Mozambique #5 Site Placement

After several interviews and a lot of suspense, I received my site placement where I will spend the next two years! I am going to Manjacaze, Gaza Province to work with two organizations that specialize in nutrition education, food security, agricultural projects, medicinal plant utilization, HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and home based care. I am really excited with this assignment and look forward to learning more about the projects that are currently underway at each organization. Manjacaze is a fairly small town about an hour from the beach and is supposedly quite beautiful. We shall see!

A good friend of mine once said to me that “it’s easy to love a stranger”. We have since discussed this theme, and it has really stuck with me as a great little chunk of wisdom. It is very easy to love a stranger, as when I meet someone for the first time I am usually not focusing on the negatives. I may notice things about their mannerisms or personality that strike me as odd, but for the most part if they make a good impression these early indications of faults are intentionally or unintentionally overlooked. Connection and good feelings come easy at this point, as infatuation is a product of this focus on the positive. Only once I really get to know a person do I begin to see the cracks and the wrinkles, while at the same time becoming less tolerant of them. It’s easy to love a stranger, and to continue on this theme, It’s easy to love a strange culture! I currently find myself in a bit of an infatuation stage; new sounds, sights, smells, languages, traditions, food etc. I feel that I have been like a puppy, exploring everything Mozambican to the limit in an attempt to “integrate”. (What does this word even mean? Peace corps loves this word! I don’t even think I’m very well integrated into American culture! )

However cracks have been called to my attention. I have yet to experience these things firsthand, but we have been talking a lot recently about corruption at the organizational and governmental levels. Additionally we have been speaking about domestic issues, polygamy, sexual abuse in the school systems, cultural subjugation of women and children and other quite depressing yet truthful subjects. I am sure that I will come across these subjects more as I begin working in Mozambique, and this cultural infatuation stage will pass. I am very curious what I will be writing about 3 months, 6 months, 2 years from now. I can guarantee that it will not all be happy, but this is life, and life goes on here. My host father said to me a wonderful piece of Mozambican wisdom when I was discussing the theme of death and the constant presence of infant mortality. “Quando morre andorrinho não morre primavera”. Andorrinhos are a species of bird here that form huge flocks in the spring time. The quote means “when the little bird of spring dies, spring does not die with it”. In two weeks I will be sworn in as a volunteer and move to my site. Stay tuned!


Mozambique #4 Xai-Xai

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting a currently serving volunteer in the city of Xai-Xai, which is the provincial capital of Gaza, the next province northeast of Maputo province. The purpose of the site visit is to spend time with a currently serving volunteer and see firsthand the daily life and experience. I learned many things about Mozambique, the peace corps and what it takes to be a “successful” volunteer, which was exactly the point of the visit! I also learned a lot about what I don’t want in a site placement, and that I would definitely be a better fit in certain lines of work over others. Next week we receive our site placements which will basically determine where I will live for the next two years, so this week we have interviews with the placement officers to give input and discuss where we want to go.

One thing I learned is that my service here in Mozambique and my ability to have an impact in a community will depend entirely upon my motivation to be involved and develop projects. The good thing about the site visit is that I was talking directly to a currently serving volunteer without all the administrative filters; I was receiving real information. I heard many stories of volunteers arriving at their sites to find that their placement organizations ran out of funds or had a basically nonexistent presence in the community. Some volunteers took this as an opportunity to go to the beach every weekend and “chill out”, while others went out into their communities and essentially made their own placements with other organizations. Things are much different here in Mozambique, things move much more slowly and it is common for volunteers to not have any work do to for up to weeks at a time. Therefore many volunteers work with 2-4 community organizations at a time in order to diversify and the have the greatest impact. To restate what I learned, my experience here rests entirely upon my shoulders to make it what I want it to be and be as involved as ide like. This definitely excites me, because I certainly feel very motivated to share knowledge and experience in whatever capacity I can.

Some things that I really did not like about my site visit was the large city experience of Xai-Xai. This city has a population of around 250,000 people (which is large for Moz) and is dirty, loud, polluted and had a very impersonal feel. We were constantly being hustled by people on the street and stared at for being the rare white person in town. The upside is that being in a large city you have access to basically all kinds of foods and or personal goods that you could want. However as we were strolling through the western style grocery store I realized that there was absolutely nothing that I wanted that I couldn’t get in a tiny town market. I am perfectly happy eating the Mozambican staple ingredients of peanuts, coconuts, leafy green veggies, beans, rice and fruit. The luxuries of the city may appeal to some, but not to me. One of the days of the visit we went to the beach, which was my first experience of the Indian Ocean here in Mozambique. It was absolutely gorgeous, warm crystal clear blue water and most importantly, good waves! It was torture to watch perfect surf peel unridden up and down the beach, but I am sure that when I am on my own I will make it a point to surf as much as possible. The potential in this country for finding the perfect wave is immense and I am really excited for the challenge.

The volunteer that I visited works with 3 different organizations in many different capacities, mostly giving health talks, doing home visits to people living with HIV and a gardening project. She works in an orphanage, a community based development organization and the local hospital. I followed her around for two work days to see her work and meet her counterparts. We made home visits, attended a community talk about sexual networks and visited all the offices of her workplaces.

During one of the home visits in the community we visited a household with a father living with HIV, a grandmother and several small children. The mother did not live there. The father could not work due to his illness, the grandmother was elderly and fragile and the children were too young to work. We walked up on the family shelling pigeon peas in their front yard, that they had recently collected from their neighbors. This was going to be their only food source for the day, and they had no other food for tomorrow or the day after. I had a profound realization that due to my status as a volunteer, being provided with food and shelter, I can only intellectually understand this family’s situation. I will never be able to feel what it’s like to not have any food and not know where my next meal will come from. I will always have food in my home at the end of the day, or at least the means to obtain it. There will always be this barrier of privilege that will separate me from the people that I interact with on a daily basis. This was one of these, what I like to call, “why me?” moments in which I can only ask the question of why was I born into the situation I was, and not here in Mozambique foraging my neighbors yards for the refuse of their meals and unwanted produce? This wasn’t the first time I had seen hungry people, but it was the first time that I realized that I will probably never be able to understand their world as they see it and live it. Just sitting with the family though, talking, joking, laughing, helping shell the peas did seem to leave them in better spirits, but do better spirits translate into abating the throbs of hunger pains? Maybe a little.

The first photo is from Xai-Xai to show the difference in terrain; much sandier, hotter and flatter than Namaacha. The other photos are a health talk given in the community and at the volunteers office with her supervisor.


Mozambique #3 – Visit to a Traditional Healer

Traditional Medicine in Mozambique

This past week we have been talking a lot about the current state of the Mozambican health system, especially with regards to treating and preventing the major causes of death in this region of the world; Malaria and HIV/AIDS. The statisticians indicate that 70% of Mozambicans live in regions of the country deemed “rural”, and that there exists only 365 Medical Doctors in a country of almost 23 million people. This combined with a government that allocates 7.5% of its annual budget to health care, and a mostly uneducated population equals disaster when it comes to medical coverage. The reality is that most people live far away from any type of medical center and many medications and treatments are too expensive for many people to afford. Additionally, many cultural barriers prevent people from seeking western medical treatment, such as widespread skepticism, cynicism and even conspiracy theories mostly centered around the suspicion of white people suppressing Africa. In this environment, the obvious choice for many rural poor is to seek healing from the local traditional medical doctor or “curandeiro”. Usage of curandeiros is so widespread in most parts of the country that most people first seek help from the local medicine man before going to the hospital. Unfortunately there does exist many charlatan curandeiros, and many potentially curable patients have died unnecessarily while under their care. In response to this, the Mozambican government is currently working to formalize traditional medicine as an adjunct to their national healthcare system. They have formed associations of traditional healers that pledge to maintain sanitary practices and work in conjunction with conventional medicine in acute cases of illness that may be better treated by western medicine. I think this is a fantastic initiative by the government and I applaud their desire to maintain an integral part of their culture and integrate traditional knowledge of plants and healing into their health care system. As part of PC training we had a field trip to see the local curandeiro here in Namaacha.

I was very excited to have this opportunity to talk with a traditional healer as I think the work these practitioners do is very important and an integral part of how I approach my job and the possibility of educating people. In the US I think the majority of people take for granted the widespread belief in science, logic and reason as the major determinant of world view. We are so conditioned by our educational system to think of the world as being constructed by atoms and molecules, life as being constructed by cells, illness being caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites, and so on and so forth. The western world definitely holds these views of reality dear, and our medical systems and social systems reflect this. I am not being critical of this, I think that science as a method is an incredibly valuable tool for a society to have. I simply wish to point out our assumptions about reality that we have been conditioned to believe, which stand in stark contrast to how many Mozambicans view the world. Many Mozambicans who did not have the opportunity to attend school, or terminated early, view the world through the lens of animism and live in world of good and bad spirits, energies and witchcraft. Illness is caused by curses and sorcery and people are thought to have spirits inherited from past lives. I make no judgment on the validity of this worldview, and I am eager to learn more. I cannot speak personally yet, but I have heard that this worldview makes explaining technical, scientifically derived information quite difficult, as the audience has a fundamentally different  view of reality than we do. With this in mind, I went to see the curandeiro with a list of questions to try to understand his world a bit better. Until I can see the world through the eyes of Mozambicans, I think my efforts to educate and help will not reach as far as they possibly could.

Me and a group of 12 other volunteers were led into the curandeiros mud and thatch roof hut, which is located on the outskirts of the village on the side of large hill. We sat on the floor amidst an array of bones, bottles, bags, animal skins and jars filled with colored powders and juices; all the clique expectations of a medicine man’s hut! The curandeiro was about 30 years old, youthful in his appearance and spoke confidently of his experience of being a healer. He told of his training period during which he attended some sort of school and was an apprentice of another healer. We asked questions throughout his presentation, which was very interesting. In an attempt to see his fundamental interpretation of reality I tended to ask open ended more philosophically oriented questions. Here are a few that I asked with his general translation from Portuguese. (these are not direct translations but the general ideas that he was conveying)

Evan: In your opinion, what is health?

Curandeiro: (surprised expression) Health is to be well. Health is the ability of a person to function like a normal human being, free from disease, to do their daily work and responsibilities.

Evan: How do the plants function inside of a persons body when you give them as a healing treatment?

Curandeiro: Each plant has its specific function to cure a specific disease. We were taught which plants to use in each situation. Generally the plants work with the different types of energy centers in the body, to help the body fight disease.

Evan: What are the sources of disease?

Curandeiro: Each disease has its own source. Some are physical such as injuries or sore, while others are caused by inhabitation by spirits or bad energies.

Evan: What do you think of modern medicine?

Curandeiro: I think that a system of collaboration and sharing is good. If I have a patient that is also receiving modern medical care I often withhold treatment as the combined effect can be too strong. I also send people to the hospital in certain cases where they would benefit more from conventional treatment.

Evan: What happens to a person when they die?

Curandeiro: Their physical bodies are gone, but their spirits live on, to inhabit other spaces, other bodies of animals, other humans or stay in certain locations. (I interpreted this to be sort of like a belief in reincarnation)

Evan: How was the world made? When?

Curandeiro: I believe the history of the earth is true from the perspective of the Bible. (He would not speak more about this, which I found strange, and to be honest I was really disappointed to hear the bible story again. I experienced a lot of this in Guatemala, where you speak to people with a rich cultural history of their own, only to hear them touting some foreign ideology as a product of colonization.)

Evan: What type of material is the world constructed out of?

Curandeiro: The world is made of minerals, animals, plants and spirits. Water is also an integral part of the world.

So this was a first exposure to the world of the curandeiro, of which I am sure I will have many more experiences as I am interested in working with medicinal plants. I am staying open to experiencing traditional medicine in the Mozambican context and I understand that for many people here, this view of healing and medicine is vitally important. An idea that I got that really stuck with me from a book by Dr. Andrew Weil is that in all of his experiences traveling the world studying different methods of healing there are a few common similarities. First, any system of medicine only works some of the time, in some of the cases. Period. No system of medicine works for everyone. And out of the people that are cured, regardless of treatment, there is one necessary factor; that both the doctor and the patient believe that the medicine will work. This observation really makes me question the role of the mind in the healing process. I definitely believe there is more going on here than our materalistic sciences can demonstrate; but this is a whole separate topic!

Photos are from a recent day trip I took to Maputo, a gory scene of carnage in the museum of natural history and a new monkey friend.

Also, if anyone has any questions they would like me to ask Mozambicans in the streets, One of my strategies to learn and practice portuguese is to talk to people in the streets. So if anyone is curious about the mozambican perspective on something I would be happy to ask around and write about it!