Millions of Arms – Beira, Mozambique and South Africa

Millions of Arms

Beira, Mozambique and South Africa

A tiny girl in a tattered yellow dress knows all the words. She sings them clearly, her eyes looking straight ahead. Her hair is a ponytail of thin braids, tied back with a piece of string. She has no shoes on her dusty feet. I am captivated by the way she doesn’t even notice that I am singing along with her. We are singing:

Moçambique, nossa terra gloriosa
Pedra a pedra, construindo o novo dia
Milhões de braços, uma só força
Ó Patria Amada, vamos vencer!

Just last year, the Mozambican government changed the national anthem to this new song. Children, who sing the song in packed-dirt courtyards at the beginning of each school day, know the words better than most adults. Even the smallest children, like this one in the yellow dress, intone each word with a kind of smoldering dignity.

Mozambique, our glorious land
Stone by stone, constructing a new day
Millions of arms, just one strength
O beloved homeland, we will overcome!

Overcoming seems to be a common theme in this courtyard. I am at an orphanage which, for the privacy of the children, has asked not to be identified. I will tell you that it is somewhere in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. These children standing in straight orderly lines, their bare feet fidgeting just a little in the vermilion dirt, are orphans in some sense of the word. It is becoming increasingly difficult to define what an orphan is, but it is certain that they have lost at least one parent, and that there are no family members who are capable of caring for them at this time. Some have lost both parents. Some are newly-orphaned; others have been alone for years.

It is difficult to express the scope of the orphan challenge in Mozambique and much of the rest of Africa. In sub-Sahara Africa alone, there are 43 million orphans. There is a direct relationship between disease, poverty and the overabundance of orphaned children. A few of the most prominent diseases in Mozambique are malaria, diarrheal dehydration caused by impure water, and, of course, HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, in particular, is rapidly destroying families and saturating communities with orphans. Disease, and other factors, combine to make Mozambique one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. Recent figures estimate that approximately 16 percent of all Mozambican children are orphans.

In addition to fighting HIV/AIDS and other public health issues, Mozambique is still recovering from a painful and violent history. After being abandoned by its Portuguese colonial government, Mozambique experienced a brief period under a communist government that dissolved under the force of a bloody civil war killing up to one million people. The war ended in 1992 and was followed by alternating seasons of drought and flooding that made reconstruction difficult.

Given the fact that many schools and health centers were systematically destroyed during the war, up to just thirteen years ago, it is not hard to understand why national social and educational services are lacking across the country. In fact, Mozambique still wears its economic and social war wounds; the development statistics are grim. Nearly 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. National life expectancy is 34 years, one of the lowest in the world. Annual per capita income is $210.00 per year, less than any other southern African country, except Malawi. Forty-three percent of the population does not have access to clean water and close to 80 percent of women are illiterate. One in four children do not live to see their fifth birthday.

Under these conditions, the traditional kinship nets that have so long characterized African societies are ripping and tearing. You’ll see grandmothers caring for eight of their orphaned grandchildren. These children are taken in by aunts, uncles, cousins, older brothers and sisters also. I know one woman who is caring for two children who were left orphaned when her landlord died unexpectedly. Houses are full of children without parents. Communities are overflowing. When there seems to be no place to put a child, or when family members don’t have a way of guaranteeing adequate food and medical care to a child, many find themselves in local orphanages.

In the infantile orphanage on the other end of the city, it is lunchtime. Each infant has just been bathed and dressed in clean clothes. We carry them, two by two, into the tiny dining room, where we place each in a little chair with a tray attached. Lunch today is something mushy again, made of milk and soggy bread. I choose the baby who is crying, since most of them are waiting quietly and patiently. I do this because it seems like a challenge.

John is content to be eating the first few spoonfuls, but it doesn’t take him long to develop some kind of an antagonism toward me, or at least toward the way I spoon baby food. He slaps my hand, spilling milk all over himself and me. As I clean it up, he yells angrily at the delay. I spoon up a little bit more, and he hits my hand away again.

“OK, John, no more food for you,” I say in Portuguese, standing up.

He starts screaming. I sit back down. He hits my hand away again.

“John, do you want to eat or not?” I ask him, not really expecting an answer from this 18-month-old child, but fully convinced that he can understand me.

For a moment he is silent, repentant, downcast eyes gazing at his tray. I sit back down, cautiously take a spoonful of mush and aim it toward his pink mouth. The spoon touches his lips. He lets out a triumphant shout, the force of which propels milk into my face. And just like that, lunchtime continues.

When John has finally finished eating, and my pants are covered with soggy bread and goo, I move to a tiny, unintimidating baby with eyes that are new planets, large and luminous. He smiles as I approach with the bowl. I coo and lift the spoon toward his mouth. He opens it wide, leans forward, takes the spoon between his gums and begins sucking at it furiously. I give in and laugh as a thousand drops of milk splatter across his face and his freshly-changed clothes.

I glance over at my husband, Joe. He has white flecks scattered liberally across his black shirt and something pasty smeared across his arms and hands. He looks up at me with a dazed grin.

“They gave me the new baby to feed,” he explains. “She doesn’t exactly know how to eat with a spoon yet.”

I look at the caretaker on the other side of the room. She winks at me.

For the past few months, my husband and I have been volunteering regularly at this infant orphanage – holding, feeding and dressing babies. At the orphanage across the city, we have given a few English classes. One of the main lessons we have learned through these visits is this: Taking care of kids is hard. We have developed a deep respect for the orphanage personnel who work long shifts caring for their dozens of children. They earn little money. We have also learned this: Babies are babies. They are sweet and tearful and loving and messy and charming and exasperating and honest. They are often loud. And each one is different.

At moments like this, I try to visualize the 43 million orphans across the southern part of this vast continent. Sometimes their arms are hanging down; sometimes they are raised defiantly. What would 43 million orphans look like, all crowded into one place? Where could we possibly fit all of them?

Across the street from the infant orphanage, a long pale beach stretches out like a cat – the Indian Ocean lapping at its fur. The ocean is filled with layers and layers of waves, colliding and breaking and shattering on the coastline. On at least two of these beaches, wrecked ships are hopelessly wedged into the sand. Local stories claim that fifteen years ago, a hurricane arose from the depths of the ocean and hurled these gigantic ships onto their respective coastlines. One of the boats, which landed in a populous area, is now practically destroyed. People have harvested the metal to use or sell; all that remains is a rusty shell split down the middle. The other boat found its way to a more deserted place. It is still intact, covered with moldy green and brown growth, an inexplicable tire dangling from a rope tied to its hull. The massive craft leans precariously to one side, planted, bulky, a great rotten yam.

The families in this region have been attacked like so many boats floating lonely on the waters. They have disintegrated under powerful outside forces. Sometimes waves rise like monsters out of the sea and we find ourselves holding onto grasshopper legs and pieces of hay, at anything that floats. It is in the grasping that we discover where safety actually lies.

I know the traditional family is out of vogue in many corners, and sometimes the mainstream of society. The fact is, these orphanages, boats and every single wave that rises out of the ocean, make me feel desperately, passionately grateful for my family. My husband and I have spent three of the first four months of our marriage here in Africa, watching each other in a wide variety of unexpected situations. He has seen me angry; I have seen him sad. We stay up at night talking about what we want to teach in our own future family. The second time we went to the infant orphanage, I knew I had made a good choice. I was helping dress slippery babies, their skin still glistening with silver bathwater, when my husband crept away. After a few minutes, I followed him and peeked around the door into the nursery. He was holding one of the smaller, sicker babies against his chest, humming and dancing some kind of a boxstep across the linoleum floor.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I will admit that I thrill to the very center of my bones every time I hear the third line of the Mozambican national anthem’s chorus. Milhões de braços, uma só força. I picture 43 million thin marrow-filled arms rising up in the air. One of those arms curves back into a faded yellow dress with a white collar. Another one is attached to a head with eyes that mirror the lunar cycle. There are millions of hands that I have never seen before—but there are also a few that I have held, which is why I believe every word that these children sing.