Tuesday, October 29, 2013

26. The Feeding Frenzy

For the past week or so, my days have been spent agonizing over the allotment of junk.  As I gut each and every room of our little yellow house, I encounter piles and piles of questionable things—half broken pencils, dusty erasers, out-of-date calendars, shredded socks, worn-out shoes—and I sigh and simply put them aside.  These are the objects that have accrued naturally over the past two years, and it’s time for them to go. 

It isn’t fair for me to leave these things for the next volunteers (they’ll have their own stuff, after all), nor does it make sense for me to carry it all to the new house.  So the only place for it to go is out.  I have to give it all away.

The thing is, this process is different in Mozambique.  I can’t simply pack a box and leave it at the back door of the nearest ‘Goodwill’ drop-off.   The patrons of the Salvation Army live directly on my doorstep, and I have to look them in the eye and decide which family deserves to receive every specific object.  It’s more exhausting and controversial than I would have originally assumed.

Trash management has always been an interesting subject in Zobue (In a stroke of brilliant luck, my province-mate Helen just wrote a post about a very similar issue).  We throw our trash into a large pit in our yard, where it gets sorted and stolen by large flocks of children who rush in, squabble, bop each other, and make off like bandits with armfuls of junk.  Less than five minutes after every basket of trash has been dumped, the bottom of the trash pit is scraped bone-dry and dusty.  This recycling process is useful, but it also means that we have to be cautious about the items that we toss into our cova.  There is a sorting system for every item that isn’t paper or food or otherwise completely benign.  Is it broken glass and some other dangerous object?  It goes into the latrine.   It is a pair of ripped jeans or some other worried bit of clothing?  It should be given as a gift.  Electronics?  Should be saved.  Old medicines?  Saved.  Batteries?  Saved.   

Unfortunately, this process of careful sorting (and some additional hoarding) means that we’ve acquired a backlog of goods that now need to be attended to.

We’ve been organizing every item into one of five specific categories:  Dangerous Junk, Trash Pit Junk, Special Junk, Stuff to Keep for the Next Volunteers, and Bring Back to the States.  It’s a dirty and time-consuming process, but one that ultimately respects both the newest group of incoming volunteers and the neighbors that we love.

Here is a breakdown of each of the five categories:

Dangerous Junk (5% of total):  Expired medicines, insecticides, glass, rusty items, batteries.  These items are either thrown into the latrine, packed for Maputo, or just brought to the new house (out of sheer desperation).  This is the most stressful category, in terms of guilt and environmental consciousness. 

Trash Pit Junk (40% of total):  Old test papers, broken dinnerware, ripped clothes, used notebooks, dry pens, battered boxes.  In American terms, this is the "garbage" category.  These items are bundled into our trash basket (a giant, grass-woven cesto) and heaved into the hole in our front yard.  This creates a bit of a mini-frenzy amongst the kids, and all of the trash is immediately hauled out and whisked away for playtime.

Special Junk (15% of total):   Old clothes, half-used notebooks, folders, American toys, unused school prizes, duplicate items.  Without really meaning to, Dan and I have accrued a lot of really nice things.  We bear some 50 clear plastic folders, 16 used notebooks, 8 rulers, 7 clipboards, 4 hairbrushes, and 130 blue pens, along with countless other toys and prizes accrued throughout the years.  As the fourth generation of prolific volunteers, we've inherited more than our share of bens maravilhosos.   Unfortunately, it’s just too much.  The "Special Junk" pile serves a special purpose, allowing us to organize parting presents for our friends and neighbors, while simultaneously ensuring that the next volunteers will not be overwhelmed with tons of duplicate items.

Stuff to Keep for the Next Volunteers (30% of total):  Empty notebooks, pristine folders, clean toys, nice books, fresh prizes, dishes, furniture, and appliances.  Only the best of the very best is being kept for the next volunteers.  They will be arriving with their own stuff from Maputo, and I don’t see any reason why they need to deal with my broken radio, ripped socks, or old, expired medicines.  I want the new house to be neat, trim, and tidy.  

Bring Back to the States (10% of total):  Clothes, electronic devices.  It is a very rare object that makes it into this final category.  Most of this pile is made up of the clothes that we will use for traveling.  One or two books have made it into the final cut, along with a few capulanas, an adaptor, two computers, a phone, and a camera.  And that’s it.  It’s amazing how, after two years in Africa, I’ve learned to boil down my possessions.  I am leaving here with only 5% of what I came here with.  

The neighborhood kids sift through the trash in the cova.  Note the little boy in yellow.
I don't know what he's playing with, but he's totally engrossed.
God and Agostinho show off their trash-pit treasures (mostly old teaching materials)
A few old stickers from the trash heap
Even little Razo found some prizes
The "Special Junk" pile.  Can you find:  A yellow duck, a lanyard, a wedding portrait, a deck of cards, three toothbrushes, a star-spangled T-shirt, four watches, a watercolor paint set, and two plastic hairbrushes?

The downside of this moving/waste disposal system is the ensuing junk-hysteria that it generates in our neighborhood.  Janet and Luc described it as a “feeding frenzy,” and they were absolutely correct.  I’ve seen the very worst of some of my colleagues and neighbors, as they beg me for stuff that they really don’t need or certainly do not deserve (my computer?  My phone?  My camera!?).  People who barely know me have been asking for lembran├žas left and right, from the shoes on my feet, to the hair on my head.  Again, Janet and Luc said it best when they mused,

“Do you really need a flash drive to remember me by?  Or do you simply want a flash drive?”

We’ve managed to cull some of the frenzy with a system of directed giving.  We’ve made a list of all of our immediate neighbors (56 in total), and allotted a special object to every single person.  We made a personal visit to each of the families, and gave out our “presents” one by one, to every person that we've gotten to know.  Dan called it the A’zungu Christmas.

The presents might have been strange by American standards, but our neighbors were so pleased!  Madalitso received a broken umbrella.  Elias got a toothbrush (still in the original package!)  Dona Gilda got a sweater.  Dona Anabella got a thermos and a blanket. 

We managed to clean out most of our house through this method of dispersal, and please our neighbors in the process.  Some of our favorite objects were saved for favorite people (a dictionary for Seni, a mattress for Romao, a set of notebooks and an American flag for Leme), while most other, less familiar, individuals were left out of the loop.  We’ve learned to be quite strict when it comes to the allotment of lembran├žas, and, with some of the more insufferable beggars, we’ve started asking what they’ll give us, instead. 

“After all,” we say.  “We’ve lived here and taught here for two years of our lives!  We taught English and math and technology, gave community computer lessons, and built a basketball court for the town!  What are you going to give to us!?”

“Well, nothing, professora…” they say, digging a toe in the dirt.  “Just friendship and kind words.”

“And the same from me to you,” we say.  “We wish you all the best! We will remember you fondly, always.”

“Wait, wait,” they call, yelling after us as we start to walk away.  “But I just want one flash drive.  Just one little tiny flash drive!”

It’s a feeding frenzy, for sure.  And an awfully fine line to walk. 

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