Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

Buying Beans May 31, 2008

Filed under: Pictures,Uncategorized — Jen @ 12:16 am

Here’s what it takes to buy a can of black beans from the pink supermarket near my office:

1. Hand plastic bags that I’m carrying from other-supermarket-that-didn’t-have-black-beans to the doorman who puts them in a numbered cubby hole then hands me a little piece of cardboard with the same number.

2. Visually find beans on shelf behind counter and ask shopkeeper for it. Note: This step can often take a very long time when there are many people in the shop. Today there were few, so I was attended to somewhat immediately.

3. Take beans to cashier who handwrites a receipt.  Pay this same person.

4. Take beans plus receipt to another table near the door where one man collects the receipt and another puts beans in a plastic bag.

5. Wait for doorman who is now busy with receipt guy counting something.

6. Hand cardboard number to plastic bag guy who realizes I’m waiting and gives me my other bags from the cubby hole.


The Beauty Is Only Batik-Deep May 28, 2008

Filed under: Pictures,Uncategorized — Jen @ 5:05 pm

I have this large batik hanging on my living room wall which I’ve loved because of the craftsmanship, beauty, and colors. However, recently I’ve started disliking what it represents. It started with a conversation I had last week with my conversation partner.

For the past few weeks, Sonia and I have been discussing “assigned” topics each week. Last week our topic was Mozambican Women. She started the discussion by telling me about the neck problems she had been experiencing since the weekend because she had carried large, 40kg (88lb) containers of flour on her head. It is a common sight to see women carrying capulana-wrapped bundles or large plastic containers on their heads. I know they’re heavy because when a woman gets off a chapa the cobredor (doorman), sometimes with the help of another person, must hoist a container onto her head. A woman can’t lift it up alone. Imagine a container two or more feet in diameter and a foot and half deep filled with fish or tomatoes. Or imagine a 25kg (55lb) sack of flour or potatoes. Now imagine those on your head. I’m always very impressed with these women. I experience shoulder and neck problems from carrying my heavy laptop for too long. But honestly I just assumed that because women here have grown up carrying heavy objects on their heads, they must have super-strong neck and back muscles. (And they all have excellent posture!)

However, Sonia described to me the neck and back problems so many women experience. She admitted that she was in pain because she’s not used to carrying such heavy weight on her head, but even women who do it regularly can experience a great deal of pain. I asked her why she did it alone, and she said there was no one else to help her, only young kids were at her house. And how else was she going to get the flour home? This is life without a car or cart or bicycle. It’s also life in a society where men do very little physical labor.

The life of a man, it seems, especially in the districts (rural areas) is to eat and procreate. A district man may have as many as six, seven, or eight wives. Sonia’s father, who was a well-known curandeiro (witchdoctor) in Beira, unusually (for the city) had 12 wives and 59 children.

The daily life of a woman is to walk to the fields (sometimes a couple hours), work there for the majority of the day, then walk home, prepare dinner for her husband and children (over a coal fire), and clean the house. It is her responsibility to harvest crops and carry them home or into town to sell, hence the bundles on heads. I’ve seen women with a load on their heads, a baby strapped to their backs, plus carrying other things in their arms. I rarely see men carry anything heavy.

So back to my batik. As Sonia and I were discussing the life of a Mozambican woman, especially district women, she pointed to my batik and said that it shows district life. It was then that I noticed the women outnumber the men – not unusual if a man has multiple wives. She pointed to the huts and explained how a man will build a hut for each of his wives and their respective children, and he has his own hut in the middle. The wives take turns visiting him on different nights. I also noticed in the batik that all the women standing have bundles on their heads. None of the men are carrying anything. Plus, the two women who are not standing are kneeling on the ground in front of a man on a stool. Kneeling before a man is a sign of respect in Mozambique, although not in the cities anymore.

Now I have mixed feelings about my batik. What I used to admire as a beautiful depiction of rural Mozambican life is now leaving me angry and sad about the lives of Mozambican women.


Lost in Translation May 27, 2008

Filed under: Language,Uncategorized — Jen @ 9:48 pm

Of course preaching on Sunday could not go as planned. (I’ve been in Mozambique long enough to know that.) I arrived at the church early and was surprised when the service started with Jorge absent. He is usually punctual, and I worried that I had misunderstood where we were supposed to meet. When he finally arrived fifteen minutes into the worship time, he told me that my translator, who had confirmed the night before, had not shown up and was not answering his phone. Somehow that didn’t surprise me. Not because it’s like the translator to do that, but because this is Mozambique. Then Jorge said, “But you can do it in Portuguese.” Realizing six days earlier that it would have been more effort than it was worth to plan a sermon in Portuguese, I had told him early in the week that I’d be willing to preach if there was a translator. Had I known there might not be a translator, I would have put in the effort to plan at least a short, simple message in Portuguese! He tried to convince me I really could do it in Portuguese. I looked over my notes. No, I really couldn’t translate myself. He talked to the pastor’s wife who then came over and tried to convince me herself that I could do it in Portuguese. I calmly said, “I can converse in Portuguese, but I can’t preach in Portuguese.” But inside I was screaming, “Stop making me feel guilty for not being able to preach in Portuguese this morning! You promised me a translator! Why don’t you preach?”

While everyone else was singing, I looked over my notes to see what I feasibly could do in Portuguese. I finally decided that, with Jorge’s help, I could lead a Bible study discussion instead on the same passage. Thankfully before I announced that, Jorge, who had been outside talking to the pastor’s wife, returned to tell me that she was going out to bring a translator for me.

About half an hour later, after much lively singing and dancing, I looked up to see a Brazilian missionary friend of mine walking in the door. He had an amused look on his face that said: This better be good!

Indeed it was. Once he was there, the preaching went smoothly. I definitely am not a Mozambican preacher. I never shout, never utter an Hallelujah or Amen, and actually use notes. But I taught a song which included wiggling down to the floor and jumping up again, I had people standing then sitting during the message, and only one person fell asleep. Plus, people thanked me at the end and even invited me back.

Later that day I was sharing my experience with a Swedish missionary friend. He told me how he was preaching once in Portuguese, which was then being translated into the local dialect. He decided to be funny at one point and switched into Swedish for a sentence. And the translator, without skipping a beat, continued to translate into the dialect! At least with English to Portuguese, I know if it’s my words that are being communicated.


For Everything Else There’s…Cold, Hard Cash and a Whole Lotta Hassle

Filed under: Immigration — Jen @ 12:05 pm

Original visa to enter Mozambique: $60

Four visa extensions: approximately $170

Two criminal background checks: approximately $40

Translations of two criminal background checks into Portuguese: $40

Plane ticket to Maputo to visit the embassy to sort out problems with criminal background checks: approximately $200

Fingerprints: $80

US consul letter concerning criminal background check: $30

Translation of US consul letter into Portuguese: $25

Reassurance that I can stay in Mozambique for another three months: Priceless?


Three months have passed. I still don’t have a work permit, which means I still don’t have my residence visa, which means I paid Immigration more visits yesterday and today to extend my “precarious residence visa” (yes, it’s really called that – I am a precarious resident).


A Little Rat Incident May 26, 2008

Filed under: Rats — Jen @ 10:42 am

I had a little rat incident the other night. It could have been a big and rather devastating rat incident except for two things: 1) I was up late that night to notice it, and 2) I’m braver than I used to be.

We have not experienced any rat problems for awhile. Probably a couple months. We found the hole the rats had been coming in previously and blocked it up. I have truly given no thought to rats in ages.

On Friday evening my conversation partner came by to drop off a cake that she had made for the celebration lunch I was hosting for my team on Saturday. The cake was beautifully decorated on a foil-wrapped board. A foil-wrapped board which was too big to fit in the refrigerator. Worried about ants getting into it on the counter, we placed it on top of the fridge and put a plastic washbin over it. Sonia told me to put something heavy on top of that but then asked, “But do you still have rats?” I told her not anymore, so we decided I didn’t need to put something heavy after all.

Later on that night, I was going into the bathroom and thought I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a rat run past my foot in the hallway. But it was so quiet, and I hadn’t seen it clearly enough, so I decided it must have just been a shadow and that I was just paranoid about something happening to the cake. After all, we hadn’t had rats in weeks and weeks, so why would one happen to show up the one night that Sonia had asked about rats?

I putzed around getting ready for bed and didn’t actually get in bed till much later than I had planned. As I was settling in, I heard a plastic bag rustling in the kitchen, which I wouldn’t have heard had I already been asleep. Uh-UH!, I thought. I listened some more and then was convinced it was a rat in there. It was in the trash, but I knew once it had thoroughly gone through that, it would next be up on the fridge. (Have I mentioned that I just watched Ratatouille for the first time last week? I still don’t like rats, especially ones that have parties in my garbage and use my cupboards as toilets, and especially when my housemate is gone, and I have to deal with it myself.)

I made as much noise as I could heading into the kitchen. The problem is, if I startled it too much, it would come running out of the kitchen door that I was heading into. I am braver now than I was a few months ago, but not brave enough to handle a rat running over my bare feet. I managed to get into the kitchen with no incident, banging cupboard doors with a mop. I realized the rat was cowering under the oven, so I banged on that a couple times then watched it race across the floor, behind the fridge and then out the kitchen door. Because I’ve frightened a rat before from behind the fridge, I knew it was running down the hallway, into the guestroom, and out the hole in the broken AC (assuming it had unblocked the hole from before). I closed the kitchen door, set a glue trap outside, and went to bed.

Sadly no rat in the glue trap in the morning, although I’m still not sure I’m brave enough to dispose of a squirming, squeaking rat stuck to cardboard. And sure enough, the hole in the AC was unblocked. That is now blocked again, hopefully more secure than before.

And the cake was just fine. No ants, no rat nibbles.


To Be Uneducated

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 10:39 am

What does it mean to be uneducated? Does it mean to not have a certain level of formal education? I, like other development workers, am quick to say that Mozambicans are uneducated. It’s true that the majority of the population has less than a grade 8 level of education, and even up to that point, what they have received is very poor quality. But one thing I have noticed in Beira is that people read the newspaper. Every morning I see street vendors selling newspapers and often see people standing on sidewalks in the morning with the paper open. We receive Diario de Moçambique in the office, and the majority of our staff reads it by the end of the day. Let me contrast that with a conversation I had at a meeting with some American and European missionaries the other night.

There were four of us sitting around my dining room table planning a special prayer service for the English fellowship for June 8’s International Weekend of Prayer for Needy Children. We were coming up with prayer points for different topics, and I said, “We can pray for all the Zimbabweans in Moz, but we should also definitely be praying for the situation in South Africa.” I expected enthusiastic agreement as it’s so close to home and fit perfectly in the service. Instead I got three blank looks and finally someone said, “What’s happening in South Africa?”

For those of you reading this who are also now looking at the screen blankly and asking the same question, I will give you a little slack since I’m not sure American news, especially during election campaign time, is reporting on the situation there. (Of course I know I have other readers outside the US, but I think the majority are in the US.) A couple weeks ago violence erupted in some of the townships around Johannesburg as South Africans began rioting and attacking foreigners, mainly Zimbabweans who have sought refuge in South Africa from their own political violence in Zimbabwe (and if you don’t know what’s going on in Zimbabwe, shame on you). In these days of violence, at least 50 people had been killed and 25,000 people fled. When Zimbabweans first started migrating to South Africa, they were welcomed with open arms; however, township South Africans are now blaming them for unemployment, accusing foreigners of taking jobs and fuelling crime.

Because Mozambique is so connected to South Africa, it was truly appalling to me that these women, these educated women with radios, internet, and satellite TV, knew nothing of the situation! I must admit, I often miss the news because I don’t have a radio or TV and rarely read the newspaper, but I do have my internet homepage set to, and BBC always has good coverage of Africa. However, I also know what’s happening in South Africa because people in my office and in churches are talking about it. Mozambicans know about it because they have friends and family in South Africa and read the newspaper and discuss current events on chapas. For instance, in church yesterday morning when we had a time of intercessory prayer (which really means everyone just starts shouting at God at the same time), the women on either side of me were praying about South Africa.

We can sometimes learn a lot from “uneducated” people.


Tall and Skinny May 22, 2008

Filed under: Language — Jen @ 2:48 pm

What physical characteristics do Americans usually use to describe other people? For example, recently I was meeting a former Peace Corps volunteer at a local café and sent her a text saying I had blond hair and glasses. That’s enough here to describe myself to another expat. I might have added that I have long blond hair.

When I first arrived in Beira, I found myself using hair characteristics to describe people. Of course I can’t use hair color because everyone has the same hair color, but I would say something like, “Oh that girl with long fine braids?” I soon realized that that meant nothing because hairstyles change so frequently. That same girl might, the next day, have her braids out and have short frizzy hair.

In the absence of being able to use hair color or length or even height since I find Mozambicans are all pretty much the same size (with the occasional really short or really tall guy), other descriptions are used. I discussed this with a missionary family who I had dinner with the other night. They have a 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. I know the daughter from teaching Sunday school but hadn’t really spent any time with the son. During dinner he said to his sister, “You’re right. Tall and skinny.” Their mom said, “They’re referring to you. Katie described you to Peter since he couldn’t picture who was coming to dinner.” I said, “Wow, you think I’m tall? Thanks!” “Yeah but,” their mom said, “Remember that Katie’s short.” Then Peter said, “But I pictured you with a long rectangular face, but you actually have an oval face.” I don’t think I’ve ever been described in such detail before. My hair color didn’t factor in at all. Even though these kids are American, they’ve grown up in other cultures and have learned to distinguish other characteristics.

“Skinny” and “fat” are perfectly acceptable descriptors here. I mean perfectly acceptable to describe to the person’s face. I once had an amusing conversation with my former Portuguese tutor about cultural differences in usage of the word “fat” since we have a mutual friend at Oasis who is known as João Gordo (Fat John) to distinguish him from the other João on our staff. (Note: By American standards João Gordo is not the least bit fat, but by comparison to all the skinny guys around here, I can see why they call him that.) I explained that in my country you would never call someone fat. He said, “But what if they are fat?” I said, “Even if they weigh 300 pounds, you would never say that.” That made absolutely no sense to him. If someone’s fat, you call them fat. If someone’s skinny, you call them skinny.

It’s interesting and sometimes challenging to look at people in a different way. How would you describe your friends or family if you couldn’t mention hair color, length or style but felt free to use “skinny” or “fat” or “short” or any other descriptive word that we shy away from for fear of offending?