Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Abiku

The spirit-child is an unwilling adventurer into chaos and sunlight, into dreams of the living and the dead. Things that are not quite ready, not willing to be born or to become, things for which adequate preparations have not been made to sustain their momentous births, things that are not resolved, things bound up with failure and with fear of being, they all keep recurring, keep coming back, and in themselves partake of the spirit-child’s condition. The keep coming and going till their time is right. History itself fully demonstrates how things of the world partake of the condition of the spirit-child.

There are many who are of this condition and do not know it. There are many nations, civilizations, ideas, half-discoveries, revolutions, loves, art forms, experiments, and historical events that are of this condition and do not know it. There are many people too. They do not all have the mark of their recurrence. Often they seem normal. Often they are perceived as new. Often they are serene with the familiarity of death’s embrace. They all carry strange gifts in their soul. They are all part-time dwellers in their own secret moonlight. They all yearn to make of themselves a beautiful sacrifice, a difficult sacrifice, to bring transformation, and to die shedding light within this life, setting the matter ready for their true beginnings to cry into being, scorched by the strange ecstasy of the will ascending to say yes to destiny and illumination.

The Famished Road - Ben Okri

Thursday, April 23, 2009


“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting for your cue. You feels perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal.” Peter Godwin

It is 2am and I can hear nothing except the beating of drums and the ululation of women in the distance. The sound resonates throughout the night air and is carried for what seems like miles. The beats switch back and forth between quick erratic pulsations and calm steady drumming. If I close my eyes, I picture a pulsating heart in distress; a heart that no longer beats within a body and thus must be continued within the drums themselves.

This Missa (mee-sah) ceremony is the only sound in the night to which my mind has not yet become accustomed. Families perform this ritualistic drumming on the anniversary of the death of a close relative. In the beginning it is performed every year on the date of their death, but eventually the family will gather together every 3 or 5 years, staying up all night drumming and dancing. It is a unique connection people have here with the dead.

This sound continues to keep me awake at night because unlike the clanging of rain on my tin roof or the rooster crowing way before its time, this noise has feeling and passion. This drumming tells a story far too familiar in this country; one of loss and grief. I lie awake reflecting on all the questions I’m not supposed to know. Who was this person? How did they die? Who did they leave behind? Are the relatives doing this ritual out of respect and remembrance or fear of upsetting a dead ancestor, or both?

Two weeks later I am given the opportunity to answer some of these questions first-hand when a woman that works in my organization tells me that she is participating in a Missa ceremony that evening in remembrance of her grandmother who passed away last year. I asked to participate and was told to show up at around 11pm.

Upon arrival I noticed that most of the people there participating were women, each sitting on their capulanas or astera mats. There were about five water jugs being beaten by sticks to a steady beat that alternated depending on the song being sung by the group. Cups of Canhu, a traditional drink made this time of year, are being circulated amongst the participants. Because I am a man, I am immediately given a chair and handed a cup of Canhu by a young girl. As per tradition, I drink the brew in it's entirety in one long gulp then hand it back to the girl for more. The drink is strong but still retains a hint of its original sweetness.

Eventually I am handed a water jug and a stick and join the other women in the collective drumming. I find it easy to get creative with my beats by interchanging them on occasion, acting as leader of the group and watching as the others rush to match my rhythm. For the first time, I realize what a calming effect drumming has on me. Eventually I cease to pay attention to what I am doing and just let my hands do the work. The other drummers follow my lead and before long one of the older women gets up and dances to match my rhythm.

My thoughts turn to death and its very real presence within the community. Back home, death was always an abstract concept, befalling the elderly and the occasional random accident. Here it is a fixture in the daily lives of my neighbors and friends; a constant reminder of the frailty of life. Death touches young and old, so it is common to see people wearing a black patch of cloth on their shirts to signify the loss of a loved one. Burials are quick ordeals, and emotional public mourning or crying lasts only about three days. Wives of the dead will dress in black for a year, and siblings or parents will wear some kind of black clothing for six months. People have had to adapt to losing loved ones before their time.

At daybreak, everyone moves to the grave site, flowers are placed and more songs are sung. All together, it is a remarkable way to bring together family and friends to remember those who have died. Since that night, I find the drumming keeps me up less and less, as things which were once strange become slightly more familiar.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Just one of those things...

I've learned to roll with the punches. That is to say that for the past year, I have come to understand that sometimes awkward things happen and you just have to try to laugh and move on. In fact, I've learned there are a great deal of these “moments” in which my patience is tried and my commitment to the Peace Corps is questioned. So after a year's worth of practice, I have trained myself to try and see the comical side of any frustrating situation.

I bring this up because I have had requests from friends and family to tell these embarrassing stories. Those who know me best recognize that it is not always in my nature to wax poetically about the rolling hills or golden sunsets, but instead to get myself into ridiculous situations and haphazardly find my way out.

That being said, I can finally admit I bathed in pee water last month.

It was a hot afternoon, and I had just taken my dog Chissy for a walk through the various paths in my village. Hot and sweaty, I decided it was time for my afternoon bucket bath. I filled my bucket with cool water, wrapped a towel around my waist, and walked outside to my casa de banho (an open-roofed, reed enclosure where I bathe) which is about 20 feet from my house. Once inside, I took off my towel, placed the bucket of water on a platform about thigh-high, wet my face and hair and grabbed the soap. I lathered up the soap and washed my hair and face, naturally closing my eyes so as to not get soap in them.

It was around this time that I realized that I had to urinate. I hadn't peed since getting back from the walk and figured that now was as good a time as any. We all pee in the shower, and I couldn't see how this situation was any different. So as I aimed for the corner and relaxed, I could hear my stream of urine hitting the concrete slab that I was standing on and continued to go about washing my face.

While I was scrubbing my face, having turned slightly to put the soap up on the wooden plank I fashioned into a shelf, something changed. The pitter patter of urine hitting concrete changed to a deep gurgle. I'm not sure how much time had passed but as I finished soaping up my face I realized I had forgotten to keep aiming for the corner and was indeed peeing in my bathwater.

This, in case you were wondering, is one of those situations that seem only to happen to me.

So....what's a boy to do? I'm naked, my hair and face is soapy and thus my eyes shut, and getting fresh water would require more effort and burning soapy eyes than I was ready for. So, realizing my lack of options, I decided to chalk it up to one of “those moments” try to grin and proceeded to wash my face and hair with the pee water.

Not being one for any type of watersport, I was less than amused. However, what struck me most afterwards was how little the situation bothered me. A year ago when I first joined Peace Corps, I would get into a huffy anytime that I was faced with a less-than-hygienic situation. Now, things just don't seem to bother me as much any more.

I told this story to other volunteers and they all agreed, although most found my story disturbingly funny. Living here we realize that we will never be as clean or smell as nice, our safety will never be as protected or ensured and our food will never be as properly prepared as it had back home. Our life here gives up a certain level of comfort in exchange for the ability to see, to some degree, the world as it is for billions of other people. And while it is possible to take certain precautions regarding health and safety, you soon realize that as Americans we can sometimes be too careful, to the point of being obsessive, over how we protect ourselves from unseen germs or potential threats.

Sometimes you eat the food from a kitchen that doesn't look “up to code” putting your fears momentarily aside. Sometimes you ride in the back of a pickup truck due to lack of other options despite there not being proper seat belts or safety standards. And sometime you are forced to bathe in pee water, knowing that the thought of what you are doing is probably tougher on you than the act itself.

My Rain...

“My rain is different than your rain. It has texture and volume. It has spirit and force.”

Giada said this with such passion and conviction that I was drawn even deeper into our conversation together.

Three hours earlier I had been standing on the side of the road in my provincial capital trying to hail a chapa to take me back to my village. It was the day after Christmas and most transport was either full or going in a different direction. It had been raining all day and continued to shower, although not nearly as intense as earlier. I was busy looking for a ride when a man in his thirties came over and started talking to me. It seems he had been watching me from his house for a while and wanted to help. Thinking I was a foreigner he began to offer me advice, and was surprised to find that I lived in a village nearby.

He proceeded to invite me into his home to put down my bags and rest my feet a bit. Seeing as I was beginning to get soaked and was tired from carrying my gear, I took him up on the offer. After a drink and some good conversation, he insisted I stay for lunch with his wife, his aunt and his mother, Giada, who were all together for the holidays.

As soon as I met Giada I could tell she was special. She was a strong, independent and informed African woman who had a global consciousness and a consistent core set of values that molded her thinking. She was knowledgeable of international current events and was a refreshing partner with which to discuss and debate.

After lunch she and I were still talking, when she mentioned that she always wishes on others “health and water.” She said that people should work for what they want or need, but that health and water should always be provided; that they both seem to encompass two great forces that are sometimes out of your control. Other needs usually could be acquired through hard work and ingenuity. I kept thinking, “she wishes a blessing of health and water.” It was such a simple, yet profoundly insightful statement that I kept probing her for more information. That was when she began to speak about the rain.

When she spoke, you could see her eyes light up with a mixture of excitement and endearment. I had never heard anyone talk about something as common as rain before with such vehemence and sincerity. She kept referring to it as “my rain” as if she and she alone held ownership over a very force of nature.

She said that when her rain begins to fall, it comes in large drops; marble-sized balls of water that hit the ground with a great “SPLASH” and leave a crater of dust as they are absorbed into the earth. Then she spoke of the unique smell that is released after the rain drops collide with the ground. She was careful to explain that this happened best in the most rural of areas, the bush, and not really in cities or at the beach. Then she spoke of her rain’s strength, and how you can go outside and bathe in the rain letting it cleanse your body and your mind.

This is a woman who has traveled around the globe and been through two wars in her country. At the very least she has seen rain elsewhere, but in her mind and in her heart nothing compares to the rain, her rain, back home.

A blessing of health and water. We should all be so lucky.

What I've learned...

The following is a collection of submissions provided by fellow volunteers in answering the question:


Anything that doesn’t taste bitter is edible. Otherwise it’s probably either medicine or poison (or both).

The sign, “15 passengers, no standing room” is a challenge for a chapa driver, not a limit.

That pretty much anything is better with coconut.

That erasing the stigma of diarrhea is an excellent secondary project… hello, my name is Sarah and I have a problem.

I learned that the teacher is the natural ally of the proletariat and the peasant… really, I didn’t know that before.

If the ants don’t eat it, neither should you.

It gets damn COLD in Africa!

No, someone’s house did not erupt into a blazing inferno. It’s just burning trash.

When your tomato lady tells you you’re fatter than yesterday, it’s a compliment.

Males who hold hands while jamming to Celine Dion are probably not homosexual.

Holding hands with another man is the ultimate triple threat. 1) It makes you an immediate badass. 2) It ups your street cred exponentially. 3) It is a goddamn beautiful thing.

After a couple weeks at site with no meat, the prospect of eating some goat or chicken head can really make your mouth water.

As much as you may resent the fact that you will always, always have people staring at you wondering, “what is that foreigner is doing here,” when you see another foreigner at your site you will always, always stare at them and wonder what are they are doing here.

You can be surrounded by people and still feel completely alone.

You can be completely alone and still be very pleased with the company.

Start throwing a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball and throngs of children you’ve never seen before will appear as if by magic.

“Must be refrigerated” is nothing more than a polite suggestion.

That doesn’t mean your food won’t turn odd colors after sitting in your hot kitchen for a week.

THAT doesn’t mean you might not eat it anyway.

A sincere hug from a friend after a couple weeks at site feels absolutely amazing.

Staring at the wall and just thinking is a good way to kill a couple hours.

And finally… Life is short. Embrace it with both hands and every orifice.

A big Thank-You to all the volunteers who contributed to this post.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dirty Kitty...

During training the volunteers made a game of declaring what would have to happen for you to voluntarily call it quits; canceling your service and running back to America to stay.

For some, it was contracting Malaria. For others it was a somber prospect like the death of a loved one, cancer or other medical malady. For me, there was only one thing that would spell disaster enough for me to take as an omen from God and leave Peace Corps early; falling into a latrine.

We all heard stories of volunteers who had fallen into badly constructed latrines only to be rescued several hours later, pulled from a collection of piss, shit and maggots the likes of which few can imagine. The sheer idea of coming into contact with that mess gave me the heebie-jeebies enough to vow that that would be my breaking point.

That being said, the last two months I have been keeping track of my cat’s newest litter of 3 kittens as well as my dog’s new 8 puppies. Yes, I had 13 animals running around my house, making it resemble an SPCA to a much larger degree than I was comfortable. The kittens were giving me the most trouble as they were older than the puppies and spent most of their time playing and sprinting across the house and yard. As cute as they are, I’m still not convinced that I’m a cat person.

So one night just before turning in, another volunteer who was staying with me went outside to go use the bathroom. It was only a moment later that she poked her head inside the house to call for me saying only, “I think we might have a problem.”

It turns out that one of the kittens had indeed fallen into my latrine and was definitely alive and whining to get out. Faced with a version of my greatest fear in Peace Corps, I have to admit that the idea of just leaving it down there crossed my mind. Eventually it wasn’t my humanity or love of animals that led me to decide to get it out, but rather the lack of suitable alternatives.

So, with the help of my neighbor we jerry-rigged a basket out of a stick and trigs. Thankfully it was a kitten down there which was suited for clinging to objects. If it had been one of the puppies, I don’t know what we would have done. Eventually we got her to cling on to the basket and we pulled her up. Now we have a shit-covered kitty and it clearly falls on me to be the one to bathe her.

So, four baths later that same night the kitten was able to rejoin her siblings, this time a little wetter and wiser, but not nearly as putrid as she had been an hour earlier. I still stand by my vow to call it quits if anything like that was to happen to me directly, but it’s nice to know that I can at least witness it without tapping the mat.

I just don’t understand why these things always seem to happen to me.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

1 Year Down, 1 To Go...

Hello All,

I figured I would finally sit down and try to knock out an e-mail update for the holidays before things get busy again. I am still writing the bi-weekly online articles about my experience and have switched from writing for to These articles have been a great outlet for me which is why I have sadly neglected the blog.

As I wrap up my first full year in Mozambique, I can help but look how far I have come from when I was first stepped off the plane in Maputo or was delivered to my village 3 months later. When I began training in October of 2007 with sixty-nine other PCVs-to-be, I was generally frustrated. I was mostly upset with myself for leaving friends and family in the states and was wondering if joining the Peace Corps was the right decision (yea, I realize it was a little late to be thinking that, but still...).

The first two weeks were rough, but after sitting down with the head of training, she knocked some sense into me and made me realize that I wanted to be here and to make the experience count. However it was the first few months in my community that really put me to the test. I faced the same frustrations I did before, but this time I also directed my anger towards Peace Corps, my organization and members of my community. I was the first mulungo (white person) to live in the community since the Portuguese left and most people didn't know what to make of me. I would get ignored when I said hello to people, be turned down or left alone when I invited friends over for dinner, and was made fun of at work for the way I dressed, talked, acted, you name it. No one wanted to start projects with me or have anything to do with me.

Having spoken to former volunteers, they all said this was bound to happen and just to wait it out. Low and behold, one evening I was sitting on my veranda reading a book and all of a sudden, out of the blue, it hit me. Like a light switch, all my frustrations went away and I was filled with this whole new perspective on my new life here in Mozambique. It really was strange how it all happened so suddenly and without any real trigger. I continued to take calls from other volunteers who were also frustrated and I told them to just wait till the light switch went off. One by one, they all called me and described a similar revelation that I had experienced.

Anyways, since that evening I have truly enjoyed my time here and have viewed myself as a very minor character in a much bigger picture. I took the weight off my shoulders of being “The Mulungo” and instead just tried to be a member of the community. I continue to have frustrations with life here and the various situations that seem to only happen in Mozambique, but rather than let these moments trip me up, I learned to laugh them off and keep going. I have also learned to find joy in simple things that I see day to day, like groups of women singing or children playing. I've learned to slow down and appreciate sitting under a mango tree on an astera mat just enjoying the breeze. I have learned that I don't need to be doing something all the time, but can simply enjoy my life here and the simpler pleasures around me.

Because of my proximity of Maputo, I am able to make it into the city once every month or two for pleasure or on Peace Corps business. I have made a fantastic group of friends in there, consisting of gay and straight development workers from around the globe. One is a gay Puerto Rican who moved here from Seattle and has been like a mother to me. He, along with an adorable Argentinian HIV doctor and the always entertaining Ambassador to the Netherlands, have quickly become my posse and have kept me laughing. Several other development friends are former PC volunteers, so they have taken me in and made me feel at home. I spent Thanksgiving with them an about 40 other development workers at the house of my friend Mindy. I will try and put up pictures soon.

I recommended my village for an education volunteer and one was sent earlier this month. She seems nice and it will be good to have another person close by (about 20 minutes) to help settle in and exchange ideas. She is a chemistry teacher at the secondary school where I have my theater group and she might be interested in helping out with the kids. I have also started teaching the basics of yoga to some of the interested students and they really like it.

2008 has been a long and somewhat lonely road, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Being alone has forced me to become comfortable with silence and with myself. It has made me appreciate the world around me and grow as an individual. And all in just one year! ;-)

No, I have a long way to go in life, even though my time in Mozambique is halfway over. But I am looking forward to the 2nd half, in the hopes that I will continue to come across new experiences and learn new things.

I hope everyone has a great holiday season surrounded with their friends and loved ones. I give a big thank-you to my family who has worked to keep my spirits up this first year, which is the toughest. Also to my friends around the country, from the girls at AAFA to the WeHo Chamber folks to Jeffrey and Pey, my RPCV pals, for their care packages, letters and great e-mails. Despite not having everyone around, I cannot help but be reminded how very lucky I am to have each of you in my life.

Stay in touch and have a safe holiday season.

Love Always,