My mind has been swirling with all sorts of thoughts that I can’t seem to sort out. I haven’t had time to think much about the past month in Mozambique, I’ve been so busy and I only just left a few days ago. Not being able to talk closely to anyone and my lack of Portuguese language skills also took a toll: I feel pent up and anxious but unable to talk about it. I got used to just not talking at all about my thoughts or feelings: the most complex of things to express in English, let alone in a foreign language. And where does one start when so much has happened?
It’s great to be back, but the malaise of the mundane has shown itself again and it’s only been a few days. After overwhelmingly constant stimulation the world seems so still, yet busy at the same time. Everyone is running around doing life. Though the slow pace of Mozambique was at times maddening, it was comforting. If it didn’t get done today, there was always tomorrow; and if not tomorrow, the following day and so on. Or at times, not at all.
When I close my eyes, I imagine the bright sun reflecting off the sea with the fisherman slowly drifting by. I spent most of my free hours in Pemba, the main town in the district, lazily walking on the mostly empty beaches alone except for Tigger, a happy black lab that loved to catch crabs. Mozambicans, mostly fisherman, would walk slowly by with a melodic “Bom dia” (or Boa Tarde, depending on the time of day) and I’d answer, “Bom Dia” in return. Occasionally a woman would walk by, balancing bowls on their head, most likely full of clams. When the tide was low, I’d walk the 400 meters out toward the water, my feet sinking into the wet sand. Sea urchins, brittle sea stars, green shrimp and tiny fish collected in the tide pools. Women and children would be bent over in the horizon, collecting buckets of clams and oysters.
The training went much better than I expected and despite myself, I think I did a good job. I have not been under that much pressure or drive for quite a long time. It felt both exhausting and exhilarating. I think it’s a good sign or at least humorous that one participant, a great guy, said a few days after it was over that he thinks about the methodology all the time, even in his dreams. Whoa! He is a national park employee I spent hours with wandering through the villages of Ibo Sede Island, conducting survey’s. I was so impressed by his determination to understand the methodology and complete the survey. I feel this way about most of the Mozambican staff. I don’t think they have many opportunities to receive practical training on a methodologies for formative research. In less than 3 weeks, questionnaires were developed and tested, a week and a half of lectures, a survey throughout the national park, and data analysis and a final reports were accomplished. It was a slightly insane endeavor, and in an ideal situation, we’d have had months to prepare. For selecting random households to interview, not having detailed maps of the villages of several thousands individuals was a challenge. Getting several specific groups together to interview and inspiring village chiefs to help us within a 3-day notice was a stretch too. But what an adventure it was! I am pretty sure the village chiefs thought we were ridiculous or crazy. We would walk through a section of the village, counting houses and making maps; then select houses randomly and backtrack to conduct an interview. Over and over again.
I spent about half the time inspired and energized by the work, and then the other half wondering why I decided to do something I thought I’d never do again; at least not anytime soon. I had written off NGO’s a year ago, ready to seek out something that didn’t involve people. ( Had I relapsed?). But it was hard to pass up an amazing opportunity and I missed the work. Mostly, I loved Mozambique and wanted to return yet also get some professional experience. I learned a lot about my limitations on this trip. I literally became physically ill a few times from working too much. Though I was also very passionate about the work and it felt like part of who I was. I feel so alive when working with people oveseas, hopefully helping them to better understand their programs. And there is something about being in Africa that is amazing. It’s like all your senses are aroused and you can’t ‘help but feel fully present and aware of your surroundings. At first, everything seems to shimmer and have a special glow about it. Even trash on the side of the road!
I also learned a lot about letting go of outcome. The reality is, I probably lost about 1/3 of the participants after 3 days, maybe more. A big lesson is that not everyone is going to get it and I can’t control that. I can only do so much. There were days that I’d spend hours with people going over concepts with what seemed like little progress in return. I had moments where I wondered if anyone was learning anything. Other days, the “ah-ha” moment participants reached was worth all the effort. The Portuguese/English issue was a big challenge too and I wished so badly that I could speak the language. Good thing most of the Mozambicans I worked with had a great sense of humor and we spent a lot of time laughing. Particularly when I’d try to practice my Portuguese. Humor seems to bypass language barriers and it’s good to laugh at yourself.
Another thing I noticed more this time around, at least for the first week, was the poverty and lack of infrastructure in the rural villages northern Mozambique. It’s not that it’s gotten worse, if anything it’s improved. (Electricity had just reached some of the rural areas: it was a pleasant surprise). I think it was because due to the nature of my work, I’d become desensitized to it. Having a longer break from going overseas allowed me to see more clearly. It’s not that many people in the rural areas know they could be living differently or even want to. Who am I to dictate what a good life is? No one can claim people in developed countries are “happier”. But human dignity is something I think everyone deserves, and in the rural areas, I am not so sure that all had an opportunity to embrace it. I don’t know if that is even true or if development is the answer; I wish I did. It’s an inner-conflict that probably will never be resolved. Though an estimated life expectancy of 37.8 years does not seem right to me. I’d be dead in 3 years! Considering they had 10 years of sporadic war before independence from the Portuguese followed by 16 years of civil war that ended in 1992, and periods of devastating droughts and floods, it’s doing quite well – especially in the south.
My biggest wish is that I could have stayed longer. There was other work to do and I hated feeling so rushed. If I didn’t have to get back to Hawaii for summer school and my job, I would most likely have stayed as I was offered an extension on my contract. I would have also taken some R&R and explore more of the country. I had a chance to dive and snorkel – both amazing – but not an entire day or two just enjoying myself.
I love Mozambique and can’t wait to return. Hopefully I will. I’m planning to take some Portuguese lessons this fall. I also hope to remember the life lessons I learned while there. And how to live a life of simplicity, something I experienced, though not initially by choice. For now, I close my eyes and hear Mozambican fishermen singing in their local language as they slowly sail on by.