So, Tall, Dark Handsome (TDH) just left after a whirlwind 36 hours in Beira. He took a bus and hitchhiked across Zambia and Mozambique to get here. We spent yesterday at the beach and this morning walked to the airport so he could fly on to the next stop. He’s got a bit of vacation time before wrapping up his work in Lusaka.
The beach was perfect. The water was probably 80 degrees and it was maybe 75 degrees in the shade. We spent a couple hours lounging on towels talking about our respective health projects. I didn’t realize how much this last week was eating at me until we started talking. He’s got many months of frustration under his belt and gave me a great perspective: it’s easy to let this kill you. It is much harder and more rewarding to find the joy in life when death is around every corner. He said he loves the way the Africans deal with the tragedies in their lives — it is always okay to move forward, find your happiness and celebrate it while you have it in hand. If anything, he said living here has taught him to appreciate living in the moment.
We walked to a beachside cafe and split a bottle of wine and a grilled fish. A mosque nearby was just finishing services and we watched humorously a few of the men trickled into the bar to have a beer afterward, trying to be as discrete as a Muslim in a bar on the beach can be. Ice cream vendors across the street pushed their small insulated carts, ringing the bell at every pedestrian. Fishermen in the sea wiggled large bed nets, catching tiny shrimp and fish to later sell in the market. We enjoyed every drop of tropical sun and cool breeze knowing we’ll both be back in the Arizona heat before we know it.
Several hours later we took a minibus back to the volunteer house and ended up eating fried chicken, brownies and ice cream for dessert and watching “Nacho Libre” with the other Americans. It was a strangely familiar way to end an otherwise perfect African day.
Walking home from the airport today, I realized how conflicted I was to see him leave. I am sad because I have so few friends who want to talk about Africa, health, faith. Then again, I hadn’t expected to see him at all. And so, I will celebrate the happiness while I have it.
I have this cadre of sweet, smart, good looking men in my life who are all simply my friends. At times it is confusing, but I’d rather have their friendships than avoid them all together. I learn from each of them (and often something annoying about myself too), including TDH and Salty Senor, that the occasional nervous flutter is manageable. I still think it is better to put yourself out there and be willing to love no matter how silly the circumstances than remain safely on the sidewalk, emotionless.
There are distinct scents to this part of southern Africa. It’s smoky — most of the trash is burned. It’s sweet — the tropical trees are heavy with papaya, banana and oranges this time of year. It’s savory — dried fish is a staple to the diet. It’s earthy. The people smell like they live — a life of hard work, sweating in the sun, living near a wide sandy beach in the salty air, bathing occasionally when the bucket from the well is full and nearby.
Last night a child stayed with us at our guest house. Among the dozen American volunteers, this 14-year-old girl has found a team of friends. One of the organizers of our group took to this girl — Amelia– several years ago and ever since she has been a staple of the volunteer house. This morning when I woke up in my bunk bed, I forgot that she was sleeping on the couch nearby. I clicked on my headlamp and rolled over to read for an hour. (Silence is precious here. Living with a dozen people leaves me craving for alone time.) I was five minutes into my book when I felt the mosquito netting being lifted and suddenly Amelia was climbing into bed with me.
I scooted over and greeted her in my basic Portuguese. She gave me a big hug and tried to read the words on my page, occasionally finding one she recognized.
I nodded and smiled. She kept trying to hug me. I laid there with her, our arms entangled and thought about how nice it was to have this child with me. She talked quietly and from what I could gather, she babbled about perfume, new underwear and school. I thought about who I was at 14. I probably wanted perfume, new underwear and to be popular at school too. But would I have been able to care for my little brother at that age? Do we know what we are capable of? At 14 I was very naive. I still loved playing with toys and remember taking troll dolls and gummy worms with me to Mexico when I was this age.
Amelia doesn’t have dolls — she has actual children she is caring for.
When we crawled out of bed, I realized there was still at least an hour before anyone else would get up. I went through my backpack and found red nail polish. Amelia and I sat at the kitchen table. She smiled wildly as I painted her fingernails.
I suppose there are certain universal truths to being a teenage girl. You want security. You want to feel pretty. You want to be smart and well-taken care of. You want to be loved. This teenage girl wants to be able to take care of her siblings. And I even managed to find her some new underwear and a half-full bottle of Dove body spray that made her jump up and down in delight. If only all of her wishes were so easily granted.
I wish for her to stay in school, be able to keep the boys away, go to church and be the recipient of a fabulous stroke of luck that keeps her from sickness and further sorrow as an orphan raising a family. If good fortune had a scent in Mozambique, I’d say it would be clean and smart — a combination of bleach and that musty smell that rises from old library books when you crack one open. For today, body spray will have to do.
Three orphanages and two days and I am spiritually spent. Thank you for your kind comments on the last post. My Internet time is fairly limited while I am here but I can’t tell you how much your comments cheer me on. Thank you.
Today we traveled to Dondo to work at an orphanage. We painted the exterior and spent several hours playing with the kids. Although there were activities planned for the kids, it was quickly apparent they’d rather just crawl on our laps and be held. So, I spent three hours under a tree holding a couple kids. They were 4-10 years old and simply wanted to have their heads against my chest. It was hard to hold back my tears for the trip home. I sat there, in the shade of a mango tree, playing with their ears, telling them stories in English they couldn’t understand, singing them songs from my childhood and trying my best to remember that just being there, playing with them, was enough.
Tonight we went to the baby orphanage in town to help feed the little ones. I recognize many of the children from last year, which doesn’t make working with them any easier. They are the sweetest kids and I wish more for them. There is no international adoption and adoption isn’t really part of the culture here either. Again, there are lots of cultural mazes that can leave you lost when trying to find an answer for some of these social issues. Instead, I found myself in the infant room, playing with a dozen babies less than a year old and singing “Jesus Loves You” to them. I don’t know why that song, but it seemed right. I sang, they smiled, and eventually I got them to sleep in their cribs.
There are few experiences in life that leave you feeling like you have nothing and everything in the same breath. I don’t have the solutions for the problems that keep Mozambique’s orphanages teaming with the sweetest, kindest souls you can imagine. And yet, seeing them and imagining their futures, I can’t help but feel like I have it all. I am incredibly blessed and am so thankful for my family. I only wish they were here to experience this with me.
I am back in Mozambique, working at our health project and adjusting from the life of a spoiled expat to a quickly overwhelmed NGO worker. Today I started out in Mbatwe, a small village of mud huts built near the airport in Beira. We have had an on-going health project in this community for three years. We have more than 1,000 families participating in our HIV, cholera and malaria programs. They are wrapped into other social development projects too. The idea is after four years, participants will have improved health, housing, job training, education and well-being. The theory is that you use these public health models in communities that are hungry for change. It takes a village, so the story goes. In this village, we see progress in some areas (less standing water, better wells, more kids in school, more people being tested and treated for HIV) and then we have days like today.
I walked with two of our health leaders to do house visits with some of our families who have been struggling with health issues. I made it to three huts before I thought I was either going to quit and immediately go back home, or just sit down and sob. In each of the first three homes there was a child at the edge of death from malnutrition. In each of these homes, the child also had other complications — TB, HIV, orphan status, etc. And in each of these homes, the child’s caretaker knew how to reach out for help, where the feeding centers are located, how to get the dying baby into the hands of a health official and yet did nothing. If anything, they were angry (and perhaps shamed) that we showed up today to ask a few questions about the status of their family’s health. They are voluntarily participating in our project. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be stopping by. Each of these women presented a lengthy list of daily challenges that kept the baby’s health from being a higher priority. By the end of the third conversation, I felt my neck turning red in a flush of anger. Enough. I couldn’t hear another excuse.
I couldn’t be culturally competent or kind or compassionate or understanding that life is seemingly values life differently, and one more child dying isn’t that big of a deal. It is a big deal. They are a big deal to me — this bleeding heart liberal still thinks perhaps I’ll do something to make this country’s health a touch better.
And so I grabbed the third woman (the grandmother) and peppered her with a slew of questions before I put her two-year-old on my hip (suffering from malnutrition and a worm disease) and asked her to take her one-year-old (malnourished, HIV-positive) and said we were going to the clinic this very moment. These kids weren’t dying on my watch. I can’t be there everyday to guide decisions but I was not — absolutely not — walking away from this family. With a child bouncing from hip to hip, I walked behind this grannie (who managed to walk much faster than I could with a cloth wrapped around her waist, plastic flip flops on her feet and the sick baby on her back) for several miles before we reached the clinic. I sat with her at the malnutrition clinic, kept the kids entertained and soothed with hard-boiled eggs, oranges and bananas I bought from a roadside stand, and tried my hardest to keep my cool. The grannie spoke very little Portuguese, a language I have very little understanding of myself. Needless to say, my Msena isn’t so great either. But with my insistence and a bit of money, we got those kids into see a doctor. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I know I didn’t solve any problem long-term by putting my cultural competency aside and demanding we care for these kids today, but I can’t help but home for some change. Maybe another woman in the village saw us marching out toward the clinic. Maybe the two-year-old will fight on and survive and become a great leader for Mozambique. Maybe.
I’ve just spent two days in the Luwonde National Reserve, just south of Lake Malawi. We slept in safari tents and had hippo, elephant and monkeys in the camp. It was unbelievable. Those jungle soundtracks they sell for soothing listening are a bunch of bananas. Unless you hear your own heartbeat pounding in your ears, sweat trickling down your brow, and your knees knocking together in sheer fright, you don’t hear the sound of the jungle when an elephant the size of a mid-sized car comes dancing through your camp at 3 am, eating his weight in leaves along the way.
It was thrilling in every sense. I got some excellent photos, especially when we took a boat out on the Shire River yesterday to get a better view of the hippos. In two days we saw gobs of elephant, hippo, crocs, warthogs (with their little tails straight in the air), baboons, tons of springbok and waterbuck, birds galore — including the beautiful blue-faced guinea fowl, and did I mention the elephant? In a forest of eucalyptus (gum trees) and baobab giants that look like tubers planted upside down, these animals graze and howl and fight and mate. We were there to see more than enough.
Wowie — I am loving Malawi! Tomorrow we leave for Mozambique and the trek by car. It should be an adventure and I am very excited to see northern Moz. I’ll be able to say I’ve seen a good portion of both countries by this time next week.
I am off to the “cow camp” for the rest of the week and reporting in to Beira for work on Monday. I’ll more than likely have Internet then, but not sooner. Hope all is well in your corner of the jungle.
I am stealing two minutes of Internet time at the Lujeri Tea Estate in southern Malawi to check in; this is my favorite African visit by far. I cannot believe how gorgeous the landscape is. The estate is a fabulous mix of Hawaii’s tropical splendor and Ireland’s myriad of green. It is otherworldly.
I am staying in a colonial guesthouse and being waited on hand and foot — this makes me uncomfortable on many levels. And yet, I’ve been exhausted and it has been so nice to have someone turn down my bed, make my breakfast, help start a fire in the guest house each night. I start each morning with a long hike through the tea plantation, along a raging river. In the distance, waterfalls cascade off of Mount Mulanji — the peak is hidden by clouds. I am bruised from pinching myself. I cannot believe I am here.
Malawi was a British colony and the workers speak rolling English. They pepper their vocab with the local dialect. The food is a great mix of European and African staples too. We’ve had beans, plantains, rice, grilled meats, fresh bread, tropical fruit and some sort of English cake for dinner each night. I have had more tea in the last few days than my entire life, topped with milk from the estate cows. Thankfully I am just starting to feel right after three days of a sick stomach. I think the continent hopping caught up with me. Last night I slept well and the exercise and healthy, fresh food is helping get me on track.
Monday we leave for a visit to a game reserve where our group has a canoe trip booked. Apparently we are set to see elephants and hippos. I will be in Mozambique the following week and am looking forward to working too, although this vacation could happily last forever. Zimbabwe isn’t in the cards after all for this trip; the elections next week have everyone in this region on edge and many from Zim are in Malawi and Bostwana to get away. Swinging through Harare just to see it isn’t a wise move considering the unrest.
If you get the chance to visit Malawi for whatever reason, jump on it. The luxury, comfort, safety, natural beauty, kindness of the people is simply incredible. I am so lucky to have been invited along with this group for this adventure; I only wish my parents and brother were here to enjoy it with me. I know my dad and brother would love the outdoors and my mom and I could spend days with the ladies in the village watching them weave baskets, cook, and care for their community. I have to get my family here one day.
I’ll post photos soon. Hope you are all well!
Griselda, my godson’s mother, invited our her home for lunch on our last day in Jinotega. She made an amazing pot of chicken soup with countless vegetables. Here she stokes the fire to get the soup boiling.
Back in the kitchen, she and one of her girlfriends make chicken meatballs to add to the pot.
Truly the best soup I’d ever eaten. I was hungry and it was so filling.
She also served boiled taro root, which I hadn’t eaten since Africa. It is chalky but good.
And these boiled plantains were sweet and perfect naturally — like a yam.
In a non-traditional moment, we hit a great pizzeria in Granada for lunch yesterday. After a week of rice, beans, chicken and more rice and beans (called pinto gallo in Nicaragua), thin-crust pizza, bruschetta and fruity cocktails were heaven.
The cathedral in Jinotega.
One of many statues inside the churches we visited. These buildings are remnants of Spanish colonization and are silent sanctuaries in the otherwise noisy cities across the country.
The cathedral from the view of the wildly colorful cemetery.
A typical Nicaraguan rural kitchen. The wood burning stove reminds me that nothing is easy or simple for Nicaraguan women.
Amazing how orderly and clean this kitchen is considering the animals roaming just outside and the dirt floor. And yet, everything had its place.
Sewing in rural Nicaragua.
Laundry in rural Nicaragua.
A farming cooperative in rural Nic that is supported in part by USAID.
The national cathedral in Managua — this was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1970s and now serves as a totally inappropriate place for President Ortega’s advertising.
Man begging outside of the central cathedral in Granada. (Yes, I did feel like I was on a church tour, but really — they are the most impressive buildings in each city. Thank you, conquistadores.)
Air conditioning in church. I’m thinking the heat of hell is a pretty appropriate theme.
Scene from the central square in Granada.
Nothing says humid fun like a carriage ride, right? Or — you could just sit on the steps, sip a cool Coke from an icy bottle and take photos of the suckers who agree to such rides.
This sweet woman was one of many dazed hens at the central hospital in Jinotega. She’d just given birth to twin girls. Most of the women in the cramped postpartum room had delivered twins. Women typically deliver at home with a midwife. Our midwives are trained to send breach and multiple birth pregnancies to the hospital to hopefully ensure safe delivery for both mother and child(ren). She was touched by the gift of a Peace t-shirt for each sweet girl and I had some knit beanies from a church group too. I took Polaroids of each mother with their new babies and they were so happy to have a bit of company in the otherwise stark, hot room.
One of many sweet children in a village where we worked.
Speaking of, how cute is this girl? Her little German dress had me confused, but we bonded over a break in the cool shade and a pack of gum I found in my backpack.
The sweet girl’s mom and grandma.
We also have a volunteer dental program we support. We took lots of toothbrushes and other supplies to be distributed. Unfortunately most of the work is extractions because people don’t see dentists unless they are in lots of pain.
She had two teeth extracted. One man had seven teeth removed. Ouch.
My godson, Victor Abel. Now that he is 5, he understands that when his Madrina comes to town, it means presents. He was very happy to have crayons and new clothes. I have a Santa Claus patina to my godmothership because I’m never there and when I do swing through town, my bags are laden with gifts for him and his siblings.
But seriously, how cute is he? Obviously, he gets his great fashion sense from his fairy American godmother.
This is what a home looks like after we’ve finished a roof. These homes cost our organization $3,000 each — much more now that gas prices have risen. Many of the materials are transported from the capital. To qualify for one of these homes, the family must have 5 or more people, be willing to work a set number of hours on the house and other homes in the community, place the title in the woman’s name (to prevent the home from being sold by the husband) and they must make a small financial contribution. Keeping this house in mind, we helped put a tile roof on a home just down the hill.
The tiles, pre-painting.
The roofing, pre-tiles. Our volunteer welder puts up the rebar that will hold each of the tiles.
Our volunteers painting the tiles (gasoline, just out of the photo.)
Juan, the owner of this home. He and his wife will move out of his parent’s home next door once his home is completed.
Handing the tiles up, one by one.
You wouldn’t guess that process would take several days, but my goodness work takes a long time in the humid heat. A few other work-shots:
Digging ditches for a water project. This project runs PVC pipes from a central well to more than 60 homes. Each family pays $2 a month to help maintain the well pump. They also much put in a certain amount of time in the project, digging ditches and setting the lines.
The cutest laborer, by far.