Friday, June 19, 2009

My Personal “How-To” on Making Friends in Mozambique

Today, June 15, marks the six-month marker from when I moved to my site, Chibuto. One of the things that I have been hoping and praying for since I got to site is making some really good Mozambican friends. Friendships always involve effort, but sometimes more so here for a number of reasons. Although I am always willing to put in effort in to friendships, what I am not willing to do is force friendships. One of my biggest struggles has been finding a balance between putting energy into getting to know people in the community and realizing that it is just going to take more time to build meaningful friendships here so I should let it happen naturally. In this respect, I try to keep a balance between investing my time in people in Chibuto and allowing myself to have a good deal of alone time in my house because that’s something I also need, especially so far from home. It’s also difficult to make friends with people in my town sometimes because even though I think they genuinely like me, sometimes they end up wanting me to help them out with money or wanting me to do their homework, knowing well that I come from a privileged background and am well-educated. This can be tricky because I really like helping others out and, like everyone, want to be liked. As time goes on and my new friends and I learn more about one another, this becomes less of an issue. I often find myself charting new territory while building friendships in Chibuto because the dynamics are different than if I were making friends with my fellow American peers.

Nevertheless, after six months, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to “How-to-make-real-friends” for me is the same as in the States, only it takes more patience and the realization that sometimes what constitutes a good friend here will be a little different than what I consider a best friend at home. One of the biggest challenges to the first six months of service has been letting my friendships develop naturally because I am usually to quickly and easily making friends back home. But yesterday was a very encouraging breakthrough. I had just returned home from traveling and was prepared to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon when a string of visitors arrived, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with all of them.

My first visitors were two teenage girls named Elvira and Maria who have started dropping by regularly to practice English. Spending time with them is fun because they ask me a million questions, all the while trying to braid my hair and strum my guitar. I can count on Elvira and Maria to arrive with huge smiles, and the good mood that follows is a result of their infectious laughs. I usually get tired of practicing English with people because few are willing to actually put effort into learning the language and just expect me to magically transfer my speaking abilities to them. But that’s not Elvira and Maria; they show up with song lyrics to translate every time they come and with papers where they have copied in English numerous times everything we practiced during their last visit. It’s refreshing having young friends with work ethic and very worth it to me to spend all the time in the world teaching them English as long as they keep up the drive to learn.

My second visitors were my co-worker’s daughters. Neidy, a 22-year-old, just started college in the capital this year so was briefly home for a family visit. Neidy called to ask if she could drop by with her sister and it was really nice having someone my same age to chat with about how school was going and her upcoming exams. Although more young girls are going to college these days, it is still somewhat unique to find young women who are university students outside of big cities like Maputo.

My third visitor was a 20-year-old girl named Isabel who participates in the REDES group Abby and I started, which is designed to empower young girls. Isabel has been asking if I will come to her house to meet her three-month-old baby Mirna. She appeared just before dark yesterday to take me to her house. Isabel is actually from a small town about 30 minutes away, but is staying with some Muslim relatives in Chibuto to finish high school because her hometown has no high school. The visit to her house was one of my favorite nights at site even though I was not prepared to be there for almost five hours! Seven people live at her house – Isabel and her baby, Amelia (a 13 year old the family had taken in as a maid in exchange for food and a home), and the Muslim family who owns the house. The family members include a grandmother, two of her middle-aged children, and the most precocious 7-year-old I’ve ever met named Fifi who I immediately liked when she plopped herself down on my lap. After being introduced to everyone, Isabel nursed her baby as she talked about the project she did for the upcoming science fair. Isabel is one of seven students participating out of the whole school because science fair is a relatively new thing introduced by Peace Corps and has yet to take off. I liked having the opportunity to tell Isabel I was proud of her for finishing school and raising her baby at the same time because many girls do not have the courage or the means to continue after becoming teen mothers. I also watched the Mozambican version of “Dancing with the Stars” with all the girls in the family with every intention of slipping out after the show finished. However, the family would not let me leave without eating with them so we feasted outside together. The whole evening was full of new, fun experiences for me, and the family enjoyed introducing me to the special bread they make, which they explained is part of their religious customs. They walked me home late; I was happily exhausted because my hopes and prayers of forming true friendships with Mozambicans are finally happening, slowly but surely.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Put on your Sunday best because the President is coming to town!

A month ago I noticed workers feverishly giving Chibuto a major face lift – planting trees, redoing sidewalks, painting city walls and repainting roofs of all the major buildings. I soon discovered all this hard work was for President Guebuza's upcoming visit to Chibuto. Presidential elections will be held in October in Mozambique so President Guebuza is currently touring the country flying from town to town to endorse his political party, FRELIMO, to win more popular support from the people. Maybe you didn't notice what I said, but yes, he is FLYING with a 6 helicopter entourage from town to town. Why does this infuriate me so much? The President is choosing the flashiest most expensive way to travel! This does effectively "wow" the people and seems like a strategy to promote national pride. So maybe that's the reasoning behind it in their minds. But more importantly, I see it as is a huge waste of money! Yesterday President Guebuza traveled less than 60 kilometers from the last village he had visited to get to my town. If he so badly wanted to arrive in style, why not take a luxury car the 30 minutes it would take to get here instead of choosing to rent helicopters from South Africa which are rumored to cost an obscene amount of money?

President Guebuza and his entourage arrived to be welcomed by everyone in town. Most work places closed; it was a school holiday. The children spent all week coloring Mozambican flags that they attached to reed poles to wave upon his arrival. The mood was festive and when he stepped up on that big stage our community built specifically for the occasion, the crowd went wild. I admit he was a very charismatic speaker. He emphasized just the right points sending waves of resounding cheers through the crowd. President Guebuza's platform was "to fight against absolute poverty" and he repeatedly emphasized the vital role education plays in helping a nation develop. I agreed with this particular message. President Guebuza also spent a lot of time reminding the people about how FRELIMO brought peace to Mozambique after two wars. The first war he referred to was Mozambique's fight to gain independence from its Portuguese colonization. FRELIMO was the party accredited for helping Mozambique achieve independence in 1975. After independence though, a civil war followed. Guebuza played up his party's role in these wars and advocated, "Look how far we have come! Viva FRELIMO! Viva Mozambique!" The speech continued, full of promises that sound great in theory as in most political speeches, but Mozambique has a long way to go before climbing out of the poverty that plagues it with no convincingly concrete plan on how to do that. Not to mention having the politicians jetting around the country isn't using their budget prudently to help the people achieve the goal of escaping absolute poverty!

There were many cultural aspects of the political rally that were totally new to me. Cultural groups each performed a short song and dance to welcome President Guebuza. The most attention-grabbing group was the traditional healers who dressed in feathered costumes. There were also many social action groups who performed. It was funny to hear them read off the list of all the things they had given as gifts to the President. The majority of the gifts were things like huge amounts of corn and rice, and livestock such as goats, pigs and cows. Most of these things are valued highly here, but are extremely different than things that would be given as valuable gifts in the States. The other noteworthy cultural aspect was the language translator. While President Guebuza and all the officials spoke in the national language, which is Portuguese, only about 25% of the population speaks and understand it. Thus, a translator was needed to speak in local dialect so that everyone could understand what the President was saying.

Another interesting part of the President's visit was all the international diplomats included in his entourage. After he finished speaking, Guebuza said, "I'd like you to meet all of our international friends whose countries have helped us to gain independence and develop. Guebuza gave a short introduction to how each country had helped Mozambique before each visitor would introduce himself. I was surprised to learn that Algeria was a major partner with Mozambique. Algeria not only aided Mozambique in the fight for independence, but also gave aid. I was astonished probably because not so long ago Algeria was struggling for its independence from colonial power France as well. Next, representatives from Italy, the European Union, and Japan introduced themselves; all who are working in different capacities to develop Mozambique. The European Union representative made a show of emphasizing in his short speech that as Mozambique developed it should do so hand in hand with democracy. Some serious Western influence, right there.

I was attending this political event with three other foreigners. I was with fellow PCV's Abby and John, and a Dutch girl named Daniela doing research for her master's degree. We all agreed the three best adjectives to describe this rally were: crowded (a given), hot, and overwhelming fragrant (not in a good way). Daniela was doing her research on local politics in developing countries so she leaned over on my right sharing her academic observation, "Do you notice that there is absolutely no female representation on that stage?" Indeed, each big dog on the stage was male, which is typical in most developing countries. Women are beginning to make strides and get their foot in the door with politics in Mozambique. Currently, Luisa Dioga is serving as prime minister in Moz. Seconds later after Daniela shares her thoughts, Abby leans over from my left whispering, "Do you know how many hands on are on my butt right now?!" Ha, a testament to what happens in crowded spaces in cultures where there is no concept of personal space! My thoughts had been more aligned with Abby's and we laughed, deciding that was about right. Daniela was preoccupied with the academics, and Abby and I per usual were being goofy together. As you can imagine after a few hours of this, we'd had enough so slipped out early just as President Guebuza was inviting citizens of Chibuto onstage to voice their problems. I thought this was a good step because he was giving the citizens a chance to voice their opinions. All in all, a fascinating experience to learn more about how politics work in Mozambique.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Neighborhood Rally

Two weeks ago we had a house call just as it was getting dark. This is a bit unusual because we always tell everyone that we do not allow visitors past dark, although there are a few exceptions. It is Mozambican culture that when you make a house call that you do not enter unless explicitly invited. But on this particular night, Abby opened the gate and this man entered and walked into our house without invitation. Abby expected that he either knew Daniela, who is our Dutch roommate staying with us to do a master's thesis for a few months, or me.

His abrupt entrance took us all aback and when it registered that none of us knew him, all of us just stared at him and his unwelcome presence. When none of us invited him to sit down, he introduced himself as Sergio saying he was hungry. And asking us, "It's good to say when you're hungry, right?" After telling him no food was available, he left. The whole exchange happened in 5 minutes, and afterwards we discussed how we need to be more careful about situations like that. We have been at site over 5 months and our neighborhood is really safe and we rarely ever have problems. So we had gotten comfortable and this minor incident happened.

The week continued, but two days later the man showed up at 7 am at our house. I answered the door, still waking up, to find Sergio standing outside. I did not invite him in this time and firmly asked him to leave because we were all getting ready for work. Sergio loitered, not leaving, and asked if he could live with us. Excuse me, I thought, not believing I had heard right. But then he asked again, the absurdity of it. I told him no way, please leave us alone. But he stubbornly refused to leave so Daniela, a native Portuguese speaker came to reinforce my answers. The guy had seriously family problems and also appeared not be right in the head. We told our friend Naldo, our most trusted friend, about our unwelcome visitor at this point.

Nothing happened until the following week when we were getting ready for work and our neighbor was inside our gate sweeping for us. Sergio returned and let himself into our gate and walked around to the back of the house where I was brushing my teeth. Indignation coursed when I saw him, and yelled, "What do you think you're doing and who let you in?" Sergio replied, "You're neighbor let me in. Can you give me a job?" NO. "Can I live here?" NO. "Can I at least leave some of my things here?" NO. Abby has come by this point and we are asking him to kindly leave, but he remains put and launches into a sob story. We tell him to go to social services because although we feel for his problems, we are not the ones to help. Then I forcefully move him to the gate and make him leave. At this point, I call our Peace Corps Safety Officer and alert him about Sergio. I was not that scared because Sergio is not big and never aggressive, but I did not want the problem to continue and turn into anything big.

Later that day, I was out shopping at the market while Abby was at home, in and out of the yard every few minutes. When I returned, I saw a few sacks thrown into our yard, and called Abby saying we have a problem. Sergio had launched his belongings into our gate and disappeared. The PC Safety Officer instructed me to go alert the police so I met my friend Naldo there where we talked to the police. A little aside, one of the first questions the police chief asked me was if any of us were sleeping with Sergio. Sad, but I think that's a typical question here. After informing the police, Naldo accompanied me back to my neighborhood.

We went to talk to this respected elderly man on my street, who wasted no time informing the head lady you are supposed to talk to in the neighborhood if you are having problems. They rallied the neighborhood and starting asking questions to find out more about this man, Sergio. Abby and I had thrown Sergio's sacks outside of our gate so they checked the sacks. Also, a group of neighborhood boys came by offering they knew who he was, where he came from, and that something is wrong mentally with him.

The neighborhood was awesome though, and they said when he comes back, we will talk to him with you. Well, Sergio arrived a couple hours later and women, elderly men, and children gathered around Abby and me, a startling number, calmly telling him to get his things and go home. "You have inconvenienced these nice ladies enough already so please go," Senhor ArĂ£o, the oldest most-respected man in the neighborhood advised him. He continued, "And if you do try and come back, then these ladies have been instructed to tell us and we will take measures." On his way out, Sergio asks if he can still come visit, and our neighbors echo, "No, that would be inappropriate. Go home, sir. For good." We have not been bothered and rest confident that our neighbors are taking good care of us after how they rallied behind us to take care of this situation. Each day on our way to work they always ask us if we are okay and make sure that the man has not returned to bother to us. What a wonderful set of neighbors we´ve found on this side of the world!