My unexpected Peace Corps job: godmother
It was a hot afternoon as I watched the Peace Corps truck drive away, bouncing down the dirt road and kicking up clouds of rust-colored dust. I was suddenly alone at my new Peace Corps site in Mozambique.
Less than a week earlier, 29 other people and I were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers. The next day, a dozen of us flew north to meet and train with Mozambicans from our respective health organizations. After three days together, we said goodbye and departed for sites; all spread out across the four northern provinces of Mozambique.
I was one of three Volunteers dropped off in Niassa, “a província esquecida”—the “forgotten province,” and the least developed area of Mozambique (or so I had been told).
As the dust from the truck settled, I turned and looked at my house, a rough-hewn one-story building with four units. My unit was on the far right. All four units shared a porch, and the building looked across to a larger, freestanding house. The residents of the house and my quadruplex shared a yard enclosed by a wall and a gate. Little did I know, the group of people clustered around this shared yard would become like family for me in Mozambique.
The neighbor I shared a wall with was named Vivi. She was 19 and living with her boyfriend at the time. One thing to know about Vivi: she had the best smile. It lit up her face, and I couldn't help but smile with her. The other thing to know about Vivi is that in her young life she had picked up a wealth of wisdom, humor, kindness, and patience — enough to rival those twice her age. Throughout my service she was my guide to life in town, my unofficial tutor, my confidante, and my best friend. We cooked together, carried water together, did laundry together, weathered storms together (both literal and emotional), sang songs together, and laughed until our cheeks hurt together.
I will always remember the day, about seven months into service, that she told me she was pregnant. I hugged her tightly, smiling, and jumping up and down in excitement. Amidst the jumping, she said that if she had a girl, she wanted to name her Brianna.
Oh, my heart!
The next thing she said brought me to tears: "We want you to be the godmother...if you want." I couldn't say yes fast enough.
On March 24 of that year, little Brianna, “Brianinha,” was born. That day, my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer changed. Suddenly, I had madrinha (godmother) duties. I held the baby when Vivi was tired. I carried her around town on my back just like other women did. I played with her and soothed her, learning so much from Vivi and other women about motherhood, and life, and love.
A week before Brianinha's first birthday, Vivi told me that as godmother I had three jobs: one, to buy Brianinha's first capulana (sarong); two, to kill a chicken for Brianinha’s party to symbolize my love and ability to provide for her; and three, to sing a song for her at the party.
The first was wasn't too difficult to accomplish — the only challenge was picking out the best capulana.
The second task was one I'd been avoiding ever since arriving in Mozambique. It was an important tradition, though, and there was no way I would let Vivi down, so I agreed to do it.
The third made me the most nervous. Sing a song? In front of lots of people? What song would I choose?
I stressed and worried until finally the perfect song came to me. It was called "I'll Think of You," a hand-clap song, a genre of music hugely popular among young girls in Mozambique at the time. I had both taught and been taught several different songs. This one was complicated, though, and required a partner. Luckily for me, the biggest fan of these songs lived right next door.
I went to Vivi and showed her the song on YouTube. I told her I would sing it if she would be my partner and learn the song with me. Her eyes lit up. She beamed her amazing smile at me and said, "Vamos!" (Let’s go!)
We practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more. My hands were red and stinging by the time we perfected it.
The day of the party arrived. I spent all morning and afternoon cooking with the neighborhood women. We chopped and stirred and fried until almost dusk. Then it was party time. There was chicken, matapa, and xima. There was music and dancing and presents and, right before the cutting of the cake, it was song time.
Vivi handed Brianinha to her father to hold and we both stood up. We faced each other, hands poised, ready to sing. I looked at this woman, now 21 with a baby and a family. This person who had singlehandedly filled me up with so much love and kindness and friendship that this Mozambican community had truly become home. Vivi had bestowed on me one of the biggest honors I’d had in my life, one that made my Peace Corps experience more than I could have ever imagined.
For me Niassa is not "a provincia esquecida" but "a província inesquecível" — the unforgettable one.