Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Departing Africa, For Now
May 12, 2008
Visa in hand after much legwork, I have finally arrived in China. For many months, China has stood before me as a personally and architecturally challenging destination. And a challenge it has proven itself to be. This past week since I landed in Hong Kong has been one of many firsts for this trip. For the first time I have lost my bag (fortunately, I just received an email that they found it!!), missed a flight, had to fight for a visa, had my credit card company threaten to shut me down for using my card in two continents in the span of a week, and been absolutely unable to read or attempt to pronounce the signs around me! Of course, I am confident that there will be many rewards to accompany the challenges I will face in my 30 days here, and I am so happy to finally be in China!
Before I bring you in to China with me, I feel that some parting words on Africa are in order (especially since I have had photos up on my website for Mozambique for a while now).
It can be a challenge after spending some time in an African country to not become frustrated and dwell on more negative aspects of life there. When you are faced daily with reminders of deep-set poverty, people afflicted by often preventable or treatable illnesses, corruption, and a seemingly endless dependence on both foreign aid and resource-intensive models of development, it is easy to become cynical and judgmental. However, there is something to be said for being able to see beyond all of this and find the beauty and potential that lies in Africa, and I feel fortunate that I was given so many opportunities to do so in my time there.
I spent my last month in Mozambique, working and living for two weeks in a local community called Massaca, just outside of the capital city of Maputo. Habitat for Humanity Mozambique is handling the housing situation a bit differently from its counterparts in other countries, by incorporating local building materials and traditions with modern improvements. The homes are built with concrete foundations, but rely mainly on locally extracted reeds, wood and thatch, and are derived from traditional forms. The result is a home that blends in with the local landscape and does not require a loan payback as the former and more expensive concrete homes did. While conducting research on ways to improve the Habitat home design, materials durability and fundamental sustainability, I also was working side by side on building sites with the local men trained by Habitat. Though I did my best to turn my Spanish into Portugese to communicate with them, I was content to listen as they sang local songs or laugh uproariously at a joke told in the local dialect (hopefully not about me!).
During my time out in Massaca, I was living with the Carlos family, a local family living in a “modern” concrete home, complete with TV. Every morning I walked out of my room to find my 8 year old brother Leandro waiting to eat breakfast with me with a big grin on his face. This kid was incredible. He found joy in the simplest things, from making mud figures representing our entire family, to climbing around on the couch, to dancing or running everywhere he went. Occasionally, he would stop moving long enough to sit next to me and lean his head on my arm, leaving me feeling like the coolest big sister ever. He had an incredibly simple nature and was always so happy. I also started having night time language lessons with my 17 year old brother Elidio (me in Portugese and him in English), and he took me to play pool a couple of times (the most excitement to be found in Massaca). Sometimes after a long day of work, I would sit in the shade with my host mom, exchanging the few phrases we could, escaping the heat of the afternoon African sun, and getting back to the simple pleasures in life.
I am grateful to my friends and family in Mozambique for making my month there an incredible experience. However, the fact remains that recognizing the beauty and potential in Africa is not enough. I feel that I have a choice before me of how I want to continue my relationship with Africa, and fortunately, some time to decide.