Mozambique #21 Random anger and frustration at the world in general

What do I really want to do here in Moçambique? I want to make people think. I want to make people question the world around them. I want to force people out of their tiny cultural bubble in order to consider and experience novelty. When dealing with village people this is not a difficult task. The second objective of the Peace Corps program is to exchange culture and promote a better understanding of Americans. I take my job very seriously. The only problem is that I don’t identify myself as American. Yes I grew up under the influence of and am familiar with the American culture and value systems, but when asked where I come from I identify myself as a citizen of the world. This is a much more accurate statement.

Nationalism is a fools game. I didn’t choose to be born in the US, it just happened. Of course I am grateful for the opportunities that this chance occurrence has afforded me, but to say that I am proud of this fact doesn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t have any decisions in shaping the value systems or constructing the civilization that I was randomly born into. One can be grateful and appreciative of their cultural heritage, but pride is just inappropriate. Pride is what drives people to make idiotic statements such as saying that “the US is the best country in the world”. In what sense? In producing the most obese population in the world? Yes the US is the best. In producing the highest amount of climate change causing pollutants? Yes the US is the best.

Think about it, the average American is still in America, and doesn’t even have a passport to leave the country. The average American would NEVER come to Mozambique for a resort vacation let alone to live for 2 years. There is nothing average, nor very American about what I am doing here in Mozambique. I tell people that if they want to meet an American they have to go to America, because anyone who comes here is already out of the ordinary.

This past weekend I went to Xai Xai, the district capital of Gaza, to do some shopping and check out the big city life. There was a grand opening for a South African grocery store chain that was opening a new store. There was music, speakers, and a festive atmosphere as shoppers clogged the aisles of this first world novelty. Perhaps it is a testament to my new level of deconditioning, because when I entered this home depot like warehouse filled with modern day conveniences and grocery store amenities I actually felt fear and repulsion. I wandered down the aisles stocked with mass produced industrialized products, absolutely blown away by the amount of worthless shit that someone could buy if they so chose. Even more shocking was seeing the Mozambican’s reactions to this monstrosity of a store. They loved it. They lapped it all up; hook, line and sinker.

In the US there is absolutely no excuse for being an ignorant consumer. With the massive amount of information and exposure available about the environmental consequences of buying certain products or their detrimental health effects there is absolutely no excuse for bad health or environmental practices. If you choose to buy and drink 2 liters of coca cola a day YOU are guilty. If you choose to buy a meat product that was produced in a totally inhumane and environmentally polluting way YOU are guilty. The responsibility for ignorant consumerism in the developed world rests squarely on the shoulders of the consumers and the decisions they make.

Here in Mozambique, this is not exactly the case. The general level of exposure to ideas such as ecology, globalism, market economies, nutrition and health is at such a low level that people cannot be held entirely responsible for their culpabilities and vulnerabilities when it comes to advertising and consumerism. Walking down the aisles of this mega store, seeing the products that were being bought it became entirely clear to me just how entirely disordered human value systems can be under the pressure of corporate capitalism. Let me give an example.

In the jam-packed checkout lines I cruised by to see what Mozambicans were buying. To my horror I witnessed a man, maybe 30 years old, dirty, clothes ripped, no shoes, emanating an offensive stench, who was choosing to buy South African beer and 4 miniature plastic chairs for his children to sit in. Even the smallest of adults could not fit into one of these chairs. This was a man who by his appearance was very bad off. If you went to his house you would probably encounter no food, children running around everywhere, poor sanitation and hygiene practices and no mosquito netting. I say this out of experience of visiting homes of people who appeared like this man did. And so here he was, spending probably all the money he had to his name so his kids (who probably couldn’t have cared less) could sit on a worthless plastic piece of shit.

So I decided to investigate a bit, and asked the man why he was buying these chairs, which in relative terms were ridiculously expensive at 70 meticais each. (A 5kg sack of rice that could last a family a week costs 125 meticais) He explained that he wanted his neighbors to see his kids sitting on chairs instead of the ground which would show how well off this family really was. Thank you corporate capitalism for bringing an opportunity for this man to demonstrate his wealth in such a life enriching manner. The other shopping carts were no better off. Probably at least three quarters were filled with only the following products: white bread, soda products and this disgusting South African processed sausage meat. The fruit and vegetable section was pathetic; filled with hydroponically manufactured tomatoes that had the texture of a hockey puck, processed bagged produce that looked old and tasteless. I don’t need to go on, you in the developed world are probably used to this disgusting display of industrially produced vegetable produce and think its normal. The sad thing was that people were so happy to buy these products, just for the novelty and because they could save 1 metical per tomato. The woman selling tomatoes on the corner, who depended on those sales to feed her family was left with no clientele, where as the sales of this corporate giant went to enrich the pockets of some CEO in a far off land.

So in a world where there is a serious lack of exposure and education, who is responsible for this rampant ignorant consumerism. Are the Mozambicans to blame for their terrible choices in consumption, or is it the fault of the corporations who prey on a naïve and vulnerable populace? I think it’s a combination of both, with each side needing to take responsibility for better practices. In my opinion, corporate capitalistic values combined with an uneducated and market naïve population has the unfortunate consequence of producing the disgusting scene that I witnessed. As the developed world encroaches ever more on simpler peoples, I expect these situations and conflicts of values to arise ever more frequently. That is all for now.

Moçambique #20 Shorts

Here is a collection of random short stories and one liners from my daily life around Manjacaze. Some of this doesn’t translate directly and is much funnier and wittier in Portuguese, but we will do our best.

I have become good friends with the ladies who sell vegetables in the market. I know many of them by name and they all know me as “Brother Evan”. They are quite a fickle group and get very offended if I don’t stop by and say hello anytime I am in the market. There is no such thing as a quick trip to the market anymore. Just buying tomatoes involves greeting and chatting with at least 15 women. I occasionally see them around town outside of the market and have even visited some of their homes.

As I am sure nobody is surprised it turns out these sweet, innocent appearing market ladies actually love to talk about sex and gossip. As a man of marriageable age, it is assumed that I have a wife, or at least a girlfriend waiting for me at home. I constantly field questions about sexual practices in the US. On one occasion the women went around and said how many times per night they had sex with their husbands and for how long each session lasted. One woman said 3-4 times per night with an average of 15 minutes per. The next woman said one time lasting one minute. There was laughter and knee slapping all around. I felt bad for this woman who was embarrassed, so I suggested that I could arrange the husband of the first woman to come and teach her husband some techniques that might improve his performance. More laughter.

One woman from the market saw me chopping wood at my neighbor’s house. The next day she asked me “why do you like to chop wood like that? its hard work”. I responded: “you ladies know that I don’t have a girlfriend here in Manjacaze and that I have a lot of energy. So in order to diminish this energy and sleep well at night I like to do work.” The verb used for cutting wood is literally “to beat”, which is also slang to refer to sexual activity, not actually beating. I continued by saying “beating wood is the second best thing to beating a woman in the bed”. This received nods and affirmations all around, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world that a sexually frustrated young man would need to beat on some wood once in a while.

Between themselves the women are ruthless!

One woman said: “Brother Evan I don’t want to have any more children, what can I do?”

Another woman responded: “keep your legs closed you tramp!”

Obviously there was much laughter. I advised about condom use.

On one occasion while explaining my lack of marital commitment I translated and told them the phrase “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free”. After literally 20 minutes of explaining what this meant, a few women understood, others remained baffled by the metaphor. One woman looked at me and said suddenly, “wait, you mean in America people have sex with cows?” I just let it sit at that.

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One of my favorite activities to do here in Manjacaze is to help the women pound their corn for making porridge in a giant wooden mortar. (Always the woman’s job) Its fantastic exercise, you really have to pound this corn, so much so in fact that I would be willing to bet that the actual quantity of energy used to make the corn porridge is more than one would receive from eating a bowl. And so usually 3-4 times per week in the afternoon I schedule with a woman beforehand to go to her house and pound her corn for her. Four to five pm is standard corn pounding time, probably in all of Moçambique, where you can walk around the village and from all sides here the melodic “whomp, whomp, whomp” of wood pounding earth. The process is actually a bit more complex than just pounding, and involves several steps. First we pound the whole grains with a little bit of water to remove the tough outer kernel. This is my job. Then we take out the split grains and separate the kernels from the grains using a very shallow woven basket. This is the women’s job as its requires a lot of skill and practice to shake the basket in a such a way as to separate the particles without spilling. Then we put the kernels back in the mortar and pound them again. Afterward they go back into the basket where they are sorted again. The waste kernels are fed to the chickens and pigs and the edible grains are put in a pot with water to ferment for 2-3 days. After 3 days, after having softened, the split grain pieces are taken out and using a giant clay basin and wooden mallet, mashed into a paste. This process is fun and physical as well. Using a circular motion you rub the grains on the rough clay siding of the basin, effectively acting as a food processor and producing a thick corn paste. The paste is boiled with water to produce the corn porridge which is then eaten with any type of meat or leafy dish.

I love pounding the corn and making the porridge because each step requires some methodical, endlessly repetitive step in which it is very easy to enter into a meditative state and just work. I take out my frustrations and angst on that corn. Additionally I am spending at least 2 hours in some different woman’s home, talking with her, her neighbors, her kids, etc, just soaking up the ambiance of village life. I always ask the women “so is this the first time a white man has come to your house and pounded your corn for you?” It always is, and I am learning that the women are actually proud to have a visiting white man doing this. Such an honor this is in fact that their neighbors notice and want it too. I am now receiving invitations to go to women’s houses and perform my porridge making duties. I have literally had to turn women down because I already had someone planned for that day.

In conversation with my closest neighbors, where I started this tradition of pounding corn, it came out that I was visiting other houses to pound their corn too. Jealous looks all around and exclamations of surprise and deceit! I felt a twinge of guilt, as if I were an unfaithful adulterer sticking my pestle in any old mortar! But then I reminded them that I like to float like the wind and converse with everyone, and that my duty here is to exchange culture and experience, and that it wasn’t fair to expect me to only pound their corn. They agreed and my neighbor said “Evan, in Manjacaze you are just free to roam” (translated). Yup, it’s true; I have very little fear when it comes to talking to people or asking questions about culture. When I see something I’ve never seen before I just walk right in and start asking questions. Life is just more fun that way.

Whenever I am at these houses pounding corn I always insist that we name the mortar and the wooden pestle. I always insist that the mortar is a female and the pestle a male. The women usually ask why. “Think about it…” I say. They always get it. These things are just universal!

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While wandering around town, people often come up to me and walk with me, looking for a quick chat. The men and boys will usually greet me, taking my hand in a warm and firm handshake. But then something happens that I was totally unprepared for, but now have grown to like. Instead of releasing my hand as is customary in western style handshakes, the men perform a sliding maneuver, changing the positioning of the hand and letting the clasped hands fall, as in the style of a couple out for a stroll. Then we continue to walk together, holding hands. At first I was a bit uncomfortable with this tradition given my cultural conditioning. It just felt uncomfortable to hold hands with a strange man walking down the street. However with time comes habituation, and now I actually enjoy this mannerism. I ask people why they perform this shameless little act of affection, and most say that it is simply to demonstrate friendship and companionship.

So as we are strolling about town, hand in hand, I usually like to throw a bit of perspective into the conversation by telling the men what the hand holding practice signifies in American culture. They all look at me with intrigue, “yes, tell me!” maybe even giving an affirmative squeeze on our clasped hands. I respond, “Well my friend, if you see two men walking down the street holding hands in America, it usually means only one thing; they are gay.” The most common reaction is for the men to immediately drop my hand, usually with a look of surprise and disgust on their faces. I have been told multiple times here that homosexuality does not exist in Mozambique, it is not culturally acceptable. The men then emphatically defend their strictly platonic intentions while now maintaining a safe and secure distance. They want no confusion about their sexual orientations. I usually feel badly at this point to have burst their bubble on this innocent and actually enjoyable cultural practice of hand holding. So I retake their hand and we continue on to our respective destinations, like a couple out for a stroll.

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The first month I lived in Manjacaze my gut was still in a state of shock with the new bacteria living in the water and just exposure to foreign bacteria and foods in general. Needless to say I was a bit more flatulent than usual. One day I was walking around, tooting away freely in the fresh open air of the streets when I came across a large group of young kids, maybe age 6-13 walking back from school. Being a new white man in town they all just stopped to gawk at me. I felt a rumble in my gut and thought about performing a suppression maneuver as I did not want to scare these poor children. However in a brief moment of clarity I had a great idea! I quickly glanced around to make sure there were no adults in sight, which there weren’t. I turned to the group of children and whispered “Escuta!!” (“Listen!!”)…. they all leaned in with ears attuned, seeking something, anything that might make a sound worthy of the white man ordering them to listen. At that very moment I relaxed my grip on that uncomfortable pressure built up within my bowels. Like the sound made by crumpling a cellophane wrapper, the sound ripped through the silent still air, lasting at least 3 noxious seconds. If I had a picture of the look on these children’s’ faces it would be cover story of National Geographic, hands down. Shock, disgust, humor, all emotions were present. They all exploded with laughter, rolling on the ground, mimicking the sounds, just loving it! I laughed with them, and just kept walking. Apparently a bit of scatology is one the those universal human comedies.

To this very day, whenever I see any of the kids that were in that initial group they scream at me “escuta!!” followed by quite accurate imitations of those corporeal tones. I can only imagine what they went home and told their parents and siblings that fateful day.

This story does actually have consequences however. About a month after, I was walking around town with one of the government administrators who I had met in his office when first arriving in Manjacaze. Of course fate would have it that this day we ran across the group of younglings as they returned from school. “Escuta”!!  rung out followed by the obligatory lewd mouth noises. The startled administrator looked at me and asked me why these children were performing this silly little game that seemed to be directed at me. “I haven’t the faintest idea Sir” I quickly responded, “come quickly, let’s go down this other road over here….”.

Many more little blurbs to come.

Photos: Fun with some of the market ladies.

Roasting cashew nuts with my favorite woman in Manjacaze. This woman never stops smiling. She is like my mom here and we have a real relationship, she scolds me and makes me wash my hands again, just like a real mom. I love her.

I went to a Muslim Mozambican party which included some dirty dancing by the women, seriously they were getting down. The ducks saw this and were performing their own little dance. I think theirs was for real though.