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As my next birthday quickly approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to grow older and how different my perception of age is at home compared to what is the norm here. I will soon be turning the big 2-5. I know for some, you’re thinking that I’m still just a small sapling with a lot of life before me. But for me this birthday marks a transition into a strange unknown. 25. Does this mean I’m an adult now? Should I have more accomplishments to show for my quarter century spent on this earth? Should I have a better grasp on what I want to be when I “grow up”? And as I had dreamt up when I was just 12 years old, shouldn’t I have already published a book, be working for World Wildlife Fund (single handedly saving orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees from the evils of poaching and deforestation), and be an expert in all things “adult” (like filing my own taxes)?
Every time I think of turning a year older I’m filled with an inexplicable sense of dread. Well to be honest, I first think of the amazing birthday festivities planned- camping on the beach with amazing friends for a weekend of charades, sun, swimming, and t-shirts featuring cats with sunglasses and the slogan “Gatos do Mato.” But this is quickly followed by a general sense of unease. Why? Because I am living in rural Mozambique where the fact that I’m in my mid-twenties and am unmarried without children is as big a part of my identity as the fact that I’m foreign and can be spotted from a mile away. To be 25 and not have a baby is so unimaginable for some, that they think it’s impossible. Weekly I overhear my name in some sequence involving my age, a confirmation that yes I do live alone, and general worry that there may be something medically wrong with me. Now all of this talk isn’t to say that I agree in any way with the consensus in my neighborhood. I don’t feel like an “old maid” and I’m not worried about finding a husband (quite far from it actually). But the constant discussion and insistence that I’m past my prime have started to make me question (though in a much different sense than my acquaintances here), what age really means.
In the more than a year that I’ve been working in Mopeia going on home visits I’m constantly reminded that the average life expectancy is about half of what it is back in the states. So when I take into account the reality of life here, some perceptions about age start to make more sense. If my parents passed away when I was 14 and I was left to raise my younger siblings, I think I would have matured much more quickly than I had to in my own life when my biggest worry at 14 was who was going to drive me to soccer practice or why I was the only one of my friends that didn’t have braces (a blessing now that I avoided the pain and awkwardness associated with having a mouth full of metal, but I just wanted those colored bands!). So if I deduced by seeing my family members and friends pass away at a young age, that I myself might only make it to mid-life, would I want to speed things up so that I could accomplish everything in my given time? If I thought I could only expect to live into my 30’s or 40’s would I want to marry young and have children right away to ensure that I got to experience these things? I want these same things, but I don’t feel the urgency that many feel here. I can’t understand the desire to get married at 16 or 17 like many of my neighbors, but I also don’t know what it’s like to lose brothers, sisters, friends, and classmates at such a young age. But that’s not to say that I agree with teenagers leaving school because of early pregnancies or because they got married and now have too much housework. But at least I can begin to understand the motives, which hopefully will help me to think of some better behavior change strategies to aid my efforts.
So I guess during my 25th year I’ll just continue to do what I did during my 24th- to show that life can be lived one day at a time. I am living proof that a woman can live alone, without a husband or children, work, study, and be ok. And even though I’m seen as an oddity now, maybe I’m planting the seed for a future generation here. I have a close friend that has started helping me with my journalism and girls’ groups at the secondary school. She just turned 21 a few weeks ago and she has no plans to get married any time soon. She has no children. She is a rarity, but she is a gem who has taken up cause as of late to speak out about gender inequality and the importance of keeping girls in school. And fighting the social norm just by being herself! (And she’s planning on going to the police academy later this year!) Change happens one person at a time. And birthdays only come once a year so I will be spending my “Dia de Mentira” (yes there is a Mozambican form of April Fool’s Day) hopefully in the company of good friends, good food, and maybe even some famous charcoal-baked cake.

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Address

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

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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