Books

Africa’s Latin Quarter

Despite bleak poverty, Mozambique’s multi-ethnic literary culture thrives

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• 3,243 words

Image provided by Panos Pictures
Panos Pictures An artist involved with Arms into Art, a group that uses decommissioned weapons in its work, sits on a chair made of machine guns.

In downtown Maputo, the monument to the origins of apartheid is just off Karl Marx Street. Maputo, with its manageable proportions, dreamy views over Delagoa Bay, and cosmopolitan restaurant scene, is one of Africa’s most pleasant capital cities. I walked to the apartheid monument through windblown red dust and young people lugging buckets of water into high-rise buildings. Most modern conveniences—such as traffic lights, credit cards, and cellphones—work in Maputo, but a few, such as the water supply in apartments, are unreliable.

Mozambican literary culture, which I’d come to Maputo to explore, is rooted in the country’s history as a Portuguese colony that gained its independence through a Marxist-Leninist revolution in 1975, and in its proximity to neighbouring South Africa. Nowhere are this history’s contradictions more evident than in the Louis Trichardt Memorial Garden. On the back wall of a patio sunk below the street, a plaster frieze depicts Trichardt, a stout Afrikaner, leading oxen through the wilderness in the late 1830s. A trilingual inscription in Afrikaans, Portuguese, and English, under the heading “They Harnessed the Wilds,” lauds the Portuguese colonialists for their hospitality to the South African Voortrekkers, and their solidarity in fighting off “native tribesmen.” Most self-respecting Marxist revolutions would have demolished this racist kitsch, but Mozambique, a coastal nation with a tolerance for strangers, prefers to allow all the dissonant chords of its past to resonate at once.

“Mozambique is a crossroads,” Mia Couto, the country’s best-known writer, tells me. “Things happened here that are unique in the history of Africa. There’s an acceptance of others, a way of receiving others, that I haven’t found in other African countries. This doesn’t mean that we’re better than others, but rather that there’s a very long history of relating to outsiders.”

In 2002, at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, a clutch of the continent’s most eminent literary critics went into a huddle and emerged with a list of the dozen best African books of the twentieth century. Most of these works were written in English or French. The only Portuguese-language title was Couto’s novel Sleepwalking Land, a phantasmagorical narrative in which two refugees sheltering in a burned-out bus relive the life of one of the massacre victims whose bodies surround them. At fifty-two, Couto is the author of six novels, six short story collections, and numerous other books, which have been published in more than twenty countries. His fable-like short stories, rooted in animist culture and an irreverent disregard for the conventions of formal literary Portuguese, celebrate African oral storytelling.

The international reputation of a writer who might be described as the Gabriel García Márquez of Africa is complicated by a second surprising feature of Couto’s inclusion on the list of the twelve best African books: not only was he the sole Portuguese speaker to make the list; he was also the only white writer. Such white writers as Nadine Gordimer or J.M. Coetzee in neighbouring South Africa remain more observers than participants in the African culture that surrounds them, but Couto’s work, drenched in traditional African conceptions of time, ancestry, and belonging to the land, is widely read in Mozambique, and seen as representative of the country’s hybridized African culture.

Mozambique’s racial mixing dates back to between AD 300 and 800, when a vast wave of people of Indonesian descent invaded the East African coastline. Travelling in coastal Mozambique, I passed through areas inhabited by tiny, fine-boned people with remotely Asian physiques. The African languages spoken by these people contain vestiges of Malay vocabulary. There was even significant trade with China, and the spread of Islam brought a tradition of marriage alliances with the Arab traders who dominated Mozambique’s economy in the early Middle Ages. The residue of this period is evident not only in the high-cheekboned racial inheritance of people in northern Mozambique, but in the country’s many mosques, ranging from the Aga Khan’s shimmering Ismaili mosque in downtown Maputo to the tiny, green-painted huts used for worship in villages. Too poor to build minarets, the villages designate their mosques with crescents raised on poles.

Portuguese colonialism, which began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498, intensified Mozambique’s racial mixing. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, unable to manage the sprawling, distant colony, Lisbon assigned Mozambique’s governance to the Viceroyalty of Goa, the Indian jewel in the crown of the Portuguese empire. In defiance of every stereotype of colonialism, Africans in Mozambique had a European language imposed on them by administrators who were ethnically Indian. Many of these Portuguese-speaking Indian civil servants or adventurers intermarried with local leaders. In the Zambezi Valley, in central Mozambique, mixed Indo-Portuguese-African elites broke away from government structures to form autonomous settlements known as prazos.

In the nineteenth century, these palisaded outposts fought a sixty-year war of resistance against Portuguese colonial authority, only succumbing to the central government in 1902. Miscegenation between Europeans and Africans was less common in Mozambique than in other Portuguese colonies, such as Angola or the Cape Verde islands, but the roots of Mozambican identity spring from a tradition that assumes everyone descends in part from an outsider.

The frelimo guerrilla movement, which led Mozambique to independence from Portugal in 1975, promoted interracialism and the Portuguese language—at the time spoken by just a sliver of the country’s population—as the keys to building a nation from the more than twenty distinct ethnic and linguistic groups inhabiting the country’s long Indian Ocean coastline. Photographs of early meetings of the new government, in the Museum of the Revolution in downtown Maputo, reveal a sprinkling of white, mixed-race, and South Asian faces among the black majority.

Lília Momplé, a lively woman now in her seventies, participated in building Mozambique’s cultural institutions. She is the author of the well-known novel Neighbours: The Story of a Murder, based on an assassination attempt carried out by South African operatives in Maputo in 1985. Momplé recalls Samora Machel, the country’s revered first president (who died in 1986 in a plane crash that has sometimes been blamed on South Africa), haranguing his followers with the words “We have nothing against the whites… Down with tribalism!” Sitting in the sunny backyard of the Mozambican Writers’ Association, where traffic roars down nearby July 24th Avenue, Momplé says, “The most visible inheritance of the revolution is that in Mozambique a tribal war is not possible. Those ideas don’t find any echo here.”

Like other strands of Mozambican literary culture, Mia Couto’s career was profoundly shaped by frelimo’s revolution. In 1977, at the age of twenty-two, Couto, the son of immigrants from northern Portugal, was vaulted into the position of director of the Mozambique Information Agency in Machel’s Marxist-Leninist government. Couto’s decade-long service with the government press corps enabled him to travel the world, but it also sent him into remote areas of Mozambique to train local journalists. In his early thirties, he returned to university to become an environmental biologist. He now works as an environmental consultant during the day, and pursues his career as a writer and theatre director in the evenings.

“I understand ecology as a way of getting closer to essential questions about the nature of our relationship with the land,” Couto tells me in his office in the low white colonial building where his company is located. “These are the same reasons that make me write.” He notes that Mozambique’s African languages, one of which he spoke well during his upbringing in the central part of the country, do not distinguish between nature and culture. When Couto speaks of the land, he means both the planet we live on—he played an important role in developing Mozambique’s Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park—and the nation. His fiction is haunted by the paradox that Mozambique, having shed colonial status only in 1975, has begun to define its nationhood just as globalization is dissolving the concept of the nation-state.

In Sleepwalking Land, the narrator is told that “nothing of your land belongs to you, and even the sky and the seas will be the property of outsiders.” The Last Flight of the Flamingo, a witty postmodern novel about UN soldiers who spontaneously combust, leaving behind only their blue peacekeeper helmets and their penises, fulfills this prophecy by portraying the international organizations that flooded into the country in the early 1990s as the new colonialists. The insight is pushed to an almost unimaginable extreme in the novel’s final scene, where Mozambique disappears, leaving the surviving characters staring over the edge of a precipice.

Couto’s most recent novel, as yet unavailable in English, is called The Mer maid’s Other Foot. An award winner in Portugal and Brazil, it oscillates between Mozambique’s engagement with two empires: the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and the United States in the twenty-first. One of the characters is a sixteenth-century African, based in Portugal’s Indian colony of Goa, who is sent back to Mozambique to translate for Portuguese missionaries. The missionaries fail to realize that the man is an Angolan who does not understand the African languages of Mozambique. The translator dies, but not before he has contributed to complicating the ethnic patchwork of Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coastline.

Of the eight countries that have Portuguese as their official language, six are clustered around the central Atlantic Ocean. A steady commerce of popular music, television soap operas, novels, athletes, and politicians gives Portugal, Brazil, Angola, the Cape Verde islands, Guinea-Bissau, and the tiny two-island republic of São Tomé and Principe shared cultural references. The two remaining members of the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Nations (cplp in its Portuguese acronym), which was founded in 1996 and resembles the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, are Mozambique and East Timor, next door to Indonesia. Distant from the Atlantic home of the Portuguese language, and with their economies dominated by powerful English-speaking neighbours (Mozambique’s by South Africa, East Timor’s by Australia), both countries have been predicted to switch to English. But while the jury is still out on East Timor, which only gained independence in 2002, in Mozambique Samora Machel’s dream of a republic unified by the Portuguese language may come true.

Steady urbanization has lifted the proportion of Mozambicans who speak Portuguese to an estimated high of 45 percent of the country’s 21 million people. Even the haughty South Africans, resigning themselves to sharing southern Africa with two Portuguese-speaking nations (Mozambique and oil-rich Angola), have introduced Portuguese as a subject in their school system. Furthermore, the consolidation of Mozambique’s linguistic and political identity has attracted many foreigners, and three consecutive respectably democratic elections since 1992 have brought ngo workers flooding into the country. The children of Portuguese colonialists who fled in 1975 are returning from Johannesburg and Lisbon to work in Maputo businesses, and foreign writers have also been drawn to Mozambique. The Swedish detective novelist Henning Mankell lives for part of the year in Maputo, where he manages the Teatro Avenida, one of Africa’s most dynamic theatres. More recently, the British novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Terán has moved to rural northern Mozambique, to run a development project.

To reach St. Aubin de Terán’s tourism and agriculture school for rural youth, I rode in a packed pickup truck from Mozambique Island, the fortified outpost off the country’s north coast that served as the colonial capital until 1898. The island is connected to the mainland by a single-lane causeway a kilometre and a half long. At low tide, the mud flats glimmer, and the dozens of women and children scavenging for clams and crabs far out from the shoreline look as though they are walking on water. I got down from the truck at a side road on the mainland, and walked through a village to a beach to wait for a dhow to cross the straits that divide the headland from the coast of the region where St. Aubin de Terán lives. The dhow moored in shallow water. As I seized the gunwales and pivoted myself on board, I saw that the Mozambican passengers, unable to pull themselves up, were being dragged on board by the crew. I became conscious of the poor nourishment of many of the people around me.

The dhow’s triangular sail unfurled, carrying us across the straits. On the other side, the crew dropped us off in waist-deep water, and we waded ashore for some 300 metres. A gaunt young man wading beside me offered to guide me to the village of Mossuril. After we had walked for ten minutes, he demurred, his energy fading. In an almost inaudible whisper, he said, “I have malaria.” He soon stumbled into a relative’s hut next to the dirt path. I kept walking.

In Mossuril, a young man offered to guide me to “Mrs. Lisa’s school.” We hiked four kilometres inland on dirt paths that passed mud-and-wattle huts, cramped subsistence plots growing potatoes, goats tied to trees, and head-high anthills with crooked, handle-like tops. As I passed, infant children murmured good morning in Portuguese, and giggling little girls burst out of huts and shouted, “Whitey! Whitey!” The dun-coloured walls of the numerous abandoned Portuguese colonial houses haunted the forest. Cool winter rain soaked my shirt as we approached the school.

St. Aubin de Terán, a tall woman, came out to greet me wearing a baggy sweater from which protruded the head of a baby baboon she had adopted. The author of seventeen books of fiction and travel memoirs, St. Aubin de Terán, fifty-five, lived for many years in Venezuela and later in Italy. Her travels in Africa began with a dream of setting up libraries. Her latest book, Mozambique Mysteries, describes her relationship with the district where she now lives. Claiming some African ancestry through her Guyanese father, she came to Mozambique for personal reasons, “after having had a number of unsuitable husbands.”

At the invitation of local leaders, St. Aubin de Terán has converted one of the larger colonial houses into a school where villagers train to work in the hotels that will inevitably be built along the nearby coastline. Local people, whose cash income averages $5 per family per month, fear that unless they prepare for the future, jobs in the hotels will go to better-educated people from southern Mozambique. Needing capital to invest in the community, local leaders see hotel wages as the first step.

Our conversation turns to the omnipresent ngo workers, to Maputo and its expat restaurants that line streets bearing the names of Vladimir Lenin and Kim-Il Sung. Everywhere I travelled in Mozambique, 99 percent of whose population defines itself as black African, businesses were run by European consultants, white South African businessmen, wizened Portuguese bureaucrats, mixed-race Mozambicans with European surnames, Portuguese-speaking Indians, or immigrants from the Middle East. “I know colonialism has ended only because I’ve read my history books,” St. Aubin de Terán tells me.

The survival of the Louis Trichardt memorial can be interpreted either as evidence of multiracial tolerance or, more sombrely, as a sign of the covert persistence of colonial racial hierarchies. A few weeks before meeting St. Aubin de Terán, over lunch in Lisbon, one of Portuguese Africa’s leading intellectuals snarled at me: “Mozambique is a fraud! If it’s the perfect developing country, why is it so poor? ” Mozambicans’ unfailing politeness camouflages the fact that their country ranks 172nd out of 177 nations on the UN Human Development Index. For many citizens, the paradoxes of belonging to a Portuguese-speaking culture on the Indian Ocean are overshadowed by the hardships of living in an African country with African problems.

On my last night in Maputo, I went to the Teatro Avenida to attend the Mozambican premiere of a play called Love Requiem for Widows. Most of the spectators were young people in their twenties. The play’s action, which revolved around the efforts of a mother to bring her son, a deceased dictator, back to life, yielded at intervals to bursts of music, dancing, and African drumming. The cast ran the racial spectrum from black to white. Actors from Mozambique and from Mayotte, a speck in the Indian Ocean that remains an overseas department of France, were collaborating to tour the play through Mozambique, with performances in the original French for students, and a Portuguese translation by Mia Couto for the general public.

The morning of the opening performance, I had the chance to speak with Alain-Kamal Martial, the play’s thirty-three-year-old author, at a café next door to the theatre. Martial tells me that Mayotte’s racial mix includes a large contribution from the Makua ethnic group, which inhabits the region of northern Mozambique where Lisa St. Aubin de Terán lives. Many Makua were deported to Mayotte as slaves in the nineteenth century. Reacting against an official culture that denied this history, Martial recreated it in one of his first plays, La rapture de la chair. “Our ties with Africa were cut in the nineteenth century. Francophilia erased our history. I’m not rejecting Europe,” says Martial,who is completing a doctorate at the Cergy-Pontoise University in Paris, “but Mozambique is the world that is closest to us, and language shouldn’t be a barrier.”

The Mayotte and Mozambican actors in Love Requiem for Widows have learned enough of one another’s languages to act in both versions of the play. “We’re performing in the French of Mayotte and the Portuguese of Mozambique,” Martial stresses. “They’re cut off from the other Portuguese-speaking countries, and we’re cut off from the French-speaking countries in West Africa. But it’s the cultural exchange that makes the linguistic exchange possible.”

His words make me hesitate. Surely language and culture are synonymous? But Mozambique’s African cultures, even when modified by ethnic mixing, provide bridges to surrounding countries, while the use of a national language spoken nowhere else in the region shores up a sense of shared distinctness among people who have many different ethnic and regional allegiances. It’s a tantalizing recipe for balancing the contradictory pressures exerted by multiculturalism and globalization, a clue as to why, despite its bleak poverty, Mozambique is so often idealized. Martial’s lucid gaze becomes misty. In his soft Indian Ocean French, he murmurs, “I dream of writing in Portuguese.”

Stephen Henighan is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels The Path of the Jaguar (2016) and Mr Singh Among the Fugitives (forthcoming 2017).