Porter’s Race Weekend

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“The route is rocky and hazardous and the paths are small. But this is Malawi’s only extreme sport, runners cover such a tiring distance of 25km in less than three hours.” The Nyasa Times was right but a little lenient on the timing; the winner ended up finishing the race in about 2 hours and 7 minutes. Not a bad time for summiting and descending down Malawi’s highest peak if you ask me.IMG_5019

As we arrived as this legendary event, crowds were surrounding the streets; there was a buzz of people chatting, standing around, and shopping from the local artisans. As we drove by taking everything in, we decided to drop off our tents and bags while we let the runners do their thing.

View from where we were staying

View from where we were staying

After setting up, we decided to head down the mountain to enjoy the festivities. Overwhelmed by the amount of foreigners and people in general, I walked around as a zombie – not talking but absorbing everything going on. There was a barbecue area, a stage for concerts, and a small art market; this was the place to be, but not for too long. News spread quickly that the first finisher was approaching.

We lined the path with necks strained trying to peak around the next person for a glimpse of the runners. With people everywhere and so much excitement, the police were clearing the trail for the runners. As I turned to watch the corralling, I heard a boisterous cheer from behind me. My head shot around with eyes fixed waiting for the runner to come around the bend. There he was. He had a steady gate and wasn’t even breaking a sweat; this man was a machine. As he turned to the winners circle, kids followed by the masses just trying to get a glimpse of the winner finish.

The Final Stretch

The Final Stretch

As we were settling down from the first runner, we heard more cheers ahead. The second runner was already here, and he brought more joy along the way. With a smile from ear to ear, he was overwhelmed with all of the support. All the way to the finish line, he was getting the crowd louder by giving everyone he passed high fives.

Second Place

Second Place

As the runners kept flowing in, the crowd dispersed and we decided to relocate. Following some friends of Joanne and Andrew, we settled on a rock in the middle of a stream. It was the perfect vantage point between the water, the mountain, and the runner. Also, it allowed for some rock hopping to kill time between the runners.

Although still maintaing a loud cheer as the runners past, we allowed ourselves to sink into the surroundings. Basking in the sun allowed for the perfect blend of feeling the rays on your body but never getting too hot. Well at least for most people. Some people decided that sitting around wasn’t sufficient for them, and they decided to take a dip in the tempting pool while they waited.

After the last runner was seen coming down the mountain, our neighbors on the rock decided it was time to celebrate. Champagne was popped and glasses poured. Unbeknownst to me, the celebration wasn’t for the race ending, but the runner was one of their friends. There was a quick pitstop from the runner for a mid-race champagne toast before she trucked on to the finish.

After this small celebration, people began to disperse. Some went looking for food while others decided to call it a day and take a short midday nap. However, we weren’t ready to pack it in quite yet; the party continued down to the concert venue.

With people scattered throughout, the performers had some potential of making things into a party. However, it seemed that most people were wiped out from the race and felt like taking it easy. Following the ways of the masses, we decided to take our recess at the cabin.

The Crowd and Concert

The Crowd and Concert

While things were settling down at the campsite with an old fashion board game and conversation, I had a gut feeling that I needed to go back; the music was flowing through my veins and calling me back to the concert. And honestly, if I heard what was about to happen next I’m not sure I would have believed as I trekked back down the hill.

As I turned the corner to the concert area, I saw dancing. It wasn’t the type of dancing that you sometimes see at festivals or the dancing that you see in the States. There was no grinding, no swing, or people steeling the limelight. There was just a feeling; the people were connected to the music and moving with it without a care for appearances. It was a bunch of grown men dancing around an area in the way that your 5-year-old self danced: no sense of rhythm, the beat, or how to move your body. You just knew their was music and you were moving and jumping around. You can’t think, and you can’t overanalyze. You have to let your mind be free and just go wild.

That’s exactly what happened.

The memory of the next couple hours are a blur of smiles, sweating, and bouncing around the dance floor like a madman. While in America I would have been seen as crazy or the guy that can’t dance to save his life, here I was the life of the party. Pictures were being taken with me left and right, people were trying to buy me things, and everything was being as welcoming as possible.

In the middle of one of the photos, I heard Chichewa being sprayed like rapid-fire around me. The men closed in, and the next thing I knew, I was in the air. They carried me throughout the dance floor and began to pass me off. I was crowd surfing in an area of strangers and loving every minute of it. Putting my fists into the air and cheering, my new friends started cheering with me.

After finally being let down, the dancing didn’t skip a beat. We were not going to stop till the music stopped. Then it did. Well the music didn’t stop, but the singer stopped singing. The people around me slowed down their dancing and turned me around. The singer was pointing at me. “Come. Come up here,” he kept calling out to me.

Looking around at the people around me, they kept nudging me forward. “Wait is he pointing at me,” I thought. “Wait? Really? Me?” Without having a chance to think twice, the group around me started shoving me forward. “Well I guess this is happening. Might as well embrace it.”

As soon as I leaped onto the stage, the crowd went wild; the first foreigner was on stage. As I gazed out, I couldn’t believe what was happening. “This isn’t real life,” kept spinning through my head.

“Dance. Dance,” the singer called out to me as I snapped back to reality. The next couple of minutes were a compilation of two grown men dancing on stage at each other. While he kept singing, I continued as his backup dancer. As the crowd kept heating up, the singer decided to give me another surprise. He shoved the microphone into my hand and told me some phrase to chant to the audience. Admittedly I had no idea what we were saying as we were singing back and forth to each other and the audience. Meanwhile the crowd was going wild as ever, and the music laid the foundation for some chanting. Back and forth the crowd and I went for the next couple of moments.

Singing on Stage

Singing on Stage

As the music wound down and the crowd gave one last grand cheer, I took my bow and hopped down off the stage. The energy was buzzing all around (actually, it may have just been my ears). Anyways as I went back into the crowd, locals swarmed me with congratulations and a desire to dance again. Of course there was no refusing.

Meanwhile the friends that I came with came up to me. They had come down from the relaxation and saw me on stage. The excitement was in the air and I couldn’t contain myself. I’m not sure if I immediately hugged them on account that I was so sweaty, but there was definitely a cheer of excitement.

We continued laughing, talking, and joking as the night continued and the energy tapered to a blissful next day.

However instead of immediately going home the next morning, we decided to make a pitstop at a waterfall that Joanne and Andrew knew. A little bit off the beaten path, we trekked up the hill to a hidden oasis.

Serenity had be reached with crystal blue water; however, it was broken with the bone-chilling temperature. After looking at the water a little while, we decided to take the plunge. The next couple hours consisted of swimming, cliff diving, and an absurd amount of sun bathing to regain our warmth.

As we packed up the bags and headed on home I couldn’t help reflecting on what an unexpected weekend it had been. From waterfalls to crowd surfing, the weekend was filled with excitement around every corner. While next year this event will be hard to top, Andrew and I made a pack to run in the race next year. So, watch out Porter’s Race 2016. Next year we’re coming to win. Well… Maybe I should start training first…

If you’re interested in more details about the Porter’s Race, you can check it out in this Nyasa Times article.

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The Birds and The Bees

The Group

The Group

Twenty-eight people from around the province came together to get the talk. Granted, they didn’t sign up for the stereotypical sit down with the parents: “So son… this is what sex is.” That sort of awkwardness conversation doesn’t exist; parents often avoid the topic and leave the kids in the dark about the changes happening to their body during puberty. The kids are left with no other option but self-discovery, and if you remember yourself as a teenager, you know that probably is not the best decision.

The weekend started with teenagers ready to impress. Introductions were accompanied by dances and songs, and when I say accompanied, each person would have an entire routine planned after the quick glance over their name. Also, these dances weren’t a quick one trick; each dance and song went on for its entirety. They knew how to get a conference started. Immediately following the club-like atmosphere, the energy kept going through some high paced games.

As the laughing turned into smiles and people began to settle down, we started planning out the rest of the weekend. Each group was responsible for an area of puberty or sexual health. They were free to decide on presentation method and choose a topic; the topics included sex and gender, violence, AIDS/HIV, or STDs.

Imagining something like the classroom, we were ready to have to start assigning a topic for each group. However, peoples hands were shooting up when we were presenting the topics. “Oh. Oh. Can we do that one?” “Can we do that one?”

After each group received a topic, they didn’t skip a beat. People were running off to get supplies and going to their special spot to plan. They were ready and excited to have the opportunity to learn and present. “Where was this energy in the classroom?” I thought to myself. Letting the thought float out of my head, we were excited to see their enthusiasm. This was something new to them and something they wanted to teach about.

After corralling everyone back into the room, we had to tame the crowd for the order to present; everyone wanted to be first to share all of their information. After the dust settled, we began our presentations, and the rest of the day was filled with skits, condom demonstrations, and presentations.

After the sweeping round of applause for each presentation, there was a time for questions for each group. These questions helped to taper the conversation to what the participants really wanted to know, and they had plenty they wanted to know. One of the biggest round of questions that we had was surrounded around menstruation.

When talking about menstruation, the participants were more on their toes than ever before. Apparently, no one had taken the time to explain the basics while they were a child. It was a whole new world for them, and they wanted to understand. Fortunately for the curiosity, people in Mozambique are not shy about sharing very personal details with each other.

Some of the girls decided to take charge and sit up front for an open forum. The questions poured in from sex while you’re on your period to a pad demonstration. Looking around the room during the question time, I noticed that all of the men were fixed with open eyes and curious expressions, just looking for any little bit of information. They were truly amazed at what the girls had to say. This session could have gone on for days with further explanations and demonstrations, but we had already extended the sessions for two and a half hours and their dinner was getting cold.

However, leaving the conference room did not stop them. The conversations continued through the night, but the structured session were over, and in Mozambique, there is no better way to end a conference than with certificates. As the participants filed through one by one, the joy radiated throughout the room. They knew they had something to be proud of; they had participated in a workshop about sexual health and were ready to take what they learned back to the community. Many people came up to the other leaders and me throughout the rest of the night just to express their gratitude. “My parents are going to be so proud of me” was the sentiment that I kept hearing.Certificates

After the rounds of certificates, we went out back and went wild with the pictures.

Overall it was a successful weekend with some incredible kids, and I can’t wait to see where they’re going to take things from here.

Reflecting on the Weekend

Reflecting on the Weekend

“Tea” with a Side of Sugar

IMG_5028Coming to Mozambique, I had no idea how central tea was going to be to my life, and days like today are when it becomes more apparent. Days like today are days for reflection; days where everything is quiet: no music, no kids running around, and only the tip tap of the rain hitting its puddles. Days like today allow me to reflect on how teatime went from a thought of Victorian era dress with crumpets and teacakes to laughing with my community members.

Flashback to the first day of training…

With butterflies in our stomachs, we unloaded from our bus to a chilled hiss of rain coming down to this new home. Eyes wide and goosebumps all over, we walked into a memory. Drum beats and sweet songs filled the air as we searched to find our new family. Living in the moment with nothing to prepare us for this, we embraced our new families.

Clueless and lost, I followed my sister hand-in-hand to our house. Not wanting to just walk in silence we tried to muster any conversation we could in Portuguese; when all failed we started singing one through ten with our arms swinging back and forth. Then I was there. Home.

My House During Training

My House During Training

The rest of my family welcomed me in, and I was sat in a chair. “Tomar chá? Tomar chá?” my host mother kept repeating to me. I looked around the room for help, and then proceeded to nod out of confusion. Everyone started to move around me, and as I tried to get up, I felt hands on my shoulders push me down. “Okay. Not moving,” I thought to myself.

Moments later a steaming cup of tea was laid before me. After lifting up the cup, the steam spread across my face as a calming blow left from my mouth. After a day in the rain, this was the needed warmth. After a day of confusion, this put my mind at ease. After a day of miscommunication, this allowed for a welcoming silence. As I sat there enjoying my tea, as I would learn to do at least twice a day during training, I started to understand how blended teatime and Mozambican culture have become.

Flashback to being dropped off at site for the first time…

With nerves at an all time high, we were loaded into the car after dropping off my closest fellow Americans. I didn’t know what was before me or how far away my new home was going to be, but there was only one way to go.

Through the five hours of floating in and out of consciousness to my site, the anxiety turned into a blissful peace. The peace settled in as we wound through the mountains; we caught glimpses of small communities and tea fields. I reminisced on all precious teatime moments with my family and neighbors in training. Any doubts floated away as I remembered the comfort of a fresh batch of tea, the company of the people around, and how each teatime led to deepening relations with the people around me.

Tea Fields Near My House

Tea Fields Near My House

Flashback to tea at someone’s house…

After the first couple of weeks of wandering around like a lost puppy, people started to realize I wasn’t going anywhere. And when they realize you’re not going anywhere, they welcome you with open arms, literally; hugs every five meters. What comes next are an overflowing series of invitations: “Will you come over to my house?”; “I want to show you my life and become best friends.”; “Come meet my daughter.”. The last comment may have had some hidden intentions, but all seemed equally enthused to have the new person in the community come to their house.

Before going to the first house, my nerves were everywhere. “What do I say?”; “Am I going to be able to keep conversation flowing with my Portuguese?”; “What are we even going to do?”. My thoughts were racing, so I cranked up the Space Jam Soundtrack and jumped around singing around my house. “Shake out the nerves Thomas. Shake ‘em out,” I told myself. I slipped on my shoes and headed out my door hyped-up, nerve ridden, and ready to talk about anything, and when I entered the house, any hint of nerves left immediately vanished.

The table was set for tea. This was perfect.

I sat down and was ready. I had been through this before with my host family – the perfect blend of conversation, silence, and the comfort of a warm cup of tea.

As the sugar was passed around the table, people were scooping countless heaps into their cup. As the sugar finally came around to me, I scooped in my usual amount. Before I could pass it along, confused eyes stared back at me. “No take more. Take more,” they insisted. Not wanting to overpower the tea, I poured one more teaspoon in. “Ohhhhhh. You don’t understand,” someone let out.

“Wait what?” confused, I muttered.

“We don’t use leaves in our tea. The leaves are too expensive, so we just use sugar and water. That’s how we do tea.”

Others around the table looked confused. One person decided to chime in.

“What? There are supposed to be leaves in tea? What do you call it when there are leaves in the tea? What is it supposed to be called how we drink it? What do these leaves look like?” and the questions rattled on.

Silently, I leaned back and listened in on the conversation about the different between “proper” tea and tea defined by Mozambique’s standards. My friends around the table did not know the word chá (tea in English) consisted of anything beyond hot water and sugar. The cultural exchanged that ensued was eye opening.

The poverty around Mozambique has changed the vocabulary of the people in country. Although tea fields surround where I live and many other places in Mozambique, the people did not see the connection between the plants and the drink that share the same name. This disconnect allowed for an opportunity to have a cultural exchange in a calm and welcoming environment of teatime.

As we sat around that table for a couple of hours drinking our “tea”, I realized how easy this was. They welcomed me, the cultural exchange was fluid, and I felt at home.

As I reflect on these moments watching the rainfall off my veranda, I can’t help to be comforted by the experiences and opportunities I’ve had just with a cup of “tea” and a side of sugar.

Death is Different

That sound. As the cry becomes more pronounced, it progresses from a murmur to wail. The sound registers in my head: “I’ve heard this before.” This is the sound that occasionally echoes outside the hospital and lingers in the hearts of people close by. It’s the sound that is synonymous with death. However that night was different. The murmur of one turned into the cry of the community.

Looking out my window, I saw my neighbor collapse to her knees as tears uncontrollably fell from her face. Her body throbbed as her sobbing took control. This loss is different.

Racking my brain for the difference, I reflected on previous loss in the community. Mothers losing their child, losing their baby, losing the one with so much life ahead of them. There was lament. There were tears. There was community support, but there was not this hopeless loss of everything.

In the morning, I went to check in on my neighbors. Approaching the house, I caught a glimpse of how the loss still waged on. Puffy eyed, sluggish, and disconnected, she was monotonously doing the morning cleaning; the weight of the death carried on.

“Laura. Good morning. How are you doing today?” I managed as I approached the woman ready to fall apart again.

“I’m sad.” She managed to choke out.

Before getting ready to go over to her house I reflected on the image of the night before; however, I was not ready for this statement. Not once have I heard someone in Mozambique say that they are sad, just being okay gives people enough concern.

I approached the next few lines with caution.

“Oh no. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Keeping her eyes fixed on the ground she whispered, “No Thomas no. There’s nothing anyone can do.”

Not knowing where to go with the conversation, I asked the question I feared the answer to, “What happened?”

Taking a deep sigh she managed to whisper such a simple but powerful statement. “He died.”

As she slowly squeezed it out she lifted her head to look at me. Eyes red and tears streaming down her weathered face, she couldn’t contain herself any longer. The scene from the previous night made its second appearance.

After a long embrace, we took a seat. Through silence, tears, and periodic talking, the story came out. The man, the oldest man in the community, died at the age of 106.

Not realizing the impact of the elderly in the community, I took a mental step back. A 106-year-old man has this much effect on a community? What did he do? Isn’t it pleasant that he died in his sleep? He lived a full life and was ready to die, right?

Little did I know how engrained my Western view of death was. Traditionally in the States, the loss of a child is heartbreaking because the missed opportunity of the life before him or her, and an older person dying in their sleep is peaceful and eliminates any suffering that they may have had. We focus on the future. Death is different here.

People here celebrate the past; history is what defines them as a people, and they rejoice knowing their mutual history. In their mind, a child had little to no history on the Earth; therefore they unfortunately did not have a chance to contribute to the future of their people. On the other hand someone that had lived many years has experiences that go beyond the minds of much of the community. They hold secrets, legends, and insight into the past that go beyond the masses. In a community where oral history dominates, this man was the gatekeeper.

He told stories of Mozambique under colonial rule, the War for Independence, the Mozambican Civil War, and how this community survived through everything. This man held more knowledge about my community than any history book, and now it is gone.

My neighbor, Laura, was beside herself because someone died, yes. But more than that, she lost a part of her when this man passed. She lost a bit of something that defined her. She lost a bit of her community. She lost a bit of her past.

Moments like these require proper reflection. Moments like these humble you with the little time that you have experienced on the earth. Moments like these make you want to go out and here people’s stories. Everyone has something unique to offer, and it’s about time we go out there and discover the past that has been around us just waiting in the memories of our neighbors. It’s time to go out and create a history for the future.IMG_3829

Fact Check Episode 1

No instant gratification. No fact checking. No quick Google search. Just a nod in agreement when someone says something. Some of us may remember a world without “all” answers just being a quick click away. A world without internet and a world with a greater since of belief and wonder. To experience such a phenomenon you could take a time machine back before smart phones, SIRI, and fact checks or you come on over to my neck of the woods in Africa.

Without this instant access, things are perpetuated into a realm of truth that would not stand a chance in more developed worlds. Not everything is bad though. It provides a since of entertainment and curiosity. Sometimes I wonder where someone could have come up with these thoughts; the people have quite a knack for creativity. Well in order to not keep all the imaginative lines to myself, I would like to welcome you to episode one of Fact Check Mozambique Edition.

“A lady turned into a snake at the local restaurant”

Before one of my university classes, one of my students asks me if I heard what happened that day; this is what happened. “A lady in the community turned into a snake at the local restaurant.” The things my community finds truth in shocks me everyday, but this? From a university student? No matter how much I insisted its impossibility, reasoned with science, and tried to make light of the situation, he would not believe that his friend could have been lying to him.

“After someone in the community took medication from the traditional healer, he turned into an eagle and flew above the community. Now he has a better view on the community and how things can be run.”

According to the boy, there was nothing short of the absolute truth in this story. The man flew over the community. What I didn’t have the heart to tell him was that the traditional healer probably just gave him some medicine that got him high. However, if somehow all of this shape shifting is true and keeps happening, I’m going to have to try and learn. I wonder what my spirit animal will be.

Maybe he just got the view from the mountain

Maybe he just got the view from the mountain

“You can cure malaria by spraying all the mosquitos you can see with bug spray”

Sure. If there are no mosquitos than you can’t get bit and can’t get malaria. That’s nice and all, but you’re not going to kill them all. The more concerning part about this statement is that it came from someone working in the health field. Someone that Mozambicans rely on for health information wholeheartedly believes that you can prevent malaria by spraying the mosquitos you see. Looks like we have a little bit of malaria education we need to do before our next session.

“There are no black people outside of Sub-Saharan Africa”

This belief was universal for all of the people around me; according to them, in order to be black you have to be born in Southern Africa or Central Africa. After naming Libya and Egypt as examples, they all concluded a definite region to qualify.

“White people can’t be poor”

On a recent bus ride, this debate ensued for two hours. Yelling so loud, I could feel people hurl their thoughts as spit consistently landed on my face; the person beside me must have had a gleeking problem. As example after example rolled out, the passengers decided to agree to disagree. The people that have not seen a poor white person refused to believe that the white people that they see in movies or television have counterparts that are poor. Of course the white foreigner (me) was not permitted to contribute in this debate.

On the things about the United States

“Barack Obama is not African American”

When I heard this I turned my head just to clarify that they were talking about the same person. Yep turns out it was. According to the people around me, in order to be considered African American you must have both parents and all relatives from Africa. Since President Obama’s mother is from Kansas, he had no chance according to them. As much as I tried to reason, this was one that was had to agree to disagree on.

“Michael Jackson died black”

Apparently, according to the man on the bus, Michael Jackson had surgery and was white, but miraculously he turned black again before he died. After being shot down from disbelief from the others, he changed his story to the fact that Michael Jackson had another surgery before he died to change him back to having black skin. His claim apparently stemmed from something he read on the Internet, and as we all know, everything on the Internet is truthful and factual. Not.

“Michael Jackson only had a white face. The rest of his body was black”

Okay this idea what shut down pretty fast by the people around me; however the instigator stood his ground that it was fact. I’m honestly not entirely sure how this would work or where he got this information from. However, this rumor could have been shot down in a heartbeat with a quick Google image search.

“Michael Jackson is still alive”

Okay, so this statement wasn’t on the bus ride, but since we are talking about Michael Jackson, we might as well touch on the biggest Michael Jackson myth in Mozambique. In the South, Central, and North you can pole five people that know who Michael Jackson is (it is a surprisingly large number of people) and will find at least one person that will argue this point for days. From the many conversations I have had on this subject, it is impossible to convince someone otherwise. They heard it on television, heard it on the radio, one of their friends saw him, or a friend of a friend knows for sure. From all the reports, Michael Jackson is allegedly living in Kenya, Senegal, Cabo Verde, or some other islands; reports vary on location.

“The Americas is one continent” “Europe and Asia are one continent” “There are only five continents” “What’s Antarctica? (After an explanation it is always followed by) Oh no there’s nothing like that that exists.”

Most times when I tell people I’m American they think that I am from somewhere in North or South America; the clarification of the United States is lost to most. People often ask how long it takes to drive home. Geography is definitely not Mozambique’s strong suite. After breaking out a world map, the people are astonished. “Wow what’s that.” “Oh that’s where that country is?” “What is that thing on the bottom.” Out of all the geography books and maps that I have seen in Mozambique, I have never once seen Antarctica; don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it exists somewhere. But take a step back and think about it, there is just a massive block of ice at the South Pole? If you take a step back and think about it, especially to people that have never even seen snow before, it sounds absurd. Geographical skills are lacking and most of my student’s can’t even identify Mozambique on a map. However, with the Postcard Project and others, we are slowing changing this unfamiliarity at my school.

Pangea all over again!

Pangea all over again!