Kaninmambo, Mozambique!

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

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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.

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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!

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Well en-dhowed.

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Bailing out: will she float?

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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.

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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.

A ‘Rough’ Guide To The Markets Of Maputo

I have a confession to make: I adore markets. No, scrap that. I am OBSESSED with markets, a condition which is definitely congenital, and another thing for which I must thank my long suffering parents. Where ever I go in the world, one of the very  first  places I will visit will be the market. Forget the museum or the gallery or the cafe. The market is where it’s at.

Why so obsessed? I hear you ask.

Well, there are many reasons: Firstly, you can always depend on The Market for providing you with a cheap and tasty meal (always a priority in my book). Secondly, they offer an unparalleled opportunity for the traveler or tourist to experience a culture in 4D; they are the stained-glass windows through which we peep into another culture.

Food is one of, if not the most fundamental pillar of any culture, as it is the one thing which connects people across all social classes; it is home, it is childhood, and as you, the foreigner, lift the spoon to your lips and breath in that particular aroma, you are partaking in a universal cultural experience and can, if only for a moment, catch a glimpse of what it feels like to belong. The expat constructs their own cultural childhood in a new country as they slurp from dishes of steaming soup and suck meat from charred bones in the dark and warrenous passageways of The Market.

However, markets are not just about food. They are about language too, as our ears are assaulted by a tumbling barrage of foreign sounds. And with language comes The People. You want to understand how a foreign culture operates? Go to the market and observe. Are people direct or reserved? How much eye contact do they tolerate? How loudly do they speak? Subconsciously we build a simple profile of cultural behaviours which we can then adopt ourselves.

And yes, I’m a romantic. I love markets for what they SIGNIFY. That ancient, symbolic space where a culture and a people have always intermingled with other cultures and other peoples in trade and in friendship.

But enough of that guff……

The most important thing, has to be the most practical and that is: weekly grocery shopping.

Oh yes, this is a post about going to the supermarket! Well, not quite.

Before I came to Maputo, several different uninformed types told me food in Maputo is Expensive with a capital ‘E’ and that I shouldn’t shop in the market because it is unhygienic and, wait for it…. DANGEROUS.

Apparently, just like chapas, markets are places where you’re gonna get assaulted and robbed.

Sound like a load of old tosh? That’s cos it is!

I imagine this prejudice stems from the fact that these people have always had staff. Therefore, their logic is that the market is the place where staff and other rough, common types go, certainly not a place for the Master and Mistress.

(Oh wait…Surely not another smug post! )

Food in Maputo is expensive….. if you shop in the supermarkets and only eat out in the ‘posh’ restaurants (some of which I’m sure are pretty good, if remarkably overpriced.)

Compared to southern Europe where high quality fruit and veg are available at ridiculously low prices, the produce available in supermarkets in Mozambique, most of which is actually imported from South Africa, is extremely pricey for what it is: think sad, greying cauliflowers triple wrapped in plastic, the spinsters of the vegetable tray, or carrots which are so bitter and mushy, you’d rather use cigarettes for crudités than have to chew your way through such disappointment.

My advice is simple: DO NOT GO TO THE SUPERMARKETS.

Apart from their being horribly overpriced, they are not even convenient as they are no where near as widely spread as they are in the UK meaning that in all likelihood there will NOT be one near your house. And you’re just going to be giving money to horrible, blood-sucking, exploitative corporations, most of them not even Mozambican.

By going to the Market however you are:

  • Supporting small traders, most of whom are women, and thereby contributing to the local economy. This also makes market shopping a deliciously FEMINIST ACT.
  • Buying fresh produce for much fairer prices.
  • Forming relationships with local people via friendly negotiation and commerce.
  • Learning the local language and customs and local ingredients which lady traders will happily tell you how to prepare.

And so without further ado I present, my guide to the markets of Maputo. (N.B. This is a work in progress so stay tuned for updates)

Mercado Central (The Central Market)

Where: Located on Avenida 25 de Septembro, in the Baixa, the heart of downtown Maputo, the Mercado Central’s proximity to various essential Maputo sites makes this the most touristy of all Maputo’s markets.

I visited the Mercado Central during my first week in Mapto whilst on a walking-tour of the Baixa and whilst the range of produce on offer seemed the most comprehensive of the markets I’ve visited, it is as tourist-trappy as any market in Africa can be. Prices were higher and not as negotiable, although the girls were happy to let me try some of the more exotic fruits (for a fee). There was also a bit of hassle with hawkers selling handicrafts. “Miss! Miss! Hello! Good Morning! Miss!”. OK, if you’re just visiting once but having to put up with being treated as the tourist every week whilst doing your shop would probably get a bit tedious.

What: A wide selection of fruit and vegetables including exotic delights such as massala, ata and mafiloa. Homemade chutnies and piri-piri. A more limited selection of fish and meat both fresh and dried. And also some handicrafts – wickerwork etc.

Atmosphere: Housed in a beautiful building considered the twin of the Railway Station, the Central Market is a must-see. It is probably the most tastefully presented and well-ordered of the markets. However, because of the higher numbers of tourists who visit there both the atmosphere and the prices can be a little bit less ‘friendly’.

Best Buy: Wicker work and fruit.

$$$:….significantly higher than elsewhere.

Mercado Janeta

Where: On the intersection between Avenida Vladmir Lenin with Mao Tse Sung. Round the corner from Fatima’s backpackers.

What: Fruit and veg, dried fish, clothes, hair salons, brica-brac, seamstresses, cheap restaurants.

Atmosphere: A bit more of a local’s place, it fills up at lunch time when people come in to have chicken and rice or stew and xima for low prices. Expect to pay 150 – 200 mets for an enormous portion of whatever you order.

Best Buy: A cheap and cheerful lunch, a weave or braids.

$$$: Not as expensive as Mercado Central, but still a bit pricey because of its proximity to Fatima’s hostel and its central location. Though not a tourist hub, it is recommended in most guides so enough foreigners have wandered in here to make the traders pretty wily. I remember, my first time there, the woman I was buying from calmly told me potatoes were 100 mets a kilo (they’re normally 30 – 40). She took quite a bit of convincing otherwise.

Mercado Estrela

Where: In Malhangalene. Avenida Acordos de Lusaka (I think). But ask any taxi driver – they will know.

What: Stolen luxury goods, car parts, cars, motorcycles… and the best goat meat in Maputo.

Atmosphere: Definitely not for tourists, take all the necessary precautions. It is huge and sprawling and extremely masculine, the only women being the ones who work in some of the informal restaurant in the main body of the market. Think large crowds of dodgy blokes. They shouldn’t give you too much hassle though if you are firm.

Best Buy: A mac book pro (it might even be YOUR mac book pro which was stolen last week.), anything which you’ve had nicked, and ……. GOAT MEAT.

This last one cannot be stressed enough. Going into the section of the market which is covered from the East, you need only walk 20 yards through the tunnels of shacks until you happen upon the back of a concrete establishment painted red.

This place serves the best goat stew in all of Maputo, dark with honey and richly spiced. You even see ministers from the government sneaking in dressed in their suits. They serve the whole animal including the head (though you have to order that specially). Order the stew including offal accompanied with xima and prepare for a serious mouthgasm.

$$$: 500 USD for a Mac Book Pro. 200 meticais for the best goat you have ever eaten in your life.

Mercado Museu or Barracas do Museu

Where: Occupying the block behind the geology museum and next to the chapa station, this warrenous confusion of congregated iron shacks and concrete shells is best known among the ex-pats for being a cheap booze pick-up point.

The drill is this: the guys selling the booze run over to the cars and surround them, each one fighting and shouting over each other to get the order. The first bloke to run back to the stalls and get back to the car with your order gets the money. I remember being quite taken aback by the clamour of people the first time I went with friends to pick up some beers but it’s all part of the experience. Just be civil and calm.

 

What: On the east side of the market you can find the stalls selling groceries, fresh fruit and veg and dried and tinned goods. Also some hardware. And on the West side, booze and take-away food.

Atmosphere: Very much a local’s place and, as a result, it is a really friendly place once you get to know it. You will probably draw a fair amount of stares at first and maybe even some comments. I remember the first time I went in, a girl loudly asked her friend “What’s this white girl doing here?” It felt like a rhetorical question and she looked pretty moody so I decided not to stay and answer her.

However, I shop regularly with one woman on the west side of the market, buying all my cheap veggies there, including avocados for 20 mets! And she has been teaching me some basic changana which has been a fun challenge. I now greet her and order most of my shopping in changana which everyone who works at the market thinks is hilarious. A simple ‘See you tomorrow!’ will elicit gales of uproarious laughter from the traders. Maybe it’s my accent…

N.B. I went in a few days ago and it was one of the trader’s birthdays so the women were singing a traditional song for her and doing a procession. They presented her with various gifts – a set of glass serving bowls and 200 meticais was the big event, followed by pieces of fruit and other food.

Best buy: Groceries and cheap booze.

Chapas for Dummies or Top Tips for Shelving Shitty Chapa Shenanigans and Getting on the Boss Bus!

It’s taken me two long months but I can finally say ‘Up Your’s’ with confidence to all those expats and naysayers who predicted oh-so-confidently, that, once I had arrived in Mozambique and seen for myself, I would rather rub piri-piri in my eyes than travel by chapa in Maputo.

For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, a chapa (pronounced ‘shapa’) is a minibus, typically with a capacity of 12 people but usually filled with approaching double that number. They are as hot and smelly as the underground at rush hour in August, and they are driven everywhere at top speed with music blaring from the speakers, which the driver and the cobrador will sing loudly and tunelessly along to. Imagine a tiny, rocket-propelled disco where no one is allowed to smile. Or a particularly funereal rugby scrum set to Shakira’s Waka-Waka: This Time for Africa.

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Oh. Dear. Lord.

Perhaps it’s understandable therefore that expats and wealthy residents of Maputo would rather tear out and eat their own pancreas than set foot in a chapa. After all, you wouldn’t want to stain your white linen suit or your cream gucci trousers, would you? And besides, Pedro’s got a new Range Rover. And I mean, just imagine if someone actually saw you getting out of the A Voador – Costo do Sol…….. It would be social suicide!?

I have heard the following complaints about chapas:

  • They are (extremely) dangerous –  if you walk out in front of them without looking and stop to look at your iphone, yeah they probably are. A bit like me.
  • You will be assaulted and robbed – only if you’re a moron with ya pearls hanging out your open Mulberry handbag.
  • They are unreliable – I have not yet waited more than 2 minutes for a chapa, there are literally hundreds of them.
  • They are smelly – Yes, can’t really argue here. But if you get a window seat, you’re laughing.
  • They are unhygienic – Oh yeah, because Africans don’t wash….
  • They are expensive – LOL. Not. No one has ever said this because a one way ticket costs £0.08.

I sensed that it was basically snobbery which stopped people taking chapas. 

What stopped me taking chapas initially was not knowing where the hell any of them went, as The Bradt Guide, which has been a fairly reliable beginners guide to Maputo observes: “You will probably have no idea where any of them are going at first.” SO TRUE.

However, through trial and error, and by taking quite a few chapas, I grew in confidence until I reached the stage where I would describe myself as a chapa pre-pro. Pre-pro because there are still some chapa frontiers which I haven’t yet crossed,  such as travelling at night – but I get around happily enough during the day.

It then occurred to me that some other would-be chapa user might also benefit from my hindsight and so I decided to create the Chapa Guide for Dummies aka:

My Top Tips for Shelving Shitty Chapa Shenanigans and Getting on the Boss Bus.

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  1. Act Fast

Whether you are trying to cross the road in front of a chapa, hailing a chapa or boarding a chapa, speed is of the essence. Chapas wait for no guy or gal, and queues don’t happen. Once you have the driver or cobrador’s attention, you’re good to go. This means abandoning all pretense at polite behaviour.

You will find speed is not of the essence one you are inside the chapa and when you are trying to extricate yourself from the tangle of people squashed inside as in all likelihood you will not be able to move.

2. Know The Best Seats

Knowing which seat to sit in is crucial if you want to succeed in the Game of Chapas. 

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Don’t be like the girl in the yellow top or the guy in red. They are definitely losing.

In order of preference from first til last:

Any window seat on the driver’s side– being squashed in tight is made more bearable by a refreshing breeze. You also have the option of travelling with half of your body outside the vehicle. Fun!

The front seat next to the driver – in theory this is really the best seat, although the fact I’ve seen people sharing it knocks it down a bit. The reason why I put it in at second is that this seat is given as a mark of respect: I have had cobrador’s who turf people out of the front seat so I can sit in it (it’s because I is white!).

I say this seat should be reserved for people who really need it – the pregnant, elderly and infirm. Therefore, second place. By all means, take it – if you can stand the guilt and the glares boring into the back of your head.

Any seat on the back-row / Any seat next to the window seat on the driver’s side –   –  Back-row is a safe zone where, unless you’re unlucky, you shouldn’t have to play much musical chairs to let other passengers off. Plus, more breeze.

Worst REAL seat – The folding seat in the aisle. Unstable, uncomfortable and you will constantly be having to get in and out of the chapa in order to let people off. No wider than 40 cms and shared with two or more people. You are the first to be sat on.

Best pretend seat – the glove box between the two front seats. Precarious and uncomfortably close to the windscreen, you will be the first to taste the tarmac if the driver brakes too sharply.

However, you are next to to the driver and will be serenaded all the way home. Plus you will be six inches taller than everyone else which normally gives people a bit of an ego boost even if they know deep down it’s just cos they’re sat on a box.

Next best pretend seat – the plastic base behind the passenger’s and driver’s seats. It’s a slippery slope you keep sliding off. You’ve given yourself a nose bleed because your knees are so far up in your face you’re blind and the driver hit a pot hole. You keep nearly getting into an intimate facial situation with the person in front of you. And the cobrador’s looking down your top. At least your ass is on something resembling a seat and not…..

On someone’s lap. If the chapa was Titanic, this seat would be Rose, pushing the good seats off the raft of esteem just so she can lie in some cold water and bitch for a few hours.

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Pretty sure there is room for two there…

No one wants to sit on someone else. But to be fair, I’d rather sit on someone else than be sat on. What if they are incontinent? Or have terrible bacterial vaginosis? Or weigh 200lbs?

Finally, the accolade for the worst seat on the chapa goes to….

The door frame, window frame and indeed the sky, which is where many people who haven’t been able to fit properly into the chapa end up travelling. By design or by mistake, the result is an undignified and premature death.

3. Know where you’re going. 

Battalions of these chapas zip from one end of the city to the other and cover an impressively long distances. It is difficult to know where they are going and, as you’re more likely to meet Donald Trump in an East-African Mosque than find a route map, you’re kind of stuffed unless you have a pretty good idea of where YOU want to go.

This might seem like strange logic, and it probably is, but then the chapa system itself is quite strange.  

However, you should know this:

Museu (Museu de Geologia) is the main chapa terminus in the East of the city. It’s smack-bang in the posh part of town and has connections to many exciting destinations:

To go North, up through Sommerschield to Coop until Praca de OMM – take a chapa to Praca das Combatantes or Laulane.

To go West take chapas from Avenida Eduardo Mondlane. Get off at Ronil if you want to go down to the Baixa in the South. Look for Costa Do Sol, this will take you down and around to Maputo shopping and then up to Costa Do Sol.

Ask a local. And remain vigilant at the window watching for the route you’re taking.

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Hmmm… I wonder what route this is?

4. Don’t be a Moron.

Anti-Chapa Chaps will try and tell you all about how you will be assaulted if you take a chapa. This is quite frankly, utter bollocks, and unforgivable social prejudice.

A certain individual I know here said they took a chapa once and it was a terrible experience because her bag was open on her lap and someone reached in and stole her ipad.

Yep. No word of a lie.

Obviously you are not going to be this moronic. Keep your handbag/satchel/rucksack/napsack/spotted handkerchief-on-the-end-of-stick firmly shut and you should have no problems.

5. There are no bus stops.

You must develop the African sixth-sense of the minibus stop. Or just use your eyes and common sense. Where there are people waiting and chapas stopping, it’s probs safe to assume you’ve got yourself a stop.

When you wish to exit the chapa you must shout paragem. Forcefully, and multiple times, normally a little way before your stop.

5. Know who you’re dealing with.

You don’t speak to the CONDUTOR (driver). Unless he speaks to you. He is too busy swerving at break-neck speed round other traffic, vegetable carts, cyclists, small children and livestock.

You do speak to the COBRADOR (conductor… confusing innit?): he is the man you pay. He is normally a mouthy geezer, and too comfortable in the job but it’s best to stay on his good side, so don’t give him any lip.

N.B. Never ever comment on the large pink false nail studded with diamantes the cobrador is wearing on his hand. Never ever.

6. Payment

May be offered any time, but normally just before the stop, when you say ‘Paragem’, is best so as to avoid sticky situations when the cobrador claims you haven’t paid.

However, the cobrador will occasionally ask for everyone’s fare at once. It really depends on the guy.

Each journey is 7 meticais or £0.08….. Yeah, Transport for London: EAT YOUR HEART OUT.

Change always be given. I’ve seen people pay with 200 mz notes and receive change, but I wouldn’t risk anything bigger and it’s probably wise to ask before.

7. Etiquette.

The only way the experience of travel in close proximity to a stranger’s genitals can be made any worse is by talking to them or being talked to.

This is probably why, apart from the Cobrador and Driver’s kareoke competition, chapa journeys are fairly silent affairs.

Don’t worry about saying ‘good morning’ or anything either. It will just draw attention, bring us on to number 8……..

8. You will get hassle if you are A.) A girl. B.) White

I have never had anything but pleasant exchanges with other passengers. But, brace yourselves for some unwanted attention from the cobrador. They are ego-maniacs, tiny dictators in their kingdom of the atomic tin-can.

What starts with “Eu Gosto de Ti.” (I like you) – normally  delivered with a leer, will evolve into endless pestering to get your number or indeed, to get you to come over and hang out at his place.

It is hard to just ignore such comments when said person is leering only inches from your face, but it is probably the best policy. I find saying ‘Mmmmmm’ with raised eyebrows and studying your fingernails intently also works. Exchange exasperated looks with the girl next to you. If worse comes to the worse, tell the offender you are pregnant, which will have the desired effect of reducing your sex appeal to that of a bent spoon. (A hint of annoyance is usually good but don’t go over board.)

9. Enjoy people watching and being the only non-African on the bus

In two months, I have only seen one other non-African on a chapa and she was a tiny, wizened old lady. Kudos to her.

chapa 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Solitude and Elephant Fetuses

Winter has arrived in Maputo.

It sneaked in whilst nobody was looking and took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, it is too cold to go out in the evening without an extra layer or two (although twerking can remedy this…), people no longer sweat it out in jeans at midday, and a duvet is surprisingly welcome at night when the temperature drops.

Unfortunately, this weekend was kicked off by heavy rain and a cold breeze which didn’t shift until late on Saturday afternoon. Maputo doesn’t like the cold but it really hates rain. The streets lie empty of people but for the most persistent hawkers, who stand around morosely dressed only in shorts and flipflops with plastic bags tied to their head.

Considering the precarious living conditions of the vast majority of people in Maputo, it is easy to see why rain dampens the spirits of the usually buoyant Mozambicans. Rain means leaks in corrugated iron roofs, it means damp clothes, damp blankets, endlessly cold, wet feet as you trudge through the rain in flip flops and sandals. It means colds and the flu. It means worrying about wheezing grandparents and feverish children, and all the medical bills you can’t pay. Rain is as bad for business as it is bad for the health.

Accordingly, the city has been peculiarly quiet this weekend. Bars and restaurants stood empty and parties drew a small, albeit dedicated crowd.

The weather seemed to coincide with a lull of my own.

After the whirl-wind of the first month, what was novel is becoming normal, and I find myself craving some structure and routine and the regular company of friends. I want to feel myself settling in now that the ‘honey-moon’ phase is coming to an end.

And so, sick of being confined to the flat on my own, I went to the natural history museum on Saturday afternoon.

The building is manueline in style, resembling a large, frilly wedding cake – I’ve never understood why the other name for manueline is Portuguese-gothic (perhaps some architecture nerds out there could enlighten me?) and houses the only collection of elephant fetuses in the world.

What better way is there to spend a lonely Saturday afternoon staring at the preserved remains of elephant abortions?

Starting out as a blob the same size as walnut, the elephant gestates for 21 months – 21 MONTHS – that is nearly two years (RESPECT), before it is born at the size at which it is able to walk behind its parents and do all those adorable things which add at least 3 zeros to David Attenborough’s salary every year.

It would be more impressive if the collection was complete, but unfortunately it only contains fetuses of up to 6 months of gestation, when they are replaced by lumpy papier maché models painted with grey poster paint which rather diminishes the effect.

The exhibit is accompanied by a vitriolic text about the origins of the fetuses aka Elephant-Gate, Mozambique: the Portuguese colonial regime attempted to clear a large section of the country for agricultural projects which meant shooting hundreds, nay thousands of innocent, law-abiding elephants… The one good thing, the text said, which came out of this elephantine massacre was the preservation of the fetuses, plucked from the still warm wombs of the mother animals. And to top it all off, those bloody incompetent Portuguese didn’t even manage to carry out the agricultural projects they had planned to.  Goddamn colonialists.

The museum is also home to the best collection of SH** taxidermy I have ever seen.

Highlights include:

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This…. lioness?

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This cheetah who still looks pretty concerned about David Cameron and Pig Gate… Don’t worry cheetah, you’re safe here.

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And this leopard who looks like he could really do with introducing some prunes to his diet.

Needless to say, any year-abroad blues quickly evaporated, the moral of the story being if you feel down on your year abroad, go and laugh at some dead animals.

 

“They Can’t Talk Back But They Are Always Listening.”

A week or two ago, at around 3.00 am, I found myself having a conversation with the attendant of the ladies’ loo in the Parque dos Continuadores. She was probably in her mid-twenties and had been asleep on the bench when I had come in. She woke as I was washing my hands and we exchanged the usual pleasantries.

“Tudo bem?”

“Tudo, gracas a deus. E consigo?”

She told me her name was Sara, and I told her mine. She asked how long I’d been in Maputo, what I was doing here, whether I liked it and I told her. I asked her whether she was from here.

There was a surprising openness about her and a genuine curiosity to her questions, which made me sit down on the bench next to her. After all, conversations with complete strangers do not happen everyday in cities like Maputo.

She slapped a mosquito on her arm and I offered her some repellent.

She then proceeded to tell me about her life. How she works two jobs, as a maid in the house of some Portuguese and also as a lavatory attendant at night at the weekend. How she wanted to spend more time with her children who were growing up too quickly. How she had been forced to leave her home in Gaza and come to Maputo to live with cousins after her father had died of an illness and her mother had been killed by Renamo militia. How much she missed her village. How she missed her parents.

There were probably only a few years between us in age, and I  was hit by a sense of both the enormous contrast between her life and mine, and yet also the familiarity of her fears and desires. I then thought of Henning Mankell’s book and of Nelio as he is forced to flee as a refugee, walking miles through the bush to escape the militia who have razed his village. Then I felt embarrassed for having to turn to fiction to even begin to conceive of the suffering this woman now sitting calmly in this bathroom next to me had experienced.

I told her how my grandmother had died and she let out a sigh, clucking her tongue,

“Was she ill?” She asked. I explained she had dementia and that she was over ninety when she died and Sara was amazed.

“She had a good life, a long life.” She said. “But it doesn’t make it any easier. She is your flesh and blood. You came from her.”

We fell silent then and I stared at the trail of ants making their way in single file across the cracked, cement floor.

“I like to think she is still here. That she is listening.” I said slowly, articulating the thought for the first time.

“Eeeeh! Of course she is listening.” said Sara, “They are always listening. They can’t talk back, which is hard for us, but they are always listening.”

We fell silent again.

Then someone stuck their head round the door. Somebody was leaving, I needed to go and say goodbye.

I stood up and turned to Sara. We looked at each other and hugged, a long, firm embrace of the sort that only comes from having shared something private. It was a gesture which said everything our clumsy words could not. As she pulled away I saw she was crying and I realized I was too.

“See you again, amiga (friend).” She said.

“You too, amiga.” I said and left her sat on the bench, a far away expression on her face as she watched the flickering shadows the moths cast on the wall.

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