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.