It was with not undue excitement that I pulled myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 3am on Thursday. The promise of five days in paradise was a pretty tantalizing one and even the pointless two hours spent in the bus station sitting on the chapa until it had filled up, failed to dampen my spirits. It was a pleasant enough wait watching hawkers selling everything from loo-roll to boiled eggs file on and off the bus, as chickens wove in and out between the legs of women who wandered about with their heads piled high with bundles and baskets.
Finally, at 7 am, once the bus could not take another passenger (some were sitting on laps!), and the mountain of belongings and presents being taken back to the village were securely lashed to the trailer we towed behind us, we set off, leaving Maputo behind in a hot chaos of traffic and rubbish.
The journey was long and uncomfortable (I had a rather large lady sitting next to me who I watched systematically ring every contact in her phone book until she finally fell asleep at around 11 am), but it was also completely enchanting.
The bush stretched out of either side of us for as far as the eye could see, a tangle of green vegetation punctuated by Indian almond, acacia and coconut palms and the occasional flash of electric blue and pink as Bee Eaters flew from their perch on the telegraph wire.
This huge expanse of country was uncultivated apart from the odd, road-side machamba which blended so well into the surroundings, it would have been easy to miss had not been for the women stooped over in their capulanas, weeding and picking out what was ready to be eaten.
Orange dirt tracks snaked away from the motorway towards clusters of houses which were just distinguishable through the trees. Some were round with daub walls and neatly thatched cane roofs, others were square and made entirely from woven palm fronds. I was reminded of the rush baskets my mum made when I was a child, and wondered if these beautiful houses smelled as good as they had.
The motorway was positively thronging with the people the whole way to Tofo: teenagers walking to and from school, men on bicycles, ladies with containers full of water on their heads, children playing with improvised toys. Every now and then we’d come to larger village and the road would be lined on both sides by stalls selling food, drink and just about anything else you could imagine. Hawkers would tap on the windows – “Mae! Mae!” (‘Mummy’ is the respectfully affectionate form of address reserved for females in Mozambique) and offer up tubs of cold drinks which were gratefully received by all on-board. We stopped frequently at the end of the aforementioned dirt tracks to let passengers carrying sacks of potatoes and rice off and watched as they were greeted by various family members.
As we trundled along all 500 km of the highway, I couldn’t help but feel like another faceless participant in that timeless African tradition of road-side, trading communities. I wondered if the landscape was all that different from the landscape the Europeans had encountered when they first arrived here. I imagined the advance of the Portuguese into the Zambezi heartlands, how they too had followed paths worn deep by thousands of years of traffic along the East African coast to the interior, how they must have felt bewildered as they were confronted by the weight of history and how clumsily they tried to subjugate it.
We arrived in Inhambane, a sleepy, clean suburban town perched on an estuary, close to Praia Tofo at about 3.30 pm and by 4.00 pm we had made it to Tofo.
Tofo is a bit of an unreal place. The Bradt guide describes it as probably the most developed tourist spot in all of Mozambique which says a lot about how untouched Mozambique still is: Tofo is nothing more than a huge beach lined with unobtrusive thatched lodges with a small conglomeration of houses, restaurants, bars and cafes at one end which is known as the village. I described it as ‘Polana-on-Sea’ which is an opinion permanent residents of Tofo (waifs and strays from from all over the world) would be keen to shoot down, but one which I stand by, as there is something undeniably chi-chi about Tofo and the masses of well-heeled weekenders from Maputo who come seeking parties and down-time.
In fact, now I think of it, Bob Dylan almost certainly DID come here.
And when it’s time for leaving Mozambique (ahem – Tofo)
To say goodbye to sand and sea
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it’s so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique (Tofo….)
However, right behind all of these lodges and the semi-urban development of the village are REAL villages. Groupings of beautiful wickerwork houses in the coconut grove, perhaps surrounded by a fence made of branches and bits of rubbish gleaned from the beach, marking the boundaries of the family compound. Groups of children stand around playing and chewing at lengths of sugar cane, whilst mothers tend the machamba or plait their daughters’ hair or stir a pot sitting on an open fire. Chickens meander about as tethered goats chew on whatever weeds they can find.
It was extraordinarily tranquil.
The following three days were spent in a haze of sunshine. Reading, sleeping, eating, lying on the beach and of course, there were a few parties too.
The most exciting moment came when I was stung by a bee and when a lizard fell out of the thatched roof of my cabin in the hostel onto my head. I also went for a spectacular and rather fast ride along the beach and through the coconut groves.
There was a bit of ‘culture’ too, of the most macabre kind: a dog walk with friends along Tofinho lead us to the Barraco do Assassinatos, a cave in the black, coral cliff where before drowning them, the Portuguese secret police gave suspected members of FRELIMO and dissidents slow and agonizing deaths by tying them to the walls of the cave, lacerating their bodies on the sharp rocks and allowing the fish to eat them alive. The monument commemorating the spot is a stout granite obelisk, unadorned but for a single arm raised in a fist protruding from the top. It gave me goose bumps.
I also met some interesting people including an American girl who had just finished her peacecorps contract in Malawi. She was from a farming family in Montana and had been living in a village, 8 hours drive from the capital for two years. She had had no electricity or running water, and had got up with the sun and had gone to bed at night fall. She had had internet access only 3 times a week and was allowed a short holiday once a quarter. She spoke the language of the village people fluently, she participated in religious and other ceremonies, she had learned how to make their tools and how to use them, whilst also suggesting her own improvements. It sounded like the most extraordinary experience: to get anything done – projects educating the villagers about HIV, safe sex, and agricultural and water projects, she had to go and bribe the chief with the chickens she had carefully reared herself. She was even invited once to the villager’s version of a Hen party at which, she said bluntly, the women teach the bride to have sex!
I also met a German doctor who had been working for MSF in the Central African Republic and who had been living in the bush in very similar conditions to the American, apart from the fact she was also in the middle of a conflict zone.
She said that on her very first evening, mere hours after she had landed, there had been an outbreak of fighting and she had been forced to evacuate. The first week of her new job in the hospital was spent treating gun shot wounds and other severe trauma cases as gun fire and mortars exploded around the hospital. She said she spent most of her time running between the operating table and the corridor (the safe zone) when the sound of shooting came too close.
I asked her how she coped. She said calmly that she tried to sleep as much as possible. Although she did admit it was tricky at times to get things done as her French wasn’t very good!
Since coming to Mozambique, I have met several aid workers (including my flatmate, Carmen who was also with MSF) and I never cease to be astonished by their stories of the things they have experienced and achieved.
The German doctor said she had chosen to quit medicine in Germany and go to the C.A.R because of a profound disillusionment with Europe and the pampered, stagnant first world lives we lead. Europe may be rich, but it is poor in spirit. That was something that really with resonated me. And I couldn’t help but agree with the American girl when she said she thought Peace Corps should be compulsory for everyone living in the States. “Our lives are too comfortable. We take everything for granted.”
Anyway, all in all it was a really pleasant weekend of living vicariously through the stories of extraordinary people in a beautiful place. I was pleased to have made the journey on my own too. It’s not treating gun shot wounds in the Central African Republic, but I guess it was a step for me, even if it was still firmly on the beaten track.