Karma Triumphs Over the Ego

One week short of a year in Mozambique and karma for the title of my blog has finally struck. The diarrhea began on Thursday morning, but the slight fever, the overwhelming sense of weakness, the fogginess of the brain all began on Wednesday night. I was prepared to go to play soccer at the school: my shoes were on, my water bottle was filled; I even left the house. But thank goodness I turned around. I can only imagine the explosion that might have ensued.

Thursday morning was the worst. My body was too weak to hold itself upright. I hunched from my room to the kitchen to heat up some water for oatmeal. I wanted to try to put something in my stomach. But within the hour that I was standing, I sat on the toilet five different times. I could not think properly, my mind swirling like a bird tossed from the winds of a tropical storm onto a cay in the eye. I needed to re-orient myself. I needed to rest. I resigned myself to drinking oral rehydration salts and lying in bed. I passed out for five hours.

The most annoying part of acute diarrhea here is the lack of running water. Many volunteers have latrines. Pros: no need to flush the toilet and no need to clean much. I have a toilet, but no running water. Pros: I can actually sit down while I my body purges itself and I don’t have to exit my house to reach the toilet. However, I do have to exit my house after every demoralizing bathroom trip because I need to fill a bucket of water to flush the toilet. At 3am, this becomes frustrating. After five trips in sixty minutes, this becomes frustrating. “The worst part about being sick abroad is not what it does to the body, but what it does to the mind… Being immobilized by [diarrhea] only heightens your already elevated sense of vulnerability and helplessness, your feeling of not being in control” (Storti, 11). God, just let me flush the toilet.

How did this happen? After almost a year here, I had begun to think of myself as well adapted to the country, to the ins and outs of sanitation and hygiene in Mozambique. With little else to do as I lay in bed, avoiding movement for fear of upsetting my intestines, I began to rack my brain: where did I go wrong? Eventually I settled on the cause: Monday’s lunch. I ate at my usual spot in the market – grilled chicken, rice, and salad. But Monday they were slow. I waited longer than usual. When they brought out the chicken, steam poured from the poultry’s flesh. It had clearly just been removed from the fire. I devoured it, savoring the fresh taste. Only about halfway through eating my chicken did I realize that it was also only cooked about halfway through. Symptoms from eating raw chicken include: headache, fever, and diarrhea. They surface between six and 72 hours after consumption. My symptoms began between 48 and 72 hours later.

Blaming Tio’s for the chicken put my mind at ease: this wasn’t your fault, James. Yes, you chose to eat the raw chicken. However, it was not an act of food preparation on your part that caused the sickness. My ego, pushing blame elsewhere, relaxed.

 

My ego is tired: living in Africa has been a constant exercise in humility. I recently read a book that has provided me with the proper vocabulary and/or awareness to express my situation. The book, The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti, focuses on a disturbing trend in expatriate culture that I’ve witnessed frequently in second year PCV’s and whose roots I’ve begun to monitor in myself: a strong disapproval of and/or disgust with the habits and behaviors of Mozambicans. Repeated cultural “incidents,” as Storti dubs them, which arise as a result of living within Mozambican (or any foreign) culture wear you down, they make you critical, and they can make you bitter. Cultural incidents are those moments when my American values don’t quite line up with the values of the people here, when I ride my bike to the market and young men scream and point “White man, white man”; or when I arrive for a meeting scheduled at 11 and nobody else arrives until after lunch; or when my married colleague whom I hardly know texts me to tell me she is having relationship problems; or when a student asks me to “help out” with his grade even though he never comes to class; or when fives strangers in the span of a single morning ask for money; or when my students stare at me blankly because I have asked that they think instead of copy a passage from the board; or when – perhaps this litany has conveyed its point. In A Passage to India by E.M. Forster there is an exchange between two characters that sums up the growing cultural resistance I sometimes feel:

  • “You are absolutely unlike the others, I assure you. You will never be rude to my people.”
  • “I’m told we all get rude after a year.”

I never thought I could get rude. My roommate and I often joke about his ability to be ruder to Mozambicans than I can. He said that when he lived with his previous roommate who finished service last year, the senior volunteer handled the moments requiring rudeness to drive a point home. “It’s a second year thing,” we joke. I’m told we all get rude after a year.           

Storti, himself a former Peace Corps volunteer, describes in one sentence the consequences of losing your cultural efficacy while living abroad: “It means living and working among people who repeatedly annoy and upset us, toward whom we become increasingly critical and negative, and compared with whom we feel increasingly superior.” My last blog entry is nothing short of a full frontal criticism of the Mozambican education system. It’s a slippery slope. Storti follows his statement with a more harrowing caution: “It is a prescription for the narrowing of our humanity, for our ability to be sympathetic and compassionate people” (114).

 

The first step to maintaining my humanity, as so often proves the case, is awareness. I have always considered myself rather self-aware. Peace Corps volunteers, in general, tend to be people with an awareness of differing values and customs between cultures. However, the extended nature of our stay – both in time and in proximity to locals – stretches the culture shock from something benign to which we will soon wave goodbye (the nature of a study abroad experience, for example) into a very lived reality. This reality forces us to confront the difference between a cognitive recognition and/or awareness – that Mozambicans possess different values than me – and it’s lived experience. Storti explains:

  • What our conscious intellect tells us – in this case, that foreigners are surely not like us – is no match for what a lifetime of cultural conditioning has taught us. For the  notion of cultural differences to take deep and lasting root in our psyche, it must be constantly reinforced over a sustained period until it is internalized (author’s  italics) (69).

The notion is taking root: I know that I am unlike Mozambicans in many (the bitter part of me wants to say all) ways. The solution, however, the means to maintain my humanity, to grow it even, as should always be the goal, lies in the frustration or despair or loneliness or whatever negative emotion it is that I feel during these frequent cultural incidents. Rather than withdraw from the culture, rather than place blame on the Mozambican who has upset me, I must remind myself that the negative emotion surfaces as a result of my expectation that said Mozambican will act according to my norms of “acceptable” behavior. It is my expectation that creates the disappointment and if I only expected Mozambicans to be themselves, then such “incidents” would diminish greatly. I have lived in Mozambique for a year now; not a week, no, not an outing has gone by that someone has not shouted “white man” (or one of it’s variations) at me. So why would I ever expect anything less?

Once I simply allow Mozambicans to be themselves, when I expect nothing more of a person than who s/he is, the wave of negative emotions subsides. I possess a sufficient knowledge of the local culture now to distinguish between what is a cultural norm – asking someone for an egg or some lettuce – and an individual character trait – a beggar, for example. The intention here is not to pardon every offensive behavior as an aspect of “culture,” but to sift through what aspects of a personality are influenced by that culture and what are specific to the individual. Even so, there may exist cultural norms to which, for moral reasons, I may never habituate myself. For example, 48 percent of Mozambican girls marry before they reach eighteen years old, and 18 percent before they’re 15 (see this article). That is a cultural difference to which, because of my own deep-seated ethical beliefs, I will never adjust. Storti writes, “The message of this book is not that you must uncritically embrace all local behavior no matter how strange or offensive but only that you should not reject behaviors before you have understood them. In other words, always try to understand before you judge, but once you have understood, you must judge. Otherwise, you risk compromising your own identity” (italics are the author’s)(94). Don’t judge a book by its cover – a cultural platitude we all recognize, but we few internalize.

 

The culture in Mozambique offers several complications that peak my interest as I attempt to delve deeper into the why’s of the local cultural behavior. Firstly, the impact of colonialism. Any American high school student who has read Chinua Achebe knows that once the Europeans arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, Things [Fell] Apart. I want to learn more about the impact of colonialism and the post-colonial culture. One visible effect is language; Mozambique’s national language is Portuguese, and yet the country harbors many different ethnic and linguistic groups. I speak Portuguese, and now I am learning the local language in my area of Niassa, known as Ciyawo (the language of the Yao people), in an attempt to gain a better understanding of those around me. The second complication I wish to mention is the effect of American media, which propagates both violence and sex as worthy aspects of culture. So many Mozambicans want nothing more than to be American – to have guns and girls and endless wealth, to be like Rambo or like Arnold – that they forsake their own identities in an attempt to be more American. High heels and short skirts are not efficient when you must walk several kilometers along dirt roads to school. So why do my female students do this? I would be grateful for any reading suggestions on post-colonial, inter-cultural, or modern media theory.

 

In the meantime, I’ll continue to monitor my ego, to fulfill my role as an observer of culture, not a teacher of it. Nothing humbles a sense of superiority like diarrhea. My insides have been – are still being – flushed clean and laid bare. And my connection to my students has been strengthened by their demonstration of concern for my well-being. In Mozambique, when someone falls ill, it is customary to pay that person a visit. So, although I wanted nothing more than to remain on the toilet this morning after waking, I forced myself to waddle out to the back porch to greet the thirty or so students that assembled to visit me. They were neither the first nor the last group to visit me during my bout with acute diarrhea, but they were the largest group. And after my eighth graders counseled me on how to treat myself (“Heat up some Coca-Cola over a fire with salt!”), and I assured them I would be at school again on Monday, Omar reassured me that if I took another week away from class to rest, he wouldn’t hold it against me.

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4 thoughts on “Karma Triumphs Over the Ego

  1. From my friend Carol:
    Tell him again that I think he is a wonderful writer. He has a gift and is wise beyond his years. When he returns to San Diego, he must go wherever a job takes him for his writing.

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  2. Wise observations James, well written. While there are elements of all unfamiliar cultures that have some similarities, it’s too bad you are being subjected to one so harsh that you are constantly having to be on guard. I suppose there is a positive side of this in that you will be one tough hombre when back in a more civilized environment. Hang in there kid, be safe.
    We miss you, love you, and enjoy reading about your experiences.
    Grandpa

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  3. Hi James,

    I stumbled upon your blog through a tumblr post and was immediately hooked. I served in a small, rural, farming community in South Africa near the intersection of Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa from 2010 to 2012. Reading your blog brings me back, not only in the substance of your remarks but also in their reflective quality. You write well, very well, and you should absolutely pursue that upon your return – but also now. You’re living a special story and your ability to communicate it with readers is a unique gift. I also admire your willingness to write the truth – the uncomfortable, muddying truth that doesn’t always offer palatable answers. All of this is to say, keep it up. It’s a pleasure to read your writing and a particular joy to experience the continuum of service through your perspective.

    Cheers,
    Matt

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  4. From my former colleague Nancy:
    Just finished the latest blog post and am even more in awe of this young man. He is a special, thoughtful, articulate young man.

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