To Pull Up Flowers

My friend died a couple of months ago. Her name was Otélia.

To be honest, it’s not something I had even thought all that much about since it happened in October. It wasn’t until the passing of several other important people in my life between then and now that has caused some measure of pause, some moments of reflection. It’s strange to think of the things that become so routine here— the wails that break the evening still, the midnight beating of drums, the guttural yelps of Nyau echoing through the dark. Recognizing the resonate sound as a signal of death, the passing of someone important, and continuing about nighttime routines knowing that all will be revealed in the morning light. The floods of women filtering to and from the hospital to escort a body, the yards full of silently sobbing mourners, the processions of open-back trucks full of women clapping and singing. Realizing as the funeral motorcade passes that the neighborhood’s population has ticked down by one, then continuing on about the day’s business.

That’s what happens when death becomes a part of life.

Otélia’s passing came and went like many others. That’s not to say her life went unvalued, her death unnoticed…it’s just to say that death, well, happens. It’s part of the process. There’s very little fear, no stigma or taboo, no resentment toward the limits of time; when Otélia died, her friends and family mourned that she was no longer with us, but celebrated the life she lived.

The funeral was beautiful. Per custom, Otélia died and was buried within three days. The first of the three were spent in open mourning: neighbors and friends gathering in her yard with family seated inside the house, crying and wailing into each other’s arms, keeping an overnight vigil both in and outdoors. On the second day, the body was retrieved from the hospital.

On the third day, Otélia was taken to the church for a Catholic funeral. Before leaving for the cemetery, all attendees passed by the open casket to say their final goodbyes, many leaning over and dripping final tears onto her resting face. It was a moment I can’t explain, seeing her like that. It was so much more personal than many of the other deaths I’ve experienced. Her face was as if she was sleeping, the tears like delicate beads of perspiration in the afternoon heat.

As she was buried, family and friends took turns scattering handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, then dropping full shovel loads. By the time dirt was piled high, flowers and plants were distributed among the crowd. One by one we took our turns planting them upon the mound until the fresh, raw earth was heavy and laden with new life. Her daughters honored her memory by lighting candles at all four corners of the plot, placing a flowered wreath at her head, generously watering the fresh green growth. There was somehow a sense of new beginnings as we walked away from that place.

Since Otélia’s passing, I’ve lost many other people in my life—both literally and figuratively. A dear friend, a great uncle, a pillar of strength for many years, a confidant. Many of them left my life as quickly and unexpectedly as they entered it, leaving me reeling in search of meaning. But life isn’t always fair. Sometimes the best people are taken from us too soon, casting us in the shadows of their absence until we can learn to live in the light they brought to us.

Grief is a journey. It’s a road to rejoicing a loss, celebrating a legacy, embracing the process. To find life in the face of it all. To look at the soil, put down seeds, and pull up flowers.


Gule Wamkulu: the Great Dance

Through out southern Zambia, western Malawi, and northwestern Mozambique, the Chewa tribe practices ritual dances performed by a secret society called Nyau, a brotherhood formed by initiated male members. In 2008, UNESCO designated their Gule Wamkulu, or Great Dance, as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

Originating in Zambia, the Chewa tribe and self-proclaimed violent, warring culture slowly spread through southern Africa into Tete, Mozambique and areas of Malawi. Chewa is a traditionally matrilineal society, meaning property and power are passed through women and family lineages are traced through their female heads. Because of this, the Nyau was established to offer an opportunity for married men to attain status and create solidarity across villages. Highly revered and highly secretive, initiated members are forbidden to disclose their participation. Revelation of society secrets or community initiations of practices are subject to violent punishment.

Historically, the Nyau primarily served to initiate young men into adulthood, using the Gule Wamkulu to celebrate the harvest, funerals, weddings, and the inauguration and/or funeral of a village chief. While the Nyau and Gule Wamkulu still exist today, many of their practices and performances have been gradually co-opted by tourism and politics.

Much like what was seen in post-contact USA with the Ghost Dance and other cultural practices throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Portuguese and Christian missionaries in Mozambique tried to ban the Nyau and the Gule. Both were strictly prohibited in Tete province until the mid-1960s, demonstrations of the brotherhood punishable by death. Local residents reported that the Nyau only survived by adopting aspects of Christianity and integrating them into their ceremonies…an impact that can still be felt today despite the lifted ban and the national liberation from Portuguese rule. Living in a time to focused on globalization, we often do not realize the pervasive presence of colonization and colonialism in the contemporary world. It is real and there are still reparations to be made.

One of the largest carry-overs of colonialism among the Nyau and within the Gule can be found in their physical appearances. Prior to colonial contact and Western influences, clothing and masks were made entirely from natural materials sourced locally from trees, river beds, flora, mineral deposits, and more. Wood from the Mbwaba tree was carved into masks, the fibrous bark of the Nyanda tree was separated and softened to make clothing, monkey bean (also called feijão maluco or crazy bean) roots were ground into a fine powder to make green pigment, river sediment was burned to make yellow, and ashes or other pounded roots were used to change or deepen colors. Pigments were mixed with water or oils, egg being added to establish permanence through an air-drying process. It should be noted that once dancers assume their roles within the Gule, it is disrespectful (to say the least) to refer to them as humans as they are now portraying spirits or specific characters. This makes it challenging, if not impossible, to ask questions about masks and clothing worn during the Gule as it assumes they are dressed in some sort of costume or disguise.

While the Nyau are present in Chitima, the information in this post and the following photos come from a rare interview at a Gule Wamkulu with the Chewa king of the Zobue region. Due to the secretive nature of the society, photographs are not typically permitted during these ceremonies; special permission was granted by the king and the local Nyau leader.


Chadzunda: the protagonist of the dance and leader of all other dancers



Apolisi: the protectors of peace through out the ceremony. Their primary function is to control the crowd watching the dance and pull aside any people who may be causing disturbances or problems. The Apolisi was added to the dance following colonial contact, its appearance being modeled after Portuguese army and police officers. Pre-colonial contact, the job of peacekeeper belonged to Chadzunda; today Chadzunda is only responsible for doling out prosecutions and punishments to those apprehended by the Apolisi.



Kapoli: prior to the start of the dance, Kapoli go door to door throughout the town’s neighborhoods calling women to the ceremony. As they run down streets and through winding paths, the Kapoli let out long, guttural, rising yelps to announce their approach and the imminent ceremony. The Kapoli are typically the first to start dancing while the other dancers arrive.



Silimoni: the partner to the Kapoli, sometimes accompany them from house to house, other times being the first to start dancing. The Silimoni is the only figure who may outwardly present as male or female through the flourish of their clothing or the flowing intricacy of their dance.



Chimbwabwa: the animal figure, representative of the various animals of the bush. Chimbwabwa primarily serve as entertainment for the crowd.



Aabaya Nkondo: warrior figure, representative of the warring tribes in the time before colonial contact. Thousands of years ago, wars were occurring across the region and were primarily being fought with bows and arrows; the two faces represent each of the warring tribes, the horn as the arrow splitting the two in half. The faces are intentionally grotesque and scary to serve as a warning about violence and the casualties of war. Aabaya Nkondo carries a machete as walking stick for guidance, thrusting it into the ground through out the dance and dropping to his knees in front of it.


Click on any of the below images to enlarge and read their captions:





Peace Corps Volunteers posing with dancers and leaders after the conclusion of the Gule Wamkulu, per the request of the King (green shirt and hat).


Secondary Projects: Grassroot Soccer

As previously posted about, we have a lot of secondary projects here in PC Moz. Another “extracurricular” project of sorts in Grassroot Soccer, also known as GRS.

GRS is a South-African run program started by a Vermont native in 2002. The main goal of the program is to use soccer to teach, inspire, and mobilize communities to stop the spreadof HIV. Using skills and techniques from the game of soccer, GRS has derived curriculums of activities to teach about HIV, malaria, gender equality, and more. It’s currently operating in 57 countries around the world and has reached upwards of 1,000,000 individuals.

The original program, GRS Skillz, is composed of 11 hour-long practices and is designed for youths ages 10-19. Skillz has been adapted into a separate curriculum just for girls that is focused on empowerment and gender equality, called GRS Skillz Girlz. Additionally, there is another, shorter curriculum focused solely on malaria, called GRS Skillz Malaria. These programs are typically facilitated by 1-3 coaches, all of whom are required to attend and graduate from an official GRS training.

In September, my counterpart, Judas, and I were fortunate enough to be selected to attend a GRS training with 18 other volunteers and their counterparts. We traveled to the south of the country, Gaza province, and spent a week near the Indian Ocean learning how we can best teach healthy behaviors through fun, interesting, and interactive activities. We also got to eat some pretty delicious seafood and enjoy whale-watching at breakfast. Not a bad deal, if I do say so myself.

Upon our return to Chitima, Judas and I arranged a Skillz Malaria camp with 29 students over the course of the weekend. The kids loved it, and we were able to see some pretty solid results in terms of what they learned. More camps with the full curriculum to come soon!

Malaria in Moz

The world’s deadliest animal…what is it?

Probably something ferocious, right? We often hear about shark attacks, people being trampled by hippos or snatched by crocs, poisoned by snake bites. In light of recent events, maybe our first thought drifts towards the fellow human— gun toting and angry.

While all of these are undoubtedly the cause of numerous deaths each year, they don’t even come close to being the deadliest. In fact, the deadliest animal kills 250,000 more humans annually than its next closest competitor. So…what is it?

WhatsApp Image 2017-10-02 at 1.23.42 PM.jpeg

The mosquito.

That’s right, a teeny, tiny mosquito is the world’s most dangerous killer, responsible for several million deaths around the world every year.

Mosquitos are carriers of malaria, dengue and yellow fever and can also transmit lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) and Japanese encephalitis. Each year, 3.9 billion people worldwide are at risk of Dengue infection, 120 million are infected with elephantiasis, and 3.2 billion are at risk of contracting malaria.

3.2 billion people at risk for malaria every single year. Malaria is considered endemic in 91 countries, meaning nearly HALF of the world’s population is at risk. When we do the math, 90% of these cases in these countries occur in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, of the nearly 430,000 malaria deaths reported in 2015, around 387,000 (90%) of them occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.


In Mozambique, the prevalence rate of malaria is 40.2%, making it the number one killer at the national level, accounting for 29% of all deaths. In Tete, the provincial prevalence is 30.4%. While are provincial rates are significantly lower than national rates, malaria is still endemic and numbers of annual cases/deaths are disproportionately high.

In an effort to reduce cases of malaria on a national level, the Mozambican Ministry of Health and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMIS, a US aid program) are partnering up with provincial organizations to distribute insecticide treated mosquito nets to every household in Mozambique. Treated nets are one of the most effective prevention methods, showing a 50% reduction rate in the incidence of malaria.

Starting last spring, trained teams of volunteers and community activists have been responsible for going out into their communities, tirelessly walking from door to door in every corner of their districts, to register every household ensure that everyone in the district has a mosquito net to sleep under.

The distribution has been moving from the north of the country to the south; Tete was the most recent province to participate. As the distribution works it’s way down, PCVs across Mozambique have been involved in helping organize logistics, register households, and distribute nets.

The goal of the campaign is 100% coverage, but more than that, it’s eliminating malaria. It’s working towards the day that not a single Mozambican dies from a preventable disease. It’s working towards the day that not a single human dies from a preventable disease, and it’s going to take all of us to make that day a reality.



Secondary Projects: English Theater

Each year during the month of September, secondary school students across Mozambique gather together in their provinces and compete against each other to present the best English language skit. We call it English Theater.

Let’s dive into a little background information first. Peace Corps Mozambique operates under two “primary” projects: education and health. Volunteers work in schools, health centers, and health-based organizations across the country doing anything from teaching English, math and science classes to carrying out HIV or malaria prevention, mitigation, and treatment activities.

But that’s not all we do! While a single blog post could never contain an adequate description of all that PCVs are doing across Moz, I’ll try my best to highlight some of it.

In addition to primary projects, volunteers are also involved in a multitude of “secondary” projects. Those vetted by Peace Corps Mozambique include: JUNTOS (Jovens Unidos No Trabalho para Oportunidades e Sucessos/ Youth United in the Work for Opportunities and Successes), REDES (Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação e Saúde/ Girls in Development, Education and Health), Science Fair, and English Theater. Go to any site in Mozambique with a PCV and you’ll most likely find at least one, if not more, of these programs up and active.

Now, each of these programs has a National Coordinator and at least 10 Provincial Coordinators to make sure they’re running smoothly and to arrange annual meetings, trainings and events. I have had the privilege of holding the title of “Tete English Theater Provincial Coordinator” for the last year, and recently realized my first provincial competition at the end of September.

Hosted in the provincial capital, over 60 students came from 6 different schools around Tete to compete in the one-day competition. Each year, English Theater sets a theme for all skits to follow; this year, all student groups were to follow the prompt “Different isn’t bad— embracing and celebrating diversity.” Student groups are expected to prepare an 8-10 minute script in English, in accordance with the theme, in competition not only for first place but for superlatives such as “Best English Speaker,” “Best Actress/Actor,” and “Most Creative.” Groups/pieces are judged on criteria ranging from the quality of English to the originality of the presentation.

Starting last July, my sitemate and I began meeting with a group of 9 students from the secondary school in Chitima to practice English and plan a script. As things often go here, we rarely met throughout the month and did not actually begin practicing together until the end of August. Students from our group wrote their own short stories in Portuguese, voted on their favorite, and developed a script from it together.

(Side note: they settled on a piece about a young man abandoned by his friends after a car accident leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the way he previously made fun of other differently-abled individuals in town, his only friend becomes a young man with only one arm. After an impassioned speech by the local doctor about the importance of loving one another despite our physical differences, the young man’s friends come back to him and all three parties reconcile. Favorite excerpt from the student-written piece?

First, we should love one another as we love ourselves. We should be kind to all types of people regardless of their condition, race or color. In our community, there are people with mental and physical disabilities. They are not disabled because they choose to be. Some are born that way, some become that way because of accidents. We cannot discriminate against them because of this…we are all equal. We should be capable of helping them without expecting anything in return. And, above all, we should treat each other as brothers and sisters. A person may change physically, but the heart does not change.

…they’re pretty cool kids)

After several weeks of hard work, and with the aid of some pretty solid props (think a real wheelchair and cars made out of cardboard boxes), our kids were able to take home the gold! Not only that, but one of our very own was awarded “Best English Speaker,” in part for the excerpt of her speech shown above. My sitemate and I were incredibly proud, but none were more proud than the kids themselves. A few tears may have even been shed.

We can’t wait to see what the future holds for such bright, kind, and open minds.

Moz 26: Midservice

After a year of Peace Corps service, I once more photographed fellow volunteers and asked them to complete the same prompt, “I’m a firm believer that…” The results are nothing short of incredible.

In a world that seems to have gone mad, amongst a global population that seems to have lost its collective mind, these people keep me grounded, centered, humbled and hopeful that there will be better days ahead. A future with them in it surely means a brighter universe.

Thank you, Moz 26, for inspiring me every day. For pushing me to be better. For reminding me that there is good in this world. I’m honored to call you colleagues and, more importantly, consider you friends. Our numbers maybe be smaller after a year of service, but we are still strong. Parabéns on a successful first year, saúde for the year ahead, and estamos juntos always.


The Bookshelf Debacle

What’s a bookshelf worth to you?

Up until last week, I had never asked myself that question (honestly most of us probably haven’t because, well, why would we?). That also means that up until last week, I did not know how I would answer that question.

For context, Chitima is full of carpenters. There’s at least one reputable operation in every neighborhood of the community, open about 10 hours a day/6 days a week. They run pretty standard prices: a table for $30, a bed frame for $50, a bookshelf for $25. All things considered, that’s a pretty reasonable price for handmade, custom furniture in a week. However, being who I am, $25 seemed totally unreasonable—that’s 1,500 mets! So, in phase one, I learned not what a bookshelf was worth, but what it was not worth. And it was not worth $25 to me.

Commence phase two: brainstorming. Luckily (disastrously?) I have a sitemate, Cole, who is equally as cheap and exponentially more crafty in his planning. This kid has hand-drawn blueprints of chicken coops and cat condos, frisbee golf holes made from sticks, and a house half-full of furniture he made out of wood from the bush. A bookshelf was right up his ally and I finally pestered him into agreeing, under the sole condition that I help cut the wood and stock a fridge with beer. Game on.

Phase three is where things start to get sticky…or maybe I should say itchy. The day had come to go out into the bush and cut down wood; it was a cool Sunday morning, sun shining, birds chirping. We each threw on a hat, picked up a saw, and headed out the front door and into the scrub of the nearby mato. Cole, being the seasoned pro he is, began gesturing into the thicket at good candidates for shelf legs and cross beams— saplings that were growing straight and thorny, no thicker than the forearm. I quite honestly could not tell where he was pointing and set to work on cleaning up a small tree that had already fallen down and, to Cole’s scoffs, proved to be too small. Feeling confident in my abilities I set my sites upon a tall and narrow tree, knocking off the thorns per Cole’s instructions while incurring far more injuries than his demonstration. And that’s where the trouble started. In my skilled stripping of the spikes, I took several good pricks to the hands and arms that began to swell and ache. Frustrated, I beat at the tree more quickly and forcefully, shaking it from root to branches. Ha, tree, that will show you! That’s not actually how nature works…the tree quickly had its revenge.

As I cut through the trunk and the tree shuttered under the teeth of my saw, I noticed a stinging sensation on the back of my hands. Must have brushed my hand up against another plant, I thought to myself as I look up into the tree at the leaves, the creeping vines and the large, fuzzy bean pods. I continued on. The further into the trunk I cut the more the tree shook, and suddenly my hands weren’t just stinging, they were burning, they were itching…and suddenly not just my hands were burning, but my arms…and the back of my neck…and….and…and MY WHOLE UPPER BODY WAS ON FIRE. Like a million tiny, rapid pinpricks over every surface of my skin that you wanted to scratch but were only intensified by the friction. I kicked down the tree in one last gallant effort, dragged it out onto the path, and spewed a string of profanities at Cole. In the haze of my torture, I believe I yelled anything and everything between “I’m not having fun,” “I don’t know how you’ve done this so many times,” “this isn’t even worth it, I’ll just go buy a bookshelf,” and “you have NO idea how uncomfortable this is.” Naturally, as I demanded his house keys to go douse myself in cold water, Cole laughed in my face and told me I was being dramatic. “Grab those other branches we already cut and carry them back to the house, would ya?” he requested lackadaisically. Under the weight of the trees I shuffled out of the bush, focusing all my efforts on not dropping the wood and breaking into a run.

After finding some relief in buckets of water, a thick layer of calamine lotion, and seat in front of the fan, the burning itch finally began to subside. That’s when I heard the pounding footsteps, the crash of logs, the bursting open of the front door. Before I could blink, Cole was ripping off clothes in a mad dash to the shower. “You were right! You weren’t being dramatic!” he yelled, followed by a string of profanities to rival my own. HA. I know I should have been sympathetic, but misery loves company. While sitting side-by-side on the couch, limbs akimbo, we realized our error of straying into feijão maluco and finally understood how it earned its name, crazy beans.

Phase 4 was admittedly less exciting, mostly just construction. We needed a flat surface for the shelf tops, and a wide search for chip board resulted in the $8 purchase from a carpenter about 1.25 km down the road from Cole’s house. I ponied up, shucked out the mets, and threw the board on top of my head. As with all things, this was only the beginning. The slight breeze caught the edges of the board perfectly, turning me into more of a kite or a sailboat than an autonomous human being capable of walking. Cutting into the board turned out to be another debacle, the saw seemingly having too wide of teeth to sever it effectively. We settled on scoring it with a kitchen knife/exacto blade combo that worked until it didn’t. Unsurprisingly, one stray swipe led to a clean, deep gash to a finger and a lot of gauze.

Finally, 3 days and a lot of mishaps later, the bookshelf was done. We could finally wipe our hands clean of it…but not before carrying it across town to my house. Another 1.5 kilometers with the completed piece on our shoulders.

So, what’s a bookcase worth to me? Apparently a 1.25 kilometer walk with a sheet of chipboard on my head, a rendezvous in the bush with feijão maluco, bloodshed, and $10 worth of supplies. It may have been a mess, it may have been easier to drop the $25 and call it a day, but I have a feeling I will never take IKEA furniture for granted again.

But hey, would ya just look at that bookshelf? It sure is a thing of beauty.