Chico and the Man

jandchico3Perhaps the most rewarding part of being in Africa was the relationship I formed with Chico Antonio. We met one night between sets at a local live music club. I asked him if I could sing with him, and learn his music. I had no idea at the time that Chico is a very famous and respected musician in Mozambique. And one of nicest, kindest souls I have ever met. He took me under his wing and introduced me to his band, and invited me to rehearse with them. Often we would just spend time together, chit chatting, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. But my favourite times with Chico were when we practiced together, just the two of us, at his apartment. Calm, peaceful, focused.

We worked on three of his songs in his native Zulu language of Shangaan, a beautiful dialect that I will write more about in upcoming posts. On my very last day, sitting together in our favourite little watering hole, we sang the songs together, and I recorded them. I present them to you now, filmed by a very nice man named Emidio Noormahomed, who unfortunately I only met at the very end of my stay in Mozambique. But somehow he was sure our paths would cross again.

This first song is called Podina. Podina is the name of a woman Chico dated many years ago. She is upset, and even when she smiles, her eyes are not smiling. He is asking her where she is, and pleading with her to come back to him. This is maybe my favourite for a number of reasons. I love the sound, and how it makes me feel. Over several weeks, I also made several suggestions to change the some of the words and structure of the song, which Chico embraced and incorporated. No ego, just open. All the “home, home” parts, which sort of sticks in your head, and kind of gives the song a lift.

The second song is called Zizi, a young boy of about four years old, the son of one of his bandmates Jose Maria. They were practicing one day, and while he was playing with his toys, seemingly oblivious to the music, Zizi began speaking some of these words about how the sun was setting on Chico and Jose Maria’s life, and how his was just beginning. That nothing in life is forever. Out of the mouths of babes. Anyway Chico turned it into a song many years ago, and as you will hear, I added a little North American twist at the end. “Improv” as Chico refers to it.

The third and final song is called Sinongue, and it is about calling someone from the heart. Chico is playing a very interesting African instrument known as a thumb piano.thumb piano His is a home made version that looks something like this, mounted in a construction hat for better acoustics.

Happy Easter, and I hope you enjoy this musical offering!

Into Africa–February 21, 2013

056Without a doubt, the highlights of this past week were my visits to two schools.

Soon after I arrived, I began asking friends and colleagues about schools that might be in need of all the things I brought with me, courtesy of many of you (money, soccer balls, pens). I also wanted to be sure that these gifts would not end up in someone’s pocket. Initially I thought maybe the flood victims would be a good place for it. But they are getting lots of attention now, with millions pouring in to help.

When I talked to Ida, a graceful woman who works at the same organization as I do, I had very good feeling (and I’m learning to trust those). She has lived here her whole life. She was part of the movement and war that led to independence in 1975, and then the civil war that started a few years after that, ending in 1992. The country emerged from that period of strife crippled, and the slow journey to re-build began. Ida is fiercely patriotic, determined to do anything she can do to improve Mozambique. She fights for human rights, is part of many causes, and is outspoken (not a common female trait here). She could be earning a very good living in the private sector, but chooses to stay in education to try to help the next generation. She holds down several jobs. It’s ironic that in a country that is trying to re-build its education system, they pay those that deliver it next to nothing…about $600 per month. Rent is about $500. This is a whole other issue for another time.

Anyway, Ida mentioned two schools that she has been involved that really need help: Casa du Gaiato (House for Boys), and Escola Secondaria Forca do Povo (Strength of the People Secondary School).

Casa du Gaiato is a school for boys who have lost their parents. It is run by a priest, Father Jose Maria, a very nice man who has been doing this for about 40 years. It sits on a site that used to be riddled with land mines. Most of the boys were found homeless and living on the street. Some have been bought and sold. They come from a range of horrific backgrounds, and predictably, many have serious emotional problems. There are 150 boys, ranging in age from 2 to 18. The school is not supported by the Government of Mozambique, but had been funded by Spain and Portugal when it began again 12 years ago. But they have stopped funding it since the economic downturn, and the school is trying to survive.018

There are five different houses for various age groups. The boys themselves run the houses, with a “chef” and “co-chef” in charge of each group. They meet every day to talk about problems highlights and lowlights in each of their houses and work on solutions. All boys are housed, fed, and taught. They all have responsibilities with their houses, working the land, preparing and serving meals, etc. There are no fences, so any boy can leave if he wishes.

It is a brilliant model. Many of the boys go onto university. One beautiful young man I met–Manuel–has shadowed a doctor for 10 years, and is now providing medical services for the school and the nearby village, while attending university in dentistry…and I think my life can be busy! Every day he commutes four hours to and from Maputo.

Manuel and Ida at Casa Gaiato

Manuel and Ida at Casa Gaiato

Ida and her husband Jose picked me up early Sunday morning, and we arrived about two hours later during the church service. A stunning open air building carved right from the rock it sits on. All the boys were there, as were the girls from the nearby village. I tried to sneak in quietly and sit in the back, but most were very curious, and kept sneaking peeks back at us. Check out a short clip from the serviceAfter church, we met with Father Jose. I gave him the equivalent of about $300 and a bunch of pens. Of course, many of the boys followed us around and were very interested in the four soccer balls! Then we toured the school: the library, infirmary, art workshop, classrooms, and some of the living quarters. Some of the older boys were a little guarded, but I just kept smiling and waving at everyone I made eye contact with, trying to find some way to connect. I tried to speak a little Portuguese and Changaan, which of course they got a real kick out of (in addition to the soccer balls!). If I want to make someone laugh, speaking Changaan seems to do the trick EVERY time!

A young student art teacher at Gaiato

Oasias, A young student art mentor showing off his work at Casa Gaiato. Imagine if he had some training…

We also visited the 2-4 year old house. No one was guarded here. The little toddlers mobbed us as we walked in…smiling and hugging us, trying to find a free arm or leg or anything to grab onto. Then I had lunch with Ida, Jose, Father Jose, and Manuel in the main dining room with all the students. A young boy was hovering around me at the end of the meal, and I felt a special connection with him. I gave him a yin yan necklace and tried to explain what it meant. His little eyes lit up.011

None of the boys “own” their own clothes. Everything is shared and rotated. It makes my wardrobe at home seem gluttonous. I will leave some of the clothes I brought to Mozambique, which I’m sure will also make my wife happy.

It was truly a perfect day, and I am so grateful to have had the chance to do this. Casa du Gaiato is an oasis of goodness and hope in a country where there is not enough of that to go around.

On Tuesday, I visited the second school with Ida, this time on the outskirts of the 045city…Escola Secondaria Forca do Povo. This school is run by Sister Helia, has 3,200 students (boys and girls), and runs morning, afternoon, and evening. In one class I visited, three students share the same desk at one time. This school receives some funding from government, but clearly not enough. Right now the sisters are also feeding and sheltering 400 of the people from Chokwe who lost their homes in the massive floods a few weeks back.

049We went on a short tour, and poked our heads into one of the classes in session. The kids were so friendly, curious, and communicative with me. I guess they must not get many North American visitors! I pinned a small Canada flag emblem on the class leader and she was thrilled.

Then on to outdoor gym class to hand over the soccer balls (see photo at top and video just above). These kids were wide-eyed, smiling, asking questions, giggling, laughing, touching, hugging, and shaking my hand. One even asked me for a signature, and after I signed his notepad, the rest of the class roared with laughter! One girl gave me a big hug and said “welcome to Mozambique.” A real sweetie!061

On the way home Ida brought me to the University where she teaches. She works tirelessly and selflessly and passionately to make Mozambique a better country. She is an inspiration. I asked her about the enormity of what needs to be done here. ”I cannot help everybody, and solve every problem,” she said. ”But I can try to help those in my small circle of life.”

She told me how a colleague of hers was blown up at the university by a letter bomb. Ida was with her just minutes before she opened the letter in a crowded room at the university, actually suggesting she wait til later to open her mail so they could talk. Little did she know at the time that this inadvertent decision would save many lives. Ida has lots of these kinds of stories to tell. She talked to me about the 32,000 students at the university, and how the majority don’t have enough to eat, don’t have electricity, or a desk, or even paper. Despite all of this, and even the poor quality of teaching, they still try to rise above.


Rel and Grishan, feeling a little “tired.”

Saturday I accompanied Mike and a bunch of his biking buddies on a four-hour ride into the hills outside the city. It felt wonderful to be out of the insanity of downtown Maputo. It felt even better not to be biking in 33 c weather! I drove the “support” vehicle for the group, providing fuel and fluids, and helping those who had flat tires. And, it was my first time driving on the left side of the road. Sure glad I was in the country for that experience! It was quite an impressive ride for the young and not so young lads. The halfway point was very close to the Swaziland border, and with my visa just about to expire, I had to leave the country to renew my visa anyway. So I walked across the border and back into Mozambique. But of a complicated process, and I was very happy to have Grishan, one of the local bikers with me. On the way I snapped this 026super cool picture on the side of the road. Love this shot.

Heating up
In other news, and in stark contrast to how I felt during my school visits, I felt myself boiling over on a number of fronts as the work week began.  Ready? The enormity of the challenge before me is becoming more and more obvious. A very different way of working. Reminder after reminder that goes unheeded. Basic systems that are not in place or not followed. Last freakin minute everything. We are holding an international conference next week, and all the key players will be here, so maybe I am feeling some of that as well.The constant lack of courtesy on the roads. Obnoxious, aggressive drivers nearly knocking me over on a daily basis. In the US, they’d surely be shooting each other. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, but for what? Cell phone calls that take precedence over everything it seems, particularly in person meetings or discussions. And virtually no one or nothing operates on time.The dirt. The garbage. The oppressive heat. I’ve been trying to get a few things fixed in my apartment since I arrived, including the AC, but everything seems to be a major problem. One morning this week I was drenched by 8 am. And Monday no AC at the office either.

Sometimes, oftentimes, it feels like trying to push water up a hill. And I don’t speak the language. That is a constant challenge.

All of a sudden I am overwhelmed by the feeling of wanting to get out.

Curious that all these things seem to be hitting me all at once. Maybe I’m having a bad day. Maybe it’s cumulative. Maybe being outside of the city for the first time reminded me of a more peaceful existence. Maybe home is calling me stronger now after five weeks. Maybe all of it cascading together into a big pile of yuck.

All of a sudden, I’m not feeling so “flowy.” Jules warned me about this. I need to calm the $%#& down and remind myself that I’m not in Kansas anymore. And switch off the judgment button again. I need to remember all the good things I’ve done and learned in the last few weeks. Good days and bad days are normal. This will pass quickly. Perhaps being in constant hyper awareness and input mode masks that.

I turned it around at the end of a bad Monday when I complemented the cook at the little restaurant across the street on her cooking. Then all the shite above, just faded. Sort of.

I put my head down again on Tuesday and tried not to let it get me down. Same shite, better attitude. Then the visit to the second school. Then one on one practice with Chico, which was powerful. He is a lovely, gentle man. No such thing as ego with Chico. Then some very good results trying to get Mozambican media to cover the conference next week. Who’d have thunk that, eh?010

I am remembering all the good that I have been involved with here, and that there is lots to be grateful for and proud about.

The lesson for me is to accept things as they are, not how I think they should be.

The lesson for the country is to not accept things as they are if things are to change.

‘Til next week,


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,

Into Africa–February 7, 2013

chico and jIt was a long weekend in Mozambique, as people celebrated Heroes’ Day. I spent part of it with my friends Mike and Liz and a few of their friends–for dinner, then live music. It’s the first time we’ve all been out together since I arrived. Probably one of the rare adult only nights for all of them. I think they all enjoyed the freedom, something I often take for granted.005

This long weekend also marked the official start of the Marrabenta festival, which means “to break guitar strings.” It also coincides with the ripening of a type of fruit, which is used to make an alcoholic drink called “canhu.” Marrabenta is a type of music, with sort of a Caribbean feel. Not something I can listen to for days on end, but I still enjoy. Anyway, Friday night I went to a show at the Franco-Mozambique cultural centre (I know…another strange combination…who’d have thought I’d end up there?), featuring many of the stars of this genre, who each did about three or four songs–the cream of the crop you might say. Many of the performers were older, with younger players supporting them. Very respectful of the older generation. Two in particular I enjoyed: Cheny, a young guy who played this xylophone looking thing with incredible flair and intensity and Neyma, a middle-aged female performer with a great voice and some incredible dance moves. The show went from 9 pm til almost 1 am. People were drinking, dancing, and having a good time. Again, no rules and anything goes….so very different from home.

My plan was to take the free train the next day to the actual festival, about 90 minutes north from here. But I had been trying to connect with Chico Antonio (the older musician dude I wrote about last week), and it happened he was free Saturday. It turned into one of those rare days that I will remember forever.

Chico and the band chico

I met Chico at noon outside Radio Mozambique, and we wandered across the street to a local outdoor terrace. I was not sure what to expect, but hoped we would find some common ground. We sat for the next four hours, had a few beers, and he told me about his life as a musician and life in Mozambique.

He is 55 and has won many awards. He sings, plays guitar, flute, percussion, and trumpet. He ran away from home at the age of six because he fell asleep tending the cows, and half of them escaped. He thought his father would kill him. So he left and has never seen them again. He lived on he street until he was nine, when he was helped by two white men who got him into school. From there he studied chemistry, and then music at the age of 19, and he has never looked back. He lived in France on a musical scholarship for several years. He has toured and played with the best. During our chat, people were coming up to him every few minutes to introduce themselves, say how much they loved his music, and shake his hand. We spoke a mixture of English, French, and Portuguese, but he speaks five or six languages.

There is a youthful intensity about him, yet you can see every one of 55 years etched in his face, and particularly in his eyes. They really tell a story.

I hadn’t made any plans for the day, so when he asked me if I would like to come with him to his home and meet his wife, of course I did. We walked about 30 minutes through the city and his neighbourhood, people waving and nodding to him along the way…clearly he is a well-respected fixture in the community.

anita and jWe walked up 12 flights of stairs to his very modest apartment. Decent by Mozambique standards I think, but certainly not by North American standards. Very run down, water leaking though the ceiling. But a spectacular view. He has lived there for 28 years. I met Anita, his wife of 15 years (his third…consecutive though, not at the same time!). She is 50 but looks 35. ”I chose well,” he says. Chico has only one child from his first marriage, and stepchildren from his last two. Anita showed me her photographs and made us dinner. Then we listened to a bunch of songs he is currently working on. He even lent me the only copy of the cd so I could listen to it on my own. He seemed so pleased to be able to share his music with me. Watching him listen to music was something special. It takes him somewhere else, to a different plane of existence, like he is flying. I am new to this part of the music business, but I get it.

He has done it all and seen it all. Now he plays once in a while, when it suits him. He looks for people and projects that will allow him to explore something different and new to him. He has a very interesting sound…I can hear so many levels and influences behind his music. Although generally not one to label, I coined the term “Africool” to describe his music, which I think he quite liked.

008Yesterday I met up again with Chico, this time with his band–Edmondo, a young, very talented Mozambican who plays mainly percussion, and Chude, and American Mozambican vocalist who has toured with Bruce Cockburn and Jackson Browne. They started with an interview with two dudes from Radio Mozambique, then got into their groove together. They play this free-flowing, rhythmic, experimental kind of music–fun and trippy. Kind of like musical improv. They start with a groove or rhythm, and then build on it. Chico calls the rehearsals a workshop…and I suppose that is quite an accurate description. They bring a whole bunch of different instruments–flutes, recorders, castanets,  bongos, all kinds of shaker instrument, guitars, etc–and play as the spirit moves them. Anyway he introduced me and told them I was keen to learn their style of music, and jam with them (and other stuff too I guess ‘cos they were laughing!). Then more magic: the three of them welcomed me into their band with open arms for the remainder of my stay! We played together for a few hours, and then went for a few beers. I was also their official photographer for the their promo photo! I must admit I am a little starstruck, but what the hell, I will give it everything I’ve got and see where it takes us. And I was so very touched by how warm and accepting and open they were with me. We have another “workshop” session Friday night!

Money makes the world go around?

Switching gears…I am particularly conscious of money here. Those who have, and those who don’t. Those that make it, those that spend it, those that are trying to get it. Much has been said about money and what it represents–good, bad, and ugly. I know that it can do so many positive things in the world, but it can also be the source of such pain and misery. I am beginning to see it as not necessarily any of those, but more as a source or transfer of energy. I heard it characterized recently in and of itself as neutral, but that it is our attachment to it that creates problems.

I can walk down the street here and have nothing left within about 10 minutes if I give it to everyone that approaches me. So why say yes to one and not another? How to decide if one needs it more or less than the other? It’s all how I look at it. How I judge it. If I feel hustled, I tend not to want to part with it. If I see someone who looks like they need it, I will give them some. Or buy a pineapple from them. Or give them my bread or whatever I might be carrying. I am starting to ramble a bit here I guess because I don’t really have any answers. But this experience, and in fact my life in the last year or two, is causing me to re-examine my thoughts about and relationship to money.

Case in point: I just received one of my daily junk emails, this one from Kijiji or Groupon trying to sell me:

  • LED candles (with remote!)
  • Automatic soap dispenser
  • Aviator glasses
  • Wishing lanterns
  • Gel pillows
  • Levitating bottle holder (now my life can finally be complete)

Really? Consider that 2.5 billion people (about a third of our planet) live on less than $2 a day, and this obscene consumerism could not seem any more ridiculous. This kind of frivolous waste has been bothering me since Nicaragua, and clearly it still is.

As I wrote in my last post, I seem to have a pretty good relationship with the staff at the apartment/hotel. In fact some of them are even trying to teach me their language of Changaan. Is this because I tip them from time to time, or because I make a sustained effort to connect with them? I think and hope the latter is true.

There are guys who sell crafts in the park across the street. One younger guy–Raymond–pushes me hard, and tries to get me to buy something no matter what. I explained to him on Monday how unpleasant it is to be hustled, and asked him he feels when someone tries to sell him hard. He heard me, but still wanted me to buy something. I gave in, and bought something small which clearly disappointed him. I think he ripped me off, but whatever.

But there’s another guy–Francesco– who sees me coming now and does not try to sell me at all anymore. He seems interested in just talking to me! Those are the kind of breakthroughs that make putting up with the Raymond types worth it. And there are many of these positive stories. Positive or negative, these people are very, very good at reading and reacting (and exploiting) non-verbal communication clues.

There are fair people here, as well as those who are trying to rip you off, nice and not so nice. I suppose that is no different from anywhere else.

I have talked about two very different types of experiences in this post. The question is how will I view them, how do I respond, what filters do I use, and how do I allow them to affect me?

One thing that strikes me…I am so busy absorbing and learning in this new environment, that I spend very little time judging. I am open, and that’s a good thing. A positive outcome of the unfamiliar.

Lots happening on the work front but I will save that for next week.

I will close with a few timely and relevant words by Neil Donald Walsch (that I know my wife will remind me of when I am home!).

“There is something ‘wrong’ with everything. No matter what you are looking at, you can find something wrong with it, something imperfect, something that is not okay with you. Don’t worry, if you look hard enough you’ll find it.

There is also something ‘right’ with everything. No matter what you are looking at, you can find something right with it, something perfect.”

I am doing well with this here, in the unfamiliar, but recognize that I must try to see more of what’s right always.

‘Til next week.


Into Africa–January 31, 2013

kids under tree1“Many people travel, but you are a journeyman.”

Thank you to my friend Morene for sending this my way…I hope to live up to it. This is indeed a journey on so many levels. It is the perfect quote to begin this week’s post.

It’s kind of a long post this week….but if you look at nothing else, don’t miss the two video clips below.

A little about where I am. Mozambique is one of the five poorest countries in the world with an average income of about $1 a day. About 12% of the 15-49 age group has HIV/AIDS. It has an adult literacy rate of only about 46%, but that is hugely improved from 30 years ago. Although a high percentage of children are enrolled in schools, they don’t all actually go. Further, many of those that do go don’t actually learn much because of the caliber of the teaching. Internet access is about 4%.

Mozambique is one of about 54 countries in Africa, and is about twice the size of California, or a little smaller than the province of Ontario. It is on the southeast part of the continent, hugging the east coast, just north of South Africa and Swaziland. It is also bordered by Zimbabwe and Zambia to the west, Malawi and Tanzania to the north, and the Indian ocean to the east. Marriages are often polygamous in rural communities, with men having 2, 3, or more “wives” here. It is not uncommon for 10 kids in single family, and I have heard of some men with upwards of 30 kids from a number of partners! What up, bro! Many fathers clearly do not take their role very seriously here.

The Portuguese settled this country, and it remains the official language even though they pulled out in 1975, after the war for independence. Then the civil war began, lasting 17 years until 1992. Add in floods, cyclones, cholera, and malaria, and you can see how Mozambique has its challenges.

Malaria is a nasty and sometimes deadly disease that attacks the liver, caused by a parasite carried by the mosquito. They tend to come out mainly at night and can only fly about a kilometer or two. People who live here tend to build up some immunity. Although malaria is more of a rural than urban phenomena, it is now rainy season here, making it even more widespread. There is one huge, main central public hospital in Maputo. Which mean that people come from all areas to be treated for their ills, including malaria. Which means that those that are bitten here in town pass the parasite onto these mosquitos, they bite someone else, and so on. All of a sudden we have a potential central distribution point for malaria!

I regard every mosquito with utmost suspicion, which then turns into a fight to the death. I am taking my pills faithfully just to be safe.

There are about 20 different languages in Mozambique, some very specific to different regions…and we think in Canada that two official languages is complicated to manage! Mozambique has a population of about 22 million, spread out over 10 provinces, almost 2 million of which are in the capital city of Maputo (in Maputo province), which is where I am. Maputo is in the very south end of the country, only about 80 km from the South African border. It’s hot certainly…about 30-34 C are typical highs this time of year. Quite humid and muggy, and not much of a breeze. But it’s bearable, and you sort of get used to it (I was expecting worse). Yet all the men wear long pants, and almost no one wears shorts! So do I for work, but I don’t like it.

The massive amounts of rain continues to be a problem just north of us in particular, with more than 36 dead, and almost 100,000 displaced since my last update. To make matters even worse, a crocodile farm flooded, releasing 15,000 crocs into the Limpopo river. They have recaptured only about 2,000.

For all of you who generously donated $800 in cash as well as soccer balls, pumps, and pens…I think that putting it all towards helping these flood victims might be the best use. Homes, schools, and entire villages have been wiped out. More on that when I figure out how to best do this.

Public transit in Maputo

Public transit in Maputo

Dirty, smelly, loud, bustling, hustling…Maputo is not much different from any other big city. Rich and poor. So many different people, classes, cultures, nationalities coexisting. People are generally well dressed (particularly on Sundays) and polite. There are hardly any street people here, compared to what I am used to seeing at home. I haven’t been asked for money yet. Hustled yes. Trying to sell me things…all the time. But no panhandling.There are absolutely no rights for pedestrians and I mean NONE (you have to be looking all ways all the time). Stop signs mean nothing. Drivers are very aggressive…it makes driving in Montreal seem like a field day. This is very different from how they are as people. Cars seem to have a way of bringing out the worst in people no matter where they are. So many cars here, and people park wherever they want, including the sidewalk (and no tickets!). There is garbage and broken glass everywhere. Certainly no recycling program in Maputo! Everyone has a cell phone which seems strange here, but I guess communicating remains a powerful human need wherever you are.

So many cars, so little space for pedestrians!

So many cars, so little space for pedestrians!

Everyone is trying to sell something wherever you turn. VERY enterprising people! The street and sidewalks are a mess…big gaping holes everywhere. I have yet to see a police officer, car, or station, although there are guards everywhere, along with gates, electric fence “deterrents,” and razor wire.It’s total chaos…but somehow…it just works. Not the way I’m used to, but it works.

This is purely anecdotal, but I sense that many of our western problems–for example guns, bullying, drugs and alcohol, obesity–are much less of an issue here. Which doesn’t mean they don’t have their own issues, but it is interesting to think about why, and how much people of different backgrounds could learn from each other. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cherry pick and combine the best traits of all cultures?

The cost of living is much like at home. No bargains to be had here on food, drink, clothes, accommodation, travel, etc…prices are usually at least as much as home, and often more. For example, $200-250 a night for a hotel room would be about average. Because Maputo is bustling city with money, people here charge what they think they can get, and strangely, stick to their guns, and can usually get it. They are willing to lose sale for the sake of keeping prices inflated. I stopped for some fresh flowers…they had tons of them, and it was the end of the day. They wanted about $10, which I felt was way too high. So rather than deal, they let me walk. I suspect this is a big city phenomena though, and that in the rural areas this would be a much different experience. I also wonder how long this over-inflated bubble can last. And I also wonder how people who live and work here manage.

It’s a very interesting and strange mix of things here. The street names in Maputo for example…Mao Tse Tung, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx….all over the map. Lots of foreign money here as well…the Chinese built the stadium and the presidential palace (using their very own convicts!). Maybe they’re just being friendly. Surely they don’t want anything in return!

Someone told me that one of the things they like about Mozambique is the diversity….and that anything that can happen, and usually does. There’s an up and down side to that I guess. It’s a fairly liberal place  compared to some other stricter African countries, with a definite Latino feel and flair. On Friday night for example I found myself at the opening of an art exhibit….at the German cultural centre! I was surrounded by Germans, Mozambicans, and many other nationalities, speaking all kinds of languages. I generally don’t like these sorts of gatherings as most of you know–too fluffy and stuffy, I am generally just uncomfortable, and for some reason anxious–but I tried to keep on open mind anyway. I especially enjoyed a couple of local musicians, and thanked them for their performance.

“Music is the language of a 1000 nations.”

More inspiring words sent to me by my good friend Thomas. Thank you….

Saturday afternoon I was walking around town, when all of a sudden I heard these beautiful sounds. I followed the sounds to a municipal garden on the ocean. As I walked into the park I saw this huge tree, and underneath it, a large group of very well dressed people. It was a wedding, and they were all singing and dancing. Another one of those magic moments. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible (not really successfully mind you) and managed to capture this bit of video.

Then I started thinking that it would be a great thing to somehow connect and play with local musicians. Try to do here what I love to do at home, and how incredible it would be  to learn their style of music. So out into the universe that thought went.

Sunday night I went to see a local band perform at Cafe Camisa…a cool little local spot for music, and attached to Nucleo de Arte (art nucleus), a workshop/studio where dozens of local artists come to paint, sculpt, play. It was a wild show, with a thumping, almost hypnotic, rhythm.

The musician dude (Ivan) that I thanked on Friday at the German cultural centre (see above), was at this club and recognized me. I talked to him about wanting to play with some local musicians and he offered to introduce me to one of the band members who was just finishing a set. Chico Antonio is an older guy, very talented, and as it turns out is one of the best known and accomplished musicians in Mozambique. He is the main guy in the video clip. So I started chatting with him and he offered to jam with me, and introduce me to other musicians! I finally connected with him today, and hope it will lead to something. Regardless, it was pretty cool how all the pieces just sort of clicked together following my intention.

Being open to the flow

Faces look back at you as you look at them. Cautious mirrors cautious, open reflects open. Smiles bring smiles. Raising your hand as a greeting gets you the same in return. Pretty simple equation, but a valuable lesson and reminder in human nature.

I have connected with many of the staff at the apartment-hotel and know most of them by name. They appreciate the effort. I think they get a kick out of me for some reason. They have a special handshake here, and I have tried to learn it and practice it on them regularly. They love that…I can hear them all chuckling and laughing as I walk away, genuinely amused. Big white guy trying to do handshake, they must be thinking. Funny guy that Mr. Jonatan! Some of them are actually seeking me out…going out of their way to connect and say “ola,” so that’s kind of cool. It feels genuine.

At work I have connected with a few people, after ongoing effort and patience. Tomas (pronounced Tomash), an older educated guy, a telecommunications engineer who also teaches mathematics. He took me to lunch last Friday which I really appreciated. But my favourite is Helder…probably about my age. He is a driver, but also provides logistics and coordination support for the program. Really bright, thoughtful, deep guy who understands big picture issues. He picks me up and drops me off every day. And he has my back. In his limited English and my even more limited Portuguese, we somehow make ourselves understood. He wasn’t sure about me at first, I could tell, but after a day or two, he came around. I mean, how long did he really think he would be able to resist my charm?

I finally connected with one of the women at the office…Denise. We had never exchanged more than a few words. But Tuesday morning I complimented her on her hair, and all of a sudden discovered she could speak English! We talked about culture and music…turns out she’s a singer too, and she has also offered to introduce me to other local musicians!

Not knowing the language is a real barrier, but somehow I am learning to get by. It’s hard though. Now that the novelty of being here is starting to wear off, and the routine is setting in I am starting to find it more difficult in some ways. I get up, go to work, come “home,” usually go out for a walk and a quick bite, do some writing, watch some TV (two English channels: CNN international which is pretty good or bad movie channel), meditate, and go to bed. Then repeat. It is mind expanding and new, but also kind of a lonely, isolating experience in a way and I do miss my wife, son, family, and friends. I will have to find a different gear with six weeks to go. Highs and lows are to be expected….I know I must continue to embrace the opportunity I have here.

‘Til next week…