Sunday, September 23, 2012

Time of Fire

September is hot and dry.  It has been more than three months since we last saw rain in the province of Tete and, as such, the scene is primed for fire.  Local farmers have been executing small-scale, localized burns to clear away weeds and to prepare for next year's growing season, sending pillars of smoke and grit to clog up the view along the horizon.  Half of Tete Province has burned at some point during the last few months and the air quality is horrible.  Zobue hasn't seen a decent sunset since July.  This is the "Tempo de Fogo" in Mozambique.

For the most part, the weeks have been passing without incident.  Most of the fires that we see are small, reasonable, and under control.  The few large fires that we do see are far on the outskirts of town, lighting up the night from their position on the mountainsides.  These fires, while threatening, always seem to dissipate by morning.

Yesterday, though, we had a pretty big event.  At about 10 o'clock in the morning on Saturday, September 22nd, the entire Zobue marketplace burst into flames.

We heard about the fire just minutes after it had happened.  A crowd of neighborhood children came barreling into our front yard, babbling and shouting at Dan.

"TURN OFF YOUR ENERGY!"  They shouted.  "Turn it OFF!  Turn it OFF!"

Dan stuck his head out the door and cocked his head.

"What?"  He asked.

"There's been an accident in the marketplace!"  The children yelled.  "You have to turn off your energy or you will DIE."

After some discussion and clarification, Dan managed to piece together the entire story.

At about 9:30 that morning, a farmer was burning his land in the fields below the marketplace.  After successfully lighting the fire and getting it moving in the right direction, he walked away and let it burn.  It continued to burn merrily for about fifteen minutes without incident.  Then, at about 9:45, the wind picked up and began to blow the fire in the direction of the marketplace.

The fish stalls on the lower end of the marketplace were the first to catch fire.  The fire sent the bamboo poles and straw thatching up in flames and then lept towards the bancas by the road.  From there, it spread down the rows towards back of the market, taking down stores and stalls as it went.  The flames burned so high that they burned right through the electrical line, cutting power to the rest of the market and sending a shower of sparks over vendors as they ran back and forth to save their products.

There was some confusion, at first, about the situation with the power lines.  Some onlookers seemed to think that the fire was caused by a problem with the electricity, and that the whole town was going to burn down.  Waves of children were sent out across town, warning townsfolk to "Turn off their electricity or die." More credible witnesses, however, swore that the fire started in the fields.

"The flames were twenty feet tall," they said.  "The fire came first, and then it took out the power lines."

Dan and I came to see the damage at around sunset.  Everything was a mess.  The bamboo stalls on the lower side of the market had been razed completely.  The fire had spread uphill and destroyed a few tin bancas, burning to the top of several papaya trees on the outer edge of the market and even destroying a few brick bancas in the very center. 

The air was still hot and smoky.  A few timbers were still smoldering and sending out ash.  People were milling around and gawking.  Plenty of kids were out, playing in the ashes.  Nobody, it seemed, had been hurt.  Mostly, the fire just seemed to have created a lot of excitement.  The fire had happened hours before, but it was still a big event. 

We went to visit some of our friends in the marketplace, all of whom seemed to have escaped the worst of the damage.  Sebastion’s banca was an island in a sea of burned ground.  Jorge’s shop was fine, too, and Danny’s, as well. 

“Were you here?” I asked our friends, when we stopped by to visit.  “Did you run away?”

“Of course we didn’t run away,” they said.  “We had to protect our stores.”

We were glad to hear that nobody had been hurt, and we were relieved to see that so many of the big bancas had been spared. 

“Thank goodness the fire didn’t enter your store,” I said to Danny, looking around at the shelves of stock and products.  "You would have lost everything.  And you would have been trapped!  I can’t believe that you didn’t run away.”

“My whole life is in my store,” said Danny. 

Sebastion agreed, and then added:

“Run away?  I would rather die in my banca.”

We're still unsure about how many goods and products were actually lost in the fire.  Entire stalls were burned to the ground, but their owners escaped unharmed.  Did our friend Bright manage to escape with his stock of flip-flops and tupperware?  Did Raimundo escape with all of his capulanas?  What about Eric and his collection of cheap Chinese bras?  We weren't sure, and the owners were nowhere to be found.  

It was clear that the used clothes had burned too quickly to be saved.  The old boxcar that served as a calamidades storage shed was now nothing more than a twisted pile of tin and smoldering fluff.  

Our town's reaction has been interesting.  Most of the adults have been milling around, shaking their heads.  

"Terrible," they say.  "Just terrible."

Vendors are already hard at work, tearing down their old, ruined stalls and beginning to build anew.

The kids, on the other hand, seem to be pretty excited.  Hordes of children can be found in all corners of the market, pushing their toy cars through the cinders and scrounging for bottles and other broken things.  It's a dirty job, but their search yields all sorts of hidden treasures-- cans, glass, and bits of wire.  

Hope from the ashes, I guess.

The old market:  Bamboo stalls, thatched roofs, and plenty of flammable goods
The old market:  A shot of the market in February 2012.  Note the system of inter-connected thatched roofs
The new market:  A shot of the market after the fire
A view of the market after the fire
Sebastion's banca, ironically named "The Lonely Banca."
A view of the market (fish stalls) after the fire.  Note the missing electric line on the upper right.  It burned away.
A view of the  market (fish stalls) after the fire.  The fire started on the left-hand side of the frame and rapidly moved to towards the back.  
Remnants of a small, tin banca
The bread stall (left) and Jerusalem Banca (right).  A child picks through the ashes, searching for bits and toys.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mozambique Mosaic

I find joy in taking pictures.

I am proud of the work that I do here in Africa, and, while that work primarily signifies my job as an eighth-grade English teacher, it also includes the pictures that I take and share with friends and family at home.  After all, the Third Goal of the Peace Corps Experience is to:

"Help promote a better understanding of other 
peoples on the part of the Americans"

Last month, I was giddy and honored to be contacted by an Jacqui Taylor, a Harare-based illustrator, about the use of my photos for her latest project.  The project, a book entitled "Mozambique Mosaic," is about the material art and culture of Mozambique.  It covers nearly every topic imaginable, from fishing and hunting to instruments and hand-made toys.  Written by Henrik Ellert and illustrated by Jacqui Taylor, the book is expected to be published in early 2013.

Between thirty and forty of my photographs will be used in the final publication, and full credit will be granted with the inclusion of every picture.  In addition, I will be given a free copy of the book to share with my family and another copy to leave with my community.

I am thrilled to think of the pride and excitement that will sweep through my neighborhood when I show my kids that they are featured in a book.  A real, official, printed, grown-up book It will be such a source of pride for the entire community, and especially for the children themselves.  I am so happy that I could cry.

Here is a link to Jacqui Taylor's webpage, featuring some of her best illustrations and designs:

Below are a few of the photographs that have been selected to be published.  The majority of these photographs have come from three sources: Toys (June 2012), Food (August 2012), and The Market (February 2012).

For those who are interested, stay posted for more information on how to order a copy of "Mozambique Mosaic."  The book is currently over 400 pages long and promises to become one of the most intricate, comprehensive works ever published on the country of Mozambique.  Also, perhaps more importantly, stay posted for pictures of my youngest Mozambican friends as they come face-to-face with their own portraits in a real, honest-to-goodness book. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012


National holidays are a little different in Mozambique.  

Masked Dancer:  September 2012

The day starts in the town square.   A steady stream of people (teachers, students, and other dedicated townsfolk) congregate slowly along the main road, piling onto and around the large, cement star that serves as the town's official meeting-place.  The ceremony is opened by the border guards, who march forward (arms and feet flapping) to lay a wreath at the foot of the cement star.  Then, a "Schedule of Activities" is read by the Cultural Coordinator of the local school. This is followed by a string of political speeches, which invariably end in a round of fist-pumping and cheering:

Orator:  "Long live our president, Armando Emilio Guebuza, Hoye!"
Crowd:  (Fist pump)  "Hoye!"
Orator:  "Long live Mozambique, Hoye!"
Crowd:  (Fist pump)  "Hoye!"
Orator:  "FRELIMO Party, Hoye!"
Crowd:  (Fist pump)  "Hoye!"
Orator:  "Zobue, Hoye!"
Crowd:  (Fist pump)  "Hoye!"

The children, especially, like to yell "Hoye."  It's the only part of the speeches that they can actually understand, and it is definitely the most rousing.

After the speeches, the high school performance groups take the stage to present their skits and holiday-themed dances. This is the best part of the whole affair, and everyone gets pretty excited about it.  The REDES girls go first, marshaled by their high school gym teacher and cheered on by their Peace Corps supporters.  The girls present a few songs and dances and then sashay out of the circle, replaced by the boys and girls of JUNTOS.  The JUNTOS group, primarily a theater group, presents their skits in a combination of Portuguese language and dialect.  The skits are loosely related to the theme of the holiday and are usually met with raucous, uproarious laughter from the audience. Finally, the English Theater group takes the stage for a short, sample demonstration of their holiday cheer.  The students sing a few simple songs in English and then dance away, waving over their shoulders.  And, just like that, the event is over.  Students and teachers mingle and then disperse, flowing in streams along the road and out into the neighborhoods.

The crowd at the big cement star

Celebrating a successful performance

The rest of the day gets pretty raucous.  School is cancelled, of course, and the students can be found all over town.  The local bars crank up their stereo systems and start blasting music from America, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.  Large crates of beer appear out of nowhere and neighbors start handing out their home-made brew. Before long, the whole town is in shambles.  Even the local administrators start to look a little blurry-eyed.

The most recent holiday in Mozambique was on September 7th.  Known as "Victory Day," this holiday commemorates the end of the Mozambican War of Independence.  It is followed closely by Revolution Day, September 25, and the Day of Peace, October 4.  Then, on October 12, school shuts down for the fourth time in four weeks, this time to celebrate Teacher's Day. This final holiday, synonymous with feasting, drinking, and revelry, signals the beginning of the end of the 2012 school year.  As the festivities become more and more frequent, the concept of "school" starts to disintegrate.

During this most recent holiday, Dan and I were lucky enough to see and photograph the masked dancers of the Nyau.  The Nyau are members of a secret society and are symbols of the Chewa culture in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique.  Usually brandishing machetes or sticks, they slash and charge at the crowd, forcing them to move away and keep their distance.  The dancers are widely feared in this part of Mozambique, and they are not to be taken lightly.  Last Friday was the first time that I got a chance to take photographs at close range, and I nearly got trampled in the process.

My first interaction with the Nyau:  May 2012

The Nyau arrived in the mid-afternoon.  Their arrival was heralded by loud whoop-ing and clapping, followed the shk-shk-sht of dried beans in a can.  A crowd of people stampeded around them, first running away, then running behind, a set of six costumed dancers.  When the Nyau settled into their dancing spot, they were encircled by an audience of adult men.  Women and children were allowed to watch, too, but only from a greater distance.

Teenage boys began to beat on animal skin drums as the Nyau entered the circle, one by one.  Each dancer entered in a swirl of skirts, waving their sticks and stomping their feet.  Junior members of the society, young men in plain clothes, stood between the dancers and the crowd, warding off the "creatures" with rattles made of beans.  In response to the noise of the rattles, the dancers kicked and growled and yelled.  They charged at the crowd and made threatening gestures, daring the audience to try and make eye contact.  From time to time, an idle dancer from the back of the circle would charge at the audience, too, causing the shape of the circle to shift.  Wide-eyed children watched from the sidelines.

Because I am a foreigner and because I had a camera, I was exempt from the male-only rule of the inner circle.  Instead of being relegated to the back of the crowd, I was ushered to the very front.  The man who brought me into the circle, a slightly tipsy town administrator, urged me to take photo after photo.

"That one, there," he said.  "Take a picture of that one.  Look, that one fell down.  Get a photograph."

I was not exempt from being charged, however, and I was on multiple occasions.  Every time that a masked dancer would turn and run towards me, the administrator would take me by the arm and yank me into the retreating crowd.  Then, we would both laugh and resume our positions.

In spite of these rather precarious interactions, I got a few really great photographs.  I promised the administrator that I would provide copies of the photos for him and for the rest of the town.  I then turned and went home, my camera tucked safely away in my purse.  I was bruised and a little dusty, but feeling extremely satisfied.

A Masked Dancer asks for money.  

Masked Dancers waiting for their turn to dance.  The man in the background is a junior member of the society, tasked with dusting the dancers with dirt before, after, and even during their performance pieces.

Run away!  Getting charged by the Nyau.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Single Girl's Guide to Sleeping Alone in Africa

As a married volunteer, I'm lucky in that my roommate situation is guaranteed from the very beginning of service.   Some volunteers will end up living with other volunteers, some will live with Mozambicans, and others will live by themselves.  I get to live with my best friend, which makes that part of my life a little bit easier.

I will admit, however, that I have been looking forward to this weekend.  Dan is in Chimoio from Friday until Sunday, which means that I have the house to myself for nearly 58 hours.  At first, I considered going with him.  Chimoio is the capital of Manica province and has all sorts of good things—Indian food, ice cream, Internet—for the deprived and greedy volunteer.  In the end, though, I decided to stay behind and enjoy my free time.   For the first time ever, I was going to act the part of a single white female, living alone in Africa.  

At the beginning of the day, I took my job very seriously.  I started by eating a spoonful of Malawi peanut butter directly from the jar.  Then, I walked to the market and bought a pack of crackers.  I chose not to cook lunch for myself, opting instead to read sixteen chapters of Harry Potter e a C├ímara Secreta.

As the day wore on, however, my joy became tainted with paranoia.  The energy had been out all day and I realized that the possibility of spending the night alone—in the dark—was quickly becoming a reality.  My priorities shifted.  Suddenly, I was nailing windows shut, fishing for candles, and asking the neighbor boy to come and look under the bed in the back room. 

The energy has since returned (it returned in a whoosh of lamps and stereos that made all the children cheer), but this single white female has found it hard to go to sleep.  Instead, she found herself curled up under the mosquito net, writing “The Single Girl’s Guide to Sleeping Alone in Africa” (alternately titled, “What’s that Noise!?”), by the light of not one, but two electric bulbs.  Here’s an excerpt of this latest literary masterpiece:

*          *          *          *          *
Description of Noise

There are lots of scary noises in the middle of the night!  Most of these noises have natural causes and have little or nothing to do with the man that is standing outside your window.  Use this handy guide to find a rational explanation for the sounds that are keeping you awake!

A Sudden, Loud CRACK
  • Inside the House:  Don’t worry!  What you heard were pieces of the house breaking off and falling down.  There should be no problems as long as the resulting holes are not large enough to crawl through. 
  • Outside the House:  Not your problem.  What’s outside can’t get in (unless, of course, that hole was large enough to crawl through…)
  • On the Roof:  Probably just children throwing bricks onto your tin roof.  They’re just being friendly!
Strange Hissing Noises
  • Gas leak, hissing cockroaches, or Mozambican spitting cobras.  Just watch where you put your feet.
Rattling on the Grate
  • Probably just the dog, sleeping against the door.  When the dog scratches his fleas, it rattles the metal grate and makes a sound suspiciously like a tall man with a machete trying to get in.  But it’s not!  Usually…
 Loud, Repetitive Wailing
  • It’s time to pray!  The Muslim call to prayer sounds five times a day between 5AM and 10PM. 
Sharp, Sudden Screams in the Yard
  • The next door neighbor is probably bewitched, again.  Don’t go outside or you’ll get bewitched, too!

*          *          *          *          *

That’s all I have for now, but I’m sure that the list of strange noises will grow as the night wears on.  Trust me, I hear all of them.  There is also the “Was that me who just shook the bed?” sensation and the “Now it’s quiet.  Too quiet.”  sensation.  The night crawls by, inch by inch, on little, itchy cockroach legs.

I’m not really a single girl in Africa, of course.  But I am discovering just how hard it can be.  As such, I’d like to dedicate this small post to my good friend Steph Newton, who really does spend every night alone in the dark.  Not only is she surviving, but she is succeeding and doing good work.   There are many different types of bravery, and the ladies of the Peace Corps are some of the most courageous young women that I have ever met.    

If you’d like to read about a single woman living alone in a village without electricity, try reading Steph’s blog, here: 

She’s upbeat, smart, and funny, which always makes for a good read.