Being that Manjacaze is not exactly a hotspot for nightlife, very often I am left to my own devices for providing nightly entertainment. I have a variety of activities that I like to do; such as wandering aimlessly talking to people in their homes or in the streets, posting up in front of the market to watch the flow of movement, helping my neighbors cook or cut firewood or dancing with my ten year old neighbors to Celine Dion, among others. When an opportunity for adventure calls, I am usually never one to turn it down. This is the story of one strange evening here in Manjacaze.
The week before this special day, I had been working with one of my organizations to visit families living with HIV in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Manjacaze. There is no real boundary to where the village ends and the bush begins, the houses just sort of thin out in random fashion. During this visit I had talked to a woman who was very interested in learning about the plant Chaya. I offered to come to her house the following week in the evening and hold a cooking demonstration. I would bring leaves to cook and plants to distribute if she would invite all of her friends and neighbors and provide the rest of the ingredients. It was a win-win situation for me; I would get to hang out with a bunch of middle aged village women, swapping stories about the weather, explaining for the 500th time why I wasn’t married yet, learning everyone’s family genealogy and best yet I would get a free delicious meal out of the deal. I was congratulating myself for making this arrangement for a stellar dinner all afternoon as I gathered the leaves and began the 30 minute walk out of town to into the bush.
A few dark clouds lay on the horizon and a cool breeze began gusting in an ominous foreshadowing of the events to come. Just then my telephone signaled an incoming message. A sense of confusion and the urge to laugh crept into me as I read the message sent to me by my work colleague whom I had toured with earlier in the week, roughly translated :”DO NOT GO TO ROSAS HOUSE! HER HUSBAND IS VERY ANGRY!”. Not knowing how to respond and already being more than halfway there I decided to just ignore the message and continue. Plus I was hungry and the thought of missing out on some freshly cooked Chaya did not sit well with me. So I continued on, only 5 minutes later to receive another message from the same woman: “TURN AROUND NOW, WHY ARE YOU STILL COMING?”. By now I am starting to feel quite strange about all this. Does this woman have spies in the forest? Is she communicating with the birds or via the bamboo network? What kind of a witch doctor is she? I decided to call Rosa herself to see what was going on. She answered the phone and after I explained the situation she seemed as confused as I was. “We are all waiting for you, all the preparations have been made” was her reply, so I did what any hungry man with a love for the gastronomical arts would do. I went to where the food was!
When a white man arrives on foot to a community like this people take notice, especially a white man with long hair carrying enough leaves and plants to feed 20 people. I walked through a forested area and abruptly stepped onto the community football field where close to 50 young men were either playing or lounging around in the shade of the surrounding mango trees. Immediately the game stopped, the conservations hung in mid-sentence, I think even the birds stopped chirping and stared. One hundred eyes turned, ablaze with curiosity and intrigue. I stopped at the edge of the field, my mouth slightly agape and for an eternal four or five seconds everyone just silently stared… until finally one of the footballers closest to me said “u bom mulungo”? are you good white man? Is the literal translation from the Changana dialect. Mulungo is the word that means white skin and is used to refer to white people. It normally doesn’t have a negative connotation in the sense of “gringo” or other derogatory ways to refer to white people in foreign lands. “Mina ni kwatzi mulandi, inkomo” I responded in dialect. “I am great black man, thank you”. I think I heard about twenty jaws just smack the ground as laughter erupted from the entire crowd. The white man speaks dialect! To further test me, the original interrogator, now slightly embarrassed continues; “wena uya kwini?” “where are you going?”. I took a deep breath and delved deep into my memory to find the words and respond: “ni famba kaya ka Rosa, ni lava ku dja matapa namunthla na kaya ka yena. Ni twa nthlala!” “i am going to rosas house, I want to eat matapa there. I am hungry!”. Which to date was the longest complete sentence I had ever pronounced in Changana. At this point the whole field surrounded me smiling, asking me where I learned to speak dialect and what I was doing. Little do they know that basically my entire repertoire of Changana words had been spent and had they asked me anything else or tried to continue the conversation it would have become quite obvious that I was an imposter. In Manjacaze I have learned enough Changana to say polite greetings, buy things in the market, talk about cooking and ask for drinking water. Beyond this however, my abilities to understand and express myself are quite limited. So basically I can go anywhere in Gaza and I will not die of hunger for lack of the ability to communicate!
Just then two young, muscular men entered the field from the other side. “Are you Evan”? the taller one with tattoos covering one of his arms asked me. I immediately burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the question. Here I stand, probably the only white man within a 40km radius, surrounded by Africans with African names, and the man asks me if I might by chance be that one English sounding name. He did not smile however, and instead repeated the question, this time a bit more forcefully. “Yea, I am” I responded, slightly taken aback by his assertiveness. “Come with us, we have orders to take you to see Dona Azilia, the chief of the community”.
I replied “Listen guys ide really love to come with you, but actually Ive got plans to cook all these leaves here in a cooking class I am instructing.”
Tattoo man said “Dona Azilia knows about this class, and she instructed us not to let you into the community. You must come with us now. She is waiting”.
“How much weirder can this get!” I thought to myself, this is turning into some b line movie script or at least a poorly written short story! “what the hell, lets go talk to Dona Azilia then!” I reply. My mind was racing; How did Azilia know about the class? And how did she know that I was arriving just then? And probably the most pressing of all questions who was this woman and what did she want with me? I just wanted to cook up some leaves, eat them and then go home and go to bed! At this point I decided to just surrender to the absurdity of the situation and I resigned myself to be led to the village chief.
My guides lead me down a series of sandy paths, zig zagging between houses and fields of corn and mandioca in a manner such that even the most wizened trailblazer would find it difficult to follow. Finally we entered a swept, sandy yard with several thatched roof huts, a few fruit trees and the odd chicken pecking for spilt grains of corn. My guides left me alone in silence after instructing me to sit on a log, my thoughts were swirling as I awaited my fate with the venerable Dona. The woman who I work with appeared out of nowhere and mumbled a greeting. She seemed displeased. A few other women entered the yard and sat down around me, not really saying much to me, but talking softly amongst themselves in Changana.
The women in the yard snapped to attention as the door to one of the huts opened and a dark figure stood in the shadows of the door. Dona Azilia emerged, her tall, extremely fit looking figure clothed in a capulana long skirt and matching headwrap. I stood to greet the chief woman, muttering some simple greetings in Changana, as she scrutinized me up and down as if seeking some flaw or reason to pounce on me. She said some forceful words in Changana and one of the other women leapt up to bring the Dona a chair. After seating herself she turned her attention to me, “Brother Evan, we Africans are crazy people”, was how she opened the conversation. I stared at her blankly and thought to myself “yea, I know ive been observing this for the past 6 months!”. I let her continue. “We Africans are crazy people because we think things and get very jealous about things that aren’t true”, the Dona said. “You cannot go to Rosa’s house because her husband will be extremely upset and jealous if she knows that another man is coming to his house just to see his wife. I don’t want problems here in my neighborhood and this will create a lot of problems and could endanger you. You simply cannot go”
I replied, “yes I understand that this may not be a normal situation, but I can assure you that my intentions are strictly platonic. I am interested in spreading the seeds of a plant, not my own seeds, and besides, she has invited all her neighbors and friends. There will be lots of other people around”. I found it incredibly amusing that the Dona was considering the possibility of me having relations with Rosa. Middle aged African village women just don’t exactly turn me on, although at the time I thought better than to try to translate that thought.
After some conservations in Changana with the other women, the Dona turned to me and basically repeated the same things; “you cannot go”, “we Africans are crazy jealous”, “I don’t want problems” etc. To which I repeated my pleas; “I just want to teach them about this plant”, “I am not interested in Rosa”, “her husband and neighbors are all invited, the more people the better”, etc. Clearly we were at an impasse. This went on for another 30 minutes in which the women would consult each other, then reply to my statements, only to retort back with the same arguments. It was clear to me at this point that to disobey the chief was clearly not an option, and that no amount of reasonable and logical argument would turn them to see my perspective.
So here I sat, having walked over an hour, tired, hungry, frustrated by the illogical arguments of the people I was dealing with and on the verge of leaving when I looked down at the bag filled with leaves. Of course, the leaves! A most genius idea popped into my brain.
“Excuse me, Dona, but we have a serious problem.” I said forcefully. The Dona looked at me surprised, as I began to assert myself in her presence. I continued: “ You see ive got this giant bag of fresh Chaya that I harvested today and that needs to be cooked. Seeing that its dinner time now, and I still haven’t cooked, I am a little bit confused as to what I should do. What do you think we should do about this situation?”
I have learned that people in charge love to think that they are the ones who come up with the good ideas, and so I shamelessly decided to see if this little trick of manipulation would work in my favor.
“Hmm, yes it would be a shame to waste these leaves” Dona replied, still not exactly getting the drift of my idea.
To which I replied “yes, this is very serious, I just wish maybe there was someway to cook them around here, in this neighborhood, maybe have a little class and distribute these plants as well.”
The Dona looked up at me, a little twinkle in her eye “well what if we cooked here at my house? Right now?”
We have a winner! “what a fantastic idea” I said!, ”but wait, no I think its impossible Dona, we don’t have all the ingredients nor do we have any rice or xima (corn mush) to eat the Chaya with. It was a great idea, but I just don’t think we can do it.” Mozambican women take exceptional pride in their cooking, and so to suggest the impossibility of the feat was a guaranteed way to secure the idea in the minds of the women.
“nonsense boy! We have 8 women right here, peanuts and coconuts in the kitchen and xima already prepared. We can cook this Chaya right here and we can all learn about it”.
I replied “Wow, what a great idea you have, lets do it!”
And so the cooking force mobilized like soldiers preparing for battle. The Dona barked out orders to her co-chefs, “you two, pound those peanuts”, and “you over there, stop braiding your hair and come scrape up these coconuts”. Within 5 minutes we had 15 women in the yard all working hard on some little task that in the near future would congeal into one delicious meal. I buzzed around to all the ladies, talking to them about Chaya and helping them with their tasks. Being that the jealous husband situation had been averted, the Dona softened up quite a bit and was open and chatty, telling me all about her family and introducing me to everyone.
Everyone expressed surprise at the wonderful taste of Chaya, as we all ate together. After eating I distributed the plants that I had brought, said my farewells and began the long walk back home with a full stomach, chuckling to myself the whole way about the strange circumstances of the evening. Recapping the evening to myself, I managed to score a delicious meal, spread some information about a great plant, avoid being shot by a jealous husband and generally enjoy myself in the company of interesting people. So in the absence of formal “entertainment” these are the types of adventures that I like to have, and I certainly look forward to having more along these same lines.
Photos: My house, complete with a cow skull that I found while in Swaziland. I have told all the kids in my nieghborhood that the cow spirit’s name is Mufassa and if anyone messes with my plants he will get very angry and huant them in their dreams. Needless to say i have not been having problems with little kids lately! Psychological warfare. The food is a local plate called Chiginha, which is made from mandioca, peanut flour, coconut milk and a local weed called cacana. Its amazingly delicious. None of the market women believed that I was actually going to cook this dish, so I brought a tupperware container filled with it to the market and gave out spoonfuls. They were just blown away and said that now, oficially I am an African.