Yesterday, I was walking along the main road thinking I was heading towards the agrarian school when a young man greeted me and asked me in the local language, “Munroavai?” Where are you going?
When I said that I wanted to visit the agrarian school, he told me I was heading in the wrong direction and had me follow him, first to his home, then to the school. For the next two hours I learned more about what it means to be poor from this young man than I have learned from any lecture or book about poverty.
His name is Laurindo Francisco da Silva Caixao. He is 22 years old. In Portuguese, his last name “caixao” means coffin. That's where both his parents have been since 2004. Buried two meters apart from each other. His father in a wooden coffin, paid for by the catholic priests who he had been working for when he became sick. His mother in a bamboo coffin, put together by members of the community and wrapped in a very nice cloth. When he talked about it, Laurindo seemed proud of his mother's coffin. She passed away a few months after her husband. Cholera killed them both. One year later, Laurindo wound up in the hospital with cholera. “But the nurses saved me,” he says. They gave him plenty of bottled water to replenish his system.
Because he is an orphan of both parents, he was given a poverty certificate from the government entitling him to a free education. But he can only attend school at night because during the daytime, students have to wear uniforms and shoes and Laurindo has neither because he doesn't have money. He lives on virtually nothing. Probably a lot closer to zero dollars a day than a dollar a day.
He eats xima everyday. The corn and cassava that he grinds up to make the white mush comes from his home in Iapala, 30km away, where his four younger sisters live. He brings it over by bike every so often. He's had this bike since 2006. Five years. And he got it used. But he didn't buy it. He worked on a man's farm for a few days and the man gave him a bike for his labor. This is probably his most valuable possession and yet he didn't pay a penny for it.
Laurindo lives in a tiny mud hut in the neighborhood of Saua Saua, over an hour walk into the villa of Ribaue where he goes every night to attend his 11th grade class. He built his hut without spending anything. The land was free, he simply had to ask permission from the secretary of the neighborhood, the mud bricks he made himself, and then he hired a mason to build the house. He repaid the mason by bringing him wood from the nearby mountain for some of the mason's other work projects.
He gets water from the pump at the nearby primary school using two five liter gasoline containers that were given to him by someone at the market. Since he lives alone and uses the river to bathe and wash his clothes, he only needs 10 liters every other day, so the school lets him take water without having to pay the monthly fee of 10 mt (30 cent).
I asked him when was the last time he spent money on something. After thinking for a few seconds he told me that he had bought his notebooks (every Mozambican student must have a notebook for each one of their classes) and pens. He had gotten this money, which should have been just over a dollar, from the nuns in Iapala after working on one of their fields for a day.
He wants to start saving up to buy a pair of shoes since all he had is the pair of sandals he was wearing. That's a 250 mt purchase. I asked him where he would get that money from. His sisters, he told me. They're going to start selling their excess corn and they'll give him one mt every now and then, and he'll save that up until he could get his pair of shoes. I offered to hire him for a day or two to help me and Charlie get our little machamba going, and then I would give him the money for the shoes. He liked this idea. Now I just need to make sure I follow up with it.
On our walk, I bought some roadside guavas. It's guava season right now, so they're dirt cheap. Three for one mt. That's about 3 cents. So I bought two mts worth and offered half the guavas to Laurindo, but he didn't want them. He didn't like them. I found this surprising at first, but then he told me that he had three large guave trees in his house in Iapala, so he had grown tired of eating guavas all his life. But noticing how much I liked them, he said he would bring me a bunch from his tree next time he makes the 30km bike trip to his home. I begged him not to do this, since there are so many available here. But just the fact that he offered to do was very humbling. At no point during our conversation did he ask for anything or even express a need for anything that I could potentially fulfill. Instead, he offered to bring me guavas from his tree 30km away.
We talked a bit more about cholera. I wanted to know what he knew about it, about the way it spreads and the way people get it, and he definitely knew his stuff. Lack of hygiene. Defecating in places other than the latrine, especially places close to water. Then I asked him if he had any experiences with malaria. He did. Last year. Spent a week in the hospital recovering. Then I asked about HIV/AIDS. Did he know of anyone, living or dead, who had the virus? No, he didn't. But he did know plenty about how to not get AIDS. “Have only one partner and use condoms.” I asked him if he used a condom when having sex. He does. He gets the free ones they have at the hospital. And he only has one partner. She's a 12th grade student who lives with her parents in the villa. They get together about once a month at her house and have sex. He spoke of it as a “necessity.” Something that needed to be done. Her parents, who both have jobs (this is very rare), both seem to like him so he's planning to stick around with this girl.
I'm still trying to understand how Mozambicans view sex. In the US, I would never ask a random person, or even a friend, if we're just on a casual stroll, about their sex life. But considering how often people here have inquired about my sex life (they don't believe me when I tell them I'm a virgin), I felt completely comfortable bringing it up with Laurindo.
Continuing the conversation about HIV, he mentioned that it's also possible to get it from the blades used by curandeiros -traditional healers – since they use them on many people and don't wash them. Most evangelicals I've asked have told me that they do not go to curandeiros when they are sick because it's proibido -prohibited. But Catholics are a bit more lenient on this and Laurindo is Catholic, so I asked him if he ever goes to the curandeiro when he is sick. He told me that his mother used to take him when he was a child, but when he began to “ver como sao as coisas” (see how things are) he stopped going. Not because it was wrong, but because of the risk involved.
When we parted ways, he asked me how I would be getting in touch with him to let him know about working on our machamba. I told him I'll find him at his house. He thanked me, we said goodbye and as I started walking home, my mind imploded with thoughts about Laurindo's lot in life. How different it is from mine, from anyone I grew up with in America. When people talk about “the poorest of the poor”, I think they're talking about Laurindo. I hope to come across more Laurindos during these next two years, not simply so I can continue to share their stories with friends back home, but mainly so that their stories can begin transform my own; that their experience can shape the way I see my role in the world.