My Blue Cup In Mozambique
By Fr. Joey Ganio Evangelista, CICM
I was among the first CICM team to be sent to Mozambique – a former Portuguese colony in Southeast Africa. We are working in the central part, in the Diocese of Chimoio. For some weeks I stayed in a village 15 kms south of Gondola town. The purpose of my stay was to learn Chiuteé, a local language, and introduce me to the Auteé tribe culture. It was very interesting to live with an African family in the bush. Every time I look back at the time I spent there, the short weeks that seemed to stretch into eternity, I always remember a blue cup.
I arrived in Ingomai in the afternoon of 20 June 2001. The hut that the Christian community was building for me wasn’t finished yet and so I had to sleep in the machessa of the family of Senhor Antonio Melo. A machessa is a round, half-open hut that serves as the receiving area where they welcome visitors. I could barely sleep that first night in that machessa. The cold night breeze seemed to penetrate my sleeping bag and annoyingly caress my back. Every time I stuck my noose out of the sleeping bag, I could feel cold air rush up my nostrils piercing like a million tiny needles as I inhaled.
The next day, I woke up to the very cold winds that Ingomai is well known for during the winter season. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and put on my t-shirt, sweater, jacket, trousers, socks and shoes as quickly as I could, although not necessarily in that order. I didn’t make a new time record putting on my clothes. I couldn’t. I fell down while putting on my trousers. As I got out of the hut, all eyes were on me: Senhor Melo, his wife, Fatima, and their children. The trouble I had putting on my trousers obviously announced that I was already out of “bed”. We exchanged morning courtesies that I was to use for the rest of my mornings in Ingomai. “Good morning.” “Did you sleep well?” “Yes, I slept well. I hope you did, too.”
Well, honestly, I barely slept a wink because of the cold but I didn’t know how to say that in Chiuteé and even if I did I wouldn’t have said it anyway. I didn’t want to worry my hosts unnecessarily. I just had to wrap myself better the next time.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Senhora Fatima carrying a basin of water. She came in front of me in a half-kneeling, half-sitting position. She was telling me something but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Thinking that she was greeting me again, I started greeting her good morning and telling her that I slept well. I thought I responded correctly because she had a lovely smile on her face. I presumed that she was pleased that I had a good rest. Senhor Melo came to the rescue explaining in Portuguese that his wife was telling me that she had brought me warm water and that I could already wash if I wanted to. Trying not to look embarrassed, I rushed to the machessa, grabbed my towel and toothbrush and went behind the hut to wash.
Something about the cup
There in the basin was a blue cup. The cup was made of plastic. It wasn’t obviously brand new although certainly not very old. From the scratches and stains both inside and outside the cup, one thing was sure, it was well used. Its blue color was also beginning to fade. I scooped some water out of the basin with the cup to brush my teeth. As I brought the cup to my mouth, I smelled a strange odor. It wasn’t revolting at all but it wasn’t pleasant either. I couldn’t figure out what that smell was. I could recognize the smell of plastic that had been often used but there was something else and I didn’t know what it was. I brushed my teeth anyway, only this time my brushing had a new flavor and it sure wasn’t mint.
I chatted with Senhor Melo while waiting for breakfast. After an hour or so, her youngest daughter informed us that breakfast was ready. As I entered the hut where we were to eat breakfast, something on the table gave me a pleasant surprise. Just beside my plate was the same blue cup that I had used earlier, only this time it was filled with tea! I suddenly realized what made up one of those odors of the blue cup. At least that solved part of the mystery. Breakfast was boiled yam and tea. The yam was surprisingly good. It tasted better than I thought; it didn’t taste plain at all. It was the salt that made it tasty, I suppose. I remember eating every bit of my share and helping it go down with tea from the blue cup.
I wasn’t permitted to help in any of the house chores no matter how hard I tried to convince them. At first, I thought the reason was because I had just arrived and that they still considered me a visitor. I suppose they have always considered me a visitor because until the last day with the family I never was allowed to do any work. The only work I remember doing was looking after the huts every time everyone was in the fields. I suppose my being a priest was the reason why I wasn’t allowed to help around the house as well as in the fields. This made me wonder sometimes what they really thought of priests.
The morning of my first day I spent just walking around the surrounding area trying to get an idea of what the place looked like. The place of Senhor Melo is a kilometer away from the main road. Each household has at least three huts, namely a hut called motorika, where the grains are stored and which also serves as a kitchen, another hut where the family sleeps and the machessa. The bigger the household, the more huts it has. The nearest neighbor is Senhor Melo’s brother, Francisco, who lives 400 meters away from each other. The households are far away are far away from each other because their fields surround each family, so if a family has a larger area of land, the farther away their neighbors are.
Just before midday, Senhor Melo and his family began covering their windows and doors with blankets; it was the day of the solar eclipse. The government had made an information campaign warning people not to look directly at the eclipse without the proper glasses as this could cause irreparable damage to the eyes. The campaign was done so well that they succeeded in scaring every man, woman and child in Ingomai. Hours before the eclipse, many families had all shut themselves in their huts, fearing that if anyone stepped out of the house she or would immediately be struck blind. As the eclipse began I found myself all alone standing outside the hut. Senhor Melo didn’t care whether I stayed in or out, that was my business according to him, but he didn’t allow anyone from his family to step out of the hut. The eclipse was beautiful! I witnessed the day quickly turn dark. After some minutes, I saw the world filled with light again. It was an eerie feeling experiencing the sudden drop of temperature and the almost instantaneous quieting of the animals, only to come back to life again when the sun reappeared. Too bad Senhor Melo and his family were too scared to witness one rare moment of nature’s breathtaking exhibition of beauty.
At the end of the day, just as the sun was setting, Senhor Melo told me that my bath water was waiting for me in the bathroom. The bathroom is a small square area with only three walls made of dry grass. The grass walls are about 1.5 meter high, it has no roof and the side without a wall is facing the empty grassland behind our huts. I was uneasy the first time I took a bath. I kept glancing behind me every time I heard a noise, which was often just birds, or the goats galloping by. During that first bath I had another pleasant surprise. Floating in my pail of warm bath water was the same blue cup. I didn’t need to examine nor smell it to know that it was the same cup I used for brushing my teeth and for my tea. It was comforting to see something familiar in that strange bathroom.
Well, it was certainly a big help so I could pour water on my body to get the dust off. A pail of water is not much for a bath but with the blue cup I was able to make the most of that pail of water.
For the rest of my stay, that blue cup had always been there from sunrise to sunset. After some time, I began to think that it was ‘my’ cup that the family was making available for my exclusive use. Well, that wasn’t really the case. As the days turned into weeks, I began to see my blue cup in places other than my washbin, the breakfast table and my pail of bath water. Sometimes I saw Senhora Fatima using it while cooking; she used it to get water from a pail and pour it into the cooking pot. There were times when I saw her give the two youngest children in the family, Mateu and Paulo, their bath using my blue cup.
I also saw my blue cup being used in the strangest of situations – hut building. One day, I was watching the women and children put mud between the sticks of what would become the walls of the hut of Mbiya, the grandmother. They were having fun doing this, often laughing and teasing each other. They were kind enough to let me in the small hut and watch Fernando, Senhor Melo’s second son, make the mud wall from the inside. As soon as my eyes were adjusted to the dim light, I started looking around and lo and behold, my blue cup was on the pile of mud Fernando was using to make the wall! I found out that he was using the blue cup to scoop water to mix with dirt to make mud. From that time on I finally stopped wondering why that cup smelled so strange. More importantly, it dawned on me that the blue cup wasn’t my cup after all; it was “our” cup – the family’s cup!
I am now back in Gondola. I must admit that I still don’t speak Chiuteé fluently but I have become more sensitive to the ways people do things around here. One thing is sure, though, I will never forget my blue cup.