One month left in Mozambique. I submitted the following post to Peace Corps in September as the final “Success Story” of my service (I don’t know why I’ve held onto it for so long). Success is a matter of perspective.
Odetta moved in abruptly. On International Workers’ Day we heard a lot of movement on the other side of the wall that partitions our house into two homes. The next morning, we had new neighbors: Odetta, her nephew Orlando that recently graduated from high school, her daughter in grade school, and her other nephew in grade school. The school granted her housing in response to some sort of family emergency. At first, my roommate and I were hesitant of the change. New neighbors meant a new atmosphere in the location where we feel most comfortable; it meant we would need to adapt.
Adaptation is always a disconcerting endeavor because the outcome is rarely visible from the start. The universe presents us with change, and we have no choice but to mold our behavior in kind. When Odetta arrived, I found myself in the midst of a complete overhaul of my lifestyle in response to the chronic stomach issues I developed after housing a parasite for longer than my body would have liked. In the past year, I have had to modify my dietary and even social habits in response to IBS. I did not want to deal with a new, possibly worse, neighbor.
On July 15th I returned to my house from a trip to the provincial hospital to see a doctor about a different medical issue (I can’t decide which is more frustrating: skin fungus or IBS). I must have sighed on my back porch because Orlando poked his head over the partition wall and asked, Cansaço? Oftentimes, when a Mozambican suggests how I am feeling, I simply agree to avoid the process of explaining emotions that might be wrapped up in a more complex cultural package than simply being tired. Not this time, though. No, I told him. Just frustrated. And because this response begs more background, I proceeded to explain that so often little things that I expect to pass quickly drag into long affairs and these long affairs – like a fungal infection or IBS or a torn MCL – wear on me. Not until later did I realize the significance of our exchange. Without any reluctance, I actually told a Mozambican the exact emotion I felt.
This exchange was not an abrupt breakthrough, but rather the culmination of several months of neighborly interactions. It started with us mentioning that we would like to cook meals for one another. It was something that, initially, I just agreed to in order to please Orlando. Then one day he told me he was going to make a sweet potato dessert. He had the sweet potatoes sitting in the sun all day because, he said, it made them sweeter. Then he was going to boil them in coconut milk until the mixture reached the consistency of “baby vomit” – his words – and mix in some sugar. I told him I wanted to try it, but I couldn’t do the sugar because of my stomach. So that night he brought me a sample before he added in the sugar. He took into account my needs and wants. And it was delicious. Furthermore, I told him that when we do cook together, I would not be able to consume onions or garlic. I think that may have been the first breakthrough – me expressing my dietary needs beyond saying that my stomach still isn’t “normal.” I told him the specifics of what I can and cannot eat, and he accepted that without judgment. So the next night or so I made extra sweet potato fries and roasted pumpkin to give him. He shared it with the family and they loved it. A few days later, they bought another sack of sweet potatoes and gave me a bunch. So that night I made them sweet potato fries again. On another day , Orlando brought me Mozambican fried rice. He said their curry had onions in it, so he didn’t bring me any (yes, he remembered). He said he wanted to make me sweet potato leaves the next day. We engaged in a system of reciprocity – once one person does something for the other, we feel compelled to do more. A not so random act of kindness triggered a chain of giving – this is what neighbors do, I think. I enjoy it. I feel a connection with them, a sort of warmth when I think of the family.
Now it is September, and I believe that my new neighbors are one of the greatest blessings of my service. They’ve given me insight into a Mozambican family. Actually, they have simply given me a Mozambican family in place of the young, single Mozambican male that inhabited the house before them. Orlando and the others have revealed characters with real feelings and depth and complexity and plans and histories and humors and patience and frustrations and the entire spectrum of human personality. The cardboard façade of the Mozambican persona has tipped over and suddenly I can see the real people that live here. Orlando, specifically, has bridged a cultural divide to demonstrate himself as a multi-faceted human being with thoughts and feelings and desires other than just hunger or horniness. He has humanized the Mozambican male. He has become my friend.
I wrote the first draft of this “success story” using a metaphor to portray Orlando and I constructing a bridge between our cultures. The gap between us, however, seems less cultural and perhaps more like a personal defense mechanism that I erected after over a year of a cultural isolation, after being robbed, and after several months of physical suffering. At some point in my two years in Mozambique, I stopped building bridges and started excavating a moat around myself. Orlando succeeded in drawing me out from behind my defenses. He listened to what I had to say – a trait lacking even in many of my relationships with Anglophones who don’t care to hear about dietary restraints and prolonged woes – and convinced me to trust in him. The success here is not mine; I passively reacted to the sustained efforts of a neighbor seeking friendship. Orlando succeeded. He succeeded in modifying the trust settings in my brain. He successfully forced me to adapt my emotional approach to experience even in the midst of other lifestyle adaptations. That is, perhaps, the terrifying beauty of an existence defined by adaptation: we’re blind to what awaits us ahead, but we arrive at moments in which the view behind us opens like a clearing in a forest and shines with the pristine clarity of something ephemeral. Right now I see a friend. And a friend, I think, is worth a year or more of suffering.