Wednesday, December 1, 2010


And time drags on here. Without work I am a fidgety, indolent blob of flesh. School is effectively over, some minor administrative paperwork remains. All I have to do is sign gradesheets. Maybe 30 minutes of real work in a day.

So all I can say is that my life is pretty plain, so I sit around my house and pray for rain.

The hot season is also the planting season, because it is also the wet season. The wet season is erratic in Africa, one year having three times as much rainfall as the next. The rain is vital, the most common profession—or rather way of life—here in Mozambique is subsistence farming. Almost everyone has a machamba (garden/farm) to “supplement their diets” as we say, or sell some extra goods in the market. Even I have a small machamba in my front yard to get the green veggies I so dearly miss. And while I have water at the mission, the vast majority of Mozambicans rely on rainfall.

Small talk these days revolves around how hot it is and the lack of rain. It rained last night, one of the first major rains of the season. It’s a promising sign. And in Mozambique when it rains it pours.

It can start in a matter of seconds. Literally seconds: when the drops start to fall people run for cover, women with buckets full of fish on their heads, men in ties, little kids, everyone. When I first saw this I laughed, what’s the matter with a few raindrops? But moments later it started raining, I mean really raining, and I understood.

It’s severe. The rain falls in sheets, in buckets, in pools. Within moments your shirt is soaked. In two minutes your thick khakis are drenched through, like someone just pushed you into the pool on your birthday. If you’re caught in it you’re screwed.

So you walk around armed with an umbrella, always. The problem is that the rain is wholly unpredictable. Dark rain clouds will hang overhead for days, staring down at you waiting for the one time you run to the market just to pick up toilet paper, you won’t be gone more than ten minutes. You learn this lesson only once—it takes forever for your clothes to dry without direct sunlight—and you are forever after vigilant with your umbrella. But you’ll learn the hard way, arriving at your front door pitiful, relieved and sopping like a wet kitten.

The roof on my house is sheets of zinc. Every huge raindrop that smacks onto my roof echoes down into my house. When the sheets, buckets, pools fall the sound is huge, like machine-gun clad battalions firing outside my windows. You can be sitting next to someone and almost shouting just for them to hear you.

Every joint, every nail and screw-hole is an opportunity for the rain to get in. In the middle of night I awoke with my pillow soaked in the midst of the deafening rain. I arose with a start and moved my bed, only to find that the rain was leaking everywhere. I used every bucket and basin I had to collect the leaks around my house. I draped several garbage bags over my mosquito net to protect myself. My mattress was wet, so I slept on my thermarest atop my bed.

The most spectacular thing about the rainy season isn’t the rain itself. I have never seen, never imagined, lightning like I have seen in Mozambique. It cracks down from the heavens in awesome bolts, dwarfing us tiny humans below. The bolts dart sideways between clouds, and dance across the horizon. The huge spikes of electricity remind you how tall the sky is. More amazing than any fireworks I have seen.

And the thunder. The thunder is unbelievable. The rain pounding my roof is nothing compared to the boom of thunder. The sound is vast, almost painful, and as I sit alone in my house the gigantic blast fills me with an irrational, awed fear. My cat and I sit together, grateful for each other’s company, the hackles raised on our necks, on edge for the next thunder crack.

It stops just as quickly. Without warning the rain slows and stops as if some great god was simply turning off the faucet. The silence rings in your ears, and you can feel your heart beat gratefully but tentatively slowing down. After all, it could start again at any moment.

20 days until my family arrives.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Peanut butter, my lifeblood. When you don't want to cook, when you want something that reminds you of home, full of protein and fat--two nutrients not easily gotten here--peanut butter.

My town does not have peanut butter. It's my only complaint about where I live. My addiction to peanut butter drives me at least once a month to the nearby city (read "large town kind of") of Vilanculos.

The lone mode of transport is the chapa, a large grey van that seats 12 comfortably but is considered full at around 25 people (plus live goats, chickens, babies and luggage--once a live goat was strapped to the roof). It's cheap and completely unpredictable. Sometimes they leave every half hour, sometimes not for a few hours at a time. I've been in chapas that have broken down on the road many times. Once I was in a chapa whose engine was continually overheating, necessitating a stop every two miles or so to cool the engine with water fetched from a river that parallels the road. Another time the chapa came to a complete and normal stop, and the door fell off. Yet another time they couldn't get the door open, and I was stuck in that glorified RC car with 20+ sweating bodies for almost an hour without moving.

But you make it work, and you get better at accepting it. After all, there is no alternative. Mozambican patience is, generally speaking, heroic, and it figures.

Remember that almost anywhere I go in my corner of Mozabique, I cause a stir. This applies especially to chapas. I approach the chapa stop and I am bombarded with "My fren! My fren! Where you go? Where you go my fren?" I try to stay calm and explain where I am going in Portuguese. "Oh!" they say, "you speak Portuguese!" Yes, I do, and that gets me a handfull of respect, enough to ensure that they don't try to rip me off, usually.

The problem is that in chapas they do not speak Portuguese. And the stir continues when I get in. My tiny amount of Shitswa is enough for me to know when they are talking about me, that and the fact that they stare, point and laugh quite openly. Sometimes I try to respond in the little Shitswa I know, sometimes I just address them in Portuguese to break the ice. But as the jokes go on, and am I talked about more and more but personally acknowledged less I find myself paralyzed. "Why is the white man riding with us in the chapa?" "Doesn't the boss have a car?" It's the most alienating experience I have ever had.

I want to tell them not to call me "boss", first of all. But explaining to a complete stranger the racial ramifications of the word boss out of the blue is not an endeavor I would recommend. Your good intentions are hampered by language barriers, massive cultural barriers, and the simple fact that most people don't want to be burdened with that kind of stuff. I sympathize, I don't want to be burdened by it either. But when you are a racially sensitized white American surrounded by black Africans and they are calling you "boss" over and over it's hard not to feel like you are drowning in it.

It will calm down after a few minutes, because I have lived in my community for so long most of the time the chapa driver or someone on the chapa knows me, and that diffuses the situation.

I get off the chapa after 3 hours and I can't feel my feet because the chapa is so small that my knees have to be raised to fit, so only a fraction of my butt touches the seat at any one moment. But I need my damn peanut butter and I'll do whatever it takes at this point. If I thought the chapa was bad, Vilanculos proper is far worse. In the market there are men whose profession is to scam white people. As I approach they see me and pounce. They ask me if I want to change money, they ask me what I want, offering to get it for me at jacked up prices. I tell them I don't want anything, and sometimes they follow me. I ask them to leave me alone and a brave few will continue to follow, asking what I want over and over. When I threaten violence and scream at them that I am not some %$^#@ tourist they will almost always leave, laughing as they go (this is to diffuse the tension, a very common Mozambican maneuver). They may follow at a distance though, on the prowl as I look for the best prices on peanut butter.

Everywhere I go kids shout "Milungo!" at me. People call me "boss" (it sounds like "boys" when they say it. And when you ask them what it means none of them know), one time a man on the other side of the street selling phone credit shouted "sista! sista! sista!" over and over again, perhaps "sister" being the only English word the guys knows. Children ask me for money, adults ask me for money. It’s not everyone or even most people, but it feels like I am being sized up and calculated. My shirt, my bag, my sunglasses and especially my shoes give me away, let alone of course my skin and hair. Some days it feels like every friendly conversation ends with them asking me for money.

I'm on my guard, on edge, the whole time. Ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that when I travel I can be brutal, especially to people who think they can rip me off. My community isn't anything like Vilanculos. It's smaller, quieter, I'm well known, and sure I get harassed now and then but after a short conversation I can usually introduce myself and ensure that that person will never call me "boss" or "milungo" again. But Vilanculos is a hardened tourist town. White people pass through all the time and they are almost all tourists, none speaking Portuguese. I am just another white, a target for some, a novelty for others, or ignored (as I would prefer it).

I get my peanut butter and go home. Being in Vil is exhausting, riding on chapas is exhausting, and it all makes me feel like an outsider with no means of being anything but white, and that feeling is the most exhausting and hopeless feeling a volunteer can get..

Once back in town though I say thank you to the driver. I stop by the market and say hi to my friends there. I joke around with Nina who sells me tomatoes. Luisa who breast feeds her baby as she talks to me in my broken Shitswa. True story:

While buying bananas a little girl looks at me and says "milungo!" And Julia, one of the banana ladies stops her and says, "Hey, that's not a milungo, that's Colin." I thank her like an idiot ("You don't have to thank me!" she says, almost annoyed) and go home with my peanut butter tucked under my arm.


Family t-minus one month.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Goal Three

The Peace Corps has three goals. Very basically they are 1) to help the host country, 2) to represent America, and 3) to represent the host country to Americans.

Number one is too vague to quantify. Number 2 is pretty much a guarantee. Number three can be more complicated than it suggests. Keeping a blog, for instance, is a very simple way to give a snapshot of Mozambique, to humanize and characterize Mozambicans, and so forth. But I was speaking to a volunteer about this a few weeks ago, and a snapshot does not capture the ridiculous complexity of a society and a people.


One of the Italians at my site has a house. In front of this house is a pack of stray dogs that has accumulated over the last few months. In the beginning they seemed dangerous, and after a while they were a nuisance, but after some months my Italian friend came to grow fond of them, and especially fond of the two that spent the most time on her front steps.

One of these dogs was female, and was soon enough pregnant. As the dog grew fatter and less mobile my friend took some extra care of it. When the dog gave birth she started to make plans for the puppies.

Shortly thereafter, one of the neighbors killed the dog with a knife, and all of the puppies died.

My initial reaction was of repulsion and outrage. Killing a dog with a knife? A dog with puppies? It was difficult to think of any justification, and very easy to think of sadistic, cruel evil. I have been a dog owner my whole life, I could never imagine doing anything like that to a dog.

And if we left it at that Mozambique might seem like a cruel place, and Mozambicans a violent people.

But being culturally sensitive liberal stereotypes with our relativistic moralities we are going to try to understand this situation. Firstly: the man who killed the dogs certainly did not have any inkling that these dogs had owners. They were strays; he wasn’t overstepping his authority because no one had claimed any official ownership over them. In fact, the dog had had the puppies in front of his own house in his yard. So suddenly a random dog sat down on his lawn and popped out a bunch of puppies.

Secondly, animals rights are a luxury we have in the US that is simply not recognized here. If people aren’t getting enough to eat, don’t have proper shelter against the cold, or medical care where exactly do dogs enter as a priority? Animals are labor, food, or nuisance, the concept of a pet is not one that exists in the Mozambican countryside (nor does it likely exist anywhere outside of our Western world).

Thirdly, stray dogs can be dangerous. Just a few weeks ago a woman in my town died of rabies, which as I understand it is a downright terrifying way to die. Dogs can bite kids, steal food, attack livestock and carry diseases like rabies, scabies, etc etc. So when the mommy dog has puppies on the lawn its just a few more dangerous roaming animals in the neighborhood.

Lastly, the knife. He killed the mother dog with a knife! How grisly and awful, I though at first. But it’s not like his stabbed the dog repeatedly for the adrenaline rush or sadistic thrill. Slitting an animals throat is how animals are killed here, mostly because it is a fairly quick and therefore relatively merciful way to kill an animal.

The incident evolved in my mind from a violent murder to a practical measure. Packs of stray dogs can be a dangerous nuisance. There are no vets to give rabies shots or to “put the dog to sleep” (I wonder what dogs would think of that euphemism). The man was looking out for his house and his family.

But my friend was still sad afterwards, and angry. I don’t blame her. But I don’t blame him either.

Then I watched every superhero movie I could get my hands on to right my head. Then my computer died and I was very, very sad.

50 days until my family arrives! Way too long to start a realistic countdown!

Goal Three

The Peace Corps has three goals. Very basically they are 1) to help the host country, 2) to represent America, and 3) to represent the host country to Americans.

Number one is too vague to quantify. Number 2 is pretty much a guarantee. Number three can be more complicated than it suggests. Keeping a blog, for instance, is a very simple way to give a snapshot of Mozambique, to humanize and characterize Mozambicans, and so forth. But I was speaking to a volunteer about this a few weeks ago, and a snapshot does not capture the ridiculous complexity of a society and a people.


One of the Italians at my site has a house. In front of this house is a pack of stray dogs that has accumulated over the last few months. In the beginning they seemed dangerous, and after a while they were a nuisance, but after some months my Italian friend came to grow fond of them, and especially fond of the two that spent the most time on her front steps.

One of these dogs was female, and was soon enough pregnant. As the dog grew fatter and less mobile my friend took some extra care of it. When the dog gave birth she started to make plans for the puppies.

Shortly thereafter, one of the neighbors killed the dog with a knife, and all of the puppies died.

My initial reaction was of repulsion and outrage. Killing a dog with a knife? A dog with puppies? It was difficult to think of any justification, and very easy to think of sadistic, cruel evil. I have been a dog owner my whole life, I could never imagine doing anything like that to a dog.

And if we left it at that Mozambique might seem like a cruel place, and Mozambicans a violent people.

But being culturally sensitive liberal stereotypes with our relativistic moralities we are going to try to understand this situation. Firstly: the man who killed the dogs certainly did not have any inkling that these dogs had owners. They were strays; he wasn’t overstepping his authority because no one had claimed any official ownership over them. In fact, the dog had had the puppies in front of his own house in his yard. So suddenly a random dog sat down on his lawn and popped out a bunch of puppies.

Secondly, animals rights are a luxury we have in the US that is simply not recognized here. If people aren’t getting enough to eat, don’t have proper shelter against the cold, or medical care where exactly do dogs enter as a priority? Animals are labor, food, or nuisance, the concept of a pet is not one that exists in the Mozambican countryside (nor does it likely exist anywhere outside of our Western world).

Thirdly, stray dogs can be dangerous. Just a few weeks ago a woman in my town died of rabies, which as I understand it is a downright terrifying way to die. Dogs can bite kids, steal food, attack livestock and carry diseases like rabies, scabies, etc etc. So when the mommy dog has puppies on the lawn its just a few more dangerous roaming animals in the neighborhood.

Lastly, the knife. He killed the mother dog with a knife! How grisly and awful, I though at first. But it’s not like his stabbed the dog repeatedly for the adrenaline rush or sadistic thrill. Slitting an animals throat is how animals are killed here, mostly because it is a fairly quick and therefore relatively merciful way to kill an animal.

The incident evolved in my mind from a violent murder to a practical measure. Packs of stray dogs can be a dangerous nuisance. There are no vets to give rabies shots or to “put the dog to sleep” (I wonder what dogs would think of that euphemism). The man was looking out for his house and his family.

But my friend was still sad afterwards, and angry. I don’t blame her. But I don’t blame him either.

Then I watched every superhero movie I could get my hands on to right my head. Then my computer died and I was very, very sad.

50 days until my family arrives! Way too long to start a realistic countdown!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Year One

Upon completing my first year of school I was feeling oddly…unimpressed. I had completed some of my year end goals, and in fact was still working on my last one, the school journal. But the end of the year seemed to come out of nowhere. How would I mark the occasion? I figured that a fun lesson involving the free flow of stickers would lead to some entertaining antics.

The lesson was simple: I wrote what was essentially the final exam up on the board and we would fill it in together. I would give stickers for any correct or semi-correct answer. Was their thirst for stickers was quenched I would leave a hero.

But once they realized that stickers would be happening with more or less reckless abandon their incentive to stay focused and attentive dissolved. Once the seed of chaos is sown in a room full of preteens it is all but impossible to expunge it. It spread like a flame. They were running up to the board, oblivious to my demands of quiet hand-raising, grasping for chalk to scribble some approximation of English on some random patch of blackboard to feed their addiction to stickers. Seeing order running away like a freight train I boomed for order, commanded the kids to their desks and for a moment it looked as if everything would be ok.

But Durao, the elected class leader, made a break for the board. I told him to sit down but he ignored me and started writing. The class fell quiet as they watched to see what I would do in the face of such open disobedience.

When I put Durao in a headlock the class exploded into a frenzy. All hope was lost; the students leapt from their seats, grasped the stickers from my hand and generally did whatever they wanted. Durao struggled to get free, but my godlike teacher strength held him there as the only proof of my (former) position of dominion over the class.

I don’t know where my stickers went. There is nothing more wild than the uncontrolled, sugar driven frenzy of young people, and it never ceases to entertain me. Happy one year Colin Jones.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

English Theatre

This year I had several projects that I wanted to accomplish. First was my English group for my colleagues, which I saw a natural precursor to a community English group. It failed. My colleagues failed to show up reliably, or eventually at all, and I failed to plan my lessons, hoping that I could go in shooting from the hip. I was wrong. The project sunk in about two months.

My second two projects were directed at the students in my school. I will now tell the tale of my first successful project in the Peace Corps.

English Theatre is a competition started and managed by Peace Corps Volunteers. Spread throughout the country there are three regional competitions, each with about ten groups of more or less ten students each. We heard about this in March at a conference we attended, and since then I decided that this would be perfect for me. My school is a professional school, one of those professions being Hotel and Tourism, and what could be a more useful skill than English in that industry? Mozambique is literally surrounded by English speaking countries, and you can bet with certainty that all of the tourists that come here to spend money are English speakers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, America and so forth. English Theatre would be a fantastic opportunity to practice English with a motivated group of students while doing something fun. Theatre is deeply rooted in Mozambican culture, it was a perfect match.

Now even better, a group of students approached me. Here I was thinking I would somehow have to scrounge up a group of students and one falls into my lap! They had heard about ET (English Theatre for you citizens) from the year before—the volunteer I replaced had done it as well—and decided that they wanted to do it. I accepted, certain that I had a motivated group that was anxious to get started. We celebrated by playing some Mozambican games, singing songs and dancing. It was awesome.

And I planned WAY in advance. This group was not to fail. I set two days a week to practice, and we would only speak English during practice hours. Sure, it would be hard at first, but they would be forced to learn and adapt. They would be my cadre of English speakers. Then after some practice we would write a script. Somehow.

But despite our biweekly planned meetings the students simply would not show up. About half the group would show up on any given time. I would inform them the day before, during class and every other opportunity. They would always respond, “yes teacher I will be there,” but hardly ever would be. After several absences I would ask the student if they wanted to continue in the group: “Yes, yes Teacher, I will be there tomorrow.” Then they wouldn’t be.

Now I should say that at any meeting about half the group would be there. Nadia, the queen bee, always showed up. She was the unofficial boss of our group, almost as tall as me, with a huge voice and domineering personality. She does not hesitate to criticize me in any way she sees fit and bosses everyone around, myself included. Nadia’s clique, under her constant leadership, would also always attend.

But of course they wouldn’t memorize their lines. All they wanted to do was play games, sing songs and dance. I don’t even think they really understood them for the first weeks of the process, which was strange because wouldn’t they want to know if they were spreading AIDS awareness or if I had them memorizing instruction manuals? Three weeks until the competition and they weren’t even close. Two weeks came and I was legitimately worried.

“Teacher Colin, don’t worry. The week before the competition we’ll really practice. It’s all good,” they would say again and again. But the students still weren’t coming to practice. I started feeling like I had done something wrong. Maybe it wasn’t structured enough, maybe they didn’t respect me. I had started planning so far in advance and now I was staring failure in the face, and I didn’t feel that there was anything I could do about it.

So I told them, four days from the competition when they still hadn’t come anywhere near memorizing the lines, that I didn’t know if we were going to succeed. I wasn’t angry at that them, I even told them that I liked them and wasn’t mad. Just that I was worried that if they hadn’t memorized their lines, hadn’t been showing up to practice, that maybe it was too late. It had a sobering effect, “Jeez Teacher Colin. You didn’t have to say it like that,” Nadia said to me.

But it had the desired effect, and they really started giving it serious attention. It was clear that they weren’t going to memorize their lines, so I told them to improvise. Who cares if the English is bad? Just make it work, became my new ideal. They stopped playing games and singing songs and dancing and practiced every day, and everyone finally showed up. On the last day of rehearsal they were still quite weak on their lines, but the improvement was vast. We wouldn’t be the belles of the ball, but at least they would go out there and do it, and that’s what counted.

I had arranged for a private car to take us to Massinga where the competition was to take place. It’s about a four hour drive, and we had to arrive before eight am, which means leaving at the unfortunate hour of 3:30 am.

“Don’t be late!” I lectured them, “3:30 does NOT mean you are going to leave your houses at 3:30. It means you will be there at exactly 3:30. Not 3:35, not 3:45, but 3:30. Do we understand?” They groaned, but punctuality had not been a strong suit of theirs up to that point, and this was something they couldn’t be late for.

That night before bed I was nervous and excited. I just wanted the kids to do ok. I didn’t care if all of their lines were straight, or if their pronunciation was good, I just didn’t want them to embarrass themselves. On my way to bed the bar behind my house was blasting music so I put my earplugs in. After all, I’d need my sleep.

I awoke in the middle of the night. I knew I had to get up at 3:30, so I checked my watch to see if I could squeeze in another hour or two of sleep.


Nothing makes you feel more awake then waking up late. I leapt up with an adrenaline jolt. I scrambled for my phone and called one of the students.

“Teacher Colin, where are you?! We are all here and we are waiting for you!”
“I’m on my way! Tell the car to come to my house!”
I packed my bag as fast as I could and ran out the door, sweating and guilty. I had given them an earful about punctuality. I had put my earplugs in, what a stupid thing to do! I felt awful. The car was out front. I through my bags in and immediately started to apologize, when Nadia interrupted:

“Teacher Colin, we want to give an oration”

I use the word “oration” because she used the word “oração,” the equivalent word in Portuguese. An oration? What did she mean? Had they prepared a speech to chew me out for being late after I had given them so much heat the day before? I froze.

And then they joined hands and said the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. An oration.

Then they started singing. We pulled out of our town in the middle of the night, the students singing in chorus in languages I could never hope to understand. And call me corny, but it was joyous, and I could have listened to it the whole four hours there, I was so grateful to be with them. Thirty minutes later we were all asleep.

We bleary eyed, just one of eleven other groups flooding into the courtyard of the tiny university in Massinga. In classic fashion my group immediately formed a circle and started playing games, singing songs and dancing. They were making a ruckus, but I noticed that out of all of the groups, and the over one hundred students from different parts of the country, that my group was the only group that was playing games, singing songs and dancing. Shamelessly, almost obnoxiously they danced and sang, completely unprovoked. I even joined in, which I normally felt that I couldn’t do as the responsible adult. And it all made me love them.

We were one of the last groups to go, and as our time approached I could tell that my students were nervous. I shot down a dozen last minute panicky changes, and reassured them that they would be fine. And I really wanted them to be fine. Just to not embarrass themselves. I didn’t care that they hadn’t shown up, that they hadn’t put in the hours. I just wanted them to have some fun. As I sat there pale-faced rubbing my sweaty palms on my pants one of my buddies said that I had “stage dad” syndrome.

And they went up and performed. They did great. Yes, they forgot a lot of lines and had to limp through some scenes using faulty improvisation, but all in all it was fine. I was so relieved, and as they left the stage I ran up to them to ask how they felt.

But they didn’t feel good. I could tell they were a little shaken, and a couple students even told me that they didn’t do as well as they hoped. I was crushed. But I patted their backs and said “what’s a line here or there? The important thing is that we understood.” And the crowd had understood. It had gone fine, but I couldn’t stand the thought of them feeling like they had failed.

All of the participants got a gift bag with t shirts, English-Portuguese dictionaries and some school supplies, but there was also an awards ceremony for the top three groups, best actor overall and best actress overall. I sat with my group and I could tell they were already feeling better. We joked around and I relaxed. I loved these kids. I was pissed that it had taken me this long to appreciate it, but happy as a clam all the same.

And as the awards were announced I zoned out. So I was more than a little surprised when my group leapt up and started screaming. We had won first place. The cherry on top was our leading girl had won best actress as well. The elation is hard to describe.

If I thought they had danced and sang before it was nothing compared to after winning first place. “We told you everything was fine teacher Colin!!” Nadia screamed at me, dragging me into the group. Louder than ever they played games, sang songs at the top of their lungs and danced with every fiber of their bodies. And I did, too. Call me corny, but I felt just about as happy as I could hope to feel.

On the ride back they sang until their voices were hoarse. “Teacher Colin was worried we weren’t going to succeed” they ribbed me the whole way home. We joked and laughed and they complained about how they were hungry and I bought them all food. “Stage dad” syndrome made me feel vulnerable, and I think they knew it. They saw how nervous I was, and it brought us closer together.

Was it right that they had been so unprepared and still won? What was the life lesson being learned with this victory? I put those questions away—it was better just to enjoy it.

When I said goodbye to them I realized that at the end of the year almost all of them would be graduating. These students had been with me my whole first year, and I might not see some of them again. Thinking about how well I had gotten to know them made me realize how long I had been here, and just how far I had come in my first year as a volunteer. I told them that they were a special group, that I had had fun with them, and that I was proud of them. And I was.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brainstem's the only way to stop em

Every morning when I leave my house I am accosted by a group of about one hundred children. This is a difficult thing to describe in terms of enjoyment. That is to say, do I like being accosted by one hundred children every morning? Someone taught them all to say “ta ta!” to any white person they saw, and having one hundred small children wave frantically at you and scream “ta ta!” in unison is a heart meltingly adorable thing.

As their curiosity grew they would approach me, at first only the brash/stupid ones that Darwinian selection would get if only society were not here to stop them from poking snakes or crawling into dark caves (the ones that either die young or grow up to be Bear Grylls). When one finally got the courage to hold my hand I did what any man would do, I started roaring like a lion while picking them up and pretending to eat them. They were at first terror-stricken, but after a few thrilling moments of the white hot, blinding fear that only a child can feel they began to actually want to be picked up. A few of them developed the unfortunate tendency to try to eat me back. Since then leaving my house has become something of an issue.

Every morning I am quite literally blockading by one hundred screaming children. They lock onto my legs, weigh down my arms, climb up me like a tree—and while at first my lion gig was good enough to get rid of them they now think its rip-roaringly hilarious. My threats to kill them are lost because these children are too young to speak Portuguese, and while my shitswa is good enough to scream “go away!” at them it has no effect. So I do what any man would do, I run away.

So for the last month or so you will see me leaving my yard dressed in a button down collared shirt, slacks and dress shoes, cradling my man-purse as I run as fast as I can past a pursuing mass of crazed children. It’s a lot like 28 Days Later only I can’t shoot them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Riots in Maputo

The last week has seen some violence in Mozambique. Rises in the prices of basic goods in conjunction with a food shortage (due I believe to a drought in Russia or some such whatever) have caused large protests, which some crazy kids took as an opportunity to riot and loot, and unfortuntely lead some police officers to use live rounds on rioters/protesters killing between 7 and 13 people, depending on the report. The protests did spread to some other metropolitan areas of Mozambique, and in the city of Chimoio some reports said 3 more were killed.

Now despite all that my life has changed not at all. My community has not been affected in the slightest by these problems. In fact when my mother called she knew quite a bit more about it than I did. The peace corps volunteers here in Moz are in no danger of any kind, though the Peace Corps has taken precautions and restricted our travel to keep tabs on us just in case.

Reports of jeeps full of police rolling the streets of Maputo armed with AK47s calls to mind dark times in this countrys past, so worry over the violence in the international news is no surprise. It is also a tragedy that police used live rounds, or that some protesters chose to riot. That being said, the effects of all of this have been quite small. Though in the coming weeks we'll see what rising food prices does to my community.

So it's relatively all good in the hood.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stupid Buzzer Guard

Last night I’m buzzing my hair. I have decided that I will never grow out my hair again, and so far it’s been a fantastic decision. I am trying to get all the hair by my ear when the guard snaps off, and there goes a chunk of hair. Now I’m bald to the scalp on a two square inch patch on the side of my head.

My guitar playing has waned. My garden barely got off the ground. I stopped playing basketball at school. I sketch far less than I used to. I haven’t updated my blog in months. I am definitely in a slump.

But why? At this point in my service I am more capable than ever, and have begun to fulfill my year end goals. I successfully started the school newspaper—though we haven’t published yet things so far are promising. I have an English theatre group, though how well we do remains to be seen. Classes are going well, far easier than before. My Portuguese is good. Life here has become normal. So what’s the deal?

Well, life here has become normal, and the challenges of normalness sort of took me by surprise. They are all familiar: boredom, lack of inspiration and motivation, getting stuck in patterns. At the beginning of my service leaving my house every day was a challenge, every interaction intimidating, so the face that life was hard wasn’t exactly a surprise. I forgave myself easily for my bad days and congratulated myself for every victory. Now my perspective has changed, gradually enough so that I didn’t notice it. And no one warned me about the doldrums of the day to day. I had been bracing myself for an acute challenge: adjust to life, and now I find myself having past it. I figured that once I got past all the craziness everything would be fine.

And everything is fine. I am healthy, I am busy. But I’m a little bored. I had lost track of the long term challenges of friendship building and integrating into the community in lieu of the more exciting ones. Making friends takes time, and through a foreign language and culture an extra effort. I have never had terrible trouble making friends, but here even sustaining conversation requires focus. Can you imagine me having trouble sustaining conversation?

It’s time to refocus and address the new challenges. I have plans to improve my house, to get some guitar songs off the internet the next time I’m there, and to restart my exercise. More than that, I want to refocus on expanding my social network. I have a lot of acquaintances, my town is small so wherever I go I see familiar faces, but what I need is a step beyond.

A recap/revision of my year end goals:
Be able to play and sing a few songs on the guitar (a few has shrunken from around 10 to around 3)
Publish the first school newspaper
Become conversation in Shitswa (i.e. redefine “conversational”)
Participate in the English Theatre competition
Scuba certification (next week?)
boring ones involving home improvement
Not lose any more weight

Oh yes, and be happy etc.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heroism, adulthood

I'm in the big city (it's about the size of Westwood). The only thing I want is ice cream and I can't remember the goddamn word! It's a form of hell that is ruining my day. I decided to stop in the internet cafe to distract myself.

The other day as I was coming back from basketball a little girl bursts into tears. Usually I avoid approaching and asking what's wrong because the presence of a gigantic, sallow skinned monstrosity can invoke an adrenaline-flight response in children. But this time the cause was obvious, she had lost her goats. There are goats tied to posts everywhere in my town. Sometimes for milk, mostly for eating, their screams sound eerily like the screams of children. These two goats, envigorated by their newfound freedom bounded away from the girl...and towards a group of infants!

I leapt into action, pursued the goats and saved the kids. Though I never got above a jog and in all honesty probably just saved the goats from the merciless cruelty of the stick-wilding children, I still pretended that I was a hero and that was pretty nice for a couple of minutes. I returned the goats to the girl and promptly realized how strange this all was.

And it's stories like these that make my life sound exciting.

My English theatre group is starting, and being in charge of the creativity of a bunch of students is intimidating. I've never done anything like this before, I have no idea what activities would be good or bad, or if I have the confidence to pull it off. I've summoned a professional Photojournalist to my town as well and am responsible for making a training curriculum with him for the students at my school. I feel like I'm masquerading as a responsible adult.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

World Cup South Africa

Game Day.

We have tickets to Portugal vs. North Korea. We couldn’t get tickets to the US game, but we get to see Portugal and we are hoping that North Korea gives them a good game. The walk to the stadium is electrifying, going from one side of Cape Town to the other, a crowd of 70,000 people. The vuvuzela, the noisy trumpet-like device is spewing its celebratory noise pollution into the air. Bands are playing, men on stilts lope by, the scent of South African sausages. Portugal fans are out in force, and their colors are everywhere. But we pass Dutch fans clad in orange, English fans in their colors, and an entire family dressed to the nines in Mexican colors with each member down to the women and children wearing fake bushy black moustaches. I am wearing my jacket, USA emblazoned across the back.

There isn’t a single North Korea fan in sight, and I didn’t see one my entire time in Cape Town.

I’m just hoping for a good game.

At half its 1-0. North Korea is being outplayed, but there’s plenty of time for a turnaround. But into the second half Portugal scores. I’m buying a hot dog at the time and run out onto a balcony. The stadium explodes. The noise from the cheers hits me like a shockwave. I run back to my seat, my skin tingling with excitement.

Two minutes later Portugal scores again. 3-0. Two minutes after that they score again. 4-0. The crowd is going ballistic. “POR TU GAL! POR TU GAL!” cheers are so loud that you can’t even shout over them. You can feel them reverberating in your seat. You can feel them reverberating in your skull. Everyone around me is freaking out, screaming and jumping. We don’t want a good game anymore, we don’t want North Korea to make a spectacular comeback. We want blood. We want slaughter. We want magnificent soccer gods to rain down their athletic dominance on their puny foes like thunderbolts, to annihilate, to demean.

The crowd refuses to sit down now. Blood is in the water and the Portuguese players know it. They are suddenly invincible, penetrating the defense with playful ease. A shot goes off the crossbar, the crowd in union shouts “Oh!” in disappointment. But minutes later they score again. And again. And again. On the final goal Cristiano Ronaldo juggles the ball off of his own back, over his shoulder, and fires into the goal—the ball never toughing the ground. 7-0. Slaughter, annihilation, everything we wanted. A spectacle. The most goals scored so far in the tournament in one game, all of them scored by one team.


Cape Town was amazing. Every day we would pass groups of orange clad Dutch, heckling English, Japanese fans all in blue. We watched the US beat Algeria in a bar that was packed wall to wall with Americans. Climbed Table Mountain, went to the Cape of Good Hope (saw penguins, baboons), navigated some hangovers, ran myself to ragged. One of the best vacations I have ever had.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Technology Magic, or Microsoft as Cultural Capital, or How I did One Week’s Work in Two Hours

Our school is extremely fortunate to have several working computers that the students can use for a computer class. Needless to say this is very rare in my part of moz. The students learn computer basics, from how to turn it on to word processing and eventually to programs like Excel.

I happened to be in the computer classroom the other day to use the school’s internet connection, when the computer teacher asked me out of the blue to teach a class on Microsoft Publisher.

Why would this teacher randomly ask me to teach this class? Best guess on my end is that she didn’t know how to use Publisher herself. But the problem is that I don’t technically know how to use Publisher either. In fact, before this class I had never used Publisher, never even opened the program.

But Publisher is a Microsoft office product. With this fact as my sidearm I opened up publisher in a student’s computer and glanced through the menus. I knew vaguely that publisher is for designing newsletters, ads and so forth, I figured there would be an option for adding graphics that were ready-made. Other than that it looked and handled more or less like any other Microsoft product. I agreed to teach the class.

And I taught a two hour lesson on how to use this program. Besides some holes in my Portuguese, it went quite well.

One is tempted (or maybe just I’m tempted) to say, “Wow! Colin you are amazing!” But that assertion is dulled by the fact that I just learned the other day that in Microsoft Excel you can create equations to calculate averages and stuff for gigantic lists of numbers, such that Microsoft Excel will calculate and organize the equations for you, forever cementing Microsoft Excel with microwave ovens, wireless internet, and helicopters in the technological category known as “magic.” I figured out excel could do this literally two days ago, obviously no computer whiz.

So then what’s the deal? Two things: the first and most important was that these kids did not have a better option than me. Secondly just being an American these days—especially one familiar with Microsoft products—is a cultural kind of capital, one that I never went out of my way to learn, one that we just have.

* * *

All week long our work hours have been devoted to grading and inputting grades Because the school’s operations are not computerized, grades must be inputted into certain books and grade sheets in very carefully defined ways. First you write them in pencil in your caderneta (your personal grade recording document), then you pencil them into the grade books (these books have all the information on the students’ attendance and grades; can you imagine what would happen if someone spilled coffee on one? Or if a student decided to steal one?), then in BLUE pen you trace the grades, but not the calculated averages because those need to be double checked, then you trace over your caderneta in pen, then the grades are double checked and traced in pen, then all the grades go on a huge grade sheet called a pauta, which in turn is penciled, double checked, and then traced in pen.

No wonder we have the whole damn week to do this work! Of course I procrastinated on this work and waited until the last possible night. But all I did was input all the grades into excel and politely ask the magic calculator elf inside my computer to tell me the averages, adjust the grades if need be, and tell me the percentage of students who are passing, for a max amount of two hours of work.

So when my colleague asks me if I’m sure there are no errors, I say “of course I’m sure!” because I didn’t do the calculations, the magic calculator elf did, and he’s WAY smarter than me. Honestly what I’d like to do is just print out this document and hand it in, perfect as is. But the school’s one printer is not reserved for this kind of use, and what would they do with my one straggler gradesheet? Staple it to the side of the pauta (the gigantic final grade document) with a note explaining that these are just teacher Colin’s grades?

And that’s how I did one week’s work in two hours. I will qualify by saying it isn’t a full week even for the other teachers, in the sense of five 8-hour days. But I saved a ridiculous amount of time with a ridiculously low margin of error. Technology magic.

In one hour I leave for the world cup in South Africa. I have tickets to Portugal vs. South Korea, and who knows maybe South Korea after their Greece win will be feeling lucky enough to give Portugal a run. Don’t worry mom, I’ll take lots and lots of pictures. If you want a postcard send me your address.

Friday, June 11, 2010


As I write this Munch sits in my jacket with his head poking out, watching my fingers dance over the keys. I don't think it's cold yet, but he only weighs 3 pounds, so this is our nightly routine.

I was walking back to school from lunch when I ran into a student of mine. She is one of my best students, one I probably give too much slack because of it. Our conversation was very basic. I asked about her family. Her mother lives in a village a few hours away, she gets to see her on the weekends. “What about your dad?” I asked.
“He lives here.” She said.
“Oh that’s nice, do you live with him?”
“No. My dad never wanted me since my mother was pregnant with me. He never spoke to me as I grew up. Now that I am older he wants me, but now I do not want him,” was her calm reply.
“Oh,” was mine.

Celeste is one of the women at school. She’s is the oldest, and is very much our mother figure. She is the woman who rounded everyone up on my birthday and insisted we celebrate. Celeste attended my English class for my coworkers and was one of the first people to openly welcome me.
She works more hours than anyone else, by a long shot. Almost forty hours of classes, which is a huge number. She says that she likes to work.
Celeste does not live with her husband. Apparently he began to develop some mental issues and one day left home and retreated into the mato (the Mozambican word for the bush, or the wilderness). He left Celeste and her children, and no one—including the family—heard from him for more than fifteen years. Celeste’s children are grown and she has been living alone for some time. She shows pictures of her once intact family willingly.
Last week he returned, again without warning. Celeste was beside herself, elated. She brought him around the school and introduced him to everyone. He’s living with her now.

On my way to school I often see a little boy whose name I do not know, of maybe seven years. He is mischievous, I can tell by the look in his eye, and obviously very poor. He wanders around the village alone and likes to speak Shitswa to me, probably because he is too young to know any Portuguese.
The other day I had my umbrella. It wasn’t raining anymore so it was hanging from my bag. He approached, “Uvukili ke!” (How are you?)
I saw him and drew my umbrella like a sword, “nzi vukile hante wenau!” (I’m well and how are you?)
He turned and ran, “nzi vukileyo” (I am also fine)
Ï chased him down the street, brandishing the umbrella, “eyo!” (also)
He threw his hands in the air and ran evasively, trying to dodge the umbrella’s pokey end, “uya kuehi?” (where are you going?) He asks me this same question every time we meet.
“Nzia kaia” (I’m going home) I responded as I poked him in the ribs with the umbrella.
“Ate manzico,” (until tomorrow) he said as he batted the umbrella away, still running at full bore.
“Ate manzico” I replied as I chased him down the street.
The chase went on in silence for the last 30 meters until I got home, the smile never fading from his face (or mine). I saw him again the next day and almost every day since.

One of my students, Ilorgio, stopped by my house the other day. Again, our conversation was about basic things, school and family mostly. He’s a first year in the secondary school, meaning he’s about 14 years old. He acts very mature, with a measured step and an even tone of voice, and a slow, deliberate handshake.
Ilorgio lives here in town with his family. He lives with his mother and younger brother. “That’s a very small family” I said, most Mozambican families are quite a bit larger, sharing a house with many generations and cousins.
“Yes it is. I once had another brother, but he died. In school his teacher gave the chefe (the elected class leader) permission to hit anyone that came into the class late. One day my brother came in late and the chefe hit him on the head. In the following days my brother was very sick. We took him to the hospital, and they gave him some medicine. After that he didn’t get better. We went back to the hospital, but a short time after that he died.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But in life these things happen.”
Do they? I wanted to ask him.

I have been trying to get in some hang out time with my colleagues for the last couple of months. It’s not easy, my language still has a ways to go, and making friends can sometimes take a while as it is, let alone through a cultural barrier. I had gotten some numbers, made a few calls, but nothing had come of it. Until yesterday.
A colleague texted me, about something I had mentioned a few days before about celebrating the end of our finals week. I could hardly believe it. I was on a chapa when I received the text, and by happenstance so was another of my colleagues. I showed the text to him, and sure enough we three met up, plus another colleague, for a beer at the small bar across the street.
It started a little stiff, but by the end it was all laughs. Guy time is still guy time. We talked about politics, and girls, but mostly we talked about food. I was actually getting most of the jokes, and had no problem pitching in. I had planned to be out for maybe thirty minutes, two and a half hours later I had to peel myself off. “One more beer!” They insisted, but I still had to cook before bed, so with a prolonged goodbye I walked across the street to my house. It was just what I needed.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Munch continues his endless, fierce and exhausting war with my shoelaces. To his credit he never relents, dodging back and forth, pouncing. He has spent hours hidden in a crouch a few inches from my feet, staring them down, waiting for the perfect time to strike…
23: the year of champions. The year where I shed the inadequacies of youth behind. 23 is the year I claim the mantle of manhood. Never again will I experience self doubt or weakness. My soul is now primed for the metamorphosis to blind, unencumbered perfection. Never again will I fail at anything. Ever. 23.

I was fully prepared for my birthday to pass without note. I was ready to act like it didn’t matter, to receive the requisite call from home, to sit in my house staring at the wall playing back through the Lord of The Rings trilogy in my head.

But, as it of course turns out, my birthday was not a slow dirge of despondent misery. Firstly, I didn’t know how to tell people that it was coming up, so I tried the “hello how are you tomorrow is my birthday!” approach. I did this dozens of time, blatantly and shamelessly seeking attention, and my efforts did bear fruit.
Thursday night: Italians take me out to dinner. Eight people, TEN LOBSTERS. Ten. On top of this four fish and half a chicken. I’ve been eating cold lobster leftovers for days. I was the youngest one there.

A side note, you leave college feeling old, entering the real world, this strange place that is your birthright. Looking down on your friends behind you, you get the sensation of adulthood for the first time. It’s a sobering and unforgettable type of fear that only the unknown and sharks can generate. Then you leave college, and you are younger than everyone, utterly without experience. I’m the youngest teacher at my school and younger than any of the Italians by at least five years.

On Friday I was told to buy two cases of soda for the party. Would I be reimbursed? I was assured by several colleagues that reimbursement was theoretically possible. So I brought the sodas in at the designated time one showed. Well, my boss was there but we were having the party in her office. I found some colleagues and tried to keep my temper in check as I asked them why exactly I had spent a quarter of my monthly salary on @#$%ing sodas if no one was going to drink them. The party would happen, I was assured, at lunch.

At lunch no one showed. At my boiling point I considered sitting by the side of the road and selling the sodas for half price, but a kind colleague wouldn’t hear of it and summoned the others. A small party followed, I had even been bought a gift, a (cough) festive t shirt that would make any vacationing septuagenarian more than happy. And come cups, which I actually needed.

That day in class I gave out stickers and plastic spider to my students. That night I was invited over for dinner by a neighbor. This weekend I visited some Peace Corps peeps in our nearest big city.

So I hardly spent any time alone, as opposed to the dark loneliness I anticipated. I was reminded that my fledgling life here is developing, that I am on the right track, and that I still have a chance to live happily ever after. 23 is the beginning of all that, a life of victory and happiness and bounty and security and ease and puppies and candy and recognition and love and relaxation and...

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Munch is still alive. He can now fully see and can recognize me. He can run now, and is working on his pounce. Being needed by the little fluffball does bring a maternal feeling of warmth to my house. He follows me around constantly, tugs on the hem of my pants, my shoelaces, or gnaws on my arm. The only way I can really get him (or her) to calm down is to put him in my lap and play my guitar. He falls asleep instantly.
I have, on occasions when I am hungry, tired, and just need a minute to relax when I get in the door, lost my patience with Munch. I have honestly thought about killing him in fleeting moments when my patience wavered. So again, no kids for a long, long time.

Everywhere I go now, every day, people greet me in Shitswa. I know how to greet people at different times of the day (there is a different way of asking “how are you” in the morning, at midday, in the evening, and another at night) and how to buy things in the market. I know some basic vocab, how to say where I am going, stuff like that.
I also know how to say “I love you” (and conversely: I don’t love you, which I’ve actually used a few times), “you are beautiful,” and several other handy game-spitting phrases, just in case I became smitten with a Mozambican women within 100 miles of where I am now. This is all thanks to my best friend in the market, Orquido.
I’ve mentioned him before; the twenty year old with whom I sit every weekend, sometimes for hours, exchanging English for Shitswa, and answering his constant barrage of questions about America, music, and anything else that happens to cross his mind. He talks so fast he often trips over his words, as if so excited that he cannot possibly wait until they all file out one by one. He has an easy smile, a giggle that rivals only a little girl in its out and out silliness, and a kind, goofy disposition.
Without exaggeration I can say that Orquido is one of the kindest people I have met, here in Moz or otherwise. He is the type of friend you hope to have, whom everyone likes. Many a lonely night have been followed by long sits with Orquido, who complains when I am not there, such that when I enter the market on Saturdays people often say “Orquido was asking for you” before I can even get to his shop.
And two days ago, during class, my friend Jessica called me. She told me she had some bad news: that Orquido had died in his sleep the night before. The doctor is unsure of the cause of death.
I have little experience with death. I have been lucky thus far to have not lost any close family members or friends. I was and remain stunned. No warning, just like that? I am not sure how to react or what to do. I feel guilty when I find myself thinking of other things, how can my mind stray so easily? I haven’t gone to the market since, but I will go later today and visit his shop.
I don’t mean to overstate the importance we had in each others lives, just that he was a good friend. I am going to find out today is there is something I can or should do. I am generally shocked, what can I do? What can be done? I am sad, yes, but more than that I am stunned. The kind of heart stopped feeling akin to fear or awe.

My birthday is tomorrow. 23 years old. One of those “huh,” birthdays that doesn’t mean anything. Munch and I will be spending some quality time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Last Tuesday night my friend Sara, an Italian aid worker who also works at my school, showed up to my house. In her hands was a bundle of fabric with a little white thing in the folds.
“Look!” she said adoringly. I didn’t know what I was looking at. “I found it on the beach, alone. I didn’t want to leave it.” It was a kitten. A tiny, tiny little kitten. “Pequeniiiiiiiiiina (veeeeery small)! I was hoping to leave it with you until I get back from Italy.”
“Sara, I can’t!” I said, “I’ve never taken care of a kitten. I don’t know how to feed it or care for it. What if it dies? I have enough going on in my life right not.”
“Ok,” Sara said sadly, “I guess I’ll go put it out on the street.” Presumambly to die a horrible, slow death freezing to death, waiting for a gigantic man-eating spider to finish it off.
And so I took it in. Such a cliché, but what was I supposed to do? That first night the little bugger, who I’ve come to call Munch, cried all night long. I gave him a box to sleep in, swathed in blankets, but he just cried and howled. The only thing that seemed to calm him was my holding him. So I held him all night. Or her. Whatever. He crawled all over and around me all night, and neither of us slept.
Now I spend every waking moment worrying that Munch is going to die. I heat up milk for it (him? Her? How can you tell with a kitten?) which it seems to like. When it fusses, which is almost always, I hold it and sometimes that calms it down. When I’m in the house it sits in a joey pouch hanging from my neck, poking its tiny little head out and looking around with its little black eyes. Is it healthy? Should I be looking for medication for parasites? Or fleas? How old is Munch? Does it miss its mom? Am I going to come home after class one day to find my little Munchkin dead on the floor?

This experience has made me decide to put off parenting indefinitely.

My birthday is coming up. I don’t know what I should do to celebrate.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Happy belated Six months

Six months! The mighty landmark, like a kyndey stone, did not pass easily.

The weather is finally cooling. After travelling to Maputo for a few days and visiting with other Peace Corps volunteers I was feeling weary from being away from home. But I was anxious about going back to site-- I was away for about ten days, by far the most amount of time I've spent away since arriving. I got back, and got sick, and had my first real slump since the robbery.

The are starting to feel normal here. I don't have to psyche myself up before going to the market anymore. I don't get freaked out by my colleagues any more. I have begun to settle into teaching. I even got a maid. So why the slump?

In starting to feel routine my life lost the buzz that surrounded it, the mystery that shrouded it. Every daily bother was a challenge. But now, daily bothers are just that, bothers. And my long term problems: integrating, making friends, dealing with homesickness persist, despite my life feeling more routine. Now that things are "normal" my problems have lost their glow, the glow that justified them. Now they are just problems, daily bothers that pimple any daily routine.

For two weeks or so my slump followed me around. I stopped playing the guitar, I mostly stopped exercising, I spent too much time in books and watching movies on my laptop. All of these choices, of course, jkust made things a little bit more slumpy. I wanted to update my blog, just to remember something, but niothing seemed special enough to mandate the effort.

What to do? Ultimately reason prevailed and I sought out my fellow volunteers for advice. As it turns out almost everyone in my group is going through this transition about now. I talked to a bunch of colleagues with the same inexplicable gloominess, the feeling of things losing their color. I travelled for a few days and visited people in my province, and when I came home I felt like I understood my situation on a wider scale.

And then things started to get better. My students even missed me, I had groups of students stop me in the halls to ask me where I had been. A bunch of people in town likewise missed me, in the market almost every vendor I stopped to talk to asked me where I'd been.

Little kids don't ask me for money anymore. Mostly they try to climb on me or speak shitswa to me (the really little ones don't understand that I speak anything BUT shitswa). I have people I've never met before calling me "Teacher Colin" as I walk through town. My relationships with my students are better than ever. I feel like I belong, except for the fact that my skin is fifteen shades lighter, I am twenty thousand miles from home and I can't understand what anyone is saying. Yeah, those obstacles persist.

A snapshot of my day. I am walking to class, just behind a group of my students on their way to the same class. They don't see me until I am walking right in their midst. I start walking faster. They see me and break into a run. We sprint for the door, I am in the lead except for at the last second one of my best and favorite students shoves me unapologetically with her elbow to get a step ahead. They all rush to their seats. One students lags way behind, screaming for me to wait as he sprints across the quad. I wait until he is five feet away then I slam the door. I laugh maniacally as half my students beg me to let him in and the other half urges me to keep him out for the rest of class. I let him in and write the date on the board like I always do...

I love my students. They mostly mean very well and are respectful. I have a few students whom I have fantasies about strangling, but only one or two in the couple hundred that I teach. They are always down to joke around, and one has to be careful in not letting them get too carried away. At the same time though joking around is fun, and as I walk across the quad I steal students' hats, fight in pretend karate, lie about my age (they have absolutely no idea), tell them I knew Tupac before he's awesome. I was walking home today and a group of my oldest students asked me if I would teach them how to fight. I said I couldn't because I wouldn't want to accidentally kill any of them, at which point they all leapt around laughing and shouting as teenage boys are wont to do.

In the classroom my lessons are finally starting to go well. I know I haven't really written about my lessons yet, mostly because it's hard to write about something you suck at. I didn't even really understand why my lessons sucked so much, but now that they are starting to shape up I can feel the difference in a huge way. They are picking up on my accent, I have begun to use a smaller, more precise vocabulary that they can grasp. Occasionally I go on long, crass rants in English about random things (the Healthcare bill, a headache I have that day, Mario and Luigi as unhealthy Italian stereotypes...) that they can't understand, and I think they are getting used to that too. They just look at each other with that "he's crazy" look in their eyes.

I have started an English club. Yesterday we did directions, wherein I blindfolded three at a time and their friends had to guide them, using only English, through obstacles to a prize. This immediately devolved into the "guides" directing their blind comrades into desks and walls, or grabbing them and shoving them to the prize before the other groups. A good time was had by all, and some of my students really tried to speak English off the cuff for the first time ever.

Oh, and my mom has sent me stickers. When I first brought them out there was a frenzy. I had to break up fights over stickers, had to stop students from grabbing them from my hand and running away. It was insane. I gave a student a sheet that had about a third of its stickers left and the other kids mobbed him and roughed him up, despite his having every intention to give them out (he was fine by the way, a little dazed). I can't yet tell if stickers have been a success in that I get more volunteers than ever in class, or if it's been a complete disaster in that I have awoken a dark, vicious bloodlust in my students. Either way it's one of the most entertaining things I've ever seen first hand.

I have been hording candy that my mom and Katie's mom have sent me, I shudder to think what will happen when I use it.

In short, I love my students and I love my job. At least for the time being.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I shake hands with a man a see around a lot. He is happy to see me and greets me in Shitswa, I stammer my response. He holds the handshake as we continue our greeting. How are you? How did you sleep? What are you doing right now? He begins to rub my hand. What are you buying in the market today? What are you doing this weekend? The stroking continues and his hands are callused and tough and that fact that I know this gives me the creeps. He's still petting my hand as I pull away, stifling an anglo-saxon impulse to scream "GETOFFA ME!!" and run away. The smile on his face never wavers.

And that's completely normal. The only thing different about it was how earnestly happy he was to shake my hand. I am still shaking it off when I leave the market. A group of women walk by carrying big baskets of fish, huge basins of water (water is really heavy fyi), bundles of wood, on their heads. On their heads! A little girl of maybe six follows the train with a baby tied to her back and just her mother's cell phone perched delicately on her own head. She's in obviously in training, but manages to wave at me without dropping either the infant or the phone. The women can do this for miles, all the while greeting everyone they pass and never spilling a drop. Men do it too, it's just more efficient to carry large amounts of weight that way. I saw a woman walking down the street with an unopened dvd player on her head. Another time with a bundle of machetes.

And nosepicking, my god! It's one of those things that isn't even on their radar. A kid will be asking a question in class and the whole time jamming his finger up to the second knuckle into his nostril, working it around to find the sneaky, hidden boogers.. A colleague, an adult, will be talking to you about nothing as he massages his brain through his nose, his finger nearly gone as he asks about your weekend. I earnestly hope they don't notice the look on my face. My boss in a meeting, a nun for christ's sake, with her whole hand in her nose. What is she hoping to find?

But I'm weird too. My teacher's smock, called a "bata", apparently got so dirty by Mozambican standards that a kid in class raised his hand and said more or less, "Teacher Colin, I don't want to offend you at all, but I mean come on."
"What?" I said, honestly confused, "What is it?"
"Your bata," he replied, "it's dirty." Mozambicans are very, very tidy people.
I had another conversation where several of my colleagues marvelled at my arm and leg hair (Mozambicans have very little and often no body hair at all). "It's so long!" they blurted incredulously, "It'!"
"So are my eyelashes" I replied. At this they looked closely at my eyes for a moment and amazed, disbelieving laughter broke out.

Another wierd thing about me is that I have no native language. Or rather, my native language is my national language. Here, the native language is Shitswa and is representative of this and only a few other communities, spoken by less than a million people. One has a native language and learns the national language for things like business, travel and school. One's native language is representative of who he or she is, where he or she is from, a part of their identity. Language, literally the words you use to communicate, are specific to you and only a relatively few others relative to the country or the world at large. But me? My language is the most common language on earth, and so to a Mozambican part of my identity is just missing. It isn't a part of how I conceive of myself. That, I think, is the weirdest thing about me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

While you're away

The Escolinha in front of my house continues. The little ones have stopped trying to escape, even when I hold the gate open to provoke them. Now my new favorite thing about Escolinha is the little girl who is afraid of white people. Every time she sees me she breaks out into ridiculous cartoon tears, frozen to the spot staring at me in pure terror. I wave and smile at her. It always makes me laugh and I look forward to it whenever I leave my house. Is that bad?

The Peace Corps has many mantras and catchphrases. One of the many is "things at home happen while you're away." Prepare yourself, we were told, for life at home to change. Your friends may change, move on or move away, one volunteer's sister got breast implants. My family moved away from my childhood home.

As you may recall I live on a catholic Mission with an Italian priest and two Italian lay people. One of them, we'll call her Katherine, has been living in Mozambique for ten years with the Priest. Here they have built a mission, a professional school that is the first of its kind in the region, and in just a few months complete construction on a massive church. Last Friday she found out her father was near death. She left for the airport that night and was on a plane to Italy early the next morning.

It was explained to me that she is an only child. If her father survives he will likely be in a vegetative or low-functioning state. In this event she will likely need to stay in Italy to help care for him. If her father does die her elderly mother will be left more or less alone and she would more than likely need to stay in Italy to be with her.

Abroad for more than ten years. Late one afternoon disaster at home and her life changes faster than she can get on a plane. I was talking to the other lay person, and trying to imagine what could possibly be going through her head. How do you manage one of life's hairpin turns? This on top of leaving a life you have known for so long, to return to a life that you left behind. I have my own petty insecurities about not having friends to return to, how would it be after ten years?

But things happen and life at home does not stop without us. It is the ultimate nightmare for us. We were given presentations on the logistics, what the Peace Corps will do under what circumstances. We have all had the odd nightmare or cold chill when the thinking of that plane ride home. It's easy to forget about, which is a merciful characteristic of being human. But life is not fair, and it doesn't call ahead to clear your schedule.

In the end, you the only thing you can hope for is luck.

I hired a woman to do my laundry, probably the best decision I have ever made. Booyah!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Globe

Sitting in my teacher's lounge is a globe of the world. I have an opening in my schedule and because I don't really have any friends I often sit in front of the globe and poke it. Mozambique is indeed pretty close to the opposite side of the earth as California. Sometimes it makes me feel inconcievable far from my home. It also makes the earth seem really small.

On this globe sits every country of the world in a different color and their major cities and capitals. With one strange exception: The United States. Every state has its own color, with every state capital and major city. It's the only country on earth displaying this feature, on a globe in a teacher's lounge in Mozambique.

Teaching is hard.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Preschool and the Mafia

The last weeks have been madness. From the blandness of my first weeks, slowly creeping by without a central theme, the last few have been a relative blur. I am a teacher now.

The challenges are epic. To teach English to overcrowded classes when they have sometimes as many as 12 other subjects and I get them for only 2 forty-five minute periods a week. Add to that no textbooks and poor English teaching in the past and I have my work cut out for me. At the beginning of the week my lesson plans bomb, only towards the end do they really shape up into quality lessons

But I don't want to write about that for now. I have two years to develop accurate pictures and generalizations.

In front of my house every day the mission puts on "Escolinha" or "little school" meaning preschool. There they learn Portuguese (remember that the people in my village do not speak Portuguese at home) and get used to the idea of being in a class and following a teacher's directions etc.

Escolinha just started, and there was a lot of crying. Moms had to stay and reassure their kids, and teachers had to coax them into the group. But the best part from a spectator's standpoint was not the crying kids, it was the children taking matters into their own hands...

Escape! There are perpetually a small group of intrepid four year olds who have no intention whatsoever of being subject to this Escolinha nonsense. They hover near the gate, and when it opens, bang! They're off. They sprint/waddle as small children do out of the mission and down the street. Do they know their way home? Obviously that concern is not as pressing as the idea of spending several hours among strange adults. It's hilarious how they watch the gate out of the corner of their eye, inching closer as a stranger approaches, praying that this will be the one. "Come back here right now!" The teacher shouts at them, but it only spurs them on in their furious sprint/waddle to freedom.

Secondly, the Italians. The Peace Corps presence in my village is dwarfed by the army of Italians doing aid work here. We affectionately refer to them as the Mafia, a jibe that they accept congenially. I've never met I real life Italian before coming here, but they are just about how they are made out to be. Lots of gesticulating when they talk, outrageous multi-course meals that we can never finish, and constant welcoming. "You are part of the family now" my friend Sam says over and over patting my on the back over and over.

They've all been doing aid work for years. Sam was in Sudan. Alberto has been here in Mozambique for five years. Others Kenya, Latin America--they're pros all. They add an interesting flavor to my life here.

Quick pause, a student just stopped by to say hi. Weird...

Anyways the Italians. Out here, far from home, just like me. But better at it than me, and welcoming to boot.

So life here is changing. The novelty of my life is wearing down, creating a new comfort and a new anxiety. There was a moment a few days ago when I thought about the career abroad like the Italians have had. A life of new languages and new peoples and new challenges. For a moment I thought about it. It passed just as quickly, but the fact that it crossed my mind I think represents something, a small checkpoint in my evolution.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

''con" whatever

Mango season is ending. Months of the best mangoes anyone has ever eaten is drawing to a close. It fills my heart with sadness and apprehension for the next month or so when we only have bananas. But hope springs eternal, and orange season is just over the horizon. Anyways…

I survived.

The first week of school came and went, and I survived. Learning by doing at it’s most raw.

My first day was the roughest. I have six classes in a row on Monday, and after the first one I was certain I had never been so exhausted in my life. My brain was fried, my Portuguese all but gone. I didn’t know how I’d make it through the next periods. By the fourth period I was numb from my feet (did you know teachers have to stay standing ALL DAY?! It’s crazy!) to my brain, which was about as good as a baked potato.

The high point of the day was when I saw on my schedule a class abbreviated “Con,” short for “cozinha” for the kids learning how to be cooks (my school is a professional school). I was thirty minutes into the lesson, I had already introduced myself and the class rules, I thought things were going pretty well. Then a colleague entered. “So it’s my time, eh?” he said. No, I explained, he was either thirty minutes too late or fifteen too early. No, he explained, “Con” stands for “Contabilidade” which are the kids studying to be accountants, not cozinha.

I sprinted across the school and tried to cram my lesson into 15 minutes for the accounting kids who had been sitting in their classroom without a teacher for the better part of an hour.

All day I was ready for a unified insurrection from my classes. I expected mutiny, but more than that I got confusion. Not from me (to clarify: I was confused all day) but from them. At one point I asked them to introduce themselves to three other people in the class in English. I figured this to be a relatively easy and fun exercise, allowing them to get up and maybe goof around a little bit. What I got was forty blank stares.

I explained three more times what they should do, and eventually a handful of the 40-student class tentatively stood up or turned to a neighbor. I was flabbergasted. What had I done wrong? I asked my Italian neighbors who work with the school, and they said that it was probably because they had never done anything like that before.

“They just came from primary school,” my neighbor explained, “they were trained to sit still, memorize and repeat.” A miserable fate indeed, but it makes their confusion (and mine) more understandable. This in conjunction with it being their first day of high school, me being their first crazy American teacher, and on top of all that me asking them to do something that they had never done before.

I am now “Teacher Colin,” a name that follows me through the streets as I walk to the market, on my way out of mass, as I nap on the beach. The title bears some responsibility, but I am grateful to finally have a real job and challenges to occupy my life. My sitemate said that a student referred to me as “gangster,” and it’s hearing things like this that get you through the day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Moments of Clarity

A family friend wrote to me:

"One question, if you don't mind: How long did it take, once you started walking on African soil, before the fact that you were actually 1/2 world away from the familiarity and comforts of home, in a country that you knew little about; how long before the reality of the situation dawned on you?"

When I first saw the question I thought my answer would snap into my mind. But it didn't. I recall moments where that realization sprung into my consciousness, but those moments have by no means passed. I'm pretty sure they are getting more frequent and noticeably stronger.

Today was my first day at work. I'm not teaching yet, it was just an hour and a half meet n' greet. I was talking to one of my colleagues, and she said, "So you are here for two years, yeah?"
"Yep, two years," I said almost boringly, because I say it so much.
"That's a long time!" she said, in a bright and friendly way.
"Whoa," I said as the realization washed over me, "That IS a long time."
"Er...yes it is," she replied, probably thinking I was a bit of an idiot for not having considered this before. But this is how they come, out of the blue more or less.

I'm working construction at my school, more just helping out and learning a few things. It's very, VERY hot here. I retreated to the water fountain every five minutes, though the other workers never complained, and I saw them take only one water break the whole time I was there. Standing in the shade at the end of the day, my clothes soaked with sweat, I dreamt of a cold gatorade. "Whoa," I thought, "I won't get another cold gatorade for...whoa."

A couple weeks ago when I got my first care package I was thrilled. A package all the way from home, and I even recognized my friend's handwriting. As I held the package in my hands I realized that this thing had come all the way around the world, literally thousands of miles, over an ocean and across a continent and a half. All the way from home. Whoa.

Christmas Eve, sitting in my little house post-robbery. Feeling more homesick than I ever have in my life. When would I see my family again? When would I sit in our living room on Christmas morning again?

Walking through my village with my only friend (Don't worry mom, I have more now) and him saying, "Here we are, in Mozambique." Mozambique, I thought. Here we are.

After we get sworn in as bona-fide Peace Corps Volunteers at the American Embassy I'm talking to my dad on the phone. He's going to see Avatar on IMAX 3D with my brother. I'm so jealous! I tell my friend from Arkansas and he blurts in excitement, "I know! My dad is doing the same thing, I'm so jealous!!"

I arrive at my host family's house. I speak maybe ten words of Portuguese. I take my first shower out of a bucket in their bathroom. As I pour warm water over my head I think to myself, "This is pretty weird."

We break the clouds descending into Johannesburg, where we have a short layover before Maputo. I'm a few seats away from the window, but I crane my neck to get a peek. It's the first time I have ever seen Africa. "Pretty crazy, huh?" The volunteer next to me says, observing what I'm sure is a look of stunned stupidity plastered across my face.

I'm packing up in my grandparents house, it's past midnight. Do I have what I need? What if I forget something? What do they wear there? What if I get robbed? Will I be ok? I look in the mirror and my face is white (whiter than usual, ok? give me a break). My palms are sweating. Two years? In Mozambique? Two years?

I’m lying in my dorm room for my summer job, staring at my ceiling, the acceptance letter from the Peace Corps laying open on my desk, with a pit in my stomach the size of a peach. I am gonna do this, I think.

The realizations come more now, or rather when they come now I can begin to accept their permanency. For the first time I can kind of sort of almost nearly understand that I am building a life here. They don't scare me as much. But just as quickly as they come, they go. It's hard to focus on thoughts so gigantic for more than a little while.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The other day I peered down at my feet and gave them a good look. You really don’t do this as often as you think, and because mine are usually filthy it’s all the more reason not to. It was after a shower so I thought it odd when I noticed a strange line across my feet…it was a tan line! “Oh my god!” I shouted to no one (I live alone). But there it was, my sandals tanned cleanly across both feet. I haven’t had a new tan line in…well let’s just say I’ve been rocking this t-shirt tan since the 80s (back when it was cool). And you never thought the words “Colin” and “tan” could be used in the same sentence, you ignoramus. A brand new me for a brand new decade.

And sitting not a few inches from my newly tanned feet was a gigantic tarantula. “OH MY GOD!” I shouted to no one and spent a good half a minute frozen in place planning my next move. It sat there twitching its mandibles, certainly calculating how to creep into my bed in the night, or leap onto my face while in the shower, or hide under my chair while I played guitar. But I wouldn’t be bullied by this creature of the underworld, I decided to go for the kill, but the little devils are quick and he darted away. After a few minutes of me shouting and stamping in my bathroom I eventually lost the little demon. Do I want to see it again? Do I want to live on in ignorance?

So if you couldn’t tell I lead a life of thrills here on the Indian Ocean. Every day I make life or death decisions, beans and rice or just beans? Eggs scrambled or fried? Should I jog north on the beach or south? I spend a lot of time in front of the mirror making faces. Just kidding; I don’t own a mirror.

The kicker is my job hasn’t started yet, and won’t for another couple of days. I’ve done an ok job at occupying myself. My Portuguese is improving, I play the guitar, I sketch, exercise, I’m learning some Mozambican dishes, I kill about two hours in the market every day bothering people.

But the thing is, and I guess my ultimate point is, they aren’t bothered. You can just stand there and talk to a vender and they’ll just as soon talk to you too, or offer you a chair. Mozambican conversations have a whole different rhythm. “How are you?” moves onto to “how is your family?” and then “how did you rest last night” which can morph into “how did you awake this morning?” These drawn out salutations are accompanied by the world’s longest handshakes. They WILL NOT LET GO, not until about half way through an entire conversation, and you can let go all you want and they’ll just go ahead and hold on. It’s a sign of welcome, I know, but coming from America I am tempted to wrench free and ask them not to touch me.

But get this, there is no word for awkward. The closest word we’ve found in Portuguese Is “uncomfortable,” but that is just not the same as awkward. Awkwardness in America is a friggin institution. Entire sitcoms and a slew of movies are all based on the sour taste of awkwardness. Freed from this idea conversations have a different cadence. A lot of silence can pass and the interlocutors will patiently wait it out. Yesterday after a particularly long silence my friend announced with a refreshed sigh “This is Mozambique.”
“I know,” I replied, “I’ve lived here for four months.” (A stupid thing to say, I admit it)
“Yes, but here it is!” He declared triumphantly as if pulling a veil off the entire country before our eyes. And I was honestly jealous at how he took in the moment, in zen, completely unaffected by the creeping awkwardness that confined me.

Later that night I sat in my house, making faces at the part of the wall I imagine I will someday put a mirror, lamenting awkwardness. I thought about how many conversations I had ruined by being “awkward.” Long hours of meditation were interrupted by seeing something dart across the floor out of the corner of my eye…

Soon I’ll have a cool watch tan too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Talkin that Shitswa

Once…twice…three times a lady…

Lionel Richie made it across the Atlantic. So did Bob Marley. Assorted early 90s R&B including Bryan McKnight, KC & JoJo, and R Kelly made it. Randy Newman, Elton John accompanied The Pussycat Dolls and Akon across the ocean. Eminem's early work managed the swim. Unfortunately early 90s East Coast hip hop were lost en route, so I have nothing to listen to.

I know this because the barraka (or “bar” to us mulungus) behind my house plays the same songs once...twice…three times an hour all day and all night long. So anyway that explains my newfound hatred for Lionel Richie, and my knowing all the words to Endless Love.

The nadir of my Christmas followed by the zenith of my new years has seen a slowing down of my life. The main obstacle now is that I don’t have a job or any other specific responsibilities, just general ones like “integrate into your community,” “improve your “living situation”, “don’t get malaria”. This has lead to some impressive productivity on my part, including personally constructing a kitchen counter, but mostly it leads to a lot of sitting.

Sitting is nice when followed by a bunch of walking or standing, but when followed only by lying down it can be a killer, so I leave at least twice a day to make sure I don’t slide into a funk. Mostly this involves going to the market and bumbling around, with the general goal of learning Shitswa. Nzo gonzwa Shitswa, nzi zwizwi kwulawula kutsongwani Shitswa. Kahisa nwamuthlwa. I am learning Shitswa. I know how to speak some Shitswa. It is hot today.

This I managed to find out despite the local 18 year old’s insistence that I learn things like “Do you have a girlfriend?”, “you are very beautiful,” “I am in love with you,” and my favorite so far “you will come to my house and cook for me.” I didn’t write this last one down, maybe I should have considering I eat pretty much the same thing every single day. I learn from the skirt-chasing 18 year old, the crazy tomato lady, the guy who sells oil. So many people are so willing to invite you to have a seat and teach you a little of the local dialect. Some do it for laughs (I get laughed at A LOT) but I think most of them do it just because.

Learning Shitswa more than anything has helped me feel like I have a shot at entering into this community. Though Portuguese is spoken in school and by my Italian neighbors, but people in the street speak Shitswa. I feel like if I get up to a level so I can at least understand the gist of small conversations it will be huge. The problem is that Shitswa, being a Bantu language, is traditionally an unwritten language. In the past hundred years Bantu has borrowed the Latin alphabet such that it can be written if need be. But being an unwritten language the rules are uncertain at best.

Portuguese is studied in school, not Shitswa. The only literature in Shitswa is the occasional bible, which in addition to using strange and archaic language (it being the bible and all) it doesn’t exactly make for a very engaging read (it being the bible and all). This is further complicated by the fact that Shitswa is more regional than official. Its uncertain grammatical rules mirror its uncertain regional boundaries. Shangana was the language spoken in Namaacha, where I spent the first three months in training. I was been told that Shangana is so similar to Shitswa that the only real differences are that of pronunciation. But Shangana is several regional dialects away. Ronga is geographically closer but more different from Shitswa than is Shangana. Bitonga is just next door regionally but completely different, I've been told

None of these languages have ever seen governance or control, for hundreds or even thousands of years. I’ve heard that there do exist Shitswa dictionaries, but rest assured no one in my town has ever seen one. The blurriness of the languages is comically illustrated by the theatrical arguments my tutors in the market place will get into over the smallest things, the word “to wash” yesterday featured a lot of screaming and yelling when it was eventually decided that the one person’s word for “to wash” was weird because he was from two towns away, a distance of less than 100 km.

Therefore: one person’s Shitswa can be different from another’s. Only when I start asking exacting questions do conflicts arise. For the most part the people in the market just accept the blurriness of everyone else’s Shitswa. Maybe his is colored by Shangana, maybe hers is different because she grew up on the island off the coast. They just accept the uncertainty and roll with it. It’s all very Mozambican. My cousin Matt would have a heart attack.

It’s been an interesting and sometimes frustrating challenge for me. But it beats sitting.

Now the bar behind my house is playing a techno song that is repeating the line, and this is true: "If I marry you, will you marry me, marry me, my love?" Just more reason to leave the house.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I had never been away from my family on Christmas until coming to Africa. Christmas is and has always been my favorite holiday. My memory is somewhere between the sound of my family’s Christmas music and the smell of our Christmas tree, backlit by our corny light-up reindeer in the front yard. I miss seeing my breath on Christmas morning.

Christmas Eve came around, and I went to a small English mass at the church (I live on a mission, the church is just a few meters away). The mass was short, and without pomp. I surprised myself with how much of mass I remembered without even thinking. I didn't listen during the homily, I just thought of home.

I sat in my little house after mass. I had never felt so homesick. But I knew I would be, it was par for the course. As lonely as I was at that moment, sitting in my house, letting my mind wander down prickly paths of nostalgia I had no doubts whatsoever about my decision to come to Africa. My home will be there when I return.

As a treat to myself I spent the day watching movies. Damn Pulp Fiction is a great movie. Then the Godfather. I thought I'd save the Christmas movies for Christmas Day. What would Christmas Day be without John McClane throwing Hans Gruber off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza? It would be downright UnAmerican, and I would have nothing of it.

Nine o clock on Christmas eve was the big community mass at the church just fifty yards from my house. The church was decked out in my village’s version of Christmas decorations. I met a fellow Volunteer there, her family visiting from the States. The mass was two hours long and despite nightfall suffocatingly hot, but the children dancing and the singing more than made up for it.

I decided I'd go right to sleep after mass. Though I had done very little all day, I was exhausted from it all. When I reached my door it was open. The lock busted inwards and the door itself cracked along its length. I went inside to find that I had been robbed.

From my laptop and camera, to my bags, clothes, and even my shoes, they had taken almost everything. I dashed frantically around my little house, not knowing what to do. For two minutes I did nothing but pace around my house running my hands through my hair repeating “I got robbed.”

I should say that they didn’t take my passport or cash card, which would have been a pain to replace. They didn’t take my guitar, they didn’t touch my books or my sketchpad (thank god). But my laptop had all my jounraling on it, and that hurt the most.

I went immediately to my neighbors. They came by and were clearly shocked as well. But at that moment there was nothing that could be done. I braced the door with a chair and retired to bed for a sleepless night.

That night was the lowest point of my Peace Corps experience thus far, and the most homesick I have ever been.

The next morning my neighbor took me to the police station. Later that day the Padre at my mission came by and personally replaced the lock on my door. My mission neighbors ordered a new door from the woodshop that day.

While at the police station on Christmas morning I ran into a South African couple who were on vacation with their family who too had been robbed that night. We exchanged stories, and sympathetically the man said, “It’s a shame, you’re here to help them and they do something like this.”

Now this is a very tempting thought. But who is “they”? Does this mean I should go to the old lady next door and lambaste her, “I’m here to help you!! How could you do this to me?!” Does this mean that Mozambique has betrayed me? I was robbed, yes, but there are thieves everywhere. It was Christmas Eve, yes, but thieves see only the opportunity, not the implications. What happened to me sucks, but to believe that it indicates any faults of Mozambique or Mozambicans is foolish, shortsighted, and pointless.

In the days that have followed members of my community have stopped me in the streets to express their sympathy, and that more than anything makes me feel like I have a home here. My neighbors were fantastic from the start, and isn't that what Christmas is really all about? (queue vomitting)

And hey, I don't need my shoes to run on the beach. Merry Christmas America.