Friday, October 23, 2009

Dealing with Death

One of my REDES girls, Edna, called me last month with news of a family tragedy. Her sick father had passed away prematurely leaving behind a widow and 7 children. I was away from my site because it was a Mozambican holiday so I missed the funeral, but went over twice that week to pay my respects at Edna’s request. I remember thinking I needed to visit her house to show my support and because that’s what friends do, but I remember dreading it because it’s hard to know what to say or how to act in the face of death. My parents gave me good advice long ago – don’t say it’s all going to be okay, don’t try to talk reason into it saying, “God wanted it this way because…” – just be there. So remembering this advice, I went and sat with the family, meeting Edna’s mother, siblings, and out-of-town grandmother for the first time.

Most of the women were seated on straw mats covered in black fabrics, but rather than seat myself on the mats they insisted I sit in a chair. They would not let me leave until they had cooked and I had eaten. While I waited, so many neighbors passed in and out of the house, just to pay their respects and see how the family was doing. A death is something the community feels as a loss, as an extended family, rather than an event the immediate family mourns alone. While we sat, the newly widowed lady also had her toddler grandson crawling around on her and making her and everyone else in the room smile. The power of a child to bring happiness and remind us of all that is good in this world is truly amazing. I left, and promised I return to visit soon upon their urging.

A few weeks ago, Edna asked me if I would go to the “40 Days Mass,” a service that some families do here, as a way to commemorate the life of the lost loved one and another healing service that takes place a month after the funeral. Again, I was not looking forward to the service because I knew it would start early and last most of the day, be hot, and I because I was unfamiliar with the layout of the ceremony. Not to mention I would be the sole foreigner and sometimes am made to eat things I’d rather not. Even so, I knew it was important to go and reminded myself that friendships are only deepened when you share in each other’s burdens and sorrows – not just celebrations and fun.

The day before the ceremony Edna and her sisters stopped by my house and told me all the important details I’d need to know for the ceremony tomorrow. The ceremony would start between 6 and 7 am on the Saturday morning (so no hope of sleeping in). I needed to wrap a capulana around my waist and drape another over my shoulders. At 7 am we were to leave for the cemetery and then we’d come back, have the mass, and finally eat.

It had been a long week, so I rolled out of bed exhausted, wrapped two African capulanas around my body (they kept falling and I felt slightly self-conscious dressed like that, but hey, when in Rome…), arriving right at 7 am. I found all the men and boys sitting in plastic chairs and all the women sitting on straw mats while the young girls scurried around starting food preparation. I was shown to a chair because I was considered a guest of honor as a foreigner, but I insisted on sitting with the other women on straw mats. Almost immediately my neighbor noticed one of my capulanas had an oil stain (whoops, a huge faux pau) so the women took care of it by offering me another stain-free capulana.

The next announcement was a huge surprise – the truck driver that was going to take us to the cemetery stepped out and gave a short speech in the local language saying the women would wait at the house while the men went to the cemetery. This had to do with a statute of the Islamic faith from how it was explained to me. Edna’s father had been Muslim while her mother and the children practiced Catholicism. It was interesting how this family of mixed faith incorporated beliefs and traditions of both faiths throughout the day. While the men went to the cemetery, I waited with the women on the straw mats. The widow and some of the neighborhood women began crying while others sat silently helping absorb her pain through their presence.
The next part of the day was breakfast after the men had returned from the cemetery. The women persisted that I sit at the table and chat with the men, and I happily obliged because after awhile those straw mats are uncomfortable! Breakfast was welcome – not only because I was hungry, but also because I was starved for the Portuguese the men were speaking after I had spent the last few hours listening (and not understanding) the women chatter away in Changana. It was obvious that the deceased man and his family were very well established in the community because of all the prominent community guests. Over tea, I conversed with the school director, an important man in Chibuto, about my projects.

The mass following breakfast was a lot of singing and speeches in Changana by neighborhood people, while we alternated between sitting and standing. At one point, a collection plate was passed around and the community all pitched in coins to offset the cost of the food the family had bought for the “40 Days Mass”. The school director gave the only speech I could understand completely. Originally from northern Mozambique, the school director does not speak Changana, so he gave a moving speech in Portuguese about how he and the neighborhood were there until the last day accompanying this man to the hospital and hoping and praying for him. I was sitting by Edna and her younger sister for the mass, and although Edna had always asked me to be there for her after her father’s death I had never seen her in an emotional state about it, even during my visits immediately following his death. Usually Edna and her sister had been running around cooking when I visited, but this service was their one public opportunity to stop and have a good cry. Tears streamed silently down their faces for the entire mass, as they used their capulanas to wipe them away. As soon as the service was over, their tears had stopped, they recomposed themselves and they were off to continue cooking and serving the guests. I thought to myself what a healthy way of dealing with death this community has – rather than avoiding it or dealing with it holed up alone in your house, the whole community grieves, remembers and celebrates the life of the lost loved one, healing together.

Lunch was served, and boy was it a feast – goat, pork, chicken, beans, xima, and rice – that many women had worked hard to prepare. I sat in a room with Edna and all her other sisters and young relatives and shared a meal, laughing and discussing the similarities and differences between Mozambique and the States. After the mass, the mood was considerably lighter and joking had commenced. I eventually excused myself because I had to travel to a neighboring town and was exhausted, but the girls insisted on accompanying me home. I left this all-day event with 5 young women in tow who walked me to my house, and thanked me for coming. I, however, felt thankful because of all that I learned from taking part in their cultural practices and how with each experience like this I am gaining a new understanding and appreciation for humans and our fundamental similarities, although we may have been born cultures and lands apart.

* I wanted to include this passage called “The Pearls of Poverty” one of my friends shared with me months ago because at this particular event, I would dare to say I witnessed an act of the pearl of love. Although after being here a year I am not so na├»ve as to say these always hold true, I still see a lot of veracity in them and think the passage worth sharing.

The Pearls of Poverty

“I often say that everything good I really need to know I learned from the poor themselves, in the fields and around the campfires in Nielle (= village on the Ivory Coast where Stafford grew up with his parents who were missionaries). They taught me what matters most, and I use those values to try to shape the culture of the present.
Those precious values I have come to call the “pearls of poverty,” given to me by the peasants of West Africa. The pearl is like a jewel, like the ruby, the diamond, the sapphire. But unlike the others, a pearl comes originally from suffering. The oyster gets a grain of sand inside its shell. This is uncomfortable; it hurts the oyster. Over time, the oyster begins to protect itself from that irritant by coating it with a secretion, layer upon layer, until it becomes a smooth, brilliant, shining treasure—a pearl! Wealthy women wear strings of them around their necks and wrists, seldom remembering that some little creature suffered greatly to provide such beauty.

The lessons my village gave me were just such treasures. Many of them came from the suffering, hunger, sickness, and vulnerability of the peasant eking out a living for himself and his family in the harsh, rural African environment. Here are a few of the precious pearls I still carry in my heart today.

The pearl of love. Nothing is more powerful in the world today. It cannot be bought; in reality, it belongs to the very poor as much as to the very rich. My village taught me in so many ways that you may not have anything else to give, but you can always give love. The great mystery, of course, is that though you give it away, it never runs out.

Sometimes in the midst of famine or disease, when the villagers had virtually no money, no medicine, no answers, all we could do for one another was to give love. Nobody died alone in Nielle. As much as it broke our hearts, we would be there for each other’s final moments of life. When you hold a friend in your arms and feel that final tremble as he or she slips into the arms of the heavenly Father, you can never be the same again. You become compelled by love.

The pearl of joy. The poor comprehend that joy is not dictated by the circumstances of life. Joy is a decision, a very brave one, about how you are going to respond to life. We in the West tend to be joyful when things go our way and good things are happening in our lives. For the poor, such good fortune and good things almost never come. Yet laughter and smiles abound.

Over the years as I have hosted dozens of Compassion’s “vision trips” to the developing world, I’ve observed that Western visitors are greatly surprised by this. They simply can’t believe how much joy thrives in the midst of harsh realities. If the poor chose to respond with anger or frustration, the world would be a much more dangerous place. Since the poor make up nearly two out of every three people on earth, imagine the ramifications if they had not learned to glean joy from the harshness of their everyday lives.

The pearl of hope. This is another courageous decision. Even when life’s harshness and injustices pile up, the poor cling tenaciously to hope. They will humble you with their absolute belief in a loving God who can be trusted to sustain and bless them. We tend to be hopeful when we have more assets then liabilities. The poor always have more liabilities than assets. Yet their hope is consistently and amazingly strong.

Their prayers in times of overwhelming crisis have both humbled and strengthened me over the years. I have nothing more than to sit listening to a peasant pastor as he unpacks the Scriptures for his little congregation. He hands out nuggets of truth. The handholds for hope are there for all of us but are made plainest to those in poverty, for whom survival actually depends on hope in their God.

The pearl of perspective. The poor understand that time is to be our servant, not our master, and as a result they manage to have time for one another and what is important. The tyranny of time, I find, is a dreadful disease, especially for the wealthy; among them it is a nearly fatal condition and horribly contagious. I feel this dichotomy keenly in my frequent world travels. When I get on a plane in Paris and get off five and ½ hours later in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I find that the obsession with time has been left somewhere up there at 35,000 feet.
Another pearl the poor have shown me is the reality that people matter; things don’t. Here in the West, the general name of the game seems to be “use people to get things.” We even have bumper stickers that are humorous but all too true to our values: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” If we stop and put the values of eternity into perspective, we realize that we take nothing with us. Our only legacy is the lives of the people we have touched in Jesus’ name.

…I will mention one more pearly of poverty: knowing how to give and receive. It has often been said, “You cannot out-give God.” That is true. And the corollary is this: “You cannot out-give the poor.” They, like God, will overwhelm you with generosity if given the choice. To give selflessly is truly one of the greatest joys in life. Unfortunately, much of our giving here in the West tends to be in the form of investment. As we write our check, we inwardly question, What’s in this for me? In contrast, the poor widow who gave her last coins that day in the temple touched Jesus’ heart, because she gave all that she had with absolutely no idea that the Lord of Glory was standing right there observing her. It would have blown her mind to be told that two thousand years later, her quiet act of giving would be used as a noble example and would underlie a common expression, “the widow’s mite.”

These pearls of poverty, taught quietly and consistently by the people of Nielle, made deep impressions in the wet cement of my spirit. You can live and succeed in the everyday whirlwind of life without them, but where they show themselves, they are recognized and still valued in our hearts. We know the kind of people we all, deep inside, want to be.” [Wess Stafford, Too Small to Ignore]

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What’s Keeping Mozambique from Developing…

One reason that schools, businesses, and community-based organizations (CBOs) are often inefficient and poor quality in my opinion is due to the lack of accountability. I find it appalling how often many teachers miss school and just leave the students to mill around aimlessly. In this environment, it is hard to learn because class time is inconsistent. It also sets an example for the students that once they become professionals that they too may miss out on work. There is no substitute system like in the States that teachers may rely on when they need to miss. I understand that sometimes the teachers have to miss school for reasons out of their control such as sickness, but it seems to me that too many just go when they feel like it.

Another interesting and alarming observation is the lack of accountability and transparency, which often leads to corruption in businesses and CBOs in Mozambique. In many of the health volunteers' experiences, they have seen the lower-tiered employees demonstrate a harder work ethic than the bosses and accountants. These employees with little power are not in a position where they can provide checks and balances with the 1 or 2 man show running the organizations. The health volunteers commonly see the employees suck up to the bosses even when the bosses are MIA much of the time. When the employees get paid months late, which is not uncommon, they are not in a position where they can be critical of the system. You often hear about the 1 or 2 bosses running the CBOs pocketing the money they receive from international donor organizations, but it is hard to actually prove because of two factors. First, there is a lack of transparency in the organization and the budget is a very secretive hush-hush business. The second factor is that the international donor organizations fail to demand adequate accountability. One volunteer said that every few months an international donor organization announces they will do a visit to monitor and evaluate. This volunteer says it is easy for her organization to put on a heart-warming show for these donors. The activists bake a cake, sing a song about fighting HIV, do a dance, and effectively fool the international donor organization into thinking their money is being put to good use. In between these little "song and dance" visits, the international donor organizations manner of monitoring and evaluation is often asking the CBO to do a report and turn in the number of people being reached. Let me say that it is really easy to make up the numbers the international donors want to hear so they can write a report annually about how much they're doing in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Also another sad trend in the CBOs is that once an organization has "made it" by having certain status symbols, there is a tendency to lose sight of the original goal of helping people in the community because the CBOs get lost in thinking they are a "big deal." Certain status symbols include having motorcycles and cars, or having computer, internet and AC in the office. These resource tools are necessary, or helpful, in making the CBO be able to do efficient work, but are often abused or not properly appreciated in my opinion. For example, the internet is a great way to improve communication and also an information source, but one that is often misused in the offices (aka to look up porn in some cases). In some CBOs, the community members wonder if their bosses have bought their personal cars with money that was intended for another purpose.

It is disheartening to hear of these stories and especially at how common they are, but in spite of all these alarming trends I have still seen plenty of good work accomplished. I just wonder: how can we eliminate this lack of transparency and accountability that leads to corruption? My recommendation would be that international donors monitor CBOs more closely by showing up unannounced and having a liason that spends a considerable amount of days at CBOs making sure good work is being done. It would be incentive to be more honest with reporting and an opportunity to help with capacity-building. The workers could receive training on how to use computers, internet, on organizational development and how to establish checks and balances. It is human nature to want to make yourself look as good as possible to an outside donor and frankly money can make people do ugly things, especially in a country with a lot of poor people. But with all the aid money pouring into Mozambique, it ought to be developing faster as I see it! However, systems to hold people accountable are just not in place which amounts to so much corruption. To eliminate this ugly side of human nature to be greedy with money, have a system with checks and balances, transparency, and better evaluating and monitoring! Let's get Mozambique to develop faster, stop pouring money down the drain unnecessarily, and do it better…..

*What I have written is an account of problems and trends that PCVs and locals have discussed with me, which is not meant to reflect any particular organization.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Drinking, driving, and dialoguing

I spent the night at a nearby Peace Corps volunteer´s house on Sunday, and left Monday morning to head back to my site. The way home is not too difficult; it´s just two short chapa rides. Chapas are packed minibuses and the primary form of public transportation in Chibuto. They are probably my least favorite part about Mozambique because of how uncomfortable they are – at least 4 people are packed into each row, there are assorted animals and foul odors, often the drivers are reckless, and trips always take longer than expected because of unforeseen stops and how long the buses take to fill up before leaving.

The first chapa to pick me up on Monday was pretty full, and the driver ordered the passenger in the front seat out so I could sit beside him. Trying not to roll my eyes, I climbed in and was prepared to diplomatically tell him that I was not interested and refuse to give him my number. The driver continued on down the road asking me questions about America, telling me I should stay in Mozambique forever with him, before five minutes later pointing out where his wife lived. After 20 minutes, he stopped the car at his brother´s restaurant to run something in. He came back with two Smirnoffs that he thought we could enjoy together on the ride. 9:45 am. The driver pops them open and hands one to me while I´m internally trying to decide how to best handle the situation.

It was not really funny, but I struggled to hold back a laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the chapa ride. I decided, perhaps hypocritically (because I did not want to offend him and thought it´d be my best chance to get him to listen), that we would discuss drinking and driving over our Smirnoffs. As I take my first gulp, I ask if he drinks and drives at the same time often. He glances over, half smiles avoiding a direct answer by saying, “Today´s a holiday.” My next question is how much does he plan to drink. He responds, “Not much until I arrive.” I don´t know if I really believe him or if he can just tell that´s the answer I want to hear. But I say you better not drink much because you are responsible for the lives of a lot of people right now. Since he has been interested in learning about America, I tell him that in my country we would be arrested for having open containers in the car. I also inform him how many traffic accidents are caused by people whose judgment is impaired by alcohol. He listened, we chatted some more, and despite his irresponsibility he was not a bad guy at all. By the time I polished off most of my drink, it was time to get out, so I thanked him and went on my way. Poor guy, I am sure he was not anticipating a lecture when he treated me to a Smirnoff that morning, but I thought it needed to be said because if no one speaks up, then it´s never going to change.

I climbed into my next chapa at the crossroad and again ended up in the front of the car, only this time between two twenty-something males. The passenger next to me handed the driver a half-empty huge beer right before we took off for Chibuto. Unbelievable. Back-to-back drivers drinking, I thought. I greeted this chapa driver with a friendly “How are you?” to begin and then followed it with a “Have you drank much today?” Again he promised me that this was all he was going to drink until he finished working that day. I proceeded with a very similar conversation to the one I had with the first driver; the tone was light and we were laughing and joking, but I was serious when I warned them about the dangers of drinking and driving. I was also thanking heavens that I grew up in a place like America where women generations before me fought for the right to vote and be heard and be men´s equals. My status as a foreign woman allowed me to be in a position to challenge these men and speak up; in Mozambique, women are just starting to become more vocal, but are not yet considered equals in their society by most men. The conversation actually transitioned from drinking and driving to other important topics such as why having more than one partner at once is one reason the HIV rate continues to increase so quickly. At this point, we were having the classic chat about how I could be faithful to a partner even if he did not live nearby, and how they as Mozambican men could have four women at the same time if they wanted. We shared our opinions back and forth, listening and learning from one another, and before I knew it we had arrived to my home. I started my chapa journey that day rolling my eyes, and ended it shaking my head in disbelief about what an adventure and opportunity for speaking my mind it had become. Maybe they´ll think twice about drinking on the road next time, especially if enough people start speaking up about it.