Category Archives: Personal

And I’m Back: 29 Things I’ve Learned About This Life (So Far)

The cake was delicious but decidedly Mozambican. Friends and I have always wondered why cake in Mozambique doesn’t have the same taste, the same bounce, the same squishy sensation as cake in the states. Is it the butter? The flour? The milk? Cake (bolo in Portuguese) belongs alongside bread, rice, and salad as a staple food item in the country. You can’t go anywhere without seeing small cakes being sold along the road by men, women, and children looking to earn a day’s worth from little cubes of dessert. But why doesn’t it taste like cake from the states?

Last year on the same day, I had just arrived at my permanent Peace Corps site and was moving into my new cement (well, cement with a heavy pinch of sand) house. The team of the NGO with whom I was going to work was outside the village for the week, so I found myself in my house eating an overly salted (I can never figure that out) egg sandwich and reading through a lengthy research study completed by my colleague on HIV retention rates in our district. In summary, the day was high in protein and low in social interaction.

This year, whether by coincidence or the guidance of a higher force, my birthday landed exactly in the middle of a weeklong conference in the nation’s capital attended by all of my health volunteer coworkers from my incoming group. It’s as if God herself looked back one year, saw me struggling to put up a homemade shelf made of caniço and rope, and influenced the arranging of this conference. Whoever influenced it, I was happy to find myself seated by people living through a similar extreme situation, dealing with similar struggles and challenges, and willing to take a moment to acknowledge the day of my birth. To say it was much needed is an understatement.

While I was sitting in my physical exam that Peace Corps gave me as my birthday present on the afternoon of my birthday last Wednesday, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned so far. My health isn’t in great shape. While all the important numbers (blood pressure, weight, height) were greeted with a smile and emphatic “good job” from the doctors, I have to say I feel off. I feel a little squishy. My hair continues to run toward the back of my head. I’m sleepy all the time. Walking up multiple flights of stairs is the equivalent of Everest. I’m sleeping under a mosquito net while friends back home are sleeping under their ceilings, like normal people, and are surrounded by babies and pizza, like normal people.

I may not be normal. And I may not be healthy. However, I like to believe that through 29 years of life, I’ve learned valuable lessons that will only help to shape my 30’s (the terrible, no good, very bad 30’s) and help motivate me to spend this next and final year in Mozambique working toward feeling healthy, feeling young, feeling alive in this moment. I don’t promise that my life lessons are earth shattering, but I promise that they are to me:

  1. Kindness is key. Who knows where and from whom we learn this, but I’ve learned along the way that kindness works in two ways. Not only by being kind are we demonstrating humanity’s greatest strength of being compassionate to all of our neighbors, but by doing so we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are not alone and we are surrounded by those who going through life in very similar fashion. We find ourselves.
  1. Cheese is everything. You don’t know how much you appreciate something until you find yourself living thousands of miles from it. While I’ve convinced myself in the past that I’m lactose intolerant (gastroenterologists just frown and hand me a protein-packed apple), I find myself dreaming of sinking my not-so pearly whites into a chunk of cheddar. (Quality) cheese is hard to come by in Mozambique unless you’re living in one of the larger cities. There are the cheap, individually wrapped, single-sliced varieties, but they find a way of turning my stomach into liquid ooze, and I’d rather not. In short: I miss cheese.
  1. It really is about relationships. This is one I’m still working on. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I was able to take on this world by myself. In high school, I had my group of friends, but reaching out to them to hang out was more difficult than deciding that a night on my own would be nice and simple. College was basically the same. It wasn’t until AmeriCorps and the guidance of true mentors (I won’t say their names here, but one was the Director of our AmeriCorps program and the other was her loving husband) that I was able to understand a simple truth: Open yourself up to others, don’t be afraid, and the rest will come naturally. And remember, family members are your biggest fans. Love them every day.
  1. The heat is not for me. Whoever said they’d give up everything for a long life on a beachy island hasn’t lived a summer in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s quite possible that my half-Byelorussian heritage has provided me with a high inner temperature to battle long, cold winters, but whatever the reason, I will forever want to live in the coldest of climates. I miss blankets. I miss heavy jackets. I miss cold rain. It’ll be a long time before I sing to myself, “I miss the rains down in Africa,” but that’s for other reasons.
  1. Travel with friends. Regardless of where I was, traveling with a group of friends provides an instant reminder that discovery is enhanced ten fold when you experience it through the eyes and laughs of those around you. AmeriCorps opened my eyes not only to the Pacific Northwest, but also the strength behind relying on others in unknown environments.

 

  1. Travel alone. For various reasons, I’ve driven across the United States a total of 3.5 times. One of those times I was completely alone, and there’s something that happens when you’re left alone to your thoughts. Depending on your ease of mind (and the fast food contents in your belly), there is a simple brilliance in seeing the open road sandwiched by always evolving and growing landscapes with your favorite music flowing out the windows. This also goes for international travel. While it can be scary to venture out on your own, you learn a lot about yourself by putting yourself in those situations. Live on.

 

  1. Cry in front of others (also: number 3). This must be an American thing. Or a male thing. Or an American male thing. It’s taken me a while to learn this, but crying in front of others is not weak. Crying in front of others is the hard thing to do. Therefore, it is the strong thing to do. We often hold back our tears from family or friends, but by releasing and opening ourselves up, we become stronger in the process. Maybe this is pretty high up on the list because I just watched Inside Out. Thanks, Pixar.

 

  1. Cry alone. We’ve all had those moments. Usually it involves a day of one thing after another. It starts at our feet and builds up until it’s hard to swallow. We want to retreat to find comfort, to find somewhere hidden, and when we do we let it all out. Frustrated, angry, we ball up our fists, scream, and process a heavy day. I say process because that’s what it is. It’s all part of an ongoing process called dealing with this life. Welcome. We’re glad you’re here.

 

  1. Comparison to others is the root of all things evil. This is another one I’m still working on. It’s easy to look around and see the successes of others and be ultimately bitter about the whole thing. Peace Corps sometimes creates this type of environment by highlighting the stories of those who create massive, large scale projects, while the majority of volunteers struggle to get their small ones off the ground. This might also be a strictly American thing, but how do we replace comparison with collaboration and shared excitement?

 

  1. Facebook has consumed 25% of my life (also: number 9). This one speaks for itself. Facebook is the second root of all things evil. And no, I don’t want to play Candy Crush.

 

  1. Find your passion and follow it. I may have stumbled around a bit between a journalism undergraduate degree and a public health masters degree, but life is about navigation and following your inner drive in order to recognize a passion and go for it. There are too many stories of people looking back in regret. I heard it plenty when telling people back home I was heading to Peace Corps. “I always wish I had done that.” Well, start now. Do it now. Reach out and grab exactly what you want. It’s hard, but completely worth it.

 

  1. Help others unconditionally. Often we find ourselves helping others knowing that they’ll feel the need to help us in the future. Or we help strangers knowing that it’ll somehow help to make us feel better about our own lives. But what if I were to challenge you to help someone with wanting or expecting anything in return? This world spins and spins and spins, but when we slow down to recognize that others are in need, and we can provide even the smallest support, all the motions make more sense.

 

  1. Live in your surroundings. If I asked you to describe your front yard, could you? Or describe the view from your office window, or close your eyes and ask you to listen to what you hear around you, could you? Right now, I close my eyes and hear the metal fan rotating slowly above my head, twisting on its axis and unaligned from the hole in the ceiling. Colleagues talk in Portuguese around me. The afternoon sun crashes through the window and lights up the wood of the desk on which I type. What are you currently living in?

 

  1. Take risks. We’re all scared. It’s when we spend our whole lives scared, we start to lose control of what we thought would come effortlessly. Our dreams, our passions, our wants, our beliefs. When an opportunity presents itself, it’s easy to walk away. It’s more difficult to take the risk and dive head first into the unknown. If it’s not going to kill you (which lots of things possibly can, especially carnival rides, now that’s scary), then welcome it and take the ride.

 

  1. Remember to breath (also: number 11). We often forget that we’re doing it, but we’re keeping ourselves alive by the simple act of breathing in and out. With each breath we voluntarily fill our lungs in order to get to the next. When we take a moment to realize we’re doing it, it’s calming, relaxing. It’s basically what you’d hear in yoga, and the friends who I know who do yoga are no joke. They’re jacked. Yoga’s no joke. Breathing is great.

 

  1. Build and maintain friendships. Why are friendships so hard? Am I overthinking something? Should I just pick up the phone and ask a male friend to go eat a hot dog or watch a game or see a movie? Is this what people of our age do? It’s easy enough to make a friend at a random party or get together, but maintaining friendships is something that doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It takes effort. It takes risk. But the payoff is worth it.

 

  1. Answer your phone. Guilty. Guilty as charged. Ask all of my friends from high school, college, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps. I don’t answer my phone, and I’m a jerk for doing it. Here I am preaching about maintaining friendships, and I can’t answer the phone for a friend who is doing just that? You never know what the other side of the line will say. We need to spend more time avoiding avoidance and embracing the unknown. Just pick it up.

 

  1. Say yes. This goes along with number 17. It’s easy to say no your entire life (guilty as well), but it’s harder to say yes to everything. No, I’m not trying to tell you to be a Yes, Man (“yes, man, yes, man, yes man!”), but how do we know what we’ll like if we say no?

 

  1. Remember when to say no. There is a limit. Do you remember that time Jim Carrey said yes to everything and ended up on a vacation in Nebraska? Who would ever visit or live in Nebraska? It’s only one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country and has the happiest living conditions for young people, but I digress. We are just as strong when we’re able to say no to something we strongly believe is wrong. Choose your battles.

 

  1. Dance like you’re watching yourself. I don’t care much for the phrase, “Dance like no one is watching.” I’d rather dance like I’m watching myself. What would you say about yourself if you saw you dancing in a club or bar? Are you sitting to the side? Are you letting those arms fly like the inflatable balloon man? How do you want to see yourself? Let it go.

 

  1. Remember that life is short. This one scares me. As I get closer to 30, my family gets older, and I’ve seen and lost both community members in Mozambique as well as friends here in the country to cruel accidents, I realize life is short. We live knowing we’ll die but are surprised (I’m assuming) when we actually do. Share your life with someone, anyone, and open yourself up to risks and experiences. You’ll be glad you did.

 

  1. Find ways to check your anger. I strongly believe that if we continue to bottle up every emotion that we feel, it eventually starts to seep out in little bursts of anger, confused emotion in need of recognition from others but disguised as unhappiness. Whether it’s counseling, blogging, music, eating, cooking, or talking with friends, find your way.

 

  1. Babies are cute. We live much of our lives in fear of babies, especially at the prospects of having one ourselves. However, we then grow to embrace the notion of helping another life grow into this world, discover its intricacies, get burned by its challenges, console them through the hardships. My sister and her husband have raised the most beautiful girl in this world. My friends are growing their families each day. I can’t wait.

 

  1. Learn to cook. This one is on the backburner for now (yes, pun). I still find myself visiting Lazyland when it comes to cooking. There are so many restaurants that make quality food! And I don’t have to cook it! But I believe this world is enhanced through the understanding of food and its finer ingredients. A high Indian population surrounds me here, and their love for their religion is only matched by their love for food. The spices (I’m a novice in this area, but I’m working up). The colors. Everything about their cuisine screams of life and passion. When I think of American food, why don’t I feel this way?

 

  1. Try (also: number 3) to stay friends with exes. We spend months or years of our lives with another person to only find ourselves separating and going in completely separate directions without much interaction. Why is this? Is this the case for everyone? How can we love someone for so long only to walk away from them? The pain? While I’m still working on this one as well, I’m starting to understand the amount of grace and maturity gained from recognizing differences, appreciating them, and learning from them together as people who used to be together but who are now friends. However, it’s hard.

 

  1. Believe in something. Some people have religion. Some people have Bad Religion. Some people have science. Some people have bad science. Regardless of where we find ourselves morally and ethically, it’s important to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Yes, the universe is larger than we can possibly comprehend. Yes, there are things in this world that are smaller than we can possibly comprehend. But I believe they exist. I know they exist. In this I find a stronger definition of myself, my world.

 

  1. “Don’t look back. You should never look back.” Quoting from my favorite movie of all time, it’s dangerous to look back. I should clarify. It’s dangerous to constantly look back. If we live our lives looking into our pasts and asking what happened, we forget to look forward (also: number 23). If you’re like me and always inside your head, it’s time to find a way to talk through your past, live in your present, and become excited for your future.

 

  1. Appreciate the small successes. If Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s that success is found in the small projects, small moments, just as it is found in the large moments. I could have left after my two month training a fulfilled volunteer, because my host family loved me, and I loved them. We worry too much about the big successes, being famous. Each small success may be a huge life changing moment for another. Perspective.

 

  1. Live for the bigger ones. We don’t know what’s around the corner, but we have faith that our lives and decisions will guide us toward the best possible outcome. I have one more year in Mozambique and many more in this world. I hope to find myself lost in the unknown and embracing the unexplainable, because we are an accumulation of our years. So far I’m 29 years old. I’m happy, still searching, and challenged. Moving along.
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Xenophobia & A Tale of Two Countries

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The neighborhood of Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

An hour before my bus departs, I’m sitting in a small restaurant in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, with a Coke and my phone open to sites about Cape Town. The television on the wall turns to the evening news, and the opening story is about the ongoing violence due to xenophobia near the area of Durban in South Africa.

I switch sites and do a quick Google search of xenophobia in South Africa. The definition is the first thing to pop up: “…the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Xenophobia can manifest in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an ingroup towards an outgroup, including a fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity” (Wikipedia).

Under the news tab, articles are listed describing the political response to the xenophobic violence occurring throughout the country. Some deny its existence while others swear to battle to end the ongoing turbulence. Mozambicans are listed among the groups being attacked and sent back to their host country. Immediately I feel slighted. Members of the Frelimo party, the national party of Mozambique, are on the television decrying the violence.

Being a foreigner in a still new land, I find myself wondering in which group I am living: the ingroup or the outgroup. While I am not Mozambican, I often tell members of my community that I am in order to earn their trust. Often they laugh, but I know they understand my intentions. I am most certainly not South African, so that leaves American. However, with all the horrific events occurring within our country since leaving for Africa, it’s hard to relate to the political climate. I sit in silence in the restaurant, tangled in thought.

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The bus is larger than I had thought with seats that completely recline in order to sleep during the first leg of my overnight trip from Maputo to Johannesburg. I find myself sitting on the second level of the bus in the very front with a large windshield in front of me, displaying the city lights of Maputo. My own personal observation deck.

“Excuse me,” a soft voice comes from behind, “but is anyone sitting next to you?”

A Mozambican man stands near to me, and I gesture toward the seat, welcoming him. We introduce ourselves, and I learn he is originally from Mozambican but has been living in Johannesburg for the majority of the past 10 years. He talks fondly about Mozambique and how it has changed over the course of its young 40-year history as an independent country.

We exchange notes on the different parts of the country, our favorite areas to visit, and the areas that still need the most help. We agree that Maputo has become somewhat of an urban sprawl, complete with western chains and South African product. He mentions the tea fields of Gurue. I mention the Portuguese architecture and untouched nature of Ilha de Moçambique. We laugh in our shared knowledge of quirks, mainly in the form of the national transportation. We stretch our legs toward the viewing window, laughing as we describe how it’s the complete opposite of traveling by chapa (small mini-buses).

Deep into the overnight trip following a few failed attempts at sleeping, he asks me if I’m Christian. I explain to him my experiences with faith, and he opens up to me about his own personal walk with his faith. He opens his phone and shares a book written by his favorite pastor. He promises to send me an e-mail with more information on the man, who he says is one of the wisest men he’s ever known. I’m grateful for his kindness.

The bus stops at a series of bright lights and small buildings blocking the highway. “Come on,” my friend says to me. “Let’s go.” The bus starts to empty, and I realize we’ve made it to the border of South Africa, and we are required to exit the bus, walk through the immigration process, and proceed to the other side by foot. It’s 3:00 a.m. and pitch black.

Passport in hand, I follow side by side with my friend and the other passengers of the sleeper bus. Immigration involves queuing for a while, speaking with a border patrol agent about our visit to the country, and a quick stamping of the passport, but the complex is extensive, confusing. I quickly become separated from my friend and am swallowed into the group.

When I come out on the other side, I’m unsure of where to go. I scan the room and find a familiar face, my friend, waving me toward an exit near the back of the first building. He had waited for me to finish to continue to the next building. We pass armed guards without any hassle, and we eventually find our way back to the bus to finish our journey.

Upon arriving at the bus station in Johannesburg, I explain to my friend that I’ll be staying at the bus station until my next bus leaves 8 hours later. He offers his house as a place to sleep for a while before heading back to the station to catch my bus. I thank him for his kindness but decide to stay at the station until my next bus leaves. We shake hands, and he walks toward his car to return home to his family.

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With my backpack and small bag thrown over my shoulder, I walk around Cape Town taking in the scenery: Table Mountain is seen in the distance with its flat top and a small cable car station dotted at the far end. Small restaurants and shop fill the streets, and families walk in groups with ice cream or bags of food in their hands. A small art market is tucked in a small central square area with vendors of locally crafted goods.

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The neighborhood of Bo-Kaap in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

A couple days before when I first arrived in Cape Town after my second bus trip, I explored the city with a friend from the states. We visited the colorful district of Bo-Kaap before sitting on a small step of a park and people watching our way through the rest of the day. That night we met locals at a busy bar on Long Street, even taking a photo with a man who resembles almost exactly my former roommate in Atlanta. When the photo was posted on Facebook, both of my former roommates were shocked at the likeness.

Today, I am alone in my exploration of the city. The tour bus I take drops me at the base of Table Mountain. I ride the cable car to the top with camera-ready tourists, and together we take in breathtaking glimpses of the city below and ocean beyond. At the top of the mountain, my phone dies. My sorrow is soon replaced with access to a free recharging station available for all visitors to the mountain. I smile at the coincidence.

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View from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Alek Shybut)

Later we visit a few local vineyards, and while the winter season has turned most of the plants brown, the wine is still in abundance, and I find myself sitting with the vineyards in the distance enjoying a white wine. A little buzzy from the three glasses of chardonnay, I find my way back to the bus and we continue to explore, visiting the beaches of Camps Bay, the ferris wheel at V&A Waterfront, and finally ending up back in the city by evening.

The art market all shut down, the square is now quiet with streetlights guiding the way to my hotel. I walk along the brick street breathing in the day’s air and thinking back to my site in Mozambique. I wonder how my colleagues are doing. I think ahead to helping with the new health volunteers’ training. I try to live in the moment, but the moment is instead living in me, re-motivating me, re-energizing me to return home.

I enter the small, street-side door of the Tudor Hotel on Longmarket street. Described as the oldest hotel in Cape Town, visitors are greeted by a tall staircase, a bar area to the left, and a vintage restaurant with wooden tables. Just beyond the restaurant is reception, and a robust woman greets me as I enter. She finds my reservation, explains the details of the stay, and gives me the key to my room. She helps me to find the room.

As she drops me off at the room, she asks me what I think of Cape Town. I tell her it’s gorgeous and that I’ve already decided I want to spend the rest of my life within its borders. We both laugh. She finishes by asking where I’m coming from.

As I open the door, drop my bags inside, I look back and tell her, “I’m from Mozambique.”

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She Who Has Devoted All: Happy Mother’s Day



My mother and younger brother at a pre-graduation ceremony in Atlanta, GA

She loves the wide open spaces of the Midwest. Growing up in Iowa, her current house in Nebraska is filled with paintings and portraits of vast fields, hills dotted with cows, and red barns peeking over the horizon. The calmness of the plains speaks to her in between sessions of hectic work schedules and daily chores.


She’s devoted her life to serving those who cannot grasp to this life alone, and she does it with warmth, passion, and without asking for much in return. People take the time to reach out to me to let me know the impact she’s had on their or a family member’s life. I take the time to respond with a simple, “I know, she’s my mom.”


She swims comfortably in the vast openness of literature, expanding her political knowledge while satisfying her urge for realistic crime fiction (a shared interest among us). Her house is filled with piles and shelves of books already read, waiting to be either read again or passed along to another eager reader.


The Beatles blast from her home stereo while giant beetles take over a metropolitan landscape in SyFy’s latest movie of the week. Her small bichon is curled in a ball next to her as they share glances and laugh at the absurdity of whichever 90’s has been was chosen to battle the CGI insects.




My sister and mother (along with my niece) at a family event 

She’s raised a mother of her own. My sister enters a room, and immediately those in it feel a presence of warmth and lightness. Her kindness makes her role as Director one much revered and respected, while her humor and self-awareness make her a force to compete with in the world of advertising and hilarious e-mails.


I know her best as my older sister who put up with our cruel tactics as three brothers attempting to find the breaking point of another species: girls. She paved her own path while living in a world of joy, fun, and close friendships. Her friends call her rare, and they are by her side at a moment’s notice.


She strengthened our family when she and her husband, my brother, brought their daughter into this world. As a mother she’s caring, understanding, and allows her daughter to explore the same world that she once found herself exploring. Her daughter is just as hilarious and sweet as my sister, and I find myself missing them every movement of every day.




My grandmother with my mother at an event 

Needless to say, my grandmother has raised two mothers of her own. I remember summers as a child spending weeks with my grandparents in their home in eastern Nebraska. My grandfather would take us fishing and my grandmother would show us the complexities of home cooking. To this day, when I think of good food, her mashed potatoes and holiday desserts are hard to beat.


Her birthday cards each year are written with elegance and curves as she explains the passing of time in her hometown and wishes good thoughts upon us. The comfort and love that come from receiving her letters are hard to explain but not expressed enough. They are everything and loved so much.


I’m fortunate to have these women in my life. While in Mozambique, their wisdom and humor fill my days through quick chats or sent photos. Their lives are about balance, but they do it with grace, and I will forever live to find the same amount of drive and passion for life. 


Happy Mother’s Day, my mothers.

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A Normal Friday Night in Mozambique

It’s a culture of drinking for sure. I’ve told people that I never drank during high school (truth), but I’ve done the most of my drinking during AmeriCorps, graduate school (keggers at school?), and Peace Corps. I’m not sure why service-oriented positions foster a community of drinkers, but I also find myself in a culture that not only condones drinking, but uses it as a way to pass the time when there is no work to do during the day.

When my colleagues and neighbors finish work at the end of a busy week, they’re normally to be found at the local bar, drinking a beer, whiskey, or wine with friends. I wonder to myself where the culture of drinking and dance music originated, but I can only assume it came following the struggle of the war and a time of uncertainty. How best to celebrate freedom than dancing and enjoying a cold drink? I try my best to fit in, but neither my dancing not drinking skills are great.

If you tell someone here that you don’t drink (a close friend of mine does not drink), you’re greeted by confused looks and piercing questions about motives. Drinking is so engrained in life here that young children often attempt to track down nearly empty containers of hard alcohol to drink. It’s something difficult to see, but how would we address this? Where would we begin?

I often wonder if it’s a result of living in the “bush.” My site is located far north in the country, and the nearest city is about three hours away. Is this simply a consequence of living in the middle of nowhere? Do Mozambicans find refreshment in drinking? Do they drink to lubricate their nerves, stresses? These questions, I believe, have complex answers that I’m not comfortable exploring. 

Still, a cold drink at the end of the day helps to build relationships with locals, pass the time on a hot evening, and relieve stress from the busy week. I wondered why they stressed drinking challenges during our training, and it’s become very clear. 

It’s a culture of drinking for sure.

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The Hour of the Thief: On Corruption, Transparency, and Silver Linings

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A portrait of former Mozambique President Armando Guebuza hanging in the community radio station in Namapa, Mozambique (Photo: Alek Shybut)

I’m holding the katana in my hand, and I can’t quite remember how I got to this point. I remember why I bought the giant knife in the first place, but the movements leading up to it were not entirely my own. It’s easy enough to blame the culture, even easier to blame the one who tried to enter my house, but my reaction is entirely my own, and it is within my reaction that I find myself lost, detached from the original motivations for arriving here.

I walk around my community with a new sense of foreignness. With each set of eyes that I find myself locked, I consider the possibility that this is the person who attempted to intrude into my private life, quickly gather my things to sell on the road, maybe try to subdue me through violence (although I’m not entirely sure the person knew I was home). The faces that were starting to become familiar are drastically distorted into potential threats. I feel nervous, uncomfortable, unable to breath. I can’t remember how I got here.

My work in the community is affected, as I start to fear the outside. Instead of wanting to spend my days walking through the community, exchanging gestures with my new family, I find myself locked indoors, cradled under my mosquito net, attempting to catch up on sleep after a week of lost sleep due to the incident. I wonder if this is something I’ll be able to come back from. I wonder if this will happen again. I fear both, and I find no answers.

When I do eventually sleep, I wake often. The night that it happened, I woke around 3:30 a.m. to the sound of metal on metal, screwdriver on lock, knife on grate, my imagination races. The veranda of my house shares a window with my bedroom, and my bed is tucked closely to said window, allowing me to peer outside toward my front door and beyond. The sound causes me to rise in bed and slowly assess the environment. My contacts, sleeping soundly in their case, and glasses, tucked somewhere in my backpack, are not with me, and the entire room is blurred, making it difficult to see. I realize that the sound is coming from my front door’s grate, and I instinctively yell Leave! in Portuguese. A blurred figure slowly walks away from my front door, and I’m left breathless in the silence, heart pounding.

A few minutes later, I rise to my feet, carefully enter my kitchen area, open the door to the veranda, and check the front grate. The lock that had been firmly in place before I lay down to rest is now several feet away in the dirt, popped open, broken. I scan the front yard and find nobody remaining behind. The silence of the middle of the night, with the exception of the occasional cat meowing or insect calling, is both comforting and terrifying. I throw on a different lock, slam the door, take additional precautions in closing it, and return to bed.

The next day, the katana is resting in my hands. With its wooden handle and long, metal blade, it seems sturdy enough but probably only good for a couple uses. Along one face of the blade are three, printed lines for writing information. I examine the blade and don’t understand what one would write on the printed lines: This weapon belongs to Alek Shybut. Please don’t steal it. The word weapon bounces around inside my head, unfamiliar and foreign among my normal thoughts of volunteerism, health, peace.

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My first home in Mozambique consisted of three small rooms: one for the kitchen, one for my host family to sleep in, and the other for a volunteer (newly built, as I was their first volunteer). The town of Namaacha always felt safe to me, whether it was because I am a male or I was naïve to the dangers of maintaining American habits in a country rebounding from war, loss, corruption. My family helped me feel safe. They were warm, loving, enough to distract me from the risks of being a foreigner in a foreign place.

Each night when we would go to sleep, my host mother would pile large, yellow water containers in front of the main door. When asked about it, she simply replied that “there are thieves everywhere.” I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that thieves existed in Mozambique, my ideas were just temporarily blurred by observing the warm spirit of the neighborhood in which I lived: families offering assistance to a growing child, waving and yelling of my name as I enter the community. This is the Mozambique for which I signed up. This is the Mozambique that is presented to us. Although, the signs of thievery were in front of me the whole time. There’s no one to blame but the one who refuses to see.

Late in our training during the first two months of service, a female trainee in my group was returning home in the dark of the night by herself. She was using a cell phone and a stranger passed her in the darkness. He said good evening before turning around, striking her in the face, and swiping the phone from her possession before disappearing in the shadows. The following day, we comforted our friend and heard from our supervisors about the incident. The thieves who were hidden before had unveiled their true nature.

However, sometimes the thieves do not need the darkness; they simply need the law.

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Speak with any volunteer who has served in Mozambique about public transportation in the country, and you’ll surely hear about the damaged infrastructure of the roads, poor condition of bridges, and dangerous state of the vans and busses that carry passengers to their destination. It’s common knowledge that transportation in Mozambique is treacherous. Volunteers in the past have lost their lives trusting those who work in it.

However, the second thing you’re likely to hear about is the way in which the drivers of these vans and busses are treated by those who have sworn to protect the laws of the country: police officers. Drivers have learned to carry large currency in case they are stopped by one of many control officers that are placed on the national highway running north and south in Mozambique. Upon stopping, the officers explain to the driver that they are hungry, thirsty, or in need of a fee for a random infraction. The driver pays, because what else can the driver do, the police officer dismisses the driver, and life continues.

One day I was traveling by bus to visit a friend in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. Stopped at one of these control areas, a member of the police entered the bus, started asking Mozambicans and foreigners for documentation (luckily we’re told to carry our passports or certified copies with us at all times), and searched for those who did not have any. A man sitting close to me across the aisle was the unfortunate one of the day to not have proper documentation. He was told to stand from his seat and follow the officer off the bus, but the man refused. He sat in place, asked the police officer repeatedly for the reason, and attempted to evade the situation. Eventually the police officer grabbed the man by the arm, pulled him from his seat kicking and arguing, and was hauled off the bus.

During this altercation, I looked around the bus to see reactions of those with whom I was traveling. Eyes were firmly locked in an unknown space outside the window. Even the man sitting next to the frustrated passenger refused to acknowledge the happening. Much as malaria or other common illnesses have become everyday life for the people of Mozambique, putting up with and simply surviving the wrath of corruption has as well. The law is strong, and while the people are stronger, the will to push against it has yet to build.

While corruption flourishes on the ground, it’s high above with those who make the laws that corruption really finds its home.

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Transparency International, a non-profit, non-governmental organization against corruption, works “to stop corruption and promote transparency, accountability and integrity at all levels and across all sectors of society” (Mission statement). With the vision of a “world in which government, political, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption,” the organization provides statistical data about a country’s corruption and offers the information free of charge in order to hold accountable those who aren’t.

Using their Corruption Perceptions Index, TI measures levels of perceived corruption around the world. The CPI, a composite index, ranks countries based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. Scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) with additional data provided about a country’s control of corruption (perceptions of the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain), open budget index (availability in each country of eight key budget documents), and judicial independence (perceived extent in which the judiciary of a country is independent from the influences of members of government, citizens, or firms).

Let’s start by looking at the least corrupt country in the world (according to TI): Denmark (population: 5.5 million, GDP: $309.87 billion, life expectancy: 78.6 years)

DenmarkFlag

Corruption Percentage Index Score (2014): 92/100 (Rank: 1/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): 2.373760444 (Percentile rank: 100%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 6.6/7 (Rank: 2/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Additionally, using information from the United Nations, TI includes statistics on the Human Development Index rank and score for each country. Denmark is ranked very high and ranks sixteenth in the world out of 187 countries on the index.

Let’s continue by taking a look at one of the most corrupt countries in the world (according to TI): North Korea (population: 24.3 million, life expectancy: 68.43 years)

NorthKorea

Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 8/100 (Rank: 174/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): -1.340157209 (Percentile rank: 3%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Using the statistics above to put into context the amount of corruption that may or may not be existent in Mozambique (population: 23.4 million, GDP: $9.59 billion, life expectancy: 49.28 years), let’s take a look at the findings according to TI.

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Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 31/100 (Rank: 119/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): -0.395968044 (Percentile rank: 43%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 2.7/7 (Rank: 114/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Human Development Index Score (2011): 0.322 (Low) (Rank: 184/187 countries)

The index is classified into four quartiles: very high, high, medium, and low.

While Mozambique lands somewhere in the middle, the information is alarming. Falling closer to the more corrupt line, it’s clear that government and personal interest influence not only the judicial systems within the country but also lead to lower life expectancy and a lower HDI score for its people. However, there is some good news.

Using their Global Corruption Barometer, Transparency International collected surveys from everyday people who have confronted corruption around the world. Out of the 1,000 people who completed the survey (2013), 32% said that corruption has increased a lot in the past two years, 27% said it’s increased a little, 24% said it’s stayed the same, and 15% said it has decreased a little.

When asked to what extent the participants thought corruption was a problem in the public sector in Mozambique, 45% said it is a serious problem, 29% said it’s a problem, 17% said it’s a slight problem, and only 4% said it’s not a problem at all.

When asked to what extent is the government run by a few big entities acting in their own best interests, 29% of participants said entirely, 31% said to a large extent, 29% said somewhat, and 10% said limited extent.

When asked how effective the people though their government’s actions were in the fight against corruption, 18% said very ineffective, 30% said their ineffective, 31% said they are neither effective nor ineffective, 19% said they are effective, and 2% said they are very effective.

The following are percentages of respondents who felt that the institutions listed below were corrupt/extremely corrupt in Mozambique:

Political parties: 58%

 

Parliament/Legislature: 49%

 

Business: 45%

 

Education systems: 79%

 

Judiciary: 69%

 

Medical and health services: 70%

 

Police: 84%

 

Public officials and civil servants: 74%

 

While the argument is clear that the people believe that many systems and areas of Mozambique are severely corrupt, there is a bright spot to be found in this data, and it’s one that has many implications for Peace Corps volunteers as well as those who are looking to change the system from within.

The respondents were asked to what extent they agree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption: 16% said they strongly agree, 48% said they agree, 25% disagreed, and 12% strongly disagreed. There is hope for fueling change from those who believe corruption can be changed through strong programs, whistleblowing activities, and organizations working to strengthen those systems seen as corrupt.

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Just for fun, let’s take a look at the United States of America (population: 309.1 million, GDP: $14.59 trillion, life expectancy: 78.09 years) and see where we land as far as corruption and transparency (according to TI).

flag_USA

Corruption Perceptions Index Score (2014): 74/100 (Rank: 17/175 countries)

Scores range from 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

 

Control of Corruption Score (2010): 1.232890271 (Percentile rank: 86%)

Point estimates range from about -2.5 to 2.5. Higher values correspond to better governance outcomes.

 

Judicial Independence Score (2011-2012): 4.9/7 (Rank: 36/142 countries)

Scores range from 1 (heavily influenced) to 7 (entirely independent).

 

Human Development Index Score (2011): 0.910 (Very High) (Rank: 4/187 countries)

The index is classified into four quartiles: very high, high, medium, and low.

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A few weeks later, and I have a guard who watches over my house at night thanks to my landlord who kindly hired him for me. I’m sleeping well, and the incident has since been forgotten from my instinctual memory. No longer do I look at those around me in fear, but I am finding once again the reasons for choosing to be here (because at the end of the day, we have to remember that we chose to be here.) Our lives directed us here for a reason, and I refuse to give up on the possibility of witnessing great (or minor) change in Mozambique.

The katana is tucked safely away in a storage area in my house, only to be used to cut tall grass, open coconuts, or attack the real dangers of the community: giant spiders. While I don’t think I would ever fully be able to attack another human being with a weapon, being in that place of mind was one I hope I do not have to experience again.

It’s easy to lose sight of who is to blame when it comes to thieves and their need to steal. It’s easy to blame them for their decisions in life, but we must have the strength and knowledge to look beyond our own anger and recognize the fractures and breaks within an already fragile infrastructure. The people of Mozambique clearly recognize the issues, and together we can help them to strengthen their own systems, strengthen their lives.

The day after the incident happened, I was talking to a friend who works at the small store across from my house. When he heard that the thief showed up to my house around 3:30 a.m., he raised his head and said, “Awww, the hour of the thief.” This stuck in my head and continues to bounce around when I start to feel myself slipping into the safety of isolation. Just as thieves are affected by the umbrella of a broken system, so, too, are we affected by the umbrella of negative thoughts that steal our days and disregard our hopes.

Not today, thief. Not today.

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Ten Helpful Portuguese Phrases to Know in Mozambique (& How To Say Them)

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While the language of Portuguese is obviously more intricate than a list of ten phrases, I’ve found myself using these phrases more than any other throughout the country. Call it survival Portuguese or small talk Portuguese, but these phrases are spoken more throughout the day because of how common it is to greet someone in passing or strike up a short conversation with a neighbor or friend.

  1. Bom dia (bohm-dee-ya) | Boa tarde (Boo-ah-tar-dee) | Boa noite (Boo-ah-noyte) = Good morning | Good afternoon | Good night

Seventy-five percent of the interactions I have with people in Mozambique simply involve these three phrases. When you’re passing someone in the street, it’s tradition to simply smile and use one of these three phrases depending on the time of day. While the first and second are easy enough to estimate (before and after noon, respectively), the latter is a hotly debated topic among volunteers and locals. When is the proper time to use “boa noite”? In my opinion (and from a conversation with my host mother), it’s after 6:00 p.m.; however, others will tell you it’s when it’s dark outside. The world may never know.

  1. Por favor (pour-fah-vor) | Obrigado/a (oh-bree-gah-doo/dah) = Please | Thank you

While the inclusion of these two phrases may seem like common sense, I’ve found that politeness is the one thing that can differentiate you (positively) from other Portuguese-attempters. In my experience, the former is used far less than the latter, but both are highly used and respected among locals. “Please” is simple enough to understand and used by everyone in the same way, but the use of “thank you” depends on the gender of the speaker. If you are male, you will use “obrigado.” If you are female, you will use “obrigada.” This never changes, so feel free to just forget the word for the opposite sex.

  1. Desculpe (desh-cool-puh) | Desculpe-me (desh-cool-puh-may) = Sorry | Excuse me

This is one that I’m starting to phase out of my vocabulary here in Mozambique. Back in the United States, I’m a constant sorry-er. Even when a sorry isn’t necessarily needed in the situation, I’m throwing them around like candy in a parade. However, the people in Mozambique are less likely to respond to a sorry with the same kind of empathy as in the states. Just as they tell us to walk tall and determined to avoid burglaries in urban areas, it’s necessary to be assertive in your speech in Mozambique to show strength, confidence. The latter (desculpe-me) is used when walking between people in a crowded market or trying to get someone’s attention. I think the general rule is to just not overuse either.

  1. Estamos juntos (Esh-tom-oosh-joon-toosh) = We are together

There’s potency in its brevity. When you first meet someone in Mozambique, it’s tradition to finish the conversation with this phrase. It’s already my favorite saying that I’ve learned, and I continue to search my brain for an American counterpart. Look forward to working with you? Happy to have you here? Welcome? While we might have a counterpart in English, there’s something stunning in the hopefulness about saying this phrase in Mozambique and genuinely feeling that you’re part of a growing country.

  1. Senhor (sen-your) | Chefe (chef-ee) | Boss (boss) = Sir | Boss | Boss

You would expect to use these three words with your supervisors at work (which you can, especially with Directors of Health or other high-ranking positions); however, in a country plagued by corruption, these words go a long way in protecting you from harassment from police officers and government officials. The country of Mozambique is all about respect. When you’re speaking to someone older or in a higher position, you’ll use a different verb tense to show admiration, formality.

When being harassed by a corrupt police officer to offer him or her a bribe, using “chefe” or “boss” will show that you know they are in control. While we all would rather tell them a different phrase with a little more sting, corruption belongs to a larger war outside our own efforts; however, it doesn’t mean you can’t calm the situation and win the battle, usually by just showing identification and saying you don’t have any money to offer.

  1. Não faz mal (now-fahz-mahl) | No problem!

Translating literally to “it means to harm” or “it does no harm,” this phrase is used often throughout the country in reply to someone saying sorry or excuse me. I like it, because it mirrors our own phrases such as “don’t worry about it” or “no problem.”

  1. Quanto custa? (Quan-too-coosh-tah?) = How much is it?

Knowing this phrase, as well as how to understand numbers in Portuguese and the value of Mozambican currency (30MT=$1), will help you get by in urban or rural areas when buying something from a market or vendor on the street. The difficulty is being overcharged because you’re a foreigner and they know you aren’t familiar with the pricings. A tip is to ask someone nearby how much the item is usually or having them ask the vendor.

  1. Bom apetite (bohm-ah-pay-teet) | Boa viagem (boo-ah-vee-ah-jem) | Have a nice meal | Have a nice trip

When eating with someone or a large group in Mozambique, it’s tradition to start the meal with this phrase, wishing the group a satisfying meal. We’ve all heard this used back in the states or throughout other parts of the world, but here it is a respectful and simple way of showing kindness to fellow travelers or Mozambicans. The second is used before any long trip or voyage to wish the traveler good luck.

  1. Chega (shay-gah) | I’m full!

Mozambicans are notorious for pushing more and more food out of respect for a visitor or foreigner, but the time comes when you’re so filled with rice, beans, and savory meats, that you simply have to tell them you’re full. Translating literally to “arrive,” the phrase lets your friends know that you couldn’t possibly eat another bite of food. You’ve arrived, or your belly has arrived, or a potential sleepy coma has arrived. Chega!

  1. Até já (ah-tay-jah) | See you soon

This is an informal phrase used to say goodbye to a close friend or colleague. While it doesn’t necessarily work in a more formal manner, it is used often throughout my community. Translating literally as “until already,” it doesn’t make literal sense, but it’s a phrase adopted to mean that the conversation will continue on.

Bonus Phrases that Incorporate English Words!

 

  • Ta Nice! (tah-nice) = That’s nice!
  • Estou biz (esh-toe-biz) = I am busy!
  • Hello! (Hello) = Hello! (Was that one so hard?)

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Questions? Comments? Need other phrases translated? Contact me!

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On Living in the Moment

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Photo: A bridge constructed for easier passage across a lagoon in Quissico, Mozambique.

I fall asleep at night wondering about the next day. What do I need to get done? Who is going to help me with my projects? Is it going to rain, and everyone in the community will stay inside their houses? Are we going to have power? These questions shoot through my mind, passing one another and forming other more complex questions that, against all of my attempts, don’t have a real solution or answer, because the real answer is: who knows.

I fall asleep at night wondering about the next year. Where do I want to plant myself at the end of my service? Where is the most competitive environment I could find myself? Where are my good friends planning to live? These questions collide with my thoughts about the next day, and soon enough I find myself in a sticky sweat, unable to sleep, and staring up at my mosquito net. The air in my room is humid. I walk outside my house to breath cool air.

I stare up at the sky and wonder why I had been worrying in the first place. Questions about my life, whether it’s tomorrow or a year from now, melt away and are replaced by countless balls of gas hanging low in the clear sky, burning their ancient light deep into the twisted center of my consciousness. The image calls back memories of walking across the street to my best friend’s house during middle and high school. For the longest time, I swore to myself that I would pursue astronomy, because to get paid to get lost in the stars sounded unique, and, at the time, I needed something unique.

I look around each day and wonder what I’m missing. Walking to and from work, Mozambican children run up and down the main road, still dressed in their school uniforms, and laughing together as they walk to the local store to buy a sucker or bread. I walk past the primary school, and young children poke their heads out the broken windows to yell my name. Many of them I do not know, but it doesn’t matter. I wave back and yell “good morning!” with a smile on my face and my hand high in the air.

I look around each day and wonder who I’m missing. In the faces of the children I see my niece. With her since she was brought into this world, I am now ages away, and the distance feels farther and farther each day, but I know exactly where she’ll be upon my arrival: either tucked in her bed sleeping after watching Monster High or Scooby-Doo or standing tall on a bicycle as the final light of a summer day hits her blonde hair and lights up everything in her expression.

I look around each day and wonder who I’m missing. I speak with my brother and his wife who are planning to build a new home together (literally, they’re moving forward with building a house). I look forward in the future to days spent in their new home, curled up in a warm blanket watching a movie, playing a board game at the kitchen table, or (attempting) to bake with my sister-in-law. My sister is there with her husband, and we’re all standing in the kitchen laughing at a story from the day. My younger brother pops his head in after a cross-city run, as he describes getting honked at for his short shorts.

I look around each day and wonder who I’m missing. I speak with my mother and my father, and they’re both proud of the work that I’m doing in Mozambique. I tell them that I’m putting pressure on my shoulders to deliver something great, and they respond by reminding me that the world wasn’t built in a single day. People take time. Health takes time. I wish the best for them, and streams of memories flow through my mind as we speak.

I look around each day and wonder what I’m doing here. I remind myself of the path that I’ve chosen for myself. I run through the list of reasons that this will be good for my future. I explain to myself on the walk home that not all days will be a success, and that change will come in time. I challenge myself to stop overthinking life. I push myself to remember that, soon, all of this will be gone, and I will only have memories of the experience.

I fall asleep at night wondering about the next day. Who will I be able to help? Who will I have a good conversation with? Who will yell my name from the road? I calm my mind and remind myself that the next day is bound to be better than the day before. How couldn’t it be? It is on these days that we accumulate shared experiences with the world, the environment, and it is on these days that I remind myself to stay present, stay focused.

To live in the moment.

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On God and Finding Faith in the Shadow of Uncertainty

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The woman points toward an unimpressive house adjacent to the recently constructed gas station parking lot. The cement extends toward the house before breaking up, exposing thick grass that rests upon a lanky, wooden fence that obscures the view of the yard.

“A woman used to live in that house,” she says staring in the direction of the house and barely blinking. “She died last week.”

“That’s so sad,” I say in response, now also staring toward the house. “What happened?”

“She died from some disease,” now she’s looking in her lap and fiddling with her cell in her hands. “Not sure what disease.”

I tell her that I work in a hospital up the road about 100 kilometers and see a lot of patients who abandon their treatment early for various reasons and end up dying from the complications.

Seemingly unsurprised by this information, she raises her eyebrows and rises from her chair to go and help a customer who is putting gas in his car’s tank. “If it’s God’s will,” she says as she continues toward the man, “it’s God’s will.”

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I’m taken aback by the sight of it. A familiar symbol (above) is painted above the entryway to the church: the thick, black cross with the red cloth resting upon the arms. The words Igreja Metodista are painted above the symbol.

Until this moment, I had not seen a Methodist Church in Mozambique. Sure, I’d seen places of worship for other beliefs – Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical – but this was different. This was personal.

It’s a few days before Christmas Day, and I’m visiting close friends in the southern province of Inhambane in Mozambique. I take a moment to let the sight of the church sink into place before continuing on to my friend’s house located next door.

A few days later, I excuse myself from my group of friends and head toward the church. I expect to encounter life and jubilance and, instead, am surprised to find the church completely empty. The front door is propped open, and the wooden shudders that act as windows are spread wide, flooding the interior of the church with the remaining light of the day.

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I slowly move through the small church, taking in the familiar and appreciating the unfamiliar. Long, wooden pews stretch in rows through the room. Tucked in the back of the pews are hymn books. I brush my fingers along the smooth wood as I pass toward the front of the room. Each window I pass reveals something new: a child running past, thick trees producing fruit, the sun setting in the distance.

I find myself at the front of the room looking down at a table adorned with flowers, books, and pieces of cloth. In front of the table is a podium. I let the image of a packed church fill my senses.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I turn it on to find messages from home wishing me a Merry Christmas. It didn’t feel like Christmas before, but today it does.

I sit down in one of the empty pews, lift a hymn book from the back of the pew in front of me, and I open it to a random page. I tuck my nose into the crease of the book and inhale deeply, pulling from the book a familiar scent and welcomed calm.

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I’m standing next to my father in a packed worship hall with the rest of the congregation. We are all singing a hymn while the pastor and co-pastor walk up the aisle and out of the room following the service. I notice that nobody is really singing, and I strain my voice to match the volume and pitch of those around me. I know I can sing better, but I don’t try.

I’ve been going to church with my father and siblings for as long as I can remember. The church is a beautifully constructed building tucked in my small town in my small state. The triangular, main worship hall is home to a towering plate-glass window that stretches from the floor to the highest point in the ceiling.

In front of the window is a sizeable, wooden cross that hangs high above the heads of the congregation, held in place by chains. The pastor stands below this cross in sermon, and during each service, it’s hard not to worry that one day the cross will fall. It doesn’t.

I grew up in the walls of this church, attending summer programs, joining my family for Sunday and holiday services, and volunteering to help younger kids. Some of my closest friends grew up in the walls of this church. Some of the cutest girls in our town attended this church. Each Sunday, I would scan the room looking for a current crush.

We follow the congregation out of the church and head for our car. We won’t return to the church until the following Sunday, but that doesn’t mean that I leave everything inside its walls.

Each night as a teenager I find myself praying in a similar routine before I sleep. Using the same script but splicing in names of people or concerns of the week, I fold my hands together, close my eyes, and whisper my message into the world. I don’t know who’s listening, but I have hope, optimism, faith that someone is.

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The document is opened on my computer at my desk, but I’m staring out the window. On the opposite side is a row of bushes and a patch of grass that stretches to the cement parking lot. A grasshopper has landed on the window. I rise from my seat and get closer to the window to look at the colorful details of the insect, but it jumps away as I approach.

The next day I decide to quit my job at the bank. It’s a great job working with friendly, passionate people, but I didn’t share the same passion for the work. Something inside me had been leading me to this day, shaking at me and alerting me to a life unlived. I pack up all my belongings and make the drive from Nebraska to Washington State.

During my two years in Seattle, I spend my Sundays at a middle school located close to my house that hosts Mars Hill, a popular Christian congregation in the northwest and west. The group isn’t without controversy with some members calling the group a cult and denouncing the church’s leader, Mark Driscoll, for his sometimes radical practices.

For me, the group is a place to find the familiar calm felt growing up. While that calm had since been replaced with stress, sadness, insecurity, and uncertainty, deep within my soul was a faith that everything will turn out fine.

I continue to spend my days living with this notion in my heart, although my faith has always been a private one.

Looking back, the decision to leave Nebraska saved my life, but whose decision was it? For the longest time (and still today), I knew it was my decision, but I also know that it was driven by faith, a belief strengthened through the church.

So I ask again, whose decision was it?

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I’m sitting with a book in a restaurant in my small town in Mozambique. A doctor friend who is visiting from the provincial capital to work with cataracts patients in my area approaches my table. Behind her is a short man with a large smile on his face.

“Alek, I want to introduce you to someone,” my friend says as she gestures toward the man. “This is Jose, he is the pastor at the Catholic church here in Namapa.”

“Nice to meet you, father,” I say and extend my hand.

He grabs my hand and, with a smile on his face, says “It’s very nice to meet you too. I’m very happy that we are able to meet.”

He continues to tell me that he’s been living in Mozambique for about a year, is originally from Mexico, and wants to learn English because he has family in Scotland. I tell him that I’m happy to help, and he leaves the restaurant thanking me numerous times.

A few weeks later, the father contacts me and says he wants to have lunch with me at his house. Joined by another volunteer from a nearby town, we head to the church and meet him by the main road. He leads us through a set of large, metal doors that lead to his house and main yard.

He tells us that 14 young boys work with him at the church, and that with time they’ll be able to preach as well. My friend and I meet a couple of the boys, and we continue into the pastor’s main living area that has a table set for our lunch.

On the walls are pictures of religious leaders, including Pope Francis. The pastor has bookshelves stacked with literature on religious practice, language books, and other materials. Set on the table alongside the plates is a small speaker. The pastor turns on the speaker, raises the volume, and The Beatles’ Let It Be fills the room.

“I love this music,” he tells us. “The Beatles!”

We tell him that we also love the Beatles, and the smile seen at the restaurant grows across his face as he gestures toward the food to help ourselves. The meal consists of corn on the cob, potatoes, salad, and rabbit, which the pastor raises at his house.

We finish the meal, and the pastor tells us how happy he is that he met us. “Thanks be to God,” he says as he raises both his hands toward the ceiling.

“Thanks be to God,” my friend and I say in unison as another Beatles song plays from the speaker.

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Her comment catches me off guard. How could the death of a woman from a preventable disease be the will of God?

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this in Mozambique. When someone passes of old age or disease or accident, it is common for the people to find their comfort in knowing it’s God’s will.

While it’s easy to be cynical of this view (and many volunteers are), who are we to try and tell anyone how to find comfort, how to find faith?

How are we supposed to be strong volunteers without faith in something? Having faith in the better, the stronger, the more righteous can guide our hands, our actions.

Will we be able to work in cooperation with the many churches here to deliver beneficial health information? Information on prevention? Long-term behavior change?

Perhaps the answer is simply: If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s will.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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Peace & Inspiration from Unconditional Kindness



With Peace Corps Week in full steam and Michelle Obama’s declaration for more opportunities for girls around the world, I’m thinking back to my first two months with my homestay family, who provided me so much without them ever really knowing or understanding why. It’s simple for me to say, “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me,” but it’s harder to show them how deeply their love for a stranger, a foreigner would shape the rest of my service, or how I view Mozambicans and my purpose of being here.

When you are only able to communicate through non-verbal gestures, especially in the first two months with a new language, it’s difficult to explain the impact of a positive homestay experience.

So, instead, we danced and played.

Usually my days were filled with training and language, but during the evenings and weekends, my sisters and brother would pass the time with listening to music and dancing in the kitchen or on the veranda, much to my host mother’s amusement.

Together we developed a beat-box rhythm that all the neighborhood children would sing as I walked through to my house. Without audio, it sounded a lot like boom-chicka-chicka-boom-boom, but with more bass and the backdrop of the rolling hills of Namaacha in southern Mozambique.

Wilson, my brother, was best at laying down the beat, and my sisters, Ester, Diana, and baby Ayume, filled the air with high laughter and enormous energy. Ayume slapped her hands together or against the table to try and keep the rhythm.

Little do they know – I speak to them when I can, which is far in between – that the time with them has shaped my perception of the people here, the country, and my role. They are forever in my heart and mind as I journey into the unknown of service. The beat is always in my heart, and I look forward to new rhythms, new moves.



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On the Power of Water, The Driving Force of All Nature

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“Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths” – Muhammad Ali

Exists in my small town a small sink. There’s nothing particularly beautiful about this white sink. It hangs three or four feet from the ground, attached to a wall just through the main doors of a local bar, seemingly out of place among tables and chairs. Framed directly above the sink is a curvy mirror, casting its reflection of customers in the space opposite. Resting on the ledge next to the shiny, metallic spout are two, small cups, both shades of pink.

On any given day, this sink is frequented by a variety of members of the community, since the owner of the bar allows anyone from outside to enter and quench their thirst during long hours in the sun, often working in manual labor or selling items on the street.

There are the young men with dirty, sleeveless shirts and cut-off jean shorts, who drain the small cups in one big gulp while also moving their faces side to side to examine their reflection in the mirror, pulling at strands of hair or dirt that rest upon their faces.

There are the young children who stand just outside the bar doors, hesitant to enter. They first scan the inside of the open-air bar, locking eyes with strangers, before taking the first step toward the sink. They swiftly gather as a small group, reaching up to open the spout, filling the small cups, and drinking, before dropping the cups and quickly retreating.

The visits are always short: in, quick drink, out, repeat. To many of the people who visit the sink, the environment of the bar inside the large, metal, gated doors is a foreign one. While they work tirelessly during the day, they are unfamiliar with the luxuries of disposable income, especially to be spent on cold beverages. To them, drinkable water is their luxury.

A River Runs Through It

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“You first,” I say to Wilson as we approach a flowing stream near the main part of the river. “Then I’ll follow.”

He and his father both laugh as they remove their shoes, empty the contents of their pockets into the deepest part of their sneakers, and hold them above their waists as they enter slowly into the water.

It’s mid-August, two weeks after arriving at my site, and since we are still technically in winter, the river is low with wide banks of sand and rock in the valley. Wilson and his father, my neighbors, have invited me to join them and their family on a trip to the River Lurio, just outside Namapa. We walk the wide valley with our final destination being the main flow of the river, just near and under the bridge that connects both sides of the valley.

They both make a high-pitched sound and laugh as they enter the water, which reaches them just above their pant line. As promised, I remove my shoes, empty my pockets, and follow them across the small stream separating me from them. The water is softly pushing against my torso as I make my way across. On the other side, we continue to walk along the sand and rock, this time more slowly and with slightly more pain, as we are still shoeless.

In the distance, we are able to see a large group of people sitting along the main flow of the river. To either side of the group are boulders with jagged edges. Atop the boulders are shirts, pants, and other articles of clothes, stretched out along the surface of the rock, resembling simple drawings or sketches under the setting sun’s light.

As we approach, Wilson’s mother greets us. She is sitting along the bank of the main part of the river with her newborn baby in her hands. “There you all are!”

“Sorry,” Wilson says to his mother. “It took a lot longer than we thought.”

“No problem,” she said as she turned the baby in her arms and tightened the blanket around her.

We all sit down next to her as the entire scene of the river unfolds in front of us. Her other children, some with floaties, are wading in the waist-deep water, racing each other against the flow and laughing with every successful inch forward.

Farther down the river, under the long, cement bridge, older kids are jumping from the boulders into a deeper area of the river. Two teenage boys are shimmying out of their shirts and pants, revealing only tight, white underwear, as they quickly dive into the river. One pulls out a bottle of soap, fills his hands, and starts to lather his head and body. Others across the river are doing the same.

Up river an older woman is near the bank of the water with her arms deep in the water (photo above). She raises them, revealing a long piece of clothing. She uses her hands to scrub the cloth, dip it into the water two or three times, and she rests it upon a piece of exposed rock with other pieces of clothing.

Just in my view is a large group of children at the farthest end of the bridge on the road. With buckets and soap in hand, they clean the car of a passerby, offering their time and cleaning abilities to make a few meticais (the currency of Mozambique) to spend on candy.

The lower half of my body is still wet, but I find myself not feeling discomfort, but instead peace. As my new home, I feel like I’m witnessing an important and reoccurring event in the lives of the people of my little town.

Wilson’s mother asks if I want to swim. “I’m okay here,” I respond. “But I’m sure it’s a lot of fun.”

Heavy Clouds & the Floods that Followed

The power has been out in the northern part of the country for nearly a month now. The floods that hit the country in mid-January continue to have a lasting effect on both the infrastructure and lives of the people attempting to recover.

Reports (Huffington Post) coming out from parts of northern Mozambique, especially the province of Zambezia, are devastating. The floods affected more than 150,000 people across the country. The event is described as the worst flooding since 1971. Hundreds were killed, and countless families are attempting to rebuild their lives after losing homes, clothes, food, and livelihoods.

Residents of the area describe seeing people attempting to swim the river, since the flooding badly damaged the cement bridge, making it impassable. Many of who did not make it to the other side.

The rainy season in this area of Africa is powerful and fierce. The calm waters seen in mid-August along the River Lurio are replaced with wide currents of water, crashing against the tall boulders lying on the riverbed.

No longer are people bathing or wading in the water. Instead, they describe the danger and have fear of the resting crocodiles that make the rivers their home during the season of endless rain.

The issues with the floods go beyond just the river. Inside the community, houses that were built using a mixture of cement and sand start to crumble. The water finds its way through the tin sheets of the roof and puddle within the sleeping spaces and kitchens of homes. Roads and paths within communities are swept away, replaced with mud.

Communities come to a stand still against the powerful nature of the rain. However, within this harsh environment are bright spots of joy and adaptability. To describe it is difficult, but to simply it into one word, it’s stunning.

Letting Go & Diving In

Week two of the power outage in late January, and I want to go home.

The water continues to flood inside my house, first filling my veranda before finding its way into my kitchen area. In the darkness, I come home following a long day of work to find my house nearly unrecognizable because of the foot-deep water.

After going through my water supply used for drinking, showering, and cooking, I carry my bucket and flashlight to the mosque next to my house where I have been collecting water from their pump. I am told that the pump does not work without electricity.

The increase in rainfall causes more mosquitos, and the increase in malaria and cholera threatens to attack an already weak community.

One morning I wake in my bed to the sound of a strong rain pounding against my tin roof. The sound is jarring as you’re not able to really think or hear much of anything but the rain. From deep inside the noise, I hear the voices of some of the neighborhood kids outside my house.

I open my front door, and three of the neighborhood children, wearing nothing but small shorts or underwear, are using an empty, cut-in-half container usually holding oil to scoop the water that is collecting on my veranda and tossing it away from the house. They are laughing, and when they notice me standing in the doorway, they yell “Good morning, Aleksi!”

The sight throws me off. After two weeks of frustration and dark, energy-less evenings, it all started to make sense. Adaptability. Who am I to be frustrated with a tough environment after two weeks when the families in Mozambique live with this all their lives?

I greet the children, go and change into a pair of swimming shorts, grab a bar of soap, and I join the kids on the veranda in attempting to remove the flooding water. We sing a song together, and then climb upon the ledge of my veranda, just underneath the lip of the roof where water is streaming toward the ground.

I slowly push my head under the cold, flowing water. I let it flow down the back of my neck, across my shoulders, across my back and chest, and down toward my legs and feet. I feel the coolness touch every part of my freshly woken spirit. I lather myself from head to toe, pass the soap to the children, and I watch as they do the same, smiling and laughing loud. Little white, soapy men standing under the rain as the water sheds the soap from our skin, and we open our arms wide to welcome the new day.

Across the road, the owner of a small shop and her friends sit underneath the covered veranda and laugh at our antics. We yell “good morning” to them before running inside, grabbing towels, and drying ourselves from the cold water and cool, brisk air.

A Source of Life

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water” – W. H. Auden

I find much comfort in this small sink. There’s something particularly beautiful about this white sink. While seemingly out of place, upon second glance the sink is placed exactly where it should be. In the heart of the community, the sink provides much needed sustenance for those who often go without.

The visits to the sink are always short, but they are constant and consistent. During the rainy season, people supplement the loss of water in the sink due to lack of energy by collecting water in large, 2-liter, plastic bottles just outside the doors of the bar. The water streams from the roofs of nearby buildings, and the children and teenagers take turns catching the water inside the bottles and passing them along to friends.

Underneath the covered area of the bar, I am able to watch all this happen before my eyes. No one else gives much attention to the already familiar routines of the season, but in my mind is the driving force for my existence here. My attention turns back to the sink, where the two, pink cups lay in their sides, waiting for the next person to arrive. It’s easy to relate, because so am I.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

Note: The title of this post comes from a quote by Leonardo da Vinci, when he said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.”

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