We – a friend in aid, an artist- are sitting outside on the patio of a restaurant on Eduardo Mondlane road. It’s a mid-priced restaurant- we all eat and drink (no alchohol, it’s halal) for under 8 euros. Around us are working people, it’s not filled with excited 18-year-old middle class Maputenos furiously taking selfies and celebrating a birthday with a monstrous pink cake. Or nervous tired pale tourists trying to ignore the constant onslaught of street vendors selling flowers, mobile phones, batik art or sculptures. For that you go to Mimmos, a few hundred yards further on.
No, this restaurant is delightfully daily, the waitress is young, alert and funny. A Zimbabwean fellow eater leans in to join our conversation. We’re discussing aid, James Baldwin and the daily bits of race politics; how manners become a way to gatekeep conversations. A throw back to Portuguese policy of defining who was black and who was white- one’s use of cutlery. How these colonial legalities have woven themselves into peoples’ psyches and senses of self-esteem.
One of the first books I read at the beginning of studying at the inelegantly and problematically named School of Oriental and African Studies (Oriental? Really? Post-Said don’t we know better?) was Rajanna Khanna’s work. Discussing the drilled down micro-effects of colonialism on people’s sense of self. The trauma of exploitation and oppression, Frantz Fanon taken a step further. I was in therapy at the time- the book was a tight knitting together of the theoretical and the personal. Maybe this is over-sharing. The impervious self-aggrandisement of the self in this age of neurotic self-promotion. I’m making the point that it spoke very directly to me when I felt very dislocated from my life and loves in Tanzania, and was trying to work out which shaped hole I fitted into in Britain.
So, back to the conversation on the restaurant patio: we know as nominally ‘white’ people we have power, social cache, access and bridges into the worlds of money. We’ve got social and fiscal capital. It’s not like being Victoria Beckham or Beyonce. No, it’s not that we, transient paler folk are perceived as special, interesting or talented. (Although judging from the rampant performances of entitlement from some of the expat folk at the regular openings and drinks dos you’d be forgiven for misreading this).
It’s my last month here. I’m trying to take stock. To tie up ends, to make sense of the days when butterflies land on the car, or frogs drown out the insistent whine of the water pumps. To understand the freakishly huge teaching load of my colleagues. Of a university that has no books and only erratic internet (twice since I arrived in Feb). To fit into a department that didn’t know I was arriving, and hasn’t to my knowledge got a written curriculum or modules. To understand a place where I’ve not in four months seen a single lesson plan. Except my own.
I would love to say it’s been a ball here. But it’s been very mixed… the students of course are what make it incredible, as every teacher/lecturer knows.
Last week was a roller coaster. I was consumed with exhaustion, self-flagellation and lack of direction- so much so that I was reassured by a Facebook quiz which informed me I was both superlatively emotionally intelligent and empathetic.
This post is me trying to make sense of that.
Us outsiders, blow-ins, farangi, wazungu, mlungu, farnanj, (all names used for foriengers in various bits of Africa, and not necessarily colour-related) we are connected. We are not stuck. We have power to move and talk across the social divides, up into the higher private stalls where World Bankers, donors with aid budgets sit. We can get audiences with the ministry of finance. The head of what not. The minister of thingy.
When we- me and the artist- go out drinking on the street below the flat where I live, when we knock back beers in the open-corrugated roofed shacks called barakas, we are like lighthouses. Privacy is impossible- people constantly are drawn in… there’s something we have that people want.
We can move. We can leave, we can work, we have choices and power. We’re not stuck in jobs we don’t really want but have to do because there’s taxes, licences, bills to pay, food to buy. We can allow our personal desires, feelings to influence who we are, how we are in very big ways indeed; I’m not for one moment suggesting that others here don’t have all the same feelings and influences. But they don’t have the structural, social and political power to act on it. We have access, agency, that others will never get, even if they’re brilliant artists, drummers, swimmers or carpenters.
Last night Pedro, who works selling booze on a little stall on the corner, described why he will never be a PE teacher. Which is what he really wants to do. He described in detail his day- leaving at 5am from his house 40 km away (this central district where I live is impossibly expensive for 90% of the population). He gets home at half past midnight. One day off a fortnight. He and little Pedro (who is at least 50cm taller, but younger) work 13 days on, 1 day off, alternating so one can go to church. They are eloquent and funny: “what will gas and oil bring us? Fuck all. Our government will still have us climbing trees for firewood and cooking. And if we call out the corruption we risk getting shot…” He described the three chapas (minibuses) he takes to work. He says:
“I realised that there was this group of men who bought booze on the weekends and went to Baixa (downtown, near the port) to hook up with Mozzas. (sex workers). It’s a rougher area and gradually this road has become a place where there’s ladies working.”
He points to a young woman, Carla, with a tight top, tiny jean skirt and cropped hair who’s skinny and weaving her way in the middle of the road. He pauses and looks at me to see if I disapprove. It’s obvious he doesn’t. “We have millions of women working like this too in UK” I say. “But they tend to work in groups and often don’t actually work on the street and as visibly as they do here.” I think back to Marseille, that street where working women in their 50’s and 60’s sat outside on chairs, at midday on a Sunday.
(Later I catch up with Carla and we walk down the middle of the road, and ask her how she stays safe. I show how the pocket knife I carry clenched in my fist when I walk around. She thinks this is totally hilarious: “You obviously don’t know Maputo, this area is safe as anything”. She reels off a list of names- “Now those areas, they’re really dangerous”. But I’ve read the stats on gender violence here…. It’s really not a joke… Carla hugs me when we part at my door, promising to be in touch. I can smell her skinny vulnerability. I realise she wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a client or not.)
Pedro carries on. Despite selling Jonny Walker, Jim Beam and all the other tipples, it’s clear from his build, clearness of skin and eyes he doesn’t drink much. “I’m 30, I’ve got three kids. 4, 10, 12…” he pauses again to detail his budget, monthly, for school books, clothes, food and fees. “The big problem here is that we pay for school. I could potentially go to night classes to train as a PE teacher, but financially I can’t manage it. Effectively the whole thing is structured against me, the system is actually designed to keep me in my place.”
“So what keeps you going?”
“Knowing that there will be changes for my kids, god willing….” He does that Maputeno thing- knocking his head to one side, blowing out “Eish, epa!” when I suggest that it could change. And then laughs.
That laugh I must have heard hundreds of times interviewing in East, Central and Southern Africa. That laugh that says “Forget it. Have you any clue how nuts that is?”. But he’s not at all bitter. He’s not diffident or surly. This is how it is. “My kids will see the benefit, hopefully.”
I think about Alfonso, Milchon and Chahude; fathers respectively- gardener. Lorry driver. Night guard. Some of my strongest, smartest, hardest working journalism students. Their mothers: all domestic workers.
Mozambican society is one of the least meritocratic places I have ever worked. Perhaps on a par with Ethiopia, where the social hierarchies are tights a s cicada’s nostril. Or a cat’s arse. Depending on my levels of cynicism. And Mozambique is genuinely bursting with talent- last night I recorded Muhamed (“yes, Muhamed Ali!” he giggles) in three of the five languages he speaks: Swahili, English Portuguese. He also speaks Shangaan, Kinyarwanda. He arrived 20 years ago from Rwnda in Maputo as a kid. He sweeps his hand around the blue shipping container lined neatly with jam, rice, spaghetti, oil, washing powders and a disarming assortment of fizzy drinks. All imports from South Africa. He raps beautifully along to his phone (but I can’t see enough to get the tape recorder working,) and then I ask him to choose his favourite song.
He sings We are the World, by Michael Jackson. He ploughs on, defiantly out of tune, singing all the words and full of conviction. I lip sync along with him, as I don’t want my voice on tape. For a moment, last night at 10pm on a street full of boozed up people and hookers, we had a moment. We did.
There comes a time when we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
And it’s time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all
We are the world,
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So, let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me
Back at the restaurant, I micro-analyze a rather harrowing incident
Earlier in the week I am accused of racism by some of my 4th year students- more later- a beggar totters up. Our table is facing the street. He’s nervous and his whole body is twitching. His face crumpling and rearranging. I know where I’ve seen that body language- in the mental hospitals over the years in West London, visiting my brother. The man is very dirty. Stained grey pants held up with string. He doesn’t even talk. There’s no patter, no performance, no spiel.
We give him bread and some money.
For a moment this place is all Carlos Castaneda, all Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Locks that work back to front. Streets that are vibrant with life. Night guards who sit on chairs so broken they’re sculptural. Surreal in its contradictions.
Why the fuck are we wasting valuable breath discussing my indulgences when this guy really is struggling?
Last week, after four weeks of planning with several colleagues, we have a tour of the city. Maputo a Pe, (Maputo on foot) co-ordinated by Jane Flood, and led by Walter Tembe, who is something of a genius. We are due to start in Tunduru gardens, a wonderful colonial relic, at 9am. The students arrive an hour late, claiming they knew nothing of the arrangements. My colleague Adau steps in and ferries students to the venue. When they arrive there are performances of Vicky Pollard (“do I look bothered?”) that tip me over the edge.
I berate them for being late, not taking this seriously, not having the right attitude to be journalists.
I give my first lecture solely in Portuguese; a critical post-colonial reading of the African city, how we need to move away from seeing it as a place of slums or poverty. There’s much more, there are stories of powerful imaginative lives in the city. As journalists we need to find them, and we need to really listen, to dig deep into what is important to the people around us.
Maria, a student plastered in foundation and kohl and with a beautiful afro rolls her eyes and tells me “you are being so negative! Maputo is fantastic!” – “YES! That’s the point!”
I am worried that this provocative piece, designed to get them to answer back to years of colonial definition, will backfire. It seems only the guides- Walter and Sheridan- understand the points about shopping malls being places where Maputenos are rewarded for embracing consumerism and eschewing their own (often better) locally made goods. Walter and Sheridan chuckle when I cite incidences of Zimbabwean, Ethiopian and Tanzanian governments ‘cleansing the streets of poor’ when state visits happen. The students just look scared.
I suggest to the students they need to be critical of modernism, not knock down or negate their own buildings, people, in favour of imports. They need to challenge the many insidious ways that inferiority is driven home, that Mozambicans are made to feel they’re not good enough. I’m not of course advocating a complete rejection of Converse etc. For gods sake I’ve got three pairs. I’m asking them to question their consumption and markers of improvement and identity. I want them to be proud and interested in the normal. To not look to the Global North for validation. To instead get excited about the women that work in the market making food every day. The guys who drive the chapas around town.
The creatives and intellectuals in unlikely places.
The students are animated and glowing at the end. They are shown the interior of the cathedral (not one has ever been in, despite being residents) and asked to think about why monuments are erected, why certain art deco buildings exist, and how the colonial imprint remains etched into the city.
Adau, Walter and I all remark on the ‘relaxed’ attitude of the students. Walter thinks that for journalists they need to be much more questioning, curious.
Later in the week a handful of the students make a complaint about me. Accuse me of racism. Because I was angry that they were late for the tour, I was upset that they were so unappreciative of Walter and my colleagues who’d worked hard to plan this. Furious that our weeks of discussions trying to work out how to get them to be more engaged, had backfired.
The head of the course is called in. Under a tree in the Old Fort- site of commemoration of Royal Chief Gnugunane’s resistance – she asked them for actual examples of my racism; there were none. She said later that effectively they were lashing back because they were being told off and were immature. It was a low move of the students and I felt sad.
I was supported, defended and understood wholeheartedly by my colleagues, for which I am humbled and grateful.
The irony, of course, is poetic. In a fort, built by an unwanted, dictatorial colonial occupier, site of ferocious conflict, I’ve asked them to be emboldened, to answer back. To rewrite the script. They’ve responded by attacking me for trying to get them to be more adult and committed.
In hindsight, of course, the signs were always there: the students are victims of a university that needs huge investment, resources and properly paid staff so it can function. They are bashed about by a society that appears not to have very clear routes to self improvement, an outdated obscure Soviet curriculum, and few clear rules for advancement and success, yet asks them to work very hard.
My role here was set up wonky to start with. No-one knew I was coming. I’ve still never seen a module or set of objectives, learning outcomes or a marking scheme. It doesn’t seem right to be all blamey, but I am beginning to wonder if these documents exist.
The truth is I don’t know what the journalism course is designed to do, what journalism openings exist, and how long it will take for the 4th estate to be vibrant again here. I don’t know what my role there is, four months later.
But I do have a much better understanding of how dysfunctional systems lean towards preventing people from expressing themselves, debating, and progressing. Dysfunctional systems reward bullying, bitching, and not talent, intuition, imagination, hard work and perceptiveness. Dysfunctional systems place disproportionate value on manners, form, and restricting people’s confidence to contribute.
And perhaps it’s that- fear, frustration, sadness that makes my students lash out. Who am I, zooming in all rich and mobile, to stir it up, to ask them to demand more, when there’s a strong chance they won’t get it?
I’ve thought hard about this.
Would a prolonged discussion about racism- institutional, global, cultural, personal, historical, would that be useful for the students?
Probably it’s just really irritating having an odd rich foreigner sashay in and tell them to shape up.
And then it takes an unexpected turn. The students apologise to me. Separately, or in groups of three, I am cornered and asked to go for coffees. Quizzed about my job, my life, my opinions. The same thing happens with colleagues- it’s not interogative. It’s genuine interest. The entire year is given a grilling about being punctual, about being serious.
I want there to be a happier outcome. I want these students to dance in the corridors- as they do in the university. To change the entire modus operandi. To trust each other and themselves. To be powerful and brilliant and vocal. Or average, thoughtful and kind. Whatever. Maybe to be good journalists, or just good anything. To move beyond protocol and politeness, to express themselves, to question.
I want them not to be stuck and to honour their own value. I want there to be real jobs for them as journalists or consultants or critics or writers…
I want to stay longer. It’s only in these times of agonising self-doubt that the real work is done…