Back in the saddle: earthquakes, colts and chandeliers.


“Dr Thembi!”

“Dr  Natsumbo!”

“Are you fine?”

“I am fine. And how are you?”

And so begins the car journey into work at Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 9am. Wednesday is a galling 6.45am start. I have learnt the hard way that transport in Maputo is a problem. For the first two weeks I tried various chopela (Tuk Tuk) drivers, appreciating the open air breezes and chance to get a sense of the city’s layout. Maputo is an instant history lesson in all things cold war and socialist: avenidas Mao-Tse-Tung, Kim Il Sung, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba and Lenin clearly signpost the leanings. It seems the revolutionary zeal stops somewhere around 1970: there’s no Avenida Mandela, or  maybe it’s the lack of sufficiently revolutionary African leaders after this point that is the issue. No-one seems to be able to explain. And apart from Sekou Toure, there’s also a dearth of West African revolution in evidence. Part of me hankers to meet the learned folk responsible for this naming, and ask, “So, in hindsight,  Kim Il Sung, any regrets? ”


The streets are laid out grid style: which theoretically should make it easier to navigate. But there are few street names in evidence. There is plenty of renaming by local people, or identification based on oblique things like “Basopa” (which I think, hesitantly, is the name of a building that used to be there…) . Most confusingly, apart from the really obvious landmarks, there’s not enough variety. A lot of Maputo looks the same.  Add to this unholy mix the whole one way road issue, and frankly, getting to work was proving to be a task too large for me to muster.


After riding in the tuk-tuks of Admiro, Athenium, Salvador, Jose and Artemis, (honestly, these are their names) I have settled on Mec Zito and  Abdul as my tuk tuk drivers of choice. Mec is a musician and composer by night, and tuk tuk driver by day. He is an astute observer of the political chaos and corruption in Maputo, and when he’s not playing the most seminal jazz and Michael Jackson tunes on the stereo, will volunteer useful information about the ten cars of the current president, or the lack of freedom of expression  here. Zito is also brazenly over-qualified to drive a tuk tuk. He is enrolled in the final year of  a BA in educational psychology. He’s also lived in South Africa and says “yebo” and “sharp” a lot, which I like. And has a young family. He does it all with calm grace and I feel replenished around him. For sheer grit and determination alone I ride with Zito- he reminds me anything is possible if you really set your mind to it.

But there are days when I get a lift. Natsumbo has taken pity on me, and now picks me up after he’s finished his 7am-9am English class, (and he then goes on to teach, all day, including the night classes, until 8pm).  All my colleagues here have punishing schedules: not out of choice. The descending metical (currency) means people work three jobs. University- poorly paid (if they get their salaries at all) comes last down the list. Several times this month I’ve been left teaching alone, or given 2 minutes to prepare, because my colleague hasn’t turned up.



The problem is, I have overdone my desire to get brownie points with Natsumbo (offering to find scholarships for him, books for the library, online access to a wider variety of African communication publications, journals he might be able to contribute to, and, god forbid, new jobs) and I detect a whiff of lust emerging. Yesterday he turned up looking sharp as needles. Well cut leather jacket, hipster trousers and new haircut.  Natsumbo now texts two or three times a day: especially on weekends and late at night. Hovering near the top of my list of challenges (there are many) is ‘how to dampen the ardour of my head of department.’ He’s a lovely guy, but a married lovely guy.

Inappropriate relationships (to my evidently rather prudish eyes) seems to be a theme: three times so far I have seen male lecturers enthusiastically clutch and hug at the attractive female members of the class who don’t resist, but also don’t look comfortable. There’s nothing furtive about it: full on body- contact hugs, in full view in the corridor. I’ve yet to work out if it is my place to voice my anxiety about this behaviour. Where does it end?

The students are fairly tactile amongst themselves,  and the women students are no walkovers however: they look directly at me, in ways that neither Tanzanian nor British students would, they don’t smile much, and they’re extremely confident about talking and presenting to class. Carolina- queen sultry- takes the biscuit, and actually sells them during breaks. I had to resist physically hauling her away from a clutch of customers back into class this morning.

This week we did a role play (them challenging various oil, sanitation and private sector bosses about public interest and accountability) and once I’d made sure that the women didn’t just assume the secretarial roles (which they did, initially) it became obvious there’s some very smart female students. I have to admit I love it…. this direct unapologetic approach. . “Ah, Mozambiquan women are very strong”… says Natsumbo when I ask him about this. There are a few contradictions to unravel however….they’re allowed personality strength, but not political, public strength or power. This morning we waded into the thorny ocean of gender, abortion and teen pregnancies. Deliberately on my part- at 9am on a Monday morning the energy levels were low. Turning on a sixpence the class became animated and rowdy. As it should be.


We will be returning to gender stuff regularly, it’s clearly prescient for them.P1020639 (4)What’s also striking with the students is the absence of attitude: and a great deal of generosity. (Don’t be fooled, this photo took minutes to do as we all kept collapsing with laughter).

I keep imagining how my contemporaries would have reacted to a foreigner with poor language skills rocking up out of the blue, with all sorts of wacky ideas and teaching methods.
Anyway, overly-friendly boundary-stepping aside, I get a much-appreciated lift with Natsumbo on three days, and Celestino for the early start. Their cars are standard Toyota saloons, rather battered and with a variety of provocative and  illustrious noises. I dare not enquire. Only Maria- the radio journalism lecturer- who had a whole career as a Radio Mozambique reporter, and is now on the regulatory board for Mozambique telecoms, drives a serious new prada pickup. This is seventy thousand dollars jobby worth of vehicle, and hints suspiciously to me of a very rich partner, or several other jobs. Her blingy jewellery, sunglasses and teetery heels in  staff meetings are a bald reminder that Maria considers working at the Esceula des artes y Communicao  (ECA) a step down. I know this is the case- she gave me a lift later on, in the wonderously expensive pick up. She made it clear that she didn’t feel, as a woman of 60, that actually it was the right time for her to stop meeting international stars in five star Cape Town hotels, and interviewing presidents in her role as a door-opening reporter. I might of agreed, except she was so dismissive of the students, that I found myself torn between loving her for being such a character, and wondering if she wasn’t just a massive opportunist. My bets are on Maria crow-barring me into taking on all her lessons, leaving her more time to sort out more profitable career options.

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So far, four  weeks in, and the staff meeting has happened, where I was introduced. Apart from Maria’s shimmying into the classroom- a cross between Barbara Cartland and Nina Simone on a good day, it was a gentle affair, with a woman I immediately warmed to (the drama teacher, Esther) asking if I would help start up a magazine. And Gilbert, the music department head (also a top guitar and violin mender) giving me an impromptu tour of the college, which reverberates with the sounds of practicing and music all day.

Apart from the necessity to mime variations  of ‘turn the volume up’ gestures to my students when they are talking, the cacophony of practice is diverse and uplifting: last week it was the Messiah, interspersed with some elaborate and impressive drumming practice. There was also a rather heavenly violin sonata going on a one point. The building shows not even a nod towards sound insulation, open plan with no glass and almost completely concrete: the overall effect is a large living being, a massive accordion of life.

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I teach nine hours a week, spread over three days, on the online journalism, globalisation/global cultures and practical/theoretical radio journalism courses. This is a reasonably heavy work load: but the engagement and open-eyed rapacious interest of the students makes it easier than I imagined. Of course teaching in Spangatease (my own hybridised version of Portuguese and Spanish) is somewhat challenging, however in each class several students take their roles as interpreters/teaching assistants very seriously, they’re alarmingly good,  and I would be disabled without them. What I lack in linguistic skills I make up for in variety: last week I introduced the whole notion of alt-facts and subjectivity, starting the class with ‘nothing is true’- relativism v’s absolutism. I think I could here the fuses blowing. This, is, as Natsumbo reminds me,  a military-run country. He’s 100% confident we have spies in the department. We spend the car journeys working out who it might be.


Back to the transport. There are four options: take the local minibus taxis ‘chapas’ – which are rammed to comedy bursting point, and apart from getting a person from point A to point B, a little counter-productive. The journey is so harrowing, so uncomfortable and such a total immersion in other people’s personal space and odours that it takes the rest of the day to recover. For my students- 130 in total spread over four lessons, there is no choice. This is their transport, and frankly I am amazed they are as calm and composed as they when they arrive. Unlike South Africa, there are many people walking around, (despite the shocking state of the pavements), and not striding or scurrying, which is reassuring and makes my journey home easier. I often detour via the market- to pick up veg.

This the gloating section. There is a huge variety of cheap, organic fruit and veg (Mozambique has no foreign exchange, so can’t buy the fertilisers and pesticides. Possibly the only advantage to a completely collapsed economy). Mangos, pineapples, moringa, passion fruit, limes, ginger, avocados. This is my diet. Except for weekends. When it’s Afrikaans meat fest gone mad.


On Thursdays, after the fourth-year radio journalism class, I head an hour North out of town to Macaneta. To begin my other life for three days.

Riding and training horses. On a ranch. On the beach. Five hours a day, minimum.



Clipping colt’s hooves. Dipping horses for ticks. Walking colic-ridden horses around at 2am in dramatic lightening storms. Training a stallion appaloosa to be more trusting.  A partially blind Arab gelding to stop seeing ghoulies and ghosties everywhere. Working with a spirited, headstrong gelding (called Nyala) to respond better to me when I need to ‘round up’ the clients on the beach and stop the horses galloping into a frenzy. Fixing bridles and oiling saddles. Hoisting up 100kg chandeliers to the centre of the saloon. Reassuring people who’ve never ridden before that they won’t be permanently crippled after an hour in the saddle.



The ranch is run by Afrikaaners Carla and Kestel, who built it themselves 20 years ago and now have 14 rescue horses, 7 dogs, three rescue cats, one very non-rescue cat (entitlement issues), three ducks, and one pig. They are incredibly kind and what they say, and what they do, do not coincide.

“Fit in or Fuck off” Kestel informed me early on, in the most non-ambiguous welcome I’ve ever had. There’s a motley crew there: a 60 year old South African called Susan who eats only pasta and meat and never leaves her room. Marzaan, a butch lesbian, who is a total legend with horses and a gun. Peter the miserable barely-functioning alcoholic planning his sex holidays to Thailand, and his rather gentle brother, Elof. Joao, the son of Mozambique’s only (and thus most famous) film maker- my guide to all things political and cultural here- and his shy, smart and pony-mad teenage daughter Lowiya, who wafts around in tiny shorts.

And at the weekends a steady stream of white working class Afrikaaners who come over the border from South Africa crammed into their 4 x 4’s… to drink outlandish amounts at unfeasible hours, talk at length about fixing things,  and waddle around ordering hamburgers with egg and cheese.…
But that’s for another time… the complexities of poverty, racism and white African identity. I feel like I’m living in a Studs Terkel book. Never off duty.


I found out earlier this week that Mozambique holds the number one position for acute weather events brought on by climate change. I can vouch for that. 2 weeks ago the most intense storm of my life- thunder, lightening, I can’t describe it. The cyclone was a week before I arrived on Feb 17th. There was an earthquake three hours ago. For a moment the room around me swayed and moved and I felt seasick. Not frightened, just disorientated. No-one dead, nothing fallen down, (yet) but 6.2 on the richter scale. The earth, literally, moves here. The universe is very present, and we are extremely insignificant. I find that reassuring really.