People say that Africa gets inside you, grabs ahold of something in you. That for many it’s hard to get away once you’ve lived in this land of red earth and tall grass. I saw so many beautiful and so many terrible things in Mozambique, where I spent my third year of Peace Corps service, organizing rural youth groups to empower children to grow their own vegetables and improve their nutrition.
There are many things I miss. Fresh tropical fruit, and other foods of the season and region; right before I left the country we went to the mountain town of Gurué and came back with local beans and sunflower seeds for roasting.
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The Francisco family of Nguanje; the many children of this tight knit family make up the membership of my favorite (sshh) youth group. I remember our last visit to their garden. Jacama kept running ahead of us, jumping out of each bushy hiding spot when we passed, singing one of our favorite tunes. The girls giggled and held my hands.
Cooking with Mozambican women; I cooked with my best friend in her home in Quelimane almost daily. She blamed me for making her gain weight, and I accepted it. In my last week, we went to Morrumbala for a ‘Dia de Campo’, or field day, with my kids groups, spending the whole night before preparing vitamin rich foods like sweet potato juice and soy milk to share with the children at the celebration. My neighbors came to help as well, peeling oranges as we patted out sweet potato cakes. It was one of the best nights I’ve had in Morrumbala. And on our last night, we were invited to my neighbor’s house for a dinner of cow liver, my first, and apparently a Mozambican favorite. It wasn’t terrible, but I was glad I chose this evening to teach them how to make banana pudding. A nice palate cleanser.
Other moments of excitement, shock, awe, anticipation, humility. Playing an extra in a Portuguese film in Quelimane. Near head-on collisions; who would expect another vehicle to come around that grassy middle-of-nowhere curve? An unexpected lunar eclipse viewed from the bush. A gift of a goat valuing 15 dollars, a fortune for this family who does not have electricity or running water. Who live in a mud and grass hut far from anywhere. Stopping on the side of the road when you can’t hold it anymore to water the grass, and hopefully not water any mambas. Playing mancala in the dirt with children who cannot write their own name, but who have mastered this intricate game of counting and strategy.
And also many times I just wanted to shut my eyes, to hold the tears in. Children fighting over the chance to have a small cup of soy milk or sweet potato juice; would this ever happen in America? Pedestrian mortalities. Ubiquitous western religion which has taken the place of traditional spiritual rites. The many, many instances of ‘what have you brought us?’ The culture of receiving has been so ingrained here, perpetuated by a generation of foreigners who wish to atone for the sins of their grandfathers.
At the end of the field day, we brought out a soccer ball and the kids played their hearts out until the setting sun commanded our departure. They would have played all night had we let them, and the next day too until their tired, skinny, dirty little legs would propel them no further and they collapsed to sleep, puppies in the dirt. Sometimes I think I’ll give up on effecting complicated social change and simply distribute soccer balls across the northern province of Zambezia. But how then would I be any different from other charitable dumpers? Were it as simple as taking the sweet potato off the plate of an 8 year old American who refuses to eat it and popping it into the mouth of a child in Africa…but we know the redistribution of resources depends on so many political, economic, and social factors. “There are starving kids in Africa” is true enough, but it doesn’t make the food come.
I often marvel at the stark differences between socio-economic classes in Africa; how must my Mozambican colleagues feel when they go to the bush and see their countrymen who have so much less than them? When they walk past a barefoot woman in the city streets, carrying all her belongings on her back? What they must feel is this: that could very easily be me, and I categorically refuse.
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