My Friend Sergio: A Rags to Richness Story

Sergio has been a dear friend since the late 90s. We have visited him on multiple occasions in Mozambique, and he has stayed with us in our home in Spokane as well. Each of my children has met and spent time with him to the point that he is a welcome family member. In this post, I will outline some of his story.

Sergio in Spokane, WA - 2011
Sergio (Spokane Valley, WA – 2011)

Elisabeth and I met Sergio in Mozambique during our stay in 1997-1998. We were working for Iris Ministries at the Machava children’s center for orphans and other children whose parents didn’t have the resources to care for them adequately. Our work wasn’t particularly romantic, just buying supplies for the center (sometimes driving to South Africa and bringing them back across the border). Essentially we helped with the day-to-day logistics of what it takes to run a camp of 100-150 children. I say camp because the children were staying in large army tents at the time, about 12 children to a tent. The best part of our job, however, was hanging out with the children, building relationships, and serving as a role model (I realize this is scary in my case) or, as in the case with Elisabeth, taking the time to sit with one of the teens and teaching them to read (in Portuguese none the less). Sergio was one of the teens we got to know.

Hanging out with Sergio (Machava, Mozambique - 1998)
Elisabeth and I Hanging Out with Sergio (Machava, Mozambique – 1998)

When Sergio came to the Machava center, he wasn’t an orphan, but his mom died when he was eight, and his dad, who was an alcoholic at the time, had attempted to commit suicide. His dad felt inadequate taking care of his three children, and the extended family let him know he was a failure. Without anyone caring for him and his siblings ( two brothers and a sister), the children often lived on the street searching for food.  When his extended family learned of the shambles of their home life, they split the children up amongst his aunts and uncles. However, Sergio’s experience was that living with a family that didn’t want him was worse than living on the street,  so he chose the street. Similarly, when he had the opportunity to move to the Chiango government orphanage at the age of 10, his experience was miserable enough that the temptation to return to the street was a constant threat. By the time we met him, shortly after the Machava center had opened, he was about 16-years-old.

Parenthetically, Sergio’s experience in choosing to live on the street even with the opportunity of a children’s center was not unusual. Moving to a center was rough. Even though life came with three meals a day and provided shelter, it also limited a child’s freedom, providing structure and discipline that they didn’t always appreciate. It is a tough transition, and usually, we found that the children living on the street will run away from the center 3-4 times, each with a more extended stay at the center, before really deciding to stick it out and make the center their home.

Sergio stood out to us. By the time we left Mozambique, he had completed all the Machava center offered in schooling. Having started school at the age of 10, he repeated 5th  grade a second time, not because he failed, but because there was no 6th grade available. When you consider that the average Mozambiquan adult at that time had only one year of education (meaning they hadn’t learned basic multiplication nor basic sentence structure), 5th grade is still remarkable.

Before Elisabeth and I left Mozambique, we decided that one way we could continue to give was to provide Sergio an opportunity to continue his schooling. Rather than taking 5th grade a  third time ( solely because there was no 6th grade offered at his current school), we went with him to look at the various schooling options, and together we selected a private school in Maputo. The school’s location meant that Sergio would have to walk and take public transportation to school. 

We wouldn’t just be paying for his schooling, but everything that went beyond what the Machava center provided, including school supplies, a school uniform, books, transportation money, etc. We sat down with him and created a budget, and showed him how he could track the money he spent to ensure he would have sufficient funds. When he tried on his school uniform, we taught him how to tie his tie. (He mentioned this during my trip in December 2021 as I was making a rare appearance in a tie for his wedding. He offered to help me.)

Several factors led us to support Sergio throughout his academic journey.  They included his level of integrity, his commitment to bettering himself, and the fact that he wasn’t looking to escape Mozambique if he ever could. Instead, he believed that he could be successful in Mozambique and, therefore, any investment we made in him would grow as he influenced other people.

Continuing with a private school wasn’t trivial for Sergio. Transportation to and from school was difficult. The total commute would take Sergio 2.5 hours each way, frequently landing him back at the center after 11 PM. The attempt at using a bike failed soon after it started because the bike was stolen. By the time he arrived at his first class each day, he smelled from sweat and travel, and his classmates rejected him because of his seemingly poor hygiene and his street Portuguese. He decided to shower when he arrived, but this meant that he missed most of the lecture in his first class. Fortunately, his first-period teacher took the time to ask Sergio what was happening.  She accompanied Sergio on his commute to understand the challenges it presented. Her husband brought extra books and class material to the center so that whatever Sergio missed, he could study at home. A different teacher provided insight into the school’s (“proper”) culture to help him fit in. The key, she instructed him, was to do well and study hard. His classmates would respect him for his intelligence. Indeed, things improved significantly once he fit in more. After two years, however, rather than continuing in the same private school, he elected to find a different school for high school that had an easier commute. Not only was the commute significantly more manageable, but he also didn’t have to deal with the snobbery of his classmates nearly as much. 

We went back and visited Sergio in 2001 with our 1-year-old son, Benjamin. It was wonderful to see him and observe firsthand how his discipline and grit won out over the challenges. Despite all the difficulties, Sergio was thriving and contemplating what to do upon graduating from high school. Still, challenges persisted. For the remainder of high school, he ended up contracting malaria, and it took him out of school for months at a time when it flared up – totaling 1-2 years. Regardless, Sergio persisted and graduated high school in 2006 at the age of 25. A tremendous accomplishment!

I revisited Sergio in 2010 along with my then 10-year-old son. Sergio was living in his own house, which often had guests. It was such a joy and honor to have someone who previously lived on the streets of Mozambique now hosting for me. We also visited his dad and uncle, both of whom he had restored relations. 

The colleges in Maputo were exclusive to the children of government officials and those with wealth, and it was hard to figure out a path forward for Sergio’s education. He tried to enter college for a couple of years but never get acceptance from the schools in Maputo, Mozambique. Eventually, he took a bus two days North to the city of Pemba (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Pemba,+Mozambique) and entered college with tourism as his focus. Like many students in the US, his interest waned, however, so he switched to IT for a short while but found it incomprehensible.

Parenthetically, it was at this time he also purchased his first car, a black Nissan Skyline – albeit without a windshield. Funnily enough, when Elisabeth and I lived in Mozambique we drove a Nissan 4X4 that also lacked a windshield for a time. We named the car Lazarus because of how many accidents it had been in and been resurrected.

Concurrent with his college education, Sergio decided to join the staff with Iris Ministries at a new children’s center also in Pemba. In his job, he was responsible for the myriad of logistics required for an organization with multiple children centers, lots of cross-cultural challenges, along with all the Mozambican legal bureaucracy that was necessary for a successful NGO (non-governmental organization) to navigate. In this new role, Sergio became the face of Iris Ministries in all government interactions regarding licenses, labor, imports, purchasing property, building codes, etc. Sergio oversaw much of the effort. However, a massive bonus from the career is that it afforded him insight into the importance of understanding the law.  Then, this same insight spurred him on to the study of law, and he switched majors one more time. Pursuing not only a bachelor’s degree but also his master’s.

I already mentioned that school is far from trivial. Government-required tests can get delayed for no known reason and have no known reschedule date. This cancellation can happen to such an extreme that you miss the opportunity to start class the following year, and no accommodations are made. Class may or may not occur daily, and even what day class will start for the quarter is anyone’s guess. Transportation is always an issue. In addition, books just aren’t available and, when they were, the cost is exorbitant. Portuguese fluency is a constant struggle since prior schooling doesn’t adequately prepare most students for college-level reading and writing. If that isn’t enough, teachers expect bribes for good grades (or even a passing grade), either in the form of money or sexual favors, and without them, you can’t continue schooling. At this time, Sergio has been waiting for more than two years for his final legal practicum to be scheduled, but the professor is unwilling to get around to it. Similarly, his wife, who has completed medical school, doesn’t have any place to proceed to residency, and there is no information as to when that will be resolved.  After waiting a year, the previous year’s med-school students are still in limbo.

Sergio has been an entrepreneur for a long time now. Hanna and I noticed this during our visit in 2013. Elisabeth and I seed-funded his first rental property, via which he purchased the land and built a house. He began buying and developing properties whenever he could with that initial start. He had lots of experience with how to do this from his time with Iris Ministries and the children’s center, so he was confident he was doing it correctly and knew how to avoid the “squatter’s rule” by which people could “steal” property by living on it for a period. As an investment, purchasing property was a critical way to fight rampant inflation because the property value also increased. In addition, when he owned property, the money wasn’t liquid, so he didn’t feel obligated to give it to family and friends whenever they asked. For the same reasons, when he had money, he would build, even if it was only a partial build. (This is not to say he wasn’t generous, but instead that it prevented him from being taken advantage of.) The obvious benefit of owning property was that he could build a house for rent. Renting was especially good when the economy was booming – which happened from 2007-2017 because of the discovery of oil off the coast. However, even when the oil companies pulled out because of terrorism from ISIS, Sergio was fortunate to find renters. 

Perhaps the most entrepreneurial was to start Sergio’s ventures. When my daughter, Abigail and I visited him in Pemba in 2016, he showed us his carwash business, which was on a thoroughfare through town.  He also had a Mozambican “pool hall,” which was nothing fancier than a covered area (open on the sides) with a pool table and bar. Another one of his businesses was a water truck that delivered fresh water to people’s houses, filling up their rooftop water tanks, so they had water coming out their taps. However, the most enterprising is his recent purchase of an old well-digging rig.  It was fantastic to see his equipment and how he was adapting and moving parts from old trucks to increase his well-digging equipment’s capacity.  A new full-capacity rig runs $100-$200k, and it won’t surprise me if Sergios figures out how to assemble one from parts for a fraction of the cost.

Sergio describes his water delivery and well-digging equipment (Pemba, Mozambique – December 2021)

By now, you should have a clear idea that Sergio is exceptional. He works long hours. He is also highly personable and aware of local customs and regulations, treating those in power with the respect they expect to not tread on anyone’s toes. He is masterful at negotiating between conflicting parties and ensuring that bureaucracy is followed when necessary. However, the greatest blessing is that he’s also a great friend, and I love him dearly.

Visiting Sergio’s House (Pemba, Mozambique – 2015)

When I visited Sergio in December 2021, I was reminded again of how remarkable it is that he had escaped poverty; in fact, he was wealthy compared to his neighbors and many of his fellow companions from the center. Furthermore, the wealth is more than just financial stability; he also has incredible relationships. Up until this recent trip when there was no one else in his home right before he got married, I always stayed with Sergio when he welcomed others into his home who didn’t have a stable place to stay. His story isn’t just about rags to riches. Even more than that, it is a life richly blessing others. Since Elisabeth and I were married nearly 30 years ago, we have devoted our income to philanthropy (http://intellitect.com/philanthropy), investing in projects that provide wells to hundred, free slaves, build clinics, establish laws to prevent persecution, reduce gender-based violence, and many other projects that fight injustice and poverty around the world.  However, of all these investments, I suspect there is nothing that compares to the relatively small financial contribution we made in Sergio’s life that he multiplied hundreds of times over. And, even more so, is the blessing that has come back to us. Sergio is a remarkable man making the world a better place for so many. He’s a dear friend that I love deeply, and my family has adopted him as a son and brother.

One Response to My Friend Sergio: A Rags to Richness Story

  1. Anthea Michaelis says:

    Amazing story. I knew bits of it but actually very little. Thanks for sharing. I sometimes want to call you a dark horse as so much goes on in your life and I know so little. You truly are amazing.

    On Sun, 9 Jan 2022, 5:36 am Mark Michaelis’ Weblog, wrote:

    > markmichaelis posted: ” Sergio has been a dear friend since the late 90s. > We have visited him on multiple occasions in Mozambique, and he has stayed > with us in our home in Spokane as well. Each of my children has met and > spent time with him to the point that he is a welcome fam” >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: