Into Africa–February 14, 2013

Charlotte, Seamus, and I with Maputo in the background

Charlotte, Seamus, and I with the city of Maputo in the background

“When I let go of who I am, I become who I might be.” –Lau Tzu

This post marks the halfway point of my journey. Thanks for sticking with me.

My wife fell this week and injured her back. It feels very strange to be here, thousands of miles away from home, and not there to help her. I’m sorry Cheri. I love you. And I will be home soon.

Time has moved very, very quickly in some ways. In other ways it feels like I have been here for six months. I am overwhelmed at times by everything, with fear and uncertainty rearing their ugly heads, but I seem to settle myself down quickly.

Here’s a little note I made to myself about three weeks ago: “they have so little in terms of communications, I feel that what I am doing is useful and appreciated. It is not a bullshit bureaucratic exercise in wading through red tape and massaging egos. Maybe that perspective will change, but so far so good.”

I know that politics is inevitable in the workplace, and was under no illusion that figuring out what to do on the communications front and actually getting it done in a very different culture and language would take some very special skills. What I did not consider is that the politics and blockages would come from thousands of miles away.

While I was very frustrated at first, and felt like just throwing in the towel, I eventually came to the realization that in fact what I need to do us re-double and fine tune my efforts, and concentrate on those areas where I know I can make headway at the local level. I must remember how fortunate I am to be having this experience. I also have to keep in mind that this is much different from Nicaragua experience which was physical and hands on. This is office work, and mentally challenging, but just as important just in another way.

I am also very aware of the fact that my “Africa” experience so far has been through a big city lens. Maputo does not define Mozambique or the rest of the continent, so I am hoping to have the opportunity to experience life in other, more rural areas in my final four weeks, hopefully in the context of work and not as a tourist.

Last week I moved to the head office, a short walk from the apartment, and it has introduced a whole new level for my communication work. I am working directly with ministry of education staff, who appear keen and ready to develop and implement communications for the program. But this is a massive challenge because it means changing the culture of the organization. So I am working with as many people as I can, trying to show them how this can help them and the program. If I can get only a few of them to buy in, it will have been worth it.

There are about 20 staff at this office. Very difficult at first, but after a day or two, I began to connect and make headway with several. I am in one big, open office with about eight people. Great set-up to connect quickly. On Friday, Gilberto, who sits right next to me asked me about my upcoming weekend, and then invited me to his home Saturday afternoon! Very open and generous. My reaction at home would surely have been to decline, but not here. Timing did not work this weekend, but I am touched by his offer.

Friday night I was to meet Chico and the band for a rehearsal, but our space was occupied, so I met him at the Franco-Moz cultural center where many local musicians were playing outside in a relaxed, comfortable jazz-like atmosphere. Chude, our band mate was also performing. She was phenomenal–a cross between Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Wicked, wicked voice, with so much depth and character. I also met Manuel, a very nice man who used to be the goal keeper for the Portugal soccer team.

Then off I went to another music spot–Xima–to catch another popular local band. The husband of a friend of a colleague is the trumpet player. They asked me to join them on stage that very night! Although the “unknown” terrified me at first (familiar ground) we agreed to a rehearsal first, followed by a performance with me singing lead, at that club in two weeks! We’ll see what happens. Either way, musically things are really clicking!

In some circles, I introduce myself as a singer from Canada. At first this felt inauthentic. Although I may not be as experienced as some others, I have a reasonable amount of talent, I am working on perfecting my craft, and I love it. So I guess I am!

During the performance at the club, all the lights went out…everything went completely black. But the band did not miss a beat…the sign of a very, very tight band. The generator kicked in about a minute later. In fact the power went out across the entire city, and stayed out for almost a full day. Getting home that night was certainly an adventure! The roads are insane at the best of times, so you can imagine the chaos without traffic or street lights! The power has been on and off ever since, which is causing some big problems for those that don’t have a generator (which is most). Appliances, rotting meat, no street lamps, internet. My apartment has one which is very fortunate.

Saturday night I went to a dinner party with my friends Mike and Liz, and a bunch of their Canadian friends and acquaintances living in Maputo. I knew nobody except for them. They commented later how impressed they were on how I “worked the room” which completely floored me. I don’t do this at home, and am usually very uncomfortable in these social settings.

And there was a clear divide between black and white folks…something I did not pick up until just before we left. I had unknowingly sat down at the “white” table, and was oblivious to the fact that there was a second “black” table. I have no idea how representative that is…perhaps in certain social settings. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of my stay here where “white” has always been in the minority wherever I have been. But this has not bothered me.

chalopa 2Sunday, Liz, her two kids Seamus and Charlotte, and I took a small taxi (chopela), and a ferry to Catembe, an area across an inlet with a good view back to the city of Maputo. Then a long walk on the beach (unfortunately strewn with garbage) to a small hotel for an overpriced but nice lunch (they know there aren’t many choices in Catembe and they make you pay). Overall a lovely day, and so nice to spend some time with them. It’s the first time I’ve been to the beach since I arrived, and I felt that wonderful calm sensation I get when I am near water. I wave of homesickness washed over me as well, and I was missing my wife terribly.

On the way back, the “state-run” ferry ticket seller guy tried to charge me double the cost (40 mets), and he refused to back down. He knew that no one was watching and he had a good chance of getting away with it. It was cheap anyway, so I was willing to just pay it, but Liz would not. Instead we walked down the long pier to the small ferry and I gave the ticket collector guy 20 mets cash (the actual cost), which he promptly put in his pocket. Still corrupt, but we were not ripped off!

These sorts of things happen all the time here, and constantly push your boundaries of what you think is right and wrong. You can hold tight to your values, and not get anywhere, or you learn to play the game, which makes you an accomplice. Hard to resolve this in my mind, but I keep reminding myself that the same rules that I am used to do not necessarily apply here.

Yesterday I was verbally ambushed yet again by someone selling sculptures. He chased me down the street, even though I repeatedly said no. I hit my breaking point. I stopped and looked at him in the eye. “Every time I walk down the street, somebody tries to sell me something,” I said. “Do you think I have enough money to buy everything everybody wants to sell me? Am I responsible because you are hungry and have not made a sale today.” He looked at me. I was on a roll. “How would you feel if every time you walked outside, many people harass you, and try to sell you many things?” It felt good to be heard. And I bought the bloody sculptures anyway.

I mentioned last week how unusually open I have been and the efforts I have made to get to know people, including the apartment staff. I tip at times, but also bring them pastries or little treats sometimes. I don’t want it to be all about money. On Tuesday, there was a knock at my door. Bernardo, one of the staff, had tried to write me an English note. With some help of another staff member, he explained that his father had just died and he had travelled to another part of the country to arrange the funeral. As the first son, it had cost him a lot of money. His wife cannot produce breast milk, and so his young child needs special formula. So he was asking me for help. Not necessarily money, he said, he just needed that formula.

I wrestled with it overnight. In my world, this request from a hotel employee is totally inappropriate. It really bothered me at first, that he had put me in this awkward position. And then all the yucky thoughts. I was suspicious. It sounded far-fetched. How uncomfortable would it be if I said no? And if I said yes, would all the staff come to me with their own stories? I also realized that if I tried to check his story with the manager or other staff, he might be fired.

On the one hand it could be that the staff see me as a sucker, and Bernardo was making a pitch to rip me off. On the other, it could be true. And I am here to help in any way I can. And $50 is nothing to me in the grand scheme of things. And it could be everything to him. So after work on Wednesday, I hunted around town, found the formula, and bought it for him.

Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am, because we are.”

My friend Jules first introduced me to this concept, and I was reminded of it recently by a fellow blogger. Although it does not describe my entire experience here, it continues to make me think. This short piece from David Icke is timely, and the perfect way to end this week’s post.

”An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits. When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for themselves, they said “Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”

“I had a greater understanding of the place that ‘harmony’ has in my life,” writes Elle in her blog Reflecting a Life. “It is about simplicity and minimalism, not just in surroundings but in us. It’s about our beingness, about living in harmony with our world and everyone in it. This love within us manifests itself in good deeds, in sensitivity to one another, to caring and being compassionate towards each other and in being kind and generous and forgiving.”

Something to strive for.

‘Til next week,

3 thoughts on “Into Africa–February 14, 2013

  1. Hello Jonathan and all I can say is WOW you are some kind of wonderful all right. I haven’t seen you around the blogosphere lately and now I can see why – but I’m following your progress from now on. Kudos to you kiddo for your love.

    I appreciate the comments on my post about Ubuntu – I just love this philosophy and it sounds as if you’re a pretty good practitioner. I’m working on it! 🙂

    Love Elle

  2. I just love your last paragraph which is exactly what I learned, felt and have been trying to replicate with others, here at home.

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