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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.