Not the Normal Midservice Slump

I returned to Meconta-Sede on a Saturday from my cohort’s MidService Conference. On Monday two staff members pulled up to my door to help me remove everything the volunteers before me and I had accumulated through our services. A month ago my house was officially repossessed by the government. Motivation unknown. Liz, Jaimie, Kerri – I’m sorry, Peace Corps and I did everything we could.

I moved into the community children’s library, the most successful Peace Corps project in Meconta becoming a storage space. My dog, a backpack of clothes, and I moved in with a family across town. I was told repeatedly by Peace Corps staff that this would be temporary, that I would only be here until they returned from their staff retreat in the capitol, Maputo. For the next three weeks I slept with my backpack propped against the door to dissuade anyone from entering after I had gone to sleep, ate one meal a day with the girls – aged 11 to 17 – and tried to keep my dog from being hit by the woman of the house. During the day the room was kept open and used by the woman of the house and her boyfriend. After the first day we resumed their routine of eating once and only once per day, despite the food that I bought and brought into the house. After the first week I was told I was not to use the family charcoal, which I had supplemented when I moved in. After the second week I was locked out of the house every day at 8 am when the head of the house went to work.

I spent my days hunting for a new home in the village and teaching at the secondary school. By morning I told my story to everyone I met around town, anyone who was confused about my sudden disappearance or curious about where I was staying: your Administrator took my home, I don’t have anywhere to live, do you know of any houses to rent? By afternoon I got back into teaching, enjoying a full schedule with my 408 students and the work of organizing the REDES Training of Trainers event for the province.

My friend Julia from the bairro behind my old house pointed me in the direction of a vacant house across from her, cared for by a guard at the prison. She told him I was suffering and explained her opinions in eMakua before returning to her area of the small group of houses. Senhor Felex was eager to help, and to be my new neighbor with keys to the house. We negotiated a price and proposed it to the home owner, a mystery woman I never met who lives 70 kilometers west in the city. This property, a low ceilinged adobe house with a grass and plastic roof, became my goal. Only two rows of houses behind my old home, I would still be near the school and the library, the market in easy walking distance. All my favorite kids from my first year would be that much closer – for better or worse. I set my mind on moving from the Houses of Cement to the Houses of Mud.

I counted down the days until I could show it to my Assistant Peace Corps Director (APCD) and move out of the dark oven of a room I was staying in.

Two weeks later, Monday, on his first week back from the mandatory training, my APCD arrived to find me seated on the veranda of my host family’s house, locked out again. We drove across town to visit my new potential home, only to find it locked and Senhor Felex nowhere to be found. This isn’t uncommon – a meeting is established but a key member is missing without warning – so my APCD and I sat to have a chat with my boss, the Director of the Secondary School, the man who had told me that I would be without a home, the man responsible for aiding in housing the Peace Corps volunteer he had requested. As we left the secondary school I choked up while trying to explain how hard of a time I was having. My APCD asked me what other potential solutions we had, if we couldn’t find a new home for me in Meconta. He wanted my opinions and thoughts so he could best support me. He promised to return again the next day and left me sitting outside.

Tuesday. My APCD and I went to investigate my potential new house. On the outside the house seemed sound, if a cheaper set up than my previous home. Inside though, the house sweltered, much like the adobe ovens used to make the bread sold in the market. The adobe was unfinished, crumbling in key structural areas. The plastic and grass roof leaked. I was told the house could have electricity, but the uncoated wires inside looked unpromising and prone to sparks. The front door wouldn’t open; the backdoor wouldn’t shut. My APCD explained the various repairs that would be needed for the house, his estimated total climbing to above my monthly stipend, and asked Senhor Felex if he could procure someone to begin taking measurements and give us a more firm quote. As the senhor left, my APCD switched from Portuguese to English to ask me how I was holding up.

I cried.

(Context: crying is something reserved in Mozambican culture for the death of loved ones and even then most Mozambicans respond hesitantly to American tears of grief.)

I want to be a volunteer. I want to continue serving in Mozambique, the country I have called home for the past 500 and some days. I want to be here so badly because I have been fighting internally for the last two months to stay, because I am so far from the people I love and the access to the resources (vegetables, clean water) that I need to be healthy but I made this commitment to serve in times of hardship, wherever I am asked. And I wanted to stay in my house, in my home. Even if I was alone, even if the market had only onions and rice. Even if every neighbor and friend has a story of near starvation, disease, and crippling poverty. Life in Meconta, a town left undeveloped when the civil war drove people from the district capitol, is unfair. So I cried. Because this small, hard, rural village no longer had a place for me.

My APCD told me he wanted me to be happy. That leaving me outside on Monday had weighed on him all night, even though he was trained to remain objective and detached. He told me he would make some calls, that we would talk the next day, that he wouldn’t let this continue.

On Wednesday I was told that I would be transferred, that I would move on Friday to my new site and new job. As I set about preparing my things in the community library I received a call from my Peace Corps Country Director, the head of Peace Corps in Mozambique, asking how I was handling this situation and what my experience had been. I finished arranging my bags and left, feeling relieved in the knowledge that soon I wouldn’t be homeless.

On Thursday I began the heavy task of saying goodbye to the community I had called home. I wondered around, clutching my soggy handkerchief as my only lifeline. I celebrated with Analia, a newly graduated student who is also leaving Meconta soon to start medical school. We shared our last meal in the village and promised to stay in touch.

I arrived at the house of Senhora Fátima, the woman in her fifties with the scarred face who supports herself, her sickly adult daughter, and two grandchildren on the home brew she makes and the food she grows in her garden yet still found time to sit and practice eMakua with me and explain her culture when I couldn’t understand alone. Then I punched a hole in the screen of my old home to steal the banana capulana curtain for her.

I said goodbye to Adinha, who sat silently and wouldn’t turn to face me and continued washing plates, using her capulana to dab at her eyes. I said goodbye Julia, and her unborn baby that I won’t get to meet. I kissed her toddler son Toxy on his head, then did it again, whispering that I was sorry I wouldn’t be around to scoop him up and call him my husband. I didn’t slap her 4 year old son Elton’s hand when he reached into my purse uninvited, instead I grabbed him up and kissed his little thieving fingers. I held Julia’s 7 year old daughter Sonisa’s hand and knelt down to explain where I was going and that no, I wasn’t just going on a trip. I said my goodbyes to the neighbor who always asked me to buy her things, whose cute fat little girls actually learned to tell me apart from my roommate. I said goodbye to Sando, who helped me even when I couldn’t speak Portuguese, who hung around with me and taught me jokes in eMakua and riddles in Portuguese, whose health is failing even though we keep going to the hospital together.

I stood in my old backyard, abandoned and overgrown with weeds, my permagarden indistinguishable from the encroaching wild, my compost pile washed away by the floods. Goodbye rain gutter that gave us water. Goodbye mango tree that sustained me through my first January, that shaded and protected me, that taught me that to have is to share. Goodbye Milky Way that reminded me of how infinitely grand our universe is and how small I am. Goodbye rope bed, destroyed by use. Goodbye tiny house outback, once home to English Club. I stood alone in the back of my home, arms wrapped around myself, letting the sun burn Meconta into my skin one last time while I cried myself out. Goodbye home of mine.

On Friday my APCD returned. We loaded up the car with what we could fit, I situated my pup in the back, and we started out. “Ready?” He asked in English. “Vamos,” I replied.

A 5 hour road trip later we pulled into my new home, the Institute of Teacher Training in Pemba, Cabo Delgado. My new roommate Francesca greeted me with open arms and helped me settle my dog in her new home with a new human dad, a good friend of Francesca’s who already loves his new dog. Yesterday I unpacked in this beautiful house full of shelves too tall for me and a serious shortage of stepstools. Today I toured the campus of the college where I will teach. Tomorrow I start my new job training the future primary school teachers of Mozambique. I live in a city with vegetables and clean water, with access to meat and the ocean.

I can be happy here. I am filled with gratitude to the Peace Corps volunteers and staff members who reached out to help carry me through my heavy time. To Matt who encouraged me and gave me a safe space to sob when I couldn’t carry the water weight any further. I am curious and excited for what the future will bring me in a new job, in a new city, in a new province of this country I can still call home.

15 months down, 12ish to go

2016 was the most consistently difficult year of my life.

My lows were like ongoing furrows in the road: try not to drown in the floods, lose sight of the highroad but hope it’ll come back into view, the only way I knew how to continue was to move forward and slowly climb out. I sat on the cool concrete floor of my bedroom and cried. I bowed my head and walked past cat calling and grabbing, feeling small and powerless. I taught broken curricula to illiterate students. Drew died and I wondered how any of the effort applied to this service could be worth that loss. My mom got sick and the detachment I felt from my family, the inability to sufficiently support her through her illness, made me question the validity of my time apart from the people I need. At times, continuing my service became a series of small steps forward, knowing that every night I slept was one night closer to completing my contract and fulfilling my oath – as long as I kept moving, even infinitesimally, I was still heading in the right direction.

15 down….. how many more to go?

But oh, the highs were brilliant: achieving a mark of advanced-low* in Portuguese; teaching puberty at a provincial workshop for secondary school girls; falling in love again; becoming the provincial coordinator for a female youth group network; being invited to help with the training of the newest group of volunteers; bringing one of my bosses and a colleague to a training on gender-friendly schools; having the opportunity to travel around southern Africa and see all my favorite animals and eat all my favorite foods with the best person I’ve had the pleasure of pursuing.

Over halfway now!

2017 will challenge me. I know this and am terrified by it and am continuing to take it on.

I’m working in the secondary school, the children’s library started by Jaimie and Liz and Kerri, and as a provincial coordinator for REDES**. I’ve made myself a list of activities to keep myself occupied for the hours left after I’ve completed my work. These are my fillers for the void of isolation and loneliness. I’m synthesizing two other volunteer’s notes on Makua*** and acquiring a tutor. I’m returning to my studies in Portuguese. I’m working out. I’m going for walks around Meconta-Sede. I’m collaborating on a workbook for my English students. I’m studying for the GRE and making lists of potential life plans. I’m consciously attempting a year of Zero Waste. I’m trying to blog more, I promise.

15 months down, 12 to 22 left to go!

When I think about why I am here, why I came and why I stay, I moderate my responses based on my audience. I stay for my dog, whose empathy leaves us cuddling on the couch staring at the space left by her previous moms. I stay because I want to prove to myself I can fulfill an oath. I stay because the words written by candlelight on the third day without electricity feel important even when the lights return. I stay because I was reminded that although I will not change the world, my drop of influence will spread ripples and contribute to a broader experience that moves toward peace. I stay to have frustrating discussions about the myth of American exceptionalism. I stay to be permanently marked by the word mkunhya, foreign-not from here-different-outsider, to be told to go back to my own country and feel for the first time the weight of a phrase so harshly flung at anyone in the US whose ancestors hailed not from Europe. I stay not because I will change Mozambique but because Mozambique, however painfully, is changing me. I stay because I believe, I have to believe, that however small and conceited the idea is, my presence here is at worst a net neutral and at best a net positive.

In this beautiful, harsh, too hot tropical country I will stay. One more year or two, my time left here is a contrast of numbers – simultaneously too short and too long. 470 days since I hugged my family, at least 300 until I can think about going home.

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*The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) divides speaking proficiency into 5 major levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished with the first three levels further divided into Low, Mid, and High. To go from speaking 0 Portuguese or Spanish to being considered Advanced-Low after 10 weeks of training felt like a major success!

**REDES (Raparigas em Educação, Desenvolvimento, e Saúde or Girls in Education, Development, and Health) is a collaborative project between Peace Corps and Mozambique to empower female youth on topics of health, educational and economic opportunities, and leadership skills. We receive funding from USAID and PEPFAR.

***Makua, also written as eMakua, eMakwa, or eMakhwa, is the Bantu language spoken throughout northern Mozambique with small regional but mutually intelligible variations.

what I do because I actually don’t love my primary assignment

Anyone who speaks to me about my primary project for more than a few minutes will recognize that I don’t particularly enjoy teaching English as a foreign language to middle and high school students. I don’t like that my Mozambican students must learn yet another language of European oppression to hope to reach beyond their nation’s borders. I don’t like that I am a white European-American teaching one imperial language in another (English as a foreign language taught in Portuguese). And also, I don’t see the value in teaching another foreign language to students who struggle to attain basic literacy in their national (colonial) language.

We do not cover English literature from African authors. We do not translate Mia Cuoto (a well published white Mozambican) into English. We do not write compositions in English or practice pronunciation by reading English magazines stuffed full of slender and mostly naked white bodies, watches my students can’t begin to fathom affording, and texts which condescendingly refer to the “shanty towns” in which my students live.

But I love my students. I love how they fight to sit in the front row. I love how they eagerly copy down everything I write on the board. I love that they gaze with curiosity at every teaching material I bring into the classroom, excited to see what we will do with a cardboard and capulana box or a bag of clothes. It was not long ago that I was carrying around a backpack weighing a third my body weight full of textbooks, stressing about a trigonometry test and what fresh hell AP chemistry would bring or what shenanigans we would get up to in AP US History as we unraveled Zinn’s History of the United States. I remember the glee at gaining access to my university’s reference library and learning to read scientific journals.

There is an intoxicating greed in discovering the breadth of what you don’t yet know, but could learn. I want to foster that greed in my students.

Então. I hate teaching in the classroom. But I actually kind of love exposing my kids to knowledge and empowering them to keep learning.

The ways I do this are through coordinating the REDES (Raparigas em Educação, Desenvolvimento, e Saúde: Girls in Education, Development, and Health) groups in my province, teaching puberty, sexual health, and HIV prevention at regional Science Fairs, and working with high school students to teach reading skills to primary school students. I’m working to arrange for one of my friends, a blind man named Ámido who is fluent in three languages, to be paid to tutor me in eMakwua.

Outside the classroom, exploring the topics my youth groups are interested in = awesome. Inside the classroom, following a broken curriculum in a language nobody understands = the worst.

Second trimester is ending, secondary projects are winding down for the year. Finally there is a little time to breath and dream about what my life post-Peace Corps will bring before the sprint through third trimester begins!

Some Things Are Different

I’m under the impression that most people reading my blog are members of my family (Great Aunt Susie and Great Uncle Dicky, Great Aunt Diana, possibly some aunts and uncles, and maybe my momma and dads) and some pals from college (oh hey Sara! and maybe Jacob?). I also wonder if maybe there are any folks from Moz group 26 or 27 or folks considering applying who might stumble across this blog. So for folks reading my blog who have not yet had the opportunity to live the village/town life in rural Mozambique, I want to write one post about some normal everyday things that are quite different from life stateside.

Time to wake up in the States: 7am – 11am.

Time to wake up In Moz: 5am – 6 am. One really neat time I slept until 8am.

Time to go to sleep in the States: 11pm – or later

Time to go to sleep In Moz: I’m yawning and drifting off on the couch at around 19:30h (7:30pm). If I’m up with friends having a beer I might stay awake until 21h or even 23h.

Breakfast aka My Most Favorite Meal of the Day in the States: quiche. Or tacos with a premade tortilla, salsa from a jar, maybe some refried beans and sweet potato mixture, a little bit of taco lotion (yogurt), some avocado, and a fried egg. Or an everything bagel with avocado, curry powder, and a fried egg. Or pancakes or crepes or oatmeal or Eggs Florentine or French toast or granola and fruit in yogurt or avocado on whole wheat toast. And coffee with half&half and sugar – pre-ground from a machine or ground by hand and percolated on a woodstove or scooped into a tea steeper with water boiled in an electric kettle.

Breakfast in Moz aka The Meal of Ifs: if there is energy I’ll put a cup of water on the stove to boil for my instant coffee, which I drink with sugar (and at least one ant) (if we have it) and a bit of milk (which comes in a liter box and doesn’t need to be refrigerated before opening but must be consumed within 3 days after opening) (if we have it). We usually keep eggs in the house, so I’ll scramble an egg with half an onion (about a sixth of an average US onion) and a bit of tomato (the size of big cherry tomatoes). If we have left over beans I’ll throw some of those in and eat it over left over rice if we have it. If one of us went to the market the evening before I might eat a chunk of bread (which typically has a little sand mixed in) and some butter (if we have it) or peanut butter (if we have it). When we have company over I like to get extravagant and make pancakes or thick cut French toast or if we have leftover homemade tortillas (very rare because we usually eat those babies right up as they come off the pan) I’ll make Huevos Rancheros. When we have company or we’re prepping for a big day, my roommate will pull out her French Press (which has since shattered) and some of her special coffee (non-instant, pre-ground, exactly like what you drink Stateside). If there is no energy I’ll eat a spoonful of peanut butter on my way out the door or I’ll just wait until lunch to eat.

Travel to work/class in the States: headphones in, music on, jar of coffee or protein drink in hand. Focused, walking quickly with intention and purpose. I might see a cat or someone walking their dog.

Travel to work/class in Moz: a leisurely stroll, saying “bom dia” “como está?” “ihali?” “vakhani, kikíhali?”. Probably pausing to talk to at least one person, even if I’m running late. I will definitely pass goats, possibly a chicken, and likely a cow.

Casual dress at home Stateside: athletic short shorts or pajama boxers, sweatpants or leggings when it’s cold, tank tops or bralettes, big sweaters when it’s cold. Thick socks or barefoot.

Casual dress at home Mozside: capulana (about 6ft x 3.5 ft of colorfully printed cloth that are used for everything). In the early morning a capulana wrapped and tucked under my armpits, later in the day a capulana wrapped around my waist over a tank top. To go to the market I usually throw a tee shirt on to cover my tattoos from the market men, but otherwise I am wearing tank tops and capulana.

Bathing in the Homeland: hot showers or cold showers, varying degrees of water pressure, using gallons of water every time I cleaned myself.

Bathing in Nossa Terra Gloriosa: I stand in a bacia (a shallow plastic basin) in our bathroom and scoop from our big red drum of rain water, soap up, rinse off, using perhaps two liters of water. I wash my hair under our gutter when it rains or before I see other Americans.

Where the water comes from in America: the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the shower head, the outside spigot for the hose, the toilet, the laundry machine, and the store from gallon jugs. Whether from municipal plumbing or a well or perhaps from the store, clean water is widely available. My heart goes out to Flint, Michigan and the drought stricken West Coast. Water insecurity is truly terrible.

Where the water comes from in Mozambique: In December and January we collected rainwater every other day; now it rains less than once a week. When it rains we place buckets, bacias, and our biggest pots under all of the gutters and where the water leaks through our roof. Rain water is the cleanest water we have. There are a few spigots in the village, two of which don’t charge to take water, both of which are further from our house than I care to walk with a 40L bucket on my head and a 20L bucket in my hand. The spigot in my backyard runs a few times a week, spitting out anything from clear water to wet silt. When this water is clear we fill the two large (one is 70L the other is 150L) drums before filling the 20L, 40L, and 60L buckets. When the water is not clear we collect it and let it settle before skimming the clear water off the top or we filter it through a few pillow cases and then let it settle. This water is used for cooking and bathing. For drinking water we take the clearest water and pour it into our Peace Corps provided ceramic filter before bottling the potable water in 1.5L bottles (we save them from when we buy water in the city) and storing them in our fridge (which may or may not have electricity). We wash our filter 1-2 times a month due to the amount of debris. For our indoor dump-flush toilet we use the gray water from bathing. For washing our clothes… we mostly just don’t.

Bodies in America: women’s breasts and men’s thighs are typically kept tucked away. If someone has gained weight we say nothing, if someone has lost weight we might congratulate them or say nothing. Skin problems largely go without comment.

Bodies in Mozambique: women’s breasts are often out and about (whether or not they are breast feeding), men’s thighs are out if they having been playing futebol and torsos are out if they’ve been working in the yard. Women’s legs are much more sexualized (I would never answer the door in my work out shorts). I see children in varying degrees of clothed on the regular (they all have a nice set of clothes for church/school but play clothes are meant to be ruined). If someone is looking chubby they are told that they have “engordaste!” (fattened up), if you have zits or freckles they will constantly be pointed out to you. In the more rural areas and the poorer bairros being curvy is a good thing, in the more developed areas a more Western standard of beauty is desired.

Electricity: we call it energy, and it will disappear sometimes in the morning for 20 minutes to an hour and at night if it’s stormy. We have a single burner stove that is very “shocky”, meaning we have to wear rubber flipflops and use a towel to replace the metal lid, and melts our outlets so we have to move it around the house to distribute the damage. When I plug in my laptop I am very careful to only be touching the rubber part because it almost always sparks. To keep energy in the house, we buy a code and input it into the power box but the place to buy it in Meconta never has its system up and running so we go into the city two hours away to buy that.

Pets: we have two, Maluca the 3 year old dog that has lived with PCVs in Meconta since 2013, and Piipii’aka/Vovô/Gramps the five month old kitten. Most people, especially children, are afraid of dogs with good reason – the mato dogs (wild dogs) are scary and only sulk into the villages when my dog is in heat or to scavenge food at dusk. Otherwise there is a plethora of goats and chickens for me to coo at.

Changes I’ve noticed in myself: I’m better at taking criticism, not all of the time but more and more. I’m getting better at holding my tongue instead of criticizing others. I’ve lost weight – I can tell by comparing a picture of my family taken in September with more recent photos and by the extra notch on my belt I added this morning. I’m also less muscular; I traded rugby for a very starchy diet. I’m more freckled, more pink, and maybe even a little more tan. I’m getting better at being alone and being happy. I keep cutting my hair, it’s shorter than it’s been since my sophomore year of college. I’m better at speaking what’s on my mind and communicating my feelings; I’m more direct about my intentions and desires. I’m more laid back – nothing will go as planned, but everything will happen the way it needs to so I might as well laugh as my lesson and travel plans change direction.

So there are some comparisons between my life Stateside and Mozside. Topics coming up: being a teacher, our Early Grade Reading Assessment Community Library Program (egra clp, aka the biblioteca or the escolinha) and working with small children, Elisabete (my 14 year old pal, the chefe de crianças), a família de Júlia (my neighbor in her late twenties who’s got 6 kids under her roof), language and considering myself bilingual-ish, and my thoughts on teaching English as a foreign language. Thanks for reading!

 

A Letter to My Group, or The Post About Drew

9/4/2016

Dear Moz Vinte-Cinco,

I wanted to write – a text, a blog post, a letter, something – to explain to the folks back home how losing Drew feels, the cavity I felt expand through my chest starting with Ale’s first texts about not hearing from Rachel, the car crash involving two PCVS, the final email and all the subsequent ones from staff – well intentioned, somewhat comforting – that referred to him as “Andrew”. How cold it felt, the information gliding over gray matter like ice, not sinking in, not yet. I couldn’t find the sentences to fill the gap. How do you share with the people who weren’t lucky enough to know Drew what it feels like to miss his smirk, the way he turned around in his seat at IFP to share a wordless joke? Or his quiet way of deciding it was time for another round, whether or not anyone else was in? Or the easiness he exuded, like you could talk to him about anything? Or how steady he seemed, sitting on the wall at Tinga’s as the crowd ebbed and flowed? Or the way he was kind whether or not it was convenient, whether that meant a shared cigarette and beer or long talks until life felt manageable again? How do you explain losing a friend, a colleague, a brother? With you all, though, I don’t need to say shit. Moz 25, we get it. We were the lucky ones, to get to share the first six months of our Peace Corps service with Drew.  And now, we get to carry him with us. Together.

In times of hardship, in times of sorrow, we hold each other tighter. So let’s call, if only for the comfort of a familiar voice in the night, under the Milky Way and Orion, feeling small and insignificant in our pain but knowing there’s someone at the other end of the line. Let’s take trips to the ocean, let the salt water scrub away some of the ache. Let’s text, small check ins, knowing what “I guess I’m okay” really means. We’ll laugh, because he got in some silly ass situations, and we’ll cry without needing to explain what in that particular moment brought it on. We will pass the Hankey Banister, gasp and gulp some cider, and smirk at each other’s grimaces, for him. We will sing together, torn between smiles and choked sobs, and we will exchange stories about his life so we never forget. Drew is loved, in death just as he was in life. So let’s hold each other, Moz 25, in the light that shone from him.

When we falter, when we feel the cavity expanding, or open our mouths to speak but can’t voice the heartache, hold tight to one another and fill the gaps with his light. We are together, in our grief and our joy. The weight we are each carrying need not be carregar’ed alone. Drew has passed on, but we keep him alive in our memories of him – his kindness, his warmth, his sense of wonder and humor – and our love for each other. Be inspired by him – let’s be warm to each other, let us find ways of being kind with disregard for convenience, let us smile and shake off the small stuff, let us love the time we have for each other because it is so precious and so short. drews memorial

We hold each other in his light and we keep Drew with us, always.

So in his words, Much Love, sempre.

Mira

 

Always Be Learning

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Don’t take anything personally. You are the center of your own universe, the protagonist and producer and playwright of your story. But while you’re doing you, so is everyone else. You gotta shrug it off and let them. Be open about what you would like and what you need, and be down when others advocate for their own desires. Strive for empathy and compassion, don’t close yourself off from other’s emotions. But remember, other folks are acting and reacting to the world as they see it. It’s the best any of us can do. So when group plans fall through, just continue on with your own narrative and go watch sunsets over the Indian Ocean, the kind that are tarnished by cheap camera phone attempted capture. The sun still sets whether you’re juntos or sozinha.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re the center of your universe, yeah cool. But you’re also just one of a few billion special stars. So let yourself be called out for being different. Be the silly teacher who makes the students reach up high to pluck imaginary mangos, shimmy shimmy down low to put them in baldes, and twist twist twist to stir invisible pots of xima. Put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable and weather them to the end. Let yourself blend in and listen when the opportunity arises, even if you don’t understand everything being said. Cut off large chunks of your hair and laugh at yourself. Take selfies and relish in beauty shared only with yourself and then let them go. Attempt to learn new languages and accept the laughter from local linguists. Let yourself be human; we have such a short time here that you might as well ride out the highs and lows of the existence without a pin up your pucker.

Do take care of yourself. Run when you gotta get away. Sometimes you just need to fugir; know that you can almost always return. Cry when shit gets too heavy to hold inside. Put on your good music, pour yourself a cup, and dance until your abs ache and you feel a little lighter. Take a bath, or at least pour your bucket bath over your head a little slower. Go find some seafood and salt water and let your density be offset just a little. Lay out on the rope bed under the Milky Way. Exhale.

Do make space. Temporal space, pauses, and emotional space, decluttering. Start a conversation with your bread guy before you buy breakfast. Sit in companionable silence as a seven year old neighbor makes tiny sand cakes in the backyard, talking to herself and only looking up to count the little mounds with you every so often. Say hello to the other travelers; your book can wait. Make space for new people in your life. Find quiet places and take note of the sounds and smells so that in a few decades you can pause and bring back memories with substance, with scenery. Lay out under the moon and clouds and stars and be okay with your little piece of infinity. Be okay with being a speck of dust. Catch the sunrise and then slip back into the warm embrace of clean sheets on a big bed.  Acknowledge when your body is working the way it should without pain and enjoy the peace. Pause, and let the world continue slipping by without you for just a few moments. Relish the space and know that it’s never empty.

I don’t really have anything specific to Peace Corps or Mozambique to post right now. I just spent a weekend traveling alone (although my trip was shortened by a small passport problem, mainly I forgot it) (a week before this was posted), cutting my very long hair off, eating and drinking decadent foods, tactlessly speaking my desires, and reminding myself of one of my least favorite-favorite traits: impulsivity. It’s a wonderful world, and I’m happy to be living a bit of this life in Mozambique surrounded by people who are curious and kind. In the next few weeks I will continue teaching year eight and year twelve at the Escola Secundária de Meconta-Sede and open the children’s library/early-grade reading program with my roommate and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Kerri. Our pets, Maluca and Gramps, are still keeping our lives crazy, my crew of children still stop by to raid our fruit trees and make observations about my appearance, and our water spigot is still running muddy water. I’m trying to continue practicing pausing, taking care of myself, not taking myself too seriously, and remembering to not take things personally.IMG_0689

The Things I Carried, The Ones I Left

I came to Mozambique in late September of 2015, with the Ohio fall air just blowing in crisp enough that I could wear a few extra layers of clothing, thick socks under my hiking boots, and a jacket without sweating. I brought a red 65L backpacking pack that had seen me through a couple different living spaces and a music festival, a medium sized black backpack I’d had since high school with frayed straps and a few jerry-rigged zippers, a small black messenger bag gifted from my older sister so that I’d have something with secure pockets, and finally a hard brown suitcase, without wheels, that I’d decoupaged with polka dotted fabric four years before and intended to leave behind after two years in Mozambique. Within the backpacking pack I had stuffed an 8L pack that carried my empty camelback bladder. I was chega on bags and I was over packed with possessions.

I left a trunk of my favorite fiction and coats and journals in the dust and cobweb cluttered closet under my parent’s stairs. I left skirts and dresses I had worn on nights that never ended with friends who became family. I left on my parents’ shelves books on nonviolence and feminist activism. I left a tin lunchbox full of love letters and memorabilia too important to a memoir down the road to burn. I hid in my parents’ house the possessions carted from purge to purge, the things that had kept me cozy on lonely cold nights in Ohio.

I brought a stack of cotton tee-shirts, all just a little oversized and not my style, under the impression that my torso would be taboo. I brought a pair of brown high heels that I have worn twice in five months. I brought a plastic bag of jewelry that I never wore in the States and that I don’t wear here. I brought a one piece speedo swimsuit that I left in a bag on the side of the road in favor of a found two piece. I brought two pairs of jeans, one of which was just slightly too big and one of which was just slightly too tight. I brought too many notebooks and not enough pens. I brought make up and I don’t regret it; I could have left the pocket mirror.

I left The Poisonwood Bible, a heavy tome of historical fiction containing thirty years of American women living in the Congo, with my newly single and always overworked older sister who wants to read more during her smoke breaks. I left three pairs of boots: a set of dark green wellies for fall through spring sleet that would have seen good use during rainy season in southeast Africa; a set of yellow and green Bean boots with traction for long hikes over icy mud that are too big for either of my sisters and too small for any of my parents; and a pair of leather knee high boots I wore on days just a little too cold for socks and sandals.

I carried a large pocket knife with a partly serrated edge which I would later use to kill and clean a chicken. In my carry-on I had a multi-tool with a small knife that the TSA confiscated but would have passed through Mozambican airport security without issue. I brought my toolkit of paints, brushes, and inks and a large composite sketchbook that has chronicled my life since my sophmore year at university. I brought hair ties and hair scissors, one of which I use more and more and the other less and less. I brought a pocket sewing kit I would later use to patch the holes in my pants, backpack, and hem by hand my first capulana. I brought my laptop, an empty hard drive, my little sister’s iPod, and a point-and-click camera that I should use more often. I carried a notebook pasted full of letters reread until the pages were softened at the edges and the glue needed to be reapplied.

I left my rugby ball and college team shirts, mud and beer stained from years of growing strong and growing together, with my little sister as she began her freshman year of college and rookie year on the team I had captained. I left books on caring for backyard chickens with my parents and the new flock I helped them start. I left a set of weights I traded in for a few years hauling water buckets. I left a mama who cried every time I called home for the first two months, a stepdad fighting to keep everything from falling apart all at once, an older sister proving to herself over and over again that the life she is making is wonderful, and a younger sister forging into a unique definition of adulthood for the first time.

I carried a secret file of photos my parents took on my camera while I wasn’t looking, pictures of them looking happy together with their cats in a newly empty nest. I carried two albums (one of which I ditched at a hotel in Philadelphia to save space) of printed photos of friends and my sisters that I now hang on my walls. I left voice messages at the airport before my flight to Johannesburg, last whispers of goodbye before turning my American Nokia brick phone off for two years. I carried two well-loved stuffed animals from when I was a baby, unregretted but currently living at the bottom of a trunk in my new house. During a last weekend at my alma mater I left a note and my handprint on the wall of the cabin I helped build a few years earlier, unsolicited advice from an old ‘Steader that wouldn’t be found for months.

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Bring clothing that helps you feel like who you were, even if you might only wear it inside your room a few times through the years, but don’t bring too much because you will probably end up wearing the same outfits day after day after day and not minding at all. Leave the quick-dry, ultra-light, looks like you’re going camping for two years zip off pants. Bring clothing that fits you and know that hand washing and sun drying will stretch everything out but that your weight will fluctuate and that there will always be someone to take your hand-me-downs and that none of your American friends will give a single shit and all of your host country friends will write you off as being a foreigner anyway. Bring underwear but don’t worry when all of it has holes and weird stains and the elastic stretches out and you find yourself going days without wearing any. Bring your favorite books, even though they’re heavy and you’ve read them already and you might also have them as e-files on your computer because you will meet people who need them. Leave your Subway and Speedway rewards cards. Don’t worry too much about money; you will be paid enough to travel and splurge occasionally. Leave your smartphone; you will be able to buy at least one phone in country that will satisfy your internet needs and make you less of a target. Bring one notebook – you will be able to buy more as needed – and an unopened pack of your favorite kind of pens. Buy a small adaptor in an airport and share it with your friends. Bring two bandanas and two reusable water bottles because you will lose or destroy at least one of both. Leave the deodorant.

Bring your hopes. Leave your expectations. Bring your sense of wonder, of curiosity, and of surprise. Bring the ability to self-assess and also to self-forgive. Leave the world still turning in your hometown, your friends’ lives still moving without your presence. Bring your history, we carry it with us whether we recognize it or not. Bring wide eyes and open ears and fight to keep them that way through the monotony and tendency to become jaded. Leave, just for a while, and know that you won’t return as the same person who left.