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.

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