The Richest Poor People



People dance after receiving folding beds at a distribution in Maputo, Mozambique, in mid-October 2015.


Tzu Chi volunteers in Mozambique sing when they feel sad or helpless. When they are happy, they sing too. They have made up a duet song with the simplest of lyrics: How much money did you have when you joined Tzu Chi? We had nothing, but we had love.

There are more than 2,300 of these volunteers in the nation, and over 90 percent come from families under Tzu Chi’s care. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they are all rich at heart.

How can poor people possibly help other poor people? They have done it. Let’s see how.


One day in mid-October 2015, a beautiful scene unfolded under the spring sun in Matendene, a district in Maputo, the national capital of Mozambique. Some local residents, either carrying infants or with young children in tow, were sitting on brown sand. They all smiled as, one by one, their names were called out. When they heard their names, they stood up and stepped forward to receive a multi-functional folding bed. Soon some of them, with the beds on their heads, began to sing and dance. People around them clapped and sang along. It was a joyous, festive scene—but it was no carnival. It was a distribution of beds to victims of a flood.

Standing floodwater

Situated on the southeastern coast of Africa, Mozambique occupies an area of 801,590 square kilometers (309,496 square miles), larger than Texas, the second largest state in the United States of America at 695,662 square kilometers. With only 26 million people in such a vast expanse, Mozambique ranks 185th (out of 245 countries) in the world in terms of population density.

Just as its population is sparse, so too is its wealth. Its per capita GDP of US$626 ranks 171st on the International Monetary Fund’s list of 186 nations.

The rainy season in that part of Africa (south of the equator) runs from December to February. Torrential rains in late 2014 and early 2015 caused severe floods in Mozambique and neighboring countries. Main roads and bridges in the central and northern parts of Mozam­bique were damaged as a result, and food shortages were reported in the central part of the nation. The floods claimed 159 human lives and affected more than 150,000 people. Though the nation’s southern part was less impacted, over a hundred families there were forced from their homes.

The 51 families in Matendene that received multi-functional beds lived in a low-lying area that did not have a sewer system. Flash floods quickly gathered in that area and found no outlets. Muddy water mixed with human waste spread to homes in the neighborhood. Some houses were as much as three quarters submerged. Victims were evacuated to a place about 330 feet away.

Some floodwater was still trapped in the area ten months later. “The water just sits there, and people can only wait for it to evaporate,” said Tzu Chi volunteer Denise Tsai (蔡岱霖). “It’s a potent breeding ground for insects like mosquitoes that can transmit diseases.”

Though it had been a while since their relocation, the new homes of the flood victims still had no water or electricity. They had to walk over ten minutes to fetch water. Their so-called “new homes”—improvised with reeds, metal sheets, and tarpaulins—provided only basic shelter from the elements.

Selina Uthue and her three children lived in a space of about 107 square feet. They often passed their nights in fear. “It gets windy at night,” Selina observed. “We worry that the wind may blow our roof off, so we sleep sitting up. We dare not lie down.” Occasionally, they heard stories of neighbors bitten by ants or killed by snakes. News like that only made them even more edgy.


A dhow sails into the port of Maputo. Located close to the southernmost tip of Mozambique, Maputo is the national capital and largest city of the country. Its harbor is the hub of commerce. The nation as a whole is economically weak, near the bottom of rankings by the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and it is in need of foreign aid.



Matola, a large industrial city near Maputo, was also hit by flooding. People were evacuated to temporary shelters, and in April 2015 the city government moved 70 of those families again to Mohalaz. Mohalaz and Matendene are two of the communities where Tzu Chi is providing on-going care.

Tribe chief Juliao Ussaca and her husband, Alberto Langa, had experienced flooding so many times over the years that they longed to build a more secure home of their own in Mohalaz. They both did seasonal work on a farm, and their incomes were unsteady. They spent almost all of their money on cement bricks at a cost of 15 Mozambican meticais (32 American cents) each. To make their dream come true sooner, they lived very frugally; sometimes a meal consisted of nothing more than a cup of hot sugary water. But still they had a long way to go before they could attain their goal.

On average, each Mozambican earns less than two dollars a day, just enough to buy a bottle of low-grade cooking oil and three pieces of bread. As if that weren’t bad enough, prices on the most commonly used daily necessities went up in the second half of 2015, which drew a lot of complaints.

There are people who are even worse off than the average. Some people scavenge at landfills all their lives for things that they may sell to recyclers. Some make their living selling low-priced drinks or snacks. These people can barely keep themselves fed or sheltered, and the floods just made their lives more difficult.


In a garbage dump in Hulene, near Maputo, a woman scavenges for things to sell. Seven hundred families rely on this landfill for their livelihoods. It is scheduled to shut down in 2017, and nobody really knows what impact that will have on these families.


Expanding ripples of love

After 470 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Mozambique won independence in 1975. Two years later, civil war erupted. It lasted 16 years, resulting in more than a million people dead and forcing 40 percent of the population to flee the country. The war also severely damaged the nation’s economy and basic infrastructure. Agricultural land lay in waste, contributing to massive famine.

Twenty-two years have passed since the end of the civil war. Because the country is rich in mineral deposits and natural gas, it has enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years. However, the influx of wealth, while making some people wealthy, has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the economic food chain. They still suffer from poverty, disease, and illiteracy, just as their forebears did.

Denise Tsai, originally from Taiwan, has lived in Mozambique since 2008. She became a Tzu Chi volunteer in 2012. She has been in and out of many communities to provide what help she can to local people in her adopted home. “Five hundred years of unrest has made habitual skeptics out of Mozambicans,” Tsai said, drawing on her observations. “They’re more liable to envy and don’t trust other people, and they lack a sense of mutual help and cooperation.”

She continued: “Life has been too harsh for them. They’ve been too poor for too long. I can understand why they think only of their own interests.” That is why whenever she and other volunteers go into communities, they share with residents the ideas of altruism, mutual help, and gratitude—things that make one rich spiritually.

Fellow volunteers Victoria Manhique, Rebecca Mabunda, Paula Malendze, and Celeste Alfredo concurred with her assessment of fellow Mozam­bicans. They have all been volunteers for at least two years. They shared what they once saw in a flooded community to illustrate their point: “When we visited that flooded community, people were just sitting around waiting for help. We weren’t surprised. In fact, we used to be just like them. We felt sorry for ourselves, and we thought that we were so poor that we could take others’ help for granted.”

As they went on to clean up the neighborhood and ask the residents how they were doing and whether or not they needed help, some asked them in puzzlement: Who are you? Where are you from? Why did you come here to help us?

The volunteers answered their questions, and they invited the residents to join in their effort. But their invitations largely fell on deaf ears. Rebecca Mabunda calmly said, “We didn’t force the issue. Now whenever we go into communities to provide food, make home visits, or hold information sessions about Tzu Chi, we tell people about the ideal of Great Love taught by Master Cheng Yen. We hope to help people to gradually become familiar with our foundation and our work.”

Volunteer Ana Maria Mandlate lives close to the Matendene disaster zone. She told us how she and her fellow volunteers had been sharing with people about Tzu Chi: “We just tell people our own stories. We say that we’re as poor as they are, but when we help others, we feel very happy. And when these people reach out to help others, they too feel happier and more content.”

The volunteers are gradually making an impact with their words and actions. “After the flood, many aid organizations showed up at our village, but only Tzu Chi volunteers have stayed with us throughout,” said Americo Guerrugo, a tribal chief who has joined Tzu Chi. “I was impressed, so I told my fellow villagers we should follow their example and give love to people. When our neighbors are in need, we should donate money or do things to help them.”

The story of Selina Uthue, the mother of three, is a good example of the power of love and benevolence. Her husband fell ill after the flood, but they could not afford a doctor. Their neighbors chipped in to help pay for his medical treatment. He got better, but he later had a relapse. This time the neighbors had no more money to help, so they requested help from the tribal chief and a local government official. As a result, he again survived.

Though Selina’s husband eventually succumbed to his disease, the care that her neighbors and others had shown them was not lost on her. She decided to put aside her grief and volunteer.

With the circle of love rippling out like this, there are now almost 80 volunteers in Matendene and Mohalaz. They provide food in communities, visit needy people, and hold information sessions about Tzu Chi. The more they give of themselves, the happier they are and the more they smile.


Singing and dancing, a procession of volunteers delivers a folding bed to an elderly recipient.


Learning as they go

Responding to the flooding has taught volunteers in Mozambique a hands-on lesson in disaster response. Many homes were inundated, including those of many volunteers who live in the city. After they quickly took care of things in their homes, they began to contact other volunteers to get a more complete picture of the damage. They heard tragic reports, like that of an old man living alone and sleeping in a wet, moldy bed; a physically challenged mother raising six kids alone, helpless to do anything about the standing water in her home; and several aid recipients whose reed houses had collapsed under the weight of rain.

“We really wanted to help,” volunteers pointed out, “but we had no experience in such matters. We were a little overwhelmed.”

They decided to meet and talk it over, but traffic was severely disrupted due to the flooding and bus service was curtailed or suspended. Therefore, it took them three to four hours just to reach the meeting place.

At the meeting, Denise Tsai divided the volunteers into groups and guided them to discuss the issues at hand. She asked them to put themselves into the victims’ shoes: If they were the victims, what help would they need the most at the moment? After brainstorming, the volunteers decided to carry out the following tasks: forming groups to assess the damage at different locations; visiting homes and helping to clean up; providing food for victims; and establishing lists of recipients to receive packages of daily necessities in future distributions.

“The brainstorming helped bring out their ability to organize. They even launched a drive for donated clothes and other goods for distributions,” Tsai said.

Tsai worked alongside them. They went to flooded areas again and again. Overexposure to dampness, stench, and pathogens brought back her asthma. She even contracted malaria. “I felt chilled to the bone; the layers of clothes and covers just didn’t help,” she recalled. “I felt weak all over, and I was hospitalized for several days. Even after I was discharged, I had to rest at home for several weeks.”

Several other volunteers experienced itchy skin, diarrhea, and headaches. Fortunately they all recovered after treatment or rest.

Victoria Manhique and a few other core volunteers took it upon themselves to handle the disaster relief work when Tsai was recovering from malaria. They said to each other, “Mama Denise [as Tsai is fondly referred to among the volunteers] is sick. We shouldn’t rely on her for everything like before. We should do things ourselves. Let’s not be afraid.”

They organized volunteers and visited communities to distribute mosquito nets, water purification pills, and packages of daily necessities. They captured their activities in words, photos, and videos. Computer-savvy volunteers periodically posted the progress of the flood relief effort on the Tzu Chi Mozam­bique Facebook page. They also spelled out the help they needed. The information prompted local businessmen to donate goods and money to help the cause.

In May 2015, Tzu Chi held a Buddha Day ceremony in Mohalaz. The dignified rituals and pious prayers during the ceremony helped settle the hearts of many local residents. “All ten people in my family were there,” said resident Zeferino Ceembi. “We felt respected and loved all around. We were moved.”

Calisto Cossa, the mayor of Mohalaz, was present as well, accompanied by his wife, Alice. They knew what the volunteers had done for flood victims, and they identified with Tzu Chi ideals. They offered a flat tract of land on high ground for the foundation to build a new village for flood victims.

When volunteers held the distribution of folding beds in Matendene, everyone there—volunteers and recipients—knew that in the grand scheme of things a mere bed would be of limited help to the victims. But they also knew that the beds were a symbol of love and care from other people. Some aid recipients have been transformed from helpless victims to happy and content volunteers. This transformation has brought them joy, something that no material goods can ever provide quite so well.


Denise Tsai and fellow volunteers visit a flood victim, an elderly woman who lives alone. They later delivered a folding bed to replace her wet, moldy bed.


The Tzu Chi Home

In late October 2015, a hundred volunteer leaders gathered at what local volunteers call the “Tzu Chi Home” in Mahotas, Maputo, to attend a two-day training course.

With tarpaulins, wood, and reeds, they improvised a structure that would provide shade just outside a storage warehouse. The seating for the course extended from inside the warehouse to outside under the temporary shade. Scores of mango trees in the open ground provided ample shade for group activities, such as discussion sessions during which volunteers shared what they learned in the training classes. Close by was a vegetable garden which offered up pumpkin leaves and cabbage for the attendees’ meals. Volunteers made a fire with some wood, and soon the aromas of smoke, rice, and food permeated the air.

The site used to belong to a Taiwanese businessman in Mozambique, Chen Chun-fa (陳春發). He witnessed what foundation volunteers were doing and identified with their ideals, so he donated the land and everything on it to the foundation in 2014. Thus the Tzu Chi Home came into being.

The tract had been left idle for about four years before the donation, so it was overgrown with weeds. Volunteers cleared those away but kept the 67 mango trees. They paid flood victims to make bricks to build a wall. They started the vegetable garden, built restrooms, and installed water and electricity. They also put in four empty cargo containers as holding areas for distribution goods.

Before the training course, the new site had been used mostly as a venue for volunteer meetings, aid distributions, Buddha Day ceremonies, and year-end blessing ceremonies. When volunteers decided to hold a training camp there, they carefully planned everything out themselves: physical layout, preparation of teaching aids and equipment, curriculum design, faculty, food service, and sleeping quarters. They really wanted to make it work well.

It was the very first training course that had been conducted, from beginning to end, entirely by volunteers in Mozambique. Denise Tsai herself had little experience in these matters when she first joined Tzu Chi in 2012, to say nothing of the first few local volunteers. Back then, volunteers from Durban, South Africa, would drive 900 kilometers (560 miles) to Mozambique to share with them how they carried out Tzu Chi work in their own communities. Between August 2012 and August 2013, they traveled to Mozambique nine times for this purpose. Volunteers in Mozambique also went (and still go) to Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa, and to Swaziland to attend volunteer training courses there, but the Mozambican volunteers had never organized a similar event on their own.

Celeste Alfredo, who joined Tzu Chi three years ago, helped design the curriculum for this inaugural training event. “There were too few slots on the teams that went abroad for training, so many people missed out on those,” she said. “With the experience we’ve gained from our counterparts in South Africa and Swaziland, we can now finally hold our own training course. We hope that more volunteers here will be able to learn more about Tzu Chi ideals.”

During the training camp, five cadre volunteers shared their own stories and what they had learned in Tzu Chi: Rebecca Mabunda and Victoria Manhique talked about the ten Tzu Chi precepts; Paula Malendze talked about the karmic law of cause and effect and forgiveness; Ana Maria Mandlate spoke on the power of changing mindsets; and finally Celeste Alfredo advocated vegetarianism.

The attendees also learned Tzu Chi etiquette for everyday living. They shared stories of their care recipients, and they watched videos on the origin, history, and work of Tzu Chi.

The first day of the course ended at nine thirty at night. The volunteers had originally planned to sleep on the ground, but it just so happened that there were folding beds in storage at the time, waiting to be distributed in the future, so they decided to use them for the night.

They hung a few lamps on the mango trees. Then they set up their beds under the trees and hung mosquito nets from tree branches overhead. Voilà, they had comfortable quarters for the night!

Indistinct noise from a bar not far away provided a stark contrast to the serene atmosphere at the Tzu Chi Home. Lying in bed, the volunteers chatted and joked about the unique bedtime experience. They said that they would try to hold events in the future that would last a few more nights. After the enriching day, the volunteers fell sound asleep under the starry sky.


A child sleeps on a folding bed that the family had just received in a distribution.


Love in a song

Mozambican volunteers love to sing. They sing when they are moved, happy, sad, or helpless. They sing to send blessings, to express gratitude, and to pray. Many of their songs are church songs. They simply change the lyrics on the fly to fit the circumstances. They can often come up with a song in just a few seconds.

They have made up a duet song with the simplest of lyrics: How much money did you have when you joined Tzu Chi? We had nothing, but we had love.

Love can truly work wonders.

Tsai summed up the growth of Tzu Chi in Mozambique: “I used to wonder how poor people could help other poor people, but they’ve really done it.”



Volunteers from 20 communities sit under mango trees at the Tzu Chi Home in Mahotas, participating in a two-day training course.

The course included a session about the earliest period in the history of Tzu Chi, when volunteers used bamboo coin banks to save money to help the needy. Fifty years later, the volunteers in Mozambique are doing almost the same thing under remarkably similar circumstances. Like their forerunners in Taiwan, the Mozambican volunteers are saving their small change to help people in need. When pooled together, even small trickles can become mighty rivers.



Isn’t it romantic?” sighed Denise Tsai as she looked at training course participants sleeping under mango trees on the grounds of the Tzu Chi Home, with mosquito nets hung to keep insects at bay.

The scene reminded her of a previous experience. In 2014, Mozambican volunteers went to Durban, South Africa, for a volunteer training course. On the way back, they arrived at the border too late and found it closed. So they camped beside a gas station in South Africa. They built a fire for warmth, talked and sang, and then they fell asleep peacefully under the starry sky. Though that happened more than a year ago, the sense of spiritual enrichment that these volunteers felt was all the same.


Spring 2016