Africa I love you, But I must leave you!

In a recent email from a friend, he asked me “so what is so great about Africa?” Obviously Africa is massive, and varied, however I think there are many coherent themes that run through many different African cultures. It’s as if in my mind, simply the word “Africa” triggers a flood of mental imagery and emotion, all built up around my own experiences in Moçambique; the combination of undeveloped wilderness, the rugged, sometimes harsh terrain, the simple yet purposeful lives of the people, the black skin everywhere, the thatched roof huts, the farmers walking on the rutted red dirt road in the early morning haze, the typical village scene, the drumming and singing and jubilant festivities; all of this is part of the imagery. After thinking along these lines of trying to explain Africa by describing the landscapes and cultural scenery I have concluded that it is impossible to describe with words, but for the sake of the uninitiated I will try my very best. Here are brief moments that I have experienced that drew forth out of me that ephemeral feeling that is Africa.

4:57 am: I open the squeaky door to my reed house and step into the early morning starlight. The sand is cool beneath my bare feet. The air is heavy with the scent of fresh vegetation. The Milky Way runs like a cloudy river across the sky, while a waning crescent moon accompanied by Venus burns brightly on the subtly glowing eastern horizon. The sporadic sound of dew dripping from plant leaves is accompanied by rooster crows, announcing the coming of a new day. There is not a whisper of wind, as the earth seems to hang in the suspense of dawn. I look up at the sky and inhale deeply, filling my lungs and body with the scene. Africa.

5:34 am: My lungs rhythmically inspiring and expiring, my legs and arms pumping, I feel the cool morning air on my face and the wet dew on my legs. I am running down a narrow winding dirt track between two farmer’s fields. A million spider webs hang between the corn plants, glistening with beads of dew. A lone woman appears out of the early morning mist, bucket and hoe balanced on her head. For an instant we make eye contact as she is silhouetted against the massive red rising sun drifting in and out of the haze. In that instant of contact all boundaries of race and culture are crossed; we are two spirits trapped in a moment, and in that fleeting glance I feel it. Africa.

6:25 am: On the dirt road back into town I run across a truck broken down, two men underneath the car attempting to fix it. The car is still in the middle of the road; no effort was made to push it to the side to allow traffic to pass. I shout a greeting to the men who both happily return my salute. I don’t question the logic or rational of decisions made anymore, I just accept them. I keep running and chuckle to myself. Africa.

9:12 am: I am walking to work and pass a group of men sitting around a plastic drum of some sort of alcoholic beverage. Several of them approach me, begging for money and complaining of hunger. There is a sickening helplessness in their pleas for money or an opportunity to work. I tell them I am sorry, but I cannot help them. I will probably be approached in such a way two or three more times today. This too is Africa.

12:34 pm: I walk through town at lunch hour, families sitting out on woven reed mats in front of their houses. Invitations are shouted at me to come join them for lunch. Sometimes from complete strangers. Sometimes I enter the yard and share a small plate. Before I leave, fruits from the yard or the excess of whatever was harvested from the garden are thrust upon me to take home. There is so much generosity in daily living. I leave satiated, but not just physically. Africa.

2:05 pm: The sun high overhead, not a cloud in the sky, temperatures soaring, heat waves shimmering off the streets, not a breath of wind. There is no movement in the villa, the earth is an oven and the heat has turned it into a ghost town as people take refuge in the shade or refuge in their dreams with a quick siesta. I sit on my own reed mat, under the mango trees in my yard, sweating, almost gasping for air in the oven-like heat. Ughhh, Africa!

6:14 pm: I stand outside the market, watching the sunset scene unfold around me. All the characters for the market mayhem are here. Five trucks are lined up, their beds brimming with cargo and people, as they prepare for their last trip of the day into small villages further inland, engines revving and the smell of exhaust in the air. The women sit on the sidewalks selling sodas and water out of small coolers. Young boys ambulate throughout the scene, selling telephone credit, toothbrushes and carts filled with every possible cheap Chinese electronic gadget you can imagine. Other women with baskets of bananas and oranges on their heads meander amongst the cars, trying to tempt a hungry passenger with a fruity snack. Music blares from the bar across the street, the bass giving a palpable heartbeat to the hypnotizing, busy scene. The red sun is back again as it dips behind the faded painted wall of the market. The hot African day is over and a cooling breeze blows in from the direction of the setting sun. I stand against the wall, surrounded by the mayhem, in the scene but not participating, just soaking it all up until I get my fill and begin to wander home in the quickly approaching darkness. Africa.

7:43 pm: I pass by Maria’s home to pay an evening visit. I overhear chattering in the kitchen hut and see the flickering light of a cooking fire through the slits in the reeds. I duck my head into the entrance and am immediately blasted in the face with an odor. This smell is what the world smells like; a sweet-acrid-pungent combination of burning wood smoke, human sweat, cooking food and raw earth. I learned about this scent in Guatemalan villages. I smelled it in the Jordanian desert huts and all over Mozambique. It is the smell of humanity. As I deeply inhale the scent it becomes even more deeply etched into my memory and I feel a shiver of recognition and safety. I feel Africa.

Maria welcomes me into the warm flickering hut, a soft glow from the fire accompanied by a simmering pot lights the scene as I sit and stare into the flames, mesmerized and calmed by the simple chaotic beauty that is an open fire. A million times better than television I tell her. Maria and an older woman sit across from me in the cramped hut, cluttered with pots and clay earth ware, speaking softly in Changana. I allow my mind to wander and my eyelids to grow heavy as I snatch tidbits of the village gossip; the whole time growing drunk on the pungent perfume of humanity. I am snapped out of my trance by a steaming hot bowl of corn mush and leafy-green vegetables being shoved into my face. “Eat!” she demands, I obey. I love the rich flavors and simplicity of her fresh food, but what I love more is the unconditional generosity that is Africa.

May 13th, 2014

7:45 am – I sit in the back of the car that is carrying me out of Manjacaze, Gaza Province, Moçambique, for the last time in the foreseeable future. All my material possessions are in two bags in the back of the truck. My two years is over, I am going back to the United States and continuing the adventure that will no doubt take me to other parts of the world and hopefully enrich the Earth. I knew this day would come, and now it is finally here.

The car passes the central plaza in Manjacaze, where I have spent so much time strolling or enjoying the flowery gardens. I feel the emotions well up in me. Two years of life here is now at its inevitable conclusion. Words fail to tell the story of my time here, and the emotional rollercoaster that it has been; joy and suffering, accomplishment and disappointment, success and frustration, friendship and familial love. The tears well up in my eyes as we pass more familiar scenery that I don’t know when I will see again. I begin to cry, my throat constricting and my chest aching with emotional pain as the crying builds and becomes an uncontrollable sobbing. Through my tears I see the fading signs of the Village of Manjacaze, we pass lake Sowluhey and the rice growing on the banks. We pass the people walking with their tools, the people that have given me so much by simply existing and allowing me to observe and partake in their culture. My chest heaves as I feel the full weight of my emotions, and through the joyous pain a thought comes into my head, that I repeat to myself several times becoming a sort of mantra; “Moçambique is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life”.

Moçambique, the culture and the earth itself, has been like an abusive relationship that I am finally separating myself from. At times she has seduced me with her beauty, frustrated me with her societal level failures, confused me with her irrationality and surprised me with her spontaneity. She has provoked in me profound depression and loss of self-control, as well as ecstatic elation and hilarity. She has isolated and ostracized me as a foreigner and at the same time she has opened her arms to me as a Son and a participant in the culture game. I love her. Even to say those words to myself I feel an emotional upwelling in my chest and throat and I hug my arms to my body. I love her! But I know that I must leave her, because ultimately in my current role and capacity I am unfulfilled. In my current capacity I have needs that are not met such as Intellectualism, unrestricted freedom to travel (PC rules), reliable transportation and most important of all a sense of resolute purpose. Under different circumstances Moçambique could perhaps fulfill these needs, but for now, I must leave her. Our relationship and love was solidified by the frustration and challenges that I went through, like a hazing experience, making the separation all the more difficult for having been challenged by her so much and having felt her so intimately. I am leaving her, but the perspective on life that she has inspired in me will never leave.

Moçambique wena u ta tsama mbhilo a mena inquao kama, mena a unga ku kombuca.

Future plans: Im still figuring it all out, But in the meantime ill be living in Gainesville, FL taking some courses.

A few observations about Mozambique, Nutrition and Globalization

Everywhere I go I observe people. I watch what they are doing, I listen to the things they are saying, I notice their physical appearances and especially given my interest in nutrition and gastronomy, I observe what they are eating and drinking. My observations related to this last theme are troubling and foreshadow major challenges in the social welfare of Mozambicans. These observations come from spending large amounts of time in rural subsistence based agriculture communities as well as in urbanized/westernized Mozambican cities.

In order to contextualize the drastic changes that globalization and economic “development” have brought to the traditional Mozambican diet it is important to say that the situation is typical of most global South countries. People mostly lived in small subsistence agriculture communities and had diets rich in unrefined fermented grain porridges (sorghum and millet here in Africa), lots of vegetables, legumes and fruits, very little dairy or meat and no refined sugar. This was accompanied by an active lifestyle of physical labor and walking. With the arrival of global trade and industrialized convenience, the food markets have been flooded with refined flours, sugar, chemical flavorings and inexpensive meat and dairy products. The shift in diet also coincides with a shift in lifestyle from rural subsistence agriculture to urban environments, sedentary lifestyles and wage labor. These shifts are well documented and this should be of no surprise to anyone, however to hear it talked about in literature and then actually see the process unfolding around me in the village is quite a different experience.

It is the western bias to applaud this shift from rural, subsistence, “underdevelopment”, towards urbanization and “developed” as a positive, inevitable fact of human evolution; which it most definitely is not. Globalization is ironically only a fact of human destiny for the one monoculture that is promulgating itself across the planet, wiping out indigenous cultures in its path. In the past this was proselytizing religion; today it is corporate capitalism. Subsistence agricultural communities in general are mostly self-sufficient with the vast majority of people living sustainable lifestyles with more than enough food, air, leisure time and cultural activities. It is only the western consumerist, materialist mindset that says that living with enough is actually not enough, and that we must constantly strive to have more, “develop” and produce more, which in western actions translates into further resource extraction and ecosystem destruction. Let me repeat this: The vast majority of people living subsistence lifestyles are happy, have enough food, leisure time, cultural activities, material possessions and most importantly, live in an ecologically sustainable way. Poverty is a term invented by western cultures; but I digress.

The health effects of these dietary shifts are also well documented; drastically increased rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When I arrived in Africa I expected to encounter most people fitting into the typical stereotype of Africans living on a meager subsistence lifestyle. Instead I encountered many people overweight, gorging themselves on cheap overabundant processed foods. In my experience, real hunger in Mozambican society seems to be the case of fairly rare and isolated incidences. Most hunger is related to behavioral choices or unfortunate family circumstances. Families where parents have died (usually from AIDS) and left multiple children living with grandparents or the oldest child are serious situations and definitely should be the recipients of food aid and social support. The behavioral choices resulting in lack of food are usually related to alcoholism by the father of the family, where instead of providing food for his family he spends his money and time consuming alcohol. I discovered this throughout my travels. I show up to a village and there is usually a group of men sitting under the shade drinking. Usually one or two (visibly intoxicated) will right away start begging for food, imploring that their farms did not produce for lack of rain or they lack money to buy food. I begin to question the other men, asking them if their farms produced this year. Of course the farm produced they say, it rained very well, we have plenty of food, and nobody in my home will be hungry this year. The begging men then change tactics and say that they don’t earn enough money to buy food. I begin to question them on their budgeting and financial planning. Most men do odd construction jobs, cut reeds, harvest wood or produce cows for financial gain. Very quickly it becomes obvious that whatever money comes in immediately goes right back out and into the local bar. This is not hunger; this is stupidity and irresponsibility for which these men’s families are suffering the consequences.

Also in my experience the situation in the cities has already shifted from a cultural norm of subsistence, to a cultural norm of overconsumption and caloric excess. Don’t get me wrong, the obesity and dietary problem is nowhere near as bad as in westernized countries, and there are many fit and healthy people. The concern is the trend however, and there is no doubt that the trends in obesity and sedentary lifestyles are beginning to have serious consequences for the social health system, which is already stretched to its capacity. Aside from the just the overconsumption of calories, the lack of nutrients and chemical additives present in processed foods as opposed to whole-foods is a major cause for concern, especially given the correlation between long-term exposures and increasing cancer rates as in the West. I have witnessed on multiple occasions people harvesting the fruit in their yard to then sell and buy cheap processed crackers and sodas that obviously lack the nutritional value of the fruits. Processed food is a double-whammy for the traditional diet; higher quantities of calories coinciding with much lower quality of nutrients.

The real danger of this trend is that it seems to be completely under the radar of government and NGO health initiatives. Working in the “development industry” and talking to colleagues, I am exposed to and hear about many different ideas and projects related to education, health, food security, disease prevention and immediate health interventions such as malaria bed net distributions or HIV testing. Not once have I encountered a nutritional education program that focuses on avoiding obesity, processed food and sedentary lifestyles. Most of the programs are still in the mindset of treating malnourished children and food insecurity. Both of which definitely exist and should be addressed, however not to the complete ignorance of the issue of overconsumption of processed foods. I consistently meet people who are overweight with type two diabetes and other related complications who have no idea about the steps they need to take to reduce their weight, let alone treat their condition through dietary and lifestyle modification. Even the Doctors in the hospitals do not know how to advise their patients. There is wide scale ignorance about nutrition, diet and the benefits of physical activity; in the past, most people were healthy because the cultural tradition of subsistence agriculture dictated their activity patterns and diet. Now in the face of making food choices in a globalized food economy, the ignorance of nutrition and physiology becomes blatantly obvious by the poor food choices I often observe.

In an example of the Western mindset’s problem solving strategy of treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause, the issue of nutrient fortification is a hot topic at the moment. Instead of shielding people from the influx of processed foods through restricting trade, and teaching them about the value of their traditional diet, the brains in the “aid” world think that treating malnourishment is as simple as adding in nutrients to the staple items in the diet. However this ignores the real issue completely, which is the fact that many people are malnourished because they have stopped eating their traditional diets or because of cultural norms in household food distribution. (for example. the youngest children eat last at meal times etc.) Foods need to be fortified when their innate qualities of nutrients have been taken out by processing (milling, refining, high temperature cooking and pasteurization etc.). People who eat strictly whole food diets in general are not malnourished! On the issue of nutrient fortification the most important thing is to be skeptical; which western food producer is going to get the multimillion dollar contract to do the fortification, or which biotechnology giant is going to get the contract to splice the gene for more vitamin Z into such and such a plant.

The vast majority of these NGO project’s goals are seeking behavior change, and seem to be operating with the premise that education is the key. They tend to reason that if only people knew how HIV was transmitted, they would avoid contracting and spreading HIV, or if people knew more about the lifecycle of the Anopheles mosquito and the Malaria parasite, they would avoid getting malaria. Education is celebrated as a key factor in behavior change, which certainly it is, for those already interested in change and aware of the problem. But in a fact and knowledge saturated western world, where almost everybody knows the dangers of a poor diet and physical inactivity, obesity rates and its associated health complications are the highest in the world! So clearly this issue goes way deeper than just educating people about nutrition. These issues of behavior change must be recognized to exist on the more profound levels of cultural conditioning. Mozambique has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. Is this because of lack of education and prevention? In certain instances probably; but in most instances it is important to realize that Mozambican culture is probably one of the most sexually promiscuous cultures in the world! To bring the subject back to diet, as I’ve already said, America and the west are saturated in education yet the populace makes poor choices and over consumes. I argue that this is a result of the profound cultural conditioning that teaches people a value system based on an unquenchable thirst for material consumption which leaves a perpetual void and lack of fulfillment in people’s lives that they then desperately try to fill with prepackaged entertainment such as television, trash media and the stimulating pleasures of eating fatty, sugary, processed foods.

Another issue with Mozambican culture and the influx of cheap processed foods is that traditionally this is a culture where a big fat body is a signal of power and influence in the community. From cultural traditions hundreds of years old, when all communities were strictly agriculturally/pastorally based, a fat body demonstrated virility, ability to provide for a family or clan and an abundance of food and wealth. This African cultural ideal is still blatantly obvious in Mozambican society; most of the police officers, government officials, merchants, ministers and people in power positions are overweight. In fact when I first arrived and made this connection I was shocked by just how consistent this pattern in weight really is. So now in this global food economy, a cultural tradition that symbolically values obesity, combined with an overabundance of cheap processed calories means that literally anyone and everyone can have that “chief’s belly”, and trust me, many people do! In a country like Mozambique where basic health services are already asking a lot, it is difficult to quantify obesity rates and the associated societal costs; as is done in the West. However I think if any sort of academic study was done the results would be surprising. While the aid world fixates on periodic famines, HIV and malnutrition, the global processed food industry is exploiting new markets in countries like Mozambique that have no awareness of the impending costs and problems associated with these dietary shifts. Mozambicans seem to be enjoying “the good life” of the novelty of processed foods and beverages, without any realization of the future dangers to themselves and their public health systems.

Aside from the cultural issues, another observed phenomenon seems to be accelerating the advance of the western diet here in Mozambique; marketing. In general, people are very naïve to advertising techniques and marketing strategies and I would use the term “media illiterate”, which means that they may have difficulty discerning the advertisement from a real factual media situation. It is a well observed fact that in the West, the food and beverage industry routinely uses advertisements to promote the ideas that their products will bring happiness, health and fulfillment to the users, including vulnerable target audiences such as children. The same techniques are used here, except that the population is much less exposed to solicitations and may or may not understand that the true objective of any advertising is to sell a product. A potent example is the advertising campaign that Nestle used in the 1980’s to sell cows-milk based baby formulas to third world mothers, with the disastrous effect that women all over the world began to believe that their own Nature-perfected breast milk was deficient. This false advertising also sells the idea that to eat processed and store bought food is a luxury, and playing into the cultural theme, something that wealthy people do. Many times I have heard people stigmatize the local vegetarian dishes as “poor-people” food, and that when they are “rich and successful” in life they will eat lots of meat and drink as much beer and soda as they please. A major concern in countries like Mozambique is that there are neither consumer protection services nor strict quality control systems. Corporations are pretty much completely free to use whatever tactics they want to promote and sell their products.

Finally, a third issue that I have observed negatively affecting the diets of Mozambicans is the arrival of chain-grocers and fast food outlets. In Xai-Xai, the district capital 1.5 hours away I have observed the arrival of 2 South African chain grocers and several fast food restaurants including a KFC, just in the two years I have been here. Due to their vigorous advertising and super-efficient supply chains, these grocers affect the local economy by undercutting prices in the local market. Additionally, the vast majority of products sold are imported, unhealthy processed foods and sodas, with the profits from these sales going right back to South Africa or wherever in the West the corporate headquarters may be. One of the worst things I have observed is that through the stores advertising campaigns they have tricked Mozambicans into being proud to have these corporate atrocities invading their neighborhoods, because they are symbols of “development” and “economic advance”. I am constantly explaining to Mozambicans why I will never shop at these box stores when I can support the local vegetable vendors who desperately need the money to support their families. I have given many a passionate soap box speech and have convinced many people after explaining the true economics behind these stores and the way they are mining the local economy.

We are now faced with many difficult questions. Should the food industry and corporate food outlets be held responsible for increasing obesity related health problems? Of course they should, but the revolving door of politics and industry, as well as corporate greed are much too strong to hope that they will ever be held accountable or have a sudden ethical epiphany. Unfortunately I think the situation is going to have to reach a critical point as it currently doing so in the West, before people really wake up and start talking about social solutions. For Mozambique this still lies much further off in the future because as I said, this issue is not even on the agenda at the moment and so the food industry will continue to move in and exploit under the banner of “development”, while more people sit fat and content to live the “good life”; until their foot needs to be amputated because of their diabetes and hypertension.

Photos: Traditional Mozambican food that I have cooked throughout my time here

Mathapa – Crushed Mandioca leaves, onions, tomato and garlic stewed in coconut milk and peanut flour

Xiginha (Shi-geen-ya) – Mandioca root simmered in coconut milk and peanut flour with a bitter local leaf called Cacana (which i have actually seen growing as a weed in Florida!)

Matzao – same as Mathapa, but with pumpkin leaves instead of Mandioca leaves

Couve – same as mathapa, same as Matzao but with collard greens instead of other leaves. Starting to see a pattern here?

Bush meat – probably Impala. It was delicious.

Beans – pounded beans cooked in coconut milk with tomato, onion and garlic

Dried insects! – delicious, they taste like nutritional yeast

Various local African fruits – Macuacua, Masala and Mafura

Chief belly admiring pig

Religion and the Wisdom of Uncertainty

An incredulous gasp followed by “You don’t go to church?!” is the response I received after giving my answer to the question of where I pray. “Why don’t you go to church?” Demanded the follow up question. “Because I don’t believe in that god they speak about in your church” I provocatively replied. “Oh so then your Muslim!” was the response, as if it were all that simple. “No, I actually don’t believe in that god either” I replied. By this point in our street-side conversation people began condescendingly snickering as if saying, “Ha look at this fool foreigner, and he clearly knows nothing about the world”. The follow up question was “well what DO you believe in then?” And here is where the biggest shock of all came, and the point of this essay, in my concise yet world-shattering reply of “I don’t know”.

For a bit of background, this conversation with the villagers about religion has repeated itself so many times and unfolds in such a predictable pattern that I honestly don’t even bother having it anymore. The ubiquitous Christian bible banter has so thoroughly infiltrated itself into the culture of southern Mozambique that to not go to church is to live a moral life on par with stray dogs. I came here with the expectations of learning about indigenous cosmologies and traditional beliefs and have been sorely disappointed. I have encountered many traditional beliefs about witchcraft and spell casting, but even these have generally been subsumed under the domain of “demons” and “spirits” that have their origins in the references to Satan and the bible. I have questioned many people, trying to get a glimpse of a traditional African cosmology, usually with the simple question of “How was the world created?”, and the results are always a recitation of the biblical story. The biblical influence must go so far back into the history of this culture that most people I’ve questioned have never even conceived of the idea of cosmologies that existed in Africa before the arrival of European influences. The world is as explained in the bible, and it was always that way. The people who admit to the existence of pre-colonial traditional beliefs usually rationalize these beliefs as ignorance before the true word of god and the bible arrived with the colonizers. It always interests me how the ultimate truth about man’s purpose and the origins of the universe seem to coincidentally go hand in hand with mass economic and social exploitation.

The conversation continued; “What do you mean you don’t know? You have to believe in some sort of religion!” the villagers said, as a crowd formed around us in the street. I replied “No actually I don’t, and I think that it is all this certainty in the world that is a major problem.” Paradoxically, I prepared my pulpit, climbed up and began to preach to the masses. “Do you want to know the truth?” I asked, being extremely dramatic. Eyes widened, “yes! Tell us the truth!” and so as theatrically and drawn out as possible I informed the people, “The truth is…. (Drumroll)….there is no truth! Nobody knows the truth or the origins or the purpose of the Universe! Not the pastor, nor the rabbi, not the scientist, nor the mullah; Nobody knows!”

The villagers stood dumbstruck, mouths agape, as if I had just told them that corn porridge was the worst thing in the world. An unsettled chatter rippled through group and I was surprised to see that I now had the villager’s attentions, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to expand some minds and I actually did physically climb up onto an overturned plastic crate where I then broke out into the following monologue:

“Dear citizens of Manjacaze, I am here to inform you that you have been lied to by the powers that be! In my opinion, strict adherence to religious dogma and the corresponding certainty of belief is an epistemologically dangerous position, and here is why: First of all, certainty is a completely indefensible position. There are always going to be counter perspectives, evidence and facts that contradict the certain position. Even the most fact oriented “certainties” of the sciences are consistently being contradicted and updated when new information becomes available. I don’t even need to specifically mention any of the dubious stories and sanctioned gossip of most religious scripture to show the indefensibility of those positions. Two thousand year old hear-say is not verifiable and therefore ultimately indefensible.

Certainty is a closed box; a pre-fabricated, pre-packaged cosmology that can be sold and spread easily amongst a population of willing certainty seekers. Certainty is a necessary and self-imposed limitation (although usually not consciously) on the human imagination. “You want to know why the world is like this?” Certainty asks, “Well just read this little passage in this book that was written by some divinely inspired men (always men by the way, never women) and you will find the answers to all your questions”. Certainty is hierarchical and reliant upon outside influence and experience to bring truth, purpose and meaning to the lives of the believer. Certainty demands obedience and does not tolerate even the most well intentioned questioning. Certainty does not deal well with new information; certainty tries to rationalize new information within the framework of its dogma and is a constant victim of the confirmation bias. Certainty is a simplistic and static framework for reality; and completely antithetical to subjective reality as a complex, evolving, unfolding experience. Certainty imposes itself upon the believer and spreads itself out of its own righteous indignation.”

A large woman at the front of the crowd began….”but in the bible it says that….” Already anticipating her robotic response, I immediately cut her off and asked her “why are you so certain that the stories in the bible are true?” She began “well, the stories in the bible are true because the bible says they are true”. I nodded in disappointment. “I am sorry dear woman, but in your certainty of the bibles truth you have committed a logical error. In an argument, self-reference does not prove validity. I am going to give you some homework to think about. I am going to say two statements to you. Are you ready?” She said yes. “This statement is true. The previous statement is false.” She stared at me. “So go home and think about this and tell me which statement is true.”

Regaining my balance on the soda crate I continued to pontificate: “A friend and mentor of mine once used the phrase “the wisdom of uncertainty” to describe his cosmology and I am going to shamelessly borrow it, because there really does exist wisdom in uncertainty. I have been accused by religious people of taking the “cop-out” position of agnosticism as a defensive position and of being afraid of commitment. However my position in uncertainty is based on the fact that I still haven’t found and cannot hope to find a pre-packaged cosmology that can properly explain and do justice to the felt experience of reality. Uncertainty is dynamic and evolves when new information is presented, and not just within a pre-existing framework but opens the possibility of radical change. Uncertainty does not impose, but instead reposes, waiting for the inevitable and patient unfolding of experience. Uncertainty is creative and open ended, spontaneous, curious and empirical. Uncertainty is in essence ego-less and the opposite of dogmatic.

It’s all fun and games to talk about the theory behind religious and moral certainty, but we don’t live in the world of theory and philosophy, we live and function in the world of practice. And as the history of man demonstrates, Certainty has had terrible consequences in the practical world. When talking about the most egregious acts against humanity, the holocausts, genocides, environmental disasters etc, I have heard people question, “how can people do those things to other human beings or to the Earth?” A full answer is not possible, as we will never know what was going on in the masterminds of these atrocities, however one common thread can be drawn; the people behind these acts were absolutely certain of their ideals being the one right way to live. Hitler was absolutely certain that the German culture was a superior people. The American colonizers were absolutely certain of their racial and “civilized” superiority to the Native American tribes and therefore could justify their extermination. The Christian man is certain that he is outside of the rules of ecology that govern the rest of the natural world, and that Man is superior and has dominion over other life forms. Man’s (specifically not Women’s) divinely appointed right is to rule and control the Earth and if the vengeful, wrathful and fickle patriarchic deity is appeased during his or her lifetime, heavenly paradise awaits him in the afterlife; therefore we see concentrated animal feedlot operations, the subjugation of women and minority groups and massive ecosystem destruction in the name of resource extraction. The Earth is essentially a dirty dish towel to be thrown away in anticipation of the real posthumous reward of certain belief in the dogma. This idea of the danger of certainty came to me after a discussion I recently had with a Christian missionary; after explaining how I derive purpose in life from my position of uncertainty, he said “If you think there is purpose and meaning in uncertainty, just imagine the things you could do if you had certainty!” And he was right! If I were absolutely certain in my cosmology I could go out and proselytize, homogenizing the world in the process, in order to save the uncertain people from their tragic ignorant fate, just like he was doing. In contrast, uncertainty is accepting of differences and diversity, because it admits and celebrates that at the end of the day, or at the end of a life, the Universe really is a mystery.”

A teenage boy in the crowd shouted out: “Well if the Universe really is a mystery and the truth is that nobody knows, why do so many people go to church and believe in god? Is it really possible that all those people could be wrong?”

“Thank you my young friend for bringing us to our next topic. So why are people so attracted to certainty? Because it conveniently gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives that in the absence of this certainty would be a gaping existential void. Certainty is easy when the dogma is handed down from the authorities. Uncertainty is difficult because it relies on the self. Uncertainty depends on a certain level of introspection and imagination in order to derive values, meaning and purpose in life. Certainty is packaged to appeal to and answer the most profound question that any self-reflecting human being can ask themself, which is “why am I here?” Certainty in contradictory and “faith” dependent religions is a fear-inspired reaction by people that need to have closure on this fundamental question. Faith is not something to be applauded and aspired to; quite simply it is the surrender of reason to certitude. Uncertainty does not provide this comfortable closure, but instead leaves the mystery intact and ever present, which to most people, is way too scary a position and so they mostly unconsciously choose certainty, and go about their business of ritual recitation and myth making. Where certainty depends on the immanence or know-ability of a cosmological truth, uncertainty is rooted in a transcendent quality of experience that lies outside the limits of human knowledge and comprehension.”

The crowd was clearly agitated as I had pulled the rug out from under their comfortable sense of purpose and certainty. I quickly realized that maybe my approach had been too harsh, I had ripped the Band-Aid off too quickly and the gaping void of existential despair was too much for the people to bear in their current cultural mindset. The people clearly needed to believe in something to give their lives purpose and fulfillment. Fearing of inciting either a riot or an all-day affair of binge drinking, I called attention to the agitated and humming crowd:

“So if I were to go about consciously designing the ideal cosmology and theory of reality what are some of the characteristics that I would want this framework to have? Most importantly I would throw out the idea of absolute truth. Would you stop and ask a termite about the ultimate purpose and truth of the Universe? No? Then why would you ask a talking ape? In my opinion, to think that human beings have any grasp on the profundity of the mystery of the Universe is preposterous. So really what we are seeking is a cosmology that is true-enough. True enough for the circumstances of being incarnated in flesh and living in complex social proximity to other incarnate beings (both plant and animal). Secondly, this cosmology would be commensurate with the subjective felt experience of reality by being adaptable to the influx of new information. I commend science for in principle its open-endedness and reliance on observation and method to discover new things about our world. Our cosmology must be able to adapt to new information in a constantly evolving world.

Thirdly, this cosmology must promote ideas that are in line with the ecological reality of the planet. This means that humans must see themselves embedded in and completely dependent upon a complex web of relationships between plants, animals, and the non-living materials of this planet. Humans are not superior to any other organisms and do not live outside the ecological rules that govern biological systems. Proper action in the world would naturally follow from this belief and humans would live within their means and with respect for the health of the planetary ecology.

The idea of how our cosmology would derive practical guidance for living a moral life is more complicated because it would ideally stem from personal responsibility and conscious awareness of action. Do as to others as you would want done unto yourself would be the governing morality and right action would follow from right belief. This cosmology would recognize the innate worth of each individual human being and life form and celebrate diversity rather than ostracize and judge people into strained conformity. If this cosmology is beginning to sound utopian and unrealistic, it is only those things to the extent of the lack of Human consciousness and imagination. The state of the world today and all of its problems are the physical manifestations of certain cultural, institutionalized and individual belief systems about what the world is and what Humanities purpose is. The world is what we collectively and individually decide that it is. If we collectively (or at least the unconscious majority) see the world as a limitless source of raw materials and human labor power to be exploited at the cost of ecological health and cultural sustainability then our world will look like it does today. Or if we collectively see the world as an earthen paradise to be protected and cared for with the purpose of life being to spread as much love and good will as possible, then this is what the world will become. If we want to see real change and actually realize a sane, livable and long-term sustainable global culture we must awaken as each individual mind to the wisdom of uncertainty.”

With a triumphant emphasis on the last word I leapt off the soda crate and stood eagerly waiting for the clouds to part and the muddy waters from last night’s rains to instantly turn to wine. Clearly after hearing my soap-box speech the villagers would fall over themselves in ecstatic enlightenment. It was not to be however as the villagers shrieked in laughter, shook their heads in pity and continued on their way to church, clutching their bibles and wearing their funny little hats. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and continue on my way, clutching my Kindle loaded with Heidegger, Husserl and Jean Paul Sartre; an incommensurable gulf of mutual incomprehensibility left gaping open in the street.

Photos: Food: Squash lentils, Green papaya coconut soup, best papaya ever and random shot with friend and Norwegian Heavy Metal band comes to Manjacaze!

Cape Town Photos

Here are some shots from my recent trip to CT, South Africa. Its really a cool city with lots of great food, scenery, culture, beaches, cycling and most other things that are good. Yes I really like Ethiopian food.

The Transportation Situation

I have been doing some traveling recently within Mozambique and have had the opportunity to talk to many people who work in different areas of the industry including car owners, drivers, doormen and lots of passengers. Like the market scene, transportation is a major way people make a living, and I was really curious how it all worked. I also wanted to relate some of my experiences traveling and using transport which is a colossal nightmare living in Mozambique. By far the most frustrating and taxing part of life here is dealing with transportation. I think you will see why.
Unlike the market scene, the public transport scene is pretty much entirely dominated by men. I have never seen a woman driver or door worker. Possibly because aggression and rude behavior is the norm in terms of customer service, most women are much too compassionate and reasonable for these positions. I always feel that it is easier to relate to women here in Mozambique; they are usually friendly, smile a lot, invite conversation and have a curious pleasant demeanor. Groups of men on the other hand tend to be more suspicious and reserved to talk, but will occasionally shout out a passing diminutive “Whiteman” call as I pass. So it was much more difficult to convince the group of Chapa (minibus) drivers and their doormen to divulge their personal finances and trade secrets, than it was with the market women. They all tend to hang out in front of their cars near the market, playing music, drinking beer (yes, some of them before driving, welcome to Mozambique), joking around and stuffing their faces with xima and meat. The drivers are usually older guys*, late twenties to forty and the doormen (the guys who collect the fees, load the car and arrange passengers) are usually younger; maybe eighteen to twenty five on average.
I have become friendly with some of the doormen throughout my time here in Manjacaze, and I occasionally stop to chat as I pass by the market. One day I made it a point to go and just hang out, to see what I could learn about the whole system. I approached a group of maybe 10 guys, who saw me coming and abruptly stop chatting, staring at me, not enthused. They turned back to their conversations and ignored me. I leaned up against the nearest car and seeing a guy I know called him over for a chat. We began speaking in Changana, and suddenly the drivers stopped talking again and stared; this time clearly interested. “Who taught you to speak Changana?” one of the drivers asked me. (This whole convo is in Changana) “Your Mom taught me” I responded, in a joking tone. All the men began laughing hysterically and suddenly I was surrounded by a crowd. I was totally in. We bantered a bit back and forth about normal things, building rapport. I learned their names, where they are from (all of them born within 30km of Manjacaze), and the routes that they drove in their cars. The novelty of the white man speaking Changana began to ware off, and I isolated a driver/doormen pair for a more intimate chat about the secrets of their vocation.
There are many different types of Chapas here in Mozambique; the open bed truck that usually goes to the more rural towns. The closed minibus that goes everywhere, the larger minibus that usually travels between the bigger towns and the biggest of the express busses that travel on regular schedules and go between the biggest of cities. For the vast majority there is no schedule, the car leaves when it is filled. And when I say filled I mean FILLED. The other day I learned a new Portuguese word, “sardinhar”, a verb which means “to sardine”. A guy turned to me in a Chapa and said “Damn we are really sardined up in here”! This is in reference to the packed nature of a can of sardines. The transport biz has developed its own slang relating people to the treatment of processed fish; how nice.
Back to the Chapa stop, I was chatting with a driver that made the 45km one way trip to Xai-Xai, the provincial capital of Gaza. He makes two round trips per day, over dirt roads that in the rainy season are so potholed it takes about 2 hours one way to navigate. “So how much does it cost to fill one of these cars up?” I asked casually. “About 2000 meticais” was the response. He uses one tank of gas per day. The fare is 50 meticais per passenger and 18 passengers are “sardined” (our new word) per one way.

So basically:
(18 passengers) x(4 trips) = (72 passengers per day) x (50 meticais per passenger) = 3600 mets per day
He usually adds 400 or so mets per day, charging people for bringing produce and animals on the chapa
4000 mets – 2000 mets fuel costs = 2000 mets per day profit.
Throughout the course of my travels and conversations I have observed a lot of suspect behavior with the police and corruption. I finally got the scoop from a driver. In Mozambique there is a law that says that in order for a Chapa to leave the town in which it is registered, it must have a special license to carry passengers. Apparently these licenses take a really long time to get due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, prohibitively high costs and just plain disrespect for the law. Basically very few Chapas actually have the license. When the police stop a chapa and ask for the license, if the fine were to go to court it would be 10,000 mets. The chapa drivers and police have worked out their own solution; pay 50-100 mets and just drive away. The transaction is always disguised, never done out in the open, but it is obviously happening whenever a chapa is stopped at a police checkpoint. The money disappears into the vacuum and the chapa is free to do its business. This may sounds insignificant, except for the fact that on the road from Manjacaze to Xai-Xai alone there are sometimes two or three police checkpoints. That’s 100 mets per trip, just vanished into thin air. Correspondingly, most policemen and women are very overweight; they eat very well at home.
The doorman is paid 150 mets per day and the driver is paid 400. Take out another 400 mets for corruption tax and the owner of the Chapa is looking at about 1050 mets per day of profit. The Chapa runs 6 days a week so 6300 mets a week or 25,000 mets a month profit. Right now that is about 800 dollars a month. Much better than a market woman!
I was interested to learn that most Chapas are not driven by their owners but instead hire drivers. This is the norm, with the actual owner of the car driving a very rare occurrence.
Chapas going different places have different economics of course: A Chapa going to Maputo makes one round trip per day, using one and a half tanks of gas. Thirty six passengers per day pay 265 mets per way.
9,540 mets in passenger fees – 3000 mets fuel – 600 mets corruption tax- 600 mets driver fee – 300 mets doorman fee = about 5,000 mets per day profit.
These chapas don’t run as often though because it’s a much longer trip (about 5-6 hours for the drivers one way) and the wear and tear on the vehicles is much higher. Usually 4 days per week for potentially 20,000 mets per week or 80,000 mets per month. About 2,300 dollars per month.
Of course I haven’t been taking into account the costs when things break, which is extremely frequently. The roads are dusty, potholed, littered with shards of glass and metal and destroy suspensions, tires, brakes, and every type of filter like no other. Monthly services are needed with major repairs coming every 3 months most drivers told me. Parts are really expensive as well and so if the Chapa owner doesn’t have substantial reserves to repair his vehicle, he and his drivers are SOL.
Enough boring logistics, to give you a sense of the thrill and pleasure of being a passenger in one of these chapas, here is a recounting of the most ridiculous Chapa ride I have had yet far and hopefully will never be repeated. One Sunday afternoon I was returning to Manjacaze from Xai Xai and went to the Chapa stop near the central market. After waiting for an hour for the chapa to fill with passengers, I was smashed into the first row seat, behind the driver, but not a window seat, sitting next to a young guy on my right and an old woman with live chickens in her bags to my left. A huge plastic washing basin was crammed behind the driver seat, which kept falling on the guy next to me. After the chapa filled, as typically happens, we sat around waited for nothing before finally leaving and stopping to get gas, load and unload baggage a few times as well as stopping at the usual police checkpoints. I noticed that the guy next to me was sneaking swigs from a paper bag shrouded bottle and reeked of alcohol. He was minding his own business so it didn’t initially bother me that he was in the process of getting hammered in the chapa.
All was normal as we turned onto the 35km section of dirt road that winds through the homestead studded hills of Gaza, leading to the beautiful villa of Manjacaze. I was casually looking out the window, feeling uncomfortably squashed and hot with so many people “sardined” into such a small space when suddenly I smelled an extremely rank odor. It was the unmistakable smell of human feces. Apparently one of the several babies that were on the Chapa had decided to evacuate itself in our company. The smell was atrocious, and the hot humid air did not help to ameliorate our collective suffering. People started talking about it, complaining and joking. The now drunk guy next to me perked up and started insulting the mother of the child, blaming her for something that was clearly out of her control. He was really offensive and people began to show disgust with his rude commentary. I turned to him and said in Changana that I thought it was him that had shit his pants and not the baby. The chapa erupted into laughter as the drunken man was publicly shamed in his own language by the foreigner. Predictably, in an attempt to save face he got angry and started insulting me now. We traded insults a few times, me just messing with him, and him quite serious. Being that he was a very small guy, wedged between a giant plastic drum and the window, I was not at all concerned about anything physically escalating. Additionally, public intoxication is socially frowned upon and I had the entire Chapa behind me to defend me. So we bantered back and forth a bit more and after tiring of this little game I just started ignoring him.
Unfortunately the silent treatment was too effective, and instead of eventually dissipating his anger, it seemed to fuel him into a frothy rage. The alcohol intoxication was probably the main culprit. I think there was a five minute period where I looked straight ahead, without even acknowledging his existence, while he talked at me from the side. He insulted white people in general, he insulted Barack Obama, he insulted my appearance, nothing was spared and I was laughing hysterically inside. Finally, after hearing enough of this guy’s bullshit, the driver spoke up and told him to knock it off. Suddenly the driver found himself the target of the onslaught and they started slinging insults at each other. With each passing minute the driver became angrier and angrier. Clearly he had never had an older sister that teased him to death and taught him to withstand a verbal onslaught with calmness and stoicism. The whole chapa started chattering now, and the situation was getting pretty heated. Suddenly the driver stopped yelling and pulled over onto the side of the road, where he quickly leapt out of the vehicle and started attacking the drunken guy through the open window. The driver was trying to hit the guy about the face and neck, while he had assumed a defensive posture and was holding on for dear life. The doorman leapt out too and went to restrain the driver. I grabbed the drunk guy and restrained him from retaliating as everyone on the Chapa began yelling and screaming. Other cars that happened to be passing by also stopped and watched the brawl. Almost in unison, the poopy babies all started crying, a crowd of people and cars formed and the scene just got crazy.
Finally the driver was restrained, the drunk guy sufficiently scared and quiet, and everyone piled back into the vehicle. Off we went, with the driver noticeably speeding faster than before, in anger and in haste to get rid of the drunk idiot. Not 5 minutes down the road, the drunk guys started mouthing off to the driver again. Basically the entire scene repeated itself; the driver stopped and attacked the man through the window, I restrained the drunk guy while the doorman restrained the driver, the women chattered, the babies cried, the onlookers gathered and the clock kept on ticking. A ride that normally takes an hour and fifteen minutes was already approaching the hour mark, and we weren’t even a third of the way home, and the chapa still reeked of poop.
Somehow we managed to calm the driver and I tried to talk some sense into the drunk guy. I told him that the driver was going to kill him and that if he knew what was good for him he would be quiet and not provoke anyone. The driver was angry and driving like a maniac now, which was putting everyone else at risk. In order to restrain the drunk guy I wedged the giant plastic drum against him and the seat, effectively keeping him pinned down as we continued over the potholed dirt road. As I already said, the driver, being angry was not driving safely, speeding and taking curves way too fast. A woman in the back shouted for him to please slow down and drive more carefully. He slammed on the brakes and we came to a halt for now the 3rd time as he got out and came around to the door of the chapa. He began yelling at the woman, saying he will drive however he damn pleases etc… basically being an egotistical asshole. He demanded that she get out of the chapa. He intended to leave her in the middle of nowhere, simply for asking him to slow down. Up to this point I was not choosing sides, just trying to avoid a major conflict or accident, but the driver was being ridiculous. I spoke up for the woman and very calmly reminded the driver that we are paying customers and that he has a huge responsibility for our lives. He seemed to think about it and even agree with me, but in the end his ego and pride won out and he still demanded the woman get out. Being that it was his car, she had no choice and got out. We left her standing on the side of the road as she furiously flipped off the driver and yelled obscenities. Everyone in the Chapa was really upset with the driver now, the babies were still crying and the smell of poop was still haunting us.
It was almost dark by now, a full hour and a half into the nightmarish journey. Luckily the drunk guy was passed out and no longer needed restraining; I thought we were home free. As we careened over the ruts, I noticed a persistent metal knocking sound becoming more and more audible. The driver and passengers noticed as well. We pulled over – now the 4th time – to investigate. At this point I was in a state of Zen–like acceptance to the situation, with the only goal in mind of making it back to Manjacaze safely, no matter how long it took. We got out of the chapa and the driver and I walked around the car looking for the source of the noise. I noticed that the trunk was slightly open, the rope that had previously fastened it shut had come undone and was hanging limply from the tailgate. I called the driver over and he confirmed that this was in fact the source of the noise. No problem I thought, lets tie this puppy up and get back on the road! However the gods had other plans. The driver started talking quickly in Changana, gesticulating wildly. Through his rapid speech I heard the words corn, fell and return; I understood enough to realize that a bag of corn had fallen out of the back of the chapa and that we were going to turn around to look for it. The driver announced the new plan to the passengers and with a collective groan we did a U-turn and sped off into the quickly approaching darkness to look for the missing corn sack.
Everyone has their own limits when it comes to maintaining personal sanity and coherence while dealing with stressful situations. Living in Mozambique, my limits have reached almost previously unimaginable dimensions. Every time I travel I experience the same personal evolution of character and behavior. First comes the anger. I am angry that I am treated like a sardine in a can, smashed and violated without any concern for personal space or comfort. I am angry that I must waste vast amounts of time simply waiting for the car to the leave the station. I am angry that the other passengers are not protesting this type of treatment, but simply accept it with a conditioned docility reminiscent of livestock. I act out this anger like a child having a temper tantrum; I snap at the driver and the doorman, make all sorts of ridiculous demands that we leave, constantly complain about the treatment and just be a general pain in the ass. This phase usually lasts until we are at least underway in our journey. I then put in my baby pacifier, i.e. music and headphones, with which I numb myself into forgetting the terrible situation that I am actually a part of. My mood begins to mellow and at this point I may even apologize to the driver about making those ridiculous demands. This feeling of well-being and acceptance grows the closer we get to the destination, but it’s a capricious feeling, and I am still quick to anger if there are any ridiculous delays. Given the fact that there are always ridiculous delays and stoppages, the anger, frustration and stress always come back in waves. It takes a lot of energy to be angry however, and with each passing temper tantrum I find my will to complain and my will to fight weaker and weaker. Finally, I reach a point in the journey where I completely accept my situation. Yes, I am uncomfortable, yes its smelly, hot, incredibly cramped and we stop every two minutes to pick someone up or drop someone off; and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I will arrive when I arrive and that is that. I have completely lost the will to be angry. This relinquishing of anger is not a virtuous act of conscious equanimity; it is a product of repeated mental and emotional breakdowns, like a prisoner who has given up all resistance in the face of his torturers. Traveling in Mozambique has broken me, and I do not think that this forceful humbling has made me a better person, only more bitter, cynical and hardened to the realities of life. The only positive of this repeated mental scaring is the ability to relate to the countless masses of people that are without personal transport and must rely upon this dehumanizing abomination for their sole means of mobility.
Back to the now dark Chapa, searching for the sack of corn. Luckily, by this point I was in the complete acceptance phase of travel, and I actually started laughing hysterically after recounting for myself all the events of this nightmarish chapa ride. We retraced our path for at least 10 km without seeing a single corn kernel, and everyone began to get vocally pessimistic about the chances of us finding the sack. The driver finally agreed, and swearing at his luck turned the Chapa around for home; now two hours and fifteen minutes since leaving Xai Xai. I can just imagine the situation that unfolded with the sack of corn, as some man, woman or child, finding the sack of corn just waiting for him/her on the side of the road probably thought himself to have won the lottery! And yes we passed the woman whom we had previously left on the side of the road twice. The poor woman’s face lit up when she saw us coming back, thinking the driving had a change of heart, only to start cursing furiously as we sped right by her. I do not know what became of her, but I assume she survived.
Finally, after no further incidence, we made it into Manjacaze, a full two hour and forty five minute journey, which was by far a personal record. I thanked the driver and cursed at him in the same sentence, and ran home for a bucket bath to wash the filth and grime of that horrendous experience from my mind and body. The smell of baby poop, sweat and exhaust came off quickly in the shower, however the emotional scars remain, and to this day I shudder in fear and frustration when I know that I have to take a chapa ride.
Unfortunately, stories like this are not at all uncommon and illustrate many of the negative aspects of life here in Mozambique. I could propose many ideas to improve the situation; mandating strict restrictions on the number of passengers, facilitating Chapa drivers to get the required licenses therefor eliminating corruption, enforcing a system of scheduling with set times and stopping points as opposed to the free-for-all mentality. Basically arranging an actual functioning system of public transport, like any “developed” country has is what needs to be done. But these things take time, and I can only hope that this is the direction that the country is moving in.
Photos: Transport related
Lunch dipping extravaganza – Cucumber yogurt soup, garlic hummus, spicy guacamole
Fruit- Mafura. This is as type of Mahogany tree native to SE Africa. You soak the red fleshed seeds in water for 30 minutes and suck off the softened pulp. It is a fatty fruit, sort of like avocado, but the taste is absolutely unique. Sweet, yet savory, sort of like mayonnaise!

*Note: In proof reading this post I realized how much my cultural filters have been rearranged, considering the fact that my first reaction was to call someone in their late twenties or thirties an “older guy”! Old men are a rarity, but kids are everywhere, so my norms have switched to that end of the spectrum. My apologies to all you late 30’s western men who I just called “older”. In your own culture you’ve still got at least half a lifetime left. If you were here in Mozambique you should probably start picking out your grave site and arranging your affairs.

How do you survive? The market

I walk amongst the ubiquitous, neatly arranged piles of vegetables spread out on old sacks and blankets in the market. The scene could be anywhere in Mozambique; hundreds of women sitting in front of their little stocks of produce with the odd buyer wandering through the scene. The little groupings are all meticulously organized by price, quality and size. Tomatoes, onion, cabbage and garlic are present at every market spot, with every other woman also stocking collards, eggplants, peppers, carrots, cucumbers and the odd beet root. With such homogeny in the market selection, so many sellers and so few buyers, I constantly ask myself the question, “How do people survive here?” How do they make ends meet in order to support their families with money for food, clothing and other necessities? I was with a friend in a market like this, and as we looked out upon row after row of identical produce stands, I asked the casual question of how anyone actually made money here. My friend turned to me and said “Evan, they DON’T make any money!” However, this obviously cannot be the case, as people are not dropping over dead in the streets for lack of sustenance. People are surviving through this lifestyle and I wanted to know how. Not only are people surviving, it appears that certain women are actually thriving! Their market stalls are always full of buyers and well stocked with the most variety of veggies, whereas the women on either side sit in envy with their measly tomatoes. I wanted to know the economics behind being a market lady. I wanted to know what type of wheeling and dealing these women were doing, and how savvy they were in their transactions. Why were some more successful than others? I wanted to know what a typical day at work was like for one of these women. I spend 20-30 minutes per day at the market, and always from the perspective of just passing through to make my purchases. It would be a totally different situation to sit on the other side of those old sacks and try to make a living. So one day I decided that I would BE a market lady for a day, or actually a market Man. I would wake up, and go to work just like all of my competitors, trying to eke out a living selling nutritious vegetables to fickle buyers in the Manjacaze market.

My plan was to “rent” a market stall for a day and see how much produce I could sell. I have many friends in the market and after telling one of them my desire to intimately experience her lifestyle, I managed to convince her to let me try to sell her veggies for the day, or at least for an entire morning.  The produce would be hers, and the profit would be hers as well, I would only be manning the table. (Aside: if the market ladies are 99% women, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that I would be “womaning” the table?) Aside from being completely incredulous that a perceived high-society westerner such as myself would voluntarily want to come sell vegetables in the market, she was extremely concerned that I wouldn’t know what to do and would ruin her business. You literally just sit there and when people pass by you tell them the prices and put the produce in a plastic bag. I laughed and said to her “listen, at university I worked in a laboratory doing tests and experiments that are infinitely more complicated than the job you are giving me, can you please repeat after me and say Enzyme Linked Immunosorbant Assay?, No? Or how about Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction” Her response was a completely blank stare, mouth slightly agape. I told her I think I can handle this!

Before having this experience however I needed to understand the economics of my business. Through my own casual polling of market women, I discovered that the average level of schooling was around 8th grade, with the older women having little to no schooling and the younger women with slightly higher levels of education. The majority are illiterate. Obviously I couldn’t just rock up on the scene and start talking about profit margins, return on investments, net worth and percentage growth rates. I had to bring down the level of terminology and make my questions very clear. “How many tomatoes do you sell in a day? How many onions? And how many days a week? How much do you buy this for? How much do you sell this for? Where do you get this from?” More or less the questions were like this. It was very interesting to discover that in many instances the women did not know how much they were selling, how often they were buying, what their bestselling item was, or related questions. Most of the women do not keep accounting books and do not have records of their sales or purchases. When they run out of onions they get more, when they run out of cabbage they get a few more. Not unexpectedly, they exist in this obscure, murky financial world of “what you see is what you get”, where the majority of their bank accounts are in the risky location of their pockets.

Through this process of questioning about personal finances I came upon an interesting phenomenon that I had no idea was going on. Nobody has bank accounts at the local branch of the Mozambican bank, yet every single women I questioned was involved in a monthly saving scheme they called a “shtick”. Basically a man walks around the market with a notebook once a day and takes money from just about every single woman, recording each transaction. The amount of money is dictated by the individual woman. Then at the end of the month, the man walks around and pays out the total savings that each woman deposited, minus his own fee. So for example, I decide that for this month, every day I will deposit 50 meticais with this man. For days 1-30 of the month I give him my 50 mets. He keeps the deposit for day 31 of the month for himself and on the 1st of the following month delivers me my 1500 mets total. One man walking around with huge sums of money would seem to be an obvious target for thievery, himself robbing the women, or someone robbing him, yet the women assured me that this has never happened. I asked the women why they didn’t just keep their 50 mets at home in a safe place and they all said that the temptation to use the money would be too great. “You mean like use the money to buy school supplies for your kids, or food, or medicine?” I inquired. “No, like if someone walked by selling a telephone and I had the money in my pocket I would buy it”, was the response. Yes, even if they didn’t need it. Consumerism and flashy techno gadgetry leave no survivors.

Some of you by now may be thinking to yourselves why these women would so easily reveal all their finances and intimate business details to some pesky, inquiring white boy. The women themselves of course asked me my motives for my questioning. And the truth is they revealed every bit of information because they are controlled by the same vices and temptations that you are; fame, fortune and visions of self-grandeur. I simply told them the truth behind my questioning. I was going to write an article that would go to this magical place called “the internet” and people from all over the world would be able to read about them and see their pictures. Lying and manipulation were not necessary! Also these women are my friends, and they trust me. Whether or not they should trust me is a separate issue.

So based on my market research (meaning I literally went there), the average market woman’s finances and accounting are more or less as follows: (this changes due to seasonal variability)(1 USD = approximately 28 meticais)

1 crate of Tomatoes = 250 meticais, sells for 500-600 meticais once divided up and sorted

1 sack of onions = 150 meticais, sells for 250 mets once divided up

40 kg of cabbage = 200 meticais at 5 mets per kilo, sold for 15 meticais per kg

Cucumbers = 7 meticais each, sells for 10-15 mets

Carrots = same as cucumber

Peppers = 3 meticais each, sells for 5 mets

 

Here in Manjacaze, being a rural town, most of the produce comes from the provincial capital of Xai-Xai. The women must pay over 200 mets in transport costs to get their produce from XX, with each woman usually making the trip once a week. Some of the produce is delivered to the market directly in Manjacaze. For example one day I saw the tomato truck arrive at the market, with 100 screaming, pushing and shoving women crowding around to get the first selection. The poor driver of the truck was swamped and was literally beating back the women to try to maintain order. That was a funny scene.

In the western world, most business owners look for some sort of specialty that makes their business different from all the rest. It could be a unique product or service that would allow them to have a market monopoly and dictate higher prices due to the scarcity. Here in Manjacaze this is totally the opposite. I asked the women why they didn’t try to broaden their selection to include as many options as possible or try to distinguish themselves from the other sellers. “What and scare people away with too many choices? Or try to sell something weird that people don’t know? HA! That would never work!” You idiot foreigner with your weird ideas, they love to insinuate. It seems that market conformity is actually sought after and to distinguish yourself is to take a huge risk.

Taking into account the other little knickknacks, bottles of vinegar, MSG laden soup mixes and packets of spices being sold, at any given time a woman could have between 2000 and 4000 meticais worth of produce on her stand. I asked some of the more successful looking women how much earnings they averaged and each said that when the movement in the market was good they may sell between 400-600 mets per day worth of product. Unfortunately in my market research it would be impossible to say how much of this was profit as the numbers were just too obscure and no records of any transactions exist. Other women clearly sold less, averaging 100 mets per day and when there was “no movement” at the market, like a Sunday for example, most women don’t even bother setting up their stalls. The end of the month (pay day for most people) and holiday times are more lucrative as the high sellers will average over 1000 mets per day, especially the week leading up to Christmas.

I asked why some of the women sold well while others didn’t, and most people told me it was just luck. The idea that one person could have a better sales presentation or customer relations didn’t seem to occur to anyone. It was just luck. And I also learned that if you want to improve your luck in business you can go to the local medicine man aka “curandeiro” to have a positive blessing put on your business. For a large fee of course, and after the blessing wears off, if you don’t return to the curandeiro to have the spell recast, you will be left with absolutely nothing. Curandeiros need repeat customers as well; he needs to be good at his black magic, but not too good.

I asked my women friends if they were able to provide for their families through their businesses. I discovered that the vast majority of women selling in the market are actually single mothers and have substantial financial obligations; it was not simply a side job while the husband was off at work. My friends responded that in general, once all expenses are paid, everyone fed, clothed, school paid for, etc, they do not have any money left over. They live on the edge of survival. One illness or accident and the whole family is in a dire situation. I asked them if they had any reserve money and how much. Most women didn’t have any, only whatever amount was tucked into their bra, but one said yes, in fact she had 500 meticais on backup, safely stashed away in her brother’s bank account. Approximately 18 dollars in case of emergency. I don’t ever want to hear my parents talk about financial difficulties ever again.

The day of my market experienced arrived and I trudged up to the market at 8 am to help my friend open up shop. We uncovered everything on the table and she instructed me how to set up the little piles, as if this needed instruction. At night the women simply cover their ware, no locks or security. I asked about thievery and the woman looked at me like I was crazy, nobody here would ever do that, we are all friends here she told me. I indulged her, and let her show and tell me everything about running the market stall. And then she left, promising me to return to check up on me in a little while.

I am not going to lie; I had very high expectations of being able to sell a lot of produce. First off because I was a novelty, people would be attracted to the stall being run by the weirdo white guy they always see hanging around. Secondly, I was extremely confident in my powers of persuasion, and finally I had absolutely no shame. I called out to people passing by, made ridiculous comments and just generally played around with the situation. It was amazingly fun, yet surprisingly ineffective. In fact in the 4 hours that I sat at the market stall I sold 30 meticais worth of produce; a few piles of tomatoes and onions. People were certainly attracted to my stall, that was exciting, and I fielded a million questions about what I was doing, but when it came down to people actually buying things from me they refused! They thought it was a big joke and that I couldn’t possibly be selling good produce and that perhaps I had done something strange to the food and they would get sick. Mozambicans have some very strange conceptions about food. For example, many people believe that if children eat eggs they will become criminals or that if women eat meat they will lose the will to have children. Another favorite of mine is that if a child is slow to grow, you can grate the fruit of the baobab tree and give the child a bath using the grated fruit mixed with water. However you must be very careful to not wash the child’s head or the head will grow ridiculously large compared to the rest of the body. Back to the market though, the community response was abysmal. It seems that people favor rapport and friendship with their market sellers much more than my market friends were letting on. I simply didn’t have the rapport or reputation to be a successful salesman, despite the attention that I got.

Being in the market for 5 hours, I heard a lot of the ambient conversation that went on around me. These market women are gossip queens! I would imagine that if my job was to sit there all day, I too would start gossiping and talking shit about all the other women, but I was really surprised by the women’s ruthlessness. I learned a lot from the experience and I feel that I now appreciate the work that these women do. I always tell them that they have one of the most important jobs here in Manjacaze, to sell nutritious food that will make the population healthy. They are not simply selling food, they are selling medicine that people take multiple times per day. They seem to appreciate this.

Ideally I would like to explore a few of the other common jobs people have that allow them to survive in these tough economic conditions. We will see what opportunities arise.

Photos: Mama Maria tries her first jackfruit ever!

The survivors!

Market women hair braiding train.

The most used pair of shoes ever. I bought these new balance shoes from a Salvation Army store in NYC a week before I came to Africa. I wore them for a year until holes formed in the soles and on top, letting in rocks and sand that made walking very uncomfortable. My friend and co-worker asked me for the shoes, which I was going to throw out. He showed up the next day with the shoes totally re-sown and re-soled. He has now been wearing them for about a year and these are the current state. Still walking!

Mozambique #29 Follow up to previous

In relation to the last post on cultural observations I have made, here are some of the reasons for why I think things are the way they are. The disclaimer from the previous post still applies!

Future preference versus Present preference

This is a concept that I read about in “African Friends and Money Matters” and applies very well to the concept of resource management and saving. In western culture we are trained to value suffering in the short term for the hope of gaining in the long term. We do this in a whole host of ways, suffering through long years of schooling to get a better job, taking money out of your paycheck to put into a retirement fund, etc. We are biased towards planning for the future. I know that if I work hard today, tomorrow will be better, therefore I am willing to suffer today in order to gain in the future. As I will expand on, this sense of future planning comes from a sense of trust in social institutions and overall living security.

In Mozambique this sense of living for the future does not seem to be as strongly ingrained. People do still plan, but usually on the short term. Resources are used up immediately to put a few more cement blocks onto the house, or pay off a debt. It seems that people would rather be happy and more comfortable NOW, than put off their happiness for the future. The main reason I think this is the case is because of the almost complete lack of social institutions and social security. Disease, death and corruption are rampant. There is no guarantee in anything here. Therefore resources saved are in a dangerous position to be possibly compromised by someone else, or the person may die before using them. The life expectancy is 46 years old, what is the point of suffering now for a future that may never come?

In regards to the observations about sharing of resources, Mozambican culture is much more socially integrated and dependent then western civilizations. When we westerners need something, or are in a position of insecurity, we tend to look towards impersonal government or social institutions. We have welfare programs, food banks, available credit, medical care (sort of; Fuck you republican special interest groups!) and other perks of a relatively well-organized and relatively corruption free society. I say relatively because the U.S. is far from perfect, and as far as “developed” nations, actually ranked quite low in many categories of social functioning, but is certainly better than Mozambique. We do not have to do depend on our social connections and families as sources of support and security, although of course we still can use these resources if we choose. Westerners, and Americans in general tend to be much more independent and our societies reflect this. When in need we seek assistance mostly from impersonal sources.

The situation here in Mozambique is that due to the lack of social security institutions (both private and state run), government corruption and a very strong cultural tradition of tribalism, Mozambicans depend almost entirely on their social connections for support. When someone needs to borrow money or is in need of food and lodging, the first stop is usually a family member. Social connections and friendships are often based on receiving assistance, not actually because the people involved like each other out of a shared interest (as would usually be the cause of a friendship for a westerner). Society here is organized in a much more interdependent manner, with sharing of resources much more common. Cultural traditions dictate the sharing of food and resources, and those who do not comply are ostracized. This makes complete sense in the face of the lack of social support structures as comparatively found in western societies.

Another reason why I think resource and money usage are so different from the way we westerners use them is plain and simple education and exposure. Western civilizations have some of the best education systems in the world, that produce many informed, intelligent and conscientious citizens. Or at least that is the goal. Additionally the amount of exposure to foreign concepts and ideas that a westerner has compared to your average Mozambican villager is astounding. With education and exposure comes critical thinking and management skills and a broader perspective in which to operate. It may seem harsh, but I honestly think that people make very poor decisions simply because they are uneducated, and if these same people had educational opportunities on par with westerners’, many resource management aspects of the culture would be different.

 

Mozambique #28 This Post May Make Some People Angry Because It Makes Alot of Generalizations

I recently read a book titled “African Friends and Money Matters”, written by an American anthropologist living in Africa, David Maranz. It talks mainly about the authors observations regarding African cultural traditions and money. It was a captivating read, especially because I could nod my head and laugh at most every observation the author made. I want to share a few fun observations that I have made about Mozambican culture and how they view and use money and other resources. My observations here will be brief, and are not at all comprehensive, as an entire book could be, and was dedicated to this subject matter.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to make a disclaimer. I am going to make rash generalizations and judgments based on observations made while living here in Manjacaze. These are simply my observations of phenomena, I am not judging the individuals who act, I am judging the cultural conditioning behind these acts. I fully acknowledge that I am judging them from my conditioned and biased western perspective, and my judgments are not meant to be malicious. There are obviously exceptions to every generalization that I am going to make, but I am not going to repeat that all the time. Saying it here is sufficient. This post has nothing to do with race, gender, social class, or any other means of classifying people, only culture. African cultural habits related to resources, as being judged from a western perspective to be exact. Take into account my context as well; Manjacaze is a fairly rural community with many uneducated people who have had very little exposure to life outside of Mozambique. Life in urban Mozambique is much different from the type of lifestyle in the rural zones. I accept full responsibility for my own interpretations of my observations and in no case do I claim to be correct. These are simply observations, and many of them are quite funny. In no particular order of importance:

1# Mozambicans are incredibly hospitable to guests, even if they don’t have many resources.

At the normal mealtimes, I can pass houses with people sitting outside eating and always receive an invitation to come eat. If I happen to be visiting someone around a meal time the will ALWAYS offer me food. This is not just for me either; everyone who is present is expected to eat with the hosts.  Contrast this with western culture where even unexpected visits are usually unwelcomed! To get offered a meal as well would be a very rare occurrence. Westerners just don’t share food like people do here. Not only is it normal to share with visitors, but guests are usually always served first, and are expected to eat as much as they want before anyone else is served. I have eaten many an awkward meal sitting around a table, everyone staring at me while I eat alone, waiting for me to take a second helping which is the o.k. for them to serve. This doesn’t happen for me with friends as our relationships are much more casual, but as a formal visitor in a home for the first time this is usually the rule.

#2 It is perfectly acceptable to ask people for fruits or vegetables from their gardens.

This observation is one of my favorites! Neighbors are constantly sharing between themselves the local fruits and produce. I can walk around any neighborhood, see a nice papaya and ask the owner for that fruit. It’s the same for me though, people constantly come ask me for the stuff growing in my yard (or they steal it!). It is also perfectly acceptable to deny people when they ask. Last year I planted tons of beans and pumpkins and literally had a revolving wheel of women coming to my house to ask for the beans and pumpkin leaves. I said sure, you just have to invite me over when you cook it! I made a lot of friends this way and planted even more this year.

 

#3 Mozambicans rarely keep a lot of food in their homes (accept for bulk dry goods).

When they want to cook something they usually go to the market and buy the ingredients fresh, including fruits and snacks. Even people who have means of refrigeration and plenty of money to buy food seem to prefer to not store things at home. Contrast this with the average American home, where the pantry and fridge is usually pretty well stocked. I have asked several people about this observation and the reply was more or less the same, that if there was a lot of food at home, it would be eaten very quickly. It seems that self-control around an abundance of food is difficult. I have been to parties with buffets and watched people absolutely gorge themselves, serving mountainous plates of food and repeating several times. I have gotten to be good friends with my neighbors, two boys, ages 16 and 19. One day they had a box of probably 50 ripe bananas that they had freshly harvested from their garden. I left them sitting with the bananas in the morning and returned two hours later to find them still sitting there, but the bananas mysteriously gone. I asked them about it and they started giggling. “We finished them Brother Evan!” they proudly proclaimed. My jaw dropped when I saw the pile of banana peels sitting next to the box. I of course asked them why they would eat all those bananas in one sitting. They said that the bananas were there, they were hungry, and if anyone else arrived at their home they would be forced out of hospitality to give them bananas, and so they decided to just eat them all. I don’t even think they got diarrhea or suffered any sort of bodily discomfort, which is more shocking considering what would happen to me if I ate 25 bananas in one sitting! Sometimes this unbridled gluttony is contagious as well. Mango season is officially here, and just yesterday my neighbors invited me over to eat some mangos. So we climbed up into their 50 foot tall mango tree and we swung from branch to branch, eating as many mangos as we wanted; which for my neighbors was a substantial quantity! I capped myself at a very modest 6 mangos. It seems that when there is a lot of food available, you eat it. Simple as that.

As a side note to the mango picking, if you read #22 the ripped pants story, you know that I ripped my pants dancing at a party. Coming down from the mango tree I ripped my pants again (the same ones), upping the total number of villagers who have seen my ass (although some were repeat customers). I even heard one little girl say to her friend in Changana how white it was.

#4 Asking for your things is a way of complimenting your taste in clothing, accessories etc.

This observation used to really bother me. All the time random strangers in the street would come up to me and ask me for my shirt, my watch, my sunglasses, my backpack, and tons of women constantly ask me for my hair (to make extensions). I used to get angry, annoyed and offended. I thought “you mean you want me to take off my shirt here in the street and just hand it over to you, just because you like it?!” It is such a foreign concept for us westerners. But then one day a Mozambican friend and I were out walking together in town when someone asked for something. I started to complain to him, and seeing my frustration, he told me that when someone asks for something they don’t actually expect me to give it to them, but instead are complimenting me and letting me know they like my style. I did some more research and got the same explanation from several other people. Even though they know I probably won’t give them whatever it is they are asking for, people probably think that they have nothing to lose from asking, and they are complimenting me in the process.

#5 Prices for goods in the market are often based on what people think you can pay, and my relationship to the seller changes the price.

When I first arrived in Manjacaze, being a white man, I was initially perceived as being wealthy. And let’s face it, in comparison to the majority of people here, even with my meager peace corps monthly allowance, I am quite wealthy. I will never go to the market and not be able to buy what I want for lack of money, which for many people is the reality. So at first, the market ladies quoted me ridiculous prices for vegetables and fruits, which upon fact checking I refused to pay. Now I get the normal prices, as I explained to them my financial situation. I have seen Mozambicans pay 50% higher prices than what I pay for produce. I asked the ladies about this after the buyer left and they said, “oh that guy has a car, he can afford it”. Interestingly enough, the man did not protest at all the higher prices, which he had to have known he was getting ripped off, but instead seemed proud to pay, like it was his civic duty to indulge the market ladies trying to make a bigger profit from him.

In another observation, I have noticed that for some things, as a relationship develops the prices for services or goods tend to rise! I have a woman in the community who washes my clothing every 2 weeks for approximately $4 USD. When I first hired her I was paying $1.75. Over the course of the past year the price has been consistently rising, even though the quantity of clothing has stayed the same! She did it very subtly too, one time complaining that the clothing was extra dirty, which raised the price to a new standard of $2. Then there was extra clothing one time, which raised it to $2.50 etc… I noticed this constant increase and asked my woman. She said, well we know each other better now, we are good friends and so we can help each other out more. She also added how filthy I am and how much work I give her, just for kicks I think. She knows that I can afford it, and actually I am happy to pay her more as I do like her, but the reverse friend discount is definitely novel for me.

Also, buying in bulk here does not always result in greater discounts. At the market here in Manjacaze, often times I can buy a group of 6 bananas for 10 meticais (30 cents), or group of 10 bananas for 20 meticais. I have explained to the women over and over that this does not make sense. I buy two groups of 6 bananas at 10 meticais each and show them how I just bought 12 bananas for 20 meticais. They laugh, tell me how smart I am, and then go back to selling their bananas at the previous prices. Whatever dude!

#6 People often show up to work totally unprepared

I ran out of patches for my bike tubes and so I went to the local bike inner tube fixing man with a few bike tubes I wanted patched. I chatted with him for a minute, and then handed over the tubes, which he happily assured me he could fix. I asked him if he was absolutely sure he was capable of fixing the tubes. He assured me that he was. I told him that I would be back in 2 hours and as he wasn’t working on anything else at the time, he said no problem. As I turned to leave I noticed something quite peculiar about this man’s work space. There were no tools. No pump, no tire levers, no wrenches, nothing! I went back to where he was sitting in the shade and asked him if he had a pump. He said no. I asked him if he had patches and glue. He said no. I stared at him absolutely incredulously, “how the hell are you going to fix my tubes without these tools?” He said he was going to go see if his friend had any of the required materials. This man fixes bikes for a living! And he didn’t have patches, glue, or a pump! Instead of telling me this up front, that he couldn’t fix my bike, he was going to let me leave the tubes there thinking they were being fixed while he conjured up some miracle tools to work with, or waited for the tools to fall out of the sky. This is one of those situations where living in Mozambique requires a sense of humor. All I could do was chuckle to myself as I gathered up my bike tubes, gave the man some strong words of encouragement about successful business practices, and went to the other bike tube fixing man, who did an awesome job and was totally prepared with the necessary tools (believe me I checked!).

I have been on public transportation mini buses that don’t carry spare tires. I waited on the side of the road for 3 hours one time on my way to Maputo because the minibus I was in got a flat tire and didn’t carry a spare. Your job is to transport paying customers, and you show up unprepared for even the simplest of mechanical failures. The worst part is that the paying customers in the taxi never say a word of protest. They just sit passively, not knowing what is going on, nor taking any steps to correct the situation. Meanwhile I am flying around furiously, talking to the driver, arranging a spare tire to brought, organizing the tools, putting the tire on and getting back on the road! Something like this would never fly in the United States. This leads me to my next observation.

#7 People do not maintain their material possessions in good working order

This observation has really shocked me, as most people are quite materially impoverished by western standards so you would think they would really value and maintain what they have. I have seen the rare and valuable soccer balls that are left baking in the sun, bikes left outside to rust in the rain, cars that get their oil changed every 10 thousand miles (maybe), tires that are worn to the bare tread, tools left scattered around the work site etc… Government initiatives to distribute industrial agriculture equipment such as tractors and irrigation systems have failed miserably here in Mozambique. The equipment is used for the first season, not well maintained, something breaks, there are no material or intellectual resources to make the repairs and the machinery is left to rust in machine graveyards. I have seen tons of 1960’s era Soviet agriculture machinery rotting in fields and pastures all over Gaza and Maputo province. My colleague installed a rope-and-washer pump on the well at his house that his neighbors used to get water. The pump saved them tons of time as previously they were just fetching water with a rope and bucket. One day the pump broke, which was a very simple problem that could easily be fixed. Did anyone of the community who was using the pump fix it? No, they went back the next day with their buckets and ropes, like the pump had never even existed, and had my colleague not fixed the pump, it probably would have been disassembled and burned as firewood.

#8 This is not a culture of saving in terms of economic resources and when resources are available, the highest need takes priority, regardless of the stated intention (in relation to loans)

I know of an organization that lent money to a pastor in a rural community to buy cashews from the community members for sale in foreign markets. The pastor was loaned the money to buy hundreds of kilograms. He bought 20 kilograms, and then spent the rest of the money on his wedding, which consisted of food, beverages, ceremonies and gifts for all the participants. The wedding was his priority and he did not value his commitment to the loan as overriding his most pressing economic need.

Another pastor was asking for help writing a grant. Supposedly the grant was from some NGO to do some generic community development activity that I cannot remember. My colleague offered to help. After finding some serious problems with the implementation of the project as it was written in the proposal, the pastor came out and said that while he was writing the grant for the NGO project, he was actually going to use the money to start a band. My colleague withdrew his offer to help.

Many people here build their houses piece-meal as they earn money. Everywhere you go you see half constructed buildings and bare foundations, where people are slowly constructing their houses when money is available. Money comes in and is immediately allocated to the most pressing need to be spent. Out of my own curiosity I sometimes do not ask my friends about their financial status, to which most people admit to not having bank accounts, nor do they see the need to have one. I think this has a lot to do with the lack of available credit from banks and lending institutions and distrust for institutions. There is no bank insurance here, and you could very easily lose everything if the bank you have invested in folds.

We had a temporary 19 year old kid doing manual labor type work here in Manjacaze for my association. He was paid after working for a month on a Friday afternoon. He was supposed to show up for work on Sunday morning, as he was going to be doing maintenance type work in the garden. He never showed up. He never showed up on Monday morning either. I asked my colleagues where this dude was and they gave me the story. Apparently before even making it home from work on Friday afternoon he had spent ¾ of his salary on alcohol and meat. Which he then brought to the local neighborhood bar, got absolutely plastered, to the point where he was unconscious and all his “friends” ate his meat and drank the rest of his beer. He then spent the rest of his money on Saturday doing more or less the same thing and therefore was too hung over to come in to work on Sunday morning. He was fired. I grew up with the conditioning that “a penny saved is a penny earned”, and always had a bank account where I could save my money. Frugality with money is culturally valued, and I think westerners tend to frown upon financial irresponsibility. Obviously it still occurs, but on a whole we value economizing and thriftfulness. This does not appear to be the case here.

So before this post becomes a book I am going to cut it off. I feel that I could add many more observations on these themes. I have a few interesting theories for why things are the way that they are, culturally speaking, but I will write those in another post, as this is already long. Westerners don’t have long attention spans anymore. Time is money baby.

Photos: KITE!!!! Ugly crying baby and work related photo

Mozambique #27 Scuba

 

Sometimes in life I catch myself thinking… “how did I get here?” This feeling only comes when a situation is just so surreal and incredible that I can hardly believe it to be real. I had this feeling the last time I went scuba diving here in Mozambique. The dive boat was flying over the glassy water, launching over smooth rolling waves, while a line of passing rain showers projected rainbows on the horizon in the early morning light. We pulled up to the dive spot, being soaked by a warm sprinkle of rain, to find two humpback whales breaching 30 meters from the boat, a school of tuna crashing baitfish right on the surface, birds swarming over the boat and as the sun peaked out over a cloud a massive double rainbow perfectly framing the green and sand colored dunes of the empty coastline. Yes, Mozambique has incredible scenery.

We geared up and dropped over the side of the boat before descending to 25m. The visibility was fantastic and the reef teeming with coral and fish. I heard the dive guide jiggle his underwater noise maker and frantically point up, signaling everyone to look. Hovering above the reef were two massive manta rays. Imagine a car with wings that is literally flapping and flying underwater. We watched them circle for ten minutes before moving on to further explore. Other highlights of this particular dive were the standard assortment of beautiful eels, tree corals, urchins, starfish, colorful reef fish, lobster, a turtle and a massive grouper about the size of full grown human. While on the boat riding home, we skimmed along the beach looking for whale sharks, and it wasn’t long before the captain stopped, after spotting an enormous shadow moving slowly parallel to the shore. Fins and snorkels were handed out and I jumped into the water to go for a little swim with this monster. The whale shark was peacefully swimming, not noticing the snorkelers at all, as a group of us hovered around this gliding, school bus-sized shark. Suddenly, emerging up from the depths were two more massive sharks, and for next thirty minutes, like a tiny fly compared to the size of a massive animal, I swam next to all three, observing the intricate patterns on the skin, the gaping mouths and the small beady eyes of these majestic creatures. It is quite a humbling experience to see one of these animals from a boat, let alone swim within reach of one.

Mozambique is blessed with some of the most amazing scuba diving in the world. Warm water Indian Ocean currents flow down from the north, between Mozambique and Madagascar, bringing clean tropical water and a tremendous variety of sea life. The remoteness of Mozambique is apparent as well, with hundreds of kilometers of empty, undeveloped coastline and coastal waters largely free of boats and traffic. People tell me that the local fishermen do have a negative effect on the wildlife, but to the ignorant eye, things appear pristine and untouched. Looks can be deceiving, however as I constantly hear reports of Chinese, Japanese and Russian fishing vessels sighted off the coast, dragging nets and long-line fishing, with the odd whaling boat or shark-finning boat seen as well. Mozambique has strict commercial laws protecting their coastal species, but absolutely zero Navy, therefore absolutely zero way of enforcing any of their laws. And if there were opportunities for enforcement, I would not be surprised if corrupted officials looked the other way on quota and size limits. It is a very sad situation to watch something as beautiful as Mozambique’s sea life be destroyed for the fleeting, unsustainable pursuit of economic gain. This is just another aspect of the same story of humanities relationship to the Earth right now; a relationship that is exploitative, species-selfish, ignorant, short sighted and destructive. But actually I wanted to talk about scuba diving. There are several aspects of diving that make it incredible.

Firstly, when underwater, using a weight belt to balance out the buoyancy of the air tank, I am completely weightless. Therefore I have the sensation of floating over the reef, suspended, moving with the ebb and flow of the underwater currents. One of my favorite things to do is hover almost upside down with my head down, one meter from the reef, observing everything in up close detail.

Another aspect that makes diving incredible is the careful attention to breathing. I am hooked up to a regulator and mouthpiece that is my life source underwater. The regulator has certain sounds associated with breathing, a high pitched vacuum like sound on the inhale followed by a gurgling, bubbly exhale as a plume of expired air is released. The cumulative effect of the sounds and experience of breathing through the regulator make the underwater breathing experience extremely meditative. It is very easy to be lulled into a trance like state, hovering weightless with careful attention to the breath. It is wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

Finally, of course I must talk about the amazing sights and creatures that live below the sea. It is as if a massive jungle, with hundreds of plant species, animals, mountains, flowers, rivers, etc, was living right in your backyard and you had no idea. The first time I went diving I discovered a completely alien world, existing right here, without me ever really knowing about it. The reef ecosystem is so complex, strange, beautiful and diverse, that every time after I dive, I surface with a profound sense of awe and amazement for Natures’ imagination and creativity in the diverse forms that life can take on this planet. If I had to describe the environment underwater using one word only, I would have to say “psychedelic”. The colors of organisms are neon, the patterns on their skins and shells are ridiculously complex and fractal in nature, and everything is buzzing around in the current, constantly changing like a computer visualizer.

Another component of Scuba that I really enjoy is learning about the physics and physiology of being in the underwater environment. The human body is meant to function at normal atmospheric pressures, and to suddenly dive to 2-3 times atmospheric pressure obviously has interesting effects on the body. This is especially important to understand, as I have started diving with NITROX, which is a higher oxygen gas blend. Considering the partial pressures and making calculations is all part of diving, and adds an intellectual component that is fun. Due to the waters effects on light rays, colors are altered as well, making blood appear greenish/black and other cool effects. Underwater, sound waves travel faster than through air. Normally, we sense the direction of sounds due to the slight difference in the time it takes the sound wave to reach each ear drum. Due to the increased speed, underwater sounds appear to come from all directions at once, as the timing mechanism of our brains is thrown off. Often times there will be whales in the vicinity of the dive sites and I hear them singing; loud, slow, mournful sounding songs that I can feel vibrating in my ears and in my chest.

So if you aren’t convinced yet to get dive certified, or to come dive in Mozambique then you clearly do not realize what your missing out on. It is something that is just too amazing to not do.

Mozambique #26 How I met my (mozambican) Mother

It was early October of last year, I had been living in Manjacaze for about two months, when one day I awoke with a massive craving. I simply had to eat freshly roasted cashews. Back in the 1970’s before the civil war, Mozambique was the #1 producer and exporter of Cashew nuts in the world and most of southern Mozambique is densely planted with aging cashew trees. Selling raw unprocessed cashews is a source of income for the rural population with the main buyers being Indians who export the raw materials to be processed in India and sold in international markets. A mature cashew tree is a massive tree that will produce between 15-20 kg of raw cashew per year. As the trees age however, production seriously declines such that the majority of older trees planted in the 50’s and 60’s by the Portuguese are now only producing 2-4 kg per year. Hardly worth it when considering how much space a fully grown cashew tree occupies in a plantation or at home. For your information, depending on the quality of the raw material, approximately 5-6 kg of raw material will produce 1 kg of cleaned and processed cashew nuts that you would find in a store. So the source of income for rural communities is diminishing each year that the trees age and the sad reality is that very few people are planting new cashew trees to make up for the decline. Lack of foresight is what I would call it, and despite a government program to graft and distribute 40,000 improved variety grafted cashew trees per year, the future of cashew production does not look very sustainable.

But I totally digress, the real issue being my insatiable hunger for cashews. Here in Manjacaze nobody sells the processed nuts, the only option is to buy the unprocessed in-the-shell nut and roast them yourself, which is actually a dangerous and tedious process due to the highly flammable nature of the oily nut. The process of roasting the nut is to heat a big tin pan over a hot fire and put in the raw nuts until they ignite in a fiery explosion as the oil burns off and the shells char and become brittle. The tell tale signal of roasting cashews is a thick, uniquely smelling smoke that the charring nuts produce, which travels long distances, pervading the neighborhood with its sweet, musky odor. Then once cooled, with a wooden stick and a small wooden plank or rock you sit for hours and individually break open each nut, precariously beating the shell to not crack the tender, deliciousness inside. Each nut is hard earned, and I certainly value eating each cashew nut much more, having the experience of processing. Something hard earned always has added value; it tastes better when I grow it myself, or the view is sweeter from the top of the mountain if I cycled there rather than drove. I don’t want things to be just given to me, what fun is that?

So this fateful morning I realized that ide been living in Manjacaze for two months and I still had not learned how to roast cashew nuts. I was on my way to the market on this lazy Saturday morning when I smelled the tangy odor of roasting cashews. Like a dog on the trail I put my nose to work, calculating wind direction, average velocity, trying to find the source of my temptation. Climbing through yards with curious children gawking, hopping fences and clamoring through thick hedges I finally saw the telltale smoke curling skyward from the backyard of a house near the cemetery. I casually entered the yard, finding a woman, a teenage girl and a young boy hopping around a steaming pile of charred cashews. The woman called out “welcome! how are you?” almost as if we were old friends, not like someone would greet a random white man wandering into her yard. She introduced herself as Maria and invited me to sit, and after accepting I explained to her my situation of having this craving, but nobody to teach me the art of cashew beating. We readily hatched a plan. I would go to the market and buy cashews, bring them back, roast them, beat them, then share the proceeds with her for helping me. So off I went to the market to buy 10 kg of cashews to beat with my new friends. Me being a novice at this cashew beating game, I had no idea the length of time associated with processing a quantity as large as 10kg. That first day, I spent three and half hours huddled over my little wooden plank, body contorted, miserably hot, cracking open nuts. I learned that hard way that 10 kg is an ambitious goal. Maria’s instruction was thorough and before no time I was a professional, doing the whole process of roasting on the fire to the actual nut cracking.

Over this span of time working with Maria I recognized some aspects of personality about this woman that were different from most other Mozambican women I had ever met. First, she was fearless of me. This may sound strange, however in rural Mozambican culture women are generally deferential and shy towards men, especially visitors. However Maria was open, cracking jokes, teasing me, asking questions, etc. It was a very spontaneous, organic and lively interaction that was different from a lot of what I had experienced visiting other homes. The second thing about her that stood out to me was the fact that she was always smiling. Her demeanor and way of moving through her world was one of effortless joy. She just seemed to float around her work space, from the kitchen to the fire, totally absorbed in each task, completing each with a casual precision and grace honed by years of practice. I was captivated just watching her work. She had a wild imagination and ability to play as well. The whole time we were beating cashews we were imagining that we were in a make believe cashew factory and that she was the overseer, me the lowly worker. It was hilarious to hear her joke about punishing me for cracked nuts and withholding my wages for burned cashews. After finishing the arduous task of cracking all those cashews, she invited me to eat dinner, and I left the house seven hours after arriving, knowing that ide gained a lot more than just cashews.

Over the next couple of months I started spending more and more time with the family, meeting the rest of the members including Maria’s husband. Maria is 52 years old and was born close to Manjacaze into the same family as Eduardo Mondlane (the founder of FRELIMO and leader of Mozambique’s independence movement). She is the second wife to her husband has had 4 children with him. Outside of Mozambique she has visited South Africa, but that is her only exposure to foreign cultures. In her spare time she likes to make and sell soup in the market, wash clothing, cook, clean pots, water her garden and visit with family.

Maria taught me how to cook many of the traditional Mozambican dishes, speak changana and countless other little lessons. Being close to a Mozambican family has given me an unusual insight into the culture, as Maria carefully answers all my curious questions and explains traditional beliefs and practices. We have an incredibly organic relationship; I call her Mom, she calls me Son. She always calls me out if my clothes are dirty or if I have dirt under my finger nails (which is always) and best of all she has a wonderful sense of humor. Due to huge gaps in cultural conditioning, Maria will never really understand me nor the worldview that I hold; I will always be a bit of an oddity in her eyes. But a boy needs a Mother, and being that my biological mother lives in a different world right now, I had to procure a substitute. To give you a bit of an idea of this woman’s spunk here are some excerpts:

One time Mama had a group of visitors sitting in her yard, gossiping about who knows what. I show up and sit down for a quick chat. I have mentioned that Mozambican women use a piece of colorful fabric called a capulana to wrap around their wastes and heads as decoration and clothing. I was going through a phase where I was asking everyone the origins of the capulana tradition. Nobody knows. Everyone just uses them, without knowing why or from where the tradition originated. So I asked these women visiting Mama the standard questionnaire about the Capulana. Again nobody knows, and I made some snide remarks about how they are like cattle following the herd without knowing their origins or purpose (jokingly). I was wearing a collared shirt at the time, and Mama looks over at me and says “Um excuse me Son, what is the origin and purpose of your tradition to wear a shirt that has that strange collar on top?”  Mom, why do you have to call me out in front of all the visitors!? I obviously had no idea, and had to admit so in front of the women who began to tease me. I was rightfully put in my place.

In demonstrating that universally human sense of humor for sex and scatology, Mama likes to send me text messages with raunchy jokes; something I would expect from a 15 year old, not a fifty something Mozambican woman.

Sometimes in the evenings if I am feeling lonely, or in need of some human interaction I go over to Mama’s house and we sit in the kitchen house, around the fire, talking, joking, laughing and enjoying the fire. It has become a ritual in some sense, and makes the bite of missing home so much less to know there is a warm environment for me to go to whenever I need it.

Mama knows that I love her cooking and probably 2-3 times per week invites me to eat with the family. I randomly get text messages “come eat your favorite dish at my house at 1pm”. Uh ok! She also does not eat meat, and so I can always count on great vegetarian food. She always makes me serve two servings, in order to “be well” and “grow well” in her words. Without fail, every time I finish the first serving, she thrusts the pots towards me and says in the same demanding tone “two plates”!

I like to take the opportunity of being close to the family to expose them to new ideas, foods, music, etc. I have shown them picture from my travels and my family, videos, books, ideas about cool technologies, new foods and we have had countless religious and philosophical questions in which I try to explain a different world view other than the Christian dogma they have been conditioned to believe. One time when Mama invited me over for dinner I wanted to bring something to share. So I made a salad. Mozambicans do eat salad, which is usually always the same; lettuce, tomato, onion, salt, oil and lemon juice. I decided to introduce the family to one of my salads; lettuce, spinach, moringa, arugula, cucumber, pepper, carrot, tomato, onion, garlic, beets and cilantro, with a dressing of sesame tahini, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. So I brought the salad and watched as Mama served a giant helping on her plate. Mama has a very selective palate and does not like many foods, so I warned her that maybe she should try the salad before serving such a huge portion. “Nonsense my son, I know I will like it, you made it afterall” was her reply. I felt like I was advising a child whose eyes were too big for their stomach. As she took the first bite I watched in detached amusement as her face puckered up like she had just eaten a lemon and she shook her head, letting out an involuntary sound of disgust. She had never had cilantro before, and clearly was not a fan. I told her, “Mom, clearly you don’t like the salad, why don’t you give it to me, as I will actually enjoy it, and you wont have to suffer through eating the enormous portion you served yourself”. She flat out refused, claiming that she liked it (although obviously not enjoying it), and me and the kids watched as she struggled for the next 30 minutes, forcing down bite after bite. To this day we still laugh about that salad and now, 6 months later she has finally admitted that she didn’t like it. “The problem was the cilantro” she loves to say.

In late summer there were beautiful wildflowers growing all over Manjacaze. I sort of got obsessed with bouquet making and decided to make Mama a bouquet. So one morning I arrived at her house and proudly presented the flowers. Like always, Mama gave a huge smile and said “ohh you brought me medicine!!”. I looked confused, “medicine? What do you mean?”. She went on to explain, “ya all you have to do is take one look at the beauty and you will immediately feel better”.

I introduced her and the family to butternut squash soup, peanut butter banana sandwiches, curried lentils, oatmeal and even made a green spinach smoothie for her. After telling her that I eat a green smoothie every day she asked me if it comes out like it goes in. I told her to try it and let me know. I tried to explain to her what Manhattan is like. I would do anything to be instantly transported to times square with her, just to see her reaction. She might die on the spot.

In discovering how easy it is to post videos to youtube I decided to ask Mama to prepare a greeting to the world. I told her about the internet (that was an interesting conversation) and that she was set to be world famous. I asked her if she wanted to prepare a message. See the link for the message.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYKj7vtfPhE&feature=youtu.be

 

Photos: Cashew roasting and a few random photos of the family.