Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Southern Mozambique

As I sit here at a guesthouse nestled in the undulating farmland of Kokstad, South Africa, the dunes of Mozambique are already finding their allotted shelf space in my memory’s library.

I have spent the last month of my life meandering along the southern coast of Mozambique. Ponta do ouro (“Point of Gold”) was my home.  A sleepy little beach town just 2 km north of the South African/Mozambican border, Ponta is an interesting microcosm of culture, language, economy and environment. 

The only thing that is black and white about this place is the people.  As it stands, Ponta is home to many black Portuguese-speaking Mozambicans and a large handful of white South Africans who migrated to start businesses. There is a bit of a clog in the sink that pours money into this local economy. Being so close to the border, many tourists (and residents) do their shopping in South Africa. From drinking water to handicrafts, things tend to cost almost 3 times as much as they do across the border and this is a problem.  How can Ponta compete, grow and thrive? Tourist dollars do enter in other ways, such as accommodations, restaurant dining, diving, fishing and high levels of alcohol consumption. Think of Americans invading Cancun, Mexico during spring break.  This is Ponta during Easter. Its amazing how the death and resurrection of Christ is linked to ATV rental traffic, bikini & board short-littered beaches and the 4 teens I saw in the back of a truck…drinking beer…at 9 in the morning. Their parents were driving.  He has risen…he has risen indeed!

In a country ravaged by bitter war and devastating floods in the not-so-distant past, I was amazed at the warm, patient and peaceful demeanor of many Mozambicans. I would weave through the market and ask the mamas “Cuanto custa?” for tomatoes, onions, bananas, and okra. They would smile and reply “Vinte meticais” and they would see me look up and squeeze my brain trying to do the math from US dollars, to South African Rand to Mozambican Mets. “In Rand?” I would sheepishly ask with a smile. “Eesh, 5 Rand” they would say with a chuckle. They were patient with me and seemed curious about the white girl buying okra. Thank goodness for my Texan upbringing. Most white folk in these parts don’t know okra from a meat thermometer. I made fried okra that night with a curry I brought with me from Dominica.
Ponki Weavers, right next to the gas station
 My friends in the craft market: Altino, Dimitri, Aron & Dallas. I walked through their market stands as they each tried to politely out-compete each other for my pocket change. I bought a small wooden ring for 25 Rand. Altino didn’t have complete change for my hundred, so I said I would come back for a language lesson. I introduced myself as Sól because “Sunnye” seemed very painful for him to pronounce. I came back 2 days later with my red notebook. I learned how to say in Portuguese that I was going to the market for bread (pão), but that I would come back by for the lesson.  I came back by half an hour later and I heard “Sól! Sól!” from the shaded bench. All four of them sitting in the shade and ready to teach.  The alphabet and numbers: my favorites being the letter X, pronounced “shi-shi” and the number 10, pronounced “dezsheh”. The most controversial was how to say the phrase “How do you say…?” I loved sitting on the bench watching and listening to them argue and gesture back and forth, pointing to my notebook, taking my pen and scribbling on the paper. It was like watching a tennis match between Steffi Graf and Jennifer Capriati.

Milibangalala—one of my favorite words and places I visited. A small, remote village about a 45-minute drive north of Ponta, I stayed the night at the ranger station. Some of the rangers have taken it upon themselves to teach basic reading, writing and math to the kids in Mili.  There are anywhere from 12-18 kids ranging in age from 5-17 who make the 1.4 mile walk through the elephant reserve to the open air tent for school and basic monthly healthcare. Before I arrived, I precut squares of paper to make origami animals with the kids if the opportunity presented itself. Who knew that paper boats, swans, hearts and fish would be such a huge hit? They loved it. “Um peixe! Um peixe!” (A fish! A fish!) They said, politely pulling my pant leg to make sure I received their order. One said, “Elefante!” And I politely shrugged and said, “Eu não sei elefante.” 

The interconnectivity of land and sea was so apparent and breathtaking (especially from the privileged perspective of a helicopter). The sand reminded me of the beaches of my childhood in Galveston, Texas. However, this sand was deep and mushy like sugar and butter—impossible to run on as I quickly discovered.  Little tide pool nurseries of juvenile sergeant majors and gobies pockmarked the point, which I frequented on a daily basis. The dunes were NOT the dunes of my childhood. The dunes along the Gulf of Mexico could be traversed within seconds by a determined 6 year old and wiped out just as quickly by a hurricane. But Mozambican dunes…they are mountains, vegetated and strong, a defining element of this coastline.  Loggerhead sea turtles have been known to flipper a few dozen extra meters up the dune to make their nests on higher ground. Elephants and hippos have, on rare occasion, made their way over the dunes to take a dip in the surf.  I had a few opportunities to dip in with some of the resident bottlenose dolphins that move up and down the coast. Dolphins make me feel so…awkward and alien; reminding me that human beings will never have it completely figured out…that the world doesn’t, in fact, revolve around us. Scuba and snorkel are far cries from the grace and mobility these animals display. Clicking and circling around me at a pace I cannot pretend to keep, these “dollies” prompt me to meditate on my limitations, to embrace the exact moment I am in and to revel in this place that has allowed me inside, even if just for a moment.