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Monday, March 3, 2014

Anti-Social Life: The Hardest Part of Being a Peace Corps Volunteer

I was recently asked a very unique question: "why did you join the Peace Corps?" 

You may be thinking, "that question doesn't sound very unique."  You're right.  The question itself wasn't exceptional in this case, but rather the person asking it: a Mozambican woman.  Two years in the bush and, to the best of my memory, a woman had never asked me a question with the purpose of simply learning about me.  Sure, they'd asked my name, where I'm from, if I have siblings -- the facts that you could look up on my Facebook profile.  But I'd never talked to a woman about my beliefs or passions -- the things that define me.  I don't remember ever being asked my opinion on anything more significant than my taste for the design on a capulana.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?  The uniqueness of this question didn't even occur to me until she'd asked it.  Then she asked what I'd studied in college and why.  WHAT.  While I'm categorizing her as a general "Mozambican female," she's certainly out of the ordinary: she's a law student studying in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.  She's educated and westernized and I felt, for the first time in two years, that she was a woman that I have a lot in common with -- one that I could be friends with.

It was a betrayal of the fundamental promise of Peace Corps: that we could be sent anywhere in the world and create intimate, valuable relationships.  How much easier I form friendships with people like myself.

. . .

While Mozambican men are generally more educated and sociable than women, I've certainly had trouble relating to them as well.   They are generally warm and generous but also extremely untrustworthy and irresponsible with anything of value.  Even with Mozambican teachers whose salaries double my monthly volunteer stipend, my relationships have been repeatedly damaged or forfeited at the expense of my possessions:

Viegas purchased himself a TV with money I'd given him to buy me a bike;
Daniel faked a life-threatening heart condition so I'd give him money to travel to Maputo;
Ussene abandoned me at Machanga's bar when I refused to pay for his entire night's beer tab;
Hassan threatened to hang himself if I didn't help pay for his graduation garb.

I've found more controversy with friends in 2 years in Mozambique than I have in the rest of my life in America.  The possible explanations are numerous: I'm white, I'm an easy target, I'm here only temporarily, I'm assumed to be wealthy.  Reasons aside, it's been very hard for me to maintain friendships with Mozambicans as profound as those that I've made with other PCVs.

I spoke with PCV Sam recently about my irrigation project and what would become of the funding if it wasn't complete by the time I left Mozambique in December.  "Is there someone you trust in Machanga that could you leave the money with?" he asked.  The reality: though I've never even met them, I know that I could blindly trust the incoming Peace Corps Volunteers with the money.  And, though I've met hundreds of them, I know that I could not trust any Mozambican.  Sam sighed and responded, "Yeah, I figured."

Clemson World!

Then they put me in a magazine!

Clemson World


About a third of the students in my dormitories don't have mattresses and sleep on the floor.  This seemed like a bad thing, so I organized funds from back home to help them out.  Raising and transferring the money took months, and then purchasing and transporting the mattresses took another few weeks.  I was ecstatic when they finally arrived and I immediately distributed them to the students.

Awesome!  Go Mac!  Right.

Later that night, my school director came to my house and asked to speak with me.  I met him in front of my house, expecting a congratulations of some sort. Very wrong.  He was livid.  He was upset that I had distributed the mattresses without him.  "You've acted terribly and unprofessionally!  You have no respect!"  He berated me for multiple minutes before I even came to understand the problem: ESMABAMA, the school mission, had asked him to distribute them in a particular, formal manner.  This would be impossible since I'd already given them out.  I hadn't been told any of this, of course, nor had any of the six school supervisors that had been present for the distribution.  But someone needed to be guilty and it wasn't going to be the director.  The supervisors all denied being involved to exculpate themselves.

I asked 6 times  "how can we resolve the situation now?" but he never responded.  Clearly, he had no interest in fixing the situation -- only in diverting the blame.

He yelled at me for about 30 minutes in front of my house, around all my neighbors and colleagues.  It was really embarrassing and infuriating.  I hit a rock bottom 20 minutes in:

Me: "I'm sorry, but how should I have known that you wanted to distribute these mattresses in a specific way?"
Director: "How should you have known?  There are certain rules that everyone knows.  There are rules that I shouldn't have to explain to you.  Don't you have some rules in your house?"
Me: "Yes I do.  And when you come into my house, I would expect you to know not to shit on the floor because that's a rude thing to do.  That's common sense.  Very different from distributing mattresses that I purchased with my own money."

He called me to his office the next day and yelled at me for another 20 minutes in front of the pedagogical directors and some other teachers.  It was all nonsense.  In a society as authoritative as Mozambique's, it may have been the first time they'd seen a teacher walk out on his director.

But before I left, he said, "we've had volunteers in Machanga for 8 years and I've never had any troubles until you."

What I'd done: brought 50 mattresses to Machanga.  What I'd received: embarrassment and criticism.  Future PCVs beware: the frustration you'll face will blindside you.

First Chance Machanga

See the video I made about Machanga and school life:


My time in Mozambique was nearing its end and only one item remained on my bucket list: assist in a birth at the health center.  I showed up every day for a month to receive the same news: multiple women had given birth overnight but there was no one on deck now; try again tomorrow.

Bah!  Such poor luck.  But along came my very last day of volunteering at the health center and somehow I knew that my Peace Corps story couldn't remain unwritten; there must be a birth today.  I marched confidently into the maternity ward and peeked around the corner.  Empty beds, no patients.  The nurse delivered the bad news: nobody would childslide today.  I walked back home disappointed.

But of course there must be more to this story because that wasn't worth a blog post.

I went running that evening and had made it about 5km down a path I'd never explored before.  A lady was crouched on the side of the road, obviously in pain.  I approached her.

"Are you ok?  Feeling sick?"

She was clinching her teeth from pain.  She spoke first in Ndau but threw in enough Portuguese for me to understand her.  She was in labor.

WAHH!!!  Contain excitement, focus on her.  She had already walked 10km alone and barefoot but was in too much pain to continue.  I tried to support her weight but we still had to walk another 5-6km and I knew we'd never make it at this pace.

I ran ahead and found a guy with a phone, who called a guy with an ox cart, who came to pick her up.  I ran ahead.

When I arrived at the health center, there was no nurse in the maternity ward and the electricity had died.  I found the nurse, who kindly entertained my excitement, and we together lit a few candles.  The mother arrived ten minutes later. 

Hours passed.  The mother moaned in the next room.  At one point she asked me for anything to dull the pain.  I mentioned it to the nurse and she laughed.  "This is childbirth.  Pain is just part of it."

I heard a splash around 12:30am.  I went in to check on the mother and found her covered in a pool of bloody, goopy body-soup.  I had never seen a birth but that must have been her water breaking.  I went to the other room to fetch the nurse, who was napping.  "Ummm.  I think she just started."

The nurse instructed me to put on gloves and showed me how I would pull out the baby.  Grab the skull and pull.  Twist some.  It's actually pretty simple, she said.  It hardly eased my stress. 

But then, out emerged a foot.  Breech birth: the child was coming out backward.  C-section was not an option and because of this complication, we wouldn't be able to assist in the birth; it would have to come out on its own.  This would significantly lengthen the birthing process.   "You've got bad luck," the nurse told me.  "You won't get to deliver this one."  Meanwhile, the mother had just walked 10km in labor and was wailing in pain, laying in a pool of her own blood, suffering a complicated birth.  Clearly I wasn't the one with bad luck.

We saw small movements in the child as it emerged: a leg spasm or finger twitch.  It was quite a magical moment.  But the movements certainly weren't representative of a child seconds from life and, in the minutes it took for the head to come out, those movements eventually stopped.  The nurse tried to revive the child but it remained lifeless.  The world's most realistic doll.

The nurse pointed at the belly and whispered to me, "são dois."  Twins!  There was still hope of a live birth,  and the second child would emerge head-first, allowing for a simpler delivery.  I felt a new burst of optimism.  Alas, in place of the second child was a mysterious ball of tissue that resembled shrink-wrapped meat.  Could that be a placenta?  The nurse wasn't sure what it was or what to do with it and called a specialist.

The specialist arrived twenty minutes later and identified the mysterious tissue; the embryonic sac, containing the second child.  He cut it open and the fully-formed child unfolded out, lifeless as the first.

The specialist explained the procedure of cutting the sac to the nurse.  He said that the second child would have survived if she'd known.  They both then scolded the mother for having waited so long to come in to the health center.  "You can't come in once you're already in labor.  It's too late.  It is your fault that they both died."  The mother's wailing escalated.

They stored the two corpses in the bathroom for the night.

I took a few steps back to remove myself from the hardship.  The specialist noticed I was fazed.  He looked at me and smiled.  "So doc, how do you like being a doctor here in Africa?"


I showed this picture to 4-year-old Gino and he asked me if it was my mom sitting next to me.

Working It Out

8am and Desi was wailing outside her house, holding a phone to her ear.  It so closely resembled Requeia receiving word about her father's death that I was sure she'd had a family member die.

"What happened?  Did someone die?" I asked our mutual neighbor.

"I don't know.  I don't think so.  I think she was hit or something."

Hit??  It didn't make sense to me.  I walked over to their house and all three of the children were sitting outside with thick bands of tears down their face.

The fight had been the culmination of months of mutual frustration.  That particular day, Herculano had been out all night and returned home at 7am, and when his wife Maravete questioned him on where he'd been, he jumped on the bed and began strangling her.  Their 4-year-old son Wesley was lying beside her.

Inside, I heard screaming.  Colleague Ussene and I ran in and jumped between Herculano and Maravete.  Even with us there, she still got in one MMA slap to his face.

A third pair of hands joined us: Nascito's mom.  This physical abuse was unacceptable, she said.  Good lord.

Herculano locked their bedroom door and left the house, while the three of us were left to comfort his wife and kids.  Maravete said she was done with the marriage -- that she shouldn't tolerate this abuse.  Yes!  Way to be a strong woman!  And then Ussene and Nascito's mom both told her that she shouldn't get a divorce -- "these complications will pass over," they said.  I thought they were crazy; it wasn't the first time this had happened and probably wouldn't be the last.  I told her that she needed to get a divorce and that'd I'd help her find a new house.

Herculano came to my house to apologize later that afternoon.  It was a really shitty apology.  "She and I both need to change our behavior, but this is primarily her fault.  She is lazy -- she's forgotten her place in the house.  I've given her everything: a car, a house, food.  She has no respect."  For the record, Maravete has a full-time government job and is neither lazy nor dependent on Herculano for the things he provides.  Then, without prompt, he added, "This dispute didn't start today.  This has been going on for a long time...  You know what?  We haven't had sex in a month.  A month!  I'm a man and I have to satisfy my needs."  That pretty well answered the unaddressed question of why he'd come home so late that night. 

"Do you know how long it's been since I've had sex?" I asked him.  "I don't.  That's how long it's been."  And every time I disagreed with him he said that he wasn't interested in my opinion because I came from a different culture and couldn't understand his actions.  As if there were a culture in which women like getting beaten.

Maravete and her kids are still living with Herculano.  "We worked it out."  The way of the Mozambican woman: to roll over and die.