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Towards the end of our time in Mozambique, my wife and I had arranged to meet a friend in Metangula, a small strip of a town on the shores of Lake Niassa. After my wife had finished working a practicum in Beira’s central hospital, we moved through the country as tourists. Our friend, a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a local school, had invited us to visit her. We arrived on a hot dusty afternoon, falling out of the crowded bus tired, and with sand in our hair and teeth. There had been no rain for weeks and the fine red dust thrown up from the roads covered everything and everyone.
Our friend’s address in hand, we made our way through the chicken-scratched town. Long meandering furrows were carved into the dirt road by sluices of greywater running from each house. Loud, bass notes reverberated into the ether, pumped out by some hidden speaker. It was a common noise, much more common than birds, which I rarely heard. Still, the echoing din made my temples ache.
The address was useless to us in the confusing maze of numberless houses and nameless streets. In need of directions, we stopped a man as he passed us by. He wasn’t sure what to make of the address, but as we knew our friend lived near a bakery, we asked if there were any nearby. In Portuguese, the words for bakery and battery, padaria and bateria, have a very similar inflection and in English, the conversation went something like this:
“Excuse me, could you tell us where is the nearest bakery?”
“The nearest battery?”
“No, a bakery.”
“Batteries? I don’t know.”
“No. A bakery. Bread.”
“Bread and batteries?”
We thanked the man and gave up. After a few more attempts at directions (limited to “Excuse me, where does the white lady live?”), we found the house, a large brick building surrounded by a metal gate. A wide door was ajar and we pushed our way through into a dirt courtyard. On the steps of a house, three women, two old and one young, were pounding maize in large wooden bowls. In the shade of a scrawny tree, several children played inside a tractor tire. They all sat motionless at our arrival, the women holding their pestles high, the children gripping the tire rubber with their scaly hands. With the thumping bass notes as accompaniment, we introduced ourselves and said who we were looking for.
“She’s gone,” the oldest women said. “Not here.”
We had missed our friend by only a few days and the women couldn’t tell us where she’d gone. Her quiet departure was surprising, but after a month of travel and the inevitable delays and setbacks, we were becoming accustomed to the unexpected. We asked if we might stay in the meantime, to wait for our friend. This elicited an indifferent shrug from the old woman, who commanded the girl. Rising just as indifferently, the girl rose and went into the house. She returned a moment later with a large key and unlocked a small metal door leading into a separate house off the courtyard.
The house was tidy and clean, the kitchen well stocked. Two large rooms were completely unfurnished, and we avoided them. In the third, a bedroom, a single white sheet was spread over the bed. A knotted mosquito net hung from the low ceiling. A plastic table, the only other piece of furniture in the house, was stacked high with an assortment of things – a pile of clothes, a clunky water purifier, an American Vogue magazine, a first-aid kit. There were also notebooks and teaching supplies – the textbooks indicated that she had been teaching chemistry. In a separate pile were Peace Corps documents, leaflets with names like How to Survive in Mozambique, and Things to Do in Rural Places When You Are Bored. Underneath the bed was a pair of dainty shoes paired neatly together.
The normality of the scene was disturbed by the graffiti on the walls. Dozens of phrases and quotations had been written on the concrete walls in our friend’s hand. Some were so high that she would have needed to stand on the table to write them. Most were from the Bible, others were silly inspirational quotes. All of them were large and dark enough that, sitting on the bed, they could be easily read.
Tired and sore from the long bus ride and the terrible midsummer sun, we lay on the bed to rest. My wife was soon asleep. I tried to close my eyes but the noise of the music pounding through the window kept me awake. I lay on the bed, sweating, reading my way around the room and remembering our month.
For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his purpose. Philippians 2:13
In Beira, we stayed on the edge of the affluent Macuti district. My wife had organized the flat, as it was close to her work at the central hospital. Like all the other buildings on the street, ours was surrounded by a wall topped with a long curl of razor wire. Unlike those large, spacious buildings, there was no guard. The last one had been fired after he sold the dogs which belonged to the flat’s owner.
In the summer of 2016, when we arrived in Mozambique, no cargo ships had been able to dock for weeks. Supply routes to Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Botswana had been cut. Guerillas had gunned down buses on the roads heading inland and north. Trucks had been burned at the Malawi border and buses on their way to Gorongosa National Park had been shot to pieces. News of these events came in dribs and drabs. Sometimes we heard about them days after they had happened, like the discovery of a mass grave where 120 people had been buried after being executed.
Crabmen and fishermen appeared almost every morning at our building, announcing themselves by rattling the front gate. They carried scales and kilo bags of flour to prove their accuracy, but we always used our own bag of flour just in case they had tampered with theirs, which they never had.
Every day my wife went to the hospital and spent her days moving between beds in the internal medicine ward. Most of the patients had HIV, tuberculosis or malaria, and most had come too late for anything to be done. The supplies were limited – one pair of rubber gloves a day, one protective mask per doctor and the risk of infection was very high. Many of the doctors were Cubans doctors on humanitarian missions and they took the problems in stride.
While my wife was at work, I prowled along the streets and the beaches. Most days I walked as far as the Macuti shipwreck, then turned around and walked towards downtown where another rusted and rotting shipwreck abutted a small market. Between the rows of tarp-covered stalls were mounds of tiny, silver fish, rows of aligned plastic sandals and stacks of colorful cloth. A lanky man standing beside a large pile of mattresses and wooden bed frames wore a shirt that read You Snooze, You Lose. Occasionally, someone would show interest and the salesman would drop a mattress into the dirt and plonking down to flaunt the springiness. One day, he sold a twin-sized mattress to an old man who hoisted the thing onto his back and, gripping the bottom edge with the tips of his fingers, sauntered off into the distance.
On the way back home, I would stop at a food stall near the hospital and drink beer while young boys loitered nearby, waiting to collect the bottles. They declined my offers to buy them beer but accepted soda and candies. I always waited for them to ask me for money, to begin begging, but they never did. They were much more interested in the empty bottles than they were in me.
At home, Deolinda ruled the roost. She never spoke but did plenty of lip pouting and eye rolling. She did all the cooking, cleaning, washing and scowling. Whether she was sluicing clothes in a large plastic tub or sweeping with the thin cornstalk broom, her sunken, dour face never changed. After placing the plates of boiled chicken or fried fish and rice on the table, she would listlessly mop the floor before sitting on the couch to watch TV. Her obvious displeasure with us was unnerving, but there was nothing she would allow to be done to help her. I tried to be friendly, but she rebuffed my smiles and stuttering offers for her to sit with us. Without my wanting it, my friendliness became pity and then resentment. Through it all, Deolinda retained the sneer on her smooth, shiny face.
At night, we sat out on the caged veranda until the mosquitos drove us inside. Lying hot and sticky on the bed with the slatted wooden shutters pulled tight, we listened to the intermittent dull pops and guessed aloud whether they were backfiring motorbikes or gunshots.
One morning, the taps coughed and gagged, shooting out only hot air. There had been no rain for weeks and the entire city had gone dry. Deolinda didn’t seem to notice and went on cooking our meals in spattering palm oil. At the same time, the hospital ran out of oxygen tanks. The front page of the newspaper ran the headline Não Agua, Não Oxigênio. No Water, No Oxygen. The same paper wrote about the ongoing drought and impending food shortage. When I read such things, I felt extreme guilt for not only being another mouth to feed but someone in the small class of people able to buy the food I ate. I felt as though I was playing a part in producing the misery I saw around me.
Be present. Be intentional.
My wife woke up wanting a swim. She was hot to the touch – everything in the house was – and I was happy to leave the cloying atmosphere. I had hoped our friend would have appeared but we were still alone. In the courtyard, the women and children were gone. We picked our way downhill to the lakeside, sidestepping potholes and little piles of shit positioned like tiny, brown inuksuit guiding the way to the water.
When I had imagined myself in Africa, I had usually pictured myself alone, usually overlooking a vast plain scattered with giraffes and elephants, maybe a baobab tree or two. But I was rarely alone, and certainly never felt that way. On the shore of this remote, far-flung lake there were no fewer than fifty people in sight. On the soggy meadows, groups of boys were playing football – I counted at least three different games – on what was used twice a week as an airstrip. On the beach, motley groups of young men prowled along, passing liter bottles of soda and glass jugs of sugar cane liquor.
While my wife swam, I sat on a rock and watched a fisherman trawling from a dugout canoe. The canoe was so narrow it seemed a miracle of physics that it kept upright. The stringy man aboard was dragging a mosquito net through the water, pulling the fine mesh aboard and dumping masses of tiny silver fish into his deck. Kneeling, he picked the fish over, throwing overboard small bits of plastic that he had collected.
I had brought my friend’s guide Things to Do in Rural Places When You Are Bored. I flipped through the advice: send children on scavenger hunts, plant a tree, find the oldest person in town. I closed the pamphlet and put it into my pocket.
In the water, separated by a large rocky outcrop, were men and women. The men were bathing, some wearing shorts, others nude, their shining buttocks gleaming in the sun. Occasionally, one would grab a passing plastic jug, plunge it into the water and douse himself. On the other side, the women washed clothes. They drowned the clothes in the lake, wrung them out and slapped them against stones along the shore. A massive volume of soapsuds was being produced and the bubbles swept into the rocks where they accumulated into a giant frog’s nest of white fluff. Where there was no soap covering the water, it looked grey and greasy. There was garbage floating everywhere and knocking against the rocks on the shoreline – plastic bottles, mostly, but also sports balls, pieces of broken boats, rotten wood.
There were occasions when the garbage in Mozambique was overwhelming. Conservation workers threw candy wrappers from jeeps moving through town, restaurants were encircled by bottle caps, plastic cutlery, and chicken feathers. Children watched their parents toss plastic containers on the ground and then copied them. In the beginning, I set myself a mission of putting my trash in the bin. But there were no bins and I found myself walking around all day with bulging pockets full of papers and plastic wrappers. Soon I was throwing my garbage on the ground like everyone else.
In Lichinga, a city near the Tanzanian border, the mounds of garbage were set alight every evening. The elderly gathered around the heat while youths dared each other to jump over flaming pits. The acidic smoke was invisible in the dark but in the morning the pile was still smoldering and everything was covered in a fine coating of ash.
We are so far from home but we’re so happy
We typically went about the country in small minibuses called chapas. They went everywhere, taking everyone and everything to all corners of the country. Refitted with extra rows of seats, they could hold eighteen people comfortably, but it was abnormal for fewer than twenty to squeeze in. Luggage was lashed on the roof and was quickly plastered with the fine red dust of the roads.
Traveling between the tea plantation town of Gurué and Lichinga, a distance of 500 kilometers, took some twelve hours. On this particular ride, my wife was able to snag the enviable front seat while I was consigned to the back and the crush of twenty other passengers.
Our driver bore a striking resemblance to the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. He drove erratically, swerving from this side and then to that, and refused to open the windows. It kept the dust out, but without air, the bus became a musty hotbox. From my position, I could see that half the dials on the dashboard were broken. The oil temperature never rose above 0°C and the fuel gauge jumped fitfully from empty to full and back. Somewhere in the Namuli Mountains, we sputtered to a stop on an empty and dusty stretch of road. At first I assumed our fuel was dry but in reality, a bridge had collapsed. The growing lineup of traffic was being slowly led over a makeshift road through the tangle of bush. Nefertiti went off to buy a sack bag of charcoal, leaving us passengers locked inside. Our moving and groaning shook the chapa’sframe and only when someone was able to break the door handle did we tumble out. As a unit, we ran into the bush to relieve ourselves behind leafy trees.
A crew was already beginning construction of a new bridge and there were several Chinese foremen sauntering around the site. They wore clean overalls with the names of their company imprinted across their shoulder blades. The workers, Mozambican to a man, wore ragged t-shirts and jeans.
When our turn to circumnavigate the bridge came, we re-boarded and jammed ourselves into place again. Soon, my arms and legs had gone numb from being squashed. Hoping to restore some feeling into my extremities, I started running my hand up and down my leg. It was no use – I couldn’t feel anything. Some bumpy miles later, I looked down in horror to see that I hadn’t been rubbing my leg at all, but that of the woman next to me. “Sorry,” I said, snatching my hand away. She looked at me blankly and handed me a banana. She was a large woman and the man on her other side was using her as a pillow. Her bulging pink shirt said Fashion Mistake.
My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness. II Corinthians 12:9
It wasn’t our friend who we finally met, but her replacement. We had noticed her pale skin across the marketplace and made a beeline for her, thinking our friend had finally arrived back from wherever she had gone off to. Sonya stiffened at the mention of our friend’s name and made one lone remark that she wasn’t coming back. We were dying to know what had happened but, in the meantime, we let it go.
While our friend was a teacher, Sonya, a twenty-one-year-old history major from California, had been assigned to a local AIDS community group where she was meant to do something with community outreach. She wasn’t sure of her role herself, but as she had been on her way to the local group’s weekly meeting, she invited us along.
The meeting was held in a small, dimly lit building on the outskirts of town. We were late and arrived to a dozen people sitting around a large wooden table. At the head was a man with albinism dressed entirely in white. The low light reflected sunnily off his clothes, adding to his wan, angelic look. This was João, the group’s leader. While he spoke, which he did softly and slowly, he drew sloppy figure eights in the air with his hand, as though he were conducting an invisible orchestra. “The people here have a great stigma against AIDS,” he said. “No one wants to admit to having the disease. The official figures are much lower than the reality because people are afraid to take themselves in for treatment.”
It was a sobering thought. There were 1.8 million people with AIDS in Mozambique, the eighth highest prevalence in the world.
“They take the ferry over to Malawi to get treatment. They are afraid that if their spouse knows they have AIDS, they will be excommunicated. It’s all done in secret. People hide their medication and stop taking it if people become suspicious. They have no one to help them. For many people, the social price they pay to treat their disease is worse than suffering the disease itself.”
The rest of the group sat wordlessly, nodding and looking at their hands. My wife gave a small summation of what she had seen in the hospitals in Beira and there was more talk about further meetings. All the while, Sonya sat with pen and notebook in hand. Judging by the stupefied look on her face, it was clear that despite Portuguese lessons in Maputo, her grasp of the language was minimal. She smiled whenever the group turned their faces towards her but otherwise struggled to hold her attention. At the end of the meeting, she came to and, smiling, snapped her blank notebook shut and slid it into her backpack.
Jesus is the love of your life. Hands Down ♥
“You can’t trust anybody here. If you leave your land for one second, there’ll be somebody claiming it as their own.” This was Ken, a missionary from Kansas. He had lived in Mozambique for ten years, slowly beating back the jungle on a piece of property he had bought from the government.
“I’ve got to keep somebody there twenty-four hours a day. The minute they think I’m gone, they’re on it and I’ll be out. Usually I’m there myself, but I’ve been paying a guy to sit there for me.”
His land was a scrubby patch north of Lumbo, across the two-mile causeway separating Ilha do Mozambique (Mozambique Island), where we sat at a bar eating fish and drinking beer, from the mainland. It was Independence Day in Mozambique – June 25th – and we’d expected to see a celebration of some kind. But the celebration had run up against Ramadan and most doors on the largely Muslim populated island were shuttered by 7 pm. On a search for a place to celebrate in our own way, we had run into Ken when his large 4×4 Land Rover had blocked one of the small, winding alleyways in the old Stone Town.
“I’ve been here ten years,” he said. “But they still don’t see me as a local.”
Ken wasn’t the only missionary we met. In Nampula, we saw a gaggle of cherubic, apple-cheeked Mormons. Dressed in starched white shirts, black ties and wearing nametags with names like Moses and Ezekiel, they were crowded around a hamburger stand clutching their black and gold books in one hand and a large, greasy hamburger in another.
Missionaries love a fight, and at one time they had a strong opponent in the country’s ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front or FRELIMO. Declaring state atheism in 1975, FRELIMO effectively censured religion by nationalizing religious institutions and taking control of schools, churches, and houses. Very soon after, they had jailed members of various clergy and persecuted over 200,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hostilities officially tailed off in the late 1980s, and although now nearly three-quarters of the population identify as Christian, there is still much work to be done in the eyes of a missionary. The stories about witchdoctors and black magic that still pervade the countryside wet the chops of missionaries whose particular bugaboo is anything they consider primitive. The drought was worsening and by providing necessities like food, shelter, jobs, money, they could lure in the needy, the desperate and the lost.
The call to prayer rang out from the minaret dominating the skyline. Ken smiled, lifted his head and breathed deeply. “There’s a lot of work left to do,” he said. I imagined that at night he dreamed of saving the souls of cannibals.
I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and the overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. Luke 10:19
Hunters in Mozambique were easy to find. There weren’t many, but their characteristic earthen colored clothes, shell-stuffed vests, and drooping wide-brimmed hats were a dead giveaway, as was their invariably white skin.
We were sitting in a café in Lichinga when two such men walked in. Other than their gear, it was their mustachioed faces, their bronzed hands, their pistols and, above all, the comfortable, self-assured manner in which the two khaki-clad men held themselves at the café which betrayed them as hunters and not tourists. Curious, we sidled up and asked.
“We are hunters, yes,” they said, professional big game hunters. Vitor, Portuguese, ran a hunting camp out of Quelimane on the coast, while Jorge, a white Mozambican, headed a 2400-hectare hunting block in Niassa National Park. Both were on leave, looking forward to spending time at their homes after months in the bush.
“Where are you from?” Vitor asked me.
“I’m from Canada,” I replied.
“I would love to go to Canada,” he said. “I want to hunt your small bears.”
“Are you here to hunt?”
“We’re not hunters,” I said. “But what’s out there if we wanted to?”
“Anything. Elephant, lion, crocodile, leopard, hippo. There are lots of nice things to hunt in Niassa. I myself have killed fifty elephants,” he said, handing me his business card. The card had his name and number overlaying a picture of himself standing under an archway of elephant tusks. At the sides of the photo, two black Africans squatting on their haunches clutched large rifles. “Elephants make the best hunting because they are smart,” Vitor went on. “They are like a man in their intelligence. But behind elephant would be lion. Another very tricky one.”
“I’d never kill a lion,” I said.
This produced a leer from Vitor. “Why not?”
The thought of shooting one felt heinous, like a crime against nature. It seemed like an animal that was above being hunted, especially by pot-bellied farts such as Vitor. Instead, I said “You can’t eat it.” He shrugged at my excuse.
Jorge, by staying quiet and not revealing any bloodlust, seemed the more stable of the two. When I asked him what good hunting really did for species in need of protection, he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “People come in, business types mostly, presidents of companies, that kind of thing. They pay so much for an animal – fifty grand for a lion, forty grand for an elephant, plus expenses. We find the animal for them and they get to feel like a hunter, like a tracker. They get the skin, the horns, whatever. Then with their money, we can pay the villagers not to kill the animals for meat. Without us paying them, the villagers would have killed every animal in Mozambique by now.”
It was the same trope used to justify trophy killing anywhere. A portion of the population was sacrificed to save the rest. It didn’t rest well with me and, later, when we met a Mozambican conservationist, he said. “It’s a load of shit. The easiest – the only – way to save an animal’s life is to not shoot the goddamn thing. Obviously, it’s more complicated but it’s a good excuse, isn’t it? And it’s a great way to help yourself under the pretext of helping others. Mozambique is becoming full of people like that.”
That day, walking through Lichinga’s market and desperate for a piss, I slipped behind a low wall where, covered in banana peels, shreds of plastic, food stains, rusted metal barrel bands and surrounded by little mounds of human and dog shit, I discovered an elephant skull. It felt blasphemous, seeing the remains of the venerable animal there, dirty, stinking and forgotten. Rage rose up in me, then a sense of overwhelming defeat. There was nothing I could do, there was nothing anyone could do. I pissed against the wall and went back out into the street.
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12
That night, we met Sonya again at a bar near the marketplace. The same loud, obnoxious music was playing from a large speaker kept behind a locked chain-link door.
“Do they always play it that loud?” she asked, wincing.
We bought beer and drank sitting at a plastic table set on the verge of the road. Chickens pecked around us and mangy, scabby dogs skulked at the limits of the light. The dogs in Metangula were the saddest looking of Mozambique. Nearly all of them had an open, festering wound somewhere on their body. They moved slowly, barely pulling themselves out of the way of the motorbikes that zipped down the streets. I had the horrible idea that somehow these animals were playing chicken with the cars and scramblers that careened down the broken roads, hoping to be squashed to relieve their pains.
We were leaving the next day, catching the chapa to Lichinga, then flying to Maputo and home. “Oh, darn,” said Sonya. “That means I’m going to be the only one here.” She picked at the label on her beer, looking anxious and unstable. I asked her if she was nervous.
“It would have been nice to know somebody here.”
She was staying with a host family, sleeping in the same room as the mother in the bed of two young boys who were turned out and would be sleeping on the floor of the main room.
“The people here are friendly,” my wife said. “Just give it time.” Still, she looked nervous.
“About our friend…” I said. We still had no sense of what had happened to her. Sonya, if she knew anything, was still holding out on us, and I hated not knowing.
Sonya looked away. “I don’t know if I can say.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I said. “We just want to know if she’s alright.” There was another silence and I pulled on my beer, finishing it.
When Sonya finally spoke, she was shaking and close to tears. “She was raped. By someone at the school, one of the other volunteers. Her mother came and took her back to the States.”
We were stunned into silence. I suddenly felt repulsed by everything around me, the dirty streets, the flimsy plastic tables, the God mongers, the animal killers, the loud music. It was made worse by the realization that, had we arrived a few days earlier, we might have prevented a terrible act and our friend might be sitting across from us, unharmed and still teaching her students about molecules and covalent bonds. I was repulsed by my own inability to change any of it. Full of blind injustice, I forgot about the Cuban doctors, the group of community organizers, and the conservationists. My mind was full of drought, cracked water pipes, and demolished bridges.
I buried everything but the thought of leaving. The Africa I had expected, had wanted, had collided too fiercely with the Africa I had seen. Both had ceased to feel real. Being there began to feel like an irreconcilable mistake. It wouldn’t be until years later that I realized what I had mistaken for apathy in Mozambicans was really an ability to carry on in times of duress. Being unfazed by and tolerant of broken bridges, glory-hungry hunters, and missionaries was a consequence of having problems I didn’t have to deal with – the hunger, the thirst, the disease. Reality was their burden, expectation was mine.
The three of us sat in defeated silence while the market pulsated around us. The music thumped on. Throngs of people jostled for goods and fruits, laughing and yelling at each other. A drunken man lurched up to us, extended his hand and asked for money. Somewhere, beyond the reach of the streetlights, there was a fracas. A dog yelped and careened from the gloom into the light of the street. Hot on his heels were three other emaciated and salivating dogs. The three of us watched as they dashed the street, narrowly avoided being crushed under the wheels of a passing truck before disappearing into the darkness.