Learning Technologies in Mozambique: Fact, fiction, fairy tale?

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One of the most challenging things for me is to explain to people what I was actually doing in Mozambique. Officially, I was an advisor for e-learning at a local university. So far, so good. However, what impact does such a project have on the sustainable development of a country? Do people in Mozambique have computers to go and study online? Isn’t it an elitist approach to create online courses for the lucky few who have the means and the infrastructure to participate? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to address the general literacy in the country (which is currently estimated at 58.8 % among the total population, 45.4 % among women according to the World Fact Book) before discussing web literacy?

Each remark justifies a very interesting discussion for itself. Yet, I am not attempting the large (and super-interesting!) field of ICT for Development (ICT4D) scientifically. Instead, I will reflect on a couple of personal observations and experiences that represent important aspects of a very complex and multilayered reality.

What’s up, Africa? WhatsApp is up!

Probably the most important observation to understand the ICT structure of Mozambique (and presumably most other African countries) is the omnipresence of mobile phones in comparison to desktop and laptop computers. A while ago, I wrote about mobile providers, state of the infrastructure, and costs in another blog posting. Voice credits and data packages, are available widely, for reasonable prices – and in a “scalable” manner. While a European telecom consumer probably wonders why someone would buy phone credits for 50 Cents every other day instead of spending 7 Euros for an entire month, it makes perfect sense for a fruit trader with varying daily income who usually doesn’t have 7 Euros at disposal at once.

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Buying and activating a SIM card on the streets of Beira

With a Chinese mobile phone in 2017, one can do more things than with a high-end Personal Computer 20 years ago. Let’s talk about WhatsApp. I never thought of WhatsApp as an education technology – until I met some kids in a remote village in the province of Manica, close to the Zimbabwean border. My Portuguese was very basic , but I managed to teach them the English phrases they asked me for – and send them the transcriptions on WhatsApp so they could revise and practise. It was them who asked me for that as well.
I also came across WhatsApp in formal education – at universities which had never implemented email distribution lists, but are now using WhatsApp groups where students can ask their professors questions about assignments and other stuff.

So…why WhatsApp, and not Facebook, or Skype, or good ol’ Hotmail? I could not explain it any better than Toby Shapshak, technology writer and TED speaker from South Africa:

“WhatsApp’s hidden beauty is how little data it uses – something the tech industry based in bandwidth-rich Silicon Valley often fails to understand about the bandwidth constraints in emerging markets, even if Africa’s internet is the fastest growing in the world. And, very importantly, Africa is a mobile-only continent. Because mobile data is so expensive, there is a natural adversity to using data-intensive services like YouTube. WhatsApp, with its tight compression, means videos won’t break the bank for cellphone users.” (Quoted from the Forbes article Why WhatsApp is South Africa’s favourite app, September 2015)

Multiplying education: a “new middle class”

Another observation is not directly related to Mozambique, but significant for ICTs and online learning in emerging markets. Since 2012, I have completed several courses on Udacity, and recently even enrolled in a Nanodegree. Udacity has been founded by a Google engineer. It is “pure Silicon Valley”. And at the same time, it isn’t. In 2012, the second largest group of students (7 %) were from India. Coursera, another major MOOC platform, reported 6 % of its users being from Brazil in the same year. (Find more details here.) That’s only numbers, of course. But as a student, I can also feel a certain shift in course materials, examples given in courses, and most importantly, forum discussions among the learning community. Movie database examples feature recent Bollywood productions as templates. Assignments for mobile apps programmed by students take Mandarin keyboards into consideration. And participants proactively organise face-to-face get-togethers – in Mumbai, Nanjing, and São Paulo.

It is true: A Nanodegree at Udacity requires money, time, fast internet, and a relatively good laptop. Same goes for online curricula in South Africa, Mozambique, and other countries. Such offers do not reach – and are not addressed to – underprivileged, rural communities at all. But they enable something else: high quality, up-to-date education and information for a population stratum that is often referred to the as “new middle class”. And whilst certainly not every well-educated, modestly wealthy, urban Mozambican will dedicate their life to the multiplying effect of distributing skills and knowledge to less privileged compatriots…I am deeply convinced that it is this group of teachers, doctors, enigneers, and entrepreneurs, who has the ability to tackle sustainable development way better than any “Western” NGO or missionary has ever done.

One example: Distance learning programs for teachers in remote areas of Central Mozambique. We are talking about teachers that have already been practising for years, and probably already made hell of a difference in their respective villages. However, they never had an opportunity to get formal education, let alone brush up their knowledge and skills on a regular basis. With learning materials on paper, being distributed by universities every other month, they finally get that opportunity for a (semi-)academic education. And learning technologies – be it tutorials with professors via WhatsApp, video lectures, or simply the possibility to look up facts on Wikipedia – can facilitate such education programs and help improve the quality enormously. Quality that trickels through to rural schools and communities. This is exactly what my university – the Universidade Católica de Moçambique – is doing and what my project was contributing to. It definitely is a long way to go. But it is a way that must not be ignored or neglected.

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Distance Learning in Mozambique – state of the art

And then there is Brazil…

As an advisor at an African university, I had to do with several international cooperations – most of them with…guess whom…Brazil.

Why Brazil? First of all, it’s the language, of course. But why not Portugal? Of course relations with Portugal play a huge role in Mozambican economy, education, and also every day life (yes – in July 2016, everyone in Beira was cheering for the new European champions)…but to some extent, Brazilian reality might “understand” Mozambican reality better, at least when it comes to IT-related topics. Brazilian institutions and advisors naturally know what it means to deal with real distances, with really remote areas, with weak infrastructure, with multicultural and multilingual audiences. I remember several projects where Mozambican universities turned to Brazilian universities for advise when it came to the implementation of ICT systems – and I realised that many Brazilian systems had another major advantage compared to what European universities could have offered: The whole process of adopting and implementing learning technologies has started several years later in Brasil than it did in Europe. Hence Brazilian institutions could base their strategies on more advanced technologies, and possibly also on clearer requirements catalogues than European organisations which started experimenting with newly born open source versions in the early 2000s, years before new paradigms like Web 2.0 came to life. And we are still confronted with the results today, such as heavy “historical” bulk and overly complicated, historically grown island solutions.

So, to some extent, many Brazilian solutions I came across appeared much “cleaner”, more lightweight, than what I am used to from Europe – regardless if they were commercial or open-source-based. Why would an African university copy bulky European solutions when they can “leapfrog” to the state of the art that fulfills their current requirements?

Well then…what’s the conclusion?

I believe the most important aspect about ICTs in emerging and developing areas is that, like everywhere in the world, they are a part of reality. The context and circumstances of their diffusion and adoption might be different (and very specific for each country, each region, each social stratum), but their existance is a fact. And like everywhere in the world, ICTs have can – and are used to – enable learning and education.

I don’t have a ready-made answer to the solution if and how ICTs will change education in Mozambique in the long term. I don’t have that for Europe either. But I believe that it would be a mistake to try zoom out the existence of digital technologies in the field of education – or any other field, that is, because at the end of the day, they cannot and must not be ignored.

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Province of Manica – where everyone communicates via WhatsApp

 

 

 

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Three friends, two weeks, one journey. Swaziland – Mozambique 2016

Just a few facts to resume a trip worth tens of thousands of pictures and a million memories: Two weeks on the road from Johannesburg via Swaziland, Maputo, Tofo and Vilankulos up to Beira.

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Competitive itinerary for less than 2 weeks. First etape was taken by plane, though (Beira – Johannesburg)

  • We met at Johannesburg Tambo Airport on a Friday morning. One came via Paris from Amsterdam. One came via Dubai from Vienna. One came directly from Beira. Two of them had never met before. Then we got on a Minibus that took us to Swaziland. The journey had begun.
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MTN Bushfire Swaziland. That’s what one would call a perfectly chilled festival

  • We travelled with pickups, private cars, ferry boats, Txoupelas (Tuk Tuks), Chapas, overland buses, sail boats, 4×4, and by foot.
  • Rhinos, elephants and lions – they were so extremly peaceful and incredibly close at Hlane National Park, Swaziland. 

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    Hlane Royal National Park – so many wonders of nature on just 22.000 hectares

  • We harvested fresh spinach for dinner, watched a breathtaking sunset and sung Austrian songs with orphans at Shewula Mountain Camp, Swaziland.

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    On top of Swaziland: Shewula Mountain Camp

  • In Maputo, we (re-)discovered all the pleasures that Mozambique has to offer: Txoupela, Manica, Capulana and many more. We invented games with three Mozambican friends over fantastic seafood dinner and got an exclusive late-night sightseeing tour through one of the most intersting African capital cities.

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    Samora Machel and some more impressions from the capital of Mozambique, Maputo

  • Further up North, Tofo and Vilankulos spoilt us with some of the most cliché Mozambique images one can imagine: snow white sand, the sea shimmering in 50 shades of Turquoise, black sailing boats with black sails, palm trees that we even try to climb, and fresh seafood everywhere.
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Mix of Tofo and Vilankulos, Mozambique. If paradise is half as nice..

  • We had taylored Capulana-dresses in Beira and watched the opening game of the EURO 2016 at Biques Restaurante.

Over the next few weeks, I will post more stories, pictures, anecdotes and reviews about our journey through Swaziland and Southern Mozambique. But for now: Thank you so much to the awesome travelling sisters, and to everyone we met along the way for an unforgettable trip!

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“Traveling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Thinking of Europe

Mozambican newspaper, November 17th, copyright: Sophie Lenz
Something strange is going on. Something is wrong.
Right now, I am living far away from home. Far enough to clearly see what “home” is to me. I have lived in so many different places that I always found it difficult to identify with one place, one town, one region in particular. But from the distance, I understand that my home is Europe.
I am European, always have been. Hopping between various countries in Europe felt likea big pleasure, never like a contradiction, and I think one of the first lessons I learned through travelling and moving places was that deviations in culture, habits, food, daily routines, education system etc. are interesting, but in the end of the day, they are overruled by the enormous amount of ideas, desires, needs, values that we all have in common.
Google image search for [Beautiful Europe], source: Google

Beautiful Europe

And btw, I still strongly believe this is true -beyond Europe as well. People strive for fulfillment of their basic needs, we seek for people we feel comfortable with because they give us safety, security, pleasure and meaning, and as long as we have means and freedom (given we are lucky enough not to permanently struggle for our next meal or next month’s rent), we are likely to try to improve our personal situation, be it by educating ourselves, founding a family, building a house, or looking for better opportunities somewhere else. And no, I am not exclusively talking about people from the Southern and Eastern parts of the globe who come to Europe, hoping to find a future here. I am also talking about thousands of “Western” pre- and post-docs who migrate to wherever they get an interesting research position, I am talking about Society Dropouts who migrate to India or to an Israelian Kibbutz searching for a cheap, non-capitalist life, I am talking about all the women and men I keep meeting everywhere who followed their partners on expat assignments, trying to “figure out something for themselves”, and I am talking about people myself, bored and exhausted by European city life at the same time by the life, acceppting any opportunity to do something else.
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Beautiful Europe

So now I am here in beautiful Mozambique, missing Europe sometimes, like a good friend – with no regrets about leaving her behind, because I know she will always be there for me, as she always has.

A lot of people back home in Europe keep in touch with me, follow my life here, develop interest for Mozambique in particular and Africa, African matters, in general, and I am happy and proud about that. Some people are also  worried about me, keep asking me if I am safe here. But the inconvenient truth seems to be: It should be the other way round. I got worried about friends and acquaintances in Europe last weekend, desperately waited for news from Paris, to finally learn with an immense relief that all of them are safe. Mozambique is poor, that is a fact, and there is some political tension going on. But – civilians are not assassinated strategically here, no explosives are planted in public transport, and the government is not thinking about bombing Syria. (Sidenote: I am talking explicitely about Mozambique now – Africa is not a country…)
I am not trying to say that Africa is a harmonious paradise on earth. Of course it is not. Nigeria and Kenya, among others, suffered terrorist attacks in recent times, and they are reminding the world now that they didn’t get Facebook Apps to mark people as safe, profile pictures or urban monuments weren’t adopting their flags, and all in all they did not receive even a fragment of the current attention for Paris – observations that are not entirely untrue. A potential ethic conflict is silently building up in Burundi (a country many people don’t even know exists), and the daily killings in Eritrea, Somalia or Darfur are not reported anywhere anymore. However, my intention is not to compare “who is worse off”. It is nothing but a report of what I am feeling these days when I think of Europe, my home.
So I am sitting here, far away. The attacks in Paris, at places I am familiar with, La Stade de France, les bars du 11e arrondissement, it all seems so unreal and I am trying to understand that they really happened. Ever since I arrived in Mozambique, I have been asked more than once if it’s true that Europe is doing terribly, terribly wrong on all
levels. That might be a simplified impression, spread by the media (and who could blame them – the average European magazine does not exactly depict a very sophisticated image of Africa – poor, dark and pretty far away).
Also, there are very different reports about Europe as well, praising her openness towards Syrian refugees, keeping up the idea of a European Community (btw – did you know about the EU’s Southern counterpart, the African Union?).
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Beautiful Europe

But still…the glimpses about Europe I get on TV, Facebook pages, randomly overheard conversations…they are dominated by crisis, swing to the right, an out of control refugee situation, bankrupt nation, countries blaming each other, pushing off accountability instead of working on hands-on solutions, borders, fences, walls, and terrorism.
As narcisstic and self-centered it may sound – but it hurts to see my home depicted in such a way. It hurts to see a great continent, the great idea of Europe that has overcome walls and cold war being reduced to a pathetic picture of misery. But what hurts most is that I am not so sure any longer if it is really just an image distorted by the media – or rather close to reality.
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Here are some recent publications from African media about Paris / European affairs:
Namibians react on Paris AttacksArticle in The Namibian, expressing partly harsh critisicm on the ignorance of the Western world towards African issues
Africa must learn from Europe’s structural failuresNew African, September 2015. Not related to the Paris attacks, yet very interesting read about Africa’s perception of Europe

Let’s talk about food, baby

Food is one of the first, most obvious elements you get in touch with in a new country. Traditional recipies, eating habits, even the way markets and supermarkets are outlined and designed – these components of culture are relatively effortless to observe and grasp, hard to overlook and often particularly easy to remember…(“Beijing…oh yeah, that’s where we had that enormous tray of wonderfully greasy prawns in that unimposing backyard inn”).

So what about food in Mozambique? Let me introduce you to some of the eating habits that I have developed in the past few weeks.
Grocery shopping, Mozambique style

Grocery shopping, Mozambique style

FRUITS FROM HEAVEN

The backbone of my diet definitely consists of fruit. With summer just around the corner, new sorts appear on the markets in abundance on a weekly basis. Apples, oranges, bananas, papaya, pineapple, various types of melons, and the objects of my current addictions: mangos (in all shapes and shades) and lychees (yes, they are of Asian origin, but also cultivated in Mozambique, namely in the province of Manica). Addiction is the right term, given that I regularly stray around shortly before dusk, desperately on the lookout for someone to sell me some lychees, and the sudden relief when I finally find an old lady by the side of the road or two young guys in a Chupela to purchase two quarter-kilo-bags of fresh, round, rosy delicacies from – for 50 Meticais.
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PRAWN, CASHEW, PIRI PIRI

There are some foods that are specifically Mozambican. Introducing all of them would be quite a task, and unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to try them all – but an entertaining overview by another Mozambique-Blogger can be found here.
It appears obvious that seafood plays an important role on the stoves and BBQs of Mozambique, considering the country’s 2000 km coastline. The amount and quality of prawn and shrimp that is available everywhere, fresh from the Indian Ocean, easily compensates for the lack of other types of meat. And prawns are so universal – they taste great in curries, or simply fried with garlic and lime juice, with my home-made mango chutney (recipe see below) and couscous, or as Shrimp Mozambique, a recipe particularly popular in Portugal, that has potential to be prommoted to this year’s Christmas dinner.
Prawn, mango chutney, couscous

Prawn, mango chutney, couscous

One of the main export goods of Mozambique are Cashews (Funfact: Biologically speaking, they are seed, not nuts). I am sure there are a lot of brilliant recipes of what to make of Cashews. So far, I didn’t feel the need for any of them – because cashews as they are, as you can buy them everywhere on the streets here, are fantastic as they are. And apart from their looks they have barely anything in common with the small, tasteless, overpriced and over-salted cashews I know from European supermarkets. Cashews, baby!
Another product you might know without knowing its connection with Mozambique is Piri Piri – a red hot chili pepper, also known as African bird’s eye chili, that comes in the shape of powder or sauce. Piri Piri is not exclusively Mozambican, but also produced and enjoyed in many other African countries, and Piri-Piri Chicken is claimed to be one of Mozambique’s national dishes. On a sidenote: It gained world-wide fame thanks to the South African, Mozambique-themed restaurant chain Nando’s (that does not have any outlets in Mozambique, by the way).
Piri Piri chicken - unfortunately not made by me

Piri Piri chicken – unfortunately not made by me

WANT SOMETHING? MAKE IT YOURSELF!

Vienna has spoilt me. Having lived in 4th, 5th and 6th district for years, I am used to having at least one Thai snack bar, two Vietnamese Pho restaurants, three juice- and smoothie bars, four Indian diners, five coffee-take-aways and countless pizzerias in a radius of 300 metres from my place.
I don’t have that here. But what I have rediscovered is the fact that food and drinks are made from basic ingredients – which means, they are not so difficult to replicate. If I want pizza, I buy flour, yeast and some garnishes at Melhor supermarket and make my own at home, following recipe for pizza dough and pizza sauce (the dough is nothing special, but the tomato sauce in the recipe is simply fantastic).
Believe it or not - you can have pizza without having it delivered to your flat

Believe it or not – you can have pizza without having it delivered to your flat

If I miss Fruchtikus, the fruit snack to be found in every Austrian supermarket, I analyse what a Fruchtikus actually is: Fruit in a glass, easy to transport and to eat in the office as a delicious energy snack. Cutting some of my lovely mangos and stuffing them into an empty baby food container really is not a big deal – and tastes times more natural and healthier than the original Fruchtikus. And Vanilla Custard (that is, naturally, available at the South African supermarket Shoprite) tastes great with fresh mangos, too. Remember? I mentioned that fruit are the backbone of my nutrition plan.
Drinking tap-water is a no-go. At some point, I got a bit tired of carrying three litres of water back home from the supermarket every day, so I had another idea of how to stock up on refreshing, clean and healthy drinks: Using boiled tap-water to brew tea, letting it cool down and filling it in empty plastic bottles guarantees a calorie-free variety of refreshments, and tea can be seasoned – with lemon, with ginger, with cinnamon, vanillia, orange juice…you name it, there are countless combinations, even based on a rather restricted selection of available teas (in my case, mainly Rooibos, Lime Tree and some fruity blends).
One of my favourites: A pineapple-mint-flavoured tea with ginger and cinnamon.
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My stock of ice tea and fruit snacks for the office. Looks: D-, taste: A++

WHAT I REALLY MISS

And yet, there is something that no do-it-yourself-strategy, and not even the most savoury mango-prawn-cashew-piri-piri-curry in the world could compensate for. I am suffering from the possibly most common disease among Austrian expats worldwide: A severe Lattella-withdrawal. The refreshing whey drink sometimes even stars in my dreams at night, and I spend so much time thinking about it that I already created two new sorts in my mind: a winter special “Plum flavour” and an Abricot-Elderberry-Blend.
Lattella - as Austrian as can be

Lattella – as Austrian as can be

MY VERY OWN MANGO CHUTNEY

What would a food blog post be without at least one recipe? When I ended up unexpectedly with 33 mangos a few weeks ago, I searched for the perfect recipe to process them into chutney, and ended up creating my own variation, strongly inspired by this recipe by Alton Brown. What I really like about it is the extreme contrast – while the very ripe mangos and the pineapple juice are almost sinfully sweet, it allows me to be really, really generous with the Piri Piri and the curry powder.
Ingredients (for a reasonable amout to be deep-freezed and kept for less fruity times:
12 – 15 small, sweet, yellow mangos (peeled and chopped)
1 onion
2-3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon Piri Piri powder
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 red bell pepper, chopped
3-4 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely chopped
250 ml pineapple juice
120 ml white vinegar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup cashews (roasted or plain, unsalted)
1.5 tablespoons curry powder
Instructions:
Heat the oil in a pan, add the Piri Piri powder and shortly after the onions and sweat until soft. Add the ginger and bell pepper (both finely chopped) and finally the mangos and the cashews and cook for 2-3 minutes.
In a separate bowl, combine the pineapple juice, vinegar, sugar, and curry powder and add the mix to the pan. Bring the mixture briefly to cook and then let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
The chutney is delicious with almost anything – I tried it with prawns, chicken, on plain rice, couscous and pasta so far – it all worked well.
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The Discovery of Simplicity

Beira Bar. Wednesday Evening.

Beira Bar. Wednesday Evening.

Moving abroad. Changing places and exploring a new environment. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been in this situation, and I daresay that I never experienced it in the intensity I do now. Moving to Mozambique is different from moving to Hungary, France, Netherlands or back to Austria. I know that I will be going through several stages, as everyone does and as I’ve done before. In a couple of weeks, for example, I will have settled and got relatively used to my daily life, and reality will start to kick in. There will be moments of unpleasant weather, and frustrating appointments, and days with headache or simply a bad night of sleep, and I will be very likely to blame it on the city, the country, the decision I made to leave Vienna. Because in those very moments, I will not remember the bad, frustrating, aching moments in Vienna where I just wished that I had had stayed in Eindhoven instead, because everything would have been so much better there.

Been there, done that. And there are a couple of highly recommendable articles that describe these and similar feelings in a very authentic way, e.g. The Thing that Really Sucks About Living Abroad, What Happens When You Live Abroad – and some of my own thoughts.

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But for now, I realize a certain simplification of everything, compared to the last few breathtaking and breathless years in Vienna. I experience so many “Firsts”. The first grocery shopping at the local market in Beira (where I accidentally bought 33 instead of a handful of mangos and hence processed them into a stock of delicious chutney), the first Chupela-ride on my own (the auto-rikshas on the streets that I am a bit traumatized by from Mumbai where I was permanently ripped off and had to get into endless discussions about broken meters – now I know that here in Beira, they are as uncomplicated as could be and every ride simply costs 50 Meticais), the first rain (that started without any warning signs, gave the impression that the world might have come to an end for five minutes, and then stopped as abruptely as it started).

First Choupela Ride

First Choupela Ride

First 1000 Meticais bill

First 1000 Meticais bill

I also feel that I have more time now. Why? I guess it’s a couple of factors playing together. I have less choices here than I was used to in Eindhoven and Vienna – on many levels…grocery shopping, leisure activities, priotities at work. I don’t have Netflix neither an internet connection stable enough to watch long movies on Youtube. I have a limited amount of books and just a few CDs and downloaded music on Deezer. Turns out, the lack of choices allows me to focus much more on what I am doing – reading what I am reading, spending an afternoon at the Culture Center taking African Dance Classes, not just browsing through articles at work but reading them thoroughly. Cooking things from scratch, preparing litres of cooled down, fresh Rooibos Tea and storing it as alternative to drinking water. And I start to understand that this focus, without the permanent thought of what all the other things that I could just as well do at a given moment makes every moment longer, more intense, and simply more pleasant.

And I experience so many “success stories” – discoveries and incidents that seem so insignificant and ridiculous and yet add value or comfort to my life: Finding a thermos cup in a Chinese shop that finally allows me to take my own, home-made coffee to the office. Basically any conversation that I master in Portuguese. Figuring out how to find the guy who sells newspapers every Thursday when the new Zambeze is out. Discovering that I can receive FM-radio (that is, independent from Internet connection) on my tablet by simply attaching headphones as antenna. Opening my bathroom window at 5:30pm, realizing that I can watch the perfect sunset from there.

None of these things would have had any chance of making my day back in Vienna, or Eindhoven. But here they do. And that feels comforting, and relieving. Knowing that it was absolutely worth getting up in the morning just because of a sunset or a sunrise or a nice converstaion I had.

I call it the Discovery of Simplicity.

Sunset as I see it from my bathroom window

Sunset as I see it from my bathroom window

And the same spot at 5:15am

And the same spot at 5:15am