“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.

Mountain Climbing in Milange

Sitting at the foothills of the mountains, I stare at upward everyday in awe. “I will conquer you one day,” I tell the mountains as I look upward. The opportunity was always there, but it was a matter of committing and finding people to go with. My neighbors rejected my suggestion to go up the mountains because of all of the local legends: “leopards line the mountains”, “the hills are cursed”, and my personal favorite “gnomes live at the top of the mountain and kill people”.

Mountain in Town

Mountain in Town

Apparently not everyone is terrified. A local missionary had rallied a group of boys in the community to hike up the mountain and stay the night. Unbeknownst to him, he filled my dream to climb the mountain when he asked me to accompany them on the trek. Little did I know what was laid before me.

15:00 rolled around, and we drove up to the highest point that we could reach; smiles and eagerness spread across our face. We were ready. Ready for the unknown. Ready for the hike. Ready for the memories that lay in front of us.

Before the Journey

Before the Journey

Gardens, flowerbeds, and houses pass as we journeyed into the jungle. The path tapered off as we entered areas of grass reaching beyond our heads. Knowing the only way was upward, João, one of the youths, led us onward. Having never been hiking before, he did not understand the significance of switchbacks, so we carved a straight path up the mountain.

Having done some backpacking and hiking back in the States, I would look up the mountain and see the path cutting up the mountains with switchbacks. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just climb straight up?” I always thought to myself.

Flashback to the hike and the answer becomes abundantly clear. No. Climbing straight up a mountain makes the experience exponentially more difficult. After being out of breath and only an hour into the hike, we turned around, collapsed, and appreciated the town behind us. After looking off into the horizon, we looked down at ourselves. Cuts, dirt, and sweat lined our body after our exploration into the jungle. After fighting through weeds, stumps, and vines along the way, our bodies had taken a beating, but there was plenty more in us.

Kobus, the youth leader, led out the cry of a new song, and we knew it was time to journey on. A new leader popped up willing to lead the charge further up the mountain. He whipped out a dull, rusty kitchen knife that he claimed will be able to cut through the vines and create a path perfect for the group. After five minutes into the bush, the knife was abandoned due to false advertisement. Nonetheless we carried on; through rock climbing, bouldering, and rock scrambling, we attacked the mountain. As the sun began to seek cover behind our desired peak, we waited for the moonlight to show its face.

Laughter, chatter, and selfies filled the air we waited for the moonlight to be our guiding force. Fortunately for us, the moon did not disappoint and was as full as ever.

Moonlight Selfie

Moonlight Selfie

Hiking by moonlight was a new rush; we didn’t know where our foot was going to land. After four more hours of hiking, we escaped the vines and thorns. A new grassland laid upon us and we could finally see the summit. Delighted and defeated, the missionaries were ready to set up camp; however, the Mozambicans would not quit until they summited, so we continued on.

An hour later, we had made it. Of course similar to any other other type of celebration, we had a photo-shoot to commiserate the long journey getting there.

After the stir had wound down, we set up camp and started the fire to make dinner. Through the cooking process, we admired the beauty of the town below. A batch of concentrated lights and an expanse of land outside of it exposed the isolation our town faced. After admiring and trying to find our houses, we sat down to feast. A meal of chicken, French fries, salad, and juice filled our empty stomachs after the long hike. Through digestion, we talked, joked, and slowly trickled into our tents for the night.

We awoke to the light of a fresh dawn and entered the world with a stretch and a smile. In awe of the bucolic nature around us, we opened our eyes to the beauty of our home. With Mount Mulanje on one side and our town on the other, we were humbled by our minor nature on this magnificent earth.

After taking in all that we could, we began to prepare for the dissension. Unanimously deciding to not put ourselves through the same route, we ventured down the mountain with a path undiscovered. Covered by a fresh morning’s dew, the grass lead to more slipping, falling, and tumbling than a silent film. Having a good since of humor about the stumbling, we laughed our way down the mountain.

Through the more scenic trail, we discovered rivers, tea gardens, and waterfalls lining the path. After a six-hour trek of uninterrupted beauty we arrived back in town looking like the mountain men that we were.

Group Shot on Top

Group Shot on Top

Culture Quiz

Pop quiz time! How culturally adept are you in Mozambican culture? Grab a pen and paper, and you will probably end up surprising yourself.

Next to each number write down if you think you the action would be considered rude or not rude in Mozambican culture. Tally them up in the end, and we will see how you offensive or cultured you truly are. Remember, no cheating.

  1. Spitting
  2. Showing the sole of your shoe
  3. Asking for money
  4. Asking for a phone number from a stranger
  5. Telling someone he/she is fat
  6. Throwing rocks
  7. Picking your nose
  8. Answering your phone during a meeting
  9. Being late
  10. Showing your knees (women only)
  11. Showing cleavage
  12. Breastfeeding in public
  13. Whistling
  14. Hissing at someone
  15. Calling and hanging up
  16. Refusing food
  17. Asking someone’s age
  18. Asking someone’s religion
  19. Eating with your hands
  20. Licking your fingers
  21. Taking pictures of strangers
  22. Eating on the run
  23. Dancing in public
  24. Snapping at the waiter
  25. Wearing wrinkled clothes

You got all that? Here comes the big reveal… drum role please… Let’s see how you did!

1. Spitting

Not Rude. If you’ve got something in your mouth feel free to let it loose. The world is your oyster. People spit everywhere – inside and outside.

2. Showing the sole of your shoe

Not Rude. Unlike other African countries, Mozambicans could care less about seeing the bottoms of your feet. Also, they love to kick back and relax, so don’t be afraid to join them.

3. Asking for money

Not Rude. Everything is very communal, and everyone shares everything with each other. This includes money. However, as a foreigner you will definitely be likely to get asked more. Sometimes the only things kids know in Portuguese or English is “Give me money”.

4. Asking for a phone number from a stranger

Not Rude. After the initial introductions, it could easily be the next thing you’re asked. People are proud of their phones and having a phone. Just beware that giving your phone number to someone puts you in the position to potentially receive relentless phone calls.

5. Telling someone they’re fat

Not Rude. It is actually a complement. It traditionally shows wealth and health in the community. However, most PCVs still don’t take very kindly to it.

6. Throwing rocks

Rude. However, there is an exception if you happen to be a dog. Mozambicans are terrified of dogs and will do anything to keep them away. Keep an eye on your dog if you have one in Mozambique.

7. Picking your nose

Not Rude. Mozambicans must get deeper into their nasal cavity than anyone I have ever seen before. Walking around town or in the middle of the conversation, don’t be surprised if someone goes knuckle deep up their nostrils searching for gold.

8. Answering your phone during a meeting

Not Rude. No matter how serious the matter, the phone call always takes priority. No need to get upset; they probably weren’t listening anyways.

9. Being late

Not Rude. Nothing starts on time! Being 30 minutes to an hour late is on time in Mozambique. Get used to Mozambique time.

10. Showing your knees (women only)

Rude. Those knees apparently really get people going here. Knees and above are the most sexualized part of the body according to Mozambicans. Most women just wrap around a capalana to be culturally appropriate.

11. Showing some cleavage

Not Rude. Breasts are non-sexualized objects in Mozambique. Sometimes tops are even optional for women. The amount of breasts that people in see in Mozambique rivals the amount of breasts in the mind of a pubescent boy.

12. Breastfeeding in public

Not Rude. As a 23 year male graduate fresh out of college, I was pretty ignorant to breastfeeding. However, you learn fast here; everywhere you turn you’re likely to see someone breastfeeding.

13. Whistling

Not Rude. There is not as much whistling tunes here as there is to get someone’s attention. You hear a whistle, and someone is a calling.

14. Hissing at someone

Not Rude. One of the most common ways to call someone over. When you first arrive in country, it feels dirty; however, with time it the disgust begins to fade.

15. Calling and hanging up

Not Rude. Referred to as beeping someone in Mozambique. This tactic is used so that the other person uses their airtime phone credit, and you don’t have to use any. It is wise, but incredibly frustrating.

16. Refusing food

Rude. If someone offers you food then they have probably worked all day preparing it for you. People take pride in their food here, so no matter what it looks like (maggots, rat, or grub) you better eat up.

17. Asking someone’s age

Rude. Exception being children and foreigners. People are blown away by my age. One of my students guessed 45 years old… I’m 23. Not even close.

18. Asking someone’s religion

Not Rude. It is often one of the first questions that you are asked after if you are married and how many kids you have. Mozambique is fairly split with Christian dominance in the South and Muslim dominance in the North. Don’t take it as invasive; they are just looking for some way to relate.

19. Eating with your hands

Not Rude. Most people can’t afford silverware, so hand is the best step. Also, they cut out the middle man and have less work to do afterwards.

20. Licking your fingers

Rude. You would think that would be the most logical step after eating with your hands. Wrong. Someone will come around with a bucket of water for you to wash your hands after the meal. Just wait and don’t touch anything.

21. Taking pictures of strangers

Not Rude. I don’t even know the number of pictures there of me on Mozambican phones. Instead of being creeped on, I’ve turned it into a game of getting as many random other people in the picture with me as possible. The best part is when another PCV spots you on a random Mozambican’s Facebook. It’s like Where’s Waldo Peace Corps edition.

22. Eating on the run

Rude. Americans are horrible about this; everything is go go go back in the States. However if you do not sit down, enjoy, and digest, it is an insult to whoever made the food.

23. Dancing in public

Not Rude. Dancing in public is encouraged. With music blaring around the clock, everyone is dancing everywhere – in the street, outside the classroom, and in the middle of a store. Join on in; Mozambicans will love it.

24. Snapping at a waiter

Not Rude. This snap is usually followed by the person shouting “you, hey you” in the local language. It’s in common practice around the country. If you feel like getting out of your comfort zone and seem even more Mozambican, you can try hissing at them; hissing at people is a Mozambican pastime (see number 14).

25. Wearing wrinkled clothes

Rude. Looks are the highest priority in Mozambique. On the first day at site, I went to do some work at the school during the holidays. Before I arrived, one of my colleagues told me I needed to go home to iron my shirt. After I explained that I didn’t have an iron yet, she told me to take off my shirt. She took my shirt, walked to her house, ironed the shirt, returned, and told me that I looked presentable now. Needless to say, an iron was bought the following day.


So how did you turn out? How many did you get correct? Let me know in the comment box.

0-5 – You’re lost. Check out other posts and take it again.

6-10 – Remember a thing or two from world history class?

11-15 – Maybe you’ve read Things Fall Apart.

16-20 – You just arrived in Mozambique. You’re picking this up quickly.

21-25 – You must be from Mozambique.

6 Lessons After 6 Months

Today makes six moths since I arrived in my beautiful new country of Mozambique. Getting on the plane to Africa, seeing my family for the last time, and eating my last Chipotle burrito feel like memories deep in the back of my mind. Unlocking these memories is like remembering someone you have lost; you can remember the joy mixed with sadness as if they are just too far for you to reach out and touch; they are close enough to remember but far enough to not be able to feel again. However, fortunately for me, those memories won’t always feel like a lifetime away. As I sit down to write, I reflect on how naïve I was and what I have learned.

These months have been some of the most challenging and rewarding times. My growth has expanded past my beard and hair, but Mozambique has opened my eyes to many things. Here are just a few of the many lessons I have learned during my stay so far.

First Group Picture in Mozambique

First Group Picture in Mozambique

1. Being on time doesn’t matter as much as being there

Nothing starts on time here. Nothing. Commonly referred to as Mozambican time by Peace Corps Volunteers, meetings that start an hour or two late are often deemed as occurring on time. During my first couple months at site it frustrated me. However, I was prepared for it; we had gone over it in training, but it doesn’t sink in till you’ve been sitting underneath a mango tree sweating for the past two hours, and after two hours they arrive without excuse.

During training, the staff shared a little bit about this thought process by explaining the difference between a to be culture and a to do culture. What it boils down to is the priority someone puts on individual things. To be culture puts more value of relationships, and to do culture puts more value on productivity: Mozambique tips the scale on the to be side. People will not trust you, do business with you, or listen to your thoughts for progress without meeting their family, spending time with them, and winning them over. The days of walking into a meeting and collaborating on a mutually beneficial project with people you have never me before are nonexistent here.

This integration takes time here, but the price of getting to know the people around you and going through life with them is invaluable.

My Host Family Mom and Me

My Host Family Mom and Me

2. Development takes time, especially more than two years

Development has to start with a grassroots approach, and this approach begins through relationships. I’ve becomes friends with people here in unique ways: music video shoots, hitchhiking, and karate clubs. In order to understand the needs of the entire community you have to get a holistic approach; that includes the farmers to the mayors. Instead of the grassroots approach, traditional development is run through a top down structure; this top down structure runs through the government and allows the government to control the funding. This approach is a catalyst to increased corruption.

When development workers work in the field for a smaller time and ask the people in the community their needs, it usually turns up to be a shallow request. Not until you spend time with these people do the things that plague them begin to be exposed. In Mozambique and many developing countries these problems aren’t heard in a meeting; they are heard during morning tea, washing clothes together, or just hanging out in the closest shaded area talking about the day.

These relationships take time, and I am fortunate enough to have built some lasting relationships here. However when I tell someone that I am only here for two years, his head sinks because he knows that I will not be able to make a radical change myself.

It boils down to the fact that development takes many years, and I will not be here for it. However, my role is to establish and access the true needs of the community, inspire people to take action, and support the development until they can sustain it on their own. That is how proper development is run over an extended period of time.

After I helped shoot a music video

After I Helped Shoot A Music Video

3. Life is short

Life is short. Adventure. Travel. See new sites. While I recommend these catchy lines and inspirational phrases, it is not where I’m going with this topic.

Just in my short six months here, I have know more people die and been to more funerals than all of my time in the States. Death is something that is so much more prevalent in developing countries, and the value of life doesn’t really hit you until you look at death head on. It doesn’t hit you until you come home, and your friend comes to tell you that he won’t be there tonight because his teenage child died today. Moments like these make you take a step back, analyze life, and appreciate the value of life.

First diseased person seen in Mozambique. On the cart on the far right

First diseased person I saw in Mozambique. On the cart on the far right. Didn’t know it when I took the picture

4. You can’t find yourself unless you’re truly by yourself

During the first couple of months at site, my only job was to integrate into the community. I worked hard on this, but I did not realize how much free time and alone time I would have. When you are truly alone you put aside all the nonsense, you stop lying to yourself, and you finally become the person you are or want to be. It’s hard to realize other’s effect on you when are still around people.

Unfortunately for some people they do not like themselves when they strip everything away. One fellow volunteer and I had many conversations about how she did not know what to do and was going crazy. She had always been someone that thrived off of people around her. She wasn’t ready to be alone, but she jumped in headfirst. She, like many other people when they are alone, had one of the largest growing and self-reflective periods of her life. On the other had, some people just find out or are reassured how weird they are. I was one of those people; the number of strange photos and goofy selfies I took was obscene.

Sister told me I was old on my birthday, so I sent her this back to prove it

Sister told me I was old on my birthday, so I sent her this back to prove it. One of the many strange selfies

5. Friends come and go

Many people logically know this to be true. However, it becomes so much clearer when someone moves away. Moving across the globe opens up your eyes to the value your friends and the amount that is put into the relationship by each party. Some people just fall off the map.

I know. I know. Some of you are defending yourself as you read this: “I’m not good at keeping in touch”, “I didn’t know I could get in contact with you”, or “oh, I’ve been really busy”. Through all of the noise, we get to the truth of the matter. There are those people that are important enough to keep in touch with even when it’s not convenient, and there are people where it is not important enough. Friendships are two-sided and not always easy; so if you want to keep a friend, work for it.

Before I finish this lament, I want to reiterate something that I have heard from other volunteers, missionaries, and people living abroad: just because we are no longer a drive away doesn’t mean that we’re dead. The simplest thing can make our day.

So if you’re thinking about someone whom you’ve been meaning to contact or someone you haven’t talked to for a while, shoot him or her a text, Facebook message, call, or write an old fashion letter. If nothing else, just let them know that you’re thinking about them. Believe me, it will make their day.

Packages are always a welcome surprise too.

Packages are always a welcome surprise too. Warning: Different address now if you’re doing the Postcard Project

6. Language defines culture

Although Mozambique’s official language is Portuguese, it is not the defining language. Mozambique, like many African countries, has many local languages that truly outline the culture and heritage of the people living in the area. People often refer to people by their cultural heritage in country; Changana person or Makua person are just a couple of examples in Mozambique.

Learning the local language is key to unlocking societal norms. The emphasis of certain words can show the importance of the word in the culture. In addition, understanding the language can make for fuller experience in church services, weddings, and funerals – all performed in the local languages.

Besides, nothing feels better than seeing the excitement that comes across a person’s face when you speak to them in their mother tongue.

Getting a cultural lesson

Getting a cultural lesson

All of these are just a little lessons that I have learned since being here. I have so much to learn to. Also, other things have changed too.

Off the plane in Philadelphia to right outside as I finished writing the post

Off the plane in Philadelphia to right outside as I finished writing the post



It Works!

It Works!

On one of my recent trips, as I was riding on the back of a ‘My Love’ chapa, I happened to spot something. It wasn’t a monkey, an elephant, or a lion; it was a pair of TOMS. Seeing these shoes was an equally “I’m in Africa” moment. After snapping a picture, I whipped my head around to see my friend and let out a loud, “This lady is wearing TOMS!”. Everyone in the bed of the truck turned and starred, but fortunately Mozambicans don’t speak English – usually. My friend brushed off my comment as if it had no effect on him; honestly it should not have had any effect on either of us. Nonetheless I stood up in the bed of the tuck with a grin from ear to ear for the rest of the ride.

It’s not that I did not believe the one-for-one (give one item for every one item sold) program worked, but it was different seeing the results in person. It was one of those eye opening moments, but while I was admiring the shoes, I noticed something.

Donated TOMS are different than TOMS sold at the local mall; they have a thicker sole and are overall more durable. Although not a TOMS aficionado, I didn’t think I had been away for long enough for TOMS to change its product and already have it shipped over to Africa, so I poked around to see what I could find.

Turns out my eyes did not deceive me. TOMS at first donated the same shoes currently sold in America to children in South America, but the owner realized the shoes were wearing away fast. A change was sparked, and TOMS began to donate a new shoe throughout the world. Today, TOMS has expanded its one-for-one program to glasses as well; the company operates in over 70 countries throughout the world today.

The idea of giving has continued to spread as Warby Parkey, One World Futbol Project, BoGoLight, and many others have begun to adopt their own one-for-one program.

As I reflect on these programs, I remember not being much of a TOMS guy when I was in the States, but with this experience comes new perspective. These new perspectives shine a light on a whole new world. After all this is Africa.

Feel like checking out a little more about TOMS? Check it out here.