As I marked the 3rd anniversary of my arrival in Moz a couple of weeks ago, and realized that I only have less than 2 months left, I’ve been making a mental list of all of the things I’ve learned since that day I stepped off the plane and started my crazy life here. Of course, it would be impossible for me to include everything, so here are just 15 life lessons that I’ve learned while living in Moz:

1. Mango season is the best season. Mangos everywhere. Purple ones, green ones, pink ones, ones bigger than my fist. All the mangos you can eat for so cheap they’re practically giving them away!

2. Mango season is the worst. Glorious, delicious, sticky mangos- with the small caveat that it’s the hottest time of the year. Trying to sleep in a 90 degree room with no breeze? Sweating the instant you stop showering? And to top it off it’s also the rainy season?!

3. Matapa is a food of the gods. Pulverized cassava leaves cooked in a delicious broth of coconut and peanut milk with some tomato and onion if you’re lucky. Absolutely divine. It may look like baby food, but it tastes like heaven.

4. The market dictates what you eat and when you eat it. Want some pasta with tomato sauce for dinner? Don’t count on it until you go talk to your tomato man and see what he has to offer. A salad made with lettuce? Only between the months of June and November. But rice and beans can be had any day. Although how much you pay for it will vary too.

5. Spices and condiments are key. There are currently 20 spices in my kitchen and 3 sauces in my fridge to change up my daily routine of bread for breakfast, egg sandwiches for lunch, and veggie sandwiches for dinner.

6. Food becomes the center of your universe. If you can’t tell from 1-5, not having the luxury of a supermarket down the street means that you think about food all the time. How you’re going to get it, how much it costs, how you’re going to cook it, how long you can use leftovers, and really- is a mustard sandwich an acceptable meal?- become daily thoughts.

7. Technology becomes a luxury and not a given. I’m not ashamed to admit that I rely on my laptop for entertainment. Hours of Friends, Modern Family, and The Office have gotten me through some pretty boring nights (aka almost every night since I’m usually in my pajamas by 6). But I’ve also realized that I can live without all of these luxuries. I didn’t have daily, or weekly, internet my first two years here. I can’t tell you what the hottest youtube clip of the moment is. Heck- I can barely navigate youtube (true story- I went on last week for the first time in years and got sucked into watching some pretty strange stuff). But I am thankful for the things that I do have.

8. Being an outsider sucks. When I walk down the street, people stare. When I don’t know a word in Portuguese, people laugh. When I speak in my “funny” accent, some act like they can’t understand me. It gets tiring to always be different, even when doing normal things. I feel like I constantly have to justify my actions- yes, I do go to the market just like you! Yes, I do eat papaya! Yes, I do wash my clothes by hand (albeit quite begrudgingly)! In the states, I never thought about how incredibly brave it is for someone who doesn’t speak English well to navigate the busy streets, or to attend school. I know how much I’ve benefitted from the patience of strangers here, and I’ve learned how amazing it feels to have someone pay attention to you for the right reasons when you’re feeling so alone. This is one of the biggest lessons that I’m going to take back with me to the States. Kindness is free, but it can make someone feel like a million bucks. (I should write greeting cards. No really, I’ll be unemployed in a about 7 weeks so this may be my new calling).

9. Children are the funniest, sweetest, most glorious creatures on the planet. Followed very closely by stripy kittens, baby orangutans, and pygmy hippos. I never really thought of myself as a “kid person” before I got here. I thought that title was reserved more for kindergarten teachers or little league coaches. But my God, do I love children. Their angelic faces knocking on your window at 5am so see if you’re awake almost makes you forget entirely that no, you were most definitely asleep. When I went back to visit my friends in Mopeia last week, Lauren asked my best friend Tinho (age 7) if he wanted to go back to the US with me. His first response: “But amiga, who is going to pay for transportation?” How can that not make you smile? Also his younger sister was wearing a shirt that said “I love to giggle.” I love that they find joy in the smallest things, like playing in the rain that is pouring off the edges of a tin roof, or swinging on a random pole, or tying a string to a dragonfly to be their own personal helicopter. Children are the reason why I’ll be so sad to leave this place.

10. Bucket showers are not that bad. I can admit this now that I don’t have to carry a bucket of freezing water out to the latrine and use a cup to pour it over my head anymore. But really- you kind of get used to it. And it makes nice, hot showers feel that much better.

11. Visiting people living with chronic illnesses as a job is rewarding in such an unusual way. Seeing people suffering is sad. Horrifically sad. But when they get even the tiniest bit better, I can’t even describe to you how good that feels. I saw a woman my same age that I thought was surely going to die. She couldn’t get out of bed, she was skeletal, and she barely had the energy to say a few words. But after a month of antiretroviral treatment, that same woman was out in the yard playing with her children. There is so much sadness, but the glimmers of hope are so incredible that it motivates you to keep going, and to better appreciate what you have. Seeing families come together to help one another made me realize how incredibly thankful I am for my own.

12. Mozambican mothers are a force to be reckoned with. Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, hours in the fields, and then they do it all over again. Without complaining. Incredible.

13. Spiders are terrifying. I was never a huge fan of spiders before, but I only usually saw a handful of daddy long legs a year. But here- spiders are everywhere. In between the pages of my books, dangling from the ceiling ready to fall on my head, in the guava tree in my front yard building the biggest web I’ve ever seen. And the spiders are huge. I mean- I’ve seen some tarantula-esque spiders just walking around. And then there are the golden orb spiders that live in just about every tree. The one in my yard even caught a bird in its web. Straight out of my nightmares!

14. Mozambique is one of the most beautiful places in the world. There are valleys filled with wildflowers and exotic birds flying overhead, pristine beaches with perfect turquoise water, tea plantations, untouched islands, and incredible mountain ranges. And the most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets that you will ever see. Getting from any one of these places to another on a Peace Corps living allowance is another story. Always an adventure, but never comfortable. You may be sitting 5 across in a space that in America would seat 3, or you might be saddled up next to some goats and chickens, but it’s all part of the journey!

15. Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love. Ok, I didn’t come up with that one on my own, but it is so true. I read that on a booklet that Peace Corps sent me before I left, and I had no idea what it meant. My first year here I just thought it was just the toughest job I’d ever have. But then I grew to love it. I grew to love the uncertainty of it all. I realized how incredibly lucky I am that I have been able to spend the last 3 years of my life as a volunteer. My only job has been to do whatever I can to help others. I haven’t had to worry about paying rent, or paying for health insurance, or existing in a world where I constantly “need” a new wardrobe/car/phone, etc. I only have to worry about going to my weekly girls empowerment group meetings, working with our boys art group, helping staff in the office to better monitor their projects, and making sure that I’m staying healthy and sane. I have met some of the most incredible people that I will ever have the privilege of knowing, I have seen some of the most beautiful sights that I will ever see, and I have had some of the most amazingly memorable times of my life- all in Peace Corps Mozambique.

Peace Corps has three main goals:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

 Now with less than 4 months left in my service, I’m left questioning how well I’ve accomplished the goals given to me when I embarked on this journey. Goal 1 has been the focus of a lot of my time here. I’m not sure how much I’ve “accomplished” or how to even measure it, but I feel pretty confident in that I’ve tried my best to be a good volunteer and share the knowledge and resources that I have. During my first 2 years I worked with community volunteers and we sat down twice a week to learn about health topics that affected the work they were doing while visiting chronically ill beneficiaries. I’m not sure that all of them retained everything that I presented, but I know that something (however small it may be) was learned, morale was boosted, and they continued doing home visits.

Goal 2 is a bit easier because I just have to be myself. Discussing American culture, food, politics, etc. is a part of daily life here and one that I embrace. When I’m homesick, reminiscing about the things I love about America and the things I miss the most helps me to keep things in perspective. I always try to clarify that I am one person in a huge country so I’m not representative of all Americans, but of the diversity that is America. I frequently have to explain that not all Americans are vegetarians, or are Democrats, or are Peace Corps volunteers. But this usually clashes with what they’ve seen on tv anyways so it opens the door for some interesting discussions and comparisons with the many different cultures and identities that exist in Mozambique.

The third goal is where I stumble. Trying to convey to an audience in the States what it is that makes Mozambique so unique and important is difficult to say the least. When I started thinking about this topic I remembered how well-travelled and learned I felt when I returned from 3 ½ months of studying abroad in Mombasa, Kenya. I felt like I really understood Swahili culture and customs, like I had witnessed so many things and therefore was somehow qualified to speak out about what life was like on the Kenyan coast. Now after almost 3 years in Moz, I’ve realized how little I actually know, about Kenya years ago and about Moz now. Being submerged in the culture here has convinced me that I’ve only scratched the surface of all that is Mozambican. So I won’t pretend to be an authority on anything, except for my own personal experience living and working in central and northern Mozambique.

These have been the hardest, most influential, painful, and rewarding years of my life. Living as an outsider because of race, language, and customs in a tight-knit community is extremely challenging. But I survived, and that was mostly thanks to the many wonderful Mozambicans who have helped me along the way. I’ve mentioned many of them before- my adoptive mom, Genita, my best friend in Mopeia, Cristina, our Peace Corps staff in the north, Gelane, Marcelino, Lucio, Dr. Carlos, our REDES counterpart in Angoche, Aida, and so many others- they’ve all played such an important role in shaping how I view this beautiful country. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the world where you can hitchhike a distance the equivalent of the entire coastline of California safely and with groups of people going out of their way to guide you at every step.

One story really epitomizes to me the spirit of kindness and generosity that I’ve encountered. 2 years ago I was at the REDES (girls empowerment) conference in Chimoio ready to hike up a mountain with all of the participants and our counterparts. We crossed a couple of small streams at the bottom of the hill and walked through some tall grass when my flip flop broke. Yes, it was a little absurd that I was wearing flip flops but I was feeling pretty integrated into Moz society at that point which deemed it completely appropriate to do all sorts of things in inappropriate footwear. I turned around and was going to just wait a couple hours for the girls to come back down. But as I was walking a family stopped me and asked why I hadn’t gone up. I showed them my broken sandal and without hesitation one of the men in the house took the shoes off of his feet and offered to lend them to me. I was in shock. I wasn’t from Chimoio or even the surrounding area and had never met this family. I couldn’t believe that this man was offering me the shoes off of his feet so that I could go on a hike. If I could have pulled myself out of the fog of disbelief, I probably would have cried right there (tears of joy of course at regaining my faith in humanity). But thankfully I stayed composed (because crying doesn’t go over very well here, but that’s another story for another day) and I hiked up that mountain. And it’s one of my favorite memories from the entirety of my service. I got to pose with my REDES girls in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I got to sing with them as they celebrated getting to the top. And I got to descend with them happier than ever. When I passed by the house to return the borrowed shoes, the man had sewn my broken flip flops. He handed them to me without asking for anything and gave me a smile and a wave.

Just like I can’t say that I’m representative of all Americans, I can’t say that this man is representative of all Mozambicans. But there are so many good people here that if the only thing I can give to you is this story, then I am more than ok with that. I hope that I’ve shared something, given you a photo, or told one anecdote that resonates with you and makes you feel like you understand Mozambique a little better than before. Because, after all, that is the third goal.

It’s easy to criticize men in a country where “equality” and “women’s rights” are seldom talked about. It’s easy to focus on the men who beat their wives, pull their daughters out of school to marry them off, and constantly argue that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. None of these things are confined solely toMozambique, but living alone as an unwed woman here just exacerbates the daily reminders from men that I am not what they consider the norm. It’s easy to get frustrated and angry. It’s easy to lump all men into a single category of chauvinistic pig-headery (yes, that is a term I just made up but I think it provokes an imagery that is quite accurate). I have had many frustrating encounters with men where they try to convince me that I need them and cannot live without them and that they are actually doing me a favor by propositioning me because, after all, I am well on my way to becoming an old maid. As they sit at the bar sucking down beers and making kissing noises at me, I picture their wives and daughters at home washing clothes and cooking so that there will be dinner on the table whenever they decide to roll in. Living somewhere where girls are treated as inferior is trying. And while I praised the hard work of Mozambican women for Mother’s Day, I want to take a minute to do the same for Mozambican men. Many of them drive me insane, but it’s the ones who don’t who are truly making a difference. The men who have the strength to speak out against gender inequality and encourage young girls to stay in school are the ones who are trying to create a better future.

I was intent on brushing off all Mozambican men after several less-than-positive experiences with a particularly misogynistic group during training. They publicly cheated on their wives, wasted their money on cheap gin while their children walked around barefoot, and rambled on about how I needed them and all the wonderful things they had to offer. Watching their families suffer while they snored on the couch hungover was too much, and I decided that I would just focus on working with women. But then I met an amazing coworker who changed my mind. He studied to become a nurse and tells gruesome stories about stitching people up at knifepoint during the civil war. He worked tirelessly heading up the HIV/AIDS sector of our branch in Mopeia. And every chance he had, he pleaded with young girls to stay in school. He would pull teenage girls aside and list off the many reasons why they should wait to get married and have babies and study instead. On the weekends he said he preferred to stay home and spend some quality time with his wife and children.

Of course he isn’t the only example that comes to mind when I think of “good” Mozambican men. The entire male Peace Corps staff is amazing, and don’t get enough praise for all that they do to support volunteers in the field. There are teachers, businessmen, drivers, and the likes advocating for a better, more justMozambiquewhere women and men coexist without violence or prejudice. And they are the ones that should be given credit for going against the norm and standing up for their mothers, daughters, wives, and friends.

I am so lucky to have grown up in an environment of open-minded men. And I am lucky to have a father that has taught me to challenge myself and to never back down. My dad has been incredibly encouraging throughout my entire Peace Corps experience, especially when I was thinking about staying an extra year. His constant motivation has kept me going. When there was a rat living in my mattress and I wanted to quit, I thought about my dad laughing and reminding me that I would get through it and have a pretty good story in the end. When I was struggling to make friends in my new town, my dad told me to stick it out and that he knew I would adjust in no time. When I told him I was thinking about delaying coming home for another year, he told me to go for it and that he was proud of me for taking a risk. He is the reason why, as frustrated as I may get with men here, I continue on- because hearing him tell me that he’s proud of me is enough to keep me going. My dad has taught me many things in life, but the lessons that have really stuck with me are to never give up and to never stop dreaming. Thank you dad for the words of wisdom and constant support!

It wasn’t until I came to Moçambique that I really thought about motherhood. Seeing moms tie their babies on their backs and walk for miles in the unforgiving sun to go out to their farms. Watching newborns being roughly passed from sibling to sibling without the usual caution I’m used to in the States. Listening to women teach their young daughters the intricacies of properly cooking a traditional meal. And smiling radiantly as a mother who has never set foot inside a classroom sends her 6 year old to school for the first time. Life here is hard. And being a mother is even harder. In a world where you don’t know where your next meal will come from, or if you’ll even be able to scrounge up enough to feed the many hungry mouths depending on you, just trying to survive thickens the air of daily life. And sometimes after seeing the hundredth extended, malnourished belly, and hearing another tale of a pre-pubescent girl given a “better life” by being married off, life can seem pretty grim. But then the singing starts. And the dancing follows. And soon the mothers are slowly lifting the dark clouds of despair with their rhythm. The pain and suffering still remains, but they remind us of the hope that shines through. Because that’s what mothers do- they nurture, they console, they teach, they listen, and they ensure that the world keeps turning.

From my host mom during training who patiently and lovingly welcomed me into her home and into her life, to my adoptive mom in Mopeia, Genita, who didn’t let me give up when I was overcome with loneliness and feeling like an outsider, to the throngs of powerful women that I work with every day caring for the sick and implementing programs to create a better future- I am so thankful for Mozambican mothers. They have changed my life in ways that I will never be able to articulate, and they are responsible for the wonderful people that I call friends and the beautiful place that I’ve called home for the past two and a half years.

While thinking about Mozambican mothers and their contribution to society, I had an epiphany about my own mom. Not that I didn’t love and appreciate her before, but thinking about all the sacrifices that mothers make here made me truly realize all that my mom has done for me. She worked hours on end to provide for me. She encouraged me to volunteer, play sports, study, and travel because she had the foresight to know how much it would benefit me in the future (and for this I am forever grateful). She continues to be an example of the kind of woman that I hope to become. Her grace and charisma are radiant, and she leaves a lasting positive impression on everyone she meets. Through my painfully shy childhood, my awkward teenage years, going off to college and deciding rather impulsively to ditch biology and business classes for primate social behavior and matriarchal societies, and then moving halfway across the world- she has always loved and supported me unconditionally. I know that I haven’t made it easy. But I am so thankful for all that she has done, and continues to do.

So as Mother’s Day approaches, I first want to make amends. Mom- I am sorry that I keep you in a constant state of worry wondering whether I’m alive and well. I’m sorry that I don’t check in as often as I should. I’m sorry that when I do check in I tend to describe to you in detail my often long list of current ailments. But I want you to know how thankful I am for the gifts you have given me. You gave me the strength to follow my dreams and the courage to continue on. You’ve taught me the value of being a strong woman, the importance of family, and the art of keeping your head held high in the face of adversity. You remind me of the classic beauty and style of my grandmother, and you give me hope that I will one day have the wisdom to pass on your charm to another generation. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you in a way worthy of all that you’ve done, but here’s a start. Thank you for being my mom.

 Happy Mother’s Day to my many Mozambican mamás and to Lisa, the woman I am lucky enough to call mom.

Blog About Malaria Month

April 25th is World Malaria Day so I wanted to take a minute to share my experiences after spending 3 years studying abroad, traveling, and working across Sub-Saharan Africa. During my first trip to Kenya and Tanzania the summer after I finished high school, malaria never even crossed my mind. I was on safari and slept in big beds with those princess-style mosquito nets and never gave it a second thought. After spending a month in Ghana during college, I returned home with fevers and stomach pains so I went to the doctor thinking that I possibly had malaria. But the tests came back negative and I was fully recovered in a couple weeks. When I studied abroad on the coast of Kenya, I spent four months dowsing myself with insect repellant mostly to fend off any unsightly bites that would add to the bed bugs feeding off my body. But it wasn’t until I came to Mozambique and spent a more substantial period of time living in the community that I began to see how malaria is ravaging Africa.

Tinho

When I heard that Peace Corps volunteers were encouraged to blog about malaria this month, the first thing I thought of sharing was an experience that happened to me about 2 years ago when I lived in central Mozambique. From the day that I arrived in Mopeia, there was a little boy that came over every day, rain or shine. I was the first volunteer ever in my town so he was a little stand-offish at first, but it only took a few weeks for him to adopt me not as a stranger struggling with Portuguese, but as a friend. Tinho was 4 years old at the time, and (I’m admitting my bias here because everyone who knows me knows that I am in love with this child) not only the most adorable child I had ever seen, but also the smartest. He would entertain me for hours with ghost stories, dancing, and singing. He would accompany me to the market every day, walk me to work, and sit with me on my porch. He was the first person I would see when I opened my door every morning and the last person I would see when I closed it every night. In short- he was the sole reason why I made it through those first few months at site when I was battling loneliness, extreme heat, and adjusting to living alone. So when his mother came to my house one night I had a feeling in my gut that something was wrong. She told me that he was in the hospital with malaria and that she was afraid he wasn’t going to make it. The next week was filled with anxiety-laden nights worrying whether he was going to pull through. My days were spent going through the motions, but always with a knot in my stomach fearing that I would return home to bad news. But then one evening I was sitting on my porch reading and his mother walked up carrying Tinho. He had just left the hospital and was thin and frail. He looked so much smaller than I remembered him- but he was alive! After stuffing him with bread and fruit for a week he was back to his normal, energetic self, but I’ll never forget how close we came to losing him to malaria.

This beautiful face was almost lost to malaria

Malaria is one of the top killers of children under 5 in the world, and it is the number one killer in Africa. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people living with HIV/AIDS are particularly vulnerable and are dying at an unnecessarily high rate. So this month, Peace Corps volunteers around Africa are campaigning to “Stomp out malaria.” By encouraging others to sleep under mosquito nets, take children with fevers to the health post early and often, and encouraging pregnant women to get pre-natal treatment, the risk of death by malaria can be greatly reduced. Every child deserves to make it to their 5th birthday, and in order to achieve this we need to intervene now.
I made the trip down to Mopeia last week and visited Tinho. I am so happy to report that he is healthy and started 1st grade this year. When I think about how a single mosquito bite almost deprived the world of this amazing kid, it makes me want to do whatever I can to get the word out about malaria. Tinho is one of so many children in Mopeia, in Mozambique, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in the world who are at risk of dying from malaria. Be informed and spread the word. How will you stomp out malaria in 2012?

Help Pequenino, me, and Tinho stomp out Malaria in 2012!

Elephant tracks in Angoche district

When I was little, my grandma always told me that elephants are a sign of good luck. She always had elephants in her house and I grew up wanting to keep the tradition going of this woman that I loved and admired so much. I now have a collection of elephant trinkets from all over the world that remind me of her. So this week when we got word that an elephant was making its way through Angoche district in Nampula province, I knew this was a sign that 2012 is going to be a good year. This is incredibly rare (and pretty exciting) so I got to go out and trace its path. We talked to people across several communities who had seen it and they all had the same reaction of shock and fear. They´ve never seen an elephant before- only pictures in childrens´ books. I´ve seen more elephants in zoos and on safari than they have, and now one is walking through their fields. We tracked it by observing footprints and talking to communities all the way across the district where we determined that it entered Potone Forest. It´s still in the area so we´re hoping it will make its way down to Gile Reserve where it will be better protected and maybe find the company of other elephants. Exciting perks to working for WWF and CARE!

Looking at a Farmer Field School in the community of Namizope

Unfortunately these kinds of things don´t happen every day, but my normal work schedule has been interesting. I´ve been visiting farms to observe Farmer Field Schools (teaching new farming techniques to improve crop yield, introduce disease resistant strains of cassava, show how planting nitrogen-producing legumes benefits other crops, etc.) and determine what we need to do to improve our monitoring of these kinds of activities. I´ve watched meetings in Potone Sacred Forest about land titling, sat down with communities in northern Sangage to listen to their plans of replanting mangroves, and visited proposed sites of new marine sanctuaries on the coast. Now I´m trying to take everything I´ve learned in the field and create new forms that will help us capture all the information we need about the work being done. I´m learning on the job, but I can´t think of a better place to do it than in Angoche.

 It´s amazing to think how much my life has changed after moving to Angoche. I moved into my new house last month which is twice as big as my house was my first two years in Moz in Mopeia. I have running water and an incredible shower (no hot water but it´s rarely needed). I have ceiling fans. I have internet at the office. There is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world within walking distance. There is a bank in my town. There are other Peace Corps volunteers in Angoche. And volunteers not from Angoche come here on the weekends to get away and relax. A year ago I was sitting in Mopeia isolated and bored, had read over 100 books, and was looking forward to the several hours drive to get out to see my friends and relax in the city. Now I never want to leave Angoche.

On New Years Eve, there were 16 volunteers from all over the North in Angoche and I realized that after a week of sleeping on a matrix of mattresses all over the floor, doing too many dishes, and living in close quarters with people I barely knew, that I never wanted it to end. It was one of my favorite weeks ever. And when we heard the dj doing the countdown on December 31 from the local discoteca (the power was out but they were running on a generator so the entire town could hear it), I thought “This is going to be a good year!” Granted the countdown went a little something like this: “59,58,57,56, oh- Feliz Ano Novo!” Not quite the buildup that you usually look forward to during the last seconds of the year, but it didn´t matter. I was with friends and I was happy.

2011 has been an incredible year. I met many wonderful people, saw my efforts begin to make a difference in the community, and finished up my time in Mopeia. It’s hard to believe that I’ve finished my 2 years with Peace Corps and with Save the Children as a community health volunteer. I have learned so much along this journey, about myself, about the world, about life in general.

Many months back I heard about a really interesting project going on in northern Mozambique that caught my attention. I contacted them and was given the incredible opportunity to stay on another year with Peace Corps working for the CARE/WWF Alliance in the coastal town of Angoche. The program Primeiras e Segundas combines development and conservation efforts with projects focused on empowering people while also protecting natural resources. Some of the ongoing projects include teaching conservation agriculture, monitoring fishing techniques and evaluating the effects these have on local fish populations, working with community rangers to count wildlife on the island chain off the coast, and many others. So I’m beginning another year here in Mozambique and I’ve written up a small introduction about the project I’ll be working for and why it’s unique.

Livelihood security is a term used often in development work but what does it mean? The simple answer is the ability of a household to meet its basic needs. These include shelter, access to healthcare, adequate supply of food, basic education, a sufficient level of income, and participation within the community. These are basic rights that should be guaranteed, regardless of race, religion, gender, geographic location, or any other prevailing factor. But the reality is that many go without some or all of these necessities. In the coastal area of southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, as in many places in the world, families are struggling to gain access to these fundamental rights. They rely on the land to provide food, but differentiation in rainfall patterns and prolonged dry seasons is leaving them with failed harvests and nothing to eat. They want to send their children to a local primary school, but the increased amount of labor required in the fields renders many children overworked and undereducated. Focus turns to survival and meeting immediate needs. And nature quite often suffers. Forests are cut down in order for makeshift houses to be built. Seas are overfished because fishermen need to compete to bring home income. Local fauna is killed because of uncontrolled fires used to clear agricultural land. But all of these survival techniques are just quick fixes to a much larger problem. The only way that we can successfully start to think about a sustainable future is by combining our efforts to protect nature and improve the quality of life of people across the world. That’s where the CARE/WWF Alliance Program comes in. CARE International (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) is traditionally focused on livelihoods while WWF (World Wildlife Fund/ World Wide Fund for Nature) focuses on preserving our world’s flora and fauna. These two internationally respected organizations have joined together to create the CARE/WWF Alliance. The impact of this innovative partnership is that we are now working toward sustainable economic development with a focus on natural resources. In simple terms- helping the world’s poorest people escape the grips of poverty while also protecting the environment. People depend on nature for survival, and nature cannot survive without the conscious efforts of mankind.
Efforts have already begun in the northern Mozambican coastal communities of Angoche, Moma, and Pebane. Conservation agriculture methods are being taught, land titles are being drawn up, work is being done with local fishing associations to regulate the use of proper fishing equipment, community groups are being instructed on how to maximize profits from their harvest, to name a few of the many ongoing projects. People are being empowered to improve their own lives, while also taking responsibility for the natural resources that they rely on. Development and conservation efforts coming together to improve our world.

Learning about HIV transmission at the REDES Conference

After an amazing week at a northern girls empowerment conference, it’s hard not to be motivated by the energy that comes from having a group of adolescent girls in such an encouraging environment. 28 girls from the northern provinces of Zambezia, Nampula, Niassa, and Cabo Delgado came together for a week of learning about health, future planning, self-esteem building, and meeting new friends from other parts of Mozambique. The REDES (Raparigas Em Desenvolvimento, Educação, E Saúde) conference gave volunteers with groups the opportunity to bring 2 female students and a female counterpart to come together and celebrate what it means to be a woman (and more specifically a young woman in Mozambique) and to talk about the unique challenges they face.
Things are slowly changing in the larger cities, but the reality in most parts of Mozambique is that women are still considered to be weak and inferior. It is far too common to see women beaten for disobeying their husbands, girls as young as 12 years old married off to older men, girls stopping their education after primary school, and being led into lives of transactional sex to be able to feed their families or get basic things that they want/need. During intitation rites, at home, and in the community they are constantly taught that their role in society is to please men in whatever capacity possible. This means that most are urged not to use family planning even if they do not feel ready to have children. Many are encouraged to stop going to school because they are told it is useless if they are going to spend the rest of their lives inside the house and in the fields. They are pushed into early marriages because they are taught that after about 20 or so they should depend on a man to house them and feed them. I’ve even heard men say that they have special vitamins that women cannot survive without, so men are doing us a favor by “keeping us healthy.”
I was talking to an educated man in a large city a few weeks ago and he started off the conversation by saying how he thought the idea of a girls conference was essential for the development of the country and how important it is to teach female youth to be independent. I was so happy to be participating in a conversation with such a positive male presence that I was completely caught off-guard when he then said that despite all that, men should be allowed to have at least a few wives because women have an “expiration date.” His theory was that after having children and struggling with years of housework and working in the fields, women stop trying to be beautiful and therefore men should be allowed to take a younger wife who is not yet spoiled by the hardships of Mozambican life. And when that new younger wife reaches her “expiration date,” he should be allowed to look for a new, even younger one. When I asked if men themselves have this so-called “expiration date” he replied that of course they don’t because men are always trying to impress women so they always look good. But what about the beer bellies? That just means they’re successful and able to enjoy a nice beer after a hard days work. The wrinkles and graying hair? Apparently he thinks women find that attractive. So he’s all for treating women as equals when they are young and beautiful, but trading them in as soon as the years of manual labor bestowed upon them start to show. To him these were two completely separate concepts. One is talking about women’s rights in theory, the other is actually practicing what we preach and treating women as equals instead of as the inferior gender. What about love, companionship, friendship, having someone that you want to spend your life with? Of course men want those things, he said. But they “can’t live without” a beautiful woman.
The way women are treated as objects by men in authority, ridiculed when they try to fend off unwanted advances, and taken advantage of by teachers in the local schools is disheartening, but seeing young girls step up and take action makes me think that there is hope for change. My REDES group consists of about 20 girls ages 13 to 18 from the primary and secondary schools. Last year we met sporadically and talked about HIV/AIDS, played soccer, and did some self-esteem building exercises, but attendance was poor and it was hard to get the group off the ground. But I found an amazing counterpart (21 year old Cristina who is a student and works with Red Cross, Save the Children, IRD, theater groups, is student body president, and a fantastic example for all the girls) who has gotten the group organized and motivated. This year the girls have done palestras (community lectures popular here for communicating important information to the masses) in several of the local schools about the importance of gender equality and speaking about against sexual abuse. They are currently working on a skit about the stigma and discrimination that people living with HIV/AIDS face. Watching these girls stand up in front of hundreds of the peers at school is incredible.
There are REDES groups across the country and many groups still continue independently after the Peace Corps volunteer finishes their 2 years in the community. These groups encourage adolescent girls to dream. Our world is slowly changing, and in Mozambique these girls can be the catalyst for lasting change. One by one they are standing up and showing that girls have the same abilities as boys, that they have the right to go to school and to make their own decisions, and they are showing why REDES and girls empowerment campaigns are so important.

Being a vegetarian is a hard thing to explain here. It’s just not an option that anyone has really thought of. When meat is expensive and good meat is only served on special occasions, why would you ever turn it down? When I first got to my homestay house in Namaacha almost 2 years ago, they served chicken at the first meal and I tried my best to politely decline, though I spoke no Portuguese then and they no English so I’m not entirely sure they understood my sequence of hand gestures. I had studied up on some very simple vocabulary and the only words I could remember pertained to food (those are the most important, right?) so I tried to list off some foods that I did eat to illustrate the whole “no meat” concept. Luckily I had an amazing family who took me to the market and picked up just about everything there to make sure they were buying things that I would be able to enjoy. Carrots? Yes. Cabbage? Yes. Dried fish? No. Dried fish??? No. No. Goat head? No. Yes? No. Kale? Yes. Bananas? Yes. After that my host sister, Quiara, made a list of all the things that I liked and made a menu of what to make for me each week (coconut beans 3 times a week, sautéed kale twice, pumpkin leaves and lentils and vegetable soup and garlic potatoes, and then they’d throw in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on special days because they knew that it reminded me of home).
But when I got to Mopeia it wasn’t quite as easy. I live alone so I didn’t have to explain myself so quickly. At the first workshop where lunch was served I tried to explain ahead of time that I would prefer something without meat. My plate arrived with a heaping mound of white rice and some lovely goat intestines (the best part was saved for me they explained). Thank you very much, but I think I’ll just eat these days old crackers that are crumbled at the bottom of my bag. Attempt number two: a couple of months later at another workshop in town, a plate full of xima (flour and water cooked into a dense consistency that looks a bit like mashed potatoes, but most definitely isn’t) and some fried fish. Yum. No thank you, I will just eat these 10 bananas I bought on the street for about 50 cents.
One of my coworkers pulled me aside, “I see that you don’t eat meat, but why?” Well now I would have to explain myself, but did I really have a good answer? And one that I can easily translate? I am a vegetarian because I’ve always loved animals and I realized in college that not eating them made me feel healthier and more in tune with nature. No judgment on others, it’s just something very personal for me. I am happier because I don’t eat meat just as many are happier when they are biting into a big piece of steak. To each his own. But how to explain this here? “Well I really love animals…” “But so do I,” he responded. “Well yes of course you do. I’m not saying you don’t. But for me, I just don’t want to eat them.” At this point I’m a bit nervous that he thinks I’m accusing him of being an animal-hater. “But why?” he asks again. “Well animals are my friends and I just don’t want to eat my friends…” That’s the best I could come up with? But it was followed by laughter, an announcement to the group, and I was never served goat or fish or chicken at workshops again. Now when I’m caught watching a lizard scurrying along the wall (hours of free entertainment, trust me) or if I stop to pet a kitten on the way to work, the usual response is “Oh look at your friend! Don’t worry, we won’t eat him.”

Planning a training for 70 people is a little more stressful than I had realized. There’s the schedule (How long should we break for lunch? Can that guest speaker really talk for 2 hours? What if I’ve foolishly forgotten my watch and have no idea if anything is running on time or not?), the materials (markers and pens and paper, oh my), logistics (how do you set up a room obviously meant for weddings to encourage discussion? After arranging and rearranging for no less than 2 hours, I now consider myself an expert on this topic), and of course the content. After 3 months of researching behavior change theories, stigma and discrimination activities, and doodling health messages to include in a booklet (finally my true talents are being put to use), we were ready for volunteers and counterparts to arrive from all over the country for 5 days of community activist and medicinal plant fun. And despite how nervous I got standing in front of such a large group, I think the workshop was a great success! It was an amazing opportunity for people from all over Mozambique to come together and share their successes and frustrations and help each other come up with solutions. It was such an encouraging environment and one that I think, and hope, reenergized everyone to take new ideas back to site that will help the whole community.
It was a fantastic week of learning, and of course it was nice to be reunited with all my volunteer friends too. A week in a hotel with wireless internet, hot showers, Coke Light, National Geographic animal shows on tv every night, and the chance to Skype with my family was just the icing on the cake to help me celebrate many hours of work finally being realized. And when the week was over, I thought I was going to have a couple of nights in Maputo to get a check up, and some free time to go to the craft market and get pizza and ice cream. Well a couple of nights turned into 10 nights as I had to get allergy tests and the results took a while since my blood sample had to be sent to a lab in South Africa. But how can I complain? I went to the craft market no less than 6 times (it was on the way to the ice cream shop), went out for pizza 3 times, had a Greek salad, had a chocolate brownie sundae, stayed up way too late watching YouTube videos with other volunteers who were in Maputo for a REDES meeting, and 10 more days of being able to Skype with my family. The whole going to the doctor part, getting blood drawn, and finding out I’m allergic to practically everything (except cats! And very low allergies to dogs, the silver lining to all of this) kept me grounded or I would have really thought I was on vacation. But it was a nice break after an exhausting week. And at the end I actually wanted to come home to my simple house and get in my own bed and use my own kitchen and get back into my usual routine. At least for a little while- less than 5 months left until I’m officially done with this part of my Peace Corps journey!

Address

Jordan Rief, PCV
Corpo da Paz/U. S. Peace Corps
Av. Do Zimbabwe 345
CP 4398
Maputo
Mozambique

Disclaimer

The contents of this blog are my personal thoughts and opinions. They do not represent the views or official policies of the Peace Corps or of the U.S. government.

Peace Corps Moçambique

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