I complain. When I reached the Kenya-Tanzania border, I was indignant that American citizens were the only ones who had to pay $100 for their visas. We have a new president, I argued. Surely, that counts for something. (Actually, I guess it does because the officer said Tanzania’s legislature was in the middle of negotiating a new price for us.) The point is, while I was not thrilled about paying an extra $50, I could pay it. Sure, in the land of living off $25/day (as a backpacker, not a local), $100 is a lot of money. But if I were ever in serious need of cash, I would have reserves. Mozambique. One of the most expensive countries I’ve traveled in. I had to pad my budget, even though I was taking those horrid local buses, sleeping on people’s couches and floors, and eating at non-touristy places. I estimate that prices were about triple what they were in neighboring Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. While I groan and wince at my depleting stash, again, I can afford it. I might prefer to think of myself as a poor student and a starving artist, but those adjectives are mere jokes. I have never known starvation, and while I like to think I come from a humble background, I have never tasted poverty.
While I have no figures, from speaking to various locals, the average monthly salary in the cities is around 2000 meticais ($80). My bus from Beira to Maxixe, in which I was the only foreigner and paid the same as everyone else, cost 650 meticais. That is a third of the monthly salary. I had an enlightening discussion with Diana, a Mozambican couchsurfer, today, asking her how that is possible. She just shrugged and said, we are a creative bunch. We make do with what we have. Food. Outrageously priced. Apparently, while chickens are raised in Mozambique (I can attest to this, having sat with several a chicken in my many tedious bus rides), the market is flooded with chicken from Brazil. The Brazilian government pays Mozambique to insure that their product has a monopoly. A chicken meal would cost me a couple dollars in Tanzania. Here, I’m lucky to get it for $8. I don’t even want to spend $8 on a meal in the US. But what about the basics: milk, eggs, flour? Diana says she’s lucky to get milk twice a month as it can cost as much as 500 meticais (1/4 the average monthly salary). By the way, that salary is supposed to feed, clothe, and shelter an entire family. Mal-nutrition runs rampant here. Her friends in the poorest townships in South Africa live like kings, she mused, because at least they get a daily ration of dairy and a weekly taste of meat. This being said, her mom made sure I was fed when I visited their house (and it wasn’t even meal time).
A country emerging from a civil war has its challenges and the lack of natural resources and infrastructure complicate the situation. I leave Mozambique tomorrow with the sense that I’ve only scratched the surface. I don’t know what I make of these situations, these places where the vast majority seem to have nothing. It is easy to feel sorry for them; and it’s true, no one should be dying of starvation when others are drowning in excess, no one should be succumbing to easily curable illnesses when others are overdosing and overmedicating. However, what constantly astounds me is not what people are lacking, but what they are giving. When I was unable to take out money in Nkhata Bay, Malawi because the ATMs had something against Mastercard, without missing a beat, the owner of my guesthouse gave me my room for half price and prepared a meal for me free of charge. His gesture was not an isolated incident. I’ve had people all over Africa, with a fraction of what I have, sharing whatever they can with me...just because. A subtle but prevalent theme in my travels is that the less you have, the more you are willing to give. Blessed are the poor.