Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Birthday Week

On Wednesday and Thursday, I threw back-to-back birthday parties at my house for two very important birthday girls. The first birthday party was for Abby's 23rd birthday. We spent all afternoon making tortillas from scratch, dicing veggies, making fresh salsa, and using up lots of taco seasoning in packages (thank you, my sweet relatives). There was a chocolate birthday cake from scratch too, because what other option do you have here (no ready-made bakery cakes available)? Abby and I enjoyed putting work into setting a festive mood because it helps pass the time well (sometimes it seems crazy, voluntarily isolating yourselves from loved ones for two years!?) by creating joyous celebrations. The birthday party was a success; we all stuffed ourselves, mingled, and sang to Abby while imitating the Mozambican cake ceremony (on birthdays, the person putting on the party and the birthday girl have to feed each other cake wedding style). The party was not too elaborate, but the guest list included a few nearby PC volunteers, one American grad student and a young college professor doing research in Chibuto for a few weeks, and a French PhD student. One of the reasons I enjoyed the party so much because it demonstrates what interesting people you come into contact with while abroad – each of the guests were from different states in the US and we invited the French lady along. Our volunteering and our studies had brought us together in this small town in Mozambique to commemorate Abby's birthday and form a tight community away from home. I really like this aspect of the experience, because sometimes I am lonely over in Africa (and people ask how it feels to be "all alone" in Africa), but it's surprising how often we have guests passing through and how many wonderful friends and contacts I'm making. On occasions when it's hardest to be away, Abby and I purposefully have chosen to put more effort into ensuring that we'll pull off the next best thing to being home with friends and family – a celebration with the people around us.

Although Abby went out-of-town before birthday party number two, Abby and I had already discussed that we wanted to do something special for the birthdays of each high school girl in our REDES group. (One of the points of our group is to make the girls feel like they are special and let them know we truly believe they can make something of themselves, and so we want to make sure that we compliment them on their strengths and do just that while we are here and have the chance because this is not something they usually hear). We had already had two REDES meetings previously in the week, but the girls returned on Thursday for a cake and card we had promised to make for Isabel. 12 hours earlier, I had been singing "Happy Birthday" to Abby in English with a lot of other Americans and now here I was with 10 Mozambican high school girls singing "Feliz Anivers├írio" in Portuguese to Isabel. Isabel, an 11th grader, was turning 19 and she and I did the cake ceremony feeding each other too, which gets a slightly less awkward for me every time. The girls wolfed down my chocolate cake as we listened to Michael Jackson (Mozambicans love him and mourned his death with the best of 'em) and they all passed 19-year-old Isabel's four-month-old baby around the room. I laughed to myself thinking at the back-to-back parties I had the opportunity to throw here in Mozambique as a Peace Corps volunteer—when else in my life will this be possible? Probably never. So as difficult as being away from home is for me for such a lengthy amount of time, I feel blessed to have such a unique opportunity to be part of multiple communities at once—the foreigners brought together by being so far from home and the Chibuto community I came to serve.

Thoughts on My Last Hospital Visit

Just Another Case of It's Who You Know That Makes the World Go Round and My Search for Hope for Women's Futures in Mozambique

On Monday at work I did not have much going on so my co-worker Especiosa invited me to do hospital visits with her. As always, the hospital was overflowing with people waiting to be attended. And as always, the hospital was severely understaffed and most of the people in the waiting area would sit there all day without being helped at all. Day after day, many people wanting medical care go to the hospital in hopes of getting adequate medical attention and leave unsuccessful, only to return and try again the next day. Especiosa and I went to meet Sarifa, her neighbor, to help her get medical attention. As I understand the story, Sarifa had a run-in with a cactus a few months back and wounded her forearm. Two months later, the wound is still infected and swollen. Although the wound probably would have healed quickly on a healthy person, Sarifa is HIV positive so even simple cuts and wounds do not heal easily, or at all.

When Sarifa, Especiosa, and I walked in, Especiosa led us past hundreds of waiting people and knocked directly on the nurse's office. The nurse opened the door, obviously used to working closely with Especiosa whose primary job is helping HIV positive mothers. Especiosa called Sarifa in and the nurse tended to her arm then and there on the spot. As we left to take her prescription to get signed by a doctor, my eyes scanned over all the people we had skipped waiting in line. Especiosa and I left Sarifa at the hospital to get her wound disinfected while we went to the pharmacy to buy the pills Sarifa needed. I had been putting the pieces together in my mind and questioned, "So if you had not been here, Sarifa would have had to wait with little hope of being helped?" Especiosa nodded, saying that Sarifa had been going to the hospital for help and been passed over for the past month, so that's why Especiosa had stepped in. (Another clear case of it's who you know, for better or worse…)

On the way back from the pharmacy, I learned more about Sarifa's story. Sarifa is 27 years old and HIV positive. She has two children, aged 15 and 9. Sarifa's husband recently left her to live and work in South Africa and has stopped sending her money. Sarifa has no job and struggles to put food on the table. Sarifa did not have money to buy the pills she needed for treatment, so Especiosa bought them although she does not have much herself explaining that, "I cannot just let her wound go untreated just because Sarifa does not have money for the pills."

As Especiosa and I walked home, I was thinking and struggling about all my conflicting thoughts about our visit to the hospital. Was it fair that we got to skip the waiting line because my community-based organization has a strong working relationship with the hospital employees? What about all the other people waiting who are not our beneficiaries? Why does it have to be the way it is all over the world – so many people in need with not nearly enough help?

Then there were my thoughts about Sarifa. I know my job was to help, not judge. I liked her and think it is important to have compassion for others, but there is a part of my mind that ends up how one ends so vulnerable and out. I just cannot imagine having no job, no money, a terminal illness, a husband that left me, and little education to go on. The sheer number of women like her in such hopeless situations in my community is shocking. I wondered what initiatives can my community and these women take themselves to prevent these situations from happening? How can we help these women help themselves? How can we, in the Chibuto community, empower someone who has got so many odds stacked against them? Was it a series of irresponsible choices and actions that put so many women in this sad situation or the life of absolute poverty they were born into? Did they not have parents who could mentor them or an opportunity for education? How much did the war negatively affect their lives leaving them unable to provide for themselves? (Most likely a lot) Is it Mozambican culture that leads women to have so little power? I have so many questions and know that so many factors contribute to why so many women end up in helpless situations like this that it is impossible to come up with either a clear answer or simple formula for how to help.

I resist the urge to be depressed and give up on working to empower women. After all, there are Especiosas out there in the world taking their vulnerable neighbors to the hospital and making sure they get treatment. There are initiatives in our community where single women are learning to generate income with projects such as sewing and raising livestock to sell for a profit. The mentality is changing in Mozambique and more women are being given the opportunity for education and becoming professors and professionals. Our young girls group is also a source of hope. Abby and I are working with young high school girls in the community on a women's rights theater piece that the girls wrote themselves and are planning to perform in the primary schools in the area. Our group is really talented and I see more confidence and leadership skills being developed in the girls each meeting. Yesterday our girls finished the play practice and were deciding how to bow. All 10 of them joined hands, raised them to the sky, shouted "Help us in the fight for women's rights" and bowed in unison; in the back of my mind I was thinking, there are 10 girls I see being future community leaders. All these collective efforts in the community will ensure that fewer women find themselves in such compromising situations. As for Sarifa, I can be only be thankful that she has people around her reaching out to help, and I'll take a lesson from them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Experience with What It Means to "Tomar Cha"

Over the weekend, I returned to visit my host family in Namaacha for some quality time. My friend Emily and I traveled together because our families are practically next-door neighbors, so it's more fun that way. In between our host families' houses is the house of a single uneducated mother raising two kids who also hosted a Peace Corps volunteer, but unfortunately her volunteer had to leave Peace Corps early. I think this single mother, Mama Rosinda, feels left out and her feelings are hurt when Emily and I show up to visit our families and her "daughter" is absent.

Emily and I always have to prepare ourselves mentally and physically before we go visit our host families because we know that we have to be prepared to eat all the food they will stuff us with and be prepared to put on a smile when they show us off to the community. We joke it's the "mulongo parade" (mulongo means foreigner) because the moment we arrive, our host mothers make us parade through the neighborhood as they brag that their "daughters" have come back to visit them. They are prideful because our frequent visits are a sign to the community that our families treated us well and formed a good relationship with us, so naturally they want the whole world to know. Last visit Mama Rosinda started crying when her "daughter" did not show up too, so this time Emily and I tried to be sensitive about that. Emily's host mom and my host mom were busy sending us to one another's house delivering cake and tangerines as gifts back and forth. Each time I'd have to walk by Mama Rosinda's house because her house is positioned between our two houses. The second day I was there, my host mom had just sent me to deliver something to Emily's house and I was instructed to hurry back for breakfast. On the way home, Mama Rosinda called to me inviting me to "tomar cha" with her. "Tomar cha" literally means to have tea, but in this country you never know what all that entails.

Although it was not actually something I wanted to do because I was thinking 1) I'm going to have to eat food that might gross me out, and
2) this is going to be an awkward, silent tea time because I'm going to run out of things rapidly to talk about with this woman because our lives have next-to-nothing in common. Yet, I figured it would mean a lot to her if I accepted her offer and sat with her for breakfast. So I sucked it up and entered her tiny house.

Once inside, I saw Mama Rosinda had already begun to "tomar cha." I stared at her breakfast, xima (a Mozambican staple which can best be likened to tasteless grits) topped with an actual chicken foot and tomatoes. She opened the serving dish to give me some, just as I opened my mouth diplomatically stating, "I really can only have tea with you. My host mom already has a cooked breakfast waiting at home for me and I do not want to offend her." In the back of my mind, I was praising God that I was spared stomaching a chicken foot at 8 am in the morning!

Mama Rosinda accepted my tactful response and she settled with pouring me tea. Mama Rosinda chatted away happily as she ate and I sipped my tea. As our teatime went on, I realized how much it meant to her that I had decided to stay. And I was surprised at how touched and humbled our breakfast left me. Quite to the contrary, rather than an awkward silent breakfast where we just sat and stared across the table at one another, she opened up and talked about the struggles and joys of her daily life.

Mama Rosinda is now probably in her late 30s or 40s. She was born in northern Mozambique, but now lives in Namaacha, a town on the southern border of Mozambique and Swaziland. Life circumstances caused her to drop out of school long before finishing high school. Mama Rosinda is called a "casa dois" in Mozambique or the "second wife" of a man, but he is no longer in the picture. Now she lives with two of her children in Namaacha, working hard to make ends meet and trying to encourage her children to complete the education she never had. Mama Rosinda laments the fact that she sent one of her daughters away to live with a relative in South Africa in the hopes that her daughter would learn English and have a chance at a better education, so that the daughter could one day support the rest of the family left back in Mozambique. It's been a sacrifice though because the daughter left for South Africa at such a young age that she has all but forgotten Portuguese, and now there would be a huge communication barrier between mother and child if they were one day reunited. Also, she has not seen her daughter for years because she has trouble getting her passport approved to cross the South African border for a sufficient length. This is something she grieves too.

Mama Rosinda has worked at the border for the last 17 years. Each day she gets up early, crosses the border into Swaziland, tries to buy goods for a cheap price and bring them across the border to sell and make a profit. Mama Rosinda describes how she has been playing a game with immigration and border control for the past 17 years. Sometimes they will make her pay so much to bring stuff across the border that after a long hard day of work she will make either little or no profit. Sometimes she argues and bargains her way down with immigration officials to increase her profit so she can put food on the table. Other days she hides goods she is transporting on her back pretending like she is transporting a baby instead of materials, so she can re-enter Mozambique and make more money. Keep in mind that border patrol sometimes asks for more money than is fair because corruption is widespread. Mama Rosinda works closely with other women in the same boat as her and when one woman is in trouble, they all put their money together to help her out until that woman can pay back what she owes the others. On the side, Mama Rosinda also has a small farm, but it is miles away from her house and she must travel great distances to till it and harvest it.

This woman fights hard and seems to reap little benefit for her efforts. Mama Rosinda is concerned because her eldest son just failed 8th grade (which is pretty common in the Mozambican school system) and she is worried that if her children do not succeed in school, they will be resigned to do the same ill-fated work she has to do. I sat listening to this story, mesmerized; my attention was enough for her. As she talked and told me her sad story, she was not pitying herself; just sharing her struggles in a "that's-just-the-way-it-is" attitude. Tea with Mama Rosinda has been the most memorable experience I have had when it comes to this precious daily ritual that is part of Mozambican culture. To have tea, or tomar cha, brought Mama Rosinda and I together indelibly making us part of each other's story. It is memories and events like this that really make my time in the Peace Corps worthwhile and make me feel like I am making a positive difference while also being changed for the better myself.

*Later that day, I began reading the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which is a story about a former student that reconnects with his favorite old professor who is dying of ALS. Morrie, the professor is teaching his former student insightful lessons about the meaning of life. I found these following quotes from the book really interesting because they are things I am learning and discovering through such experiences as having tea with Mama Rosinda.

"Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning."

"In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need other to survive, right?" His voice dropped to a whisper. "But here's the secret: in between, we need others as well."