Ola from Mozambique

– a current Peace Corps Volunteer

Ever dance with a puppy in the pale moon light?

It’s been 5 months in Mozambique and I find myself writing this article on Valentine’s Day. It’s no secret to friends and family that I’ve never been a fan of the holiday, but here I sit, writing about being gay in a country that, like most places Peace Corps sends its volunteers, is unfortunately very homophobic. I guess the irony is that it is on a day that is supposed to symbolize love, intimacy and all those things that Danielle Steele has made a fortune at writing about, and the same things that I have been asked to give up.

Having previously gone through the standard “crisis of conscience” that all volunteers experience at the beginning of service, I have gotten past most of the doubts about being emotionally fit to serve and, more importantly, capable to make a difference. But one lingering question persists on going unresolved – Why would I do this to myself? Before Mozambique, I lived a stone’s throw from one of the great Gay Meccas, West Hollywood, California. I managed an organization involved in the gay community, had a boyfriend, and a great cadre of gay friends. So why give up all that to move halfway around the world to a country that is so opposite of the lifestyle to which I had become accustomed? We each have our reasons for serving so I’m not going to proselytize about the benefits of Peace Corps. However, being a gay volunteer makes your friends and family give that extra “Why?” look when you announce your departure.

Last night I was sitting on my front porch under a dim light bulb, having watched the sunset and eaten my dinner, my puppy in my lap and my book in hand. I was reading an amusing yet undemanding memoir entitled Mississippi Sissy, which was a much needed departure from my previous two books, Crime and Punishment and A History of American Law. Here I am privately indulging in what has been the only real gay experience I have been able to partake in since arriving to Mozambique 5 months ago, and all of a sudden the lights go out in my neighbourhood. Frustrated, I let out a “Dammit” only slightly louder than my usual voice, but audible enough to be heard through the silence by my neighbour in his hut, who let out a short laugh at our common misfortune.

Then it hit me. Having read under this light bulb the whole time, I was completely unaware of the spectacular Mozambican sky in front of me, filled with the brightest stars that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer. I had seen our night sky before but rarely with such a dramatic and immediate presentation, as if someone just flipped off a switch. Speechless, I sat quietly for a few minutes reflecting and watching as the sliver of a newly waxing moon shown just enough light to distinguish the line of palm and mango trees against the starry background. It was then that the answer to my lingering question started to unravel. We do this because personal growth is SUPPOSED to be uncomfortable. We do this because in stepping outside of our comfort zone, in making sacrifices and going beyond what we know, we learn to see and appreciate other pleasures in life, some simple yet none-the-less meaningful. We know that long periods of security and contentment in life usually lead to stagnation and an overall lack of awareness. Not unlike the multitude of other sacrifices that every Peace Corps Volunteer makes, those of a gay volunteer (i.e. our temporarily suppression of sexuality or the absence of real intimacy) are a small price to pay for the chance to experience a more distinctive and complex understanding in the lives of people in the communities in which we serve. It reminds me that there are many who still aren’t able to express their deepest emotions and desires, even after my two year commitment has come and gone and I have returned to the open arms of West Hollywood. It makes me appreciate their unique, and some would say unfortunate situation, while putting mine into perspective.

Never to miss a perfect moment, after several minutes of reflection I scooped up my puppy and went inside to grab my Ipod (yes, it’s 2008 and Peace Corps volunteers have Ipods). I put on my playlist of Etta James and Nina Simone, and underneath the glittering Mozambican sky, I danced with my puppy and took pleasure in the unique and precious moment.

They say that gays and lesbians make excellent parents in part because of the enormous amount of thought required with such a decision and the hurdles that we must go through in the process. We are also said to make excellent managers in business for similar reasons. Why can’t the same principle apply to PC Volunteers? The harder the struggle for the volunteer, whether it is with housing, community resources, race, gender or sexuality, the more that volunteer learns in the experience and gains perspective of the situation.

Thankfully, in my house, I’ve got Etta and Nina to help me through.

Ukraine to Mozambique – a World of Difference

-Jeffrey Janis, RPCV, Ukraine, Group 26, 2004 – 2006

I recently went to visit Zachery, a Peace Corps Volunteer friend, in Mozambique in southeastern Africa. I know that in my two years in Peace Corps in Ukraine people often teased me about being in the “Posh Corps” and that it wasn’t hardcore – like Peace Corps Africa. Well, in some ways they were right, but not in the ways I expected. Here are a few impressions of my trip.

The official language of Mozambique is Portuguese so I was able to read most of the signs and understand them, even with my poor Spanish. It was much easier for Zachery to learn than our learning Russian or Ukrainian. But his being white makes him totally stick out. There are very few white faces on the streets and they are typically either tourists (very few) or mostly aid workers. The EU sends more money to Mozambique than almost any other country because it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Throughout Mozambique I saw lots of UNICEF, World Vision, Save the Children, etc. vans and met quite a few people who work for these organizations. You can pretty much assume that most white faces are with one of those organizations. So when people there looked at us, they did not see “rich Americans” but rather people there to help them. This made it easier as people don’t see Zachery as a spy, like they did me in Ukraine. On the other hand it seemed much harder for him to blend in and make friends like I could during my time in Ukraine.

Throughout the entire vacation we took only local transportation (chapas). I have never seen so many people cram into a tiny minibus. They make the Ukrainian minibuses (marshrukas) seem nice. People were all over each other and just when you thought they couldn’t get one more person onboard, the driver would stop and pick up 3 more people. My time there was their winter so I can not begin to imagine how unbearably hot and smelly and dirty the chapas are in the summer.

When we got to Zachery’s village, I looked at him and said “Oh my god – we’re in Africa!” Most of the homes in the village are mud huts. Some of them have thatch walls and tin roofs.  His home has a concrete floor and electricity, yet no running water, but the “bathroom” (read hole in the ground) and “shower” (read bucket baths) are actually quite comfortable and clean. Since it was now winter (highs around 85 and lows around 55) it was comfortable taking a shower later in the day.

I know I would not be able to deal with Mozambique’s hot summers. Zachery said that he could never deal with the Ukrainian winters I described. Most days in Mozambique were sunny and beautiful. I was 100% healthy the entire time I was there, yet his food options are incredibly limited. Zachery has an empregada (maid) who cooks most of his food, cleans his house 3 days a week, takes care of his dog and cats, goes grocery shopping for him, and does his laundry. He pays her $20 a week. Sure makes his basic quality of life much easier than what I had it in Ukraine!

Everywhere we went people smiled on the streets and said hello to each other. There is a warmth and sincerity toward total strangers. Unlike living in Ukraine, I was not constantly in fear of my knapsack being stolen, or the house being broken into, or someone mugging us on the street. I felt totally safe. Mozambique is a beautiful country and there is not the constant oppressive feeling I felt daily in Ukraine from the drab, gray, cold, soviet style block buildings.

Most PCVs in Mozambique don’t really have long and demanding schedules. Although I didn’t work 40+ hours a week in Ukraine, I still felt like I was at work a lot and got a lot done. My life in Ukraine felt very familiar and similar to my life in the US, only on a different continent. Zachery’s life is totally different than anything anyone would ever live in the US, and that is both exciting and exhausting.

And there are beautiful places to go on vacation in Mozambique. We spent a few days farther north at Bara Lodge. Bara is along a beach and is gorgeous! It’s a resort area and incredibly beautiful, relaxing, and great food. After two days of relaxing we left and it took us eight hours on various chapas to get back to his village. At one point we were trying to transfer at a bus station. We were literally on 5 different chapas at this one station. The first one tried to leave and they couldn’t get the engine started. The next one decided it didn’t want to take us all where we wanted to go. I lost track of what all the issues were. All I remember is that we kept taking our bags and transferring to another chapa. We both had nothing to eat and little to drink as we didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom as they don’t make bathroom breaks. Finally around 4:00 pm we bought some crackers and ate them.

By the time we arrived back to his village it was dark. We were hot, tired, dehydrated, dirty, and walked in the pitch dark the 2 miles back to Zachery’s home. His empregada had dinner waiting for us. It was a mush of beans, fresh coconut milk, and a root vegetable. It was actually quite tasty but not terribly filling. It was too dark and cold to take showers. We played cards for a little bit and then it started to rain, and then pour.  And since his home has a tin roof, it sounded like the house was being shot at by gun fire. It was an amazing sound. And then the power went out. About 15 minutes later, at 10:15 pm we realized that it was probably time to call it a day. I decided to go to the outhouse one last time before I went to sleep. I was greeted by a frog sitting right by the hole in the ground.  I squatted, did my business and went back in the house. I looked at Zachery and said “This was a long hard day. I don’t know how you do it. I am not sure I would want to do this. And this was the best day of our trip. I had so much fun.”

It was hard to be in Mozambique and not compare it to my life in Ukraine. There are about 120 PCVs in Mozambique and they are almost all under 30. (Ukraine has 300+ PCVs and about 20% are over 50 years old.) Their PC office is only open Monday – Friday from 9-5. (The PC Ukraine office was open 6:00 am – midnight 7 days a week.) Mozambique is huge, almost the length of Los Angeles to Chicago and the volunteers who live in the far north either need to travel for 2 days on chapas to get to the capital or pay $250 for a plane ride. The PCVs can travel within Mozambique as much as they want and it does not count towards their vacation time. (Not true for PC Ukraine.) Their country director is loved by all PCVs and there is minimal tension within the office.(Not true for PC Ukraine – our country director had many PCVs who strongly disliked him and many staff members confided in me that they were not impressed with his managerial style.) The staff in Mozambique is helpful and treats the PCVs with respect and dignity, and they don’t feel that there is a constant heavy eye leering over them as PCVs. Most PCVs I met there liked the PC staff and spoke highly of Peace Corps as an organization. (Most PCVs in Ukraine would get together and complain about PC and certain staff members.)

Zachery would hear my stories about life in Ukraine and Peace Corps staff and tell me that he could never be a PCV in Ukraine. I actually think that in many ways, Mozambique is Posh Corps! And yet, somehow, as much as I hated certain aspects of my two years in Ukraine, I would choose to be there in a second over Mozambique. An amazing trip with many realizations! Peace Corps assignments can be so incredibly different from one another.

Jeffrey Janis can be reached at jeffreyjanis@yahoo.com