The security guard in Maputo welcomed us with a fever scanner in the ear. The Ebola crisis in West Africa is worsening, and they’re not taking any chances. Ironically, I might be safer here in East Africa now that the disease has crossed the Atlantic. Maputo is the capital of Mozambique, a long, angular country that extends up the eastern coast of the African continent to form a “Y” around Lake Malawi. The country is twice the length of California and borders six countries: South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania (from South to North). A flight from JFK Airport in New York carried 55 new Peace Corps Volunteers here in late September. We flew over Botswana – which from the airplane looked a lot like Nevada – and into Johannesburg before connecting to a short and extremely shaky flight over to Maputo.
Before 1975, the official name of Maputo was Lourenço Marques. Moreover, Mozambique was only recognized in the world system as a colony of Portugal. Yet, in 1964 the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo) began waging a guerilla war against the Portuguese state. When the Salazar regime in Portugal was overthrown by a coup d’etat in 1974, Mozambique and other Portuguese colonies gained independence. The Mozambican government turned to Marxism, the only viable philosophy that permitted an adoption of a Western political system without giving credit to their former overlords. Portuguese remained the official language out of convenience – it was one of the only factors that united the vast country. Unfortunately, all of the trained professionals in the land fled at the inauguration of a new government. Mozambique was left with only a handful of college graduates. A new guerilla force – Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo)– rose up through backing by the white regimes in, first, Rhodesia (which later became independent Zimbabwe) and then the Apartheid government of South Africa. An intense civil war and a crippled state structure combined to create one of the poorest nations in the world in the 1980’s.
In the late 1980’s the government of Mozambique began to change it’s rhetoric. It entered into agreements with the IMF and the World Bank. It liberalized its economy. The Apartheid regime fell. The Cold War – cold in the northern hemisphere, but hot in Africa – ended. In 1992 Frelimo and Renamo signed a peace agreement, still celebrated every fourth of October as Dia de Paz. The government invited the Peace Corps to Mozambique in the late nineties. I am a part of Peace Corps Mozambique 23 – the 23rd education group to come to country to teach. The Peace Corps also works in the medical field here and I will likely have a medical volunteer as a counterpart when I go to my official site in December.
For now, I reside in the town of Namaacha for ten weeks of Pre-Service Training. Namaacha sits about an hour to the south of Maputo via chapa ride. Chapas are the unofficially official transportation method in Mozambique. It consists of nothing more than a person with a vehicle, either a van or a truck, who drives people to their destination for a fee. The chapas have regular routes, but they do not leave unless full. When I say full, I mean completely and utterly over-capacitated, at least in the case of the chapa “My Love” – pronounced in English (I’m not sure why). “My Love” refers to an open-air chapa in which the passengers are packed in so tightly that they must hold on to each other, “love” each other, to prevent themselves from falling off.
My house is two stories tall. It is a casa revolucionaria – a revolution house. When Mozambique gained independence, they nationalized almost all of the property belonging to Portuguese citizens. My pai bought it a few years later for the equivalent of 500 U.S. dollars. The electricity still works, but all of the light bulbs hang by an unstable cord from the ceiling or the wall. The power goes out every morning. It goes out about every other night. But we have light most of the time. The yellow paint on the outside of the house is cracked and fading. Water leaks from the ceiling whenever it rains. None of the front windows have glass in them; that is how our cat moves in and out of the house. The tile floor is mostly bare concrete now, but it’s not dirt. There is no running water. We gather buckets of water from a well and use them in the house to flush the toilet and take a bath. I’m not sure where the plumbing goes, or if anyone else knows, but it doesn’t seem to have clogged yet. The others in my language-tutoring group describe my home as an easy candidate for a haunted house, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. Houses like mine are the reason why other volunteers describe my neighborhood as the “Beverley Hills of Namaacha.” Most others live in cement structures with corrugated metal roofs. They use outhouses to defecate and they use the same outhouses to bathe. I like my home. I live here with my pai, Sevene (“One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Sevene!”), my mãe, Mama Tina, and my fifteen year-old sister, Nachala.
Namaacha itself is considered urban for Mozambique. It has one paved road – the rua principal – that cuts through town, linking Maputo to the borders of Swaziland and South Africa. When I run in the mornings, I head through my neighborhood – Bairro Frontera – and reach the border of Swaziland within five minutes. The road continues toward the mountains to the west, upon which sits a compound of lights that at night demarcates the border with South Africa. A barbed wire fence lines the border, but it is refreshingly open compared to the line between the U.S. and Mexico. In the opposite direction one can find the Catholic church in the center of town, Nossa Senhora de Fátima, built by the Portuguese in 1944 and still in use today. On our first Sunday in Namaacha, the church welcomed all of the volunteers present at mass to come to the front and introduce ourselves. We hardly understood what they were asking.
The local language is changana, but most residents can speak upwards of three or four languages, including swazi. When we walk through town, sometimes the locals will shout at us: “Mulungo! Mulungo!” It means “white-skinned person,” and it became surprisingly comforting once my sister explained that it was not intended as an insult. I think.
There are a lot of things I do not fully understand here. A lot of smiling and nodding on my part. I did not expect to be tall in Africa, but I tower over most people. I did not expect it to rain often, but Namaacha is in the mountains and rain clouds are a daily sight. I did not expect to have easy access to peanut butter, but “Black Cat” peanut butter from South Africa has been my saving grace. And truly, I did not expect to feel at home by week three. But I do. At night I crawl underneath my mosquito net – situated rather like a canopy bed, it feels strangely comforting and protective – and I remember what my neighbor Alfredo told me the night I arrived. Alfredo is a friend of my parents, a middle-aged man (age can be tough to identify here; everyone is older than they look) with a happy and encouraging face. We were eating beef and xima – a kind of African porridge – and drinking beer. He looked at me and said, “Agora você está en seu pais. You are in your country now. Esta é a sua mama. This is your mom. Este é o seu pai. This is your dad. Esta é a sua casa. This is your home. Está en seu pais. You are in your country.”