If cleanliness is next to godliness, then Mozambicans are certainly a devoted people. Everyday is a war: against filth, against bixos that crawl into your house or buzz around near your ear, against sweat, against infection. The house is swept daily. The house is mopped daily. The banho is mopped multiple times daily. The corner of my room is home to either an ant colony or a sustained and coordinated formiga invasion of my room. They accumulate like piles of sawdust on the floor. Each morning I retrieve the broom and ceremonially sweep them away. But the ants always come marching, and we perform our rite with the consistency of the rising sun.
Within a week of arrival I developed a small rash under my right armpit. Within two weeks of arrival – if only I’d thought of it sooner – Gold Bond Medicated Powder started to powder more sections of my body than just my feet, if you catch my drift. A second year volunteer that visited to assist with training called this time of year “Rash Season”: the rainy months leading into summer (seasons here are the opposite of the Northern Hemisphere; the toilet does not swirl in the opposite direction, though, because it does not swirl at all – we just dump in a bucket of water afterwards).
And yet, the people themselves are the cleanest aspect of existence in Namaacha. We bathe two times a day, without fail. When I wake up, I boil water for my bucket bath. Before dinner, I boil water again for my bucket bath. I rarely feel this clean in the United States. Body odor is real, but generally only for those returning from work at the machambas – local farms. I don’t think deodorant exists for the majority of Mozambicans. Toilet paper does exist, but it is expensive and most cannot afford it. The left hand performs the role of toilet paper. It is culturally unacceptable to shake hands and/or eat with said hand. Even waving with the left hand is uncommon; I’ve turned a head or two greeting with my left thumb. Laundry is done weekly, by hand, and strung up to dry. During my first attempt, the outsides of my knuckles bled from scrubbing items of clothing together. Repeated laundry days have hardened the wounds.
The devout effort at cleanliness makes sense: control what you can with what you have. It makes more sense here than it does in the United States. In a place where dirt is everywhere, bugs are everywhere, sickness is everywhere, and germs abound, it is extremely important to maintain good personal hygiene. In the United States, poor body maintenance can be a source of social leprosy. In Africa, it can kill you. Matequenha is the local name for a parasitic infection known as tungiasis. Parasites living on the fleas that inhabit mango trees burrow into your skin. The larvae form small black bumps in your flesh and must be removed with tweezers. Schistosomiasis: the name for the worms that thrive in lakes and fresh water sources, alert and ready to crawl into your bloodstream. The medical team actually gave a presentation on personal hygiene. Bathing, we were told, should be a romantic moment. A moment to touch every cell of yourself, to feel your body, to intimately inspect your flesh. Because if you don’t love yourself, it’s likely you won’t notice what other creatures may be loving you too.
As much as we are in touch with the physical, Mozambicans also maintain a faith in the ethereal. They observe their rituals of limpeza throughout the week: cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. Then, on Sundays, they attend the ritual of the Eucharist (some call it Catholic mass). Of course, it must be noted that the “they” of whom I speak refers primarily to the women, especially the older ladies of Namaacha. Work is divided sharply along gender lines, and only rarely do I see men performing chores. One woman went so far as to tell me that her favorite hobby is washing clothes. Another fervently believes that washing machines do not clean the armpits of shirts as well as her knuckles do. It is not uncommon to see a woman walking down the rua principal with a baby tied to her back and a fifty-pound bag of rice poised perfectly atop her head. I’ve offered to carry such items before, but I am convinced that it pains my biceps more to carry a box a tomatoes than it hurts the head of my neighbor when she balances stacks firewood on her skull.
But on Sunday mornings the women (and many men, as well) do not cart water or rice; they attend church. I went with my sister, Nachala. She informed me that my father only attends church when he is sick. There are several different Christian congregations in Namaacha. In Mozambique more generally, there is also a large Muslim population, just not this far south. The legacy of Portuguese colonialism surfaces in many areas of life; the prevalence of Catholicism is one manner. Immediately after independence, the socialist government of Mozambique strongly opposed any form of religion. However, in the late eighties, the church was invited back into the country and became an integral part of peace talks with the Renamo resistance movement. My first Sunday my sister took me to the local Catholic Church: Nossa Senhora de Fátima. It was constructed by the Portuguese in 1944 and stands today much as it did 70 years ago: an archetypal Portuguese colonial edifice with a bell tower reaching heavenward. It survived the civil war; Renamo guerillas tended to respect places of worship in the communities that they attacked.
Catholic mass, I decided that Sunday, is Catholic mass all the world over. Sit. Stand. Repeat after me. The movements are methodical, ritualistic. The only noticeable difference was slightly more singing and a drumbeat. At the end of the service, all of the volunteers present were invited to the front of the congregation to introduce ourselves. I had to walk from one of the final rows, where I had been joking with my sister about all of us sinners at the back. We announced our names, our task here in Africa. Black hands clapped for us. I returned to the relative security of the final pews. We filed out of the church in a crowd, one after the other, each on our way to relax before recommencing the rituals of the week. The ants would be waiting for me at home. March on. March on.