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.