Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Birthday In Catembe

I love birthdays!
And I have to admit – that includes my own. Maybe that is one of those things that comes from being in a big family, like the one in which I grew up. My birthday was the one day of the year that was all mine. Now that I am an adult I still like the feeling of celebration and good wishes although I find that I am a lot more excited about my kid’s birthdays than my own. I tell them it is because I was the one doing the birth-thing so it makes it my birthday too. They are sick of that comment!
Before I left the North American continent I decided that I was going to go to a beach for my birthday. The beach, one of my favorite places to be, is absent in Arizona, and plentiful in Mozambique, a country that hosts a stunning coastline along the Indian Ocean. I didn’t get to one of the pristine, white sand, blue water beaches north of here, but I did go across the port to a small bit of land, still part of Maputo City, called Catembe, where there is a very active community and constant transport by boat and ferry to and from mainland Maputo.
My birthday is on Wednesday this year – so I opted for a picnic/potluck on Saturday which was planned with the help of my friend and flat-mate, Rica. She lived on Catembe for 1 ½ years and knows the good spots, the travel time to and fro, and so on.
Our group included VSO volunteers, some of their families and friends. While too lengthy and complicated to list everyone, you will meet some of them as their names pop up throughout this blog. As the Saturday, 25 de Setembro, also happened to be a holiday in Mozambique honoring their armed forces, we knew to expect a busy day with many families going across to the island. We were unloading at Maputo port when a very drunk and rude military fellow came over to yell and swear at us, pushing me and Maggie around, until Rica yelled at his sober counterpart to control the situation. After that no problems. (Maggie, a VSO volunteer, was our ride to Maputo port. Also attending was Maggie’s 8 year old daughter, Genesis along with her 6 year old friend, Victoria, and a lovely family friend, Natasha, 17 yrs. Maggie is the only one volunteering here with a youngster so Genesis gets a lot of attention!)
The scene at the Maputo port was controlled chaos. Along with a long line of cars waiting to get onto the ferry, there were many, many people milling about. Some were people who obviously lived in Catembe and were going back with provisions. But most of the people were going across to enjoy the holiday. While many were dressed beach-casually like us, what was surprising to me were the great many people dressed in “Sunday-best;” men with ironed dress shirts and women in party dresses and high-heeled shoes – I have no idea how they walked in the sand with those on!
The most wonderful people-watching moment  for me was when a young woman in a gorgeous blue satin gown and 3” heels, who was carrying a very dead, fully feathered, head still attached chicken stepped onto the very uneven wooden bridge to the boats; she had a hold of the feet so it dangled upside-down, wings extended, and beak dripping. The rest of her group had boxes of food and cerveja – beer - and a small grill. It looked to be a good feast.
When we finally reached the front of the queue (not called the “line” here) we opted to board a small boat to take us across rather than the ferry which looked overloaded with many cars and many people. Our boat turned out to be equally over-crowed as it ought to realistically hold about 10 people, but was packed with easily 20 of us. Mohammed (my learning-Portuguese partner) and Maggie both told me they didn’t know how to swim; I said they would have to flip a coin to decide between them who I would rescue first if the boat went down. The wind was quite strong, making the 15 minute trip across very choppy. Every one made it across without getting ill, though for certain, there were some pale faces and queasy stomachs.
We disembarked and began a long but pleasant walk that took us about 1 ½ miles or so down the beach, well beyond the partying crowds to a wonderfully quiet and virtually empty stretch. The tide was out when we arrived, leaving at least 200 yards of wet packed sand, making the walk quite easy for anyone without high heels.
What I particularly liked about the walk was Mohammed’s delight at the shells and sea life that were exposed with the tide so low. He said he had seen pictures of some of the shells in school but had never seen any in real life. The beach was well populated with living sea urchins covered with spines waiting for high tide, and spine-less sea urchin shells. He picked quite a few of these up as well as a variety of shells that I did my best to identify, but some were strange also to me. I had to encourage him to leave the shells that were still housing living creatures, if not for any other reason but that they would soon smell quite horrible. We found a surprising amount of sea glass of various colors, including my favorite, blue. I have trouble finding sea glass nowadays on the California beaches I visit, perhaps because in the USA we use cans and plastic far more often than glass. He and I only argued over who-saw-what-first a few times (yes Mom – I am still the consummate collector).
Our picnic was an eclectic and wonderful feast. We had pansit, a traditional fried noodle dish from the Philippines (c/o Rica), pasta salad (me), chapatti – a flat heavy sort of bread traditionally Kenyan (c/o Mohammad), and other potluck fare (samosas, hard boiled eggs, oranges, etc), There was a very nice cake with “Happy Birthday, Biss” in chocolate on the top (c/o Mohammed and Ricky - another volunteer on his way home to the Philippines). We played dodge ball using rolled up socks, and “patintero,” a game from the Philippines that is really fun, can be very competitive (what, me? competitive?) but too hard to explain - you can look it up (I found this site: The game involves two teams and a lot of running. My last bit of sea-side running about included something from my “do before I am 50 yrs old” – I managed to do two very inept cartwheels, but cartwheels none the less. I still want to stand on my head… maybe in a few months when I don’t hurt anymore!
I cut the cake and opened a couple of very nice gifts, and was serenaded (guitar accompanying) with three different happy birthday songs – from Kenya, the Philippines and a local Portuguese one. People sang quite a bit during the day with Paolo, Rica’s boyfriend, or his friend, Moises, playing the guitar.
Rica and I took a long stroll past some beautiful homes, and many decaying, mostly uninhabited houses, to a landmark hotel, Catembe Gallery Hotel,that is on the beach front. Of note in the hotel is a small museum dedicated to Samora Machel (also worth looking up), a charismatic and beloved leader who was the first president of Mozambique after the civil war. He died in a plane crash – it is considered to be an assassination as the plane was believed to have been hijacked and then crashed. I am told that in Mozambique, Machel is thought of in much the same way as Nelson Mandela is in South Africa, and in fact they were friends. Interestingly, after Samora Machel died, his widow married Nelson Mandela.
Though we were there for a sunny, breezy 7 hours, we didn’t go swimming as the water is not clean - all sorts of waste and chemicals are dumped there. It is clean enough to splash in the surf and the kids took full advantage.
Our return was uneventful. I wish I could sit with you over a beer and prawns (being sold fresh and cheaply, $1.50 USD for about 2 lbs at the Catembe port) and tell you more vignettes about the day, as to write them here would run much too long. Suffice to say it was a very lovely way to celebrate my birthday with very good new friends. As Victoria, Genesis’ 6 year old friend, said in her very good English, “Man, it was such a good party!”

Note: To skip the slide show and go to an online album version of these pictures (or if my grand experiment failed and there is no slide show!), click here:
I love birthdays!

[url address you can select, or copy and paste to see pictures if all else fails!:]

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A ride towards being at home

I took a ride on a few chapas – Mozambique’s version of bus transport – the other day when I went to ShopRite to get things for the house. I am allotted an allowance to help set up my household. The money is intended for items ranging from furniture to plates and cups. It is not nearly enough to cover costs so I am very slow in buying anything because I am having trouble prioritizing what to get. On top of that – if you have spent much time with me – you will know that I hate to shop so I have not been motivated to go and spend, being fortunate that my flat mate has many things here already.
Back to the chapas. As in many developing countries, public transportation here is widely used by the public and is extremely crazy. It is an experience that I can’t really relate to anything else I have ever done. When I read about Maputo in tourist guides, there are many warnings about not riding in the ordinary sort of chapas that serve the masses as they are not considered safe, they are overloaded, they are traveling on streets that are dominated by the most blatant sorts of traffic violations I have ever seen, and I am probably being kind here. Even so – if you live in Maputo and you don’t have a car and you don’t have much money and you need to get about town, you will eventually find yourself relying on chapas to get around.
There are different classes of chapa. Nicer ones that you can ride long distances, say to South Africa or Swaziland. And then the not so nice ones that make this something to write about. Actually, the first chapa I got on was a fairly good size and not too crowded – I realized later I was just fortunate that it was still early on a Sunday morning, and I was on a rare, fairly modern, quite large chapa. The more prevalent ones range from being the size of a small school bus to the size of an extended van. They look to be ancient. The sliding door can be knocked off if you bump it wrong and just as easily popped back on;  they have engines you can actually fix because there are no electronic parts; they are – in a word – old. These chapas are constantly pulling alongside the curb at designated spots, one following the next in a confusing way, with no indication that I can understand about where any particular chapa is headed. It also it seems that people jam into them faster than people depart from them. The improbable, eternal bowl of rice that never empties. In fact it seems to just get more and more crowded. This means that, for example on Sunday when I made a transfer, I got on one of the smaller chapas and was one of approximately 25 passengers crammed onto four benches. The gentleman who collects the toll and directs the loading and unloading ended up standing – literally – on top of me for the first few miles. I am learning to reassess my “personal space.” By the time we approached my stop, there were easily 32 of us.
 When I got on the chapa on the return, I was on a bench to the back, which was where I discovered I am claustrophobic under certain circumstances; the first circumstance being when I am in a van with 30 other people and on a bench made for four but seating eight. No matter which bench you are on, if you are not on the last one or two back, and you are on the open door side, you are getting in and out as people disembark, and are reloaded. There was a young boy at the far end of my bench who stared at me the entire time; I think he may not usually see white women riding these chapas.
The return trip was made more challenging as I was carrying four bags of purchases that needed to integrate into my allotted space. I was glad I was going four miles, not forty. I thought about pictures I have seen of people riding on top of buses in developing countries and wondered if I might not be one of those people who might risk sitting on the top of the bus with the chickens. I would be very tempted if I had a long way to go rather than being inside with the 50 or so sardines, I mean passengers sweating away their few pounds as they collectively bumped along the 80 kilometers to the next town.
Since Sunday, I have had quite a few people, other volunteers and Mozambiquans I know, ask about my journey, “So, you went on the chapa?” And then I am rewarded with a knowing sort of nod. I realize I have made a certain rite of passage. It provides a certain sensation, a kind of prediction - I am going to be ok here.

Since the Strike...

As I have had questions from people about what happened next regarding the “strike” I am providing a short follow-up.

The strike/rioting came to an end by the night of September 4th, though the following days remained tense, with people unsure of whether more violence would surge. After emergency cabinet meetings, the government announced on Sep 7, which was a national holiday, that it will subsidize bread prices and took measures to reduce costs of rice, sugar, water and electricity for “small consumers” (those using the least amounts, thereby assumed to be among the most impoverished), and imported goods – most of the food is imported.

At least thirteen people died and scores more injured. This sounds like a wire report, I suppose because it is facts, not observations. How I mainly experience the aftermath of the events of Sep 2 – 4 is through conversations I overhear (and can actually understand somewhat, thanks to Portuguese lessons) and through conversations I have in private with new friends. One example that is notable is the emphatic bravado of a friend who is extremely anti-FREMLO (current majority government) and exceedingly excited and proud that people in the cities of Maputo and Motola forced attention and action. He raises and shakes his fists with the bravado of an underdog heavy weight fighter who has bested the reigning champ. He shouts and grins and boasts of the history of his family who come from a region that has never been known to vote pro-FREMLO.

Things are by no means “fixed.” But in-country I find reports that this incident is being widely accepted as being legitimate, even though it became violent. If you are interested in reading more about it, you can certainly find a lot on line. There is a very interesting article at with details about police action and on the third page of this report, a conversation about government response and various reactions to that response. I encourage reading reports from more than one source as the stories can be slanted depending on where you find your information.

A note... today when I stopped to buy bread at the shop on my way home from the VSO office it was half the price it has been since I arrived. 2 MZN rather than the 4MZN it was when I stopped in two days ago.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

September 1 - 3, 2010. Maputo, Mozambique

I took a series of pictures recently of where I live (click here or select the Photo link at top of the page above the title of this blog) with the intention of writing about my flat a bit - I know my kids are curious about my living space. Interestingly, I have had an excessive amount of time to think about what to say about my flat lately due to some tragic and unusual occurrences here, in and around Maputo and nearby Matolo. But I decided to write about something more immediate and pressing.
To summarize quite briefly, a “strike” – a riot – began in the early hours of Wednesday morning as people protested food and energy price increases. ( You can find more info about the strike if you search online – Sept 1, Maputo.) As I have watched the news and looked online, I have seen images of burning tires and cars, and roads blocked; and I have heard reports of businesses being broken into, and stones being thrown at police by large mobs of people. Police opened fire into the crowd using rubber and live ammo killing “at least six people” according to various news sources, a 12 year old boy among them. Throughout the day and beyond, injured people were transported to the hospital located a few blocks from our flat so we heard the sirens continuing into the night. Our immediate neighborhood was calm and deserted for most of Wednesday. We heard the sound of gunfire but it was difficult to tell where it was coming from. Surging sounds of crowds yelling and shouting came and went.
The word to strike was apparently spread by text messaging. I saw a message on someone’s phone urging people to continue striking through the week. Fortunately, things were quieter on Thursday, though no less tense, as police and private guards were out in force and armed. The violence continued – possibly continues? - on the outskirts of the city and north of the city, and in Matolo.
The VSO office had prior notice and contacted us Tuesday night to tell us to buy food as there was to be a strike the following day, Wednesday. We were not to leave our flat for any reason except emergency. A call on Thursday was the same and again today we were told to remain indoors although later in the day we were urged to get more food if we needed to do so and then return to and stay in our flats for the rest of the day and through the weekend. It is Friday night as I write this.
When we (Rica and I) went out today for a food run there were long, long lines at the bread stores and the bank, and at any store that had food stores. By the early afternoon when I was out, the food markets were shutting doors as they ran out of food, though I noticed that with enough cash people could get through the door despite the “fechado” (closed) sign posted and the guy waving people away. There were some cafes open, only occupied, it seemed, by a few ex-pats – non-Mozambicans. I couldn’t find any other businesses open. 
It is uncertain if people were frantically buying because things are still unstable or because of a rumor that there might be another strike, but either way, there was a strange sense of the surreal as, at first glance, it seemed people were going about their business, shopping as though it were a normal Friday; but then a realization that there was a palpable tension and nervousness permeating the air. The faces of the people walking hurriedly by were strained, and even the demeanor of café-dwellers attempting to look calm and unconcerned sipping their expresso under covered patios was unconvincing.
I am not sure how to explain how I feel. First of all, how I feel is actually amazingly trivial in the scheme of things. But it is all I can 100% share with you with any accuracy. It is clear that there is no immediate danger should I walk out in front of my building where kids had resumed running about today and adults gathered to talk, undoubtedly, about the strike. On the other hand, the very nature of the events taking place is that when there are people desperate enough to riot, violence flares up anywhere with very little notice. The reality is that people who do not look Mozambican may be targeted randomly by incited rioters. The danger is real. And the placidity I observe in my neighbors to gauge my own safety – well – I believe it is a façade. I suppose it is a critically needed one to try to restore order in one’s world. In fact it is a façade I employed as I walked up to the shops in search of food; we were short on most everything but the monotonous rice. 
Honestly, by the time I had done the very little shopping I could and I was heading back towards home, the façade was gone - I was eager to get back to my little flat. I was uncomfortable with the rifles in the hands of men who looked no different than the guys hanging out in Plaza Maguiguana in front of my house except they had a sort of false bravado, an air of invincibility about them that I think wass bolstered by their rifles and that was scary. I was wary of the truckloads of armed police and wondered if they imagined themselves protecting citizens or protecting themselves with those guns.
As I reflect back, I realize I have never before seen people rushing about on the streets – this is a city of people moving at a moderate and steady pace, if not downright slow. When I was out and about, I was in a neighborhood I didn’t recognize, one that I had taken great care to observe and absorb the last two weeks since I had arrived. I have been used to a population in motion, with many people on the streets making do, a large number of people with sense of finality about them, their lives made difficult with the struggle of making it through each day. So many of the people I typically pass on the street – the many, many who aren’t in buildings working, or driving recklessly through the streets in 4x4s - are visibly impoverished, chatty, friendly, loud, busy doing not very much with no urgency to their days. For the most part, that population was nowhere to be seen. I think that probably a good number live out in the slums on the outskirts of the city where the rioting was the worst. And they don’t have money to stock up on food.
I have had a lot of time to think about things and wonder about my feelings. The strangest feeling I have is a sort of confusion, a unsettled nervousness. I think it is attributable to my ambiguity about what I hope for when I am “allowed” to go out. I would have thought I would like the city to resume its nature. But there is a part of me that thinks all of this upheaval shouldn’t have happened for nothing; that there should be a change. I want the complacency of inevitable poverty to be replaced by a sense of urgency. I want the haves and the many, many to collectively acknowledge that there is something wrong and while rioting is not the way to make change happen, the possibility exists that perhaps a united people with purpose and leadership can make change happen. I am not sure how that can happen or what that looks like here – or what that feels like, but I would like to know. I suppose the reality is that I am here because I want to see that happen – I want to feel that happen. I want that change.