Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Reflections on Being Halfway Home

I had the opportunity to go home and visit North Carolina for the holiday season during part of December and January. It was a month of bliss for so many reasons! I was able to reconnect with my family and many dear friends after being out of the States for almost 15 months! Although I have loved being on this great big adventure and met many wonderful people along the way, it rings true for me that there is no place like home. The separation from loved ones has been the most difficult part about this once in a lifetime adventure.

Some of my other favorite things about going home were simple things such as running water, hot showers, and familiar food. The variety of food was never-ending and I drank a whole year’s worth of Dr. Pepper and sweet tea to make up for lost time with those two true loves of mine. Fast food restaurants and delivery pizza were heaven on earth.

It was liberating to have access to a car again and so nice to be able to jet around on my own schedule to wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. My perspective on personal cars has definitely changed since living in Africa. I have a different perspective on how unique it is that many families own not just one personal car, but several! I rediscovered how costly and what a responsibility it is to drive private cars. My biggest expense while at home was gas, which adds up quickly in the sprawling state of NC. I take a car to do everything in the States – to eat at a restaurant, go shopping, go to a friend’s house, work out at the gym—which translates to multiple car trips per day. This is a stark contrast to my daily life in Mozambique where I walk everywhere including work, school, my market to buy groceries, my friends’ houses, and local restaurants. Sometimes I go weeks without riding in a car.

That got me thinking…I remember back in college when one of my professors in my Environment and Society class had us take an online quiz determining what our carbon footprint on this Earth was; I am curious to see how my carbon footprint in the States would compare to my carbon footprint in Mozambique. I would dare to guess that my carbon footprint in Mozambique for an entire year would be less than how much carbon I emit in the air in just a few weeks of my life in the States. With the smaller towns, simpler lifestyles, and the limited number of personal cars, the average Mozambican is forced to live a much different lifestyle than the average American who always on the go. While visiting the States, I really enjoyed driving but this experience has forced me to reexamine how unusual our situation is and all the pros and cons that accompany this privilege. In conversations this week, I have been throwing around the questions with my colleagues and peers: What if all 6 billion plus people in this world owned a private car? Traffic is already a great problem worldwide and only grows bigger each year. Think of how exponentially pollution would expand and what consequences this would have for our world. Driving enabled me to see lots of people and accomplish many tasks over the break, but I have become more mindful of how all the travel (done the way it’s done now) is taking its toll on our Earth.

Another refreshing thing about being home was the anonymity I enjoyed in public. Around my town in Mozambique, you draw lots of attention as a white foreigner and are constantly treated differently. When I get in a chapa, the minibuses that serve as our public transport, I am offered the mulongo seat in front next to the driver. This is the most un-cramped seat, usually the only one with a seatbelt, and it often gives the driver a chance to talk to the white person. Many of my PCV girlfriends and I are often hit on by the drivers who badger us to give them our phone numbers (this is another reason I was loving being in the driver seat of my own car back home, both figuratively and literally). After a year of constant spotlight, I welcomed blending into the crowd. I can safely say that I don’t think I would make it as a celebrity ever.

The States offers a lot more privacy in general than Mozambique. Our material wealth enables us to put up walls and spend our time holed up in big houses with huge yards separating us. Many Mozambicans do not have the choice or the luxury to this privacy both within and outside their homes. The average Mozambican household is a small cement house or a reed hut with way more people than rooms. This means no private suites, bedrooms with TVs, or even enough beds to go around. The average Mozambican family is large with all kinds of extended relatives living in the same house or compound so everyone knows everyone’s business. My roommate Abby and I have a 6 foot reed fence that does afford us some privacy, although it’s rapidly deteriorating because some unruly neighborhood children love to tear it apart. Even with the fence, it seems like our neighbors know our every move and often like to report back to us on a list of all the guests who have dropped by our house on a given day. This was to our advantage last year when we had a strange man in the community continually drop by our house because the closeness of houses and lack of privacy allowed the neighbors to be involved and send him on his way anytime he tried to bother us. One positive consequence I have noticed is that because the Mozambicans are forced to be around each other all the time, you often see them laughing, singing, and so content to be in each other’s presence. In the States, sometimes all the walls we put up have negative consequences and people end up old and lonely having spent so much time holed away in front of computers and TVs and other entertainment to ease the loneliness. It is not easy to isolate yourself in an environment like my town in Mozambique.

One of the starkest contrasts is the differences in schools between Mozambique and the States. I had the opportunity to visit both my mother’s 8th grade classes in Greensboro and my friend Sarah’s kindergarten class in Raleigh in January. When I went to the schools in the States, I had to check-in at the office where a video-camera snapped a picture of me and printed out an official visitor pass. I walked into the classrooms, which all had less than 30 kids, desks, books, computers, central heat, electricity, running water – you get my point, resources! My mom and Sarah both had volunteer helpers to assist them. The students had snack time and/or lunch time at school, which would be unheard of in Chibuto.

I visited my neighborhood primary school just yesterday in Chibuto. It was mind-blowing. There are 1800 students (approximately, they still do not have official records) and 39 professors. There was definitely no fancy office for me to check into as a visitor! In fact, there was not even a desk to speak of in the whole school. The students sat on empty sacks as their desks. This school was so overcrowded that there were not enough classrooms. When this becomes a problem in the States, it usually means that the school resorts to constructing trailers. At this primary school, their solution for not having enough classrooms was constructing makeshift tents out of empty sacks where the teachers held class for 50 students. I was escorted from tent to tent to greet the children. What surprised me even more were the classes being held under trees. During my visit, it started thundering and lightning which frightened many of the children and disrupted class completely. The other shocking thing that there were only four latrines available for students to use and they looked unsanitary. You would think that I would not just be learning this 15 months into my service, but I do most of my work at the secondary school adjacent to my house, which was recently redone by the World Bank, and out in the country where poor learning conditions are to be more expected. I was caught off guard to see all my professor friends and neighbors learning in such a poor school right in the town. Oh, how good we have it back home in the States in so many ways that we do not realize!

I found my blog title to be appropriate because my visit home marked the halfway point in my Peace Corps service, but not only am I halfway home in terms of time. I found that coming back to Mozambique and my town in Chibuto was like being halfway home. 15 months ago, sub-Saharan Africa was just a faraway land was completely foreign and slightly terrifying to me. I remember looking out the airplane window as we were landing and not believing I was about to try and make a home in Mozambique – it was not just a land I have never been to, but I did not know a soul, did not know much about the culture, and it had a language that I had never spoken. “Who was I fooling,” I thought to myself, “how will this ever be a home because it’s just so different!” Let me be clear that it did not feel like a home at the beginning – not when I was being showered by strangers, not when I was being served river fish for breakfast at 6 am, nor when I arrived to my town and had a terrible case of food poisoning in 40 degree Celsius heat. But this year, I gave a confident goodbye to my folks, and hopped onto that plane from America, feeling like I was going halfway home to Mozambique. I looked out the plane window, happy that I was going back to continue my work, to continue building friendships, keep improving my Portuguese for year two.

These first few weeks have certainly been confirmation of that feeling. Exhibition one is that I have established family in this faraway land. I went to visit my host family in the hospital because my new baby host brother, Tomas, needed to have an operation in the capitol. Tomas was born last November and my host family actually invited me to name him. When I walked into the hospital during visiting hours, Mama Adelia and Papa Isaias were telling everyone that I was their daughter, and that I had just arrived from America. Exhibition two is the warm welcome back Abby and I arrived to in Chibuto. We were greeted by a whole gaggle of children from our neighborhood and our friends all rushed over to give us hugs and kisses. We arrived exhausted, hot, and with a lot of baggage, but within the first minute, the kids had taken our baggage and relieved the burden, leading us to this home. And it might not be the real thing, but it sure feels darn close this second year, which makes this voyage one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life.