Kaninmambo, Mozambique!

One girl's misadventures studying abroad in Maputo, Mozambique.

Author: Ellie Osborne (Page 1 of 3)

Travels in the North: Day 17

The trip to Matemo island was nearly rained off. A group of us ate a chilly breakfast together, watching and waiting for the break in the blanket of clouds which would signal our departure.

Despite having been on Ibo for two weeks, I hadn’t yet been on any of the Dhow trips and tours which are the main activities for tourists on the island and so, feeling I ought to see more of the archipelago before I left, I signed up for a trip with the Californian couple and two French doctors from Bordeaux. I was looking forward to getting out on the water (even if the sails would be furled the whole way).

As we chugged out of the little harbour which was choked with seaweed and plastic, the pale grey sea was as calm and featureless as the sky above it, and in the watery light, the island seemed washed out, like a half-finished painting. As we passed the pontoon where the cargo dhows dock, a barefoot man improbably dressed in a full dinner jacket suit, waved us off.

The Californians were not sailors; he was silent the whole way, eyes fixed on the horizon, and we were told later he suffered from terrible seasickness, whilst she became rather nervous when the one crew member began bailing out a small quantity of water from the bottom of the boat, and asked whether there were life jackets? There weren’t of course.

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It was a fun day, even if it did qualify as ‘Organised Fun’: we motored out to a point just behind a reef where a large pod of dolphins were feeding and enjoyed watching them jump and play around the boat, and hearing them exhale as they  came up for air. Then we were taken to the site of an old wreck where we were armed with snorkels and told to jump in. This was less successful as the current was so strong that it took a good five minutes of hard swimming just to get back to the boat twenty metres away, but the water was crystal clear and as warm as a bath. The weather gradually improved so that by the time we reached the Sand Bank, a long hump of white sand which looked like it had fallen straight out of treasure island, we were able to enjoy our sandwiches in what is perhaps the most idyllic spot for a picnic in the world. Some serious beach combing ensued before we all had to pile back onto the boat again, so that I could be dropped off at Matemo.

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Matemo, or Matemwe, as it is locally known, is the second-largest island in the archipelago. It was thought to have been settled by the time the Portuguese arrived in the area, and supposedly was a refuge for a Muslim community of cloth makers who were driven there from the mainland by the Zimba raids of the 16th century. Today, Matemo remains stubbornly underdeveloped; there are only two villages on the island, no electricity and very little tourism, albeit for the odd passer-by. Matemo is a cliché; achingly beautiful, there is an Edenic quality to its great sweeping beaches, the lush vegetation and the sighing coconut groves. Life here has not changed much in the intervening centuries.

We waded the hundred metres to the beach where I was to be dropped through aquamarine water which came up to our thighs. On the rocky bottom, we could see the dark stains of sea-urchin colonies, like patches of moss growing in crevices and up the sides of gullies. Needless to say, we trod carefully. I bid goodbye to the others on the beach, before getting a lift on Dade’s son’s motorbike (Dade is the owner of the only place to stay on the island – a collection of 5 lean-to’s on the beach) to the other side of the island. The ride was an exhilarating dash along five kilometres of white sand, still damp from the ebbing tide and along dirt tracks through the string of settlements which line the “main road”.

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I was shown to my lean-to which was draped artfully in capulanas and very much mosquito proof. I discovered the only other guest at Dade’s place that night was an exceedingly tall Spanish psychologist who towered at least 3 foot over the tallest of the locals. He’d been living on the island for three months, conducting research into the cultural relativity of facial expressions and spoke with the kind of garbling breathlessness which suggested he had not spoken to many people for a while. He seemed pleased to welcome a fresh face to the island, though he was deeply offended when I told him I would only be staying one night.

“People only ever come for a night or two! They miss so much! This is a really special place!”

He was the sort of person incapable of giving a short answer and a relatively simple question would elicit an answer of considerable length and irrelevance. However, I was impressed with his Kimwani which he spoke with a smattering of Portugnol.

After an enormous dinner which I scoffed quickly in the fading light, I went and sat on the beach, relishing in the strange sensation of not having any electricity. My phone had also died and it was a revelation to suddenly be so disconnected. How peaceful it was! The sliver of a new moon was a filament in the sky and I watched and listened to the sounds of children round the orange glow of a fire further up the beach. Out to sea, a few weak points of light, battery-run torches at the base of a mast perhaps. Save that, all was comforting, amniotic darkness and I slept deeply in my little shelter, listening to the sound of the tide and the nighttime orchestrations of birds and insects.

The psychologist had been right: one night was not enough.

matemo beach sunset

Travels in the North: Day 16

As we reach and seamlessly pass through the opening to the mangrove, a hush falls over the group which up until that moment had been preoccupied with the excited navigation of the mudflats.

I am no stranger to mud, but for the others – Californian honeymooners and a couple from Brazil, it is a novelty.

“Can I take off my shoes?” someone asks, gripped with that wholly universal desire to feel the squidge of mud between their toes.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” says our guide, a young guy with that instantly likeable quality of saying exactly what he is thinking, called Muhammed. “You won’t have much sole left by the time you get to the other side.”

Sure enough, it quickly becomes apparent that buried just beneath the surface of what, from the island, appears to be a great expanse of white sand but which is in fact chalky clay, are the razor sharp rocks of a fossilized reef. The mud is deceptively slippery underfoot, and it feels like we are treading on bars of soap.

View of cemetery from the mud.

View of cemetery from the mud.

We are walking to Quirimba, the nearest island to Ibo and the second largest in the archipelago. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, Quirimba was the most important trading outpost in this chain of islands, and today it boasts a population of four thousand people who sustain themselves as subsistence fishermen and coconut farmers.

A group of children have followed us from the village and they hand us tiny blue crabs which scuttle too quickly over our hands and through our fingers before dropping to the ground. I look back towards the beach and see the bleached ruins of the Catholic graveyard, the stone cross on the roof of the chapel, a white finger pointing defiantly skyward.

But the laughter dies away as we enter the mangrove and a wary silence follows in its stead, as we contemplate our new surroundings. The waist high shrubbery which presses round us is surprisingly dense and grows taller as we wade along the path, knee-deep in warm water. Here and there we pass older trees with thick trunks which cast long shadows over the rest. I look back towards the shore, for the last time. The chapel is obscured now and all I can see of land is the vast form of the baobab where we spotted the two lilac breasted rollers a few mornings before. I think the sight of this sacred tree far more stirring than that pallid chapel.

There is an unsettling uniformity to the mangrove which distinguishes it from a land-forest. Where a wood resembles a gathering of friends, each tree with its own quirks and characteristics, a mangrove is a conglomeration of clones, so closely intertwined with their neighbours it becomes impossible to distinguish individuals amongst the green throng.

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As we move deeper into the belly of the mangrove, the density of the undergrowth forces our gazes downwards, so that our vision is wholly occupied with the extraordinary micro-world of the mangrove floor; where the water falls away, the peculiar architecture of hidden crustaceans is exposed, a volcanic geography of conical mounds topped with spouting craters. The same crabs which I had seen in the mangrove at the other end of the island, sporting one grotesquely large claw, vanish into burrows as we pass. The path is thickly reeded on both sides by what I assume are young mangrove plants, but which I later read are pneumatophores, aerial roots or breathing tubes which bulge intestinally at the base of the stem before tapering to a sharp point.

These roots look like dark-brown stalagmites in the green cave of the mangrove. Indeed, it strikes me that our quietness is not dissimilar to the hush which tends to descend over people who venture underground into cave systems and caverns. It has the same expectant quality to it, as if we were trespassers in prehistory waiting to be caught out.

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The narrow path joins a wider channel which our guide explains was cut by the Portuguese when they first arrived on the island so as to better transport goods to and from the islands. I ask who made the other path we had been following.

“I don’t know. Those paths were made a long time ago,” he says.

A long time ago. I look back. The narrow path is revealed in the parting of a green sea; however old these ways may be, unused they will close up again with the turning of the tide and keen lancing of the seedlings which stand like arrows in the mud, the leaves of their fletchings rustling in the wind. The mangrove likes to remind us that humans – hot-blooded, earth-bound mammals, are only temporary upon the earth.

Seedlings.

Seedlings.

As we wade along the channel, we spy other evidence of human activity; a shattered pile of spiral shells, where a fisherman has collected his bait; a section of the mangrove which has been cut back so that nets may be dropped to catch the fat prawns which coming racing in like whiskered bullets on the incoming tide.

We are now walking along a fossilized reef, worn smooth by time. Brown fish dart about like tricks of the light around our ankles.

Muhammed explains that when the tide is high, these paths and channels become dolphin highways as they come to hunt fish along them. How funny that the islanders should share the mental map of the mangrove with these other mammals, our mirror image in this amphibious realm. I wonder if the dolphins also live in fear of the turning of the tide, of losing themselves in this green labyrinth, only to become stranded with the tides ebbing. Do they too feel themselves at the mercy of this strange, prehistoric place, arrested at the point of its evolution when it was crawling out of the sea and onto land?

The water suddenly becomes thigh-deep, as we join another narrower path. We stop at a tall tree.

“Some time ago, some women from the village were fishing for crabs here,” our guide explains. “They were over there where the water is shallower, and when they decided to head back to the island, they found the water was already up to their necks. They couldn’t go back so they had to climb this tree and wait here all night for the tide to go out again. They were bitten by mosquitoes and they nearly died twice, once by drowning and then of the malaria fever.”

We stare up into the tree. It waves its leaves innocently at us. I imagine the terrified women, half-submerged in sea-water, blindly clinging onto the crown of the tree with their toes as the currents softly try to prize them away from their one hope of survival. Had they heard the rushing of dorsal fins in the dark? Felt dark shapes brush against their bodies? And what of the spirits they say wander the mangroves at night?

We wade on and join another wider channel and it is a jolt to see other people. A group of boys wearing only their boxer shorts, and, further on, a woman with a baby on her back and a suitcase on her head. Muhammed grins at us.

“That,” he says, pointing to the woman who looks back accusingly. “Is a divorce. She is angry that her husband has got a new wife and is going back to her village. He will have to build her a house for her if he wants her back.”

We climb out of the channel and onto the muddy bank. A familiar face appears through the trees. It is Cadria’s sister. We greet each other, surprised and pleased, and I notice she is wearing a small purse around her neck. No doubt to keep something precious safe from the water below.

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We move on through the trees, their roots forming a wickerwork around us. The mud is deep and sucks at our neoprene shoes which we are forced to remove. The smell is metallic and sulphurous. We feel for the roots of the trees with our feet and use them as stepping stones. That is what being in a mangrove is: all senses but no sight. It is blindly feeling, tasting and smelling our way through this anonymous green maze with no apparent way back to dry land.

We approach a stump, a rare landmark.

“Someone has collected honey here,” Muhammed informs us. “Look, you can see the soot where he has driven the bees out with smoke. That guy learnt to collect honey on the mainland. No one saw him do it, everyone would stay well back and away from the bees. We all thought he was a witch, that he could transform himself into a bee because when he drove them out with smoke, they would swarm all over him, up his arms and over his face, but they never stung him. Not once. He knew magic that guy.”

I translate for the Californian couple who stare at him with curiosity. As we move on, I ask Muhammed about witches.

“When someone has a bad harvest, the witches will transform themselves into lions and will come and scare the people who have a good harvest away from their machamba. When they return, all their food has gone, stolen by the witches,” he explains, passionately.

Feitiçeiros are bad people. They make you sick, they put a curse on you and you die. People will go to them, and pay for that. There was one guy here on the island, he a famous witch, covered in tattoos, even on his face. Lots of people knew him across Africa. Well, for a time, during the Civil War, they employed him in the army to help defeat Renamo. He performed magic on their guns so that they would be able to defeat the rebels.”

“But it’s the Muslims, here on the islands who have the strongest magic. They do really bad magic. I can’t tell you who they are though – it’s a secret. When they do magic, they don’t use plants like most people do. They use blood and the Koran.”

He does an impression: a sudden stream of Arabic, as he waves an arm up and down in the air in front of him, like a priest flicking holy water on to his congregation. Under normal circumstances it would be comical, but there is something in the certainty of his belief which disdains laughter.

“You know, I have a friend who knows magic. But he’s a good guy, he would never use magic to kill someone. You saw that pouch your friend was wearing round her neck.”

I feel a jolt of shock. Of course.

“That was magic. She wears that so that her husband only looks at her, not at any other women.”

Suddenly, I see the village in a different light. I look at the water, the mangrove, the mud – comforting, tangible things, and am filled with a unsettling sense of being confronted with something utterly incomprehensible, another world.

We leave the mangrove, as suddenly and silently as we came into it, and find ourselves facing a vast and featureless desert. On the horizon to our left, is a blue pencil line dotted with white, the sea. And ahead of us, lies the low, grey bulk of Quirimba.

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We commence the crossing. Muhammed points out what looks like a long fence in the distance, strung out across the sand. It is a net used by older people who no longer have the strength to haul and drag.

We spy a lone figure, punting a canoe down a channel not yet visible to us. Out to sea. Out to find big fish.

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Half-way across the plain, I turn three-hundred and sixty degrees, and think I see the curvature of the earth, though I have heard that is merely an illusion from this height. Much is illusion in this landscape, I realise. The mangroves behind me and to my right, a siren’s-song for land-sick sailors, a pelagic mirage. And the plain itself, covered in the hole-punch marks of puddles, as if one could walk right up to them and fall through the flat sheet of the world into the blue sky below.

From this vantage point on the flats, the heavens stretch out like a dome above us, and I have the curious sensation of being something under glass. A tiny specimen in the vast universe.

Muhammed appears on my right.

“When I was younger, I never used to believe it,” he says.

“What I ask?” I have lost the thread of the conversation in the huge sky.

“Magic. It doesn’t exist – I use to say. But then, I had a girlfriend who put a curse on me. She made me sick with headaches because she was jealous. So I went to my friend who made me a protection spell. A red cloth full with sixteen needles. He said, at seven o’clock tonight, she will feel what she has done to you. And sure enough, that night my headache disappeared and she got it instead. I dumped her after that,” he adds.

“I have my protection here, actually. It’s a secret so don’t tell anyone. Do you want to see it?”

Before I can say no, he has thrust a tiny square thing wrapped, rather anti-climatically, in a bit of blue plastic, under my nose.

“Smells like incense, doesn’t it? Don’t worry. It won’t hurt you. It’s a protection spell and besides, the tradition doesn’t work on white people.”

I ask him why.

“Your spirits are different from ours,” he says simply. “The spells don’t stick to your pale skin.”

I mull that one over.

“How do you know when you’ve been cursed and when it’s just coincidence?”

“I get spots all over my arms,” he says. “That’s the protection working. The spots appear, loads of them, and then they disappear in a couple of hours. That is someone trying to curse you. Then I go to the witchdoctor to make another protection, just in case. It won’t last for five years you know, you have to keep replacing it or it runs out.”

“Like a battery?” I ask.

He laughs.

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***

We have lunch on Quirimba, in a small house made of clay and reeds which we are led to through crowds of children who cry ‘Muzungo’ and try to touch our hair. It is simple food – coconut rice and grilled fish, and is welcome after the long walk.

Quirimba's high street.

Quirimba’s high street.

Sun-dried octopus.

Sun-dried octopus.

We walk over to another beach whilst Muhammed readies the boat. There is an encampment of tents bearing the logo of Ibo Island Lodge – accommodation for the guests on Dhow safari, and tied to the tree with a red thread, a bottle of medicine. Is this evidence of the tradition in action? A protection spell for the camp? Or something more sinister?

The beach is long and empty, a true paradise, and soon the turquoise waters of the incoming tide are lapping at the shore. I follow the tide-line, a frosting of pastel shells which remind me of the pill-shaped sweets which came in purple wrappers which we used to buy at Walden’s, looking for shells.

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Too soon it is time to head for the boat. Under the setting sun, the sun-bleached beach and coconut grove and the pale blue sea are drenched in pale hues of pink and blue, and we stop frequently to take photos, each of us anxious to capture the some of the opaline beauty of the land and sky.

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Our return to Ibo is accompanied by the fading of the light and the changing colour of the sea which mutates from milky-jade, to the blue-green of a shag’s wing sheen, to a dark teal and finally, as we reach the mangroves, to the colour of ash. The sky is grey and crossed with fissures of vermilion.

The mangroves hiss as we pass them. Though the greater part of them is now submerged in water, they still reach far over our heads and I am suddenly reminded of icebergs, of undisclosed places, quiet with menace.

The channel we are travelling along gradually narrows so that we occasionally have to duck to avoid a stray branch catching us around the neck and pulling us from the safety of the boat. I stare into the mangroves and have the strange sense of looking into a kaleidoscope but one which is miles-deep. Where the remaining light filters down and illuminates a section of trunk or a twisted route, strange, hallucinogenic patterns emerge.

I think of the traffic of dolphins in the dark water below us, hunting silvery things between the tangled roots and in the mud.

We whoosh past the dark mouths of smaller channels or false openings, until soon the darkness is absolute. The mangroves are a dense, black mass all around us, and their constant movement makes us feel as though we are motoring through the giant, pulsating tentacles of some dormant sea-creature.

Every time we round a corner I think we must be nearly at the edge, but it is a good fifteen minutes until we finally break free, and as if to greet us: a sail, only a few shades lighter than the darkness itself, and closer than feels possible. Perhaps it was only metres away all this time, following a different channel, but we never noticed it. Unlit, dark, silent, it could be a ghost.

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As we move out into open water we over-take the dhow. The glow of a cigarette, the only evidence of human life.

Above us, hang Jupiter and Venus, unblinking eyes in the dark heavens.

I see a glittering in the waves and for a moment wonder if it’s phosphorescence, before realising it is the light of the moon, only two days old, fractured and scattered over the lapping waves.

***

Sun set over the mangroves.

Sun set over the mangroves.

Travels in the North: Day 14 and 15

The day before Eid, Cadria was sick and we weren’t able to make Eid cakes as we had planned. I ended up having a quiet day at the hotel. That night, I came down with a bug too and woke at two in the morning with a raging temperature and a sore throat. I went to the hospital first thing in the morning to do a malaria test which was negative, and was sent back to bed with a bag of pills. Not the best start to Eid.

At around lunchtime, I was already feeling a little better, and took a bag of soft drinks over to Sulemao’s and Rabia’s house. They had laid out a table with a table cloth and chairs and she had cooked up the most delicious feast of goat curry, roast goat, liver, duck curry and coconut rice which we ate with our hands. Sulemao couldn’t stop beaming and neither could I. It was touching that they had gone to all the effort.

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Though there was a place set for her, Rabia did not eat with us, but ate apart instead. I asked her why and she said she still had work to do but I wondered whether this was the patriarchy in action once again. I invited her to sit down but she didn’t; whatever this custom was, it was fairly deeply ingrained.

After lunch, Sulemao took me to meet his old mother and sisters and Rabia presented me with a huge bucket full of Eid biscuits and a tupperware of the leftover meat. I tried to protest but they were having none of it. I wondered what on earth was I going to do with two kilos of biscuits…

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Sulemao accompanied me back to the hotel.

“This is my daughter,” he said, placing a hand on the shoulder of a young girl who was running pass. “And those two are my sons.”

“Are they Rabia’s children?” I asked, confused – she had told me she only had one child.

“No, no, they are from my second wife,”  he grinned at me.

I asked him how many wives he had.

“Only two, three is too many. Think about it. If the first one has three children, and the second has five, how are you meant to feed all of those mouths? No, three wives is far too much work. You have to build new houses… No, two is the right number.”

Logical enough.

Travels in the North: Day 13

It is already late by the time I wake, and I feel a twinge of anxiety as I think of Sulemao’s wife who would be waiting for me. Today we make Eid biscuits.

But I have never seen a Mozambican crying over spilt time; they are far too philosophical to worry about lateness. I decide another half hour would make little difference and I go down for breakfast.

Sulemao finds me there.

“This is the second time I have come here,” he states, benevolently. “I came at eight o’clock but they told me you were still asleep,”

“Yes, it was cold last night. I didn’t sleep well.” I say, hoping this excuse will suffice, though he doesn’t seem to be looking for one.

“Finish the matabicho and then I will introduce you to my wife.” (Breakfast in Mozambique is commonly called matabicho ‘beast-killer’, ‘beast’ referring to the hunger which prowls in empty stomachs.)

Outside, his wife holds a palm frond onto which are tied the ectoplasmic flaps and strings of freshly caught squid. “We will make these for your lunch,” she says as we start on up the hill. She appears not to care that I kept her waiting for so long.

First we go to the house, or rather, the three houses which form a courtyard where all the family including the in-laws live in loud conviviality. They offer me the chair, as Cadria did the day before. This, I realise, is the equivalent of offering a drink to newly arrived guests at home.

We sit for a while and I sink into my first kimwani bath of the day. I understand nothing of their rapid conversation but for the abstract colourings of tone and body language. Where the partial comprehension of language can be stressful and frustrating, akin to partial blindness, complete ignorance is strangely relaxing. And rather than getting entangled in clumsy words, it allows me to take in the bigger picture, the unwritten subtleties of relationships and the material landscape which surrounds them.

We head out to the shops. We go buy butter and sugar first at a house just up the road. They also have a bucket of rice and sachets of curry powder for sale. The boy who is manning this modest shop can’t be older than sixteen (though looks can be deceptive here in the Thin Cape – Cabo Delgado) but he greets me formally in crystal-clear, text-book English which I compliment him on.

We pass the brilliantly named Gory Barbers 'saloon'.

We pass the brilliantly named Gory Barbers ‘saloon’.

I am surprised; for most people here including Cadria, Sulemao and his wife, Portuguese is very much a second language and they speak virtually no English. They frequently mix up conjugations and personal pronouns and often don’t even bother to conjugate, and instead use the verb in the infinitive. Their vocabulary is heavily influenced by kimwani. It is a struggle sometimes to make myself understood, not because my Portuguese is not up to scratch – it is, but because it bears little resemblance to the Portuguese spoken on this island. I find myself trying to copy their intonation and I add ‘e’s to the end of nearly every word: ‘sol’ becomes ‘sol-ee’, ‘queimar’ – ‘queimar-ee’. It would make a good thesis, an investigation into how far the structures of kimwani are replicated in Portuguese they speak.

On to another house, where three thin, snotty nosed children who look to be about five or six, pound organic matter in big mortars. A woman is hoeing, bent double over a vegetable patch. Presiding over this industrious scene is the man of the house. He is asleep in a deck chair. They are selling rice too, from a washing up bowl, and coconuts which sit in a pile on the ground next to a large mother hen who has been tethered by one leg to a stone. Her fluffy chicks, no bigger than bumble-bees crowd round her as she squawks and pecks anxiously at the knot, wrapped tightly around her leg. We take five coconuts and give the money to one of the children. The patriarch sleeps on, inert.

At the final shop we buy 10 kilos of flour which she puts straight into a bucket and carries back on her head (not without risk – she slips and her face suddenly resembles a snowy landscape). We also buy spices – cardamom, cinnamon, and fennel seeds, to flavour the biscuits and, less obviously, custard powder, which it crosses my mind later must be used as a synthetic vanilla flavouring. The real vanilla from near-by Madagascar is destined only for first-world supermarkets it seems.

Teresa lighting the beautiful bread-oven.

Teresa lighting the beautiful bread-oven.

The rest of the day is spent in a bustle of industry in the courtyard. I make two types of biscuits (plain and coconut) with Teresa, Rabia’s (Sulemao’s wife), sister-in-law, beating together butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour, and then shaping them with our hands. We made biscuits the shape of leaves, stars and knots, adding pattern with the prongs of a fork. I made one in the shape of a chicken and they all roared with appreciative laughter and called the children over to look at it.

Mixing the dough. Note the girl on the left: they were delighted to be allowed to lick the butter packets after we finished with them.

Mixing the dough. Note the girl on the left: they were delighted to be allowed to lick the butter packets after we finished with them.

I tried to make conversation but we struggled to understand each other, so I lapsed into what I hope was a companionable silence and let their chatter wash over me.

They received a constant stream of visitors throughout the day, including mothers, cousins and other unclassifieds. I drew many curious smiles and think I may have offended Rabia’s elderly mother, who stared hard at me for several minutes before declaring me beautiful. Flustered, and before I had time to think my reaction through, I insisted I wasn’t (contradicting your elders is never a good move!) and she looked most put out and stalked over to the other side of the yard.

The factory floor.

The factory floor.

We baked the biscuits quickly in a hot bread oven, Teresa deftly manoeuvring the many trays over and around each other and I helped Rabia make me a delicious lunch of coconut rice and squid two ways, cooked as everything else is here, outside over a charcoal brazier. I ate it quickly and guiltily, many hungry eyes on me.

But they finished what was left afterwards!

But they finished what was left afterwards!

I nearly fell off a stool backwards when I sat down to wash-up in a basin on the floor which provoked gales of laughter. I have never felt less coordinated and practical than I did amongst that lot and mentally bemoaned the lazy, over-teched society I belong to, where the most manual activity anyone does with any regularity is hitting a keyboard. What’s more, not once, during the whole long day, did anyone get out a phone. Everyone was chatting and engaged with one another, and the laughter was constant. Oh if it could only be so in Europe! Consumerism has impoverished us.

Teresa with the finished article.

Teresa with the finished article.

The biscuits are hoisted out of the oven and piled up into a large basin.

“Try one!” they urge me.

I do and they are extremely good. I tell them I want to eat them all and they roar with laughter again and start slapping me.

“You must take some back to Maputo!” Says Teresa.

“Yes, and you must make them for your mother too,” says Rabia (another one who thinks I am a spinster).

“And you must come and spend Eid with us,” she added. I could hardly believe my luck! I feel extremely privileged. I thank them again and feel pleased again that I decided to stay longer on the island.

Pesky cockerel tidying up some crumbs.

Pesky cockerel tidying up some crumbs.

A cockerel upsets a pan balanced by the oven and Teresa chases him away in a sudden commotion of squawking.

“We’ll eat you!” she threatens him.

“I think he knows.” I say, and they laugh again.

***

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Travels in the North: Day 12

When my alarm went off at five today, I momentarily forgot that I was meant to be going bird watching. It was a struggle to drag myself out of bed and into the cold dawn air but I was rewarded Ibo style with a peaceful view of the mangroves and a sky the colour of rose petals. People get up with the light here and there were a few women carrying buckets on their heads down the main street, already on their way back from the water pumps.

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It was my first time birdwatching with a guide and it was intense; we (I was tagging along with an South African family who were staying at the lodge) were out for only two hours but we managed to see over twenty five species. I don’t know if that is a lot but it certainly felt like it. Our guide seemed very knowledgable, indeed and knew rhymes which mimic the calls of birds e.g. ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ in both English and his native language, Shona. I was completely out of my depth as I was able to identify nothing apart from sparrows and bee eaters which I’ve spent many afternoons watching in the shade of the Indian Almond tree at the fort.

At one point, we found ourselves walking on an old, fossilized reef and came upon a gigantic clam the same size as a suitcase buried in the earth.

The highlight of the expedition had to be the view we got of the Gorgeous Bush Shrike, which is an aptly named little bird of near-kaleidoscopic colouring.

The full ‘list’ (for Father) as follows:

Woolly-Necked Stork

Klaas’s Cuckoo

Burchell’s Coucal

Emerald-Spotted Wood Dove

Red-Faced Mouse Bird

Mangrove Kingfisher (r)

Little Bee Eater

Lilac-Breasted Roller

African Hoopoe

Cardinal Woodpecker

Madagascar Bee-Eater (r)

Black Headed Oriole (heard only)

Dark-Capped Bulbul

Sombre Greebul

Black-Throated Apalis

Brown-Breasted Barbet

Black-Throated Wattle Eye

Black-Backed Puff-Back

Gorgeous Bush Shrike

Sacred Ibis

Purple-Banded Sun Bird

Scarlet-Chested Sun Bird

Blue Wax Bill

Black-Crowned Tchagra

Spectacled Weaver

Green-Winged Pytilia

Yellow-Faced Canary (sic)

Red-Capped Robin Chat (sic)

Hardihars (sic)

The rest of the morning was spent at the fort, leisurely finishing my final piece of jewellery. We had run out of lemon so we cleaned it with azedo (dried green mango). A large group of Italians came into the fort which provoked a flurry of activity and ‘muzungo-ing’. True to Sulemao’s national stereotypes, they refused to pay the 60p entry and instead sat in the entrance talking loudly before they finally left in their Jeep. Bizarre.

I went straight over to Cadria’s house after leaving the fort and, after she brought a plastic chair out of the house and firmly told me to sit in it (she sat on the ground – I wondered whether this was the colonial mindset still rearing its ugly head, but hoped it was merely Mozambican hospitality), we set to cleaning the fish she had bought the day before. She showed me how to cut off the spines and the fins and we chatted about this and that until her husband suddenly called out,

“Telephone.”

“I’ll be back in a bit,” she said and disappeared for fifteen minutes as she ran an errand for him. This is the Mozambican patriarchy in action. (I have noticed that the women on Ibo refer to both husbands and fathers in the same way: Dono – which loosely translates to Master. Make of that what you will.)

In her cooking hut in the garden, Cadria showed me how to cook peixe toxada which is basically a simple fish stew of tomatos and onions, flavoured with the azedo which adds a lemony sourness and something else very savoury; it is mouthwateringly good. We also cooked a xima the proper way and all this specially for me because they were all fasting.

A worried looking chicken inspects the kitchen.

A worried looking chicken inspects the kitchen.

“Now you can go back to your country and cook this for your mother (I am officially a spinster in her eyes and therefore have nothing better to do but cook for my mother) ,” she said, giggling. She’s always laughing which I like.

I ate with her brother-in-law who is also not muslim, seated on a rush mat outside the house. We ate with our hands as is the custom and competed with twenty mad chickens who were all desperate to get a beak into the xima too. Cadria ended up having to run about with a stick and shoo them away, but every time she managed to beat some back, four others would sneak up from somewhere else. This resulted in great hilarity and many disgruntled feathers.

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She called me ‘Dona Eleanor’ (again, I don’t know whether this is a respectful form of address reserved for people you are still getting to know or what). I instantly corrected her, “Not Dona, just Eleanor. Or amiga Eleanor.”

I wondered what she must think of me. A girl only two years her junior, travelling alone, unmarried when she has already been married eight years. Unable to chop wood in the proper way (I have never seen such deftly produced kindling), not knowing how to cook xima or how to de-spine a fish. It was obvious I had never done a days work in my life when she gets up at four am everyday to go to the mosque and from five until seven she fetches water and does the laundry. Then she goes to the market to do the shopping, then she cleans the house, then does the cooking, looks after the children, then this, then that… Without a bite to eat or even a drop of water. Then it was nine o’clock and her bedtime. Not long to rest before it all begins again.

She rang her mother and father and got me to speak to both of them on the phone. I tried to ask all of the right questions – how are you? How’s your health? I explained Cadria was teaching me to cook toxada. They barely said a word, the mother just made little gasping noises like she couldn’t believe she was actually speaking to a muzungo, but then again, perhaps it was just that she couldn’t speak Portuguese.

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Preparing mandioca.

Despite the formality, it still felt surprisingly convivial – I washed up, tried to help with the cooking, attempted to chop wood before she laughed at me and took the axe away… It was sweet and just a little bit uncomfortable. I wanted to be Cadria’s friend not her ‘Dona’, so I made a big show of calling her my ‘teacher’ and ‘amiga’ which she seemed to like and I thanked her profusely for her hospitality as we left the house and she walked me back to Miti Miwiri.

We discussed the preparation of the cakes for Eid. Then we said goodbye and she went in for the parting kiss which had caught me by surprise before. She took my face in both hands, leant right in and kissed my neck, just below the ear, on both sides. I explained that in England we kiss on the cheek and so we did that as well and finally, with all the kissing over, we went our separate ways.

It was a really special day. I knew I made the right decision staying until Eid. This is what I have been craving since arriving in Mozambique – simple, country living. Cooking xima over fires surrounded by chickens. And I feel both humbled and extremely privileged that Cadria has invited me into her world like this when it would be so easy for us to shut ourselves away. She has so little and yet what she does have, she shares with me. How on earth do I repay that? Some people wonder what you give someone who has everything; isn’t it just as hard deciding what to give someone who has nothing?

Travels in the North: Day 11

Back to the fort. Jorg has started referring to me as ‘The Artist’ which makes my head swell terribly. Every time I get in in the evening he asks to see what I have made.

“It looks just like it was made on Ibo!”, he declares. Well, it was.

When I arrive at the fort, Sulemao greets me with a tupperware of rice doughnuts.

“I had my wife make you these bolos de arroz,” he says and beams at me. I begin to thank him (again) and, after a moment of deliberation – (Should I eat one? But I’m not hungry. I’ve just had breakfast. Will it seem rude to leave them until later? Or is it rude to eat in front of them when they’re fasting? ) I eat one dutifully, making appreciative noises. They aren’t bad, similar texture to the inside of a crumpet but sweet and well, ricey. I’m touched that he should have thought of me like this.

He reminds me that I am going over to his house to cook with his wife on Monday. I volunteer to make a Victoria Sponge (Cake exchange?) and instantly wonder how on earth I was going cook a Victoria Sponge over a charcoal fire. I attempt to explain what a Victoria Sponge is. They lose interest quickly.

“You can teach her how to make English cakes,” says Sulemao. “They will be better than hers.”

I suddenly wonder if I’m in line to be second wife.

The day progresses more slowly than usual. I am starting a big project from scratch which means making wire. This is a laborious and irritating task when using the usual equipment but we did not have the usual equipment and instead had to push against bits of metal with our feet whilst pulling the wire through tiny perforations. It was backbreaking.

On the upside, I got to assist Sulemao with casting an ingot into a length of palm wood.

On the upside, I got to assist Sulemao with casting an ingot into a length of palm wood.

A rather portly Portuguese man walked into the fort. He only greeted me (this is actually not uncommon for white tourists). The silver smiths talked excitedly amongst themselves and I asked what they are saying.

“Very fat muzungo!” said the one with the club foot.

Sulemao started talking about America.

“The Americans have many weapons,” he said, “Americans like war. They don’t have machambas (vegetable patches), in America they have munitions factories.”

How true.

Later, as we walk home, Sulemao continues to give me his version of national stereotypes.

“Australians have a lot of money. So do the English. They never ask for a discount. But the Italians and the Portuguese…! They are never happy paying for anything. They hate paying. They always argue. I tell them, I’m an artist, but they don’t care. The Spanish are the same. They try to rob you.”

I don’t know whether it’s a compliment or not to be considered ‘rich’. It probably isn’t beneficial so I try to explain that the Portuguese and the Italians are not poor, just mean. I don’t know whether he gets it.

Travels in the North: Day 10

Not having any rocks to crack or baskets to weave (two important activities on Ibo), I decided to go back to the fort. I took the back-route through the village of reed, mud and stone huts, enjoying the shade cast by the mango trees; it was only nine in the morning but it was already hot. A man with a wheelbarrow appeared.

“I can take Misses to the fort in this,” he said and gestured to the wheelbarrow.

I did my best ‘surprised/amused’ “Eeeeeeesh!” noise and swung my head round in the customary manner (this gesture is as typical here as the shrug is in France), hoping to communicate something along the lines of “You’ve gotta be kidding!”, though for a moment I did wonder how the others would react if I turned up in a wheelbarrow… I was reminded of one of Mia Couto’s stories in Vozes Anoitecidas when the eccentric Goan insists on riding through the bush perched perilously on the back of a bicycle peddled by his man servant as if it were still 1910 and the bicycle was a sedan chair.

The guy with the wheelbarrow looked disappointed with my response or perhaps he was just trying to work out whether the muzungo had a nervous twitch or was in fact mad (I’m still not confident in my ability to judge the ‘Eeeeesh!’ and it isn’t exactly a discreet gesture if you do get it wrong).

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Bundles of thatching material (?) outside a house.

Anyway, I eventually arrived (on my own two feet) at the fort. Sulemao and the others were surprised to see me and I explained all about the weather situation. Sulemao nodded vigorously and said that it was much better that I’d decided to stay.

“You should only go to sea when absolutely necessary,” he said, and proceeded to tell me a long story about how he had been ship wrecked once whilst on the way to another island.

“I swam for 45 minutes until the tide went out and then we all walked home. I said I’d never go to sea again.”

I sat down next to him and before I could tell him what I’d like to make, he had deposited a load of hoops in front of me and about fifty silver squares.

“Put them all together,” he told me and handed me a pair of pliers. And so for the following seven hours I sat painstakingly wired a bracelet together. This was my first experience of making chains and chain mail and it was as utterly repetitive and fiddly as I had expected but I did enjoy it in a peculiar way. The constant burble of kimwani combined with the repetition of the work made for a rather therapeutic atmosphere. Occasionally, they switched into Portuguese to ask me something.

Another new creation.

Another new creation.

Sulemao tried on my glasses and we had the conventional chat comparing our descriptions (funny, how glasses-wearers always do this, no matter where they are from in the world). The cheerful silver smith with the club foot interrupted us to declare that he was going to America to meet Obama (I believe this was wishful thinking).

Sulemao then began complaining about the battery he had taken out of his phone.

“Made in China,” he said in a thick kimwani accent. “I don’t get it. How can it be made in china if the phone was made somewhere else. These chinese, always rip you off.”

As he began licking the battery, I tried to explain that the separate parts would have come from different countries but I don’t think he was listening.

“Does it have any energy?” I asked, as he licked the battery again.

“Yep!” he said, with a grin.

Cadria got me to talk to her mum on the phone at one point, which was entertaining. And we made plans for me to go to her house on Sunday to see her cooking with dried, green mango which looks like bits of old leather and smells faintly of olives.

At lunch time, they all disappeared off to mosque, leaving me holding the fort… literally.

“You’re responsible now!” cackled the silver smith with the club foot.

I ran out of silver hoops and nearly fell asleep in the sun watching the bee eaters flying from the Indian Almond and back. Their gait is astonishingly delicate and they barely flap their wings, seeming to rely instead on the wind and thermal currents. As a result, their flight has a kind of fragility to it, almost like a paper plane.

A view I'll miss; light through the leaves of the Indian Almond tree.

A view I’ll miss; light through the leaves of the Indian Almond tree.

That afternoon, Sulemao showed me how they melt silver and make ingots, pouring the hot metal into a mold cut into a piece of green palm wood.

At around four, Cadria turned up with the beautiful peacock capulana that I had been admiring for so many days.

“I have nothing else to give you, so I give you this.” I could hardly believe it, I was so touched, and told her I would think very hard about what to give her in return. Nothing seems good enough.

I walked with Sulemao back through the town. He taught me some words in kimwani – road – barrabarra and baobab – lamba.

When we arrived back at Miti Miwiri, he suddenly launched into an anecdote about the woman who used to live in the house (Sulemao was born on the island and has lived here since independence in 1975).

“She used to sit at that very window and she had someone who she employed to go and bring her the mangoes which fell from the tree in front of the house. Whenever anyone else picked them up, this fellow would go running to her and tell her they were stealing her mangoes. She’d always call out then, “Are you the son of Cadril?”. If you said yes, she would let you take the mango home.”

Then he paused, “You must come over for dinner. Next Monday, I will tell my wife and you can come and cook with her during the day and see how it is done here.”

I thanked him profusely and we shook hands (I was going for the Mozambican handshake but perhaps he thought I was being frightfully European). He beamed at me and then turned and headed on up the hill.

I wonder how on earth I can thank these people for their generosity.

Travels in the North: Day 9

I had finally started to reconcile myself to the fact I was actually leaving the island when the news broke over breakfast that it was a no sail day due to strong winds. I was initially almost disappointed (I had begun to look forward to a night on a different island) but then it occurred to me that after so much to-ing and fro-ing in my plans, this was obviously a sign: I was MEANT to stay and not just for one night, this was Divine Intervention as far as I was concerned, which meant I should definitely stay to see the Eid celebrations. Jorg kindly offered me a room for a discounted price as “You’re a friend now”, and I went back upstairs with a spring in my step and unpacked everything again.

That afternoon I walked down to the old Portuguese cemetery which, fittingly, is totally neglected and overgrown, with one section of the thick wall completely collapsed. It seemed the perfect symbol of an extinct empire and, as I walked amongst the graves, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for these 19th century Portuguese inhabitants of Ibo. I wondered how those who emigrated here as part of the Portuguese crown’s failed immigration schemes had adapted to life on this strange isle which was once constantly under attack from the Dutch, French, English and Malagasy privateers? I thought about the old fort and how many people Salazar’s secret police had killed and buried in the mass graves under the coconut trees. How absurd and futile it had all been.

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I walked back to town along the mud. A woman appeared out of the heat haze: she carried a bundle on her head and walked with her eyes closed as though she were sleep walking. I could hear a ghostly babble of kiwami issuing from the mangroves and the thud – thud – thud of someone pounding cassava leaves. The Catholic graveyard seemed suddenly even more incongruous; a strange corner of Portugal, populated only by corpses, stubbornly clinging on in the midst of this ancient island on the fringe of the Indian ocean.

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That night, I told Muhammad, the guy in charge of organising the boat trips that I was staying on the island until Eid. He jumped up, laughing loudly and high-fived me. Then he apologized and explained he was very excited for Eid as it was the first time he’d ever managed to keep ‘Juju’ (fasting during Ramadan) and that he couldn’t wait to have a beer when it was all over. “My Mum’s Catholic.” He added.

“But really,” he said, suddenly serious. “I’m twenty-seven. It’s about time I showed my parents I was responsible enough to do ‘juju’. How am I meant to find a wife if I can’t do ‘juju’? I’m getting married. I’m going to go to Quirimba and find a wife. The women are pretty on Quirimba.”

I hoped they would have the right kind of women in stock when he got there.

Travels in the North: Day 8

It was with a heavy heart that I decided it was time to tear myself away from this wonderful place. Unfortunately I had a flight to catch and it was about time I embarked on the second leg of my journey and headed down to Ilha de Mocambique. I made plans to sail to Ilha Matemo on a dhow departing early the following morning, where I would spend the night sleeping in an A-frame on the beach, before sailing to the mainland and catching a chapa (groan) back to Pemba.

My last sun-drenched day in the fort was an entertaining one. An Australian couple had come to film Cadria making msiro (the white, face mask made of ground down msiro wood) and she put some on me too! I think she found it hilarious that it barely showed up on my skin.

Making msiro.

Making msiro.

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She told me her little boy had cried after I left her house the day before,

“He said he wanted the muzungo to sleep over!” She said, laughing (again). I think I am a source of great amusement.

I said my goodbyes to everyone – Cadria was disappointed that I hadn’t given her more warning – “I wanted to give you something to remember me by, and you should have given me something too,” she said. There was something wonderfully old-fashioned about this sentiment and I was struck once again by the warmth of the Ibo islanders. We take so much for granted back at home, especially novelty; new experiences have become a kind of currency on social media, a way to rack up as many likes as possible. Here, I was confronted by such a different set of values. For Cadria, our meeting was a special and should be marked with a physical exchange of a gift, something to be treasured as much as the memory itself.

On my way home that evening, I passed a group of children sitting in a line on top of a wall cracking nuts. They waved at me with grubby hands as I went past. I had a last wander round town during the final hours of the golden afternoon – I was not ready to go!

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One of the grandest ruins... if you look closely you can still see the paint work on the column on the left and the stencils on the walls. A stone basin sits atop the pile of rubble.

One of the grandest ruins… if you look closely you can still see the paint work on the column on the left and the stencils on the walls. A stone basin sits atop the pile of rubble.

Goodbye Ibo!

Goodbye Ibo!

Later that even, Sulemao turned up at the hotel with a bag of freshly roasted cashews. I don’t know whether you have ever tasted a cashew straight off the tree and freshly roasted. It is a fine thing. Similar to a roasted chestnut but with an almost peppery after taste.

“I thought you’d like these for the journey.” He said. “Travel well.”

I found myself astounded yet again at the warmth and generosity of him and Cadria. I thanked him profusely and headed upstairs.

Just as I turned on the landing and put my key into the lock of my door, I jumped. There, hanging from the ceiling just over my head, was a big, bulgy-eyed fruit bat. His snout quivered indignantly and I thought he bore a striking resemblance to a certain Italian greyhound I used to know. Was this the island’s parting gift?

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Travels in the North: Day 7

Gripped by a sudden desire to be on my own and leave the bustle of town behind, I decided to go on a solo expedition to the lighthouse on the far North of the island. This walk is only to be undertaken at low tide and I was told by Jorg, the owner of my hotel, just to follow the path north as far as I could until I reached some mangroves.

“If it feels a bit dodgy, just do it, you’ll be heading in the right direction,” was his sound advice.

I stopped in at the fort on my way past to say hello to everyone, forgetting momentarily that I was immodestly dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Cadria could barely meet my eyes and I kicked myself for not having anticipated her reaction: after our shopping trip the day before, my wearing shorts was almost insulting. I beat a hasty retreat hoping she would have forgotten all about it by the following day.

The sun was hot but the walk was thoroughly enjoyable. After passing through a village of mud huts with racks of fish drying in the sun and a makeshift boat yard where children played around the skeletons of dhows, I was soon into the bush, basking in the sun and the liquid burbling of sun birds and orioles.

The boat yard.

The boat yard.

Hard work!

Hard work!

The walk to the lighthouse was long (nearly six hours there and back) but it was well worth it: not only did I have my first experience of being inside a mangrove, though unfortunately there was not a dugong to be found, I also encountered some interesting island characters – the turbaned fisher women catching tiny silver fish in a net floated with flip flops, the lone spear-fisher in the distance who floated like an apparition out of the mangrove and who I would later ask for directions, and, the fisherman on the rocky outcrop where I would find the lighthouse who told me that he knew the island like the palm of his hand and that I had to walk on the low tide line through the water instead of struggling, as I had been, over the razor sharp fossilized reef.

Ancient path through the mangroves.

Ancient path through the mangroves.

Mangrove crabs.

Mangrove crabs.

The beach with the light house in the distance.

The beach with the light house in the distance.

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The lighthouse is perhaps the most isolated spot on the whole island. An island itself, it is cut off from Ibo’s mainland by a thick mangrove forest and is only accessible at low tide. No one lives here, only ghosts and itinerant fisherman who shore up to mend their nets and sleep in the shade amongst the purple flowers called ‘Beijo de Mulatta’ (Kiss of the Mulatta) and dream of big fish.

Two boys who were with the older fisherman showed me around the ruins of the lighthouse and the old lighthouse keeper’s house.

The 'lighthouse'.

The ‘lighthouse’.

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Lighthouse keeper's cottage and my future home.

Lighthouse keeper’s cottage and my future home.

“It is beautiful here. And there are big fish in these waters,” said one of them, simply, when I asked what they were doing here.

They couldn’t let me walk back alone they said so they accompanied me all the way back across the bay to the beach path which I had strayed off earlier, pointing out treasures such a sea cucumbers and star fish on the way.

Under water path.

Under water path.

Busy junction.

Busy junction.

I arrived back at Miti Mwiri at around four, baked by the sun and covered in cuts and bruises where I had slipped on the reef, but elated. Not only had I made it to the lighthouse, I had also been bowled over by the beauty of the island. It is an idyll and the kindness and openness of its people is humbling. Everyone who I spoke to on my walk asked me who I was going with – “not alone, surely?”, they said. “Let me accompany you.”

Forget, ‘You will never be alone in Barcelona’ – ‘You will never be alone in Mozambique’, more like.

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