The things I’ll miss most



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Learning to Laugh Bilingually

I need to start this post with a disclaimer. While it’s all apart of the story and  learning curve,  take it with a grain of salt and don’t be afraid to laugh at my expense.

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Mila, who is from Puerto Rico,  moved to the US for college when she was 19. She was recently telling me that she had studied English in high school and knew the basics, but when she moved to Indiana she spoke with a very thick accent. Her English is perfect now; speaking, reading, writing, graduate school, etc. She said she knew she was really fluent when she could watch stand-up comedy on TV  and finally understand the jokes.

I guess that conversation has been lingering on my mind for a while now and I find myself  paying particular attention to the ways I relate to my colleagues and talk to my neighbors. I know I am not nearly fluent in Portuguese, but what about my sense of humor here.  Have I had a real, hardy, honest laugh of late? Am I getting the subtleties of the language and culture, or have I dismissed that part of learning?

I started a mental note of how many times I could make my favorite colleague, Roberto, laugh – 4 quality chuckles this week. But he’s particularly kind to me, so maybe he was humoring me, literally.  Then I tried to make a joke with my field extentionist – it didn’t work.  In truth, most of the best laughs here have come from the failings and miscommunications that are lost in translation.  Mix ups and mangled words are always good fodder for entertainment, and recently I had an excellent opportunity to re-learn the value of a good laugh.

*  *  *

So a few months ago I was talking with two of my Mozambican neighbors and the subject turned to the topic of a recent rat infestation in our housing compound.  Excitedly I mentioned how I was on a killing spree and had caught seven rats (with a trap) in the last few weeks. Basically translated in Portuguese, I said:  “Eu já mataram sete ratas na minha casa.”

I instantly knew I had made a faux pas because immediately both my friends started laughing hysterically.  Okay okay,” I said “what did I really say???”

Between uncontrollable giggles, my friend Sonia yelled “RATO not RATA!” Which led to the following gesture:

So that is how I learned what the colloquial term was for vagina. I had basically told my neighbors that I had surprisingly found and assaulted many of them in my house recently. Then I lost it too. When I had finally composed myself and apologized in full, I took a moment and reflected on another related event.

My boyfriend recently came for an extended visit and along with other misadventures, Merritt participated in the rat hunting.  In the morning  we’d inspect our trap to see what we’d caught.  When we found a victim, I’d make him take the bag with the carcass to the trashcan by the front gate.  In an effort to discourage local kids and curious neighbors from going through our trash (which is normal here) Merritt would point to the bag and say in Spanish, “No abra este. Cogí otra rata anoche.”  Which in Spanish means not to open the bag because there is a  gross dead rat inside, but in Mozambican-Portuguese that means, “I got some last night.”

Blissfully unaware of his crude comment, Merritt would walk back to the house feeling proud that he had made a few locals crack up with his broken Portuguese, saying he was confident they wouldn’t open the bag.

And I bet he was right.


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The latest addition to our small pack of dogs was a puppy named Bono, lovingly referred to as Boo. He arrived in our compound sometime in May or June and while he initially belonged to the night-guard, John enthusiastically insisted that we keep him. From that day on he was our (but mostly Roz’s)  puppy.

While Simba is the alpha of the compound, I’m sure he’s also part wild banshee and not all canine. He’s wiley and protective but not very loving. Nara, our adopted girl we share with the neighbor, is more like a friendly human stuck in a hairy dog body. She is emotional, smart and curious.  But Boo, well Boo was the only real dog-dog around.

As a real-dog he it was his responsibility to eat every gross thing on the beach and roll in smelly goat carcasses that he’d pull out of the neighbor’s trash.

Maybe it was because he was a loved puppy or maybe it was just in his mixed mutt breed, but he was a loyal and sweet creature.

We had a few close scares with mysterious illnesses (probably caused from some particularly nasty beach meals), but we knew something was really amiss when he stopped being his friendly self and refused to eat. The great drama was that we weren’t sure what the problem was. The district vet came and gave him medicine but he was convinced that Boo had rabies. He told us that typically rabies symptoms include aggressive behavior and roaming at the mouth, but alternatively it can make a dog sensitive to light, physically uncomfortable and reclusive. Those symptoms fit the bill. 

The worst part was that the vet would not allow us to put him down immediately. He gave him a vaccine and said that if it was really rabies, then Boo’s behavior would show more typical signs and only then we could put him down. It was important to do this because he needed to confirm the case and report it to the government. (Sounds like a really awful idea in hindsight to induce aggressive behavior and keep him around but we weren’t really given another option.) So Boo was tied him up away from the other dogs while we waited to see if he got better or worse. We were all hoping that he’d perk up and prove that he just had a bad bout of food poisoning but sadly he only got worse, and with after 3 days of suffering he died.

His passing came just a week after Sonia’s death and again it was a stark reminder of some of the harsh realities of life in Mozambique. We’ve inquired with the state vet about the tests to see if it was rabies but have yet to hear back.  We’ve been told by others that it’s very unlikely we’ll ever hear, since the government does not want to post statistics on how bad the rabies problem is in the country. Even though his life was short, I’m glad that we got to give him a good life while he was here.


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Friendly Visit

Earlier I wrote about how I get excited about visitors and start sampling my activity list before they arrive. The visitors I was referencing are two of my oldest buddies who came to see me in June.

John came all the way from London and Neena from the US. We’ve been friends since we were kids, so when we get together we’re a trio of chatter and giggles. Well, John is a quiet soul but Neena and I are not – so we made more than our fair share of ruckus laughing and being stupid together.

It was the first time for both of them to visit Africa, and since they were in Mozambique for just one week so we had to jam pack their trip with as many of the local sites as possible. I always like to take guests to the Red Dunes because I think they are one of the most beautiful and unique locations on the coast here. Luckily we ran into a local friend who was heading that way, so we quickly bought sandwiches, beer and chips and zipped north of town, past the paved road and through deep sandy roads to get to our destination.  We sat in the shade eating our snacks and enjoying the breeze, dunes behind us and shallow aqua seas in front.

Later, we were traveling in a chapa and even I was impressed with how many people they fit in the van. Normally chapas are overfull with 20 people, but somehow 28 humans managed to cram into the car for the 5 hour journey. Poor John was smooshed into the smallest tini-tiny spot having to hold his neighbor’s baby.

Oh how I wish I had a camera to capture John’s face at that moment. It was priceless.


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Meeting The Presidente

Did I tell you that I had the chance to meet the president of Mozambique!?

I went with my favorite colleague, Roberto Cassiano, to a small village called Mussengue in the Mabote district several hours west of Vilankulos.  This itty bitty town was preparing for the president’s visit and THOUSANDS of people showed up to celebrate.  Don’t ask me where they all came from, since there really isn’t much close by for at least 10 km, but there we were in the middle of a huge crowd enjoying the excitement.  It seemed like a rather random place for a presidential visit but Guebuza has promised economic growth for the region and aparently came to check up on his constituents.

My responsibility was to help with the CARE display table and be ready to offer a basket to the president if he stopped by. We waited for hours then finally five helicopters zipped in and landed in the middle of the field.  Everyone started dancing and singing and getting all agitated for a chance to see the Big Chefe!

Roberto got a chance to talk to Guebuza for seval minutes and explain the different elements of our project.  Then Sara, my field extentionist, gave him a big beautiful Xindzala basket.  I even got the double cheek kiss and handshake. We’re basically BFF now.

The funniest part of the whole afternoon was when my friend Mandy, a Peace Corps volunteer in the area, showed up.   She said one of her students ran up to her shouting, “Hay uma otra Mulungu aqui!” or “There is another white person here!”  Mandy said finding me was like playing Where’s Waldo, except not so hard.  Not only did the people get the great honor of seeing their country’s leader, they also got to see TWO white people in one day. Pretty exciting stuff!


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