*It’s a long one, but this is the last post I’ll write from Mozambique.
Thick thighs flaunted their radiant skin below her tight jean shorts. Almost all Mozambican women have beautiful skin, but rarely do you see so much thigh. The beach forgives normal cultural dress codes. She walked confidently through the sand in the small reed shack set up for the lake festival. Chuanga beach, generally a quiet getaway for wealthy people from Lichinga as well as a source of bath and laundry water for locals, was, that night, a mad house of people. We fought for space on the back of a truck to arrive at the maze of reed shacks selling chicken and fries. Drunk men wrestled on the beach. Some groups carved out shallow beds in the sand and curled up to sleep. A stage occupied a central area, but strong winds and a burst of midnight rain would cancel the music performance until 5am. Evan and I found ourselves sitting at a table with a wealthy, fat family in this particular hut; we were drawn by the sight and the aroma of vorce – South African beef sausage. The girl with the thighs said she would give us extra fries. She was young, perhaps our age, but she spoke and moved with the self-assurance of certain African women that says, “I don’t take shit from anyone.” Evan and I were drunk and tired. I endured the fat man’s lecture about finding a woman and settling down in Mozambique. With so little time left in this country, the prospect can be fun to entertain. Above her shorts, the hostess wore a shirt with English words across the front: Rhyme for the Bummertine.
The lake festival was about three weeks ago now. In the days afterwards, I began to adopt the slogan of that shirt to describe my experience in Mozambique. The words almost make sense, but not quite. The rhyme isn’t even true – it’s slanted. Time is running away from me and the feeling is surreal, like I’m melting in a Salvador Dali painting. I keep trying to make sense of the last two years but I still can’t discover any meaning, any tangible kernel, in any of this. The life lessons have been many and I refuse to list all of them here for you. But I’m talking about the moral of this story. What does Mozambique mean to me? As I write, I have six days left in this house. A sense of urgency pulses through every experience, making it difficult to pause and reflect. So, three weeks ago, I contented myself to rhyme for the bummertine – to allow Mozambique to occupy a dream-like state in my mind, a real place imbued with the entire spectrum of feelings but which doesn’t quite mesh into the rest of my life’s fabric. It reminds me of an intensified recapitulation of leaving Argentina after a semester of study when I bought a magnet that says, “Buenos Fucking Aires.” At the time, that city didn’t make sense to me either. When we stand on the precipice of great change, it seems that our minds resort to basic, instinctual settings.
During these last weeks, the sound of a train blaring its horn has infiltrated the soundscape at my home. Renamo destroyed the train tracks leading to Lichinga during the civil war. Finally, after more than twenty years of relative peace, the railroad has once again reached Lichinga. A legitimate piece of infrastructure now connects the capital of Niassa province to the rest of the country. We may be situated at the end of the world, but at least you can enjoy a drink and a view of the landscape from a slow-moving train on your way here. The noise washes across the plateau like the rising tide of development. Although I had nothing to do with the train, it gives me comfort to know that someone did something. The time feels right to leave.
The president of Mozambique visited Lichinga to inaugurate the railroad. I did not attend the ceremony – a short Mozambican in a suit waving to a large crowd as he rolled by on a train – but the volunteer who will replace me did. His name is Yoel and he visited for two weeks as part of the new Peace Corps training model that sends volunteers to their future sites for a brief time before they’re dropped off for good. The school presented him to all of the students during his stay and, suddenly, it became widely known that Mr. Bennett is leaving us. Yoel’s presence, however, also made it easier for me to respond to the hurt accusation, “You’re fleeing us!” because I could say that, at the very least, I wasn’t abandoning anyone. My time is simply up. And yet, a sense of guilt still pervades my interactions with others. Some understand. Some are angry with me. Some want to give me a hard time. Most are simply sad. This weekend I found notes clipped to the door of my home from my students: “We love you teacher. Always remember us.”
Imagine you had a favorite teacher in middle school. He was different than the other teachers – not just an authority figure, but someone who actually listened to you. He invited you and your friends to a club at his house to practice a foreign language. Maybe you even traveled to another town – a trip you never expected you would take – to participate in a competition. Afterwards, even if you didn’t win first place, your teacher still bought you ice cream and sang songs with you in the car. And after two years of this, this teacher with whom you started high school said he was moving away to Mexico, or Europe, or Japan, or Mozambique. In July, I wrote that the Peace Corps felt like one big rip in the fabric of my life. I’m starting to see, however, all of the other fabrics my dislocation tore when I left California and will now tear when I leave Mozambique. My travels are bound together by the continuous thread of my consciousness. But the flight lines I cut across the globe act like a razor blade to sever all of the other fabrics woven into the edges of my own. I rip stitches like it’s my job. I guess the contract mentioned something about a two-year position, but knowing is different than experiencing. My edges feel worn and frayed.
A week after the acceptance of my inability to process Mozambique, I woke up with an intense pain in my toe and an epiphany – rhyme for the bummertine suddenly made sense. As a preface, in the month of October all of my health woes seemed to have diminished significantly. Eight months of dietary diligence had healed my gut to a level that allowed me to travel without total fear; I might even be gaining some weight back. The muscles in my knee were (/are) still atrophied, but not as weak as they once were. My broken big toe had healed, although it still pops regularly. The fungus disappeared, I think. And the end of my service was in sight. Pieces were falling into place. I began to develop nostalgia, hovering longer on my back porch to inhale the view of the mountain in the east. But that night, a deep pain in my big toe woke me and wouldn’t let me relax. With no more fungus, I had allowed myself to wear real shoes for the first time in months. Within a week, I started to develop an ingrown toenail, and it hurt. No, Mozambique seemed to be saying to me, I’m not done with you yet. I want to humble you one more time. She succeeded: these afflictions make me feel gross. Nothing about diarrhea, or bloating, or a fungus, or an ingrown toenail is pleasant. People cringe at the mention of fungus or a toenail asserting itself where it shouldn’t. The Internet claims that everything that has befallen me constitute regular, common problems for people everywhere. This may be so, but nobody wants to admit that. I admit it now because it seems to reduce my burden. I have come to understand all sadness as a consequence of loneliness – the root of all sorrow is the feeling that one is alone. Writing is my solace.
But I digress. I could feel my heart beating through my swollen toe and the angry pulse kept me awake. I developed a theory about rhyme for the bummertine. This theory does not clear up the confusion regarding the meaning of the phrase, but it explains why it does not make sense. The universe has never made sense to me. Humanity has spent our history writing laws and developing theories to organize the universe into a framework around which we can wrap our heads, but quantum physics and string theory both function even if they’re not compatible. God, I realized, does not exist in the manner in which so many of us believe. He is not a loving father extending his hand to protect every living soul. My own woes have, more than once, reduced me to the angry despair that jolted this understanding. But they pale in comparison to so many. Everyday I see women standing in line for hours, surrounded by colorful plastic buckets, waiting for their turn at the water pump because there is no more water on the Lichinga plateau. For the past two years I have worked with countless eighth graders who can’t read or write. Adolfo in Turma C is going blind and there is literally nothing I can do to stop that. Foreign aid workers wheel their land rovers over dirt roads with pockets full of cash while the people they claim to serve have become dependent upon shipments of weak, GMO seeds that don’t reproduce for the next harvest. One of the chemistry teachers at my school walks around in a depressed daze now because his eldest daughter died during childbirth in October. No, God, is not looking out for everyone. Instead, he seems to be a spoiled child in a room full of forks, clinking together the silver tines to produce discordant melodies that set the universe in motion. Sometimes they harmonize. Oftentimes they don’t. Murphy’s law states that anything that can happen, will happen. It is a law a man wrote to grapple with the jarring slant rhymes of the universe. We can try our best to match the rhythms of our world, to respond to the beat of a childish Mover, but so often we’re pinned in the bummer time by the tines of a heavenly fork.
I received a text from a Mozambican friend a couple of weeks ago, somebody I hadn’t really spoken to since I arrived in country. He speaks English well and he read my blog recently. He wrote me to tell me that he has been having a rough time and my post on growing up found him at the right time. “I needed to talk to someone about it all,” he said, “and instead, you (albeit indirectly) talked to me and it really, really, helped me.” As much as I go back and forth about the value of my Peace Corps experience – had I not come here, I would likely still have a healthy body and a beautiful girlfriend – maybe this statement validated all of it. Maybe his statement is what this whole Peace Corps experience – or any experience, really – is all about: learning how to relate with others. Suffering has estranged me from any concept of a good god, but it has brought me closer to every other human being by cultivating a sense of empathy. Awareness of this place, of the many levels of pain and hardship in Mozambique and Austral Africa, has distanced me from god, but it has given me a deeper understanding of humanity – both my own culture and the culture of Niassa. I refuse to forget this place, these people, and the lives that are happening here, regardless of wherever I may be. And perhaps there is my kernel: life isn’t about looking up to heaven; it’s about finding it in our relationships with others.
I returned to Metangula three days ago for a farewell party with the other Peace Corps volunteers in Niassa province. The villa rests at the base of a long mountain hugging the lakeshore. A small strip of shoreline provides enough space for a road to skirt the slope of the mountain and reach the peninsula of Chuanga beach – the site of the festival and also the lodge where we spent this past weekend. We followed the pulsing rhythm of music to a dive bar in the beach sand with a couple of drunken men and maybe two or three girls. One of the girls wore a one-piece bathing suit that split like a V from her breasts down to just below her belly button. She wore a see-through sarong over the suit. Her name was Esperança and she liked me. She, too, has thick thighs, but hers are attached to hips that can replicate the beat of a song like the rising and falling bars of light on a stereo display. Oftentimes when I dance with Mozambican women, I can’t quite find the right rhythm to match their movements. I used to swear that they could hear tones and tempos that most white people simply cannot. But on Saturday night, for some reason or rhyme, I found the right beat. With our legs interlocked, we danced and it truly felt like falling in love. In Portuguese, the name Esperança means hope. Our encounter was brief – her friend pulled her away abruptly to catch a ride back to the villa – and I know nothing about her. I will likely never see her again. And yet, despite our fleeting interaction, I will never forget how our bodies came together, two frayed fabrics swaying like a single banner in the wind.