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.