Kaninmambo, Mozambique!

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

Month: June 2016

Travels in the North: Day 5 and 6

It rained on Sunday, and I had a suitably quiet day under the palm thatched roof of Miti Miwiri’s patio, wrestling with the intricacies of my travel plans and working on some lessons for the Associacao Yinguissa Mocambique. I also bought a sim card which I took to the silversmiths round the corner to file into a size which would fit my phone.

It was all go on the island.

That evening I walked up to the beach just beyond the dhow harbour to enjoy the sunset. The tide was on its way out and the witterings of wading birds accompanied the sun’s descent over the mud which was stained orange and pink. I knew that smell of the sun-warmed mud so well. It was a pleasingly familiar sight.


The following day it was back to the silversmiths, this time to make a pair of silver earrings.

My teacher is rather curmudgeonly. He speaks little, though when he does the others fall silent. He examines minutely every step I take in the construction of the earrings, grudgingly declaring it “Bom (Good)” only after a thorough inspection. He does look pleased when we finally finish for the day, and I present him with the finished article.

“Not bad.” He grins.

The chatty silversmith with the clubfoot, shows me how to work the bellows fabricated out of bits of old wood and plastic sacking in the old kitchen when we are cleaning the pieces. He also has a good look at the earrings and declares them ‘good’.

“Take them back to England.” He laughs. He seems to find the idea of England highly amusing.

I head home, this time accompanied by my new local friend, Cadria, who was at the fort the first day I was there. We had chatted earlier in the day, each of us as curious as the other to know more about this exotic contemporary. She is twenty-four and already married with two children, the eldest of whom is seven. She was married at sixteen as is the custom here, and while she’s not looking after her children, she looks after the maritime museum which is housed in the fort. She takes me on a quick tour, whilst we wait for Sulemao to arrive.

Cadria had come in earlier in the day with an older woman who had berated the silversmiths in kimwani at the top of her voice for a good ten minutes during which time there was much gesticulating and nostril flaring. Apparently they were arguing about the door to the fort but I don’t know in what capacity; Cadria did not go into any further detail.

“Why are you wearing white, amiga?” Cadria asked, perfectly reasonably. “You’re going to have to wash your clothes tonight. You’re filthy.” She laughed.

“And these are no good,” she said, gesturing to my admittedly dirty jeans. “You should wear a capulana then you’ll look much nicer.”

“You will have to teach me how to tie it.” I half-lied, hoping my show of idiocy would win her over.

“Let’s go to the market. We’ll get you a capulana and a head scarf. Then you will look nice.”

So off we went though the bush, her gold nose-stud winking in the afternoon light. A child appeared on the path in front of her.

“Muzungo!” he squealed. She picked him up.

“This is my youngest,” she said. “He hits his Dad.”And she snorted with laughter.

We stopped outside a wickerwork fence taller than we were.A delicious charcoal smell was emanating from the house on the other side. I could hear the whirring of a sewing machine.

“My home,” she explained. I wondered if I had caught a hint of shyness suddenly, as if she were embarrassed to let me in.

“I thought we were going to the market.” I said.

“You can’t go like that. We have to find you something to wear first.”

She showed me into their compound. Her husband was sitting at an ancient treadle sewing machine – one of those black, antique Singers. He and the friend who was with him looked extremely surprised to see me there, and they avoided my eyes awkwardly. I heard the friend say something about the ‘muzungo’. Fair enough. It wasn’t everyday a pale-face appeared in their garden.

Cadria reappeared holding a batiky capulana which smelt of garlic and smoke. She gave it to me and then shook her head, giggling as I began to wrap it around myself – hmmm evidently I needed more help than I had thought.

Once she had helped me tie it securely, she seemed to relax. “Much better,” she declared.

I realised that my outfit of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, which I had thought was fairly modest, was not just revealing (the jeans were skinny), it was also dangerously close to mens’ clothes. In a culture wear women only wear capulanas, I was essentially cross dressing. I felt honoured and not a little smug that Cadria had taken it upon herself to help me integrate…. then again perhaps it was all a great joke: she laughed all the way to the market.

She greeted many friends along the way, calling out into their compounds as we passed by. We bought a capulana and a second scarf which she tied in a hijab for me.

“Perfect! Now you are pretty.”

She said pretty but I guess she meant socially acceptable because when I looked at myself in the mirror, my big, white moon-face looked even more pale and shapeless next to the black fabric of the headscarf. I looked like an Armish mother-in-law.

We bid each other goodnight and I self-consciously made my way back to Miti Miwiri, grinning at all of the locals who did a double-take as I strolled by. At least, the children were all too shocked to say ‘Muzungo’.

Sunset over the mud flats.

Sunset over the mud flats.

A new creation.

A new creation.

Modeled by the armish mother-in-law.

Modeled by the armish mother-in-law.

Finishing off with a fellow wearer of white.

Finishing off with a fellow wearer of white.

Travels in the North: Day 4

Today was my first day with Ibo’s famous silversmiths. I first began making silver jewellery a little under a year ago when I was living in Santiago, Chile but was shocked and disappointed at how prohibitive the cost of lessons and setting up a workshop was back in the UK. So it was inspiring to watch the artisans of Ibo working in the shady entrance of the old fort, using the most basic tools and household objects to create really beautiful pieces of filigree and chain mail jewellery.

I took a different route to the fort from my hotel, walking through the ‘new town’ which is just two streets back from the old main road. Where the ‘old town’ is all hush and crumbling stone, the new town, a conglomeration of attractive reed huts and cement dwellings, is bustling with life, both animal and human. I was guided by various different shrieking children through narrow wicker-work passages between houses, across a football field, the grass cropped low by hungry goats, and along dusty pathways through the bush which seethes with crickets and bird life until we arrived at the low white fort.

The silversmiths greeted me quietly and I hesitantly took my place on the rush mat next to Salamao, the latest in a long line of jewellers, who would be my teacher. He had explained to me the day before that his great-great-great-grandfather had come to the island from Oman, bringing his knowledge of metal work with him, knowledge which had been passed down from one generation to the next.

I watched them working quietly in the shade and little by little Salamao began to show me what to do, how to create the perfect silver hoops which make up the majority of their work and how to solder tiny silver balls to plaits of silver wire. Soldering was the greatest challenge; where I had always used a hand-held propane torch, they used an old tin full of petrol with a wick made of cotton wool. They blew the flame through copper pipes, regulating the temperature and size of the flame with their own lungs. For God’s sake, I thought to myself, as Salamao handed me the pipe for the first time, don’t breathe in! Cleaning was done in a charcoal fire, to burn off the remains of the borax, and then the pieces were boiled in lemon juice. I crouched over the fire in what was once the kitchen in the old fort, a cool, dark chamber, now full of dust and strange sausage shaped nests built by wasps, breathing in the heady perfume of hot citrus. It was wonderfully atmospheric.

I have always found that making jewellery has a special capacity for making time disappear. I would often find myself working for six or seven hours straight on something in Chile and would only realise how tired I was when I finally ‘came up for air’, fingers aching and covered in silver dust. Today, I saw how the time past by the changing shadows in the star-shaped inner court yard of the fort.

At four thirty we packed up the tools and made our way together back through the bush, in the warm afternoon sunshine, Salamao suddenly becoming talkative. I bid goodnight to them at the crossroads as they continued on to their houses further up the hill and slipped regretfully, guiltily, back into my hotel, a little patch of first world amongst the reed and mud houses and coconut trees.

That evening I went to eat in the house of Nasir. There are no restaurants (in the traditional sense of the word) on the island, apart from those in the smarter hotels. Instead, a handful of locals have set up shop in their gardens or paddocks. You must order during the day though there is only ever one thing on the menu, normally some kind of fish accompanied by matapa (creamy cassava leaves) – we had a very good crab stew the other night. Nasir came and picked us up at the hotel and we made our way through the dark village, past more shrieking children who hadn’t yet been put to bed.

On our way home, we keep tripping up because our eyes are glued to the sky which is one of the starriest I’ve seen with the milky way clearly visible above us. The air smells of salt and mud and the sweet scent of the mangrove. I think I could stay here for a long time.

Indian Almond inside the old fort.

Indian Almond inside the old fort.

Some creations.

Some creations.

The student and her rather downcast teacher.

The student and her rather downcast teacher.

Travels in the North: Day 3

I woke up at nine feeling like I’d spent the previous night being battered over the head with  blunt instrument to the news that Brexit was actually happening and wasn’t just a joke that had got out of hand. To top it all off, ten hours on the chapa was obviously a bit much for my immune system which was punishing me with a horrible tonsillitisy cold – great timing (will a chest infection with complications of Farage-syndrome qualify for airlifting to the hospital?).

After breakfast, I joined forces with an Irish couple who were staying at my hotel and headed off for a long and meandering tour of the town during which Raul, our guide, revealed in no uncertain terms his distaste for bullying policemen, the lazy Doctor who only sees patients who need airlifting to Pemba because he gets to go in the chopper, and the corrupt bureaucrats who ‘don’t even know when Ibo gained Independence, only how many beers are in the fridge’. He narrated the history of the island in a charmingly personal manner, moving from house to house, and famous inhabitant to famous inhabitant, recounting the rises and falls in their fortunes.

The town is a sprawling ruin of some grandeur, inhabited only by ghosts and the few unfortunates who happened to be left behind when the money evaporated – which, now I come to think of it, sounds rather a lot like dear old Britain in a few years time…

It is Ramadan so the hush was even more sepulchral as we wandered past buildings in various states of dilapidation, many of which had been totally invaded by undergrowth and the frothy magenta sprays of bougainvillea. We disturbed a flock of fruit bats at roost who streamed out of the hole in the roof of one old government building.

The overgrown cemetery connected to the long-forgotten catholic church – apparently, its congregation has diminished to only ten lonely souls – is testament to the extraordinary diversity of European peoples (that’s not to mention all the Omanis, Gujaratis, Chinese etc.) the island has been home to over the years. Graves inscribed in French, Portuguese, English and Dutch are barely visible through the tangle of weeds and there was even a small mango tree growing from one. The ground is obviously nice and fertile.

A little way out of town, along a dust track which runs along the beach, we came to the old, star-shaped fort where the famous silver smiths produce their beautiful jewellery. It is quite something to see them work and create such complex pieces using tools which are rudimentary to say the least.

After passing a house encrusted with cowrie shells, we came to the home of Joao Baptista, Ibo’s answer to Barack Obama (he was the first black man to be employed by the colonial government), where we found the octogenarian tourist attraction sat on his porch in a rocking chair. He beamed toothlessly at us and shook our hands firmly before shuffling back inside.

We wandered back through the sleepy town, followed by a gaggle of inquisitive children who shrieked “Muzungo” (white person) every time we turn round to grin at them. One of the bolder ones gave my hair a tug. Women in bright hijabs with their faces crusted with white misiro paste (a traditional face mask made from a special type of wood) waved shyly at us from shady verandas.

My first full day on this enchanting isle was spent as a tourist wandering around and gawking at ‘the sights’. The main impression I came away with as a warm dusk fell over the island, the sound of the azan echoing through the quiet streets, is that Ibo is an extraordinary  place of haunting beauty, where traditional Kimwani life – weaving baskets, drying fish, dancing and song, is played out in the blossoming ruins of an extinct Indian ocean trading empire. It is an island of pleasant and surprising contrasts and I couldn’t wait to experience more of it.

The main street of the old town.

The main street of the old town.

A young resident.

A young resident.

A beautiful baobab.

A beautiful baobab.


The fort.

The fort.

Salamao the silversmith at work.

Salamao the silversmith at work.

Travels in the North: Day 2

Long before the faint strains of the dawn azan reached my bedroom, I woke and lay staring through the grate of my window at the purplish shape of a coconut tree in the dark and listening to the strange rustlings outside my window. A trail of ants were busy making their way up the wall, and I glared at the kamikaze mosquitos repeatedly bashing themselves against the net in the hope of finally breaking through to the other side.

The thought of travelling by public transport in Mozambique is enough to give anyone a sleepless night; you never quite know what you’re letting yourself in for. There are many unknowns; the length of the journey, the final destination which is liable to change due to the weather, the police or the amount the driver has drunk… (A friend once spent the night on a chapa because the driver pulled over and went to sleep), whether any livestock will be included amongst the passengers, whether you will get a seat, whether the vehicle has any seats. It is also a wonderful albeit uncomfortable adventure, and one of the rare opportunities that you, as a foreigner, will get to feel like a local.

My taxi arrived on time and Estacio got up to see me out. We arrived at the ‘chapa station’ which was a line of huts strung out along the main road. There were only a few people milling about in the dark, and though many chapas were stopping to pick people up, none were heading to Tanganhangue (where I was to take the dhow to Ibo) as far I could see. A large, blue pick-up truck drew up next to us and my taxi driver told me to jump on. I felt a twinge of unease… There were no other passengers, just two guys stood on the back. There was no way of really telling where this truck was heading or indeed, if it even was a chapa. However, my feelings of doubt evaporated almost straight away as the two blokes jumped down and came bowling over to me –

“Tanganhangue? Quissanga?” They shouted as they sprinted over.

“Yes but…”

“Come on, let’s go, chop-chop. Give us your bag, lady. Up you go on top!”  And before I knew it, my bag and I were perched on top of a sack of potatoes behind the cabin.

This manic activity was really quite unnecessary seeing as I was the only passenger, and I was instantly put at ease by their infectious grins as they asked me all about who I was, and where I was going, and if I’d been to Ibo before etc.

We drove around town for about half an hour as the sky lightened and the stars began to fade, each of the two cobradors determined to outdo the other as they bellowed the destination of the pick-up at anyone who happened to be on the street the moment we went by, regardless of how obvious it was that they weren’t going to be coming with us, such as the wizened, old dears with nothing better to do but sweep the dust off the dust road.

We finally left Pemba at sun-rise. I was still the only passenger but for a German who was sat in the cab with the driver and I took advantage of the fact to spread myself out on a tarpaulin and go to sleep. The sun rose in a blaze over the misty bush as we rumbled out of town. The road was as straight as a ruler and we shared it with men on bicycles, women with bundles of bark and baskets of fruit on their heads, small children in school uniforms and many, many goats.

Slowly the chapa filled up with passengers and their baggage – including twenty five old planks of wood full of nails and a mattress, as we made various stops in villages along the way. My space shrunk and my discomfort increased relative to the heat, until by midday, under the full glare of the sun, I found myself perched atop a coil of old rope with my knees banging into my chin every time we went over a bump, which was often. To make matters worse, I had a very friendly Mozambican next to me trying to make conversation about the cultural difference between England and Mozambique, I was running out of water and the pick-up kept grinding to a shuddering halt for no particular reason.

It was nearly three by the time we finally rolled into Tanganhangue. I felt like I’d been put in a cement mixer. Coated with dust, sticky with sweat and definitely not ‘wind-swept-and-interesting’, it was a relief to finally climb down from the potato sack and coil of rope.

But we weren’t there yet! Matthias (the German) and I waded out into bath-warm water to a waiting dhow. We bartered half-heartedly with the captain for a while – please, just take us to the island, we don’t care…. and then made ourselves comfortable on the wide gunwales. The azure sea was a perfect reflection of the cloudless sky as we motored though the mangroves out towards Ibo. It was the perfect antidote for the bruising ten hours on the chapa and I curled up in the shade at the base of the mast and snoozed for a while.

The red roofs and white walls of Ibo’s old town came into view through the electric green of the mangroves, and in the warm sunlight it was a sight for sore eyes. We dropped anchor in the dhow harbour and waded to the white sandy beach where various people, women in bright capulanas and hijabs and men in kufi hats (the population of Ibo is 99% muslim) were gathered. I said goodbye to Matthias and walked barefoot past Indian almonds and the decadent ruins of merchants’ mansions overgrown with pink and purple flowers. The afternoon was still and silent and hauntingly beautiful. And I was overjoyed to have finally made it!


Well en-dhowed.


Bailing out: will she float?


First glimpse of Ibo.

Travels in the North: Day 1

Today I woke in a state of great and not unjustifiable excitement; it was the first day of my cultural pilgrimage (my spell-check just corrected that to pilferage, which may be more accurate…) to two islands in the far north of the country; the eponymous Ilha de Mocambique and Ilha de Ibo.

People here reserve a special tone of voice for talking about ‘The North’: it is invariably described as the ‘wild’ and ‘real’ Mozambique. It is the source of some of country’s most recognisable cultural phenomena such as the ebony carvings of the Makonde and the silver jewellery of the Kimwani and Macua, but it is also isolated, impoverished and has significantly lower standards of living than in the south.

Though Ibo and Ilha are firmly on the beaten track by Mozambican standards, it is still an exhausting and complicated track to follow. Think 9 hours lying on coils of old rope and sacks of potatoes on the back of a pick up truck – sound romantic? It was for the first 3 – 4 hours, then I would have sold a kidney if it had made us arrive any more quickly. But I’ll save that for tomorrow’s entry. Before that bone-jangling experience, I had to get to Pemba and find a place to spend the night.

Pemba’s accommodation situation is polarised to say the least, with choice limited to either 5 star resorts charging $400 a night or a bug infested room with no electricity (for which you will still pay $30). So I decided to couch surf in Pemba and got lucky. There is only one host with more than two references in Pemba and his name is Estacio Valoi. He is an investigative journalist and professional adrenaline junkie with the self-preservation of a stool. He is also a deeply principled person who is governed by unshakable  convictions and a irrepressible sense of justice. Fortunately for me, he was also in Maputo and was booked onto the same flight as I was.

Having forgotten that Maputo’s airport has only four gates in the terminal which receives domestic flights, I got to the airport and was through security with nearly two hours to spare. Fortunately, the one cafe in the upstairs terminal had tongue sandwiches on the menu (well, obviously) so I was able to get breakfast. Estacio showed up a little while later, wearing combat shorts and vest, with two huge DSLRs slung around his hips, every inch the gun-slinging journalist.

The flight was uneventful and we were soon making our sweeping descent over a vast expanse of virgin bushland, crisscrossed with veins of darker green where the trees found water. One orange dust road cut through the greenery, as straight as a knife. We glimpsed small settlements and the roofs of reed huts. The land was bordered by a turquoise stripe, muddied in one place by the grey-green of a huge river emptying itself into the sea, its tributaries winding through the electric green of mangroves.

The plane banked in a smooth curve over the sea as we came in over the peninsular and Pemba’s sprawl of tin houses and coconut trees. I spot a silvery baobab, huge even from the plane.

I did not get to see much of Pemba in the end as we went straight back to Estacio’s place on Wimbe beach. As we were walking out of the terminal, a policeman shouted at Estacio and clapped a hand down onto his shoulder. I was instantly on the alert – was my couch-surfing host and the only person I knew in Pemba about to be arrested? Estacio whirled around and dramatically held out both hands to be handcuffed, then they both collapsed into a fit of giggles and back slapping. A friend apparently.

As we walked over to where his driver had parked, Estacio made a surprised noise.

“Don’t know where he got this car from.” He said to himself. “Hey, Juju, where’d you steal the car, eh?”

Then he turned to me with a serious expression.

“He really stole it.”

I spent that evening being regaled with stories of hunting elephant poachers in the bush and being threatened by the shadowy figures sent by mining companies accused of committing human rights abuses. I asked Estacio what the most frightening of all his experiences had been and, grinning, he told me all about the time he went under-cover in a drug trafficking ring and was made to ‘test the product’ with them.

We had a delicious supper of fried prawns and rice with ice-cold red wine he had been keeping in the freezer. We talked about literature and the famous intellectuals he knew in Maputo and the disadvantages of drinking on the job:

“I never drink when I’m working on a piece. When I drink, I write fiction.” He said with a grin.


Descent over Pemba.

The Half Way Point: A New Phase

“Ever step you take is forever. You can’t make it go away. None of it. You understand what I’m sayin?”
Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

And so, I reach the dreaded half-way point of my stay in Maputo. Dreaded because as any good pessimist will tell you, my glass is now officially half empty and filled with various regrets and “Should haves…”. So I resolve to spend the next two months correcting those mistakes, in order to return to England satisfied that I made the most of my precious time here.

Whether by mistake or by design, I feel as though I am entering into a new phase of my stay here. The first two months of confusion and settling-in are coming to a close and I am anxious to take advantage of my increased confidence to do something worthwhile with my ample free time. This has coincided with my meeting the volunteers from the Gabinete de Cooperacao at the university, who are tasked with receiving new students. They are an extremely out-going and academically gifted bunch and I only wish someone had told me about them when I first arrived. We had a dinner last night and have now set up a whatsapp group of about 20 people so that ‘sempre tiveres alguém para te fazer companhia’ (you always have someone to keep you company.) They have also been responsible for introducing me to the Associacao Yinguissa Mocambique, a charitable association which carries out ‘good works’ in the local neighbourhood of Maxaquene. I will be volunteering as an English teacher in the local primary school library and as general pair of hands with them for the next two months. And so, I feel the cogs have begun to turn and hope that my last two months here will be spent productively sewing the seeds for a possible return.

Appropriately enough, to underpin the beginning of this ‘new phase’, yesterday was my first day in a new house in Coop, an old, middle-class neighbourhood which backs onto the university campus in the north of the city centre. When I wake up in the mornings, I can hear bird song which is a revelation. Gone are the flash new cars of Polana’s expats and the cacophony created by heavy traffic and several building sites which I had become accustomed to down town.  In pleasant contrast to Polana, sleepy Coop has a distinctly Mozambican feel to it; thanks to its proximity to the University of Eduardo Mondlane, its leafy streets are filled with students walking to lessons and hawkers selling street food.


There is an avocado tree in our neighbours’ tiny garden. It has grown on a patch of turf the size of a bin lid and appears to have tried to compensate for these meagre origins by growing as tall and thin as it possibly can, with the result that it has the strangely elastic appearance of having been stretched. Large avocados the colour of tennis balls knock against the second and third floor windows. I wonder if each floor claims a section of this gangling tree as their own: do fierce disputes erupt from time to time over the boundary lines between Flat 2 and Flat 1’s limber territories? Perhaps Flat 2 and Flat 1 wake up one morning to find that Flat  3 has launched a surprise ambush overnight and has name-tagged every fruit in sight in an outrageous attempt to assert their sovereignty over the entire tree. These are the things that go on under the surface in suburban Mozambique.

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