My fascination with South Africa began a few years ago. And through the artists I met from the region and a visit to Mozambique I found myself increasingly curious about the entire southern region and its history. The continent of Africa has engaged my interest since I was a child…and led me on…one trip to another, one country to the next and back. Always though, confusion about how one country related to another and why similarities abounded or barely existed made my brief snapshots of this or that African city seem unsatisfactory.
Therefore, given my growing fascination with, and the American connection to, South Africa and what was one of the biggest global stories of the last century—the end of apartheid, I decided to pick the southern region of the continent to study in a little more depth. By that I do mean just a little more depth. All I hope to do given my age, modest financial means and limited tolerance for serious scholarship is read some books about these places—serious to light history, biographies, fiction and, my favorite, murder/police/detective inspired fiction—and make as many journeys to and about these countries as time and money permit.
The South of the Continent of Africa. The south of Africa as defined by the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) provided a regional outline within which I could explore. It is comprised of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. My purposeful dance explorations with some more haphazard passport stamp-seeking sidesteps have taken me to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when it was Zaire (my very first trip to the continent), then Madagascar (where I served as a dance competition panelist), Swaziland (by market bus from Maputo), Namibia and Botswana (no elephants, just passport stamps and extra dance), South Africa (two Dance Umbrella Festivals, Cape Town and bus trips through the most wide-open country I’ve ever experience—and I’m from the American Midwest and Southwest!) and Mozambique (which this post is mostly about).
Meanwhile other trips to other parts of Africa have taken place but in the south I have a mission—to know each of these countries a little more than just passing through…just a little more. In another part of Every-Country-in-the-World-Before I Die I will re-visit my earlier trips to the DRC, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Egypt, Uganda, Tunisia and Morocco, but this chapter/post will stick to the south and mostly to Mozambique.
Travel NOTE: Do you find yourself looking for connections with home when you visit other places and then slightly disappointed when you find them. We travel to experience what’s different, exotic, unusual—and just around the corner is a Kentucky Fried Chicken. On the other hand, when you go just below the surface in places with real parallels to the U.S., it can be the most fascinating journey of all. Like South Africa for instance. Mozambique is much more foreign—language plays a big role but so does the relationships of race, colonial culture, economy, types of wars fought (for example–Civil, Guerrilla, Proxy, Insurgency—all of which SA and Mozambique have engaged in but quite differently). Before going into more depth about a 2008 trip to Mozambique here’s the South African thought for the day. And I do think about SA a lot because I’ve just returned from there and it is such a unique world place.
South Africa and the American South: The Drama of Place. Is there a study about the shared characteristic of southern places—of the southern part of countries and continents? Are these places always full of drama—battles that end with heroes, wars that change the very nature of places and people, characters too strange or evil or magnificent to be fictional but who inspire great writers, mythologies shaped by the lushness of magnolia and moss-wrapped plantations or the stark isolation of the grassy veldt. The American south reminds me of South Africa. They seem to share a certain melancholy and mystery and murder and the energy of the downtrodden, the farmer, the radical freedom fighter, the peculiar (to us northerners) food and odd expressions and, above all, the in-your-face history.
Okay maybe the simile is not perfect butI like it nonetheless. South Africa seems somehow more culturally layered, richer in both nuance and bloody reality than the whole of the U.S. More like our southland. But now for South Africa’s next door neighbor–Mozambique
It is 44 hours from 13th Street NW in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Avenida 25 de Setembro in Maputo, Mozambique— Albuquerque to Houston to London to Johannesburg to Maputo. My colleague, Bryn Naranjo, VSA’s dance teacher, and I had already judged this to be a good journey by the time the first lunch was over. Prawns like small lobsters, fat and rosy, only minutes from their happy ocean home, partnered with bottles of chilly golden Laurentina, the prized beer of Africa, made right here in Mozambique; balmy Indian Ocean breezes gently soothing tired eyes and stiff limbs as the travelers fell in love with the place and the people and, soon, the artists.
We were met by two of our favorite dance artists, Panaibra Gabriel Canda from Maputo and Boyzie Cekwana from South Africa who is here working with Panaibra on a very special dance project. Bryn and I would spend the next two weeks working with them, me primarily exploring the contemporary dance and theater life of the city and Bryn teaching with Panaibra and Boyzie. It was a rare opportunity to engage with a city and its contemporary culture.
The Country of Mozambique lies in the southeast of the African continent bordering on South Africa and Swaziland in the south, Zimbabwe to the west and Zambia and Malawi to the northeast. The country fronts the Indian Ocean for over 1500 miles. That first day’s lunch was on one of many beaches which are in the process of being turned into potential tourist destinations. Temperatures range from hot to mild; in fact it was perfect spring weather during our October visit. Wildlife native to Mozambique was mostly killed and eaten during the war but now, especially in Gorongosa National Park and the Elephant Reserve, a regeneration is taking place and some of the African Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo) are reappearing. I should confess that in all my African trips I’ve seen one each of a back-country river-bathing hippo and lonely baboon loping along the roadside on Highway 3 from Cape Town to Windhoek. This trip I saw many goats on my way to Swaziland and that’s pretty much it. But remember, I live by the Albuquerque Zoo so I’m okay with that. I travel for sightings of dance not elephants.
History. About 2000 years ago, as the Sahara Desert expanded, the Bantu-speaking tribes of the north displaced the original hunter-gatherers of the south. As time passed alliances were made with first the Arab traders and then the Portuguese who arrived in the early 1500’s and who were to become the colonizers of Mozambique. The drive for independence across the continent reached into Mozambique as well and, in 1962, Frelimo (Mozambican Liberation Front) was formed with the specific intent of ending Portuguese rule. After years of struggle, independence was finally won in 1975 under the leadership of Samora Machel, a much honored figure in Mozambican history. Frelimo received the majority of support during the war for independence from the Soviet Union, China and the eastern bloc in general, which gave western and white-dominated African governments all the excuse they needed for their ongoing attempts to destabilize the party/government.
I try to read several books about the places to which I’m traveling; in this case only two and one of those was a Globetrotter Travel Guide Mozambique (2008). The other, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (1992) by William Finnegan, was very helpful in providing some insight into the years and the war that almost destroyed Mozambique. Economic schemes did not work as planned, natural disasters were many and the war between Frelimo and Renamo appeared to be never ending. Renamo, described variously as a rebel army or “armed bandits” (or freedom fighters in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Reagan’s Washington), was primarily a tool of the South African white government—this was the Afrikaners Proxy War. In 1984, the Nkomati Accord was signed; its intent to end Frelimo’s support for the ANC and South Africa’s support for Renamo. Mozambique kept their end of the bargain, South Africa did not and the fighting continued until an effective 1992 cease-fire agreement, with the first democratic election held in 1994. Frelimo’s candidate, Joaquim Chissano, won just as Nelson Mandela was elected president next door in South Africa. It was a very invigorating and promising time in both countries; how much of that promise has materialized is a contemporary debate in both countries.
Mozambique remains a complex country but now the battling parties of Frelimo and Renamo compete for village votes instead of victims. In the distant past, South Africa’s apartheid government interfered constantly in the country’s political life, weaving a web of bloody deception. Now Graca Machel (Samora Machel’s widow) is married to South Africa’s amiably aging hero, Nelson Mandela; they can be seen holding hands at press gatherings—hopefully the sign of a new age in southern Africa.
Maputo. Maputo appears to be a very livable city reflecting its Portuguese heritage architecturally and the war years in the actual condition of many buildings. In the past the European-built center cities were referred to as the ‘cement towns’ and the outlying districts where most Mozambiqueans lived as the ‘reed towns.’ As I was primarily in ‘cement town’ I obviously did not see all of the urban environment. We did drive around the city, and while Mozambique is not economically strong, the impression of Maputo is of a generally attractive, vigorous and workable city. Good restaurants abound, most automobiles—and there are many—appear to be in drivable condition, people are busy, the weather is perfect and the prices Albuquerque-level. The Hotel Tivoli where Bryn and I stayed is quite perfectly located, between a big breezy friendly bakery/coffee house, Teatro Avenida, the city’s theatre for contemporary theater and dance, and Feria Popular, a sort of gated but casually friendly restaurant community with all of the pizza, piri piri and sweet and sour pork one could ever want.
The Artists. We were hosted by Panaibra Gabriel Canda of CulturArte; Maria Helena Pinto, choreographer and dancer; and Manuela Soeiro, theater manager and theatrical producer. They represent the primary contingent of contemporary arts leaders in the city. Boyzie Cekwana from South Africa, a choreographer/dancer and southern Africa arts activist was also present in Maputo as a teacher and co-creator of a new work with Panaibra. We ate almost every meal with these new and old friends and each was an opportunity for lengthy animated discussion of contemporary African arts, politics and everyday life. For me what emerged from the many evenings’ brimming platters of ideas, was a tasty morsel called JourneysAFRICA—both as a programming concept for Global DanceFest and as a travel focus for me.
Panaibra, Maria Helena and Manuela took such good care of us, from long drives and long talks, cultural events to a theater lobby dinner with Manuela. Here is a little more information about them.
Panaibra Gabriel Canda, the primary host and organizer of the trip to Mozambique, is a community arts leader, choreographer, and the director of a CulturArte, an organization supporting his dancework as well as training programs for young people, artists with disabilities and other community dancers. Panaibra began his dance career in traditional dance but, dissatisfied with the lack of creative freedom and exposed to contemporary European dance, he soon moved on. CulturArte was created to provide a structure within which funds could be raised and an educational program developed. He has been quite successful although money is so very scarce in this economically strapped country.
Bryn worked every day with Panaibra and Boyzie on the Independence Project. The project involved local dancers and non-dancers, with and without disabilities in extensive training and then a final work to be choreographed by Panaibra and his dancers.
I am pleased to report that the Independence Project as a dance was presented at Global DanceFest 2009 and was a major success. It is one of the most powerful dance pieces I have seen, and almost the first that included dancers with disabilities in a way that didn’t make the work all about disability.
Maria-Helena Pinto, the other dance leader in Maputo is, in some ways, the embodiment of this country with a Mozambiquean mother, jailed in South Africa for much of Pinto’s childhood, and a Portuguese father she did not know until she was an adult. Pinto was partially raised by a grandmother who constantly reminded her that she came from a strong tribe and could survive anything, skills she needed when her ex-husband, father of her child and fellow dancer/choreographer was shot and killed by the police in 2007. Pinto has studied dance in Cuba and is presently completing a doctorate in Paris. She has plans to build her own art center on land she has purchased in a Maputo suburb.
Manuela Soeiro is the founder and director of both the venue, Teatro Avenida, and the theater company, Mutumbela Gogo, the only professional theater company in Mozambique. Soeiro is a woman of great determination who was handed Teatro Avenida by the government right after independence with no expectations that she would actually make it work—but she did! From complete shambles, Teatro Avenida has grown to become the primary venue for contemporary artists in the city. In 1986, Soeiro founded Mutumbela Gogo which has hosted a variety of internationally known writers, playwrights and directors including Henning Mankell, Sweden’s favorite detective novelist (and of course, one of mine) who is very involved with the group, and Mia Couto, Mozambique’s most famous and best-loved writer/poet.
Evenings Bryn and I were treated to the everyday cultural life of Maputo. As in most cities most of the time, it was comprised of the art made and shared by friends and neighbors and the art offered through cultural exchanges, school and clubs and associations. A rich and varied smorgasbord for the residents of Maputo. Boyzie, Panaibra, Bryn and I in some combination went to a number of community events including a play and video presentation of a South African photography project in a downtown ‘art alley’ and a student recital of Maria Helena’s dance school. There were evenings of film at Teatro Avenida including a German film dubbed in Portuguese and also signed [the story included a deaf person] and another rather-pointedly anti-American Spanish film about Cuba hosted by Spanish and Cuban cultural organizations. I did get to see a community performance by the national dance company which David Abilo (director) had explained to me earlier was the part of the work they were doing to keep the company solvent. It apparently was developed as a social message (and sales pitch) for a drug company. I visited the small but quite excellent contemporary art museum and regret that I didn’t try to find out a little more about the visual art world. The last night we were there Panaibra took us to one of his favorite restaurants which was celebrating …. An October German beer fest! Final night in Maputo, Mozambique. Polka music and bratwurst… the beer however was Laurentina!
Swaziland. My passport-stamp adventure for this trip was a day’s outing to Mbabane, Swaziland. According to Google Mbabane is 93 miles from Maputo but it can take some time. I took the regular old market bus to make sure it was an authentic experience—and to check out my travel stamina levels! The market-to-market buses (medium-size vans) line up early in a bumpy and dusty parking lot just off 25 de Septembro. It took close to three hours for the van to fill–coming and going, 10 hours actually moving (well, except for the hours spent at the border crossing and being stopped by the police) and then two hours at the Mbabane Mall. Where I had a BLT and a latte, bought some books in English and made sure my bladder was absolutely empty for the return journey.
It was a great trip. Outside of the mall, no one spoke English but everyone was kind and helpful with directional gestures when I was momentarily lost in Mbabane. TRAVEL TIP: It is essential NOT to spend every moment of a trip with a travel companion. You must experience some things through your own eyes only!
A Small World Story. Shortly before leaving Maputo, I was walking back to the hotel along the very crowded and hectic Karl Marx Boulevard from a meeting at the U.S. Consulate. A woman across the busy street started shouting and motioning for me to come across to where she stood with a child in a stroller. With great curiosity, I crossed. The woman turned out to be one of the kind people on the market bus to Swaziland who had helped me with directions. She just wanted to say hello and how are you. ‘It IS a small (and generally friendly) world after all!’