Tag Archives: Health

Buscas Activas: A Day in the Field as a Health Volunteer

We lied. Of course we lied. Fortunately for us, he didn’t doubt us. Instead, he continued to write the names down into a professor’s schedule book under the January 4 header. It definitely wasn’t January 4. I don’t think he cared. The page was already packed with other information written in various colored pens. For our names, he chose red. Seemed fitting.

The secretary of the neighborhood, as is custom here, had brought out his best chairs and placed them underneath a large tree that shaded much of his front yard for the visiting guests. After formal introductions from my supervisor, a stocky man who practices psychology in our hospital, as well as the secretary, we explained to him that we were searching. He didn’t seem surprised.

It’s common practice throughout Mozambique to do active searches (buscas activas in Portuguese) throughout the vast neighborhoods of any given community. Usually the searches are done by health volunteers sent by the hospital with a handful of printed pages with countless names of patients who have either missed too many consultations or abandoned treatment altogether. The searches are for HIV patients who have gone missing.

A group of children had formed around our shaded tree as my supervisor began to list off names of patients who had identified the secretary’s neighborhood as their own.

“Is this for HIV?” the secretary asked with turned up brows as he looked up from his book. “Because a lot of these names are people who have HIV.”

“No, no, no,” my supervisor shakes his head and waves his hand. “We just need to do consultations with these patients.”

“For what?” the secretary said, still curious.

After a short pause, my supervisor tells the secretary we’re searching for malaria patients. The secretary continues to write the names in his book and repeat the names out loud several times, apparently attempting to remember the location of their house or hut.

A group of children has formed a group just outside the shade of the tree and underneath the bright, late morning sunshine. On the walk to the secretary’s house, I had spent the time learning more of the local language of Makua with our guide for the morning, Immanuel. As a native of the area, he spoke Portuguese and Makua fluently. We’d pass an animal, and he would tell me the word in Makua. Duck is “andrata.” Cat is “quato.” Children is “animwane.”

“Animwane!” I say to the group of children gathered around our tree. They burst into laughter, some running out of the yard and hiding behind the caniço fence, peering through its many slats and around its edges. Slowly they return, say something in Makua, wait for my response, and repeat their retreat for the safety of the fence.

The secretary’s children play nearer to the house. His house is made of clay, but I see an electric outlet and wires fitted to the outside of his house above the door. It’s rare for a house out in the neighborhoods to have access to electricity, but leaders in the community usually have increased resources and funds. Seems fair enough.

His children have something small and brown in their hands. One boy rolls the substance between his hands, pinches the top, the sides, and the bottom until the form of a person starts to take shape from the rolled up clay. I notice other little clay figures lined up along the houses foundation. The boy has the new clay man take a leap of faith from the foundation to the ground below, crashing to the ground and smashing everywhere. Boys all play the same.

The secretary’s wife is sitting by the door, busy cleaning and preparing food for the family’s lunch. She does not speak much and simply stares down at her current task. I catch eyes with her several times throughout the meeting with the secretary, and I can’t read the emotion.

“You do know that this neighborhood is very long, right?” the secretary asks us. He looks over at our guide, who is already laughing. “We have 11 secretaries in this neighborhood.”

“We understand,” my supervisor responds. “We’ll see how many we can find.”

The list is immense. While it contains all of the patients from all of the neighborhoods in Namapa, the list for the neighborhood in which we are searching contains 10 names. Earlier in the morning, 10 names sounded easy enough. By noon, it sounded daunting.

Searches are flawed simply because of the weak infrastructure within the towns and villages. Houses aren’t numbered. Streets aren’t named. GPS hasn’t quite hit here yet. When you ask patients to write their address, they describe where it is in relation to a common community landmark: next to the church, close to the secretary’s house, etc. The entire system requires a lot of effort to find one individual. People are dying by the thousands.

“Let’s go!” the secretary said, eager to help in the search. When we arrived at his house to both get his approval for the search as well as his assistance in locating the houses, he was out in his field working in his farm. His feet are covered in a thin layer of dirt, and his toenails are almost non-existent, transparent squares atop cracked nubs of toes.

The four of us continue our search as the secretary points out houses of other secretaries and possibly homes of our patients. We ask if secretaries are home. They’re out. Along the way, we pick up two more secretaries. The first is a large man with a bigger smile stretching across his face. He doesn’t say much, but he’s enthusiastic to help. The second is a round woman with a capulana (traditional cloth) wrapped around her waist and another around her head to block the sun. Our search group is now six strong.

Early afternoon hits, and we’ve yet to track down a single patient. The walk through the neighborhood is packed with more lessons of Makua, talking to small children who have yet to see me walking around the main street of the village, and older women asking the secretaries why they’re walking with a white person (kunha in Makua, a word I know well). It’s not offensive as much as they’re just stating a literal fact. I laugh each time. They laugh.

It’s the end of the day, and we end up in the front yard of one of our potential patients. Expecting him not to be home, I pull out my local cell phone to text back another volunteer.

“Hello,” a small voice comes from the yard. “I am who you are looking for.”

The man is reserved and quiet. My supervisor and I pull him aside from the larger group and ask him to come to the hospital the next morning for a consultation. Instead of explaining the entire situation in the moment, we’ve decided to reserve it for a quieter, private setting. Anonymity and privacy are followed well in a culture built on respect.

We end our search, thank the secretaries for their help, and part ways to end the day. On the way home back to my house, it’s hard not to feel both dissatisfied with the day’s search and relieved that we found one person.

I practice my new Makua words with neighbors on the way home. They all laugh with my new understanding.

I think back to the secretary’s house with all the children. As I was leaving the yard, I looked back and saw a completely naked baby walking through the yard in adult flip flops, five times the size of his little feet. He took small steps, one after another, as he walked toward his mother. The image makes me laugh out loud. Then I realize that it’s not hard to relate to him.

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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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JUNTOS: Together in Health / Promoting Youth Development 

  

Nobre comes running up to me with a smile stretched across his face. “I’m here,” he says trying to catch his breath. “And I brought a friend.”


Behind him stands a tall boy, also smiling and struggling to keep his backpack from slipping off his shoulders.
“Now we’re all here,” John says to the rest of the group. “So what’s the plan?”
I tell the group of five that we will be traveling together from our home in Namapa (in the northern province of Nampula in Mozambique) to the Island of Mozambique, the nation’s first capital and now home to historical museums, a blossoming tourist scene, and delicious eateries.
“And we’ll be learning about health?” John #2 (yes, there are two Johns on this trip, making it easier for me to remember names) asks, brows turned inquisitively downward.
“Not only will be learning about health together as our group,” I say to the five students in the middle of a bustling travel intersection just outside our town. “We will be joined by groups from all over the north who will also be learning about health and how to implement health projects.”
The boys eyes light up. They’re not used to meeting teenagers from other parts of the country. Hell, many of them have never traveled outside of Namapa. This trip is an opportunity for them to learn more about their home country, both in terms of sites and sounds as well as health issues.
With the six of us traveling together, we almost fill half a chappa (mini bus used for public transportation in the country). We all sit in the back, and the energy of the trip is filling my students with countless questions about what’s around the next curve.
Halfway through the trip to the island (about a four-hour drive from our site), we make a stop at a nearby town to change chappas. Together we walk one by one toward the chappa station, passing vendors of all sorts: vegetables, candy, hard boiled eggs with salt on the side, a popcorn machine, clothes. Cars, tucks, and busses whiz by, stirring up dirt from the ground as it catches in the wind and blows in all directions. The students take it all in, barely slowing down as we find our next ride.
The chappa eventually reaches the three kilometer, one-lane bridge that connects the continent to the island. The bright blues of the water reflect around the inside of the chappa, and my students, in silence, glance across the water to our final destination of the island. 
In the distance you can make out the long pier that stretches off the far side in front of the museum and church. On the other side is a smaller island with a fort, a remnant from the Portuguese rule. The island is a time capsule from another time, and the salts from the water are slowly etching away against its architecture, tearing away at its surface to reveal a rocky interior.
On the middle of the bridge, the water seems close, and you can see that it’s not too deep. A jump from the bridge would result in a sudden impact with the rocky terrain just below the water’s surface. The reflection of the sun dances across the small waves. The wind blows through the open windows of the chappa. Passengers tighten their capulanas (traditional Mozambican cloth) around their shoulders.
We drive through the interior of the island passing the main market, the fish market with various catches of the day, and the bairros (neighborhoods) tucked just below the main road, exposing the roofs to our view but not much else. A secret city just below the main road. Smoke from a fire billows above one home.
The chappa drops us near the hospital, the first hospital in the country with its long staircases, intricate gate, and tall columns stretching toward the roof. We continue walking down this road until we notice familiar faces: other volunteers with their group of students. The volunteers are crouched on a bench eating apa with egg from a nearby vendor.
My students are directed to where they’ll be staying for the weekend, and I share travel stories with the other volunteers while ordering an apa (similar to a tortilla but with a fried egg, ketchup, and mayonnaise on top and folded into a triangle for easy handling). The sun is shining bright above us, but a cool, winter breeze is coming off the water nearby. It’ll be a perfect weekend.
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The next day following an evening of introductions, listing our expectations for the students, a discussion on sexual violence, and a dinner that the students were happy to see, we collect our 35 students into the back room of a restaurant for a full-day of health sessions, activities, and discussion. The day begins by allowing students to walk to the hospital to get an HIV test done. A group of 15 walk together to find out their results. 
Each student sits with a workbook, notebook, and pen, eager to start taking notes and expanding their knowledge of health & prevention. The sessions for the day cover everything from gender issues to HIV basics and prevention and malaria. It’s a lot of information, and as the day goes on, the students find themselves stepping outside to take a break. However, during the sessions, the students are consistently taking notes, asking thoughtful and important questions, and clarifying main points. The environment is inspiring.
Counterparts and leaders from the community facilitate the sessions and work with their fellow Mozambican students to address common misconceptions about their country and health. The students throw question after question toward the Mozambican counterparts, and they answer in earnest and sincerity.
During a conversation on the basics of HIV, prevention, and treatment, a student stands in front of his seat to ask a question. 
“If I’m negative, but my wife is positive, is it possible for us to have a child together who is negative?” The counterpart and I work together to answer the question thoughtfully and accurately. We explain that with proper treatment and care from their doctor, they’ll be able to have an HIV-negative child. 
The day is exhausting, but you wouldn’t know from the students. Going two hours beyond our schedule, the final activity involves sitting in town groups to brainstorm ideas for future health projects. My group comes up with the idea of utilizing local radio to address high levels of severe malaria. They’re energetic but thoughtful in their analysis of how to tackle the issue on a grassroots level. I’m proud of my students in this moment. I want to cheer for them, but I also want to keep my cool.
The activity finishes, and the PCV in charge of the event announces that we will pass out certificates for our work over the past two days. To a Mozambican, a certificate is proof of pushing beyond expectations and doing more with their lives and time. While we as Americans don’t see certificates as special, maybe we should.
“Take a photo of me as I’m getting my certificate,” John says as he passes me after hearing his name. “Please!” I point the camera, and he turns as he grabs the certificate and shakes the hand of the PCV. The camera flashes.
Afterward we get a photo of the entire group with their certificates. Nobre looks upset. “They spelled my name wrong on the certificate.” He holds it in his hands and asks if we can fix it. The PCV ensures him we can, and he perks up in time to get another photo.
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The next day we hand out t-shirts that have the logo of the program, JUNTOS. The program works with teenagers to educate and empower them to take on health issues in their communities. They look striking in their shirts, and I have another proud dad moment, positioning them in the sunlight to get another photo.
The chappa ride back to our site is filled with chatter about the next steps. The students refer to me as their leader of the group. I turn to them and say, “Listen, you five are the leaders of this group. I am so proud of each of you for this weekend. We are going to work together to make a difference in Namapa.” They smile and continue chatting about next steps.
We pull into Namapa as the sun starts to hang low in the sky, saying goodnight to a busy day. The walk from the chappa station to our homes is about 10 minutes, and in those 10 minutes, we walked through the town sporting the yellow shirts and receiving comments and questions about what our group was about. One of the quieter members steps up and answers questions of community members. A small boy walks alongside our group, eager to be seen as a part of a health group.
We have a final meeting before breaking up and going our separate ways. Nobre asks one last time about his certificate. I ensure him we will get him a new one. He smiles, thanks me for the weekend, and walks away toward his house.
I spend the next five minutes walking home in silence reflecting on the day and the experience. It reminds me of Peace Corps as a two-year experience: it’s over before you know it, you’ll never know really the results of your efforts, but you’ll always know that even a weekend can make a huge impact on the lives of our community. 
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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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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)

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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)

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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).

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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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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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On Volunteerism & Development: A World Just Within Our Reach



A Peace Corps staff member assesses the projects planned and presented at the Community Health Project Design & Management conference in Nampula City, Mozambique.

Half the room is made up of American (and one Puerto Rican) volunteers, and the other half is made up of our Mozambican counterparts. We enter the conference room for the start of a three-day training that promises to introduce all of us to project implementation in our communities, a topic that all of us need to understand as projects start to get off the ground.

The all-Portuguese training begins, and I realize the importance of the situation. Roughly 25 years ago, this country was tangled in a civil war that crippled the country, destroyed infrastructures, and left emotional scars that still remain today. While not many people here openly speak about the war, it’s clear to see the effects on the developing country.

However, one product of the end of this war was pure, and understandable hope for a brighter future for the country and its people.

My counterpart is sitting next to me as we spend the day learning about the role of Peace Corps volunteers in Mozambique, developing goals and objectives for our plans, and starting to list out the activities which we are going to complete once we return to our sites.

The American volunteers are familiar with this environment as we scoff at the pile of papers and handouts we receive throughout the day. However, to our Mozambican counterparts, the information is (mostly) new and (mostly) exciting, sparking an energy in the room that is hard to resist.

A fellow PCVs counterpart is a community health worker. He lives a very simple life, but today he is attending a conference in an urban hotel surrounded by accommodations, intelligent discussions, and a bountiful supply of water and food. 

To say that he was elated would be understating it. He was completely and totally beyond himself. Literally, a world had been opened up to him. Not one of excess, but one of deserved recognition for the work that he and the other Mozambican counterparts do on a daily basis.

While employment is hanging over every conversation with volunteers as the country faces high unemployment, especially in rural areas, he sits in his seat for the remainder of the training with a smile across his face and a shirt nicely ironed and buttoned all the way to the top.

We spend three days exchanging ideas, mapping out our activities, and providing advice to one another. While us Americans see this as a normal, everyday brainstorming session, Mozambicans embrace this dialogue as the new foundation to their newly developed home. These conversations provide them a glimpse into a world that is not fully their own but, at the same time, just within their reach. A world of community health and progress. A developed world.

I share a table with my counterpart, and he is also elated. He speaks up often, shares his insights, thanks for me bringing him to this place where he is learning much. 



Ivan with the final project proposal.

As an unemployed member of our shared community, my 28-year-old counterpart, Ivan, thrives on giving back and offering his hands and heart. He describes to me in detail during a lunch break that his last name isn’t actually his last name, as his parents disappeared when he was very young, leaving him to grow up in an orphanage. When asked about his parents, he only knows that someone told him his parents were taken away with the trash.

Today, he’s advocating for youth and health in our community. He is engaging in difficult conversations to move the efforts closer to success. At the conference, he develops a plan to work with the HIV-support groups in our town to raise chickens for sale, gaining money for the groups and the promotion of support groups.

We can learn something from Ivan and Mozambicans: conversation with peers about moving forward should be our constant motivations in life. Why can’t we all see the bigger picture for the future of our own country? Instead of bowing our heads during brainstorming sessions, let us raise our fists and demand change.

The conference asked us to design a project. However, the conference also asked us to be better listeners, not only to our own peers, but those on the outside who still have the motivation and energy to love more, push harder, and seek results.

Ivan, as well as the other counterparts, receive certificates for their work during the conference. A piece of paper to us, the next step in changing their home for the better to them.



Ivan with Peace Corps staff receiving his certificate for completion of the training.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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Health Journalism: Our First Meeting



Today was the first meeting for our new health journalism group we are starting in the community to provide practical writing and speaking skills to teenage students in Mozambique.

After explaining to the students that they would not be learning English in the group (“the people who we will be helping and listening to in the community don’t speak English, so why should we?”), we started with a (seemingly) simple question: What is journalism?

The students broke into pairs and had five minutes to think of an answer in one word (which helps keep it simple, but also helps my limited Portuguese). The following answers were given from the group of 18 students, ages 12-19: 



The translation of the answers is: organization, messages, information, words, collect, organization (x2), means. I wanted to see where the knowledge of the students landed, and me and my counterpart helping with the group were happy with the results! The collection of information and the use of messaging seemed well known to them. We are on the right track.

We finished the hour-long group with a game of the human knot (header photo); however, explaining the game in Portuguese proved more difficult that first expected. The students locked hands but started to spin in a circle as a group. After a few attempts, we broke up, collected contact information, planned the next meeting, and dismissed.

We hope to connect the group with this blog to provide an avenue for the students to share their thoughts, their findings, their lives with people around the world. This is an ongoing series and will result in a better understanding of Mozambican youth through health, journalism, and cooperative learning. 

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