I missed Monday. Counter-clockwise air travel back to Mozambique completely devoured the day. I witnessed the hours tick by on my watch, still set to Pacific Standard Time, and felt myself grow distant, slipping into the the loneliness of departure as one slips into a familiar sweater – comforting, but only because it’s cold outside.
Within twenty-four hours of settling into my apartment in Maputo, I broke down crying at least twice. I thought that I was through with suffering, that the giardia and the bacterial infection and the post-infectious IBS of my Peace Corps experience was the main event for my life, roped off and relegated to the past. I had my taste – enough to deepen my sense of empathy – and I crawled my way back into health and happiness. I let those two H words dominate 2017, one of the easiest and most pleasure-filled years to date: I had a healthy body, an approaching Fulbright grant, a four-cylinder Kawasaki Zephyr 750, a head-over-heels-in-love relationship, and a drunken, millennial summer. I knew who I was and the direction my life was headed. Then December arrived.
At first the abdominal pain and the blood in the toilet basin seemed merely inconvenient, a bacterial nuisance to clear up before visiting home for the holidays. Two weeks later the Fear overtook me – deep, visceral: holy shit not again – and I found myself translating all of the synonyms for “demoralized” into Portuguese. After four weeks, the blood had not cleared, and a Mexican doctor inserted a camera into my rectum to discover an inflamed wound in my lower colon. After six weeks, that same bodily cavity began receiving steroidal suppositories designed to melt at body temperature and reduce inflammation. Nothing is sacred; nothing lasts forever.
So what happened, exactly? It probably began with another bacterial infection. But this body has endured one too many infections and far too many rounds of antibiotics. My dysbiotic gut finally broke, and my cells began attacking themselves in an autoimmune response similar to Ulcerative Colitis. Although not yet definitive, the doctors treat me as if I do have Ulcerative Colitis, and their forecast for the future includes more flare ups as the autoimmune condition takes hold.
And so I returned to my empty Mozambican flat and, spooning broth into my mouth, all of this overwhelmed me. Everything I was, all of the bounties of 2017, suddenly felt beyond my reach. I grieved for what I had lost, the aspects of my identity that now end in question marks. But I am not the only person that felt cheated at the start of the new year.
Somebody stole Eunícia’s new phone. Eunícia is the cousin of my landlord’s secretary, and she cleans my apartment once a week. She is twenty-one years old but appears younger, maybe sixteen, due to her tiny frame. She is thin but not unhealthy, mouse-like, with a fuzzy afro exploding around her head like a halo. She is extremely timid around me, but we have been breaking down barriers since I arrived: trying oatmeal for the first time, making sauerkraut together, talking about my girlfriend. At the end of each month, she receives nearly twenty-dollars for her labors. However, in November I gave her a three-month advance so that she could purchase a smartphone. Somebody stole the phone from her backpack last week. She has to work until March without pay.
Eunícia’s stolen smartphone is but one, minor example of the cheated lives being lived throughout Mozambique, and Africa – the world – more generally. We all feel cheated at various times. As a white, American male with a college degree, it would be offensive to ignore that this cheating falls into a spectrum – “…the depths of dispossession have a million levels,” writes William Finnegan in his book on the Mozambican civil war. My forays into sub-Saharan Africa have (temporarily, I hope) dispossessed me of my health. Right now, I cannot go out to eat with friends, or have a drink on the weekends, or even travel outside of the city for any extended period of time. I have moments of self-doubt and even self-loathing: when I woke yesterday, I genuinely wished I could sleep forever, because at least sleep isn’t painful. However, as I write down all of these limitations, I see the outline of a life very similar to someone born into poverty in rural, sub-Saharan Africa. Restriction irritates me, but it does not define me as it does for so many. Let’s review how I arrived here:
After securing a scholarship to study in Argentina for a college semester, I returned to San Diego with a new perspective. Travel, for the first time, placed two defibrillators on my chest and sent a shocking recognition of my own privilege into my arteries. To introduce my senior thesis, I wrote and translated a self-reflective essay that focused on my relationship to Latin American immigrants in the United States. I included quotes from a song by SOJA: “What do we really need in this life?/I look at myself sometimes like it’s not right/People out there with no food at night/And we say we care but we don’t so we all lie.” The essay was good; the short stories in the collection were average; the translation project was unique: somebody decided to give me a (paid) writing fellowship for the summer. Immediately after this, I departed to Mozambique as Peace Corps Volunteer – twenty-seven months in which the U.S. government funded my existence. As my service ended, I wrote essays and stories about my Mozambican friends that won me a Fulbright grant. For as much “good” as I claimed to perform in the past four years, I became extremely proficient at convincing others to give me money.
For reasons I cannot explain, I decided to listen to the SOJA album on the plane back to Mozambique on Monday. The words, full of intention, leaked through the headphones and back into my veins:
Well they’ve got their dreams too, I imagine
Like water that won’t come back to kill them
Sleeping at night without a murder,
In some little town you’ve never heard of
Now look at your nightmares and all of your worst fears
Your car and your house and your girl and it stops there
All these things you can’t imagine losing
Like “Oh no, what if that happened to me?”
But what you got, they’ll never have
To be like you, to have your chance
To be like you, before they’re gone, oh no
The water has come back and tried to kill me: twice, at minimum. And yet, it doesn’t seem quite as muddy as it did a year ago. It sat, mixed with my blood – and probiotics and steroids and antibiotics – and the motivation that it obscured is once again visible. There is a reason I did not stay in America and become an accountant or an engineer. In her nonfiction book on learning another language, Jhumpa Lahiri writes “…from the creative point of view, there is nothing so dangerous as security.” I agree with her, but she does not go far enough: as a human being, security – prolonged comfort, even – is a prescription for narrow mindedness (“Your car and your house and your girl and it stops there”). She did not necessarily have infection and autoimmune disease in mind when writing that statement, but the outcome – an expansion of perspective and cultivation of empathy – proves the same. This is what it is to be human: to experience, in all of their myriad nuances, pain and pleasure, love and hate, elation and sorrow. If the experience can be had, I want it, not to lock in a safe, but to connect with others and know the possibilities of my/our nature.
I think now of Mozambique, particularly the characters in the books I study as a part of my grant. They talk about destiny and obedience to forces beyond on our control. There is João Xilim from Portagem, who must endure the prejudice of both black Mozambicans and white colonialists simply because he is a mix of both races, for no fault of his own other than birth. There is Celinha/Mihloti, who inherited the name “tears” and endures nearly a lifetime of them because she is the product of an incestual rape. And there is Vumi, my character, who lost her family to the war and tries to fight back against destiny. But can she? Or is she simply another human being manipulated by forces beyond her control? I used to disdain the fatalism in the voices of Mozambicans who told me that they could never travel the world like me simply because they are poor Africans. No longer. I see the rationality of their perspective: not a lack of hope, but a perception of power in the world. Opportunity once brainwashed me into believing that all people could achieve their goals if they just worked diligently enough. But what if your goal is to read a book and your family forces you to leave school to marry a man twice your age who demands that you stay at home and cook for him? Parasites and pathogenic bacteria may bring me to my knees in physical pain, they may remove entire categories of foods from my diet for the remainder of my days, but they also give me a glimpse into frustrated ambition, a visceral understanding of how it feels to slip silently through a world that is not, and will not ever be, mine.
For anyone who has not heard “Everything Changes” by SOJA, I recommend a listen: