Tuesday, September 28, 2010

machanga skies

Priscila wasn't lying. Her repeated lure to get me to visit Machanga was that the night sky is incredible and unlike anywhere else. And as it turns out, she is absolutely right. After spending some time in Beira for our MCC team meetings, I decided to take Priscila, my Brazilian MCC colleague, up on her offer of spending a few days at the Machanga girls center where she works. In Machanga around 5:00 every afternoon, the scorching sun races to the horizon. But instead of making it the whole way, the sun sets a ways above the horizon, as if it's more tired than it's made everyone else during the day. Then 6:00 comes and rewards Machanga residents with the relief of cool breezes and a cloudless indigo sky. The stars begin to pour out from their hiding places as if God has been saving his best constellations for the southern hemisphere. Since Machanga is in fact in the middle of nowhere, no light pollution disrupts the show as the solstice moon and vivid Mars vie for the attention of the stargazer. When the conditions are perfect, the entire Milky Way lights up like a sea of hazy fireflies, so close one could almost touch them. And to see the Southern Cross—the pride of national flags and elusive to Northerners—behind the silhouette of coconut palms is amazing. The gorgeous night sky alone makes enduring the heat and exhaustion of Machanga worth it.

Life in Machanga is simple, but challenging. It's a life full of dust and charred grass, but lacking food diversity and widespread electricity. It's a life where a purchase totaling $4 USD means months of savings, and where getting to the closest paved road means two and a half hour bus ride. It's a life where bathrooms mean holes in the ground and raffia walls, and where kitchens mean smoky stoves and jerrycans of well water. But it's also a life where the continual bubbling of Ndau means friends are close by, and where celebrations of steady canoes and shrimp to eat means not taking common elements for granted.

The slow and relaxed pace of life allowed me time for reflection on how my present surroundings materializes my past eduction and future work of the next ten months. I found myself thinking of my International Development degree, and how it's really just a fancy title for something that offers more questions than answers. I remembered my final capstone paper where I praised my subject, Denis Goulet, for his definition of development as: “a process by which life is made more human in some meaningful way.” In May of 2009 when I completed the paper, I found this statement to be empowering as it encompassed granting people a more ethical existence through increasing their dignity, freedom, rights and opportunities. But in September of 2010, I am reinterpreting this statement as a shallow, incomplete and perhaps even a degrading way of labeling those who are impoverished as somehow less human than those who are more affluent. If I shower without a ceiling overhead and fear sunburn as I bathe, does that make me less human? Or if I work in a huge steel building in a office with air conditioning, fluorescent lights and no outside windows, does that make me more human?

Even though I stayed only briefly in Machanga, there was something very human about my experience. Being sick during my stay made me pay close attention to the needs of my body. Having limited conversation abilities made me rely more heavily on motions, gestures and facial expressions to get my point across. Sweating, eating, laughing and walking all seemed to be very human experiences, but still didn't seem to get me any closer to a better definition of development. While I attempt to sort everything out in my mind, I'll keep my eyes open and stay amazed at simple things like stargazing.


Mama Mary said...

Wow! What a wonderful stargazing experience. It was a nice surprise to see your new entry today. As always, your use of words transported me far away. Lovingly, Mom

Janae said...

Katie! This was such a joy to read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Know that another SALTer a few thousand miles north enjoyed it. :)
~ Janae