Aikina Nachala Sevene is my sister. She became my sister the September day that I arrived in Namaacha for training. Fifty-five new education volunteers descended a bus and two chapas and entered the gym at the teacher-training institute. The gym is an open, concrete affair whose pillars support a large metal roof. It is austere, rather lifeless. But when we entered, the singing voices of Mozambican women bounced between the court and the metal covering. Our host-families, arranged in a circle, welcomed us with a local song and swaying hips. They held pieces of paper that spelled out our names. It took me a moment to locate my family, or rather, my sister. She introduced herself as Aikina. I introduced myself as James. She is a fifteen-year-old Mozambican. I am a twenty-two-year-old American. We weren’t sure how to greet each other. After a second of hesitation, I went in for the hug. It embarrassed her. Her embarrassment embarrassed me. Teenage sisters are awkward in any culture.
The stiffness of the first interaction, I later discovered, surfaced even in the language Aikina used to introduce herself. Most Mozambicans have two names: a public, or “school,” name and a private, or “family,” name. Aikina is my sister’s public name, the name she gives to strangers. The private name hides between the first name and the surname: Nachala. In the United States, the middle name (correct me if I am wrong) serves little purpose; it is only used when my mother is angry with me. My family calls me James; my friends call me James; strangers call me James (Mozambicans call me Jemis). Like the middle child, the middle name is often overlooked and under-appreciated. But at week three in Mozambique, I knew a border had been traversed when I began to call my sister Nachala. I entered the circle of trust.
Our circle, however, functioned rather more like a line: two connected points in space. As I look back over my journal entries during training, I find a pair of sentences that recurs in many paragraphs: “I ate dinner with Nachala tonight. Nobody else was home.” Our initial meeting wrote the script for much of my home-stay experience: our parents were out a lot – either working or pretending to work –, so our family circle caved into a sibling line. Generally that line stretched across the dinner table. Nachala cooked for me often – too often it was carapáu, small fish that she would gut herself and fry on a skillet. Always with rice on the side. Or the center. Nachala’s favorite food is rice. Plain, white rice. She formed snowy mountains of the grain on her plate.
Dinners with Nachala quickly became a favorite part of my routine during training. They provided an escape from the hustled monotony of training sessions. Dinner was an opportunity to brincar with my sister, a chance to joke with her. Nachala just finished the tenth grade. Her favorite subjects are biologia and portugués because they are the easiest. She does not like math or chemistry. In October, she was having trouble with the quadratic formula. National exams added stress. In the tenth and twelfth grades, Mozambican students must pass national exams in all of their 8 (or so) subjects in order to advance. If they do not pass, they remain in the same grade.
When my parents ate dinner with us, I found it to be an intrusion. Nachala would remain quiet. Usually, she would giggle when I refused to eat until she sat at the table with me. She is not accustomed to being considered. But on these nights, I was encouraged to eat immediately. Nachala would follow commands: serve food, clean the kitchen, bring a bucket of water and soap to the dinner table for our father to wash his hands. On these occasions she would smile at me and give a thumbs up. I would wink in response. We communicated in secret, mocking these adults that had entered our space.
One night my father beat me to the table. When I arrived, he was dismantling the jaw of a cabeça de porco – a pig’s head. He reached into the cranial cavity and used his fingers like a trowel to scoop out the brains. Brains are not what I expected. Cooked, they form a gray mush not unlike oatmeal. Here in Africa, Sevene told me, they love the brains and the tongue. For the nutrition, one would suppose, but my pai gave me different reasons. Men eat the brains, he said, because it makes them think. They need to ponder the affairs of the house. He paused to finger more brain into his mouth, as if he were pondering deeply. Men eat the tongue, he told me, so that when they speak, others listen. Women do not eat either because they do not need to think and they do not need to be heard. Plus, brains will make them fat, and in that case they would have to be sent away. At the end of his oration, Sevene laughed and I smiled uncomfortably. Nachala just grinned at her plate and shook her head as if to say, “There goes my silly dad again, spouting ancient misogynistic wisdom.”
Nachala wants to be a pilota. She wants to fly airplanes for a living so that she can travel the world. She’s not worried about raising a family with a job that requires so much traveling because she does not want to have a family. Não esposo. Não filhos. No husband. No children. She’ll have to stay in Mozambique when she starts, but she wants to fly to Angola before any other country. She listens to a lot of music from Angola. I told her that once she can fly, she needs to visit the United States. She’ll stay in my house. I’ll fold her clothes. I’ll kill the ants that enter her room. I’ll cook her dinner (that does not need to be gutted moments before consumption). Even when I’ve returned to my North American quadrant of the Earth, Aikina Nachala Sevene will still be my sister. We’ll map out a flight line and pretend that it’s only the dinner table that divides us.