Living as a westerner in Africa is chock-full of mutual frustrations due to a constant stream of cultural misunderstandings. As PCV´s, we are expected both to increase Mozambicans´ understanding of Americans (us and as a whole) as well as increase Americans´(us and as a whole) understanding of Mozambicans. Sometimes, this clash of cultures leads to amazing, light bulb-illuminating, “aha!” moments when misconceptions are broken down (like explaining to a child that not everyone from America is white, or someone explaining to me that being told I am fat is a compliment and I pretend to get it). But more often than not, there are some wacky exchanges where I just have to accept that they are not going to understand every little thing about my culture in the same way I will not about theirs, but we just need to move forward in mutual misunderstanding (as well as respect and acceptance).
One issue that “faz muita confusão” for me here is trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Moving to Africa, becoming much more sedentary, and eating any variety of the fried and refined-white-flour-and-sugar foods that are the norm, led me to my LEAST healthy physical state I have ever been in, thus leading me to recommit to a healthy lifestyle in any way I can. This includes certain small behavior changes that, while are normal (or even THE norm) in my health-obsessed home habitat of Los Angeles, but are completely ludicrous here. Little things such as…
- Walking to/from work when possible instead of getting a ride; even when it is *gasp* HOT (news flash: it is Africa. It is always hot.)
- Drinking water instead of three cokes a day
- Preferring veggies and fruits when possible (often not possible) instead of potatoes, meat, dough dripping in grease
- Not consuming TOO much alcohol
…these things confuse my colleagues and home-country counterparts to no end. Besides just being the weird foreigner, there is often the issue of offending someone. If someone offers me food, especially if out in the field and it was something that they cooked for us to eat, rejecting the offer is usually downright insulting. And when it comes to eating something that I would rather not eat OR risking offending and/or angering my colleagues with whom there are already cultural and linguistic barriers, I will always choose the former.
With other things I can just choose to be the weird one. I am used to it by now here. I don’t necessarily like always sticking out (I never thought I was one for conformity until I moved to Africa…) but people are going to stare anyways, so might as well go for a run right past the group of 100 fishermen who will put their stuff down to watch for several moments until I have passed. That’s fine. The hardest part is when people ask me WHY I make such choices.
In the States, or the Western world, these answers are simple (and most people wouldn’t need to ask you). Fruits and veggies have important nutrients that strengthen and protect your body. Excessive consumption of sugar, including sodas, and alcohol is bad for you, especially spread out over decades, so moderation is key. Excess fat clogs your arteries and can lead to a heart attack when you are older. Exercise and a generally active and healthy lifestyle keep you fit, keep your muscles strong, and keep your weight in a healthy range, minimizing the risk of a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and any thousand of other things. This makes sense. I am making small choices NOW that will affect my health, and the quality of my life, up until I am in my 70s, 80s, or even 90s, God willing! I am making small changes now so I will be able to keep up with my kids on the playground and to run a 10k at age 70.
But let me step back and look at this from a Mozambican’s perspective.
Death is everywhere in Africa. The average life expectancy in Mozambique hovers around 40. FORTY. It is incredibly rare to see elderly people. Those who have made it to old age, are in the house, and mostly not well. Of course, there are exceptions. Many people live past 40. but many do not.
HIV and AIDS carve a deep scar across the population, as the incidence and prevalence rates continue to rise. Multiple concurrent partnerships (MCPs) result in rapid transmission of the virus and a quick progression to AIDS, as the body is overcome by opportunistic infections. People die. All the time. Sometimes it is vehicular or other types of accidents, but mostly because they were “sick.” It happens. We mourn and then we move on. It is easy for us to look on this nearly passive acceptance of death as stoic but rather it is necessity to cope with the weight of it all.
How can I explain that I am making choices because I don’t want to die of heart disease or cancer when I am in my 60s? How can I explain that I am choosing to be rude because I want to keep my arteries unclogged? Or that I don’t smoke because I don’t want lung cancer? I can’t remember hearing, yet, of someone here dying from heart disease.
I could look at this discrepancy as absolutely heartbreaking: the fact that just because I happened to be born into a privileged place where I have access to information, resources, and medical care, I have a much greater change of living much longer than those born here. I could get upset, wrestle with the inequities of it all and the failure of so many development projects and with the seeming hopelessness. Or I could choose to appear stoic and accept it for what it is, and move on. Because like the Mozambicans, I have to.