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Love in the Time of Malaria

“Sozinha.” Literally, it means “all alone” or “by myself/yourself” but here in Angola it is used to refer to someone who is “single”, aka, “not married.” As a 31-year-old female, it is quite peculiar for me to be “sozinha sem filhos” – single, with no kids. As a point of fact, I oftentimes forget how peculiar this is in some parts of the States (e.g. the South, where I grew up). I most certainly don’t act, or even look, my age, nor am I unhappy with the amazing opportunities that life has given me – opportunities that have in some part contributed to my singleness, but more often than not remind me of how absolutely lucky I have been. Here in Angola, it is just plain weird.

My first few weeks in Angola, I was amused at how upon first meeting somebody, the very first question asked was, “Está sozinha?” To which I would faithfully reply, “Yes, I’m all alone.” This was normally followed up by “Do you have a boyfriend?” and a request/plea to be my namorado (“boyfriend”). At times this exchange was accompanied by extremely amusing promises to which I would have a hard time holding in my laughter, much to the dismay of the promise givers, I’m sure. In terms of love, Angolans are quite direct. Much more direct than I am used to.

Last week, I gave a speech (in Portuguese!) to a group of university students about my background, my work at CAE, and my vision for the development of Africa. It was meant to be an inspirational speech, in which I emphasized my professional and educational accomplishments as a woman and spoke of the opportunities here in Angola that can be seized by those who work hard and take advantage of Angola’s growth and development.  During the Q&A, I was somewhat disappointed when the first questions all centered around whether I was married, had a boyfriend or had kids. Once the important facts were out in the open, the students began asking somewhat more relevant questions. It wasn’t until later however that I realized that not a single person asked about how I got to where I am or why I chose to come to Angola. I began to understand the implications of these questions (and lack thereof). It is said that in Angola, wealth is measured by the number of your children. Given the high infant mortality rate (~18%) and the cost of raising a child, number of children is a direct correlation to the wealth of a family. It is also a direct measurement of the quality of the woman. As my friend Leo was explaining to me, girls in Angola don’t really place that much emphasis on career or education, they just want to get married to someone who can buy them things and provide for them so they don’t have to work. A woman over the age of 25 who is still sozinha is considered to be unwanted. A good and beautiful woman probably goes like hot cakes.

This weekend as I was driving by Angolan favelas, watching kids and dogs play in the dirt and trash, I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States and not in a favela in Angola. Yet even in the favelas, or in a middle class home in the United States, family and love is central to life. It is what allows people to attain happiness despite their economic situations. “O amor é a vida.” In a country where death is a constant reminder of how precious life is, love is the most essential and basic ingredient.

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