d change her tune.
Nothing like the mention of sex to get any crowd riled up, guaranteed.
Their sickness definitely did not strip them of their sense of humor.
In all seriousness, what struck me was how these people came to the
meeting and what they gained. They came raw, real, broken. They seemed
to leave with rejuvenated spirits and the will to keep on living.

Afterwards, I traveled out to the country and watched another
spectacular scene. A group of activists at the community center were
passing on their culture by teaching AIDs orphans their songs and
dances. The activists circled with the children singing about how
they were here to help and support the kids. The song acknowledged
the children’s great loss, but strongly affirmed that the children
were not alone. The song continued that these women, the larger
community, and a loving God all remained with them.

The AIDs epidemic is awful, but I am seeing humans pull through
against the odds, forced to lean on each other for strength. In the
process, they are loving and bearing each other’s burdens. Where my
faith figures into all this is simple. I maintain hope that this life
is not the end. Furthermore, I trust that God himself knows what we’re
going through because he came down as Jesus and experienced every
human emotion personally. He knows what it is like to be lonely,
tired, sick, suffering, to die. But death on the cross was not the
end, resurrection followed. My faith helps me hope there’s something
more to all this, and for now my job is to respond to others by trying
to model Jesus’ life on Earth all the while finding the silver lining.
I cannot imagine a better way to lead my life or a leader I respect
more to try and imitate…

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Contrast on Excessive Use of Water and Dire Conservation

Yesterday I was reading a People magazine my friend sent me from the States. The final page listed celebrities' responses at how they're cutting back in the current US economic slump. Admittedly, my first reaction was to scoff because celebrities are known for buying exorbitant things and leading excessive material lifestyles. The thought of them cutting back brought out a cynical, self-righteous side of me. But celebrities are not the only ones in our culture to spend excessively. We are all often wasteful with our resources because we can afford to be and do not see the gravity of our harmful consequences. I stopped my scoffing at the People article (sorta), instead being thankful these celebrities are trying to cut back. Also I don't have much room to talk, because I too am often reckless with resources. It's easy to do in a country with so much. Growing up it's been the American way. To a degree some of the wastefulness is just the nature of this life, but I think it would all serve us well to re-examine where we could stand to cut back and conserve. How can we better care for the environment, have a more responsible carbon footprint, and save more resources for others?

Take water for example. I remember being reminded as a young child to turn off the sink while I was brushing my teeth to conserve water. Eventually, this became habit. When I was in college, NC suffered a drought so both state and university ordinances were mandated for things like car-washing and lawn-watering. My dorm had a campaign for shorter showers so I consciously did just that. I suppose my efforts could be counted as small, noble acts, which many of you probably have habituated into your lifestyles as well. However, it's not something I gave much thought until now when conserving water has become an ultimate necessity.

Since Abby and I don't have running water, we get a large barrel of water filled up once a week that has to last us the entire week. I probably use more water in one shower in the States (or luxurious bath, which is my preference) than Abby and I do together for the whole week in Mozambique. That's something to work your head around. We are able to cook, clean, wash dishes, have drinking water, and bathe daily on just one barrel. Impressive, right? I hope for the rest of my life I remember how possible it is to get by using less water, thereby leaving more for others. I am not suggesting that myself (or any of you for that matter) should take this lesson I've learned to any sort of extreme back in the States because that'd be impractical. I am just putting it into a new context. I am a child who grew up in a world where not having running water is practically unheard of and so the way I'm accustomed to using water in the US drastically differs from how I use it here in Africa. I'm amazed to see just how little I can comfortably get by on. I wanted to share my testament that it can be done, and how I'm personally learning to view water as the precious resource it really is.

*PS. At the end of February when I have access to good internet, I am planning on updating photos so expect a visual of our trusty barrel.

And I thought waiting room lines in the US were miserable…

Now I realize how lucky we are to be able to call for a personally scheduled appointment and sit in air-conditioned buildings as we wait to be examined by well-trained medical professionals. It only took one trip to the local hospital here for me to come to this realization; health care here has a long way to go.

Today I was shadowing my co-worker Especiosa who exclusively works with pregnant women and young mothers, most of whom are HIV+. When we strolled up to the hospital at 8 am, we met an overwhelming scene. Over 100 young mothers and their babies were crowded into the waiting room, which was really just a hot porch, in line to weigh and vaccinate their babies. (Running through my thoughts, was the following: whoa baby, most of these mothers look younger than me.) As we weaved between the mothers and crying babies, I considered the hell this would be for someone who is not a kind person. I also imagined my college roommate of 3 years, Lauren Falduti, who would be busy running around this waiting room pouring love and compassion into these children. Me, I didn't know what to do, so I just smiled weakly and busied myself helping to set the demonstration on how to make baby food we were about to give.

Since neither packaged baby food like Gerbers is available here nor is the knowledge of healthy foods common, many mothers end up feeding their children only rice to supplement breast milk. Our mission was to do a hands-on demonstration on how to cook locally available foods that provide health value for babies to decrease malnutrition and to foster healthy growth and development. We passed around handouts that included both written and illustrated directions (because many of the moms are illiterate or only speak the local dialect, not Portuguese) on how to prepare a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner for their babies.

I enjoyed watching them cook because about 30 moms worked together communally stirring pots and singing until the baby food was ready. As the food was rationed, I chatted with some of the moms and they convinced me I had to try the baby food. Normally the thought of baby food is utterly unappetizing, but I was starving and they were expectantly waiting. The baby food was corn flour, pumpkin leaves, ground peanuts, and carrots mixed together into a grits-consistency and it was surprisingly tasty. It blew Gerbers out of the water, just so you know…

I look forward to working more with the moms and babies because it's easy to fall in love with the kids and hands-on teaching is exciting. And next time I'm in an American waiting room I will be seeing it in a whole different light, more thankful for our medical facilities and professionals.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some Common Reminders that this is not the Western World

It is not entirely uncommon that men have more than one wife. Just last week when I was asking my co-worker how her kids and husband were, she replied nonchalantly, "I assume my husband is fine, but he works an hour away and lives with his other wife and family during the week. He spends the weekends here." I tried to mask my disbelief. I assumed that it was only women with low education levels and in rural settings that were part of polygamous relationships. Yet here was my intelligent co-worker with a good job and four kids of her own telling me she was a "casa dois" (casa dois is the term for second wife).

· One of the main campaigns my organization is working on in partnership with big INGOs such as WorldVision, Save the Children, and UNICEF is child registration. This entails visiting the homes of orphans and vulnerable children (those directly affected by the AIDs crisis) to fill out registration forms. In the US this is automatically completed at birth, but since not all babies are born in hospitals many births go unrecorded. I observed as my counterpart Paula went through a series of questions. Again, I found myself astonished by how many small children busy playing in the dirt nearby were orphaned from their parents' AIDs-related deaths. Time and time again, Paula checked the boxes on the registration form for both "mother living" and "father living" as no. In the boxes that indicated their weekly food consumption, only rice and vegetables were checked. The boxes remained empty for meat, dairy, fruits, etc. If they had a nutrition pyramid, most of the food groups would not be on it.

· Child safety is practically unheard of. We see young kids playing with sharp knives instead of rattles. There are not labels reading this is dangerous for a child 8 and under. What's more is, they have little parent supervision. The amazing thing is you do not see many accidents, though you can tell they do occur by all the scars.

· These are the most resourceful kids I have ever seen. I love observing the games they play and the toys they make because it takes talent and creativity. In place of juggling balls we'd buy at a toy store, they use round fruit from the trees. In place of an expensive toy car, they use recycled cans and wire to construct handy toy vehicles. Just goes to show you don't always need expensive things.

· When you take public transportation, count on two things: it is always PACKED and PUBLIC in the largest sense of the word. The main public transport is a chapa, which is essentially a mini-van converted into a small passenger bus. In the States, I am accustomed to riding in cars with air conditioning and personal space. Not so here! The chapa experience can be likened to two American games. o Public: You often find yourself in more compromising positions than on a Twister board – sometimes standing, limbs intertwined, a free-for-all. You have a simple choice to make: be supremely uncomfortable or embrace the experience. I try to embrace, but thank God for the heaven on Earth I will experience when I ride in an air-conditioned private car again! o Packed: Every chapa ride is a game of Sardines. How many people can we pack into one small space? At the very least, 18 people. 4 people in each of the 4 back rows and 2 more up front. To top it off, you squeeze assorted babies and live chickens to fill in any remaining spaces.

· Their version of a movie theater in small Mozambican towns is far from the luxurious American movie-theater experience. Instead of stadium seating, surround sound, and grand multi-showing air-conditioned theatres, the Chibuto movie theaters are bamboo buildings. Rather than high-quality films, the movie is some English-speaking action-packed movie without subtitles like Rambo. This does not sound appealing to me so I have yet to enter. I am holding out to once again be my dad's movie date next December. The difference is one movie ticket in the States is about $10 a pop while Moz theatres cost 1 metical or about 4 US cents. They do say you get what you pay for…

· I do not shop for food in a grocery store because they only exist in the capital, Maputo. Rather I go to the market. I alternate between loving it and dreading it. It's convenient to buy fresh vegetables and fruit and know they'll be available everyday. The market is chaos that somehow works – the constant movement of buying and selling, women weaving about in colorful skirts and baskets on their heads, dodging the steady stream of cars. It is a vibrant scene that keeps you on your toes, which I appreciate. I also enjoy the friendly interactions and not having to deal with cash registers and long super market lines. However, some days the thought of entering the market exhausts me because as a foreigner you get a lot of special attention that I do not want to face some days. Alas, regardless of my mood I brave the market everyday equipped with my woven basket (I still have not carried it on my head, maybe I'll brave that by year 2) and a smile.

· While I'm on the subject of food, you can buy an entire cow's head at the butcher. Each time I walk by and see the cow's head it surprises me because it looks like it might moo at me any minute. The live chickens, goats, and pigs you take home to cook for dinner do not faze me, but I can't get over the cow. My parents reminded me that it is how you buy food in most of the world, but I spent the first 22 years of my life buying frozen meat that bears little resemblance to the animal. I think seeing how the rest of the world lives and where my food really comes from is good for me….hey girl heyyyy this is reality. (I couldn't resist a small, cheesy tribute to my fabulous senior year).

· If there is not a dressing room when shopping, it's perfectly acceptable to create your own in public. Yesterday I found myself in thrift store junky heaven in our second-hand clothing market. The occasion was finding a chique de doer top for my first real Mozambican girl friend my same age. She is the oldest of 5 kids and about to start studying journalism at university, so we hit it off. It was comforting to shop with my new friend Netty because it reminded me of being home with my sisters and friends. Netty found a top she liked and tells me she is going to experimentar (try it on). I tried not to laugh out loud when she stripped down to her bra right there on the spot as people continued passing through the market. I will not follow suit because I am a foreigner, but I love that it doesn't matter here. This is probably Reason #465 why I love Mozambique.

Friday, February 6, 2009

How did you spend your Friday morning? 2/6

In class? A staff meeting? Sleep in after a late Thursday night at Top O? What I did Friday morning was a first for me. I participated in tribal dancing (*) with 9 mothers under a mango tree. The experience was both surreal in the sense I was wondering how the heck did I end up here, and very normal because you could tell this was part of their usual routine and comfortable for them.

My co-worker Paula and I walked the hour to Uahamusa where we are building the community center to find the mothers already hard at work. The were clearing away the weeds with hoes around the center. I made a point of helping because they should know that we're on the same level. We are working together, equally hard, to make this community center a reality and that should be reflected in sharing all the responsibilities. (I admit it crossed my mind to rest and watch because manual labor is tough, but I had to remind myself I did not come all the way to Africa to sit on my butt. Although it takes constant motivation and discipline to do something, it is rewarding in the end).

Eventually we took a break for much needed relief from the sun. That was precisely when the fun began. The moms all stood up in a circle so I did likewise. They started singing, clapping, and stomping to a beat. Naturally, I followed suit. It's lucky I've never minded making a fool of myself because they got the biggest kick watching me learn their dances. The songs kept coming, the dances changed, and eventually I caught on. How much fun to be part of their rich culture! The site was awesome. The hoes were discarded on the ground around us. The moms, both young and old, outfitted in traditional colorful capulanas, dancing, some with babies strapped on their backs. Our feet moved to the rhythm—about half the moms were barefoot, the other half wearing rain boots (for gardening), and me in my New Balances. We were all smiling. All happy in the moment. I almost forgot I was an outsider until the moms pointed out the small crowd of kids that had gathered by the water pump to watch the white girl dance. Ha, I guess that just comes with the territory…

When the dancing ceased and the work recommenced, I observed the area surrounding the community center with Paula and was pleased to see I could put some of the knowledge I learned in my college classes to use. Outside the community center were uncovered buckets of stagnant water that had been sitting for weeks. We talked about the importance of covering them as a way to prevent malaria because open stagnant water is a prime breeding place for mosquitoes. By the end of the day we had lids on the buckets and I felt content to help in that simple way. Drops in the bucket, right?

This particular Friday morning I got to live the best of all worlds. I got to mix work and play, and share a little bit of the education I have been gifted with others in need too.

*When I say tribal dancing, I mean that in a loose sense of the term. They were simply engaging in song and dance in the local dialect.