A few years back I was off the beaten trail in a small village in Mozambique. I was there to gauge the progress of our group’s humanitarian efforts, and introduce our program to this new village. People of all ages were there to find out what all the excitement was about.
It is an interesting experience when you are so immersed in a culture so different from one’s own. It can also be a surprising experience to be the “outsider.” In this instance, it was all good. The people were respectful, kind and generous – overly so. I learned that I had two things going for me in Mozambique that aren’t such advantages here. First, I’m a bit overweight, and normally that’s bad. However, in these remote areas in Mozambique, where scratching for survival is a day-to-day-challenge, a guy with some extra ‘meat on his bones’ is looked up to and respected. Why? Well, if he has that much to eat, he must be rich and powerful, right?
The second advantage was that my hair had started to go gray on my temples – not like the full-on gray like I have now, but enough to be obvious. While gray hair means ‘old’ here, it is respected there. Why? Well, if you lived long enough to have gray hair (and few people do in that part of the world,) then you are obviously a strong person, and because you are older, you must be very wise. Couple that with my title of “President,” and you’d think I was a celebrity. Cool, but honestly a bit unnerving.
Being neither rich, strong nor wise, it was nice to pretend. And it did prove to be an advantage when trying to teach people new things.
One of the disadvantages I was that there was a language barrier. I served a Spanish speaking mission, and took some Portuguese in college, so I was able to communicate fairly well in Portuguese. While it is the official language of Mozambique, only about half its citizens actually speak it. The rest speak their local dialects which sounded, to me, like so much gibberish. In this case, the local dialect was called ‘Sena.’
This required a translator, (The man in the lime-green shirt) and the communication would proceed along these lines: I would think of something to say in English, translate it in my head to Spanish, then attempt to say it in Portuguese to my interpreter. He would look at me blankly, then attempt to translate my Portuguese into Sena. It started out kinda rough, but as my Portuguese improved, so did his translation. Eventually we got a good groove going. You could see it in people’s eyes when we were communicating well.
One thing that always happened, which I loved, was that kids found we visitors to be fascinating. They vied for our attention, followed us around, laughed at us and wanted us to play soccer with a ball of rags. Sometimes they would let us take pictures of them, sometimes they were afraid, fearing that when a picture is taken, part of their soul would be captured by the camera.
As we spent the day in official capacities and were just milling around getting to know people, a group of kids followed us everywhere we went – even when shooed away by the community elders. The would scatter and then immediately circle back.
One little girl in particular was always there, front and center watching me like a hawk. Well, she wasn’t actually watching me. She was staring at my water bottle. It took me a while to figure out what she was staring at, but when I did, I crouched how to look at her eye-level and asked,
“Você está com sede?” (Are you thirsty?)
She looked at me with wide eyes and zero comprehension. My interpreter said, “She doesn’t speak Portuguese.”
He then crouched down next to her and spoke to her in Sena. She shook her head no.
“Ela não está com sede,” (She’s not thirsty) he said.
I thanked him and smiled at the girl and moved on. A few minutes later, there she was again. This time she pointed at the bottle. I resorted to hand gestures and pointed to the bottle and mimicked taking a drink. Once again, she shook her head no.
My interpreter asked her another question, but she smiled shyly and didn’t answer. “Eu acho que ela gosta sua garrafa.” (I think she likes your bottle.)
At first I thought I heard wrong, as there were plastic water bottles everywhere, and picking up the empties was not yet a thing in this community.
I looked at her and pointed and lifted up my bottle, “Bonita?” (Pretty in Portuguese.)
Her eyes lit up and she said, “Sim, sim!” (Yes, yes!)
I looked again at my bottle and it made more sense (duh). Here’s the deal: It was A PLASTIC WATER BOTTLE. Not a Nalgene, Thermos, metal, or any kind of fancy, insulated bottle. And definitely not a Stanley Mug. It was a one-liter, disposable water bottle that I picked up at the airport and hung onto so I could tell it apart from the other, countless water bottles. It was a Fiji water bottle that looked something like this:
I’ll admit, Fiji bottles are prettier than most, and a cool square shape. I’m not usually one to buy fancy water, but I figured it was big, and I could refill and keep track of that bottle easier than regular bottles.
I unscrewed the cap, took a long drink and finished the water, replaced the cap and handed it to the little girl. The expression on her face was pure joy. I have seen much less excitement on Christmas mornings.
She hugged my legs and ran off to show her friends. They all examined it and celebrated as if it was Mottel receiving his new sewing machine. The kids passed to bottle round to examine like it was actually something of great value. And to her…it was.
It’s funny how a moment like that can impact you, yet how quickly you can forget all about it. The only reason it came to mind was because I was preparing a lesson on gratitude and the image of that girls face came racing back to me – I had never even told my EC about it. That precious experience of a little girl with bight eyes and an impossible smile, wearing filthy clothes, living in disease and squalor, that found real JOY in the simple beauty of someone else’s trash.
And here we sit.
Maybe I need to carry around a Fiji bottle.
“There is no feeling that is more Godlike than that feeling of intense gratitude and thanksgiving to God that comes when we realize and feel that God has blessed us.” President Heber J. Grant
“Everyone’s situation is different, and the details of each life are unique. Nevertheless, I have learned that there is something that would take away the bitterness that may come into our lives. There is one thing we can do to make life sweeter, more joyful, even glorious. We can be grateful!” Dieter F. Uchtdorf