I’ll be the first to admit. Before leaving the states to start my Peace Corps service, I had to rely on Google and the thoughts from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) to build a somewhat accurate image of my new home. Upon receiving an invitation to the country, my good friend and roommate at the time who had served in Malawi nearly hit the roof in excitement for my placement. “The beaches!” he would yell. “You got a beautiful site!”
He was right, but everything I assumed about Mozambique (and the collective Africa) was quickly replaced with interesting revelations about the people, the culture, and the landscape. I realize that it’s very difficult to accurately summarize an entire country into a handful of points, but here are ten things you (I) didn’t know about Mozambique, from the not-so serious to the serious reality of a growing nation:
Kung-fu Movies are National Treasures
Travel the country in any large bus or sit in a family’s home on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll find yourself watching, with much focus and attention, a random kung-fu movie, usually starring Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jean-Claude Van Damme. During my homestay with a very traditional, conservative Mozambican family, I walked from my room to find my mother, still wearing her capulana (traditional cloth) wrapped around her with remnants of breakfast, and my father at full attention watching Jackie Chan take down a gang. Even though the film was dubbed in English, my family was fully engrossed in the action.
Dance Music is the Soundtrack of Life
While traditional Mozambican music often gets its time at parties and local bars, American and Mozambican dance music dominates the scene with all its thumps and unintelligible lyrics. Unlike the states where the party eventually ends on a Sunday to prepare for a busy week of work, Mozambicans celebrate life every day and into the wee hours of the morning.
Facebook, WhatsApp are in the Hands of Everyone
Mention Facebook or WhatsApp to a Mozambican, and they’ll be quick to start singing a popular song that turns the popular apps’ names into verbs (“Facebookar me, WhatsAppar me”). With the boom in availability of cellular phones and reliable networks, the apps are popular among the teenagers as well as adults. Already I’ve had teenagers ask me if I’m on Facebook, and my quick response to them is, “What’s Facebook?”
The Phrase “I’m Hot” Does Not Translate Well
A friend and I were standing beneath the shade of a tall tree as we hitchhiked our way down the country to visit close friends for the holidays. While waiting for a car to pass by and take us on our way, I noticed a Mozambican woman walking toward us. Eager to fill the time with a good conversation, I asked her how she’s doing. She responded that she was well, and asked in return how I was doing. I responded, “Estou quente” or “I’m hot,” at which she laughed and walked away. Confused, I turned to my friend. “You just said that you’re sexually aroused,” she said. I swore to never speak again.
There Are More Than 40 Languages Spoken in the Country
While Portuguese is the national language, there are more than 40 local languages spoken across the country, including emakhuwa (the largest language group), cisena, xichangana, , elomwe, and others. The majority of Mozambicans speak more than one language, with some being able to speak three or more languages. In Namapa, the local language of emakhuwa dominates. My first week in the community, I was given five minutes at a community meeting to introduce myself. After speaking for five minutes in Portuguese, the crowd was silent, no reactions. I ended the speech with “kuxukuru” (“thank you” in the local language), and the group erupted with applause, laughing, and shaking my hand. It’s true when they say that language and integration is key to everything in Peace Corps.
It’s Improper to Offer Anything with Your Left Hand
When first entering the country, staff and other volunteers give you a rundown of tips for phrases and gestures that are culturally accepted. One of the more difficult customs to get used to is offering everything, whether it’s money in the market, a dinner plate at the table, or a handshake, with your right hand. When receiving something, it’s proper to receive with either the right hand or both hands extended. On various occasions, I’ve been called out by friends (rarely Mozambicans) for improperly handing something.
The Northern Half of the Country is Predominantly Muslim
While Christian communities are the largest groups in the country, the second most prevalent religious group is Muslim. Speak to any volunteer who is living in the north, and they’ll mention being able to hear the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, spoken through loudspeakers at a nearby mosque. My house is situated right next door to a mosque, and (when we have power) the first prayer will be around 4:00 a.m. and the last around 5:30 p.m.
Polygamy is Culturally Accepted
Being a single male in the country has brought with it many inquisitive looks and confusion from Mozambicans who are constantly asking about my wife or girlfriend back in the United States. “Wait,” they continue, “you don’t have a wife…or a girlfriend?” They are quick to tell me that I need to find two or three wives in Mozambique. It is common for men to have their first wife and then a second or third. Because women spend most of the time taking care of the children in the household, husbands are working outside the house and often take multiple wives, especially if their work requires them to travel a far distance.
Corruption is Experienced and Tolerated Each Day
A few months back I was traveling back from visiting a friend in the province north of me. I was tucked in the bed of an open-back truck that was transporting people down the highway. Along the highway are stops called controls, where police officers will look over car documentation, drivers’ licenses, etc. The government in Mozambique is notorious for the amount of corruption that is allowed, and the problem comes from the top and umbrellas down to the routine traffic police officers. At every control, the driver is expected to provide a bribe to the police officer in order to pass. Usually the bribe (about 100MT) is disguised as a generous offering for the officer to buy a soda or juice. Drivers are irritated by this ongoing system but are powerless to limit it.
Collective Caretaking Defines the Country
Unlike the United States where individualism dominates, Mozambique and its people participate in an environment of collective caretaking. It starts young at childhood, when neighbors, friends, and family will all help in the raising of a child. It’s not rare to see a small child running and playing throughout a neighborhood or having lunch or dinner in the household of a neighbor. The Mozambican people are welcoming, warm, and always willing to provide help or assistance to another member of the neighborhood or community. Out of everything I’ve learned so far, being here has strengthened my own sense of family back home, and I only hope I can foster such a way of life myself.
Did any of these surprise you? Comment below! Questions? Contact me!