Memories of Mozambique: Bodies, Bed Bugs, & the Bottle Game

Memories of Mozambique: Bodies, Bed Bugs, & the Bottle Game

As I've been preparing for Mozambique - and putting off preparing for Mozambique - I've been reading through journal entries from the first time I went there. This entry is about my three days of "bonding experience," which is a time I spent alone in a village with a family trusted by the team. The goal is to better understand the daily life of Makua people, learn some East African skills, and see how you cope in a difficult environment. Some other goals may include hilarious stories and a big dose of humility.

June 7, 2013

Today started out with a dead lady that altered all of our plans. 

I got up this morning and found out that a lady died yesterday, which meant that everyone bonding north of the city (Katie & I) would be going to the funeral. When we left with half the city and we just kept picking up more. Katie & I were in the back of the truck with what seemed like 1000 women, all sprawled out. 

They were all chatting and laughing until we pulled into the village, and then, as if someone had flipped a switch, everyone was sobbing uncontrollably, wailing at the top of their lungs. 

As quickly as the wailing started it stopped and we calmly walked into the “visitation” area. Men and women are split, so we sat in the midst of the village with about 100 other women. But of course, someone brought out a mat for Katie & I to sit on since we were the guests of honor at this funeral for a woman we didn’t know.

After sitting on our exclusive mat for a while, the women we came with got up and walked into the house where the body lay. A few minutes later they came and got us. We walked inside, trying not to step on anyone sitting in the dark room. I finally saw the body at the front, covered by a white cloth. I’m not sure what the whole process is, but they soaked the body with water over and over again, “wringing it out,” and then covering it with different fabrics. I stood on the muddy floor barefoot & for the first time I feared for my health as the parasite-ridden water was poured over the body, passed through the rope bed, and seeped under my feet.

The body was wrapped in an expensive kapalana, and then a white sheet. Occasionally they would sing and pray, but other than that it seemed there was just a bunch of small talk and bickering over the process. They sent us into the next room over as the women gathered to pick up the body and bring it in behind us. Due to the gestures of the other women I thought that they would be passing the body, like a human conveyor belt, so I held out my hands, preparing to catch the corpse. It seems I misinterpreted the gestures because moments later I was being tackled by living & dead women alike, being crushed against the wall of the hut.

Finally the body was on the floor. At this time I was charged to open the door and allow people to begin filing past the body. Simultaneously the wailing began again and went on until the doors were closed.

After everyone had gone through, the men brought a bamboo “coffin” to the door and the women lifted her inside. Again I thought I was supposed to participate and again I was slammed against the wall. Everyone hovered around the coffin to sing, pray, & listen to a sermon before the body was carried off to the gravesite.

The coffin was first lifted by close family & friends, but as it moves the men rotate places, allowing every man in the village to touch the coffin. It’s as if the entire community acts as pallbearer. And it was a long way out into the middle of nowhere before we got to the gravesite.

Once we got to this forsaken wasteland where genetically enhanced insects roam freely amidst the piles of thorns on which the Makua seem to love to sit, another sermon was spoken and then the burial began. Christians and Muslims from all around gathered around the hole as the body was dumped inside. Alan, evangelizing with this funeral sermon, spoke about Heaven. I tried to casually ignore the fact that I was being overtaken by my greatest fear, the cricket.

Katie pointed at an object on the ground. "Is that a pine cone?" she whispered. We assessed the object together, then were taken aback when it began moving. I tried to maintain composure and prevent myself from distracting those around me. About 5 minutes later I looked down to see the pine cone cricket perched on my collar, staring up at me. I took a deep breath and tried to inconspicuously flick it off of me. But that little booger had its legs hooked into my shirt and he was not going without a fight. As my gestures were becoming more pronounced I began to attract attention. Then, finally, with one swoop the cricket went flying into the air, in the middle of a crowd of unsuspecting spectators, who had a reaction to the alien creature similar to mine. 

After the burial and some singing and some prayer we all went on about our days.

We left Katie in Chipembe and I went on to Nkwonoma, which is where my real bonding experience began. Hordes of children surrounded me on every side, all trying to teach me Makua at the same time. I sat on my mat and was served my first of many rounds of peanuts and sugar cane. Any attempts to offer them to the kids were denied. It seems they were full as well.

Then someone brought out a big bowl of moringa leaves and started pulling the leaves off for the matapa. Feeling confident about my abilities in this area I got off my mat and grabbed some twigs, asserting my ability to contribute something positive. My decision to do so influenced all of the kids to do the same, so the help I thought would burn some time only lasted a couple minutes.

Then the bottle game began. It’s called Iyesi. I had heard of this bottle game, but never before played. I can now say that I have played for hours and still have minimal understanding. Basically, there’s a bottle in the middle of 2 teams (team being a loose term), and each team tries to fill the bottle with sand before someone from the other team hits them with a ball. The thing is, getting hit seems to have a minimal effect, sometimes they throw it back & forth, sometimes they kick it, and I don’t think there’s a winner. It happens over and over again.

Some kids in Nkwonoma

Some kids in Nkwonoma

All of a sudden, as if a prophet had descended from the heavens, a man who I had never seen stood in the middle of the road. He was wearing all white – the traditional Muslim hat, long tunic, baggy pants, & dark sunglasses – and holding a joint in his hand. For some unknown reason all the kids suddenly began chanting in unison as he unsteadily meandered down the street, waving the joint in the air. Just as he came he left and I never saw him again.

After playing for a while I was once again told to sit down on my isolation mat. I know it’s a cultural thing, but I hate that guests have to sit by themselves to eat, and do most things. I was served some more ixima and matapa, the usual Mozambican meal.

I sat there, alone in the dark, watching my hosts shovel food in their mouths as I did my best to consume as much as possible without my stomach expanding to the point of death.

After I washed my hands I was sent to set up my bed. I rolled my mat on the rope bed in a dark room and then rolled out the sleeping bag. All of this was done by the light of some sparks on the end of a burning stick. The process of hanging the mosquito net took about 30 minutes because the torch kept going out or someone would drop it on the ground & then have to re-light it.

When it was finally ready I was sent to bed, at 6:15. However, I wasn’t really sure about this, so I went back outside. They seemed very confused to see me back outside, so they sent me in again. Thus began the height of my foolishness. I began to try going back inside, feeling along the wall looking for the door in the blackness of night. I groped my way along the exterior, tripping over bags & bikes to find the door that I later discovered I had already passed. I can’t imagine how ridiculous I must have looked.

Then I laid there wide awake in the complete darkness until a decent hour for sleeping, listening to the rest of the village laugh, run around, and do something that sounded like banging large pieces of metal together. 

June 8, 2013

I woke up in the same darkness. I heard the first rooster crow around 3:00am. I decided I would lay there until the girl in the bed next to me got up. Unfortunately, she was not an early riser (by early I mean before 4:30). I got out of bed as soon as I recognized voices outside and could see some bit of light through the roof cracks because I just couldn’t stand being in the dark anymore.

Eliza seemed quite surprised to see me awake, so she ran off to change clothes and start working on breakfast. I sat around the fire with the kids trying to warm up on the cold morning. I watched one of the girls grind corn onto a stone tablet, preparing the flour for the day. When she left Alfonso arrived. Once everyone had left me on my mat he snuck over and pulled a freshly picked orange out of his back pocket and gave it to me. Alfonso became my guide for my stay in Nkwonoma, calmly teaching me Makua words, explaining my ignorance to passers-by, & coaching me during the bottle game.

When Eliza came back she taught me to make ipapa. Ipapa is similar to ixima, but thinner and sweeter. She finally let me do something productive by allowing me to stir the boiling concoction until it was done. For this meal I was given the family’s one spoon while everyone else leapt up in the trees to get large leaves to use as utensils.After breakfast I went outside to make another attempt at the bottle game. After playing for a while and gaining a greater but incomplete understanding, my host’s eldest daughter came out and told me to follow her, and all of the kids followed me. Thus began my parade through Nkwonoma.

It is both prestigious and entertaining to have an American guest, because despite the wealth and education I have, I am still a fool in the ways of Makua language and culture. We stopped at several large groups and stayed for about 10 minutes at each one. Each time I was given an honorary seat, which was ideal for when they would send out the eldest member of the group to ask me questions that I obviously would not understand and laugh at my inability to converse beyond greetings, body parts, & farm animals.

We finally arrived at a group of nice young gentlemen who were quite fascinated by me. They too gave me a seat of honor and just stared for a few minutes. After testing my ability in the language they decided to call someone who spoke English, who taught everyone 2 phrases to help them communicate with me: 1) You are whitey, and 2) You have boyfriend?

After the Caucasian carnival came to an end we returned to my host house. My host had gone to get water so the fence was locked. We unhooked the sugar cane lock and discovered that it had not stopped a family of goats from taking over the yard. Upon entering the kids began to chase the goats & the largest goat made a mad leap over the fence, taking some of the fence with him. After this the smaller goats attempted to follow his lead, but were wildly unsuccessful and only suffered more harm at the hands of the children. 

We then had ixima and matapa for lunch before returning to the bottle game. I played for a while and then the old lady across the street, whom I have talked to a few times, invited me over to pound corn. It didn’t take long before I was sent back to the bottle game. Eventually Elena told me to come back in and rest, so I went to the mat with all the kids. For the first time the kids actually sat on the mat with me.

Me attempting to pound some corn

Me attempting to pound some corn

Then the kids were told to kill a chicken. All of the little boys selected a chicken and then chased it around the yard until they had cornered it behind a tree. At that time the eldest boy, holding a knife, captured the chicken and took it to the corner of the yard. He sent all of the children to sit on the mat with me as he carried the chicken to its final resting place. My host’s little daughter snuck away from the mat and peered through the latrine wall at the boy and the chicken. Then there was a desperate cluck followed by the whack of a knife hitting cement. The village was silent. Then, in her most dramatic voice, the daughter yelled, “IT’S DEEEEEEAAAAAAAAADDDDDD!!!!!!!!” and all of the children exploded with laughter.

As the number of children dwindled the girls began to sit around and style my hair. Moments later Eliza got up from making dinner and began to put my hair into an elaborate braid. Despite the fact I really liked it and it was done perfectly, the girls continuously took it down and restyled it in different ways. I sat there and listened to them chat and laugh as I let mysterious and semi-frightening things happen to my hair.

Learning the latest Makua hairstyles

Learning the latest Makua hairstyles

I was taking a few pictures when Elena brought out a huge picture album with some family photos that they have collected over the years. As I looked through baby pictures and family reunions, for the first time in my bonding experience I felt like the moment wasn’t all about me. It had nothing to do with me being white, American, wealthy, or English-speaking. It was the only thing we did that was totally about them letting me into their lives and it was one of the greatest moments I have from the experience.



After we looked at pictures and took a few more, I went over to help start dinner. A bottle of gin, some bouillon seasoning, and a bunch of chicken pieces went into the pot and I stirred it for a while. I fought the urge to make an inquisitive face as I picked up the chicken feet, intestines, and head to put them all into the bowl. 

While we were all gathered around the fire Eliza went inside and returned with her Makua Bible story booklet that they use for the women’s study and handed it to me to read. Eliza had me read through half the book as all of the children listened. This gospel booklet contained mostly miracle stories, so when I was done reading Eliza would act out each story – covering her eyes and running around for the blind man, crawling on all fours for the lame man, and convulsing as the demon-possessed man – all very humorously.

Eliza, my lovely host mom

Eliza, my lovely host mom

Soon it got dark and most everyone went home. Dinner was done and I was banished to my mat. They served me the chicken and ixima in the dark. I felt all around each chicken piece, in search of the feet and head that I had dropped in earlier.  

The sky was so beautiful. Stars were everywhere. I would have seen more if not for my family’s desire to send me to bed at 6:00pm. I offered to help, but Eliza said that I could help by going to sleep. I was very itchy for most of the night and I kept hearing buzzing in my ears, so I just assumed a mosquito or two had gotten trapped in my mosquito net. I laid there praying, thanking God for the day and already sad that I would be leaving them in the morning. 

June 9, 2013

The rooster crowed at 3:00am again and I tried to keep going back to sleep until Elena and her baby got up from the bed next to me. I sat with the kids by the fire for a while, just playing with them until Eliza told me that it was time to take another bath – she even heated some water over the fire for me.

Then my final latrine bathing experience for the weekend began. Grateful for my hot water I began to pour it over my head, but then someone else appeared. A goat began continuously bucking against the rickety wall of the latrine. I began to shower even faster, fearing the fate of being lying on my back, naked, in the latrine hole, in the middle of the village, surrounded by the remains of the latrine walls, & tackled by a goat. Luckily that didn't happen.

When I got out many of the children had arrived to join me on my mat and watch the ladies make ipapa again for breakfast. Soon Alan arrived to pick me up.

About that time Elena took me to see the old crippled woman across the street, who had gone out and picked 5 oranges for me because she thought I played iyesi very well. I can’t imagine how many oranges I would have gotten had I actually known how to play. My host family gave me a huge bag of peanuts (you can never have too many), 20 plantains, and a whole sugar cane. All of the village kids came to say their goodbyes and help me carry my stuff to the car.

Finally Eliza came up and attempted to give me a hug. Makua people do not hug, but they see Americans do it, so she put her arms over my shoulders and tapped my shoulder blades with her finger tips. It wasn't the most natural hug, but it was certainly one that I'll remember.

My bonding family

My bonding family

Alan took me back to Chipembe to go to church and complete the third day ceremony at the cemetery. The third day is the final day of organized mourning and the people gather to put a cross and the gravesite, and of course listen to a couple more sermons.

Sweet Reunion with Katie & Cara

Sweet Reunion with Katie & Cara

After the sermons a Muslim village chief got up to speak on any Christian-Muslim tensions that may have arisen during the funeral process since methods for Christians and Muslims differ. This took about 2 hours and the regular service was by no means abbreviated. 

After church we had beans & rice. I was so thankful to see a plate full of anything other than ixima. Soon we said our goodbyes and took a long ride home – and then took a shower and counted about 200 bed bug bites on my body.

How to Say Goodbye

How to Say Goodbye

Lessons in Waiting: New Friends for Lunch & Ants for Breakfast

Lessons in Waiting: New Friends for Lunch & Ants for Breakfast