A few months ago I was invited to a party at my friend’s house in town. Mozambicans like to host parties for practically any reason; birthday, public holiday, whatever. This was a birthday celebration for my friend’s daughter. Before we jump into the story ide like to describe a typical Mozambican house party, as in my experience they are all so similar that I feel confident in making generalizations in order to describe them.
The party typically takes place at someone’s home, but never inside the actual house. Chairs and tables are spread out within the yard and clustered into groups according to their respective occupants. Men all sit clustered together looking angry, generally not talking, women sit on their reed mats in another corner chatting away and children play in their own area; the segregation is obvious and predictable. There is also usually a group of young men messing with electronic stereo equipment and playing obnoxious music much too loud.
And of course it isn’t a Mozambican party without food; there is always a large group of women in one corner of the yard working over several simultaneous fires to cook the copious amounts of food needed to satisfy the guests. For a “lunch” party they start cooking at 5am in order to finish all the preparations. The menu at these parties is always the same; rice, xima (corn mush), cow, grilled chicken, a mayonnaise laden cabbage salad, French fries and beans. There is usually soda and beer, and if it’s a really good party perhaps some hard alcohol as well. After attending many parties, it still amazes me how inflexible and uncreative this menu is. It also amazes me how much food a person can eat at one of these gatherings. It is as if everyone tries to take advantage of an opportunity for free food with demonstrations of unbridled gluttony all around.
The typical party will “start” at noon, with the guests still filtering in throughout the afternoon. The food is usually served on platters and set on the table at around 2pm, as everyone stares in hunger and eager anticipation. Then, the plates of food are wrapped in plastic and left to cool and attract flies while everyone goes back to standing around doing nothing. The concept of enjoying your food hot does not apply at these gatherings. So at this point, everyone is ravaged by hunger, not having eaten since breakfast and expecting a “lunch”, yet nobody ever takes control of the situation and orders that people start eating. So people sit around, suffering privately in their hunger until finally someone suggests the wild idea of actually eating all that food piled on the table. By now it is close to 4pm, when the food is finally served. Everything is quite formal, with the cooking ladies coming around to wash everyone’s hands, then serving the food, then cleaning up after the tables. After the meal there are speeches given by the host family, a cake cutting and gift giving. Then the music starts and the dancing commences.
So this is where my story begins, with the prior events described occurring more or less in the exact order as above. After eating an unappetizing meal of bland party fare I was sitting around digesting when the music started. Mozambican music is actually quite good, with a wide variety of traditional styles as well as modern electronic house music. Imagine melodic electronic house music mixed with indigenous African languages, chanting and drumming. In general, Mozambicans are fantastic dancers and love a good dance party. They just have a fluid rhythm to their movements and a certain grace while dancing that makes it look natural and easy. I have seen women do things with their hips that would surely be illegal in certain Midwestern US states. There is also this very fun dance game that is played at events like this where two lines are formed, facing eachother. The dancers do a sort of catwalk like dance off, meeting in a center area and strutting their stuff in front of the crowd trying to out-do the other dancer. Its loads of fun and people get very creative.
So at around sundown I finally felt the pumping African house music pulling me towards the dance area. Being the only white man at this party I immediately attracted attention and had a crowd of young kids dancing around me, imitating my moves while giggling and laughing hysterically. Nothing out of the ordinary. I began to really warm up, feel good and let the music get inside of me. At this time the line up game started and I entered one of the lines. I was dancing alone, in my own little world, waiting my turn to strut my stuff on the catwalk when I glanced up and saw in the opposite line a young girl of maybe eighteen years old staring hard and pointing directly at me. She was dancing in place, a concentrated look on her face, boring a hole into me with this precocious, provocative “come get me” type of expression. I was a bit taken aback by this look she was giving me as so I decided to ignore it and just continued dancing.
On my turn to do the catwalk, as I displayed my best impression of a dancing prowling lion, this young temptress butted herself to the front of the other group and entered into the communal space to challenge my moves. She approached me, imitating me to perfection, before improvising on my moves with the imagination and bodily flexibility that only an eighteen year old African girl could do. She absolutely shamed me with her improvisations, and to top it off, as we returned to our respective lines she glanced back over her shoulder and called out “é só isso mulungo?” (“Is that all you got white boy”?) The crowd of dancers and surrounding kids exploded into laughter. What I did to deserve the challenge of this little provocateur I had no idea, but clearly, between me and her, it was on.
I embraced this challenge for the pure sake of my dance floor pride. I felt that I had the duty to defend the dance moves of white men everywhere. And so round after round of the catwalk game we met on the stage and went toe to toe in one of the most epic dance-offs ever. I pulled out all the stops, the praying mantis, the zombie man, the kayaker, the hitchhiker, all the classic dance moves I could think of. But it just simply wasn’t enough to top her skills. She imitated me and styled on me with such grace and facility that often I just stopped dancing in order to fully appreciate how creative she could be with my original moves. During the intervals, while others were catwalking we would make faces back and forth, shit talking and provoking the other. The crowd was growing and buzzing with excitement as word spread at the party of this conflict on the catwalk.
The next time we would meet I knew I had to do something drastic. She was taking to me town out there and I was losing face in the eyes of the exceptionally critical peanut gallery of onlookers. Her strengths were obviously her fluidity, flexibility, rhythm and grace; I had to attack her where she was weakest. Just then, as the music changed, the idea came to me; but of course, the Robot! Every white boy’s fallback dance move! In order to counter her strengths I had to perfectly execute the exact opposite of her skills. I had to be rigid, inflexible, stiff and disjointed, while maintaining the rhythm and flow of the music. She wouldn’t stand a chance. Just then my favorite song in all of Mozambique came over the speakers, and I knew the gods were smiling upon me, offering me this chance of redemption.
In my opinion, good music is one of the most interesting things in the world. Obviously “good music” is relative to personal tastes, but whatever your musical attraction may be, the pleasure of listening is unrivaled. We humans seem to be hardwired to enjoy music. The way music can inspire emotion and energy or change the mood of a situation is fantastic. Dancing, just letting the music control the movements of my body, feeling the music within me and letting the rhythm guide me as my body and the music fuse. In this state there is no listener and there is no thought, there is only the song.
And so my song played on the stereo, the red sun sank into the horizon, the birds flew overhead destined for their roost, the crowd gyrated and pullulated, and this little catwalk contest approached its inevitable climax. We strutted out onto the dance floor, I think both of us sensing that this would be the final round of battle, winner takes all. She started this round, doing a wonderfully tactful interpretation of a reed dancing in the breeze. A reed with curves that is. To top off her display, in one final fluid movement she dropped her butt and hips almost to the ground, raising slowly and slinking off to the edge of the ring. She had set the bar quite high. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, felt the music begin to move me and slid into the center of the ring. I started by imitating her moves, achieving the approval of the crowd, and checking with a quick glance, her approval as well, before revealing my secret weapon. The robot developed itself slowly; popping, locking and mechanically shifting to the music in perfect fashion. The crowd went nuts, just loving it; as the girl sulked in the corner, obviously aware of her impending defeat at the hands of an inexperienced white boy. The house music was coming to the big time climax where the beat builds and then breaks down and I positioned myself to put the nail in the coffin of this dance off. The music built and built and just as it climaxed and the beat broke, I dropped my butt to the ground in a final imitation of her and the final conquering display. Except something went totally awry. At the bottom of my descent I heard the sickening sound of tearing fabric, and suddenly felt a blast of fresh air against my rear. I knew immediately; I had ripped my pants.
I straightened up quickly, placing my hands over my butt and backed up out of the circle, finding refuge against a nearby wall. I felt around with my hands, afraid to feel how bad the damage really was. It was bad, a tear from the belt loop all the way to the crotch, with a big chunk of fabric hanging loose. An added wrinkle to this story is that growing up in hot humid Florida has habituated me to the joy and freedom of never wearing underwear, and so of course at this party I was also not wearing underwear. I had just ripped my pants wide open, possibly exposing my white ass to at least 50 Mozambicans; kids, fathers, grandmas, everyone!
As I stood against the wall, carefully holding the flaps shut on my ripped pants a crowd began to form. What happened? Why did I stop dancing so suddenly? For those who were behind me, or close enough to hear the sound of the rip, they already knew and the whispers began to circulate around the group as people began pointing at my pants and gesticulating wildly. They knew! Laughter formed and spread like a wildfire on a windy day. Suddenly everyone from the entire party was crowded around me, laughing, pointing and trying to tempt me away from the safety of my wall. For a good five minutes I was a prisoner on display for this entire party unable to leave the wall that was literally covering my ass. Finally a gracious woman brought me a capulana (woven fabric like cloth) to wrap around my waist and with the sounds of laughter echoing in my head, I began the long walk home, my new skirt dangling to my knees. I may have won the battle, but clearly I had lost the war.
The long term ramifications of this fateful event have been a never ending stream of gossip and teasing. I awoke to text messages from colleagues and friends who weren’t even attending the party! I took the ripped pants to the tailor the next day and for twenty cents had the gaping hole mended. I now proudly wear them around town showing the scarred fabric to anyone daring enough to tease me. I don’t even really feel any shame or embarrassment about the situation; it was great fun and clearly makes a good story. As for the rabble-rousing young woman, I occasionally see her around town and we enjoy a good laugh at my expense. I still attend parties occasionally and I still don’t wear underwear, however I do take care to not repeat any type of movement that could lead to another episode like this.
Photos: The pants! as well as the most amazing beach ever for surfing, diving, running, swimming, and all things good.