Tag Archives: peacecorps

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.
———————
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.
————
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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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.

——————————

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.

——————————-

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.

flag_MOZ

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)

BomDiaBoaTardeBoaNoite

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 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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