“You can use it, but it’s not like an American bathroom.”
These words made me lurch.
It was our final day of Peace Corps service, and we were a smidge stranded at the home of someone’s brother, waiting for the funeral of someone we’d never met. But we’ll get to that. The real question right then was: After 27 months in Mozambique, why the hell would this man- who knew how long I’d been there- think I’d be expecting an American-style bathroom!?
We had hitched a ride with this Father from the church in our town, Mapinhane, up to our banking town, where we would spend a couple days with friends before flying to the capitol to close our service. When he told us he was heading that way and offered us a ride, we were elated at the opportunity to throw our 3 large bags in the back of his truck instead of cramming them- and ourselves- into a public mini-bus. Nearly two years to the day had passed since we had first hitched a ride with this same man to this same town; that time he had asked us on the ride home if it would bother us if he grabbed a beer to drink as he drove us back- a mostly accepted Moz norm, which we rejected. Perhaps we could have predicted that this ride with him, two years later, wouldn’t come without a bit of adventure.
We had spent our final morning in a quintessentially Mozambican way: walking leisurely on our favorite path, passing the time taking pictures and conversing with our closest Mozambican friends and neighbors, shaded from the summer sun by large trees. The morning was quiet and slow, nearly all of our boarding school students already packed up and headed home for the summer break. In this calm, surrounded by some of our favorite people, the morning drifted by so slowly that we could just be, and let it soak in. I had already shed most of my tears in the days leading up to this, our final day. Although a deeper sadness had taken up residence in me– and would stay for a while, then go and change and come back to me even a year later- on this day, I was at peace.
As it was, we would spend the afternoon in a quite different but equally quintessentially Mozambican way: with tardiness, a funeral, and reminders – like that one about the bathroom- of our foreign-ness.
What we thought would be our final moments in our town stretched into our final hours. After having said our goodbyes, our three good friends decided to hang out with us at our house while we waited for our ride to arrive. We mostly sat in silence, for about 2 hours. By American standards this is, of course, unheard of. But, in Mozambique this is quite normal; to be together is to be together, with no compulsion to fill the space with words.
Two hours after our agreed upon time, the Padre arrived.
My heart started to race. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘Our final moments.’
In just an hour, we would be in our banking town, our beach home away from home, preparing Thanksgiving dinner with our ex-pat friends.
As we stood at the front door of our Peace Corps house, with these three amazing Mozambicans, I recalled our first day at this house. I was struck by the difference that two years can make. On that first day, we stood on this same stoop, just the two of us. On this last day, we stood with three of our four best friends. I recalled the words of the fourth: “People ask me why those foreigners like me so much. I say it’s because I’ve never treated them like foreigners.” I knew, in that moment, that the people that we were spending our final moments with embodied that and, in turn, had made this place a home in the two years between our wave hello and our wave goodbye.
We took a few pictures, and loaded our bags into the back of the truck. We pulled out of our school grounds to the waves and good byes of a small group of lingering students, and to the somewhat sullen faces of those three people that had worked so deeply into our lives with their unending kindness and patience, and their ability to normalize a life that at times felt anything but.
Trying to hold back tears, I watched the landscape pass by as we drove: the tall grasses greening up from early season rains, the reaching of coconut palms, the scraggle of bushes, the humble homes made of grass or aluminum or cement, and the women, always walking somewhere, their vibrant capulana skirts popping amidst all the green and brown. We stopped at one point for a group of women hitch-hiking. They exchanged words in the local language, Xitswa, with the Padre before climbing into the truck bed for a ride.
About 15 kilometers from our final destination, Padre posed the question: ‘Do you mind if we stop at my brother’s house? There’s a funeral starting in the neighborhood soon, and they’d like me to speak. It won’t be long.’ This had been the news that the women had shared with him.
Although we knew that nothing in Mozambique truly starts ‘soon’ and once it does start is guaranteed to ‘be long,’ we replied: “Está bom.” ‘It’s okay.’ We had replied in this way for two years, in all sorts of situations. A counterpart is two hours late for a meeting: está bom. A vendor doesn’t have change and has to run around to three other stores to get it for you: está bom. The door of the mini-bus falls off: está bom. ‘Está bom‘ had become our mantra for Peace Corps service; our verbalized intention of letting go of the multitude of small irritations that were one hundred percent out of our control every day. So, who were we to tell a respected Padre, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to miss your funeral. We’ve got places to be.’ At least, who were we to tell him without giving it a couple hours to unfold first.
We pulled up to his brother’s house, where we were given chairs under a tree. After some time chatting, waiting, listening, wondering, I asked to use the bathroom. This is when Padre felt compelled to prepare me for the experience by reminding me that it isn’t like an American bathroom. As if this were day 1 in Moz, and not day 800 and something. As if I would cringe at the mere thought of peeing in a corner covered in smell-dampening peanut shells, or pooping in a hole. As if I would shy away from having to disclose if I was going in for a necesidade menor or necesidade maior (basically, a number 1 or a number 2) so that I could be directed to the corresponding receptacle. As if I hadn’t come to admire a Mozambican’s pride and determination to keep a clean bathroom, even if it was a hole in the ground or a corner of peanut shells. As if I was, well, a foreigner.
I peed in the peanut-shell-covered corner. We waited more.
When I suggested that we wouldn’t mind calling a taxi, or seeing if our friend could come pick us up, I was told, “Ha de comecar daqui a nada. Esperamos.” ‘It will start in no time. Let’s wait.’ It already had been lots of time, and it would continue to be much more time. Finally, I told Padre ‘We really do need to get going. We have a going-away party at our friends house and we need to prepare the food. But really, you don’t need to leave. We’ll call a taxi.’
No, no, no. He agreed to take us.
As we pulled out of the neighborhood onto the main road, we stopped to let a procession of trucks pass, the beds filled with capulana-clad passengers, standing up, singing. The funeral was starting. The padre was missing it. Our awkwardness was settling in as the minutes-stuck waiting in the intersection- ticked by. A woman approached the car and greeted the Padre. Was he going to the funeral, she wondered. No, he had to drive us to town, he replied. Yes, hello, we are the ones causing the priest to miss the funeral, we waved.
Still, he was in no rush to drop us off and head back. Next up was a stop at a convent, to drop off some goods for the nuns. We unloaded fabrics, food, sodas and were offered to come in and stay, sit down, have a soda, and chat. Much to our relief, Padre turned down the offer, relaying the message that we had a going-away party to get to.
Five hours later than expected, we turned onto the road of our final destination, a subtle ‘Thank God’ kind of joy ready to burst out of us. With the road running directly parallel to the beach below, Padre made one final observation before bidding us farewell.
“Olha la. Vossos amigos,” he said, pointing to a white couple walking on the beach. ‘Look! Your friends.’ Perhaps they were French, or Italian, or German. Maybe even Americans. But two shining truths remained. Padre’s truth: They are white. You are white. You must be friends. Our truth: We’ve never seen those white people in our lives.
Our final morning had wrapped up our service beautifully; like festive wrapping paper on the messy gift that was our two years of Peace Corps service. Maybe Mozambique could have let it be, could have let the challenges of service remain inside the box-real enough to add some heft, but pleasantly out of sight until we choose to tear back the layers. The tardiness, the funeral, the bathroom, and the anonymous white-skinned “amigos” on the beach, were the bows on that gift box though: while unnecessary and slightly glaring, they kind of complete the package.
The insight of today was the irritation of a year ago.
A year ago I thought, ‘Of course he’s late. Of course we’re at a random funeral. Of course I’m STILL being treated as a foreigner. Oh yeah, and of coouuurssee I know those white people.’
Now, as I look back, I think ‘Of course he was late. Of course we ended up at a random funeral. Of course I was still treated as the foreigner that I was.’
…’But, still, no…I don’t know all the white people.’
The truth is that the time spent chatting under trees with our three best Mozambican friends, feeling accepted and at home, sitting in simple silence, waving goodbye to our students, and watching our most-traveled 45 kilometers of road pass by was equally as valuable that day- and all the days of our Peace Corps service- as arriving five hours late, waiting for the funeral of an unknown community member to start, peeing on peanut shells, and feeling what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial ignorance.
These are the completely opposing forces that teach us, broaden us, deepen us, strengthen us, and that change us, even after we feel we’ve walked away.
Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.