Bird on a Bare Branch

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

April (or I’ve Never Written a Poem Before) April 24, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 10:13 pm

Papaya trees and blue sky,

Coconuts and lemons.

Cool breeze, salty sea,

But mangoes not in season.

Avocadoes, passion fruit.

Brightly-clothed women

Selling banana bunches, tangerines.

But pineapples not in season.


Me and You April 23, 2009

Filed under: Language — Jen @ 12:17 pm

Yesterday I was saying something to a colleague about how he and I would go somewhere together. I said, “Você e eu, nos vamos…” (“You and I, we are going to…”). He started laughing and said that “você e eu” sounded really funny. He explained that you say, “Eu e você…”, putting I first. Another native-English speaking colleague and I explained that in English we always put everyone else before I.

I thought about it for a bit then commented to J that our language usage explains a lot about our different cultures. As much as we romanticize the communal nature of African society, Mozambican culture is actually very much a “Me first” society. It’s apparent when getting on chapas, waiting in line at the bank, buying groceries, and driving in a car. It’s apparent on a deeper level by the high level of corruption in society.

The comment about language reflecting culture sparked a conversation in our office about Portuguese versus English colonization. My Mozambican colleagues said that “eu e você” came from the Portuguese and demonstrates how the Portuguese only thought about themselves and didn’t try to develop their colonies at all. Consequently, when they left in the 70s, they left no skilled Mozambicans behind. To this day, Lusophone countries are still among the most undeveloped in Africa. Mozambique is considerably less developed than all its bordering countries (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania). My colleagues commented on how English colonizers put others first and thought about the people they colonized and trained them so that they were left with skills. Therefore, former English colonies are more developed now than Portuguese colonies.

I don’t agree with the statement that English colonizers put others first, but I do think there is some truth to how the British and Portuguese colonized Africa. Having never been to Portugal, I cannot comment on Portuguese culture, but the language-reflecting-culture topic is an interesting one to explore.

Those of you who speak other languages, do you have similar examples of differences between English language/culture and other language/culture?


I Use to Speak English April 15, 2009

Filed under: Language,Teaching — Jen @ 2:48 pm

Last week I did an English lesson on “gaps in knowledge” – reviewing grammatical errors that many of the students have been making in their writing and in their oral exam the previous week. One point that I really wanted to emphasize was the use of ‘used to’. I’ve noticed not only my English students but other English-speaking Mozambicans in my office and elsewhere who love to use this form but always use it incorrectly, but I had never been able to pinpoint the pattern of their error.

I spent some time explaining how ‘used to’ refers to something done regularly, over a period of time in the past but no longer. I drew diagrams showing, for example, a person who smoked in the 80s but doesn’t now in 2009. I demonstrated how I studied French in high school and college but no longer do. I gave lots of examples. They seemed to be catching on.

Then a student said, “What about when to use ‘use to’?” I pointed to the board and said, “That’s what we’ve just been discussing.” He said, “No, not ‘use-ed to’ but ‘use to’, the present form.” To clarify that I understood him correctly, I wrote ‘use to’ on the board and asked him if that’s what he was saying. He said, “Yes, to refer to what I do habitually now.” He gave an example: “If I smoke now, I use to smoke.” I crossed out ‘use to’ on the board and said, “No, this is not correct in English. There is no present form of ‘used to’. ‘Used to’ is a specific phrase that only refers to the past.” Most of the class looked at me as if I were lying to them. The student who asked about the present form insisted, “But my teacher in secondary school explained that ‘used to’ refers to something you did habitually in the past and ‘use to’ refers to something you do habitually now.” It was one of those moments that occurs frequently in Mozambique where I want to scream, not at the person speaking to me because he cannot be blamed for his ignorance, but at those out there teaching incorrectly. I also wanted to laugh. It was hard not to, as this student was so serious and so insistent about using the present tense of ‘used to’.

I still don’t think anyone believed me that ‘use to’ doesn’t exist. It was too much radical information for them to take in after years of being taught one way, a bit like first learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. In Mozambique, I use to challenge commonly held beliefs.


The Beauty of Mozambican Women’s Day April 9, 2009

Filed under: Culture — Jen @ 10:45 am

April 7 is Mozambican Women’s Day (not to be confused with International Women’s Day on March 8 or Pan-African women-in-capulanasWomen’s Day on July 31).  April 7 is a national holiday, and women all over Mozambique organize in different groups with colleagues or church friends in matching capulanas. Then they march for women’s solidarity.  It’s a fun day to check out new capulana designs.  There are always women in the annual national capulana – a patriotic one with the date on it.  This year’s had the book/hoe/gun* emblem from the Mozambican flag printed predominantly around it .  Nothing like watching a group of laughing women walking down the street with huge AK-47s printed on their skirts.

On April 7, I did not wear a capulana, even though I promised some colleagues I would.  Instead I went for a long walk in the morning with Brooke and Marina, in long shorts.  Then we took Brooke to the airport to see her off, back to America.  It was a sad day.  It can be hard to find kindred spirits in foreign lands.  Unfortunately, the nature of life overseas is that expat friends come and go as rapidly as clothing seasons at Gap – or as rapidly as Women’s Day capulanas in the market.

On our way out of the airport parking lot, we commented on how even the parking attendants were wearing matching capulanas.  The girl who came to the car window smiled a big smile and said, “Feliz nosso dia!”  Literally, “Happy our day!”  We complimented her on her outfit, and I thought about what she said as we drove away – “our day”.  Clearly we are not Mozambican; clearly we weren’t wearing capulanas; clearly we weren’t doing anything to celebrate Women’s Day.  And I often look at women here with their babies tied to their backs, bundles on their heads as I walk past in my trousers with my computer in a backpack on my back and think, “There is so little that defines unites both of us as women.”  But in that moment, with the cheerful parking lot attendant, we were included in the celebration.

*Mozambique is the only country in the world with a gun on its flag.mozambique-flag


Mozambican Beauty April 4, 2009

Filed under: Culture — Jen @ 5:14 pm

beautiful-bearsIt hit me a couple months into my time in Moz that what I would call “African” actually isn’t at all. beautiful-glittery-roseLike wicker furniture and batik wall hangings.  I should have realized in my time with my host family that wicker furniture, batiks, wooden carvings and masks, soapstone carvings, etc. all appeal to expats, but I don’t know any Mozambicans who own such things.  Mozambicans buy high-backed velvet furniture and decorate with plastic roses, porcelain figurines, and doilies.  That is African.  We think it’s hideous.  They think it’s beautiful.  And this is why some expat friends and I use two meanings for the word beautiful-waterfall“beautiful”. On occasion I’ve shown my roommate something I’ve bought, in all sincerity, from a Chinese shop, and she’s told me it’s “beautiful” in the gushy way we use for Mozambican “beautiful”. I beautiful-pink-rosesthink, “But actually, no, I like it.” But it is good to know how to gush this way when compliments are required in this culture.

In my living room, there are two items which ilicit many comments (or strange looks) from both expats and Mozambicans – a framed photograph that my boyfriend took of a matchbox on a brick and The Wall (see picture below).  Typically expats walk into the beautiful-rose1living room, take a step back when they see The Wall, then ask what it is, either make some sarcastic comment about it’s beauty, or comment on how “interesting” it is.  Mozambicans genuinely comment on its beautiful-sparkly-rosebeauty and how romantic the lighting in it is.  Once expats get over the shock of seeing The Wall, they notice the photo and typically say something like, “Wow, that’s cool.  Who took that?”  Mozambicans look at it and make little attempt to stop from rolling their eyes or laughing (probably my same response to their beautiful-white-roseplastic gold framed free calendar photos of the Swiss Alps).

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.