Wherever You Go, There You Are

I have been told recently that a number of people have been following, and even looking forward, to this blog. While I often feel like I am here living a slow-moving and fairly uneventful life, knowing I have so many people supporting me and interested in my work brings me an unusual feeling of awe and appreciation, as well as serving as a reminder that my life here, as normal as it may feel most days, may not be so “normal” compared to the life I left behind. To be honest, knowing a lot of people are reading this makes me a little nervous, like I must prepare something of quality or on a deadline, and that I must be very particular about my choice of words. While that may be true, I also very much recognize the opportunity to have a platform to express thoughts and ideas that I may not have been able to before. So, having said that, I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to discuss something incredibly important to me, and whether or not you recognize it, to you as well. The month of May is “Mental Health Awareness Month” and it is something that deserves our attention.

Whenever I head into the city of Chimoio, I use the public transportation, “chapas” as they are called, which are essentially fifteen-passenger vans that rarely leave the station with fewer than 24 passengers aboard. Needless to say, it’s a tight squeeze, but luckily my ride is fairly short. For whatever reason, in those 25 minutes, I often feel like it’s where I do the most thinking. I look at all of the faces of the people surrounding me, seeing in their eyes all the feelings I have ever felt; there is pain, there is love, there is fear, there is anger. There is anticipation and hope, and of course the aches brought on by this rough ride. I want to know their story. I want to know what they have been through that ultimately brought us together in this moment. But mostly I wonder what is going on in their heads, right then and there. There are 24 of us riding silently together, but when I think about the number of thoughts I alone am experiencing, it makes me so aware and intrigued by the fact that there are 24 different dialogues going on at the exact same time in that tiny, shared space. We might be thinking about what happened yesterday or what we will do once we get off this chapa. We might be thinking longingly of the past, of regrets or of heartbreak. We might be thinking of the people we love or that we miss, or even that we fear. We might be anxious for tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, stressing about our own health or feeling grateful for the day we woke up to experience.

Our minds are limitless and our thoughts are constantly changing. I wouldn’t recommend going too deep into thinking about this, for it is a rabbit hole that is easy to get lost in. But the reality is, while we are all having the same shared experience for this brief moment in time, not a single one of us is interpreting it in the same way, and in regard to individuals, we interpret things differently at different times in our lives. Why is it that some days I ride the chapa and think about this incredible mystery of the human experience with awe and infinite gratitude, while others I can’t stop thinking about how annoyed I am, that my squished body is so uncomfortable, or that everyone seems like they have the same mission to bother me, and that they’re all achieving it? Why is it that sometimes I couldn’t be filled with a greater sense of joy and connection, while others I just want to burst out into tears for no apparent reason, feeling isolated and alone? Why is it that some days hearing the children’s chanting of “Margarida!” seem to melt my heart with a kind of love I didn’t even know existed, while others seem to just agonize me relentlessly to end? Why is it that some days I could not be more proud of my service, fully able to recognize the little, but hugely significant differences I am making in a least a few people’s lives, while others like I want to avoid everything and everyone, and I feel that my work here is meaningless? I think the explanation for this derives primarily from having been born and raised in one reality and living in one so different, which often has the tendency to pull me different directions. There are parts here that seem nothing short of magic, while others, not so much, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, I don’t think I am unique in this regard. But through astute observation of the inner-workings of my own mind and of the world around me, I have learned something so powerfully true that I hope I will carry with me for the rest of my days. It is not our circumstances that determine our life, but our relationship to them; it is our interpretation of the world around us that defines our experience.

I’m starting to think that whether a single “truth” exists may not actually so much matter. We are but humans, and every moment we experience is interpreted based on every single moment that happened before it, the chemistry of our matter that allows us to process this information, and the “channel” of emotion that we are currently set on. This is where I want to take a moment to talk about the importance of mental health. Have you, or someone close to you, ever experienced depression, anxiety, or any other mental condition? The answer is yes, whether you know it or not. While mental health conditions are hugely common, the reality is that they often go undiagnosed. When we have an unrelenting cough or break our arm, we don’t hesitate to see a professional, and we welcome “Get well soon” sentiments from our friends and family. But why is it, that when we suffer in our minds, we feel it’s our fault, or that it’s somehow too invasive to bring up? When a person is really suffering, a “you’ll be okay” or “just get over it” is just simply not enough. Depression, for example, is when our minds are set to some version of the “misery” channel, and the remote seems to have disappeared. A mental disorder can feel like we are stuck, weighted by heavy blanket, slowly suffocating with a desperate hope that someone else will come and lift it off. And yet, often we say nothing. We go quiet and suffer alone. We remain under the blanket feeling it get heavier and heavier until we can’t seem to take any more weight.

“Nobody can save you but yourself- and you’re worth saving. It’s a war not easily won but if anything is worth winning- this is it.” (Charles Bukowski). So we need to talk- about mental health in general, and about our own personal struggles in life. We need to learn to be more open, more empathetic, more compassionate and more vulnerable. We must learn how to listen to one another in a way that actually makes people feel heard, instead of always just waiting for our turn to respond. We must reassure others that their thoughts and feelings are valid, even, maybe even especially, when they contradict our own. And we must combat together the stigma associated with mental health issues, knowing well that the majority of us have, or will be, witness to their detrimental effects. We were all born with these incredibly powerful machines in our heads, the intricacies of which even the most advanced technology, which we have used them to build, could never even compare. And there is no manual. For this, we need to learn how to rely on one another a little more, and to be there for others so they may be there for us. We must learn when it’s time to reach out for help, and understand that the suffocation we might be feeling certainly does have a way out. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, ALWAYS, even if we are currently unable to see it.

I hope reading this will at least provoke some thought about the power of the mind and the responsibility we have as humans to the ones we love. We must learn to be more compassionate not only with others, but also with ourselves. We all have regrets, fears, and disappointments, but we cannot let these be the things that define us, and if they seem to be, please know, there is not only no shame in asking for help. In doing so, you may be saving yourself and many others from great deal of grief; we must always keep the conversation going.

Wow, I did it again. I sat down to write something quick and concise and got lost in the abundance of words. Maybe I have too much time to think, but this only goes to show how the “channel” of my mind is so important and relevant to the way I am living my life here. I have officially spent over one year in Mozambique, and I cannot express how much I owe that to the friends and family who have listened empathetically to my, I imagine, seemingly endless streams of consciousness and allowing me to unload. I have struggled, and I know I will continue to in ways, but I promise I will never, ever be afraid to ask for help if I need it. Thank you to all of those who are out there supporting me, and an ever-greater shoutout to anyone who actually still reading this. Your support means more to me than you know.

I actually started to write this not as a blog entry, but as a “quick” introduction to the original piece I wrote about mental health; I just seemed to be on a roll so I didn’t want to stop. It’s not super “bloggy” and may be a little heavy, but this is my space to be free, so I’m gonna write WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT. (Sorry, I just wanted to remind my future self of the fire I still had in me at 25). But anyways, here it is.
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Wherever You Go, There You Are

Wherever you go, there you are. A profound truth that forces us to truly face the person we see in the mirror. An indomitable recognition that has both the capacity to move us farther beyond the boundaries we’ve ever imagined, and to destroy us entirely from the inside out. We are all looking for the thing that helps bring our potential to fruition. Yet as humans in this circus-world, we all feel the same inclination from time to time to surrender, to pass the steering wheel to someone else, or to somehow escape the person we have become to “start over.” I just need to change my job, divorce my wife, to move to Mozambique…and then everything will be okay. Then I will be free to be me.

It turns out, though, that while changing our circumstances can bring energy and a new sense of vigor, these ventures are but a quick-fix whose remedies quickly reveal themselves to be a bandaid we have placed upon a gaping wound. When the newness begins to fade and we grow accustomed to our circumstances, the efficacy of our supposed solution uncovers itself to be but a mirage, an illusion we have allowed ourselves to take for truth, putting all faith in its hands. We have attempted to pass the wheel to the world around us. We have surrendered ourselves so as to say “fix me” to someone that appears not to have been listening. And there we are once again, on a canoe in the middle of the ocean, waves crashing and sharks circling, with the warmth of the sun and the brute chill of the night remaining our only perceived company. We are left with the only thing that has been with us the whole time, the only thing that could ever possibly get us back to shore. We are left with ourselves. We are left with our own will. We may give way to the treachery of the reality that we are in, surmising that our inadequacy will not allow us to move, or we may remember the that the canoe has paddles, the ocean has food, the sun gives life and the stars may guide back to the safety we seek. Our circumstances do not determine our reality, but rather, our relationship to them is what holds the weight. We must be for ourselves a guide, for only we are the only ones who truly know the path we’ve trodden, the mistakes we’ve made, and the lessons we have learned along the way. It is only ourselves who may determine whether, in this moment, we will sink or swim.

Now whether we see this as an enchanting opportunity or a devastating drawback is going to determine what we do with this inescapable reality. We must not fear. We must slow down. We must pause, breathe, and look fully and earnestly into the eyes of the person that is going to be with us on this journey from this moment until its undetermined end. We must have compassion for this person who has suffered great losses and forgive them for their inevitable mistakes. We must be gentle, empathetic, and reassure them that everything is going to work out, as long as we stick together. We must understand that we are but human, and that things are not always going to give way to our decided desires. But when we trust ourselves, only then can we move forward.

Knowing oneself is an ineffable necessity to living an abundant life. We are born alone and we die alone, and we must be our own co-captain for the unfathomable journey we have, for whatever reason, already begun. It is only with the love, compassion, and empathy for ourselves as individuals that we may see the beauty and opportunities given to us by world in which we reside. We are fortunate though, in that we are surrounded by millions of people, though on different paths, on the same journey, also seeking to create some kind of intelligible explanation of all that we are witnessing, or the fact that we are witnessing at all. We must first be with ourselves, but we are never alone. Though we may at times feel lost, there is someone else who knows where to find us. It is in these moments that we must seek help, a hand to hold the flashlight so that we may row ourselves back to shore. When you are with you, you are never alone. But when the water seems too rough, know there is always someone who can help you find the way back home.

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So that’s all I’ve got. If you actually read all the way to this point, I salute you my good ma’am/sir. I challenge you today to start a conversation about mental health, and if you do, I’d love to hear how it goes. Until then, I will be here somewhere gallivanting around Mozambique. Stay grateful, be well, and live abundantly.

 

All my love,
Margaret

Mata Malaria!

April is Malaria Awareness month, and yesterday, the 25th was World Malaria Day. It is part of my job as a Peace Corps health volunteer to spread knowledge about the realities and impacts of Malaria, but unfortunately, I let it slip through the cracks. This is not because Malaria is not relevant in my community, but rather because it is so profoundly abundant that I think a small part of me has become almost mildy desensitized to it. When conducting informal interviews in the community when I first arrived at my site, I wanted to learn more about the presence of Malaria. When I asked people if they had ever had malaria, and if so, how many times, the most common response I got shocked me: “You mean this year?” Nearly everyone I spoke with had had malaria at least once, but most many times in their lives. It seems easy to overlook because of this, but the reality is, malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in the world and has been for nearly all of human history. While it does have a cure, and its death toll is decreasing, it still requires a great deal of attention and dedication to overcome its harmful impacts on humanity.

Having said that, I would just like to provide a tidbit of information about Malaria. Malaria is widespread, making its presence known in about 50% of the world In 2015 alone, there were roughly 212 million cases of malaria and about 429,000 deaths worldwide. While it has been eliminated in many countries, including the United States, it is still hugely impactful in many others including much of the continent of Africa. It affects most significantly children under five and pregnant women, and is spread through the bite of the ever-feared anopheles mosquito, but only by females…in their efforts to do what? DUN DUN DUN DUN produce more mosquitoes! While it can be cured if caught early enough, its impact on the body can be drastic and take a time to overcome. Prevention, therefore, is really the best medicine, and the spread of information is the only way this is possible. Malaria can be prevented through the proper and consistent use of mosquito nets at night, insecticide, both on the body and the house, wearing long clothing to cover the body at peak hours, avoiding standing water, keeping the body and the house clean, and going to the hospital for testing immediately when one experiences malaria-like symptoms. While preventative malaria prophylaxes does exist, it is not healthy to consume over great periods of time, and is extremely expensive, therefore not a viable option for prevention for the majority of people living in malaria-heavy zones.

Malaria is not a very fun topic of discussion, I know, but it is very real and its prevalence and impacts are important to understand. Fortunately, it has been eliminated in many countries, and mortality rate has decreased 29% since 2010, which provides a great deal of hope for those still carrying its burden. If you want to learn more about malaria, or if you have any interest in donating to the Peace Corps’ efforts to combat malaria, I have attached a few links below. I also attached a surprisingly fascinating Radiolab episode about mosquitoes that I was actually recommending well before moving to Mozambique was ever on my radar (seriously, it’s cool!). Anyway, happy Malaria Awareness month; I hope you’ll help spread the world! It is only when we join efforts that can we can make malaria a thing of the past.

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs094/en/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgGrzoL_kKQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF242mxtZN8

http://www.radiolab.org/story/kill-em-all/

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/donate/fund/stomping-out-malaria-africa/

 

 

Mais Uma Vez

I am sorry it has taken me so long, but it turns out, I kind of hate blogging. I had a feeling that keeping up with a blog might be something I’d struggle with a bit, but I supremely underestimated the power it would have in my own stagnation. It is not that I have forgotten about it, in fact, you might even say the opposite. It is something I think about every single day. It is something that consumes my mind with most experiences I’m having, albeit the good ones, the bad ones, and most importantly, the overwhelmingly mundane ones. It’s not my blog, per se, that’s on my mind, but the desperate attempt to understand, analyze and explain in words exactly what is happening in the world around me, which seems to be an almost impossible task. Imagine sitting in the same room with a physicist, a poet, a sociologist, a farmer, a surgeon, a democrat and a republican. You can only imagine what it would be like were they to all witness the same event, and then had to agree on what happened. It would be chaotic, disconnected and probably not particularly helpful in terms of knowing what was actually the “truth.”

Now I am not suggesting that I am all or even close to any of these things, but the fact of the matter remains that there are an endless number of different angles from which to view the world. I have been living in Mozambique for over ten months now in search of something I’m starting to realize is unattainable: a focused and unbiased explanation of the truth that encompasses all aspects of my reality, as well as those of the people I’m serving. I have been frantically trying to cultivate explanations of what I am experiencing in order to get it myself. Yet in hopes to communicate that most clearly, most fully, most accurately and most whole-heartedly to the people at home, I have created a in my mind a mountain of a task, which I realize was never supposed to be the point of this in the first place.

Some days, I think my focus should be on what it is like to be working in the field of health, especially in the fight against HIV, while others, on women and girls, and what is like to be female in an especially male-dominated society. Some days I want to write about religion and the role it appears to play in my community, the ways I interpret its conflicting intentions, and the things I have been learning about myself through the process. Some days I (especially) feel the need to write about race: the ways in which I am so frequently and blatantly privileged here, for which I am both appreciative and very deeply saddened, and the relationship this has the travesty that appears to be happening in the country I left behind. Some days I want to write about food, water, and the realities of poverty, about music, dancing, art and the exquisite array of colors and movement I see around me every day. I want to write about the awesome vacations I have taken and the beautiful relationships I’ve made both within and outside of Peace Corps. I want to note how both exhausting and amazing all of the children are: the anxiety that large groups of them tend to instill in me, and the feeling they give me every single day that my mere existence is so worthwhile. Most days, though, my focus is on how hot it is inside my house, how bored I am in the moment I’m experiencing, or the fact that I often feel like I am accomplishing nothing here. After adequate time to adapt, the day-to-day experience can begin to feel very mundane if you aren’t paying attention, and the things I should be writing about are so easily overlooked. I think I am speaking for most PC volunteers when I say that this rut is inevitable to get stuck in from time to time; and yet, if there is anything I feel the need to write about above all else, the greatest lesson I have learned and the thing that I am reminded every single day of my life here, is the dire obligation we have as human beings to be grateful for the life we have and to appreciate the people in it. I could never express this enough, nor do I think I will ever fully appreciate it, but if I have learned one thing in Mozambique, it is that there is always, always, always something to be thankful for.

So having said all of that, I am here to give you an update of my life; I know it doesn’t have to be so complicated or intricate. I am a dreamer, and sometimes it is easy to get stuck in a world of abstraction, but my hope now is just to craft something tangible, to express in words something that I can then build on. So again, I am terribly sorry for the delay, and also for this grand introduction. I just felt it was important to explain some of the places my mind has been, grappling with the need to share something worthwhile, and my endless search for the truth within this whole unbelievable and unique life experience.

 

SO WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING?

Excellent question, and one to which I wish I could give you a solid answer. The truth is that my role here is complicated, and one I am still figure figuring out every day. As a Peace Corps health volunteer, we received three months of intensive training about language, culture, various health practices and issues specific to life in Mozambique. However, during that entire process, we were never once told the magic words I have been so longing to here: “Your job is ________.” The truth is that it wouldn’t work. Such a huge part of the mission of the Peace Corps is for individuals to share cultures, ideas, and information in such a way that is helpful for everyone, and because every country, province, and site are so drastically different, a cookie-cutter pattern for the right “job” just cannot exist. My life is here is one part of my job, which is sometimes easy to forget, but I am a volunteer 24/7. My job is to learn, to integrate into my community, to explore what systems exist and what works well, and what areas have room for improvement. My job is to create relationships, to connect, to explore; to share cultural differences and similarities, and to work toward an understanding of what it means to be human. Here I go getting all abstract again. Let’s refocus.

Because I am the first health volunteer at my site, it has been (and still is) extremely tough to find my niche within the health sector. I have participated in a smorgasbord of activities thus far: working with the community activists of circumcision, weighing and monitoring the growth of babies to ensure adequate nutrition, working with activists who focus on testing and adherence to HIV treatment, participated in various support groups, assisted in culinary demonstrations, spent hours organizing documents, assisted in counseling people both before and after getting HIV tested, trained activists in the behavioral impacts of various health practices, organized and filled prescriptions, taught English, taught Portuguese, and list goes on. It seems as if I have been doing a lot, and in some ways I have, but the inconsistency of it all has really taken a toll on my American desire to feel like I am constantly “making progress.”

It has been tough. Really tough. Especially as a foreigner coming in with no real understanding of life, culture, and the systems that have be in place for decades, change is not easy to just come in and start making, and my search for a “job” is still an ongoing process. It is because of this that I do question myself and my value as a volunteer a lot, but if nothing else, I have learned to take great pride in the small successes. It is a daily struggle to feel strong in my role as a health worker, but when I am able to convince one person to get tested, to get them to really believe that their positive diagnosis is not a death sentence, or to understand the importance of educating others about the realities of HIV, I feel successful. The feeling of being heard (especially because my language skills are still an ongoing process) is huge, and it is the thing that keeps me motivated to keep pushing forward. I have a few projects in the works that I will explain once they get going, and when I find my niche, I will let you know. For now, though, my purpose is to just keep moving and to keep growing, to keep doing the doing the best I can to find news ways to serve my community in the most effective ways that I can.

Luckily, I have managed to find some fulfilling work beyond my health placement, though. It has only really come to my attention after moving to Mozambique how widely used and important the English language really is, and after many requests, I finally started a proper English class with a group of people that meets regularly at my hospital. The more I learn about both English and Portuguese, the more I realize how complex languages really are, and also how difficult it can be to be an effective teacher. It is a challenge that I enjoy, and trying lots of different strategies, I am learning more every day about what works and what does not. With no prior experience teaching, I am gaining so much respect for all the great teachers I have had in my life. I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for your patience and persistence, and for giving tools I needed to be here today. I am sorry that it has taken me this long to realize this, but at least I am still learning, right?

In the same light, I have also recently started working at a new escolinha, or essentially, a preschool in my community. I think that this might be the place I am going to learn and grow the most, where my heart is really going to break from time to time, and where my patience is going to be tested more than ever in my life. Right now my role is to assist in teaching the children, primarily English and Portuguese, but I am realizing slowly that the reality of my role is something so much greater than that. The students in the class vary slightly in age and socioeconomic status, but a number of the children are orphans, and there I have really witnessed some of the realities of poverty and hunger, as well as a complete lack of guidance that is very much evident in some of their behavior. So, if I can in some way provide an element of discipline and structure, while at the same time help to make these children feel cared about, to be an adult they can trust, or someone that can provide a glimmer of light in their lives, I will feel successful. I know it is going to be very emotionally trying working with these kids; working with pre-school aged children is a hell of a task in itself, but working with this particular demographic will be something I will especially have learn to approach intention. It is so important to be sensitive towards vulnerable children, especially those that have like suffered in ways I will never understand, and I think that I am going to be the one learning far more than them in our short time together.

The truth is, though, that these kids are no different than me; we were both just born and told to hit the ground running. I did nothing to deserve the life of privilege, comfort, and love that I was born into. I just won the lottery. They did not. We don’t choose the advantages we are born with, but we can choose what we do with them. I think that those of us lucky enough to be born with an elevated position have a few options, and a decision we need to make right now. We may one, use our advantages to create more advantages for ourselves, two, deny the existence of our advantages, or three, use our advantages to the benefit of others, to provide a voice and an opportunity to those who might not ever get to make this kind of choice. What are your advantages in life? What ways are you choosing to use them?

Just getting to this point in this blog entry has been a hell of a process. I have written so many things that I have ended up just throwing out, and I have intentionally avoided writing about a lot of things as well. I will say, a lot of those have had to do with the American election and new presidency, but I’ve decided it’s just not something I want to get into here (you’re welcome). The truth is, though, that being a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique, at least for me, has been a mental and emotional rollercoaster. I feel down and defeated a lot, like I am getting nowhere. I question myself a lot. I feel lonely, stressed, and unmotivated on a number of days, and I want to be clear about this because I know how social media can drastically distort the image of what people are actually experiencing. I don’t want anyone to think this has been easy for me because it is far from the truth. However, I cannot relate more now to the slogan I heard about Peace Corps long before I joined: that it is “the hardest job you’ll ever love.” It rings so unbelievably true for me; I love living here. Like a real, genuine, hard-hitting, messy, emotional, draining, fulfilling, amazing love. I love this country and all of its challenges. I love all of the people I have met, including the ones I don’t. I love the children that exhaust me. I love the time spent alone. I love the language barriers, and pain I feel of missing home. I love the fact that sometimes I feel crazy, and that every day I face has its own challenges. The life I am living, to me, is like an art gallery. A lot of it is ugly, and a lot of it I just don’t understand. A lot of it I walk past without taking the time to really think about, but those pieces of real beauty, those pieces that make you stop everything and allow you to lose yourself for a moment in time, make the whole experience so worthwhile. Those are the ones that inspire people to move mountains, and those are the moments that I hold so dearly.

Mozambique is teaching me every day what it means to be human, the meaning of love and of loss, and is doing so much to shape the person I am becoming. I cannot be more thankful for the experience I am having here, and also for all of the support I have seen from people at home. I am going to really make an effort to be more present and try, in whatever ways I can, to do a better job of documenting this experience because I’m starting to realize more and more that it is not going to last forever. I think often about the things that I am going to miss when I leave this country, and often it actually makes me really sad. There are so many things I will miss so much. But this is the best kind of sadness, the kind of sadness that reinforces the need for gratitude and what it really means to seize a moment. I am here, and I want to be here in all the ways that I can. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I am on my way.

So there you go, it took me way too long, I know, but I finally got another blog post up. I am going to try to be more consistent with this, but we’ll see how it goes. I tried to attach a bunch of random captioned photos of my experience here, but it turns out I still don’t know how, and don’t have the internet connection it takes to figure it out. Hopefully I will soon, but I decided I would just go ahead and post this before I forget, so feel free to check out my Facebook in photos in the meantime. I did attach below something that I wrote recently and wanted to share, but I just wasn’t sure how to incorporate it here. Anyways, I hope life is going well for you, thanks for reading my blog, and remember to always stay grateful.

Much love and best wishes,

Margaret

 

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SATURDAY

Today was a Saturday like any other. I got to catch up on some sleep, cleaned my dusty house, and of course, played with my new kitten. I didn’t have much in the house to cook for lunch, so I did the something I know I can always do: I went over to a neighbor’s house. After giving me a quick, much needed haircut, she immediately invited me inside to have a delicious lunch that she had spent most of the morning preparing. Even after almost ten months in Mozambique, the generosity of the people I have met still does not cease to amaze me. It is something that I am reminded of every single day here: that you really don’t need to have much in order to give to others. In fact, it often seems as if those who don’t have very much at all are the most willing and eager give that which they do have. We had a beautiful conversation in my broken Portuguese over lunch, and I asked if one day she would be willing to teach me to cook a few new dishes, because my skills as a chef have never been quite up to par. She was so excited by the request and told me exactly which ingredients we will need to get for our first dish. She then proceeded to show me every room in her house and how well-organized everything was, saying that she loves to organize, and she loves helping other people organize, and that if I ever need another haircut, a cooking lesson, help organizing, or literally anything else, her door is always open.

She also said she would love to learn some English or about any kind of American foods that I could show her. She explained that she loves to learn and she loves to teach, because while no one knows everything, everyone knows something, and we all have some part of ourselves that we can offer to one another. She also showed me photos of the her only daughter, that had apparently passed away very shortly before I moved in. I could see the pain that recounting the story brought her, but it was obvious that it was through the strength and support of the other generous people like her that she was able to get through it. She said it was her daughter’s idea to sell the popcorn that she has on her front porch just about every day, for which I am an avid customer, and it serves as a reminder of the sense community she has experienced, always hoping to invite in others to converse and share a piece of themselves with her.

This was just one small example of the kind of people I am surrounded by every day. They remind me what it means to care about one another, to give, to love, and that beyond the boundaries and different boxes we have put ourselves and others in, we are nothing more than brothers and sisters. We all experience moments of joy and moments of pain, moments of fullness, and those in which we feel a little bit empty. It is only when we take the time to recognize the goodness we do have that we will ever actually have the opportunity to share it. We all have something to teach and something to learn. Something to give and something to receive. We all have the capacity to look for out for one another, to show what love means to us, and to bring closer those who are different than us or may be struggling. It is up to us to decide for ourselves that we want to be a part of a movement toward love and understanding, and when do we make the choice to do, slowly but surely, we can change the world.

 

 

Starting Fresh

Part of me has been feeling as if perhaps I waited too long to begin writing a blog. Four months into my Peace Corps journey, a lot has happened, and it is not as if I can paint an accurate picture of the experience I’ve had thus far. Today, however, is my 25th birthday, and I have decided that feeling like it is “too late” to do the things I want in life is just no longer the way I intend to live. At the same time, I find it fascinating how dramatically different the things I probably would have written, had I begun this months ago, would have been from the things I want to put down starting from this point on. This is both because the experiences being had are immeasurably different, but also because the things that I consider most important in my life and significant in my awareness have shifted tremendously in the past few months.

Initially, certainly, it would focused greatly on the adjustment I had to make in transitioning from the comforts I have always known to the seemingly tedious mechanisms of carrying out everyday life here. For example, taking bucket baths, using pit latrines (feel free to Google), washing laundry by hand, walking long distances, carting water, taking crowded public transportation, etc. While these have undoubtedly been a big part of my life thus far, though not all are still relevant, their significance seems to have diminished tremendously over the past few months, highlighting one of the first and most fundamental lessons Mozambique has taught me so far. Humans have an incredible capacity to adapt to their environment. We use the resources available to us to carry out the necessary tasks in our lives. Fundamentally, we are all the same.

This is not to say that I won’t address in this blog the aforementioned aspects of my life, or that I have any opposition to discussing such matters because admittedly, I do still struggle with some things. Language is going to be an issue for awhile, as my Portuguese has a lot of work do, and learning the local language is a whole different story, but every day is a class in itself. While attempting to wash clothes, I still rarely fail to get a few laughs (usually followed by some assistance), but the truth is, after some adjustment here, “getting by” in Mozambique is not such a great deed in itself. Sure, there are plenty of other considerations in regards to what life is really like here, and I know in the grand scheme of things, I still have it pretty easy, but after having some time to become accustomed to life as it will be for the next two years, I feel my focus has shifted far beyond the seeming limitations inflicted upon me, to the culture and the reality of those around me. It has allowed me to reflect upon my experience while, to a degree, diminishing my own role in it. I hope it will allow for a more objective, though still thoughtful and personal, record of my time in Mozambique and give me a way to capture this incredible and bizarre experience that will certainly be part of me for the rest of my life.

So not knowing exactly where to begin, I guess I will begin here, right now. As I am actually typing this, it is actually September 2,, 2016 at 13:06 in the afternoon. I am sitting at the table in my small apartment in Gondola District in the province of Manica, which is just about dead in the center of Mozambique. It’s a warm day. I hear music playing loudly which appears to be the same song on a continuous loop, which does not seem to be uncommon here, and just out of my window, I see the empregada of my neighbor’s house washing clothes in her beautiful, brightly colored capulana and lencol, the traditional dress of Mozambican women.  Though mosquitos are rampant throughout my house, reminding me of the ever-threatening presence of malaria here, I can’t help but keep my door open just a little to feel the energy that living in my quintal brings. In the main part of the house, just behind mine, lives a large family with children of all ages, and they have been some of the greatest companions so as not to feel alone while living by myself for the first time ever.  Children of different ages go to school at different times of day here, some in the morning, while others in the afternoon, so at just about any hour of the day, I have someone to play with right outside my door. For an introvert who wants to make friends, I must say, it has been an incredible place to start.  They have been both my Portuguese and local language tutors, dance teachers, and workout partners for some time now, and I could not be more thankful for their welcoming presence here.

Earlier this morning, I went to the hospital that I have been assigned to work in for the next two years, and left to go on an excursion with the activistas of the circumcision department. We went to speak with members of the community about the benefits of male circumcision, a procedure, like most, which is free in Mozambican hospitals. While circumcision is viewed and practiced differently in the United States and other countries, it is something that is not done until a male is ten years or older. The motivation for encouraging people to proceed with the operation comes from the statistical evidence that male circumcision dramatically lowers the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, when transmitted from female to male, by 60% (WHO).  While I am still getting to know my community and learning about what my longer-term projects will actually be, HIV is a focus of Peace Corps health volunteers, and this type of outreach is incredibly important for our overall cause.  I have spent much time working alongside the nutrition department as well, as nutrition as malnutrition is a widespread problem and inextricably linked to people living healthy lives with HIV.

While some of the men we spoke with voiced concerns, and others were encouraging of the cause, I took note more of the simple interest people seemed to have in being a part of the conversation. People seemed drawn in by papers being passed around and groups started to form. This is now a familiar phenomenon for me as a passerby just about anywhere in Gondola. There have been times, for example, when I have been walking down the street and stopped just to talk to small group of children. In the midst of a short conversation, I look up, and suddenly, there are ten, twenty, even thirty children around me that I never even noticed arriving. Crowds seem to accumulate so quickly, and I think I am starting to understand why. They happen for the same reason I can buy popcorn from my neighbor’s front yard every afternoon, or pieces of cake in the yard next door. They happen because the people in Mozambique are together. They tend to stay outside of their houses, and know each other’s names. They share, they converse. They help each other out, and they aren’t afraid to ask for what they need, because they know when the roles are reversed, they will be just as ready to give. They want to feed you, and feed me, and our neighbor and friends. They don’t have to have much at all to feel motivated to share. Groups form because people are together. They are interested in what is happening in their community and what is happening in each other’s lives, which certainly serves to facilitate the work of an activist.

This idea of sharing brings me back to what I felt was an incredibly powerful moment that happened just the other day. I was walking toward the mercado to pick up a few things to cook for dinner, when a couple of young boys with tattered clothes and bare feet approached me to ask for money. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence here, but it is not a helpful solution for me to oblige, so I have come up with various strategies for how to deal with it when it does. Normally, rather lightheartedly, I act as if it is a miscommunication due to the language barrier, putting my hand out with theirs, and saying something along the lines of “Money?! For me?! Thank you!” It typically ensues a chuckle before they continue on their way, so it was the reaction I decided to give to these two boys. Yet as soon as I did, to my surprise, one of the boys that had two coins of very little, but equal value in hand, put one of them into mine, and my heart just dropped. Of course I didn’t take the money from him, but I think in that moment he gave me something so much more valuable that I will never forget. “For it is in giving that we receive.” That touching moment brought to my attention just about everything that I think that actually matters in life, and I hope for it to be the model I set for the rest of my service here. I will feel successful when I know I am really giving my all to the community I am serving, and truthfully, I know that that is going to take some time. This is what I’m here for, though, and in this way I am ready for the adventure to really begin.

For now, though, I am taking pride in the small accomplishments I encounter during this initial process of integration. A solid conversation in Portuguese or a smooth trip on public transport can mean a lot in terms of feeling like I am learning to make a life in Mozambique. One of my favorite things currently happening is the slow, but sure transition from the children in my neighborhood shouting “mozungo,” or white person, to “Margarida,” my Mozambican name, whenever I pass by. I understand exactly why I am called this, and I know there is no negativity intended behind it, but actually hearing my name from them really fills me with a reassuring sense of pride and acceptance here in my new home.

So after all the rambling, I think this is where I’m going to leave it for now. I know I haven’t put a dent in explaining the wild and wonderful culture of Mozambique, what my life has been like so far, or what exactly I will be doing here, but I think in time it will become clearer for everyone, including myself. I haven’t even mentioned the amazing friendships I’ve made here, both within and outside of Peace Corps, and that has honestly been the most life-changing part of it so far. I also realize the lack of structure to this blog as it is right now; I’m still a little unsure exactly where I am wanting to go with it, but I think that, too, will be something that will reveal itself in time. But until then, I will just let it flow as it does and hope that it will transform into something worthwhile. Thank you so much to all who have been supportive of my endeavors; I hope you know it is felt and appreciated each and every day. Until next time, stay healthy, stay happy and know i am sending love from afar.

 

Best wishes,

Margaret