Friday, February 5, 2016


Mateus was my neighbor.  He was 13 years old.  He was epileptic.  He was epileptic in a small town in rural Mozambique.

Mateus had seizures every day of his life.  They were bad, and due to his preference for wandering around town, they were often in public places.  Naturally, our other neighbors decided that he was possessed (by demons) and each time he had a seizure near people, they would beat him/the demons.

The first time I met Mateus, he had come to my house to ask for a knife.  Because I didn't know Portuguese very well at this point, I was very confused, even more so when a neighbor came out of her house and started doing the finger-circling close the the temple sign for "crazy."  Since I didn't understand him, nor did I want to hand over a knife to a child who may or may not have been mentally stable, I apologetically set him away.

My neighbor then ran up: "Mana Ana, he's crazy.  That's what I was trying to tell you.  He shouldn't be at your house."  Okay, I thought.  But he's just a kid.  What's the deal?

I saw him around more after that and always said hello to him, noticing that others rarely did the same.  As my friendships grew, I asked people I began to trust about his situation.  They explained: He has seizures and doesn't play with the other kids.  No one knew how old he was.

When I asked him how he was, he would always give me a discombobulated answer about someone beating him, usually to my understanding, his family.  I always saw him wandering around at night, smelling strongly of pee, adding more to the image I had of the neglected/abused child.

The next step in the investigation was to talk to the nuns, who, although removed from the fofoca train (gossip), would probably have some idea.  The nun who worked at the health post explained to me that his father was gone, his mother had died from AIDS, and he lived with his great aunt.  I asked if he was HIV positive, thinking that if he were, we may be able to send him to live in a group home for HIV positive AIDS orphans (there are a few of those in Mozambique).  This nun, to whom I will forever be grateful, took him for an HIV test. He was HIV negative.

I spoke to other friends, and was directed in a very indirect way to the social services director in Gurue.  I explained the situation, and he immediately sent someone to the family with clothing detergent, rice, soap, and other basics.  Throughout the next year, I worked with him to try to find a place we could send him to get better.   No one would take him with untreated epilepsy.

About 10 months into that year, completely discouraged and very disillusioned with the pace of social services in Mozambique, my tea field confidante asked me a very pointed question.  Would he be better off somewhere else?

As I began to actually look at the situation after having lived there long enough to understand things I hadn't before, I began to see that the entire village took care of him.  They gave Mateus food, juice, bread, and sometimes coins.  When it was dark, they told him to go home.  So maybe it shouldn't be so automatic to take him out of where he knows.  His family would have no resources to care for him anywhere but the village, and I hadn't even met the majority of his extended family.

As I was leaving, I met the neighborhood boss (chefe do bairro), a man who sells dried fish in the market and knows everyone.  The conversation turned more to treating the epilepsy than taking him away.  He thought this the better course of action - and then I had to leave.

When I was sent back to Gurue with TechnoServe, I learned that there was an uncle who gave him baths when he needed it.  And that many of his injuries happened not because of abuse, but because he would have seizures in the middle of the road and fall down with no one to catch him.  I learned just how poor his family was, and how much of what I had perceived as malice was actually an inability to change pretty horrific circumstances.  I learned that he had started to read books with the new Peace Corps Volunteers and I saw him laugh and smile for the first time and many times after that.  When he had seizures near the Peace Corps Volunteers' house, they made him as comfortable as possible to avoid injury.  I contacted the neighborhood leader again and we managed to get him an appointment with the psychologist in Gurue who treats epilepsy.  The boss arranged for a family member to accompany him, and the driver for our project (the same as my invinha confidante) drove us for his first appointment.  He was accompanied by an uncle who also suffered from epilepsy, although his was much less severe.  They were both given medication and sent home.  At their two-week follow up visit, I met them at the hospital and we went to talk to the doctor about the medications.  Neither Mateus nor his uncle had had a seizure since starting the medication.

A week later, during a beach weekend during my last few days in Mozambique, the neighborhood boss called me.  Mateus drowned, he said.  He was in the river and fainted.

I sent the family 200 meticais (about $8) in order to help with burial costs.  I wasn't able to go because I was so far away and the burial was to be the next morning (no way to preserve the body).

I am grateful to have started a friendship with the neighborhood leader, by far the most competent administrator I have met in my 3+ years in Mozambique.   I am grateful to the nun who continues to be of service to all those in need and who is a rare example of who a nun should be in a world of common corruption.  I am grateful to have met the social services bureaucrat, who taught me that corruption and a good heart are not mutually exclusive.

 I am grateful his uncle now knows how to get help and free medication for the other epilepsy sufferers in their family.  I couldn't have done any of this without the help of a small group of stellar Mozambicans.

 I am grateful because I knew Mateus.  I am grateful to have met his family, and to have seen the way his uncle cared for him and the way his uncle smiled every time Mateus asked for juice and cookies (he asked all the time).   I am grateful that Mateus died before he had another seizure in public necessitating a demon exorcism (beating).  I am grateful that he died during the best year of his life, and that he died knowing how it feels to have people care about your situation and knowing how it feels to not be completely alone.

Mozambicans usually have two names.  One, they use publicly, the other, they use at home.  At home, Mateus was called Segredo (Secret); his story need not be one too.

Mateus Manuel

Thursday, November 12, 2015


the project car got a flat tire this week. we paid 150 meticais to change the tire and fix the flat one. that is $3.57.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Peace Corps Home

The volunteers who live in my old house are now preparing to leave.  They are both going back to the United States and had a goodbye party yesterday.  I went for a bit - obviously giving them their space to say goodbye to our mutual friends and community.

As soon as I got there I found this project beneficiary with his tablet and his friends!  I have to do a lot of encouraging and technical support, but the format of the project was thought of with the context of the local culture in mind.  It's very cool to see something working with relatively little foreign intervention.

It's a weird feeling.  I've already said goodbye, but I'm back.  This time, because the goodbye feels more's harder.  There is no way to keep in touch with the majority of my students, and the neighbor kids aren't old enough for cell phones.  Even for my students and friends who have cell phones - robbery is common, many live without electricity (therefore not having a phone that's turned on very much) and they lend phones to other people all the time (so when I call, sometimes I talk to someone I don't know).  Leaving is going to smash my heart into a million little pieces, but I keep having to remind myself that it is time to go.  My wise aunt Janet and I were talking about being of public service while I was at home and she had a very good point for mental health: it's important to do things for fun, to do things that aren't in the service of those you are helping.  Go swimming, not to teach anyone to swim, just to hang out in the water.  Go out to dinner - not to start a new project, not to fix current issues, just to have a pizza (and beer).  It's time for me to do that - but it doesn't mean that I wont miss the mountains every day.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

It's October?!

Yes, it's October.  After a whirlwind trip back home to see my brother get married (Success!) and a week waiting around New York for the Mozambureaucracy to get its act together (with a brief and lovely encounter with Amtrak, Philadelphia, and my grandparents), I got back to Mozambique with just enough time to...sit around? Since I'm still working on transportation I've been more or less stuck in Gurue.

I'm still battling to get a car for the project (definitely making progress) and in the last week, I've managed to put grates on my new house (pictures forthcoming), install new locks (when the house sitter lost all of the old ones), hire a wonderful woman to wash my clothes (because it is really no fun to hand wash jeans), get a contract for a new project driver, almost get my company to pay back salary to the previous driver, and eat a lot of wonderful mountain samosas.

It's been quite an African week and in order to be completely honest (because the internet needs more honesty) I am very proud of myself (and grateful to all of the moral supporters and africa magic intervention that helped make all of the above happen in a week of being back.

In the next few weeks, there will be beneficiary training, maybe a business trip or two, and more pictures!

Thank you to everyone who made my stay in the United States such a success!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Cecil the Lion

The news of Cecil the Lion's passing has indeed reached me in Mozambique (through American media outlets, of course).  This article explores the typical African response very well. (And mine too, maybe I've been here too long)

Friday, July 17, 2015


I had a long, complicated blog post all set up to post and then...

I read something on another blog: theft is actually wealth redistribution.  So you will get a slightly shorter, slightly more direct post.

As communist as that statement sounds/is, it was an interesting thought for me - my house was broken into during my first year in Peace Corps, dozens of other little things were stolen throughout the 2 years, and I said goodbye to Invinha by realizing that the student who had been helping me with house stuff for a year (and getting paid, given food, and was told he was allowed to ask for what he wanted but couldn't just take it) had been stealing things big and small for awhile.

I won't say much more - although I think in the purest form, theft is forced wealth redistribution.  Not that it is fair, not that it creates a nice ambiance in which to live - but the students who broke into my house and took everything from an electric iron to laptops were definitely much poorer than I am or ever will be.  The positive?  Maybe they took those things and made a better life for themselves.  Probably not, because they're teenagers with an underdeveloped frontal lobe, but maybe.  The negative?  It was the only time I seriously considered quitting Peace Corps and I completely lost trust in everyone in my community and only got it back for a special few. I try to offer things when I can and be perceptive to need  - generosity is the only thing I have come up with to deter theft.  It didn't work out very well with my student, but it might in the future. For a change, I'm not offering a solution.  I don't have one.

Anyway, what do you think?  Is there a moral certainty regarding theft?  Is it always wrong?

Me, a tin roof, and my trusty almost thief proof purse.