Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fear Factor

Sometime last week, the sun decided to reclaim its identity as a blazing ball of fire. Mozambicans everywhere took cover. Market vendors became mobile, carrying their stands and products as they trailed the ambulant shade. Many cut their work days short, took extra showers, opened their windows,  but it was no use.  Asphalt melted.  A fresh bottle of water turned tepid in the time it took to unscrew the cap and place it on my lips. Five minutes later it was undrinkable. The hot wind blew into the city like a hair dryer you couldn’t escape from.

And so it was that I found myself dehydrated and strapped to an IV at a Maputo hospital, staring up at the florescent light bulbs as a patient next to me roared in pain, wondering, for the millionth time, what in the world I am doing here.

Living in Mozambique is like a constant game of fear factor. Every week, I have to face up to some longstanding fear. Shootings, riots, mudbaths full of lizards, flying cockroaches nesting on my pillow, power outages, tiny planes in violent thunder storms. Sometimes they all combine into one super episode. Last week in Durban, I walked into my deserted lakeside cabin to find thousands of flying ants, insects the size of butterflies. This time of year, they gather around any light source, mate and die right away. There they were, mating and dying all over my bed. There were so many I couldn’t see to the other side of the room. My only option was to wait outside where hundreds of frogs were croaking in anticipation of their dinner, head up a pitch-black hill, my flashlight hidden as to not attract the flying aunts, to the public bathroom, where I took a shower in standing water.

This week it was my fear of needles. I’m so terrified of needles that I’ve never given blood. Until this year, doctors would still take samples from my finger. I’ve befriended countless nurses through the air-tight hugs I give them while their colleagues take my blood.

But suddenly, here I was, all alone, in a hospital with a nurse, Preciosa, who had no time to hug me, let alone put my IV in properly. She tried for 10 minutes to dig and twist the needle into my arm with no success. When she pulled it out blood spewed all over the sheets.  She absentmindedly reached for a few paper towels and dapped them on my arm.

When she asked to try my other arm, I refused. “No no, I’m fine. I’m just going to go home now and just drink some of my hot bottled water, its fine.” But Preciosa wouldn't have it. She did let me cry for about 20 minutes before coming back in and saying, “Ok, enough is enough. You are going to have to be brave.” And she dug the needle in once again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night in Maputo

Living in Southern Africa, I often feel like I have a front row seat to the theatre of global politics. 

Brazilians dominate Mozambique's booming coal industry and the Chinese have a monopoly on infrastructure development around the city. But the battle for cultural influence is where the real fight is found. 

The handful of cultural centers in Maputo, sponsored by various embassies, hold events throughout the year attempting to sell their culture onto unsuspecting (or, at times, actively participating) Mozambicans. It is soft power at its loudest. 

Last month, when I watched a Mozambican children's choir singing the Chinese National Anthem in fluent Mandarin, I thought I had seen it all.

Not so. Tonight, the US Embassy in Maputo hosted an American Electoral Night. Don't let the fancy name fool you, the event was a full out party. Three-hundred people packed under a parachute tent in Maputo's fanciest park to taste a little slice of classic american electoral insanity. 

They were not disappointed. Mozambicans wearing patriotic American hats ate cheeseburgers smeared in Ketchup and slurped their Coca-Colas (official sponsor) while CNN election coverage and live a Twitter feed broadcast from four Plasma TVs.  

But the highlight of the night was a mock debate, in which Mozambican students channeled their inner Obama, Biden and Romney and Ryan, and bickered over gay marriage, abortion, unemployment and the Syrian conflict. 

The Mozambican candidates were judged on their knowledge of the American political system, adherence to the Republican/Democratic platforms and, of course, rhetorical style. 

They all did fairly well, save a nervous "Joey Beeden," who claimed Obama was pro-choice because there were too many poor street children roaming US cities. 

Throughout the room there were pamphlets explaining "How Democracies Transfer Power", "Decrees of Democracy" and " The Basics of American Politics". 

At the end of the night, all Mozambicans cast their fake ballots and, unsurprisingly, elected Obama, who gained 228 votes compared to Romney's 24.

A Mozambican friend who accompanied me to the party said it best, "The Chinese could never pull off a party with this many hats." 

At the end of the day, by allowing Mozambicans to vote, debate and learn about the US election, the State department was doing what it does best, projecting the idea that anyone can be an American. This direct cultural identification goes a long way, not only in clearing the path for US-Mozambican relations, but also in dissolving accusations of cultural imperialism. 

Events like these give people who are extremely impacted by, but have very little control over the US elections, the illusion that they too have a say. 

And that skill will take the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians a very long time to master.