Mozambique #19 Fast and the Furious…Manjacaze

The other day I witnessed a traffic jam on my street. I must tell you that maybe on a busy day 2 cars will pass in front of my house, so this is actually a very rare and special event. Let me describe what I witnessed. It was a sunny, sultry afternoon; I was seated outside on my veranda reading, a nice cup of fresh lemongrass tea in hand, when I heard the sounds of an approaching vehicle from the left. Not all that unusual, however I did look up to see the make and model of the vehicle. Perhaps it was UPS coming to deliver me some unexpected package! (yeah right) At this very moment I also began to hear sounds of a vehicle coming from the right. Now my interest was piqued. Two cars on the road simultaneously? What did the gods have in store? From my perspective I began to see the tail end of a black truck emerging from a shady turnoff on my right just as the front of a white taxi appeared on my left. My mind immediately raced to the obvious conclusion that these vehicles were going to collide! While driving on streets where there is never other traffic I would imagine that one habituates to these road conditions and begins to dismiss the possibility of seeing other vehicles. Therefore the thought of an impending collision was in all probability far from the realm of possibility in the minds of each respective driver. I watched the unfolding situation with a mix of horror, curiosity and that primeval animalistic feeling of wanting to see violence, like asteroids colliding or big things burning.

One important factor in this story that up to this point I have omitted to mention, is the fact that my street is very sandy, think beach, which makes for difficult driving conditions permitting a car to only travel very slowly. So taking this into account now, our story appears even more absurd, because this situation is unfolding in slow motion. Accidents usually happen in the snap of a finger. A wrong step leads to a fall, too fast on a corner leads to a skid; speed is usually present in many accidents. So therefore to watch an accident unfold in slow motion is a real treat for the curious mind. The mind has time to contemplate all possible options, make predictions, develop expectations and just generally watch the accident unfold with a level of awareness not usually experienced.

Now with both cars in view, one in reverse, the other moving in a forward direction, it would seem obvious that someone would stop to let the other pass. As we learned in my last blog entry, nothing is obvious anymore. Having become habituated to low traffic volumes, the drivers were probably doing everything except actually paying attention to the road; eating lunch, braiding their hair, talking on their cell phones, messing with their radios etc. So both vehicles continue in their slow motion descent into the basin of attraction that is their impending collision. I had time to set my book and tea down, stand up and walk to the other side of the veranda to get a better view. Ten meters, eight meters…both vehicles still moving unperturbed and apparently unconscious….six meters….four meters…..”Yes! do it, DO IT!” I thought to myself…three meters!… two meters!… when suddenly, both vehicles abruptly stopped. In an indulgence of some violence craving sadistic part of my being, I felt my heart sink in disappointment. They had seen each other, there would be no collision, everyone go home, the party has been canceled.

If you were thinking the story ended here, you are quite wrong, however, as the gods were in quite a playful mood on this afternoon. The vehicles stopped in such a way that neither one could pass without the other giving up some ground and reversing direction; the tail end of the black truck blocking the passage of the taxi, and the taxi blocking the reverse trajectory of the truck. And so they sat like this for perhaps ten to fifteen seconds, waiting for the other to reverse directions and let the other pass. I witnessed frantic gestures being made through the windshields and heard muffled shouts as the heated negotiation raged in the street. Like two New York City taxi cab drivers performing their own village version of Times Square gridlock the drivers refused to give up their positions.

Ide like to interrupt this tragic comedy to say that the male ego was clearly at work here, impeding any type of agreement that would allow for safe passage of either vehicle. I could just imagine the enraged drivers cursing the other in resolute stubbornness to heed way to the other vehicle. It struck me as a grand metaphor for much of the problems that we face in the world today. The drivers each clearly wanted to just arrive safely at their destinations yet their egos impeded a utilitarian solution that would allow for this to happen smoothly. They each had to maintain this big man dominator status and in turn each driver lost. It was easy for me to sit on the sidelines and see the absurdity of the situation, but how many times in my own life have I surrendered to passion and ego indulgence? It takes a real bodhisattva to turn the other cheek in the heat of the moment. Thanks to the chemical nature of our physiologies, when those fight hormones are dumped into the blood, reason and rational thinking are quite effectively mitigated against, and in a split second, actions can be carried out that under normal conditions are unthinkable.

Compounding the matter of ego is that I actually knew each driver to be from a different tribal background as the truck driver was my neighbor and native to northern Moçambique. I could imagine the taxi driver spewing all sorts of racial slurs and stereotypes in his ego driven attempt to assert himself. “I am a changana!, it is my right to drive here! I am from so and so clan, the first people! I am a Christian! Etc and so forth”… being his imaginary internal dialogue. The same for the driver of the truck, as his ego built up by years of cultural and religious conditioning asserted its false self-identity in the face of this challenge. “I am a Muslim! Allah made this street for true believers and the Macua clan to pass safely!… again more imaginary dialogue.  Of course these illusory false identities are concealing the brute fact that we are all human beings and that we all just want to be happy. We all want to be satisfied, however our current social organization mandates that we try to make ourselves happy by standing on each other’s shoulders and kicking each other’s teeth in. Our egos simply facilitate this societal organization by providing rationalizations for our actions built up by false identities and self-defined boundaries that isolate and alienate ourselves from achieving any peace of mind and sane civilization. Look at Israel and Palestine, those people are still killing themselves and each other for an insane culturally conditioned ideal. A problem in the world today is ego. There is just too damn much of it. But back to our story.

Finally, I heard the clunk of gears switching, as someone finally took a huge evolutionary leap and had the utilitarian idea to just reverse and get it over with. The egos had been dismantled! Or so it appeared, as simultaneously, both vehicles began to reverse direction, yielding the right of way to the other. “A giant step for mankind” I thought, now absolutely fully engaged in the drama unfolding in front of the house. However to my horror and disappointment, each driver, seeing the other begin to yield way, quickly switched tactics, and gears, and commenced to take advantage of the others good will. The taxi was thrown back into forward, tires spinning in the traction less sand, while the truck hastily resumed its reversal out of the driveway.

At this point I was in a state of emotional confusion. Insights into the ego and pondering the tragic comedy of mankind on the one hand, conflicting with my own self-admitted desire to vicariously see destruction! There was still hope of senseless violence as the drivers now desired to exploit the other, demonstrating that the ego had in fact not been vanquished. And so the cars lurched towards each other, in slow motion, only to reach less than a meter of separation before coming to an abrupt sand sliding halt into their prior gridlock position. I was foiled again.

At this point I became worried that this situation was going to escalate out of control. The egos were just too strong, the positions too far entrenched. I prepared for the worst, already mentally thinking how I was going to separate and calm two large, enraged black men trying to kill each other. The tension hung in the hot, stagnant, humid afternoon air. Not a papaya leaf moved, as each driver no doubt contemplated his next course of action. Then, as if it were his intention all along, the driver of the truck smiled and gave a friendly wave, before putting his vehicle in forward, entering back into the driveway and pulling out of the street. The driver of the taxi smiled, waved back and continued on in his intended forward direction until he slid out of sight behind the hedge. The truck reversed, entered the street and was gone. And just like that it was over. A situation that had built up over a period of minutes and appeared to be a freight train headed for brick wall at 100km/hr simply diffused itself in the span of 10 seconds.

Why? The minds, intentions and will behind the physical actions made a decision to diffuse. And so it was. We can drop our egos at any time, we can change our civilizations at any time, simply by changing our mind, we have that power once the power of the mind is recognized in its role in shaping reality.

My recipe for a human reality is this; take a raw and clean human mind directly from birth and begin to sprinkle with a dash of language, while constantly mixing in culture, tradition, habit and a variable ambient terrestrial environment. Throw in some genetically inherited physical realities complete with all of their bodily vicissitudes, strange secretions and fickle pains, while remembering to continuously keep mixing in culture and conditioning. Depending on what recipe book you use, and the local availability of your spiritual ingredients, put a dollop of religious or spiritual belief into the mix. Now set the whole conglomeration of humanness into the cultural incubator for about 17-21 years, constantly adding information about the world and personal experiences that will serve to leaven and form the growing mass. The cultural incubator, with its stratified levels, tightly regulated temperature and pressure controls, and well defined insulated boundaries serves to guard the gestating human spirit from existential angst and rampant questioning while at the same time inculcating the forming pupae with a value system that serves to maintain the security and promulgation of the incubator at all cost, even to the detriment of the individual. Depending on the unique composition of each human reality within the cultural incubator, at some point the human mass may achieve a terminal state in which the incubator can no longer provide the necessary nutrients for satisfaction and the amorphous mixture will forcefully explode from the ontologically secure, insulated cocoon of the incubator. In human culinary terminology this end state is called self-realization, which is an irreversible process. Once the mind, body, soul interphase of a human being has exploded from the boundaries of the cultural incubator it can never fully envelope itself back within the sedative, larval state of incubator being. Like caterpillars contemplating pupation, no longer satisfied to chew on the undersides of leaves, the humans emerge from the incubator in new form, seeking to establish a personal value system usually far different from the conditioned incubator reality. Although possibly physically appearing similar to the prior form, this new, self-realized form brings with it a universe of possibility, as the limitations and barriers put forth by the incubator have been dissolved. (Note from the chef: this process of self-realization could take anywhere from on average 16-86 years, with the very real possibility of the material body expiring before leaving the cultural incubator.)

This self-realized form of humanness has the possibility of shaping reality to conform to the will and intention of the mind, because this form fully realizes the power contained in the mental perspective. The simplest example of this power being “the glass is half full, or half empty” analogy. Obviously not a perfect form, the self-realized individual is not an omnipotent faultless being, but when mistakes are made and passions indulged, this form of humanity has the equanimity, patience and discipline to deal with situations in a manner much different from those human lumps still contained within the cultural incubator. This self-realized human form is the necessary ingredient in the larger recipe of planetary salvation, without which, will never occur, as the cultural incubators will eventually consume all available resources and leave an environment degraded and devoid of life sustaining diversity.

To return to where we began with this story, I was left standing on the veranda stunned. “Did that really just happen?” I asked myself. To this day I question myself about the events that unfolded that day. Did these men really have this flagrant outburst of ego, or was it a simple misunderstanding with neither one taking it personally nor really giving it any thought at all. Is it simply my own desire to sensationalize a rare and unusual Manjacaze traffic jam and bestow profound philosophical and metaphorical significance on an otherwise mundane event? I quote my favorite author Aldous Huxley as saying “a thrilling falsehood always trumps a mundane truth”. As I never talked to either driver about the occurrence, nor obviously did I hear the internal dialogue of each, I don’t think I will ever know the answer. But what I do know to be true is that this traffic jam inspired something inside of me. Something that needed to come out. So, reader I ask you, have you been inspired by a traffic jam lately?

Photos: Recent trip to the beach with some great South African visitors.


Mozambique #18 Agriculture seminar and other thoughts

My apologies for the long delay between entries. I have been occupied with work and travel, and doing a lot of reading rather than writing. Briefly I will talk about work.

Three weeks ago MOZaic hosted a week long agricultural seminar. Using our network of churches in rural Gaza and Inhambane we invited 45 people from rural communities and Manjacaze to stay at our conference center. Throughout the week we talked about conservation agriculture techniques, fruit crops, animals, bee keeping, perennials, simple technologies, food processing, seed selection, medicinal plants, nutrition, hygiene and composting. I taught many of the lessons and facilitated many of the sessions, which was a lot of fun, albeit a large responsibility.

The idea of these seminars is not only to teach people new things that they may not have known, but also to facilitate group conversation and exchange experience. There exists a huge amount of knowledge and experience within the group of farmers themselves, and we are looking to provide a venue in which that knowledge can be shared. It was a lot of fun to talk with the farmers and hear their stories. There is a lot of interesting experience and information out there amongst the farming populace. For example one man shared with the group his experience that when planting a coconut tree, if you sleep next to the coconut tree the day you plant it, it will begin to produce in 3 years. Coconuts usually take 10 years before they start producing coconuts. Do you think the scientific community would be interested in this anecdotal evidence? Can you imagine industrial coconut plantations all over the world now installing bunk beds in their fields to increase production?

At the end of the seminar we distributed seeds and cuttings of plants that we had talked about throughout the week. In sum, the seminar experience was loads of fun and I learned a lot about teaching and facilitating. The goal in the future is to have larger seminars, invite more people and especially invite other NGO’s and agricultural organizations to share the wealth of resources and plants that we have accumulated in Manjacaze. We have already been contacted by other organizations that want us to facilitate trainings and the potential for growth right now is tremendous. We will be visiting rural communities in the coming months and holding agriculture seminars in the field, working in farmers field’s directly as a follow up and extension to our work here in Manjacaze. Now its just a matte of seeing if the seminar attendees will actually apply the techniques they learned.

Outside of the seminars, after submitting a request to the local government, we were awarded a hectare of land outside the village to develop as a proper demonstration farm, where we will utilize all the best techniques of conservation agriculture and silviculture to show that with careful attention to the fertility of the land, a small piece of land can be extremely productive in a completely sustainable manner. In order to develop this land we submitted a grant request to the United Nations small grants program to build the infrastructure and hire an agriculture technician and laborers. There is a good chance we will get the grant, therefore development of this land will become priority.

In the business of changing minds and culturally instilled habits, I have learned that demonstrations are absolutely essential. If the subject of transformation cannot tangibly see the results of this risky business of change, they are obviously very reluctant to adopt new methods. Therefore before we can really influence people to change their techniques, we need to practice them on a large scale with carefully measured results. Talk is cheap, to demonstrate is a much more powerful means of communication.

In my daily experience I am constantly surprised by the resistance to change and close-mindedness when it comes to having new experiences. People will tell me how much they suffer or how poor they are, but when I give suggestions of behavior change or hint at an alternative solution it is usually met with skepticism and fear. Especially so if the solution requires effort. Its even more baffling to me as these suggestions can obviously help people! But something I am learning about culture and humanity is that absolutely nothing is obvious. I have always taken for granted the value of just a standard 12th grade western education, however in instilling basic principles of mathematics, biology, history and critical thinking skills it is very valuable. In speaking with and living amongst largely uneducated people (what we westerners would call education), some of the logic and reasoning that I have observed has just floored me.

For example, I told my 16 year old neighbors that I was going to be traveling to Maputo and I would be gone for a week. When I got back they said to me “Evan, we saw you traveling to Maputo!”. Very unlikely I thought, I was in a private car and we only stopped once, how is it that they saw me. They went on to explain, “we saw an airplane fly overhead and we know that white people only travel by airplane and so we knew that you were on the plane, how was your flight?” I explained to them the obvious fallacy in their reasoning and they were disappointed to learn that it wasn’t me they saw on the airplane. This leads me to the question, are the abilities of rationally and logically constructing arguments and formulating ideas about the world a culturally instilled phenomena? Are certain cultures better at critical thinking skills? I am starting to believe this may be the case. Nothing is obvious anymore.

When it comes to biological and ecological principles that we take for granted as obvious the assumptions and beliefs are even more illogical. Working in agriculture, which has its base in biological principles, people do things on a regular basis that are just unthinkable given a basic understanding of scientific principles. When I talk to people about agriculture, science or anything remotely technical I am never certain if they are understanding me in the way in which I intended. We speak a common language, but due to our educational and cultural backgrounds our contextual framework for this information is so drastically different that perhaps a lot of what I am saying is just words. A lot of my work related to teaching is figuring out the best way to explain technical information to a demographic that lacks the conceptual scientific framework to understand the information in the way that I understand it. I have developed a teaching style that uses a lot of visuals, games and audience participation, which I think is well tailored. Real understanding of a subject necessarily entails proper action, therefore when I visit someone’s home and they have mulched all their trees and are using sunken planting stations I know that my manner of teaching was effective. I also try to get as much feedback as possible. I am very curious how people understand information as I think their responses can ultimately help me in my presentations.

Through my experience of my own mind I am realizing how difficult it is to see the world free from cultural filters and expectations. The human mind seems to be a vacuum for culture. When one set of beliefs and culturally instilled habits leaves, they are filled in by the ambient culture, whatever that may be. To cure oneself from the sickness of culture one would have to live alone in some cave up on a mountain and limit contact with others, probably with lots of meditation and silence. For example, in the US I loved animals, dogs, cats whatever. Here, where animals are not respected and are marginally cared for simply because they have some utility such as guarding the house or eating the rats that live in the kitchen, I find myself also not noticing or paying attention to animals. Simpler things include hygiene and cleanliness habits. Most Mozambicans take at least 2-3 baths per day. When I first arrived I thought this was ridiculous. Now however I am not ashamed to admit that I also bathe frequently. If you are thinking of choosing a new culture to live in, my advice would be to choose carefully. It will get into you in ways that you simply cannot predict, for good or for bad.

I am also learning that much of our personal identities are derived from a cultural context. For example when I was living in the US I loved hiking, camping, mountain climbing, anything outdoors etc. These activities are simply not available in the same organized way due to a complete lack of recreational park infrastructure. Therefore I cannot be this “outdoorsman adventurer” that I may have identified myself as back home. The examples are numerous, as many of the things I used to do are simply not available. This has had the effect of stripping Evan down to the foundations of a core set of values, rather than identifying Evan as a set of actions in the world. I have been able to see what it is that I truly value, and how hard I am willing to work to maintain this set of values living in a cultural context that doesn’t support my beliefs, value systems or preferred hobbies. It has been interesting as well to discover the plasticity and resourcefulness of my own imagination in substituting the wide range of available hobbies and experiences available back in the American context. I have been living in Manjacaze now for 7 months, however it feels like I’ve learned 20 years’ worth of information and experience since first stepping foot in my empty reed house.

I am in the process of preparing a group of very short stories and funny occurrences that have happened to me recently. Hopefully it will be entertaining and shed some light on Mozambican culture.

Photos: The seminar group. A few PC volunteers came along with their Mozambican counterparts as well as  a JICA volunteer (the Japanese version of PC) who spoke about beekeeping.

We had carnival here in Manjacaze in which there was a live DJ downtown with a costume competition and wild dancing. Of course I participated, but it was a lot harder to hide my identity due to my slightly different skin color than everyone else. For two days after carnival my phone was ringing off the hook with text messages of people telling me they saw me dancing. Did I mention that inhibitions are seriously lowered when you dance with a disguise on?

The Kanna flowers that I planted are blooming right now. The women that live around me constantly commented to me with an air of skepticism and disdain, “why do you bother watering a plant that you cant eat?”, I responded by saying, “the body nourishes itself with food, the soul nourishes itself with beauty”. They now frequently stop by to appreciate the beautiful blooms.