Can you hear Mr. Roger’s singing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood? in your neighborhood? in your neighborho-oo-od?” Please keep that theme in your mind as you read this entry, because we are going to start a regular feature on Segullah blog (if we get a good response, that is) where we introduce one of our neighbors. The underlying motivation of this feature is for us all to realize that every person has a story and the person that you pass every day, just might be a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered.
I first noticed the woman in Sacrament Meeting. She sat straight and thoughtfully looking ahead as her ten-year old son, with Down’s Syndrome and autism, ran his fingers through her hair like it was play dough. She sometimes would patiently turn her head and smile at him. She again came to my attention in Sunday School class. It wasn’t her appearance that interested me ”“ although it was unusual for this part of Utah ”“she had black hair, olive skin, and a ready smile- it was the thoughtful and insightful comments she made. She had an unusual accent. My husband and I compete in a game I call “placing the accent.” Because we both have traveled a lot, we both pride ourselves on locating a person’s country of origin based on their accent. Her accent was a toss-up.
“Its not from Spain.”
“Maybe from somewhere in South America.”
“No, not even close.”
“There is sort of a French lilt to it.”
As it turns out, Maria is from Mozambique, Africa, with ties to Portugal. For a glimpse into the amazing history of Mozambique, and to give you some insight into Maria’s life, go here.
Maria and I went to lunch and I took six pages of notes, mostly about the country she loves which has been ravaged by war and Aids. Maria grew up in a rural part of Mozambique, in a modest home with three acres of snakes and jungle in her backyard. She says Africa is “so big and has so much space that it is like living in a cocoon.” That didn’t make sense to me, so I asked her to explain. “Africa was left to itself. It was isolated then. Before it became fashionable to raise money for AIDS and give concerts, the pop culture did not reach us. We were without television, but we had radio.” She played with her five siblings. Her sister, however, had severe autism and two of her other siblings contracted polio. These challenges were made harder by inadequate access to medical care. Her parents were Protestant, which was very unusual in a country that only recognized Catholicism. She grew up under the Fascist rule of Salazar with a feeling “that you can’t belong to anything. You become a persona non grata.” She explains that there was no free expression- cultural or political ideas, no elections, and no allowance for being a free thinker.
Her father, however, was. He painted murals, was on the radio, and was an intimate friend of Amilicar Cabral, the opposition leader of the Colonial government. Therefore, her family was always under scrutiny. In 1974, Salazar’s rule ended when Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) overthrew the government. Maria was fourteen and has vivid memories of this time period. Her father worked for the government and stayed in Mozambique to aid in the transition of the old government to the new, while other colonialists were forced or asked to leave the country. She said that living in Mozambique at that time was “like going to a masquerade ball. You never knew who was behind the mask” and who you could trust. Her father was arrested and eventually released after Maria helped establish his innocence. Her older sister, however, was sent to a “reeducation camp” when she and other students tried to organize a school prom. Maria watched as the students, along with the principal and some teachers, were marched out of the school and sent to an abandoned plantation about five hours away. Maria is grateful that she was there to find out where her sister was going, as many people just disappeared. There were about 4500 people at the camp, mostly Jehovah’s witnesses who were imprisoned for not singing the national anthem. Through briberies and pressure, the students were released almost five months later.
In 1976, Maria’s family moved to Portugal to escape the conditions of Mozambique. There her family was introduced to the missionaries and two years after that Maria joined the church. She met her husband, Alan, at BYU while she was an international student. She has two children with Alan ”“ Kevin, and Sarah, 8 years.
All of the experiences and challenges I’ve described are just a small part of her life, though they have contributed significantly to who she is. Maria describes some of the things she has learned. “I try to be the best I can and to be genuinely me. I have a visceral aversion to personal hypocrisy, so I live with my heart on my sleeve and consequently have a wonderful feeling of inner peace. Of course, that doesn’t come all at once, but little by little.” Maria talks with fondness about growing up in Mozambique. “It is empowering to grow up as I did ”“ with mixed races, a different status, disabilities, and a different religion. I’m darker. I have an accent. Diversity marks me as a person. I was “special” in ways that nobody wanted to be. It made my life rich. I genuinely rejoice in the richness of my diversity. It gave me abilities to reach out to others and feel what other people feel ”“ like the people in Iraq, for example, or even people here in the United States.” Maria has a strong testimony of the Savior and of living the gospel. The Savior has helped her through many difficult experiences. “With so much change in my life, you have to have a grounding, or a strong spiritual support. You can’t just have a conceptual religion, you must LIVE IT!” Maria does. Wouldn’t you love to have a neighbor like her?
Who are some of the interesting people that you have met in your neighborhood?