My roommate and I left Maputo at 9 am and arrived in our site in Gaza 5 pm after two chapa rides and a 1.5 hour layover in Chokwe as we waited for our bus to fill up so we could leave. The ride from Chokwe to our site was a long slow journey from paved road to dirt road into the far reaches of the desert. There is little variation in scenery: dirt, dust, brown shrubs, and the occasional shack or two.
We didn’t recognize when we arrived in Mabalane; we were only made aware when our director, who was squished up against my left side for the second half of the journey, indicated that we should get out. From the nearest house, we saw a youngish, thin white American emerge. “Welcome to Mabalane,” said Basilio. We followed him into his cement house that is soon to be ours. It consists of two bedrooms and a kitchen. Out back, there is a cockroach infested latrine and a small garden dominated by African pumpkins, which provides most of the green visible in the entire town. The backyard beyond the garden has a pig enclosure, sticks in a circle forming a fence, with 7 piglets and their mother inside. A couple hundred feet from our house is the secondary school. It contains exactly three buildings, one of which is for administration. Outside the school, children play in the dust with rope cords or a deflated ball.
Walking into the “Vila”, or the town itself, involves a 20-minute walk through the dust and slightly uphill. Along the way you will pass several traditional houses, made of sticks and mud or rocks or grass or some combination thereof. The Vila consists of several traditional homes, the cement houses of the prison guards, a small loja that sells crackers, soda, soap, and a few other items. A few power poles line the street, a sign of the electricity that started to arrive here about 2-3 years ago. The power poles were installed by the town’s prison population, or rather, the 100 or so of the 375 prisoners who are deemed safe enough to work outside during the day. To the east of the prison is a singular gas station for the few cars and multiple charcoal trucks that pass through town. The market is further east and south, and occurs every Thursday when venders come from Chokwe with basic goods to sell beneath tarps in the sand.
Our first night here, my roommate and I shared a twin-sized three-inch “mattress” on the floor of our new home because our host families weren’t ready for us yet. We shared a sheet between us and strung up my mosquito net haphazardly to prevent ourselves from waking up covered in cockroaches, ants, spiders, scorpions, or some combination thereof. After settling in for the night, we couldn’t help but start laughing, with more than a hint of hysteria. How did we end up here? both of us were wondering. I’m curious as to if this is some sort of cosmic joke. So she speaks good Portuguese? Let’s put her in a town where no one really uses it–everyone speaks xangana. She likes to hike, so let’s put her in the flattest province in the country. She likes to swim, so let’s put her in the middle of the desert that hasn’t seen a good downpour since 2013, according to the Guyanese prisoner we inherited as a friend from previous volunteers and who claims to be American. They both wanted to be close to a city or in a city? Let’s put them in what has been deemed the most mato (bush) site in the entire south of the country, in a town that has 2000 people on a good day and is 2.5 hours out on a dirt road from the nearest “city”. She likes to explore? The perfect place is somewhere where transit is extremely limited, with only one bus leaving per day. Granted, we are by no means here for a vacation. But man, it would have been nice if the directors had been able to meet at least one other preference we had.
Everyone is here just to work, or so it seems. The people we have met are all teachers or Christian religious missionaries here to save the souls of the people who believe in curanderismo and African religions. Not one person has said they love this place, or that it is a wonderful place to be, save one of the volunteers who came before us, who, incidentally, asked to be moved to another site halfway into his service. Even students often aren’t from here originally–apparently, school is supposedly easier in the mato so they come here from cities to get better grades, and promptly leave after finishing.
I’m spending the weekend with my host family here. They are very nice people from Maputo. The mom is finishing high school and might very well be one of my students next year. The dad is one of those missionaries I was talking about. We pray before every meal. Today I led the prayer in Portuguese. We share bible verses after dinner. The pastor reads aloud from the bible. We then go around the table and share what we understood from the passage. Everything is conducted in Xangana with a Portuguese translation for my benefit. After bible time, I go to bed. The pastor stays in the kitchen blasting a combination of pop songs from the early 2000s, gospel music, the same three Xangana songs he has, and the Portuguese version of “hallelujah” with a far more religious take than the original. This morning, I went to a two-hour bible study in the mud and stick church where the pastor preaches. And thus the girl who refused to go to church since she was 14 ends up being asked to give her opinion on whether we should celebrate Easter by sacrificing goats or not and why she thinks it is necessary to worship God. From this bible study and the translations for me from Xangana to Portuguese, I learn precisely one word: joho. Sin.
Our prisoner friend Travis asked my roommate and I why we joined the Peace Corps. We’ve been asking ourselves the same question, we respond. Silence, for a moment. Then, his response: The volunteers who come here never seem to have an answer to that question. All I can do is stare out into the endless dust, watching the chickens and goats as they roam around looking for food, wondering what the hell we got ourselves into.
I’m trying really hard to remember why I wanted to come here so badly. So badly that I left my home, my friends and family, familiarity, comfort, washing machines, air conditioning. A man I love. This is what I wanted, right? To do service work in an area where I am truly needed? To live and work in a foreign place and learn new languages and cultures? To be pushed out of my comfort zone? To have an experience completely different from anything I’ve ever known? Am I going to run away at the first sign of struggle? What kind of person am I, really? Do I even want to know? I didn’t think that I would be so terrified and uncertain, or that I would feel so tested so fast. It’s taking courage not to pick up and run away. Next time I lead prayer at meal time, I’ll be thanking God for food and for his protection and blessings out loud. In my head, I’ll be asking for força. Strength.