Reflecting on 9 days in Mozambique

As we ride back to Maputo, my heart no longer sinks in tears. When I left 19 years ago, after living for 4 months in Xai-Xai, i cried the whole ride back, and probably a bit more whilst I waited for my plane. I did not know what the future would be and if I would ever return. Now I know, I always will.

A pot of emotions

As my 9-day long non-stop trip approached an end, I grasped for space and clarity of thought as small moments brought my emotions rushing in. No matter how many times I come back, it is often too much to take in, in such a compressed period of time. At some point joy overwhelms the best of me. Joy, Pride. Gratitude. Alongside it, stories of sorrow flood in and cries for help are always around. This year, unlike many years before, I did not feel helpless, powerless. I felt excited and strong. We are at a turning point. The point where we chose to stay where we are, or where we chose we know and can do more. The difficulty becomes a challenge, the frustration becomes hope for change.

Time to Listen

This week, I learnt how to listen in a different way, yet again. My trips are often about listening, asking, enquiring. What we can do better or more. And with questoons and a notebook, I followed an agenda that was too demanding to happen to start with. I listened with intent, taking notes along the way, ticking along to my next question.

Maybe because I am in my 40s, or maybe because of where I am now, I observed the interactions and, importantly, the place silence has. At day 2, I decided to always apply the 7-second rule after each of my comments or thoughts, not assuming silence for nothing to say. I politely asked for a comment and then waited. Moments that I often thought were a conclusion of a subject to give me greenlight to move to the next one were but a coma in our conversation, about to be filled with knowledge and thoughts I wanted to drink from..

Focus on Success

I am rarely one to tap myself in the back. In fact, I don’t do that often enough, or often at all. Again, perhaps age has taught me a lesson, or perhaps I needed pride a bit more this time round. Each day I felt proud of small things, focusing on the stories around me that breathed change. Could I be an optimist?

Maybe there is a bit of optimism, but mostly there is a realisation the curve is slowly speeding up. That change is finally becoming visible without looking too deep. As we get into our 20th year of operations, we can see a glimpse of what works, and not only what does not work (the failures we had along the way).

Beyond our planned trip, we had chance encounters that will forever be marked in our memories. The boy in the street that recognised us and came back for a hug, grateful for what we have done. I knew Joao even before A Little Gesture existed, he was a permanent presence in the school where I lived and used to be easily found in the playgrouund, even during classtime. Jose, the boy in the restaurant who stopped us with a smile the size of the world, to tell us what he did after he left the project, how he graduated, how his sister made it out too. And how grateful and certain he was that our help changed his life. Unsolicited showers of gratitude. We don’t do it for the gratitude, but knowing it exists means it is working.

Be humble

Seems contradictory with being proud. But being humble is a key feature for working successfully and sustainably in international development. Humble about the achievements, humble about what you can learn over a tea, humble about what that grandma speaking in changana may have to teach you. Humble about our beginnings and where we have come from in the enormity of what we must do. Humbled by the words of gratitude that come from our partners and team members, when indeed our gesture is nothing without our hands being held together towards a common goal.

And mostly, humbled by the stories that are brought to us in gratitude, knowing we did lend a hand but our hand was no doubt grabbed with strength by those in the other side that chose their different path.

Sad stories are also always ready for you around the corner, unsolicited and not always solvable. There was a kid at the door of our modest hotel the first day. He said he was 14, lived on the street and never went to school. I doubted his age as he looked more like 10. He was looking empty asking us for 10 (15 cents). I asked him if he knew where the school was, not more than 15 minutes away. He had never gone that far. I asked our coordinator to explain to him in changana how to find us. ‘If you want help, come and meet me there in the afternoon’. We gave him a bread we had from the breakfast table. And never saw him again. Be humble about what you can and can not do.

Be bold

In a reflection full of contradictions, I also felt bolder about what we can do. In fact, as I look back and see where we headed in the right direction and where we still need to learn more, I no longer wonder where the road leads or where the road even is. I see a road now, and whilst it is no doubt full of potholes and crossroads, the road is clearer than ever before.

As we reach point of impact I feel bolder and ultimately curious when someone mentions a new place we could go. I used to think we could not leave where we are because we were far from getting to the end of the road, in fact we were still building the road. As I see the road, I know we are capable of paving new roads. It does not mean we know it all, it means we have developed an immense ability to learn and adapt. It means we can and should be brave as we look behind us and see the path we travelled.

Our board often tells us we need to be bolder, less worried about detalls and believe in ourselves and what we are doing. For the first time, I may believe them. I could almost use the famous ‘yes we can’ but that would be tacky.

Care deeply

A new talk came out as I talked to a group of 30 children, one of the few opportunities I had to chat and enquire with the kids, as much of my time was spent with our partners, aka, grown-ups. As I spoke to the kids by the stone tables where I first worked 19 years ago, I told them about how special they were, and how important it was that they remembered that. As i forced Q&A by offering candy (hey, anything counts) the first question that came out was:

‘Why does Mana Sara think we are special?’

As I held my breath, I answered:

‘You are special to me and to us, because many times people have forgotten, or don’t know how, to make you special. You are special because you are a child with the right to be someone. You are special because I care deeply about you and you deserve the help we are giving you. And in those hard moments when life may trick you to think you are nothing, know that you are special.’

It sounds rehearsed, I know, but indeed it was not. It comes from the realisation I had a few years back that I spent a lot of my time trying to make my kids feel special. And, in that monent I knew those kids deswrved to feel the same.

As we met our University Students days later, our partner Arnaldo told then how they could and should be extraordinary, how they deserved to be the best. I remarked they already were extraordinary, coming from such tough lives and making it all the way there. Rather than a cute 3 year old picture to head this article, I am sharing my picture with Sebastiao and Jeremias, who have made it far and are already being extraordinary. And lest they forget that.

If you are curious, meet Joao, from 2004 to 2023…

Joao Castigo
Joao Castigo

… and Jose, from 2010 to 2023

Jose Mahumane
Jose Mahumane

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