Blogging Mozambique

Tristeza Não Tem Fim, Felicidade Sim - Dr. Ryan Meili - July 2010

Last night our friend Felicidade came to see us at the training centre.  Felicidade, which means Happiness, is 12, bright, articulate, with a surprisingly adult way of expressing herself. Last weekend, when the thunder and heavy rains came, the house where she lives with her grandmother leaked so badly that it filled with dirty water. Her grandmother, who cannot walk, sat on the wet floor and cried.

Felicidade's mother has died and she never knew her father. She and her grandmother have no other family to support them. Her adopted brother Shelton, who her grandmother took in as an abandoned child, now lives with nuns in a town an hour North of Massinga. Felicidade would live there too, but she has to stay to take care of her grandmother.

Each morning Felicidade goes to see Sister Teresa, a Brazilian nun who has been in Mozambique since before independence. The Sisters give her some rice or some cassava flour to make shima (the local staple starch). She then goes home to prepare a fire and cook for her grandmother before going to school. Their home is very simple. Last year a man came with a big dog and robbed everything from the house: dishes, clothes, curtains, a wooden wardrobe, while Felicidade was at church and the grandmother sat  helpless and watched.

Felicidade is liked by her teachers, understands her subjects well, and proudly rattles off her grades. Despite the family not having any money she is able to attend school because of a "testament of poverty" signed by the town administrator. She still has to find some benefactor for uniforms and school activities. At school there is a snack period. The other children won't sit with Felicidade because she never has a snack. Her neighbours talk openly about how, when her grandmother finally gets around to dying, they can divide up what little dishes and clothes they have been given since the robbery.

All of these hardships are recounted in a matter-of-fact way. She suffers greatly and knows it. She will study hard; with luck she will not get sidetracked, lost or abused as so many vulnerable children in her place will do. But any freedom from suffering is years away and buried under the painful rejection and hunger of the present. Felicidade's story is particularly sad, perhaps more so because she is able to describe it so well, but it is certainly not unique. This kind of absolute poverty is all too common in Mozambique.

I just finished reading The Life of Frederick Douglass, the mid-19th century autobiography of the fugitive slave turned abolitionist leader. The stories he tells of the conditions of life on the Maryland plantations where he was raised, of having little to wear and sleeping on the bare ground, of backbreaking labour and the constant gnaw of hunger, remind me very much of the poor people of this continent. No one cracks the whip or physically chains them, but they are not free. A world that ignores the poverty of a girl like Felicidade, even profits from it, is a cruel master indeed.

Her name, as you may have guessed, means happiness. The irony of this joyous name amidst such hardship is not lost on any of us, but it is not only ironic. She is at heart a happy girl, always lighting up with a smile when we meet on the street, delighted by playful teasing or a small gift. Her grandmother, barely mobile with 2 canes, shines as well. This paradox is symbolic of the entire country. Despite the extreme burdens of poverty and disease, or perhaps because of them, the people of Mozambique know how to celebrate. It seems every week there's another opportunity to dance in the town square, every meeting in Tevele is half serious discussion/half hilarious dance party,  and every car ride an opportunity for a multi-part sing-along punctuated by jubilant ululations. Emotions here are right at the surface and tristeza and alegria, sadness and joy, more closely linked than we might imagine.


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