Monday, December 20, 2010

My Hardcore Mozambican Family

My host family. From lt to rt: Elsa, 17. Mama Teresa, 35. Banito, 13. Eleninha, 3 (elsa's daughter). Americo Sambo, 35. The house in the background was built entirely by most dad.
 As I put down down “A Complicated War”, a book about Mozambique's fifteen year civil conflict, I look up at my host father, Americo Sambo, and say, “Essa guerra foi muito complicada.”
He nods and begins to share a bit of his experience growing up during this period.
When he was twelve, he was captured for the first time. Along with his older brother, he was taken by RENAMO forces to the mato, the bush, where he would train to be a soldier for the rebel army. RENAMO, funded primarily by the Rhodesian and later, the South African governments, was trying to undermine and terrorize the FRELIMO government that had taken power after Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, the year of Sambo's birth. Luckily, however, he and his brother managed to escape and return safely home. The conflict had started to get nasty in the early 80's. Sambo had just started school, but due to the violence, his school was shut down and he wouldn't be able to return to his studies for many years.  Most of his childhood was clouded in fear. He never played soccer as a kid because it was risky to be out on the field, away from your home. People owned as few possessions as possible, not necessarily because they didn't have enough money -although that was often the case -but because any sign of wealth would make you a target. The few people who had a radio would put the volume just loud enough to hear with their ears pressed against the speaker. No one could know that you owned a radio.  When Sambo was about sixteen, the local school had started up again, and he had been attending regularly for the past couple of years, making into the third grade. But once again his studies were interrupted when one night, a small group of RENAMO forces came into his home, tied him up, and took him away. He was brought to the commander who wanted Sambo to lead their entire unit back to his village so they could take control of it. He was tied up with a rope around his waist, “like a goat” and forced to lead the unit to his village. But on their way, they encountered FRELIMO soldiers. A skirmish ensued leaving many dead including the RENAMO commander.  The RENAMO soldiers who managed to escape decided that they first needed to bury their commander before continuing on to Sambo's village. As they were burying the body, Sambo was left under the charge of a 12 year old boy who was loosely holding onto the rope that was tied to Sambo's waist. The boy had a gun, but Sambo had a hunch that it was not loaded. So he took advantage  of the opportunity and ran with all his might in the direction where they had previously encountered the FRELIMO soldiers. No one would come to chase him for fear of running into FRELIMO, he thought, nor would anyone fire a shot in his direction because it would give away their position.  He slept in the mato that night and the following day, he was safely home. His father sent him away to a city a few hours north, where Sambo's older brother was serving in the FRELIMO army. Later that same year, 1992, a peace accord was signed and the fifteen year civil war came to an end.
 If you saw my host dad, you would not guess that he's lived through so much. His fresh, boyish face doesn't look a day older than his 35 years.  Everyday, he puts on his yellow M-Cell vest, designating him as one of the many cell pone credit salesman in the city, and rides his bike to the nearby Swaziland border to make his sales for the day. That's how he supports his wife, two children, and granddaughter. Actually, that's how the money comes in, but much of what they have has been built by his own two hands. The small three bedroom house where I lived for two months in Namaacha during my Peace Corps training, was built entirely by my host dad. “Everything? All by yourself?,” I asked him one day. “Well, one day, I had a guy help me move some of these rocks to clear the land, but besides that, yes, everything.” The house was built on a small incline, so the floor is slanted, which made it really hard to sleep during my first week, until we put some rocks under the bed posts to make it level.  This also made it pretty hard to play Pick Up Stix with my family, but they still really enjoyed the game (thanks Mom for the idea).  But in spite of slant, and the cracks on the floor and the walls, the house stays up and remains a source of pride for my Sambo.

            My host mom, Teresa Sambo, also 35 years old is the buffest little lady I've ever met. She's probably about 4'11”, the same height as my real mom, but she's about 3 times as strong, not because she's really taking advantage of her 24-hour Fitness membership but because Mozambican women have to work hard.  Every morning she's awake at 5am cleaning up the front yard, sweeping the living room, boiling water for tea and hot baths, and thinking about what she's going to make for lunch. Cooking here is no small task. If you want to eat chicken, you got to go to the local market, buy a live chicken, kill it with a machete, and take out the guts with your bare hands. It's not a pretty sight. I've done it a couple of times, and although it's something I'm kind of proud of -the fact that I have met the meat that I will soon eat -I still think it's kind of gross. But my host mom does it without a flinch. And if you want any sort of sauce for your food, you got to pound the peanuts or scrape the coconut yourself, and trust me, that ain't easy.  But not only does my host mom do an excellent job of taking care of her homemaking tasks, she also has a side business. A few times a month, she'll head to Johannesburg with some Mozambican products that will make a pretty profit if sold in South Africa. She'll spend a few days across the border, sell her stuff, and come back with South African Rands, and that's a pretty big deal. The way people here talk about Rands is the way people in South America talk about American Dollars.

My Mozambican sister, 17-year-old Elsa, is following in her mother's footsteps, learning how to run a Mozambican household. Everything I described above that my mom does, my sister does as well. In addition to her chores, Elsa goes to school. She is in the ninth grade and attends night school. Why night school? 'Cus that's where teen moms and people with day jobs go, and Elsa has a 3 year old daughter. Yes, a 3-year-old cutie pie named Eleninha who fills the air with joy whenever she's around.   When I asked her about the father of the child, Elsa told me that the father was 13 years old when she got pregnant, and not being able to deal with the thought of becoming a father, killed himself.

Banito, my 13-year-old brother, is a sweetheart. He can also cook and clean and do everything his mom and sister do, but since he's a boy, he only has to do it when the others are not around or if they're too busy. But don't get me wrong, he still contributes way more to the household chores than I ever did when I was his age. And he does it all without complaining.  That's one of the things Mozambicans are really good at: not complaining. Patience is the chief virtue around here, not necessarily because you hear people talking about it all the time, but because without patience, life here would be extremely frustrating. Everthing here requires a lot of waiting: waiting in line at the bank, waiting for the food to cook, waiting for the electricity to come back on, waiting for the well to fill with water, waiting for rain, waiting for, almost everything. But for all the waiting that happens, there is so little complaining, and it's 'cus people here learn to be patient. My host family's dog is even named  Paciencia (Patience). Okay, back to Banito. He's a jewel. Very soft spoken, with a picture perfect smile, he's always willing to help with anything that needs helping. I haven't figured out why it is, but adolescence in Mozambique doesn't seem to be feared by parents the way it is in the US. On the contrary, I think parents look forward to their kids becoming teenagers 'cus that means they'll help around the house more.

So that's a bit about my family. They are very simple people and now that I am in the North of the country, I miss them a bit.

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