No Longer

The moringa tree is no longer a sapling with a root thicker than its body. It’s slender branches now brush the air some twenty feet above the ground. The strawberry plants still live, but weeds threaten to choke them. The sweet potato plants have disappeared. So has Lídia, the large female teacher that taught in the afternoons with me. I guess she died in a car accident shortly after I left Niassa last year. The head director and one of the pedagogical directors were transferred to other schools. Milton, who worked in the front office, also left, dedicating himself full-time to drinking. Álves is dating his first girlfriend. And Orlando’s daughter had her first birthday party. Even in my remote corner of Africa, timed marched relentlessly forward after I departed. During my ten day visit at the end of October, I encountered a reality that – unlike my memories – has no time for nostalgia.

The result, similar to my return to San Diego earlier this year, is an uncanny feeling, difficult to assign to any single emotion. It is the experience of a kind of cognitive dissonance, two tectonic masses – “Lichinga” as a remembered, imagined identity in my mind and Lichinga as a lived, right-now reality – crumpling into each other. Initially, this convergence took the form of exhaustion. After one day in my old house, I was tired. My home as remembered: the rising moon, yellow and round, dripping tranquility like juice from a fresh mango, ascends through the cool air and the nightly symphony of crickets and frogs. My home as re-experienced: the moon rises, the critters croak, and I am outside observing this natural phenomena because I have no running water, meaning I must fill a bucket from the rain collection tank in order to rinse my shit down the toilet bowl. How quickly I left behind the logistical hardships of the past two years, adapting – coming to expect – the comforts of running water, cleanliness, consistent electricity and internet (most of which I have in my apartment in Maputo). And yet, after several days, muscle memory reasserted itself and the tasks once again felt routine. Life, I re-experienced, moves a bit slower in Niassa; the expectations of what one must accomplish in a single day decrease significantly in the face of increased effort for mere survival.

The tectonic collision, however, did not subside in the wake of this readjustment. I still felt wrong. When I visited the school, about half of the teachers remembered me. The other half called me Yoel, the name of the volunteer that replaced me. The painting I left as a gift hangs in the top left corner of the front office, almost unnoticeable if you don’t lift your eyes above the broken photocopy machine. I entered all of my old classes, now ninth and tenth graders. They screamed. They begged for me to teach an English class. They screamed more. One student, a short girl with a raspy voice that once stole strawberries from my yard, clung to the front of my shirt, pleading that I should stay forever. She told me that she loved me. “Te amo, Professor. Te amo, te amo, I swear.” She kissed my hand. Now that I am no longer responsible for their education, I found my students hilarious, carefree, and fun (everything that, as their teacher, scraped away at my sanity with a rusty spoon). After such moments of stardom, the stillness at the house or on lone walks into the city (so much farther than I remembered) swallowed me whole. I leaned into it, just as I learned to do while living there, and the pensive quiet provided an explanation of the dissonance: Lichinga, the cement home on the slope of the shallow valley, is not mine anymore. It may feel eerily the same – the paths through the neighborhoods have not changed, the metal rooftops of the school are still green – but I am out of touch with the day-to-day experience. No longer can I tell friends or strangers that I live there, just there, in the third house on the right. During my visit, I walked through my old life like watching a television show that I once loved as a child – familiar, but I cannot identify with the characters or the plot like I once did.

Words evade me; let’s try another metaphor. While at the school, I observed one of Evan’s chemistry classes. At the end of his second year as a volunteer, Evan is confident. He no longer grows self-conscious with my presence in his classroom. On this day, he did an experiment for his lesson on density: drop an egg in water and it sinks. Mix salt into the water, and the egg floats because the density of the water surpasses that of the egg. Density is a concept. For students with no books, little background, and not enough desks, concepts are slippery at best. Experiments, such as the floating egg, turn theoretical conjecture into visible, tangible experience. In Portuguese, the word for “experiment” is the same as the word for “experience.” My return to Lichinga, and to Mozambique more generally, represents an experiment in which I toss myself – armed with the concept of Mozambique as acquired after two years here – into her current solution to see if I can float. In the early conclusions of the experiment, the scientist comes to reflect on what he calls “our experiential density as human beings, formed through the realities of our environment.” He continues:

“In our own culture, we float. It is possible, even easy, to navigate the people and places that surround us since childhood. In other cultures, however, we are dense – awkward, heavy – and we sink initially, unable to negotiate the simple aspects of that place and/or people (like how to speak). Yet, after enough time soaking beneath the surface of a foreign culture, we begin to adapt to that unique solution, shedding the cultural baggage that weighs us down, and, without even noticing, we float once more. After two years in Mozambique, I was a happy egg, floating quite comfortably at the surface. It surprises me how, after just nine months away, I lost some of my cultural efficacy. My comfort in Portuguese slipped as words occasionally flee my tongue, and the difficult necessities of life feel more oppressing than they did at the end of 2016. Experiential density is something that adjusts as we gather more life, but it is also intimately related to our immediate surroundings. As I move back and forth between America and Mozambique, I perceive quickly the differences between places, the popular trends of the day, but I don’t seem to fully float in either – I hover somewhere in the middle, a little more dense than I might like, but also proud of my ability to adapt, to breathe under the surface. A person who stops challenging her comfort levels stops growing, petrifying from living matter into a rock that sinks when the world demands adaptation.”

The obvious title for this scientific article is, “Eggs-perimenting with Cultural Density,” forthcoming from Panandi Panandi Press.

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