Tuesday, August 14, 2007

People, places, reproductions

I’ve been thinking about autobiography lately. Self-representation and people’s compulsion to record themselves – their thoughts, actions, images – for other people to witness. It's a global and fundamental process facilitated by diverse, evolving media. From Westerners busily constructing and marketing themselves on myspace and facebook - your distinctiveness, your ‘profile’, you in concentrate produced expressly for visibility – to Mozambicans owning photo albums devoted to their own image. Potted life histories are eagerly pressed into the hands of new acquaintances. People lean or shift into the camera frame and revel in seeing themselves instantaneously digitally reproduced.

The consumption of these representations casts the life-giving light of recognition. You are constituted, given significance, through being observed; ‘I am seen, therefore I am’. I suppose this it's just another form of interaction though - the exchanges that create society. People not only want recognition in the present, they want to leave some kind of tangible evidence of their existence: a mark, a ‘legacy’, however small. We’re hardwired not to be the tree that fell that nobody heard, since cave painting perhaps.

But there’s something particularly Modern (even in our post-post-modern age, or whatever we’re in now. Is Irony the new black?) about painstakingly recording your chronological development through life and self-consciously crafting it for public consumption. I’m afraid it’s the looming black hole of human transience. In the West at least, amidst this era of the Death of God and hyper-individualism, it would seem we avid representationalists seek to give substance to light-weight existences. Modern technology is just the vehicle for our insecurity epidemic then.

From this perspective, excessive public documentation of the self can be counter-productive. Being technicologically spoiled for choice, this is where the West infamously differs from developing countries: the pandemics of consumerism and celebrity. People become saccharine and insubstantial, losing coherence (and the plot) amidst myriad faxsimiles of self, as poor old Ms Spears continues to demonstrate.

That said, the urge to document extends to our stimuli, the places we go and people we meet. Many of us doggedly scan and pickle life. When I see exotic, unique scenes here in Mozambique I have a niggling sense of touristic urgency - as though if I don’t capture them for preservation they’ll be lost. Do I lack faith in my mind’s eye, do I feel an aesthetic duty, or do I need to show other people to affirm what I experienced? Either way it’s annoying as the urge to record often encroaches on the seeing and enjoying. Increasingly frequently I discipline myself to just soak up my surroundings.

Although there are definite up-sides to all this recording. Others get to enjoy interesting/attractive images or descriptions and indirectly experience somewhere or something new. I enjoy ‘re-experiencing’ them. Sending pictures to family and friends helps me bridge geographical locations which would otherwise be separate worlds. And of course, there’s Art for Art’s sake. Either way, I’m no doubt part-product of my insecure generation, though at least some Mozambican prettiness gets preserved along the way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Political swings and roundabouts

The national presidential visit has just rounded up. Armando Gebuza and his magisterial convoy snaked their way across all of Mozambique. Fifty two cars and six helicopters hired from South Africa, although the figures I hear keep inflating. Someone said 72, and the same again for the First Lady. The helicopters are deemed essential to access remote areas and isolated communities (the majority) of Mozambique. There very few roads, you see. There are 3 crumbling train routes left by the Portuguese. The southern train (I believe there is just the one) is an extraordinary lumbering relic seemingly hailing from the Great War and takes days. We often overtake it in the car on the dirt tracks. Barring Maputo and some of the coast, the decidedly retro quality of the nation’s infrastructure boils down to – for manifold reasons - lack of funds. Or perhaps it’s a question of budget lines. Too many more important things demanding the national silver. Like helicopters?

Does anyone object to the stark asymmetry between the president’s means and those of his electorate? Since most people – around 80% of the population – live rurally, largely without electricity or access to media of any kind, and roughly half the population is illiterate, I’d say they don’t consider it. My colleagues tell me their family in rural Gaza cast their votes according to who the last president endorses (or whoever they’ve heard of/are told to vote for). So, currently in power, Frelimo are onto a winner. They are in Gaza anyway as this province is one of their strong-holds. In each urban centre there is an active Frelimo HQ, holding regular events, parties, rallies etc whereas Renamo, the opposition is invisible in these parts. In central Mozambique I’m told it’s the reverse. As I’ve written before, allegiances remain true to the two side’s support bases during the civil war. It seems then, that political support is predetermined, inherited rather than earned.

Civil society is particularly weak overall in Mozambique. The circulation of information is stunted for reasons mentioned - low levels of education, poor infrastructure etc, weakening debate and accountability. There is also an ingrained culture of hierarchy, seemingly fed both by the Portuguese Latinate legacy and the tradition of African chiefdom. Authority commands respect and often subservience. People generally don’t feel at liberty to criticise their superiors, although this depends on the institution and area. Certainly, addressing people by titles is uniform. They waver between ‘Dona’, ‘Senhora’ and ‘Doctor’ for me despite my pleas. Civil society and political accountability is subject to the yawning urban/rural divide though. Debate is, naturally, more informed and lively in urban, more ‘developed’ circles. There are a number of TV programmes, like Ponto de Vista (Point of View) and Joven (Youth) which discuss political and societal issues. The former recently discussed the threat of the institutional weakness of Renamo to Mozambican democracy and on the latter the legalisation of abortion. (Watched at my friend’s house, I don’t have a TV!). The press features op-eds, letters from the public etc and is ‘free’ from censorship, although journalists tend to steer clear of serious controversy. The murder of a top investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso 6 years ago during his exposure of corruption in elite Frelimo factions, for instance, damaged the freedom of the press in Mozambique considerably.

Regarding the exorbitant expense of the latest presidential tour, (when prompted) rather than directly slating Gebuza my colleagues muttered about the glory days of Samora Machel. He is Mozambique’s Che Guevara. People’s revolutionary to the last and first president of the new republic. It sounds like he was quite progressive in some respects, including whites in his cabinet for instance, despite the anti-colonial backlash. We never got to know if he’d slide into despotism however, due to his untimely death. He was done away with CIA-style in a ‘freak’ plane crash in 1986 thought to be sponsored by South Africa’s apartheid regime (also sponsoring then guerrilla resistance movement Renamo) with the complicity of his closest advisors. Apparently he ‘knew’ about the plot for his demise but decided to keep an appointment to visit the poor anyway. It’s thought he was found alive with two broken legs and was then shot. The plane’s black box was never found – a signature flourish in the globalised genre of left-wing leader assassinations. Machel’s honour has thus been preserved at its peak. He’s the national hero, up there with academic pioneer Eduardo Mondlane, the country’s first Doctor of medicine.

Machel’ successor and Gebuza’s predecessor, moderate Joaquim Chissano facilitated gradual reform, steering the country towards capitalism after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It seems this ‘slowly but surely’ approach did a great deal to stabilise Mozambique. It is remarkably stable and socially integrated for a country only at peace since ’94. A more militant/populist radical could have plunged the country into the corrosive pendulum effect exemplified by despots like Amin or the next-door neighbour Mugabe. Mozambique is not entirely without Machiavellian intrigue though. Colourful character and war hero General Mabote remains a bit taboo. A distinguished strategist during the Independence war, he applied the same uncompromising military gusto in politics as he did in the bush. During one parliamentary debate he frenziedly proclaimed his intention to hit/batter (one for the translators) those who contradicted him. He and Gebuza (a businessman of great wealth by the way) were both Chissano’s natural successors. The usual campaign trail was, however, apparently substituted by an unfortunately recurrent theme in African politics. Mabote drowned whilst taking a swim at Bilene – a waste-high millpond-esque lagoon in Gaza.

Transition, stabilisation, development remain ongoing. Compared to Chissano, Gebuza has been less talk, more action. He has radically diminished the bureaucracy and inefficiency of public institutions. People are happy they’re now seen to instead of ignored in hospital waiting rooms and that their visa applications take a few weeks instead of months. But this dynamism and decisiveness is yielding a darker flipside. A policy to purge Mozambique of ring-leader criminals has by all accounts led to the bypassing of the (still haphazard, often corrupt) judicial system in favour of their being systematically killed. Reported recently was the public murder by police of a civilian who pranged the president’s daughter’s car whilst leaving Maputo nightclub Coconuts. There are also reports of women wearing mini-skirts being taken off the street into custody, and whispers of a law making the wearing of below-the-knee skirts (not trousers) mandatory. How much mileage this nascent erosion of civil liberties has is questionable though. Mozambique’s current developmental momentum is buoyed by the influx of Western donor money invested on account of its liberal-democratic free-market credentials. With the historical spectre of African authoritarianism looming large, politically speaking (sovereignty aside) it would surely hurt national interest to jeopardize this with the introduction of anti-liberal policies. This said, flows of Western money do not necessarily correlate with good human rights records, controversial British-Saudi Arabia relations being a case in point.

The long-term trajectory of Gebuza’s no nonsense approach remains to be seen. From my own Western wooly liberal perspective, a lean in the direction of more equitable wealth distribution, stronger civil society and better government accountability is what’s needed rather than radical quick-fix policies and a slide towards a corrupt police state. So far, on balance, Mozambique is somewhat of a post-conflict success story. Hopefully down the line things will look even rosier, women will be wearing whatever they want and the price of pranging anyone’s car will be an insurance pay-out.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Well dear reader, lots happened in the rather long period since the last ‘post’ (will it always be so?). In a nifty summary:

Work’s going in fits and starts. Latest fit was a 3-day workshop and the mania that reigned in the run-up. Logistics in this country are hair-raising, like Greek plate spinning. I was virtually resorting to carrier pigeon to invite people. Most of the staff were deep ‘in the field’ without a flicker of electricity, never mind phone line, mobile network or (scoff!) internet connection. Letters went with cars that may or may not pass by and messages were radioed to government posts from government posts. Like WW2! Obviously when the time arrived, planes were missed, hotel keys lost, photocopiers conked out, even a case of food poisoning. But hey ho the show must go on and actually the workshop itself went well! Lots covered and I think learnt. And after fielding calamities and facilitating sessions for 30 people in Portuguese I’m doubtless ready for anything.

I’ve got to know the director of a new local orphanage over the last few weeks. After visiting and seeing they have lots of land and are keen to make the place sustainable (run itself), I’ve applied for a grant from a VSO fund to do a small income generation project. This would involve growing vegetables and keeping livestock – goats and chickens - to both eat and sell (inspired by the VETAID food security project). It’s taking ages to get a reply though. I finally got hold of the VSO lady in charge the other day and she says she’s back in the office next week and we’ll talk then. Fingers crossed we’ll receive the money. Although I read in our newsletter that RAISA was funding another project in the north for the visually impaired. Hope they haven’t snaffled all the cash.

I managed to get malaria a few weeks ago – well so they said, and only the milder form but it still meant a tedious, feverish week in bed. I visited the private clinic that VETAID’s with which was very basic. After doing no tests they packed me off with a rainbow of pills to cure all ailments 4 times over. They probably have a deal with the pharmacy, which then doled them out in a plastic bag with verbally gabbled instructions (no packaging). I think I’m now forever resistant to antibiotics but after intensive vitamin B have the heart of an ox.

Soon after that a crime-fighting incident occurred. Peace Corps volunteer Marie rang me at 5am one Saturday morning petrified that people were trying to break to her house.
She pleaded with me to come quickly, so I hauled myself out of bed resigned to the inevitable futility of it all. But sure enough I got there and a man was standing by her door. He saw me and darted round the side of the house. I got a tad scared. Then Marie rang again saying she thought someone was actually inside, so I woke the neighbours/landlord up. They came out bleary-eyed and started to investigate. The two men had disappeared but it emerged one had actually broken a window, got in and taken Marie’s wallet and passport. The other one must have been waiting to be let in. Yikes. We called the police but unfortunately they’re pretty ineffectual and often corrupt so it was really just a formality. Poor old Marie had to trundle off to Maputo to do lots of paper work.
On a lighter note, social life’s been quite jolly, if unconventional. There’s nothing too crazy to do in Chokwe. We have one ‘discotheque’ which plays the same CD each Friday while the DJ earnestly pretends to mix, and I sheepishly try to shake my booty and shimmy out of the clutches of drunks. Even the sound system had had enough recently when a speaker blew up. But that, Palhota, a kind of village hall setting with a bar and unexpectedly decent food, and local ‘happening’ café/bar Rafik’s are the social hubs of Chokwe. We make dinner and watch films at each other’s houses though. One guy has a projector so we lie on mattresses on the floor and watch dvds on the wall. We’ve also now found a shop that sells decent white wine - a change from 2M (Mozambican) beer and Amarula (like Baily’s).

Significant advantages are being near beaches and safari parks and everyone (except me) having 4x4s. Last weekend we went camping to the newly opened Limpopo National Park. It was beautiful, proper bush and really isolated villages with little painted houses. We managed to spot giraffe, zebra, buffalo, impala and warthogs! Limpopo is newly opened though and doesn’t actually have many animals yet. It borders with well-established South African Kruger Park so we’re going to cross over next time to see elephants, hippos and big cats! We pitched up at a place high up overlooking the expansive river Limpopo. But with no light for miles, the stars were a twinkling profusion so we slept outside in appreciation. Idyllic as it was I woke up with a really sore throat and felt fluey for the next 3 days. I decided to battle it off myself though and steer clear of another overdose!

With it being inadvisable to travel after dark, Friday night on the way to the park Georgina and I stopped to stay at the Medicus Mundi (NGO she works for) house in Massingir, a little town nearby. After cooking ourselves a civilised dinner we thought we’d venture out to survey the local nightlife. We discovered that the whole town was at this one motel, from kids to grannies. The sight of alien-pale people whipped them into a frenzy and we kind of got mobbed. It was friendly, if overbearing and we chatted away, until people started shoving each other, sitting on our laps and asking for money so we thought it was time to go. We sped off in our white-man’s landcruiser with children running after us semi-sorry semi-scared.

I’m still forging ahead with the Portuguese. My friends are largely Portuguese, Mozambican and Spanish so I using it socially now as well as at work. Though Georgina, who I probably see most, is Catalan and throws in a few words with even more Spanish so I’ll probably end up with an incomprehensible mulch. Still a long way to go anyway. Last night in Rafik’s I sat at a table full of Portuguese engineers. Straining to follow the thick-accented lightning quips about machinery, I eventually zoned out.

Went to colleague/friend Aderito’s ‘apresentação’ the other weekend. It was fun, basically a big party with lots of outdoors dancing, food and drink. I missed the earlier part of the ceremony though. The driver who was supposed to pick me and Carla up had got drunk and gone awol and Aderito was too preoccupied to notice. He (driver) did come and fetch us later, sozzled, and insisted on a detour to show us his house even though we were 4 hours late.

I‘d been a little preoccupied myself that afternoon. I’d gone for a walk around Chokwe and taken my camera out at various intervals to snap away. Arriving home, I realised my house keys were nowhere to be seen. After furious rummaging I retraced my long, meandering path but no keys glinted in the sunlight. I was locked out. You can’t get a locksmith at the weekend. All the windows have grates on, bar (ha) one at the back to the bathroom. To get to that you have to climb a tall metal gate, which I duly, precariously, did. I was scanning about for something to break the window when I thought I’d better ring someone about last ditch alternatives. With Aderiot busy being ceremonial, I rang my boss who lives over the road. He came over armed with a screwdriver and had to climb the gate. He has a very comical demeanour anyway and, teetering on the top with the terrible prospect of a fracture, I had to turn away to hide my laughing. He then set about chipping off the putty around the pane of glass to avoid breaking it. Just at the end of this painstaking endeavour he broke it anyway so we reached through and opened the window, and I clambered in. What a palaver! Have now left a spare key at the office to avoid future disaster.

Apparently it’s Africa day today. No sign of any celebration nor a day off work. There are only 6 public holidays and if they fall on the weekend, as half of them have this year, they don’t graciously move them to the following Monday. Boo – how am I supposed to traverse this rough terrain to visit lovely beaches in only 2 days?? So thoughtless!

So I’ve hit the halfway mark. How strange, it’ll be Christmas before I know it and I’ll be home making up for lost mince pies. I’ve got a serious hankering for London at the moment. Dressing up for big nights out, live music, Sunday markets, interesting food, cafes and friends, ohh. But I’m reminding myself all that’ll be there when I get back, whereas warthogs won’t.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Old Routine

Now I always seem to recount tales from the field but most of my time is spent pottering around Chokwe, so I’ll describe my usual day. I get up around 7, even though my alarm goes off at 5.30 fairly often in the (always vain) hope I’ll drag myself out of bed to join Marie, peace corps friend, on her morning run. I’ve only made it twice. On those occasions it was lovely - bright, calm, cool, just the swooshing of a few ladies sweeping, and feeling smug for the rest of the day. It’s just the getting out of bed. Anyway, so usually up at 7, shower, porridge with banana or fruit and yoghurt and at work for 8. Come home for lunch around 1 and sit with Aderito and his friends/sometimes other colleagues in the usual spot under the mango tree by our houses. He always eats rice and meat made by his empregada (maid – everyone has one, I share his for clothes washing, though people still come knocking on the door asking if I’ll employ them) while I eat some salady concoction or a sandwich. Finish work at 5. After fafing on the internet for a bit, race to Casamo’s general store before it shuts to jostle at the counter and shout the things I want (nearly everything’s behind the counter, you have to direct them). Although this week I’ve been going for a drink with my colleague, Carla, to practice her English and my Portuguese until she goes to school for 4 more hours to study natural resource management – phew! Marie comes round at 5.45 for tae bo or pilates (usually pilates as it’s still hot and we’re getting lazier). I’ll have dinner then and either meet someone, go and chat next door or chill out at home - reading, watching a dvd, writing emails (and occasionally blog entries!), talking on the phone if one of the 3 people who ring me rings! (thanks mum, dad and mark). And then it’s bedtime (too late to get up at 5.30) on my dreadful foamy mattress ready to drift off to the next surrealist larium-induced la la land. Last night I had a long struggle to drown a snake in a glass of water. I finally managed it only to get a load of miniscule red nails stuck in the sole of my foot that were apparently prongs of its venom. I had to go to the doctors to have them extracted and sure enough the waiting room was filled with randoms from school. How retro.

By the way I’ve been meaning to mention that James Blunt is Huge here – ubiquitous, inescapable. And oddly enough the funny posh guy from the cavaliers – met during the bizarre British Army landing - had been in the same regiment as ‘Blunty’. He would regularly entertain, tinkering on the piano and crooning, and claiming he’d soon leave for a music career. Naturally all were disbelieving and attempts he did make at getting a record deal were thwarted on account of the British public preferring cheeky everymans like t’Arctic Monkeys to posh short ex-soldiers. Then Atlantic or someone thought of America, where the little Blunt bundle would and did go down a storm! Now he’s rivalling Coca-Cola for dominance of Africa. Dreams do come true.

M & E, baby

Last week we had a week-long EU (our donor) monitoring visit. A French lady, who’s accent in Portuguese really threw me off, had us all trundling round each community, asking and answering probing questions – as it should be. Transparency and accountability all the way! We received tons of watermelons – the backs of the trucks were full – as they’ve come to fruition with such abundance people can’t eat them all. I learnt loads about ‘the project cycle’ and monitoring and her comments were very insightful but it sure was knackering. Spent the entire day in the car on Saturday – 8 hours over dirt-track roads, no joke. The drivers take no prisoners too, flying over bumps and swerving violently round potholes and animals. My legs were twitching involuntarily by the end. Although on the whole I’ve become quite accustomed to long journeys now, clinging to the ceiling handle whilst holding a book barely in focus in failing light without feeling sick (talk about skills development). Or I just put music on and enter a meditative state. I slept for about 12 hours that night. Woke up in a daze on Sunday and felt homesick for the rest of the day, and Monday. Funnily enough the weather had turned cool and grey – rather like home! – and I was no doubt feeling the brunt of the serotonin slump. My cold shower is also a lot less inviting when I’m not sweating before I get into it. I had to do aerobics before hand to warm up. The sun’s back with a vengeance now though so the natural order and my mood have been restored.

Dark Days

Don’t worry, not emotionally. We had a four day power cut. It doesn’t sound particularly radical, but if you consider that all water to the town is pumped and thus ground to a halt, while temperatures sizzled at mid-30s discomfort levels were getting pretty high. Candles became scarce, queues of people clutching gerry cans snaked along the river, shops threw out meat and sweating grumbling westerners despaired at the lack of fans and fridges. I had ‘baths’ using a saucepan of water from my filter for a day and a half before realising this wasn’t a long term solution; maintenance isn’t one of Mozambique strong points so I went foraging for supplies... All the way next door where my neighbour/saviour Aderito, accustomed to never having running water, sorted me out with a big canister cunningly procured via car from his friend’s house.

I’d already agreed to host a bit of a slumber party with some peace corps volunteers floating about the area as it was one of their birthdays. Home cooked goodies, cold booze and all things involving light, heat and wind went out the window. So we went out to eat (gas used for cooking) then wandered the streets chatting to randoms since the whole town was out in force, milling and doing the whole ‘in the same boat’ thing that we universally do. Then we went back to my house, ate biscuits by candle light and played ridiculous games til the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever so thoroughly enjoyed a game of charades. Hilarity! Anything with animals or mildly rude words in the title was gold – Free Willy, for instance, was an inspired performance. There was a frenzied interruption at one point when we spotted a mouse and sent the boys chasing it with a broom, which they broke through bashing (and missing), then momentary rapture when the lights came on for 10 minutes and we managed to charge our phones. Anyway we had a jolly old time (quite family-on-boxing-day-esque) so we’re going for a repeat performance this weekend by the beach - with power, which might just spoil it all and leave us monosyllabic in front of a dvd.

Sunday was spent basking in front of the fan, showering for a long time and using the internet in the office. Oh and cooking, after eating a lot of salad, bread and fruit. I had my weekly hour of Portuguese. The 3 conditional moods this week. I like my teacher, Nelson. We chuckle at verb jokes. (It’s just dawned on me I’ve turned into a geek).

Monday was back to business as usual, kind of strange in itself. Sadly the black-out was the repercussion of a disaster in Maputo. An arms depot seemingly overheated resulting in big explosions and the random release of missiles into neighbouring villages. Around 100 people were killed and over 400 injured. Good grief, it’s not as if heat’s a sudden and unexpected phenomenon. God knows what happened, pretty tragic. It highlights the difference in a developing country though. Not just it happening - defunct cooling system or whatever it was – but how swiftly everyone moves on. If that had happened in the UK there would be a public outcry, media frenzy, massive investigation, heads rolling, official mourning and ceremonies galore. The public value of life and acceptance of death differs greatly (unsurprisingly given the stats) as does the degree to which people’s legal and human rights have any bearing. Not a whisper about compensation nor established culpability/formal apologies, although I think there’s an investigation pending.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Updated at last!

OK this blog is pitifully out of date. I promise to do better from now on. At least now I can say that life has assumed some sort of routine - favourable for regular updates. Although I am travelling every other week, but that’s a good thing. Keeps blog content varied eh! Just returned from latest field trip to Chugubu district, north Gaza province. The most cut-off of all the districts we work in i think. It was good - field trips are always prime bonding time and good for my Portuguese. You also learn tons coz you're right in the middle of things.

Some things learnt over the last few days:
Women’s thighs are thought particularly erotic here - the skin is said to be farer than the lower leg as they don’t see much sun. The rebel army Renamo used to move through the countryside in formations like the 5 on dice to give the impression of greater numbers and capture more people. Avocado is considered a desert food, usually prepared with sugar and lemon. Brown scorpions are less lethal than black ones. There are 3 types of watermelon – pink ones with stripes on the outside, non-striped ones with lighter pink flesh and pretty marbly seeds and ones with white flesh. You know when they’re ready for picking when a little stalk next to the fruit has shrivelled up and they sound heavy when tapped. There are many types of fruit I didn’t know existed, e.g. orange spherical things as hard as a cricket ball and kind of pomegranate-like inside. Little yellow berry-like things with stones in that have milky juice and are really sweet. They use the big-brothers of these to make the liquor Amorula. When they’re in season (like now) there is about a week when each household makes a batch of home-brew booze and people circulate from house to house through the afternoon and evening getting totally sloshed. In Chigubu district, a lot of people simply arrange their things under trees and sleep outside. This often happens when a man has taken more wives than he can build houses for. Theft is pretty much unheard of. People also like to live in relative isolation – houses will be away from roads (tracks) and be around 2 km from each other. This makes providing facilities like schools and health care nearly impossible so the government are trying to encourage centralisation to villages. People use dogs to (illegally) hunt impala and porcupines (endearingly in Portuguese porcus espines, pronounced porcuspenus). You can buy a whole impala leg for 100 Mtn, about £2. Maize is impressively versatile.

The latest field trip (back yesterday) was good although the creature-ante was upped somewhat. Arriving late at night on Wednesday, it was a bit late to put up the tent I’d be sleeping in so I was just given a straw mat and some blankets to lie on in one of the huts. This was fine, surprisingly comfy really. But the hut was a literally little furnace: clay walls and corrugated iron roof. I lay prostate and tried to go to sleep. Just as I started to drift off I had sudden heart palpitations as I felt something crawl over my leg. I grabbed my torch and to my repugnance into the corner had scuttled a spider larger than my fist, big thick legs and, worse, white! Ugh. Besides the horror, it occurred to me that I hadn’t done my research on what’s poisonous in these parts so I darted off to get Gilda, my colleague to gesticulate about the grande aranha. She started chuckling about a thing called an ‘osgar’ that ‘nao fez mal’, doesn’t bite etc and declared it had run off now. I was not convinced but rather than cause a scene I resignedly cocooned myself in my sheet, sprayed deet on my face and baked away all night like a corn on the cob.

Next night the tent went up thank god and was nice and cool, but last night’s encounter had prompted a discussion on beasties in these parts and I’d learned that snakes (cobras, black mambas..) and scorpions were regular features. Ohmygod. They ‘only come in if you leave the door open’ and ‘only attack if you attack them’. Small comfort!!! Anyway from about 4 in the morning there was scratching and scrabbling around the edges of one side of the tent and I couldn’t stop thinking a snake was chewing its way in or a scorpion was burrowing under (not so paranoid – they do it a lot apparently). I was very scared. In the morning we discovered it was a big stag beetle making the racket and it met an early grave. Anyway, I don’t know if these encounters are making me more hardy or my nerves raw but all in the tapestry of life or whatever they say.

As for actual work, so far so good. I basically have to be some kind of institutional doctor and evaluate the 3 partner-organisations – Mozambican NGOs that are helping us (VETAID) implement the food/livelihood security project – followed by some kind of diagnosis and recommendations. I’m avoiding the word prescription as it’s all collaborative - they can tell me to take a hike if they don’t like what I come up with. That’s where the effusive term ‘capacity building’ comes into play – it’s fortifying the areas of the organisations that are weak/underperforming, e.g. fundraising, planning, reporting, human/financial/material resources, administration, any systems or structures really! Anyway I’ve just spent a week with one partner org which was really good. Worked at their office in Xai Xai and did various VSOey activities like SWOT analyses, flow charts, questionnaires (naturally open-question, ‘tell me about’, ‘how is’), meetings and lots of chatting, and then had 4 days staying with them seeing the field activities and more chatting. All in horrendously broken Portuguese but I got by. The language barrier is actually quite liberating as they presume you’re talking sense and it just got lost in translation. More importantly it actually works as a levelling tool as they initially view me with suspicion (white person come to criticise our organisation) but after much humble apologising for my Portuguese and asking them to help me, (and replacing ‘criticise’ with ‘support’!) we’re on a nicely even keel. Anyway it’s good skills-building stuff all round! Actually on that subject, the demand for English lessons from friends/colleagues is trickling in. I tried the conditional but I don’t really know what I’m doing, anyone got any suggestions for resources?

Anyway, back in my house this weekend has been nice. Rented 3 (pirate) dvds from the local store for about a pound and am enjoying sleeping, pottering, reading, writing. Have had to murder some more cockroaches and dispose of the corpses though which doesn’t get any less traumatic. I was promised that Nolly (my cat) was a good bug-catcher but he has so far shown neither the skill nor inclination. Just gorges on sardines, lies around all day and bites my ankles at night. Am off to Maputo tomorrow for a VSO secure livelihoods conference/workshop. Looking forward as will see some friends from initial training plus it’ll be interesting as all from tiny NGOs to big international ones are attending and there’s lots of scope to introduce new ideas at VETAID. Plus I get to buy things like chutney and balsamic vinegar when I go to the capital. Friday is a further 6 hour trip up to one of the districts called Chicualacuala (cool name eh) for a meeting on co-ordinating the activities of NGOs working in the region. There are lots of forums for exchange which is good. I need to write up all my stuff gathered from the week with ADCR too. I’m glad I’m busy and actually producing stuff, the first few weeks felt a bit structureless, just wading through reports etc.

Other general activities over the past few weeks: been to the beach at Bilene a couple of times. It’s lovely, all palm trees, white sand and warm turquoise water and only an hour away! South African friend Garth has been training me in chess as he’s an expert. Have also met up with the 2 peace corps lads in chokwe a bit. Went to Maputo last weekend for my friend Joanne’s birthday which was a yummy meal and then off to Coconuts for dancing fun! One guy Phil who came to the meal had a very interesting sounding and hard-to-come-by job with DFID. Did some shopping anyway (mostly condiments!) on Sat, visited Dutch ex-flat mate Katherina in her impressive new sea-view apartment (after her placement she got headhunted to help open a new Dutch bank in Moz!) then had a thai take away and watched Notting Hill with Jo.

Went up to Bilene on Sunday and met Matt one of the peace corps guys. He was there with this big Mozambican family, his neighbours who have taken him under their wing. They (and Mozambicans in general, if I may generalise!) are incredibly generous and hospitable. They brought everything with them and cooked 2 enormous meals including chicken and fresh fish and kept trying to foist more on us. They were a good laugh too. They were leaving quite late though and I needed to get back so I braved the chapas (minibus public transport) on my own back to Chokwe. I met a couple of local girls and travelled with them. Again, so helpful, insisted on carrying half my stuff and walked me to the stop where I needed to change buses. Should only take about an hour and a half but you also have to wait for them to fill up and then they stop and start according to the driver’s every whim. It took me over 3 hours to get home, by which time there was a storm and my electricity had gone off at home. Nolly had torn the toilet role to shreds and knocked everything over. Ah well!

Oh there was a most newsworthy occurrence about 10 days ago – the British army landed in little old Chokkers! I was under the tree for lunch when an annoyingly ubiquitous, rather stalkerish boy called Dominic came over to tell me that British soldiers were in town and they wanted to speak to me! I thought I must have misunderstood but no, they were here on reconnaissance (ha!) to plan a contingency disaster relief operation in the event of terrible flooding here like that of 2000 (water up to ceilings). They’d heard there was a ‘resident Brit in town’ (ha!) and wanted to ply me for info - save themselves the bother of gesticulating at the locals. They’d found my office (got to hand it to them) and were waiting on the bench outside. Most strange it was to have my Mozambican bubble punctured with hyper-Britishness. Hugo and Major Martin something or other. Anyway, we had a nice chat about infrastructure etc and then they declared a drink at nineteen hundred hours was in order! So I spent that evening drinking the local beer with about 15 members of the British forces – mixture of army and RAF. It was an interesting, if surreal evening and reminded me how weird military culture is. I suppose it has to be to cultivate a mindset that makes going off to war acceptable or desirable. Still I was quite surprised to hear a raving Neo-Con, pro-Iraq, thank god for America, beat-up the bad guys, intervention a gogo argument from the Hugo person. Despite being double-barrelled and a raging toff he was part of the Ghurka regiment and was fluent in Nepalese. The major person was a bit more nuanced and thought that perhaps alternative strategies were needed to compliment the military effort in the War on Terror… Another posh member of the cavalry (another thing learnt: they still call it that despite riding round on tanks instead of horses) had done War Studies at Kings and told hilarious stories of room-sharing at Wellington Hall before it was sold off. There was one rough-around-the-edges guy fittingly named Scruff or Smudge or something who made some disturbing nationalist/xenophobic/fascist comments and generally looked mad. I suppose the potent culture is needed to mask or bridge great gorges in class too. There was also the macabre/hey-ho conversation of which song to have at your funeral. A trio of one of the British patriotic anthems, Pink Floyd and something idiotic like the Cheeky Girls seemed to be the consensus. The next morning I met with a couple more of them to answer more questions. Later that day I received a text message apologising for not being able to say thanks and goodbye properly due to being escorted out of Chokwe by the Mozambican government/secret police. What on earth?! The newspaper the following day also reported that people had actually been dying due to really bad floods up in northern Moz. So the whole thing is either a deeply suspicious cover, or an embarrassing oversight, or maybe just bumbling British misdirection. I dunno.

Ooh I received my first snail mail letter the other day (thanks Manik!) very exciting, so come on people, put pen to paper!! Address to send to is:

VETAID Moçambique
Av. Eduardo Mondlane, no. 1270
C.P. 1707

Presents of any kind also welcome J I hope you’re all doing well, email me with all news and write some comments on this thing! xxxxxxxx

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Home-Stay! 8th – 11th December 2006

Well well, how funny to read back on expectations, when all has been revealed! Home-stay was quite an eye-opener. Not bad, I had a good time, just quite challenging. Also rather ironic…

So Katherina had been telling me horror stories of her experience with a crazy mother, cockroach infestations etc…

We pulled up by the church of a town names Macia on Friday morning, 2 hours late. A group of head-scarved sat shaded from the blistering heat under a big tree, patiently waiting. We got off and filed over to a U shape of benches, facing the group. Amidst furtive scanning of potential hosts/guests, our VSO manager Augusto placed a handful of folded papers in the centre. We had to choose a family, lottery-style. I got up, selected my paper and read out ‘Milagrosa’. There was an almighty shriek. A lady who I’d had a feeling about (honestly!) sprang at me, exclaiming thanks to the lord and that she’d ‘chosen me on the bus’. She whirled me around in a vice-like grip. I was a tad surprised, but pleased as it broke the awkwardness and I certainly felt welcome!

After the initial exuberance, hand firmly grasped, I was marched off towards the supplies that VSO had brought for the families. Mila was militant about getting her share. Watching her in action, I began to suspect that the reason she’d been so happy to get me was because young white girl = rich soft-touch. I hoped she wasn’t going to fleece me for cash (you get a bit fed up with it).

We set off towards her house, flour, oil etc in hand. She gabbled gleefully in Portuguese that I would be a nice friend for her daughter, Nuzipa, which I considered a more hopeful motivation. Her jolliness set me at ease. We arrived and I was relieved to see that her house was the breeze-block type rather than reeds, which I thought might be dustier and more insecty. Incidentally, I noticed my middle finger had gone completely numb from carrying the stuff. It stayed like that for 2 days and even now sensation is a bit dull!

The house had 3 rooms (2 bedrooms and an everything-else room) and was very clean and neat inside despite the grey concrete walls giving an initial air of dinginess. Outside, a big sandy very neatly swept garden area surrounded the house. There were several trees, a few crops, a stove and some chickens. There was also a quiet lady sitting on a mat with a child, who I gleaned were Mila’s sister and nephew. We put down my stuff in one of the bedrooms which she said was mine - I was thrilled to have my own room, with an actual bed!

First thing, she insisted that I ‘tomar banho’ i.e. take a bath. I was perfectly glad, it was boiling. Whilst I wondered about the logistics, she barked (one thing soon learnt: shouting does not mean anger – they shouted most things at each other) some orders in Shangan (the local Bantu language) and the sister fetched a plastic tub of water and set it on the stove to warm. This done, Mama brought over my towel and a VSO-donated bar of soap. She ushered me to the end of the garden and inside a material cabin which was the bathroom. Inside were a couple of bricks to stand on behind where the tub was placed - you lather up and douse yourself with the water. It was really refreshing, although there was the odd waft of urine, which made me wonder/worry about the toilet situation. She also shooed away a good few cockroaches before setting the tub down. Yikes!

Refreshed, I was served a nice lunch of rice, fish with yummy sauce and tomato and onion salad. I was thinking ‘phew’ it’s all fine. Mama said she was a teacher, but she had to go and do an art exam (?) – it was the last one of a string, like GCSEs it seemed. So we walked towards the school and called for Bill - very comical volunteer from the UK who’s been in Guinnea Bissau for a couple of years before here and is hardy to African life. He came along with the son of his family and we wandered round the town and played bowls with mangos etc until Mila finished her exam. Then we walked home and Bill came over to see what my place was like. I’d said it was nice and clean and I had my own room etc. Bill smirked knowingly and casually enquired who else would be sleeping in there. Mama replied that she would be, and I’d be sharing the bed with either her or Nuzipa when she returned the following night. Ahh, silly me. Then Bill asked about the past volunteers she’d had stay. She talked about Katherina who’d come a couple of years ago. Ohmygod, alarm bells!! It emerged that Mama had moved since then, however, which could account for the upgrade in accommodation. Anyway, I felt slightly uneasy.

By this time I needed the loo. It was dark but, on advice, I’d brought a torch. Mama escorted me to a smaller TP near the ‘bathroom’. As I approached the smell got stronger and I began bracing myself. I already knew it would be a pit latrine. She opened the flap and tugged me nearer, pointing at the 2 bricks either side of the hole. To my utter horror I saw a swarm of cockroaches, scuttling in and out of the hole, over the bricks, up the poles. By this time I was trying not to gag from the smell. After swishing at them a bit, she ushered me inside and left. I stood semi-paralysed frantically waving the torch around. It was a really small space and I kept catching glimpses of cockroaches scuttling near my arms and face!! Then I looked down into the pit (why?) and saw a teaming, writhing mass of maggots. I was feeling giddy with disgust by then so I shot out and went to bed needing the toilet. It was utterly roasting. Mama insisted I have the bed and she had the floor (phew). I had a horrendous night’s sleep. I just lay awake sweating as it was soo hot; I felt slightly delirious. I kept starting at scuffles and in the half-light saw an army of ants going up the wall and at least one more cockroach. At one point, just when I was finally nodding off, mama got up and peed in a bucket. I was quite shocked by this.

It was a long night. I got a couple of hours sleep in the morning but got up tired and needing the loo. Fortunately it emerged that morning that they weed in the corner of the bathroom and the little House of Horrors was only for ‘bigs’. It’s funny what you become thankful for. Aanyway, that day we went to the beach – Bilene – which was lovely. Most of the volunteers and a respective household member came. Mila and her son, who’d emerged about 10pm the night before, along with another little girl who’s her brother’s daughter and who runs around working all the time like a little Cinderella. By now, I was getting a bit fed up with Mila. So loud, and such a grating voice! Especially as my patience was a little thin after no sleep. I just swam out and lay in the water for a while. When I got back on the beach she promptly demanded that I go for a walk with her and another lady to the market. I really couldn’t be arsed to go and purposefully left my wallet. I shouldn’t have been so cynical though as it seemed she just wanted me to see everything so I would feel like I’d done a lot (and she’d been a good hostess, I guess).

When back we were all hungry so ordered food for us and our family members. Frango (chicken) of course – it’s everywhere and there’s often little else. It literally took 2 hours to arrive, talk about ‘Waiting for Frango’. Anyway, gulped it down and then it was time to get our bus, so that was that!

I was really thinking ‘I don’t want to stay another night’ – long, sweaty, delirious night in-store plus the foreboding latrine and a slight stomach ache – but it turned out to be a funny evening. Went home and met Nuzipa, the daughter. She’s a character too, similarly booming voice but easy to get along with. The sister had prepared more food and we had – yep, frango again, but this time with xima, the white sticky stuff made from cassava flour. Its a strange texture, doesn’t seem like it should be edible, but it tastes fine. Anyway, afterwards we went to a barraca – a little drinking shack – with bill and the son. We drank 2M beer (the nice national brand) and danced with the locals to Enrique Inglesias, Kylie and some Mozambican music.

Despite thinking the beer would send me to sleep I had another night of sweaty insomnia, but I was calmer and more resigned about it. I’d actually got quite used to the bugs by then too. Plus I still had the bed to myself as Nuzipa had opted to sleep on a mat in the other room! (huh!)

Got up and went with the family to church for 2 hours. It was a lively congregation, Anglican but quite a penticostal vibe with singing, dancing, clapping and choo-choo trains (!) There was lots of serious preying as well. The other volunteers were there too, apart from some who’d gone to the catholic church. There’s a mosque in the town too – multi-faith communities in Mozambique seem to jog along nicely. James, one VSO guy who was staying with the pastor with his family and who can speak Portuguese got up to read a passage. Then Yusuf, a Ugandan volunteer who’s very religious himself got up and read in English. Then Father pointed at me and beckoned me up! I did the cartoon look behind, you-can’t-be-talking-to-me thing. But it was me, so I had to get up and read a passage (in English, thanks goodness). Something about the riverbed, I don’t know, anyway that was a bit bizarre. I did it in my most solemn voice though I haven’t been to a church in years.

Went back and had a nice afternoon chatting to the neighbours – really nice couple of teenage kids, one girl who was a good laugh and a nice lad who was learning English. We did some lessons in a book together. That evening was nice too. There was a big storm. Mama went to sleep early and I stayed up with Nuzipa and Dana, little Cindarella who livened up no end. They taught me a load of those clapping games that girls play in school (I actually managed to dig out 2 to teach them). I was glad I’d stayed that length of time by then. The little son slept in our room that night but I still had the bed to myself. Even the cleaning from 5am (forgot to mention that minor interruption – in out, crash bang, crying baby) didn’t bother me too much and I slept better. I like to think it was acceptance, integration etc but more likely because I knew it was hometime!

Before I left on Monday morning we had a lengthy photoshoot. Everyone absolutely loves the digital camera here – shoot and then you can see it instantly! Mama wanted loads on her own in various elaborate poses. She and Nuzipa would arrange themselves, still-life fashion – clutching a pineapple or pretending to read with miscellaneous items scattered around. I had to promise over and over to send them the photos. Then we went back to the church and had a de-briefing. Most people had had a good time, although some had been expected to buy everything at the market etc, and I hadn’t.

I was glad to get back to our flat in Maputo and have a hot shower and change my clothes. Katherina couldn’t believe it was the same family! We had quiche, wine and chocolate for dinner. Yum. I slept very well in my own bug-free room. Anyway, altogether an enlightening experience! And good training for the VETAID field trips yet to come...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

3 weeks in...

Spent today and yesterday at the Southern Mozambique VSO conference. Lots of presentations about people’s work and exchanging of ideas, which was interesting and productive, but also quite long-winded discussions and reviews of bureaucracy etc. Was good to meet the longer-serving volunteers, many of whom have been here for 2 or more years - good anecdotes, insight and tips. Also good meal afterwards last night – first dose of traditional Mozambican food. Really liked some of it – coconutty spinachy stuff, cassava, crab, but some dubious dishes like gizzard or something – chicken throat anyway – and this white pasty concoction that’s a real staple across Africa I think. It’s made out of flour and water, maybe maize too? I don’t know but I remember someone saying it’s the same stuff we use to paste up wall-paper at home if that gives some indication.

Have had a good week – more Portuguese basically and some interesting sessions (and some hopeless ones). One lecturer came from a local university to talk about the history of Mozambique. He made some enlightening comments about the relationship between the country’s demography and political allegiances. The 2 main (only) parties are Frelimo and Renamo. Frelimo started out as a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group, supported by communist states. It originally won independence in ‘75 and has been in power since. Renamo was a reactionary guerrilla group who fought against them during the ‘civil’ war (were funded by pro-capitalist states – Zimbabwe, South Africa, US) then became the opposition party following the war’s end in ‘92. In light of the recent history, they are viewed as bandits (continually sabotaged Mozambiques’ infrastructure etc during the war, it was a mess) by some sections of the population, largely southern and northern regions, and supported in the central region, which was their stronghold. Their electoral support has declined in every election though. They don’t have a clear ideology/set of policies and are badly organised and Frelimo is really strong. Having such a weak opposition could prove destabilising for Moz, which has made a remarkably swift and stable transition since the end of the war to a reasonably functional democracy. Frelimo just had their annual party conference and some prominent members were sacked, so it’s looking a bit dodgy… Watch this space eh!

Found a new wonder-market. It’s half open, half little tunnel sections, with great produce – good quality, variety and very cheap – and people chat to you, so I was able to have some more staccato pidgin-Portuguese exchanges They are unduly rewarding! Imagine actual ‘conversations’!

Work-wise - am learning more about the realities of working within Mozambican systems, both from emerging problems with some people’s paper-work (I seem to be ok so far…) and tales from older volunteers. As you might expect, processes are often lengthy and haphazard. Lots of institutionalised corruption.

Oh, have met several people from VETAID (actually a British organisation and functional!) including both my immediate boss and the country boss. I will be working with the local partner organisations (the people who are supposed to implement VETAID’s strategy) in Portuguese, which currently seems like a bit of an impossible task. But, I’m told by people it’s been done before and I will learn quickly!

The staff in my office in Chokwe are Mozambican, apart from one Rwandan and my boss there who’s Kenyan. I met him yesterday as he was at the conference representing VETAID. He was really nice and jolly, and his being English-speaking will be v helpful. He said he was currently organising me my accommodation – according to the ‘stipulations’ which VSO must have made on my behalf, including. security considerations like burglar bars on the windows (although don’t picture a jail – most houses have them here and they’re actually quite quaint white lattice affairs!) being in the centre of town (not that Chokwe is very big by all accounts) and… 2 – 3 bedrooms?! Not sure why I need that but at least there’ll be room for people to stay. So come! It seems that flats/houses don’t actually come with just 1 bedroom here anyway, they just don’t really exist.

I’m writing this on my laptop in my room. The cultural centre next door are having one of their parties and are currently blasting out Haddaway’s ‘What is Love’. It’s reminding me of a family holiday to turkey when I as about 13. As usual, the dogs are barking along at top volume. The dogs are so noisy here. Loads of people have guard dogs, but next door have 9! Yap yap yap… how excessive! I was ready to shoot them in my first week but have now mellowed into resignation.

Oh, meeting the VETAID people clarified xmas a bit for me. Don’t actually have that long off - 23rd Dec - 2nd Jan, so am looking into joining some of the other volunteers on my scheme by Lake Malawi and maybe going to Vic Falls for New Year/full moon party. Nothing’s organised yet though as I need to clarify details with them and look into travel arrangements. On that note, think I’ll do that now otherwise it’ll be chicken-for-one in Chokers!
It’s Sunday afternoon. Last night I went clubbing! Didn’t expect to do be doing that in my first couple of weeks in Mozambique but it was amazing fun and an interesting introduction to certain sectors of Maputo.

Tara and I went out with Katerina, our well-established, savvy Dutch flatmate. First we went to ‘Club Naval’ – the sailing club down by the port. It’s a rather swanky place with a pool and contained some of those people previously thought to be in marble compounds. There were Mozambicans too though – it was actually a rather more mixed bag than I’d anticipated from the exterior. They played Mylo and some other western stuff on a loud, crackly sound system with African music videos projected onto a wall. People gathered round the pool tables, where we sat and drank bottles of 2M beer (not the norm for me but it’s cheap and quite nice here) talking to Katerina’s kiting crew – they all kite-board at the weekend (all feeling quite Australian?!). They’re largely South-African, few Portuguese and couple Dutch. The South Africans were rocking the early 90s look which, back home, the Shoreditch fringe seemed to be reclaiming from the depths of uncool. I amused myself with the idea they’d been lapped and were now bizarrely hot to trot.

We then got picked up by her Mozambican friends and went on to Coconuts, Maputo’s one super-club. It’s one of those places with trees inside. We drank ciporhinis (sp??) and I attempted pidgin Portuguese – basically utterances made up of ‘I, you, we, go, here, there, good, dancing, bye’. One of them spoke good English though and was the total man about town – he got us access all areas and weaved through the bumping and grinding crowds hi-5ing and hugging people. It was literally Jonny in Dirty Dancing! (coconuts are nearly watermelons – haha, one for the girls)

There was a catwalk during the evening, which was kind of good and kind of strange! It started off with all these guys strutting up and down and whipping off Mr Mozambique shirts. They were exuding so much machismo it neared farce! I was thinking ohgod, wait for the women!! Then they came and were beautiful model-types in fabulous African-esque high fashion, which was a pleasant surprise! This live act then played ‘afro-funk’ music – bongos over big baselines and rapping on a reverberating mic. It was cool, very tribal.

Then, there was a power failure! The music stopped and the whole club plunged into darkness. After a collective ‘ooh!’ people got their mobiles out as lights, the bongo men struck up, someone started juggling on stage with luminous balls, and with much whooping everyone partied in the dark for a while. After about 15 minutes everything came on again in a fitting crescendo!

We alternated between the main club and the ‘Lounge’, this other bit that played poppy dance music, hip hop and Mozambican music (which I like, very ‘feel good!’) through the night. ‘Jonny’ gave us a lift home around 5.30 along the coast in bright sunshine with Rod Stewart blaring. People were washing cars etc – everyone gets up ridiculously early here. Don’t blame them though, it’s bright light at 4.30 and cockerels crow all over the city from about 3 onwards.

It’s been altogether a pretty Western weekend really. The weather’s been cooler and overcast with sporadic rain. Yesterday’s planned outdoor activities, which had included markets, a fish lunch and going to a hotel pool, turned into a trip to South African department store, Game. Even after just a week and a half in Maputo it was quite exciting to be surrounded by so many consumer goods! Imagine what I’ll be like after a year spent in the province…

Game is quite expensive really, which was reflected in the clientele. Like in club Naval, there were Portuguese ex-pats, South Africans, Indian-origin Mozambicans (been here since before the Portuguese apparently – spice routes from Asia) and some black elite types (many linked to politics). Amongst other things, like Cadbury’s fruit and nut, I got some killer insect repellent that’s banned in Europe. I’m going to fumigate the flat of mosquitoes and whatever else after waking up with several new bites yesterday morning. Also got some normal soap for washing clothes (in bucket) as the local brand Omo is rather industrial - full of bleach and reduces your garments to limp wisps of thread.

So I’m deeming this 5 weeks of training my ‘transitional’ period. Maputo is Africa meets the West so it’s a good introduction to the country. It’s very different and exciting, but you can still get and do a lot of the basic things you’re used to. Tonight I’ll be washing clothes, internet-café-ing and revising some Portuguese ready for the oncoming week of lessons. Just off to meet a Kenyan volunteer called Bernard now. He’s doing research for VETAID, the organisation I’ll be working with, so I’m going to ask him a bit about them. More soon.
Well… this will be a record of my year-long stay in Mozambique. I’ve been in Maputo for just over a week now and am finding my feet, learning the ropes etc. It’s generally really hot - sometimes humid and overcast - with the odd downpour.

There are 14 other VSO volunteers who arrived around the same time. It’s a nice group, people from a variety of countries: UK, Spain, Canada, Uganda, Kenya and the Philippines. We’re gelling well, amusing ourselves and each other with the daily trials of life. Usually banal things seem quite eventful here!

Maputo overall is quite attractive. Well, the city proper anyway. It’s a lot more developed than I’d expected and smaller. It’s largely low-rise, with wide, busy roads. There’s a lot of villa-esque architecture covered in flaking pastel paint - kind of like the ice-cream colour dilapidation of Havana, but without the vintage quality. Those are generally the nicer areas though – there are other bits with big shabby brown tower blocks and empty crumbling structures. I haven’t been into the suburbs yet but we drove through one part on the way from the airport that was row after row of corrugated iron shacks. Most buildings are modern but everything’s poorly maintained, despite ongoing (noisy!) construction. Pavements undulate and crack over pipes and roots. But, one of the best things is how green it is! Trees line the sides of every road; all different kinds including loads of fruit trees (laden with mangos at the moment - have to cover your head pronto when one drops) and gorgeous bright blossom everywhere. Plus it’s by the sea which gives it a slight beachy vibe and openness, and seafood.

Street sellers are all over the city - many permanently stationed on the roadsides, others wandering around. Wares consist largely of fruit – mangos (for those too lazy to shimmy up and collect them) and oranges laid out on cloth; bananas, along with tomatoes, potatoes and onions on wagons and collections of biscuits, sweets and mobile top-up cards in little stalls. Teenage boys wander round with miscellaneous goods of striking variety – adaptors, dolls, sculptures, shoes… They are very persistent, especially in (bright neon luminous) light of our whiteness. The batique sellers in particular are incessant! A few around where we live are starting to leave us alone after numerous abortive sales attempts, but it’s quite an onslaught.

These types of mini-enterprises are largely how people make a living in Maputo as there’s not much industry to provide employment. They are apparently facilitated by readily available microcredit. So Maputo is pretty well catered for in terms of goods and services. Though quality and choice are limited, seems you can get most things here. This is a bit of a surprise actually as Mozambique is statistically one of the world’s poorest nations. From what we’re told though, the capital (disregarding the slummy bits) isn’t remotely representative of Mozambique. Eighty per cent of the population lives rurally and relies on agriculture. Life in these parts operates pretty much on a subsistence/trading basis. There are regional hubs of commerce in the provinces though – I’ll be based in one and doing field trips to farms and villages, so should be a bit different!

Despite Maputo’s proximity to the South African border there don’t seem to be many white people around. There’s the odd Portuguese ex-pat, they gather in certain cafes, but think most of the SAs head to the beaches further along the coast rather than the city. There’s definitely some ex-pat money floating about though, so they’re probably all holed up in marbly compounds.

The temporary accommodation for VSOers here in the capital seems to have been a bit pot luck. Tara (Canadian girl) and I have been lucky. The apartment we’re staying in is big , nice, central, very secure and has hot running water. We’re staying there with a Dutch girl, Katerina, who has been here 2 years and has everything from herbs to tupperware! Other volunteers’ accommodation ranges from no forks to no cooker to no water… I must say the blokes have had the roughest deal with none of the above. They don’t cook anyway though. Instead they prefer to sustain themselves on the unofficial national dish of chicken (frango!) and chips. Can’t really understand why chicken in particularly is so ubiquitous, but it’s on all menus and sometimes the only thing on offer. Service is leisurely too, so they keep being late for language lessons after lunch.

Portuguese is going at break-neck speed, but I’m enjoying it. I can now make very simple sentences: ‘Manuela is a teacher’, ‘that is my chair’ etc. Progress indeed!

Books have become a prized commodity. We’re trying to snaffle out English language book shops (no luck as yet) and are trading them in the meantime. I packed a fair few (case was overweight but better books than curlers or something eh) so I’m revelling doubly in my book-rich security and benevolence!

Oh one really quirky thing here is the names of the roads. They all seem to be of political inspiration with loads named after notorious leaders. We have Avenue Mao Tse Tung intersecting with Kim Il Sung, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engles, Nkrumah, Nyerere... There are also several dates e.g. I live just off Avenue 24 de Julio. All christened in revolutionary fervour I think.

There’s a definite food theme emerging. Tomatoes, onions, green peppers, aubergine, potato and the odd squash. And cucumber. That’s pretty much what’s on sale. Recipes please... So far we’ve managed roasted vegetables, curried vegetables, vegetable omelette twice (you can get eggs too, and we hedonistically had ham in the first one). Katerina made a fabulous quiche one evening, but with cheese collected on a trip to South Africa (can get it here but muito dinheiro*) and pre-prepared pastry, don’t know if that’s a sustainable option for when I go to the province – aka - backwater.

Wondering what to do about Christmas at the moment. It’s quite funny timing as we’ll finish our training here in the capital a couple of weeks before Christmas and don’t fancy being alone in our new towns during the festive season! We’re thinking of going away, maybe to SA or somewhere within Mozambique for a week or something. Depends on my work situation, what start date they give me, so I’ll make enquiries. Anyone at a loss for Christmas is welcome to join me for a very random, hot one over here though!

Anyway, time to sail off to the land that was Nod, now Larium Wonderland. More anon. Post comments please, interaction!

*hey, just throwing it in, mixing it up, you know…