“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.

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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