Miracles and Maybes in southern Africa

DSCF2492Last week was one of loss. A coworker lost her unborn child. One of my staff members lost his 8-year-old daughter (after having lost 2 daughters some years before). And a colleague lost her life and was laid to rest on Tuesday. I reached out to a woman who has been a priceless resource for my archival work and she recounted that she, too, had lost someone – her father.  As a distant bystander to it all, these past few days have taken a lot out of me, so I can only imagine the loss of those more immediate.

India was full of near tragedies. Almost collisions were saved in the nick of time by a ‘Sai Ba Ba’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ Lives lost had some kind of meaning – disease or illness or some sick twisted bastards brought together by male bonding turned on its head. Senseless death is something I understood from Newark, not from New Delhi. Some idiot with a gun can steal you away in an instant. A misfit with a death wish can definitely take you with him or her whenever they so choose. But, even that kind of death still has an explanation that you can sleep with at night. Wrong place, wrong time, but there is surely someone to blame. Those deaths leave a cause in their wake – something to fight for, or better yet, something to fight against.

Random death, however, with no explanation or sense of understanding, is not something I’ve ever known until I arrived here.

On my very first visit to Maputo, I was greeted by what would soon (-er than they thought) become my family. Drunk on laughter and cheap South African wine, we awoke jet lagged the next day to hear that a cousin – who had been present just the night before – had woken this morning only to lose her life just hours later. In a battle with what exactly? No one seems to know. Just in her third decade of life and with only so much as a stomach ache to show as a preamble to death, she was snuffed out and there was no one to blame. There was no autopsy to understand. There were no inquiries to explain. We never found a smoking gun. She was gone in an instant and everyone seem to accept it without question. The requisite week long death ceremonies began at once.

I had forgotten that sense of emptiness and fatigue. But it all came back with a vengeance.

What can you say to someone who lost an 8-year-old to a choking accident? Do you blame the maid who wasn’t watching? Or the mom who decided to leave for the market and thought she could trust the maid for just a few short hours? (Can you ever really trust the maid?) Do you blame the object itself and risk blaming the kid in the process?

There is no cause to rally behind except, perhaps teaching the Heimlich in grade schools. But, then again, most school-going 5 year olds here don’t recognize even one letter from the alphabet, so that’s an idiotic ambition. You get no peace no matter which way you manipulate your well-intentioned mind and your dear creative heart.

Here in Mozambique, I find people who are deeply religious and deeply reckless. There is the sense that you can go at any time and it will be when you least expect it, and probably for reasons you least deserve. You can be taken for reasons that have nothing to do with your will to live or your exposure to nefarious elements or your contribution to society. Mozambicans aren’t likely to die from some senseless act of preventable gun violence, like their African neighbors to the South. Actually, with the proliferation of free ARTs, Mozambicans are more likely to thrive with HIV than to die of AIDS than ever before in the nation’s history.  So, when death does come it comes like a thief in the night, into the homes of people who until that moment thought they were too poor to steal from.

In a place with no police protection; where ambulances are only available from private clinics and, even then, it’s a taxi for a gurney not a life saving vehicle; where power cuts plague the country, but the government is negotiating to export electricity to South Africa; where Julius Nyerere Road looks like the pock-marked face of a hormonal 14 year old boy with acne, rosacea and eczema topped off with sunburn… people pray.

They pray for everything and nothing, at the same time.

This is a place where luck, steeped in religion, lives supreme. Every day that one wakes up alive, is a day worth celebrating to the tilt. Those that drink until the wee hours of the morning in celebration, also tend to wake up at the crack of dawn to pray. They find their solace in believing that a God somewhere has spared them. These people have a faith unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not about knowing God, or even loving God – really. It’s about begging for an other worldly protection, since it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the living.

I’ve heard people ask if God has forsaken Africa. For their sakes (maybe our sakes?), I have to hope not, but my own observation leaves me pondering.  Until I came here I didn’t fully understand the question.

Of all the quick saves. All the split second decisions. All the life saving measures that I’ve seen spare human life its final phase. I’ve never seen it happen here – not ever. Not once have I heard someone say, “You won’t believe what happened…” end with a positive outcome. Every car accident I almost saw happen, happened. Every coma wasn’t followed by an other-worldly recovery. In my humble experience, miracles don’t exist for Mozambicans.

Why not here? Why not now? Why not these people?

There have been so many maybes in our whirlwind of goodbyes.
Now I understand the question.

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Descanse em paz nossa Rabeca e Teresa

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