I was halfway around the world before it really set in. The decision I had made was completely out of character, yet here I was. For months I sat at the edge of my seat, butterflies in my stomach and excitement rattling my bones.
We were at the Mozambican border control before it felt like I was really in Africa. The building was rotting, the signs were faded and everything was distressed. The foreign language buzzed around me. Everyone spoke Portuguese instead of my native English. Once outside of the customs building, the air was smoky and the streets were cluttered with garbage. Men and women were pleading with me to buy what they were selling.
All of that changed in a matter of seconds. Soon we were speeding past the Mozambican countryside. The smoke had cleared, and although there were still people selling things on the streets, they smiled and waved at us, pulling at my heartstrings. I couldn’t bear to blink! There was just too much to see. I hadn’t been in Mozambique for even an hour, but my heart burst at the seams with my newfound love for Africa.
We met the women first thing the next morning.
Although language was a huge barrier, I could feel a special bond forming. I knew that I had so much more to learn from them than they could ever possibly learn from me. After meeting the sweet women, we walked to the women’s center and found a surprise awaiting us.
The center had uneven dirt and gravel floors. The trusses were weak, supported by only thin pieces of wood. It looked like the roof would collapse at any minute. With no tools and no experience, we started doing whatever we could to further the project. The floor needed to be prepared for cement, so we used our feet to distribute dirt evenly across the floor. We then used 2-by-4s to pack it down and make it level.
That night, tired and dirty, we all came together for a group meeting with one clear message: We were going to finish this women’s center.
In the days following, we got our hands on shovels, rakes and other basic tools and worked until dusk almost every night. We did everything from laying cement to stabling the trusses to painting every inch of the building.
Sometimes I got discouraged, wondering if I was even being helpful, or if I was just dead weight, but I couldn’t deny the feeling of absolute joy I experienced every minute I was with those sweet women. They would hold our hands and give us hugs and share everything they had with us. It was impossible to be sad when I was with them. Their smiles were infectious, and I hoped I had the same effect on them.
On the morning of the opening ceremony, I walked through the door of the newly completed center, and my heart beat a little faster as I watched the women, the children and my fellow students celebrate what the women’s center meant for all of us. It was exhilarating.
I have never been more exhausted or filthy or sore in my entire life, but I have never been happier. The women of Mozambique taught me more about the beauty of life, love, friendship and gratitude in a few short weeks than I would have ever learned by myself. However, I think one of the most important lessons I learned from both the women and the experience of building a women’s center was that there is beauty no matter where you go, as long as you create it.