Saturday, March 18, 2006

In spite of ourselves

There are few more wrenching film scenes than the one in Rabbit Proof Fence when three “half-caste” children are ripped from the arms of their mothers and sent thousands of miles away to a work camp/orphanage as part of a notorious cultural genocide campaign. Kenneth Branagh brilliantly plays the coolly obsessive “Chief Protector of Aborigines” whose goal is to scrub all the black out of Australians via state-controlled selective breeding—better known as slavery and rape. He sees himself in the center of a strange evolutionary struggle between darkness and chaos versus order and light—and casts himself as chief engineer, foreshadowing Hitler’s experiments with eugenics.

The protagonist of the film, one of the stolen children who escapes to return home, shares the same name with my best friend: Molly. Which must mean “clever and tenacious as hell” in some Gaelic or aboriginal tongue.

“We face an uphill battle against the bush natives, who must be protected from themselves. If only they would understand what we’re trying to do, we must help the native in spite of himself” says Chief Protector Neville.

Earlier today in the airport I was pointedly avoiding speaking English so I wouldn’t be associated with a small knot of my fellow countrymen, snorting and joking amongst themselves about "Mozambican time" and the typical lateness of the plane (only about 10 minutes—and not any more typical than late planes anywhere else in the world). I think they were missionaries. As I seethed at their conversation, I considered that maybe I was overreacting, in spite of myself. I don’t think so.

The arrogance betrayed by their comments irks me most, a characteristic shared by so many Americans—the blindness to the faults in our own society accompanied by a commensurate eagerness to pick on others’. Last year I was in Cape Town with a two friends who live in Boston and Kansas. We sat in an upscale restaurant surrounded by the other 95% white clientele and talked about how eerie it was that you could still feel and see the vestiges of Apartheid so strongly. I asked, how is this different from Boston or Kansas or the Westside of Cleveland?

We know all about South African Apartheid, but less about all the other Apartheids and ethnic cleansings and Stolen Generations, from our own particular US brands to England’s Rhodesia to Portugal’s Mozambique to Australia--even lily-white Canada has a few skeletons in the closet. It’s not much comfort to know that selective memory isn’t unique to Americans. A friend of mine was working on a film project about the politics of forgetting in Belgium--the erasure of King Leopold II’s bloody history from their collective consciousness. Leopold was arguably the last century's greatest architect of genocide—up to 15 million Congolese were killed and millions more were enslaved when he turned a huge swath of Africa into a forced labor camp at the dawn of the 20th century. He too hid behind the cover of a humanitarian mission to civilize the savages.

In the New York Times today there are two articles about corruption, one about Kenya and another about Louisiana post-Katrina. The Kenya article’s headline mentions “graft as part of Kenya’s social puzzle” and goes on to say that three cabinet ministers have quit because of the efforts of an anti-corruption czar. The Louisiana article focuses on small-town mayors and city councilmen and makes the problem sound like something confined to those crazy Cajuns. The mainstream media just nibbles at the edges of high-level corruption in our own government (rarely even using the term). On this side of the world, I never hear Europeans or Americans or Africans lamenting the graft of Western governments, while the plague of crooked Africans is such a staple of cocktail party conversation and writing on Africa that the phrase “corrupt African leaders” has become cliché. One question: if Africans are accepting graft and bribes, who is doing the offering? Seems we’re still trying to help the native in spite of himself--and in spite of ourselves as well.

Friday, January 20, 2006


My friend Rachel, who worked here for four years in the mid 90s, is responsible for coining the name of the most popular condom here in Mozambique: jeito. It's one of those untranslatable words that means something akin to skill or talent or knack. They're widely available in urban areas, but still rarely used. I've seen a lot of kids fashioning balloons from them and they're often inflated and batted around the crowd at concerts, but statistics on national condom use show that it's still sporadic at best, even in the cities. Part of the problem is that the initial Jeito marketing campaign coincided with the dawn of awareness of the AIDS epidemic in the public consciousness and the descent of a proliferation of NGOs to address it. Tenacious rumors sprouted that, at worst, Jeito condoms acutally cause HIV or, at best, the Western NGOs are profiting so much from the sale of condoms that they don't really want the epidemic to end. Jeito's initial advertising seemed to strongly link condoms with promiscutiy and probably didn't help matters any, especially for women wanting to broach the subject to their partners. The marketers are a little more sophisticated these days, but there's still little discussion of the public uneasiness with condoms or the real reasons why people are so reluctant to use them.

Condom ad heard on the car radio driving through Maputo (Translated from the Portuguese):
This program is brought to you by Kama Sutra condoms, when you need a camisinha, (little shirt, Portuguese slang) think of Kama Sutra. Now in strawberry, mango, vanilla, cheese, mint, and chocolate flavors. And there’s Long Life Kama Sutra, yes, that’s right, believe it, go the distance on the very longest voyages. Kids, be safe, use Kama Sutra condoms. They’ll prevent pregnancy and some of the nastier illnesses that can ruin your life.

Condom slogan hanging in HAI offices:
Better to come a little later in this life than come early to the next.

Indian poster of all the positions of the Kama Sutra with slogan:
Many positions with one is better than one position with many.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Now a major motion picture

The short 6 mintue film we made almost a year ago is now up on our new and improved HAI website (many kudos due to Clayton Farr, filmmaker and web designer par excellance.) It's worth a thousand blog words many times over. If you'd like to get a better idea of what we do here and what the stakes are, go here.

Happy New Year

The afternoon thunder is booming outside, I’m just back from an hour of power yoga at the house of co-worker temporarily turned yoga studio led by DVD Rodney Yee, Bach’s Cello Suites are on the ipod and I finally have a minute to update the blog. There’s a lot here and I have to again chastise myself for being such a bad, bad Blogger. The backdated entries were written a couple of months ago, but with my whirlwind schedule and spotty internet access the past few months, I haven’t had time to get to the blog. After coming back to Mozambique in mid-November, I spent only two weeks here and for much of December was in Nigeria and Ethiopia at conferences and meetings. I took a break over Christmas and New Years, first traveling in South Africa with a Maputo friend, then hosting my friends Noelle and Josephine (Noelle’s 7 year old daughter), trying to show them a cross-section of life in southern Africa in just 10 days or so. I think they were travel-sated when they left for Cape Town last Tuesday after seeing four of the big-five (we saw a leopard prance across a beach, but no lions); traveling in 4 countries; and staying in a Christian missionary flop-house on the Indian Ocean, a traditional Swazi style thatch hut, an upscale house in a rich Maputo neighborhood, an Afrikaans-owned B and B, a Rhodie-owned B and B, and my own humble rat-infested abode (more on the rats later.)

The big news is that I’m moving back to Cleveland by the end of April (interesting timing you might note, just as winter ends there and starts here.) I look forward to a lot of visiting and catching up this summer. See you soon!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Giving Thanks, Backdated Blog #2

It’s thanksgiving. People are always giving me thanks here. Going out of their way to tell you what a big heart they think you have. What astonishing feats of altruism warrant this outpouring? Lending $10 when a mother living in a distant village is sick and the money to finance a visit home is short; contributing to the cost of automatic basic human rights like an education or a decent house; letting neighbors and friends take water from my full tank during the last dry difficult weeks before the rainy season starts. All this presumed generosity on my part never really threatening my access to excess. My relationship to most of the people I know here is at least partly tinged by my role as boss or benefactor. Sometimes I feel like I represent nothing so much as a big bobbing life preserver in a sea of need.

We had an amazingly abundant Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday. Nearly all expats, we gathered to celebrate the lives we were born into. Turkey, stuffing, homemade fresh mango chutney in place of the cranberry sauce, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes. Even pumpkin pie and peach cobbler. As I drove home, sated beyond reason, I passed the lines of Mozambicans filing out of their small adobe, thatch-covered churches; walking home to their small adobe, dirt-floored homes.

It finally rained today. We can only hope it marks the beginning of the now two-month late rainly season. I would be most thankful for that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Back home? Backdated Blog # 1

So I’m back home. If that’s what this is. I’m not sure I have a home these days, certainly nothing that has that gemütlich feel too it. My eyes had to readjust and I noticed funny things. In a sea of abject need, oodles of broken things, what is chosen for spiffing up?

There are shiny new reflectors along the curve of highway leading into town, right before you come to the supermarket. It’s just where the population density starts to warrant some sort of protection for the folks living in the huts nearest the road, where the demographics shift from “rural” to “semi-urban.” It’s a dangerous spot to live if a fast-moving truck takes a few extra seconds to gauge the trajectory of the turn and careens off into the neighborhood, but not sure I would be comforted by some flimsy reflecting metal posts in the few feet separating me from the steady stream of rickety semis barreling into town.

In the middle of nowhere, on a barren stretch of pock-marked asphalt connecting two small towns, some men were carefully painting the railings bright blue on a 20 foot bridge over a seasonal creek. The gates guarding the two railroad crossings in town now have festive red and white stripes.

The average skin-color of Shoprite (the only supermarket in town) clientele continues to get paler. It’s dramatically lighter than when I first arrived and I was often the only Mzungu in the store. The white Zimbabweans have really started to put down roots here, or more accurately, to put up walls. The number of compounds going up around town continues to multiply, cement houses with the beginnings of imposing brick walls surrounding the acre or two or three adjacent. They have no country of their own anymore, so I suppose that makes them overreact in their defense of whatever spot of land they are currently calling home.

There are moments, days, when I feel I shouldn’t be here. The Sub-Saharan African environment is clearly not meant for northern-European skin if the Rhodesian complexion is any indication. Their blotchy-red, sun-scarred faces would make good before photos on Extreme Makeover.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

My eyes are full

My eyes are full. Weary of images of suffering and selfishness. I don’t recognize my country in the images on TV. Maybe I’ve been away too long, but I don’t remember the callousness, the intense and relentless pursuit of self-interest, the distrust, the hair-trigger resort to violence. From the images on CNN, it doesn’t look like a country I’d choose to move back too--it looks like a disorganized, segregated, badly run police state. I am reminded of my white privilege here much more frequently than back home, maybe because a fish generally doesn’t think too often about the water it breathes. Cleveland, with its segregation and divisions, is like an aquarium. You can swim around for awhile some days before coming to the glass wall. Africa is more like a goldfish bowl. But some goldfish get so acclimated they even forget the bowl. I’ve seen it with expats here and now I recognize it in my own shock over the images from New Orleans. What else could possibly be the fruit of all the seeds we’ve sown? How could we not have expected this? I can only hope the images of New Orleans make more people aware of the fishbowl, but in my experience, those that deny its existence it can almost never be convinced.

Here, life goes on as always, or not. At a friend’s 30th birthday party last week, her brother began his toast to her by noting what an accomplishment it is, in this day and age in Mozambique, to even make it to 30.

Josina's Birthday

I visited an outlying rural health center about 5 hours by car from my house. Twenty-one women in the last days of their pregnancies are packed into a bare cement block building, “the house of expecting women,” sleeping on woven mats and cooking on open fires outside. No electricity, no running water. They come from hours or days away and patiently wait alone for the contractions to come so they can make it to the adjacent hospital in time for the birth.

"Casa de maes espera" =

House of expecting/waiting/hoping women

It’s getting to be the rough part of the dry season. Water is scarce but the rains are still two months away, so it’s far too early to start hoping yet. The goal is simply to get through to the next day. Expectations are low and no one even imagines being rescued.