Death and Idealism in the Time of Malaria

I am Alirio. I am nineteen years old. I am from Mozambique. My mom is a farmer. My dad is dead. I am Alirio. I did not ask Alirio how his father died; I only taught him how to pronounce this in English. I met the boy – I say boy because, even though I only have three years on him, Mozambicans always appear younger than they are – last week during my site visit to the province of Gaza. During training, the Peace Corps sends us to visit volunteers at their current sites as a kind of reality check: this will be you in four weeks. Gaza occupies the south of Mozambique, north only to the province of Maputo. It is a flat, desert land – not unlike Nevada or Arizona – spotted with trees and cement houses. I visited Nick and Joe, two education volunteers serving as high school teachers in the town of Manjangue. They have a home with a cement porch on the school campus. Throughout the day students constantly pass by: Estou a pedir água; Estou a pedir aulas de ingles; Estou a pedir uma bola para jogar. They ask for things: May I have water? Will you teach me English? Can I have a ball to play games? Alirio wanted a lesson in English. I started with the basics – the verb “To be”: I am Alirio. We attempted to define the nineteen-year-old. We drew a web with his name at the center. He repeated words after me. I would toss an orange to him and he would speak. He would toss it back and I would speak. But when he told me his father died, it felt as though he tossed up an orange I received an apple. My tongue faltered for a moment before I translated the word morto for him: dead.

This particular incident, of course, is not unique to Mozambique. People lose parents all over the world. I have lost a grandmother, an uncle. But death feels more real here; it is more present. In the U.S. death feels almost dreamlike, surreal in way: I can’t believe my grandfather passed away. Why not? Because you sent him to an elderly care facility and only visit him a few times a year? We have places in the U.S. for the sick, the senile, the wounded. We distance ourselves from death. It is an abnormality, not a certainty. In Africa, those people tend to stay with us. Women in Mozambique always carry a capulana – a traditional fabric defined by colorful patterns and worn as a skirt tied around the waist – with them because nobody knows when they could receive news of a death. Babies often do not receive names until they turn one or two; names encourage attachment, which only makes it more difficult if the child does not survive. Even if you become frustrated, never cry in front of your students. Mozambicans only cry when somebody dies. Our language facilitator gave us this piece of advice early on.

Why do people seem to die more frequently here? So far, nobody I know has died. But in the course of my life, I have only been to two, maybe three, funerals. My host sister is fifteen; the number of funerals she has attended far exceeds mine. The host sister of one volunteer died the week we arrived. Cause of death: malaria. Malaria is the number one killer in Mozambique. Each year it kills 750,000 people worldwide, 90 percent of which are in Africa. The illness spreads via the bite of an anopheles (female) mosquito. The most prevalent variety in Mozambique is plasmodium falciparum. After an individual receives a bite, the plasmodium infiltrates the body. It incubates in the liver for two weeks before bursting out to attack the red blood cells. The main symptoms are fever and a headache. The Peace Corps requires volunteers to take malaria prophylaxis – pills containing anti-malarial activity – and to sleep under mosquito nets. I take Doxycycline every morning. Many take Mefloquine once a week, a drug that induces vivid dreams. During the world cup in Brazil this year the players complained of sleep loss due to the Meflo nightmares. Try taking it for two years. One volunteer can’t sleep more than an hour without waking up. But hey, it’s better than losing your internal organs.

More than malaria plagues Mozambique. In some areas of the country, as many as one in three people are infected with HIV. The government lacks the funds and the medical infrastructure to supply medication for the general populace. Instead, NGO’s and foreign aid take the reigns here, providing cheap access to various medications (remember that there is not yet a cure for HIV/AIDS) – sometimes as low as five meticais per month (there are about 30 meticais to one dollar). One health volunteer expressed concern that perhaps the availability of the drug engenders a disregard for proper prevention measures. But we can’t let some people die just to teach others a lesson. Besides, even if five meticais does not seem like a significant amount, it is when you only make, say, 30 meticais per day. People have to make choices about how they spend their money: toilet paper or beans? A birthday cake or medicine? School or vegetables? What would you choose? Many areas of the country have a tempo de fome – a time of hunger, usually in the late summer, during which produce prices skyrocket due to scarcity. Any alteration in the budget can cause distress in the family. Two weeks ago I injured my knee playing basketball. I collided with another player. His knee slammed into the inside of mine, right along the nerve. My knee swelled. Fluid raced to the surrounding area. I couldn’t walk for two days. The German doctor in Maputo diagnosed it as only contusion. But I am a volunteer, an employee of the United States government. I have a medical team to give me a brace and Advil. I have a host family to feed me. I have time to rest. Others are not so lucky.

Olga is my family’s empregada – a hired house worker. She walks more than an hour to my house and an hour back to her home six days a week. She has a very limited education, as far as I can tell. When I told her that I am from the United States, she replied – refreshingly, I must say – that she has never heard of that land. Although, maybe we misunderstood each other: Portuguese is not her first language (or mine). Olga speaks Xangana – the local tongue. She has been sick for the last month. Enough so that she was hospitalized for two days. But on the third day she rose and came back to work. She cannot afford not to work. Every now and then she brings her four-year-old son with her. He has white spots on his head and a bloated belly: he is malnourished. If she does not work, they do not eat. Hunger can kill.

So then what is my role here as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Are we here to save the people of Mozambique from hunger, malaria, and general malaise? In theory: perhaps (though “save” is an imperialistic word). In reality: hardly. My fifteen-year-old host sister can run a household better than most adults in the U.S. So what the hell am I doing here with my knee propped up in bed? I find myself confronting this question frequently. I’ve entered a strange new world, a place where I am as much a baby as the child crying next to me at church. But I do know something that child doesn’t know: I know how HIV spreads; I know the symptoms of malaria; I understand basic nutrition; and now I speak Portuguese. Language constructs bridges across cultures, laying subjects and verbs like a stonemason sets bricks. I believe in the power of education – in my own potential – to improve the quality of life for those in Mozambique. I may not know death like they do, but life is something I can explore with them. Check back in with me after two years: if these ideals are battered or worn or dead, give me a well-balanced meal and teach me to believe again.


2 thoughts on “Death and Idealism in the Time of Malaria

  1. James, your writing is improving by leaps and bounds. Your heartfelt words bring tears to my eyes. Thank you for all your diligent labor.

    Love, Nani


  2. Hi James,

    I really very proud of you. You are such a great young man.
    Words can’t express how great it was to skype with you while in Scottsdale.
    Love you sweetie Aunt Shelly


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