The first week I arrived here, my school director's niece, Thelma, helped me unpack my luggage and arrange my new room. I regretted it later - she got a good look at all the first-world merchandise I had carted over with me.
So it shouldn't have been a surprise when, later on in the week, she pointed at my earth-friendly reusable shopping bag (one of those handy sacks that folds into a nice little portable ball) and said: "You have another bag like this. Estou a pedir a outra."
Estou a pedir literally translates to "I am asking for." In English, it's very similar to "Can I have." She was asking me if she could have my second bag.
Here in Mozambique, requests are made and received differently than the manner I was taught growing up. In Lioma, you can walk through the market one time and be asked, quite abruptly, and over and over again by several different people (or sometimes, quite irritatingly, the same person repeatedly), for your food, money, clothes... It's natural for Mozambicans to ask for help of some kind from a stranger, neighbor, friend - anyone. They just "estou a pedir" what they don't have.
I declined Thelma's request for my second bag, then launched into a lengthy explanation about the importance of hard work and earning what you receive and... no matter that there was a language barrier, the blank expression for "I stopped listening at 'no'" is pretty universal.
Cue internal moral struggle.
Things got worse. Later on that week, my neighbor asked to borrow my lighter, and I said no again. That's a sure way to win a friend. Oh, and good luck traveling, Katy - your neighbor will not be watching out for your house while you are away.
I became irritable. Of course I want to help the people in my community - I uprooted from coffeehouse-a-plenty, scorpion-free California and signed up for a hole-in-the-ground bathroom and community witchcraft and all the wonders of a life as a Peace Corps volunteer, after all. But I didn't want to give away the things I had brought, and I didn't want to present myself as the (single) white person in my community who has so much more than my neighbors, even though it's true.
In crisis mode, I locked myself in my room and called my family for advice. They reassured me: You are not there to give away your material items to those who ask for them; you are there to share your knowledge, and that is how you need to present yourself, said Dad. Less subtly: If you give away all your things, I will not be sending you any expensive care packages to replace them, said Mom.
Estou a pedir requests remind me of how fragile I can be at times. But every day, it seems, I encounter a new foreign habit or behavior that leads me to questioning my own. "Travel often: getting lost will help you find yourself," says a poster hanging on the wall beside my bed.
The fact is, or what I think the fact is, after 3.5 months living in Mozambique, is that the way people share is different here. There is no cultural taboo served on the side of a request, no need to set the stage for an "ask." It seems everyone - from the market vendors to the business owners to the hungry kids in the street - has learned that it is acceptable, and even good, to ask for what you don't have. As my friend and colleague in my community explained to me: the mentality here is, 'Today, I don't have (insert needed resource)... but my neighbor does, so I'm going to ask for it and likely receive it. And tomorrow... yes, my neighbor will be without that (insert needed resource), but maybe tomorrow, I'll have it to give him or her.
I asked a woman, Argentina, whom I met on the public transportation system, whether, if she had two capulanas (a commodity similar to a sarong, but made of a more durable material that women use as skirts, baby-carrying harnesses, water-carting head supports, and much, much more), one new and one old, and a person she met on the street asked for the new one, would she give it up?
She said yes.
But it's new, I said.
"When we give, we receive back in other ways."
I had heard this before, from a friend of mine back home. His concept of possession was different than that of the mainstream - it was a "what's mine is yours" sort of theory, without exclusion. I couldn't help but notice some similarities between Argentina and my friend: for one, both are very religious. And also, both are very much lacking in basic necessities - Argentina lives in Mozambique, the 12th poorest country in the world, and, for years, has lived with chronic head pain that doctors here cannot cure. My friend back home, on the other hand, is homeless.
But despite their problems, despite their want, I am sure that both Argentina and my friend alike would, without hesitation, give me their serving of dinner if I asked for it. They would also likely give a complete stranger their serving of dinner if he or she asked for it.
So for Argentina and my friend, sharing means receiving. Whereas, for me, and for many people I know, sharing can often mean depleting - we weigh the costs and benefits of a give. We strategize - 'If I give (insert needed resource) up today, I won't have it tomorrow, and I need it tomorrow, so I had better save it.' We barter. We trade.
There's more to be said, but I'm still learning. Sharing is different here. And then again, sometimes it's not.
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