Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Last week in the homeland

Arriving in Mozambique last night, the strangest feeling of homecoming set in. Relative to Tanzania at least, Nampula really is home to me now, and it was a relief to be able to switch back to Portuguese after a week of mild bewilderment in Dar.

Now I'm tying up loose ends, squeezing in final visits to solar pumping systems, transcribing notes, outlining reports, photographing Nampula city... this week is busy busy busy, but I thrive this way. It is catching up with me a little though - I keep falling asleep as soon as I find a chance to sit still for a second. The dreams about home are beginning... these and a much-awaited phone call from Tim today are making me feel excited to get on that plane.

Some of my favorite photos...

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Well, if there's one solid conclusion, it's that internet access was not the most reliable thing ever this summer. Sorry everyone, for being out of touch. These past weeks have found me traveling in an SUV through serious countryside on intensely bumpy "roads" (yes, I feel bad about laying down tire tracks on seemingly pristine land, but we are doing a rural water infrastructure project afterall), having final beers with all the great friends I've made in Nampula, giving away all of the appliances and research supplies that were piled up in my apartment, cooking up the strange powdered soup stuff that sat in the back of the cupboard since early July, paying off all of my debts around town (people operate amazingly on the basis of trust), and hitting the Sunday market for a few souvenirs.

In the middle of all of this, I learned that I needed to leave the country in order to renew my visa. This added a bit of stress to the mix, as my schedule had recently become pretty hectic, but as I sit here now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kicking it with the other half of the Davis group, I sure am glad the Mozambican government insisted on kicking me out for a bit. This place is sweet! Upon arrival, I realized that I've adapted to Mozambique much more than I previously thought since this new place is giving me a bit of that culture shock feeling. Swahili, higher temperatures and humidity levels, waaaay more cars and development in general... best experience so far has been passing a Maasai fellow on the sidewalk and exchanging greetings. Ngorongoro is pretty far away from here, but I suppose nomadic pastoralists need to come to the capital city every now and then too.

It's great to be hanging out with Team Amy and getting some much needed one-on-one time with Jenna. Mindy was flown in from Stanford to conduct a workshop on GPS data collection and Iain is in to visit Amy, so it's turned out to the be an unexpected gathering of the rock climbing kids. If everyone can get their respective obligations under control, we may all take a boat out to Zanzibar this weekend and be lazy on the beach. Overall, they're running a pretty tight ship over here in terms of research; it's an impressive operation with more data than I'd personally be comfortable handling. Well, despite our relatively duct tape and shoestring approach in Moz this summer, I'm proud of what we've done so far. Yacoub and Anne leave for home at the end of this week. I take off 10 days later. So no wrapping things up just yet...

(ps. I have lots of photos to share, and a few .mp3 recordings, but unfortunately wireless is no where to be found yet, and I'm not willing to ruin my flash drives by connecting them to the super-infected cafe computers here. Hold tight and I will post soon!)

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Breadmakers

My apartment is packed into a tightly stacked series of block-like buildings, a product of the hasty Portuguese construction period that has left its architectural mark throughout this land. Each night, after the sun has set beneath a brilliant backdrop of reds and purples, and the urgent sounds of traffic and horns outside have finally died down, the breadmakers arrive at their post in the bakery next door to begin their evening shift. Through my kitchen window I can look out across the alley and see these men standing in two rows around a large metal table. To their left is a large vat of fresh dough. To their right, the mouth of a wood-fired brick oven, piping red. With the precise rhythm that is borne from countless hours of repetition, their hands move collectively as a unit, grabbing small portions of dough to throw into a roll on the table in front of them, pass down the line, and send into the fire. I would have never noticed this nightly event were it not for their singing; to make the hours pass, the entire group—maybe 12 of them—combine their voices and construct old traditional songs deep into the night. There is usually one man who sings the main verses, his voice carrying loudly over the rest, telling ancient tales that I wish I could understand. Others punctuate his performance with periodic tones or words repeated over and over. Beneath it all, a few hum low, loud and steady—filling the room with sound you can almost see. Put together, this collection of sounds creates a complex, soul-stirring epic that is neither (or both?) joyful nor sorrowful, and seems to shake the whole building down until the music spills out into the alleyway and bounces this way and that. I think to myself how lucky I am to be living here, in this place that at first appeared to be a drab slum, but at night soon transformed into a place alive with tradition and meaning. Each morning I head downstairs to buy a few rolls for breakfast, and am greeted by the bakers behind the counter dressed in all white. After so many visits, they’ve begun to tease me a little in the way that is uniquely Mozambican: as I stepped up to place my order yesterday, one of the younger ones came forward, and with a completely straight face offered me his half eaten bean cake. I stood there dumbfounded for a few seconds before I realized it was a joke.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Heading out

I'm heading out for another round of data collection in the community of Nacahi in Monapo district. We have an awesome team: Anne, Egídio, our 3 enumerators from Universidade Católica , and Silvério, the best driver in country. I'll be out of touch with most of you until Tues - unless you can give me a ring using Skype (before 6AM or after 9PM Moz time is best). My last SIM card was not working out in the rurals, so I got a new number: +258-883-0059. I'm thinking of all of you! Love, Sara

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dona Micaela

In early July I spent about a week traveling around Monapo district with the Oxford team, visiting several rural communities that were experiencing different levels of water service. The idea was to get a glimpse of the big picture—how water points are (or aren’t) functioning, what sort of local governance structures are responsible for their operation and maintenance, how people feel about their water situation, and so on. In research this known as the scoping phase, when you build a theory using ‘ground-truthing’ exercises, with the hopes of informing a future a proposal that will get funded. It’s really pretty enjoyable because you get to see a lot, think broadly and creatively, and come home at night to hash it all out over a beer.
Being adopted by this team was an incredible experience, and frankly I was quite lucky that they were willing to let me tag along. I don’t speak any language that’s useful here in north, I have zero experience working in rural communities in developing countries, and I stand out like a sore thumb in these places, creating a bit of a distraction. I suppose the one thing I have going for me is that I plan on working here on and off for the next 4 years (hopefully allowing me time to improve on the aforementioned), so their bringing me along was an investment in the future of this project of sorts. I guess.

However, one team member that was worth her weight in gold is Dona Micaela, an experienced community mobilizer who has spent years of her life running the NGO she founded called Salaama, from which she recently retired.
I bring her up because over time she has become a vital friend of mine here, and already my debt to her is enormous. My first conversation with Micaela involved a feeble attempt to introduce myself to her in Portuguese, which soon turned into a patient and gentle lesson in verb conjugation and sentence construction. Even when I tried to escape out of embarrassment, she wouldn’t let me–and thus began my ongoing tutorial, which is benefiting me hugely now (even if learning this new language is worse than pulling teeth sometimes).

That day I was also introduced to the art of wearing a capulana. In rural areas just about every woman and girl you see is wearing a multi-colored cloth that she wraps around her waist and secures using one of several methods.
Micaela spent considerable time showing me all of these tricks, and since then I’ve succeeding in keeping my capulana in place for about an average of 10 minutes, at which point it always comes loose and I’m left running for a bathroom. My capulana is now serving as a tablecloth in my apartment until I figure out the secret that everyone else seems to know.

I don’t think it’s possible here to really describe all that this incredible woman has done to help make my stay a safe and comfortable one here – but I wanted to try so that my parents know I’m being taken care of. She has cooked me numerous traditional meals of peixe grilhado, xima, batatas fritas, lulas, salada, and frango zambeziana. She let me stay at her home for 3 days when I was between apartments. She came to my rescue when I had difficulty figuring out all of the paperwork at the immigration office. She accompanies me to church each Saturday night and brings an extra scarf along in case I’ve forgotten mine (and let me keep one that is absolutely beautiful). She comes by my apartment at least every other night to make sure I’ve made it home safely from work. Even when she gets frustrated at the way I consistently butcher the language, the next minute she’s insisting that I put on some música de África so she can dance in my living room. And just today, she arranged for my weekend lodging at Ilha de Mocambique (a touristy island community a few hours outside of Nampula that’s supposed to be magical) and let the owners know I’ll be coming ahead of time.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jazz Hands (or Why Mozambicans are Obviously Geniuses)

As I was preparing to leave for the summer and contemplating my packing list, I found myself faced with questions n’heretofore encountered: Will there be contact solution in Mozambique? Do I need to bring vitamins for the whole summer? Can I buy insect repellent when needed? What about coffee? (I am addicted whether I like it or not.)

Writing these now, they seem a little naïve or pretentious – like of course there will be a store in an entire country that will sell you these things. But others who have worked on this continent south of the equator warned me in June to err on the side of caution: it will be the little things that slow down your work in the end, such as finding a dang stapler for your surveys. So I packed and re-packed my bags (in the end falling somewhere in between Anne’s uber-efficient single hiking backpack and Yacoub’s 2 giant suitcases) and I think I managed to cover just about all of the essentials of survival for living in a foreign land. BUT! One basic and obvious omission has been costing me dearly until a few days ago: a washcloth or sponge for the shower. It had slipped my mind, and at first I thought this was no big deal, as I was fancying myself a born-again minimalist, an adventurer in the African bush for goodness sake! - and something as extravagant as a loofah was sooo United States. So it would just be me, some cheap shampoo, and a bar of soap in the shower for a while…

Well, one month has passed, and the conclusion is - Strategy Not Recommended. At least not for those who plan on working at ground level in the Sub-Saharan great outdoors for some time. You see, most of Nampula province is built upon a surface layer of bright red earth, which provides incredible visual contrast with the brilliant blue sky on most days—but also is the source of the ubiquitous layer of red dust that settles on me and everything I own by the end of every work day. It soon became clear that a minimalist’s shower was not going to do. I will spare the details, except to say that at one point I thought my forearms were getting really tan, until I looked closer…

I set out on a mission to find something, anything, that could scrub me clean, and I was willing to dedicate time to see it through. I asked around local shops – “O senhor tiene uma esponja?”- to which the reply was often a brillo pad or package of steel wool. While these options actually seemed reasonable at one point (I was getting a bit desperate), and I found myself weighing them against cutting up one of my 3 t-shirts to make some sort of washing device, I pressed on… And then I saw them—in ShopRite, the one Nampula grocery store that seems to approximate a typical chain—a package of washcloth GLOVES made precisely for cleaning humans (not cast iron pans!). Joy of joys!!

This summer I’m learning to appreciate the little things that I’ve always taken for granted. Believe me, if you’re ever as consistently grimy as I am, you will understand… But honestly, washcloth gloves: isn’t this just a genius idea in general??

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The first week in Maputo

This summer's research project requires that I spend most of my time in rural areas of Nampula province, in the northern region of the Mozambique. I was eager to get started with the fun stuff in small villages, but soon learned that there are many administrative must-dos to consider before I can even think of setting foot in a rural community. The bureaucratic hierarchy of this country is complex, and I can't say that after nearly a month here I have a solid idea about how it all works (I have an excuse - I'm an engineer, not a political scientist!). Regardless, Anne, Yacoub and I managed to navigate the necessary formalities that precede any community field work in this country, shaking hands with all sorts of water sector gurus, participating in conference calls with contacts in New York, and getting 'official' letters stamped and signed - all with much help from Vale of course.

This week wasn't all work though - Vale made sure we were introduced to the side of Mozambique that has captured her heart over the past 3 years that she's lived here.
We toured the bairros of Maputo, caught a sunset on the water that cast everything in pink-green-blue, and ate our fill of camarão, peixe, lulas, and other delicious seafood. We drank fresh coconuts on the beach! (Anne, Vale, and winking Yacoub -->)

Luckily it's the dry season in southern Africa, so mosquitoes are a little less of a problem than they are in Oct - Feb. Nonetheless, malaria is still a serious risk and I invariably find one or two pests in my room at night, so a net is definitely in order. Setting up my REI net was awkward at first - something of an effort involving balancing on chairs and window sills. But over time it's become second nature and I think I'm now somewhat of an expert at slinging this thing up to whatever works - lamp ballast, curtain rod, crack in the wall....

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Hello World! After much delay, I've finally gotten around to putting together a blog for telling all of you about my experiences here in Mozambique. I've been living in this country for nearly a month, exploring places ranging from bustling cities (complete with french fries and high rises) to the honest-to-goodness 'bush' (think Vervet monkeys, Spitting Cobras, and fascinating Makua communities)...and everything in between. I am a constant apprentice these days. There's just so much to learn, including the unique form of Portuguese that's spoken here (I've given up on Makua...for now), the ins and outs of the rapidly evolving rural water sector, the details of this country's wild and tragic history that explains much of what I see before me, and of course everyday things like figuring which time of day the ATMs are likely to actually have cash in them.

Access to internet is almost never a guarantee, especially when I'm working outside of Nampula city, but I will do my best to update this regularly. Rather than write about my research efforts --which I already spend most of my waking hours thinking about--I plan to instead give you stories about the interesting/beautiful/strange/hilarious experiences I'm having. There are plenty of those. Well let's see... over 3 weeks has gone by, so we'll just start from the beginning and I'll return to write again soon!


Anne, Yacoub and I landed at the Maputo airport on June 27, managed to get our visas relatively quickly and at a cheaper price than we were expecting, and were greeted outside the doors by Valentina - a former student of Jenna's and our first friend in Mozambique. Vale had already arranged our apartment for us, along with all sorts of little details that would have probably taken us days or weeks to figure out. We soon learned that thriving in this country has less to do with what you know, and just about everything to do with who you know. Note to self...

The Maputo apartment is perfect for our needs - clean and simple, perched high above one of the city's largest sections of trees (though I wouldn't exactly call it a park), giving us a real sense of security. We have a small balcony with a view of the Indian Ocean to the south and the city skyline to the west. In fact, we are quite spoiled.

And because I will always be a geek who is fascinated by the shapes and colors around her (okay, buildings), I must show you a photo of the neighboring apartment complex - I think it's beautiful.