It was early October of last year, I had been living in Manjacaze for about two months, when one day I awoke with a massive craving. I simply had to eat freshly roasted cashews. Back in the 1970’s before the civil war, Mozambique was the #1 producer and exporter of Cashew nuts in the world and most of southern Mozambique is densely planted with aging cashew trees. Selling raw unprocessed cashews is a source of income for the rural population with the main buyers being Indians who export the raw materials to be processed in India and sold in international markets. A mature cashew tree is a massive tree that will produce between 15-20 kg of raw cashew per year. As the trees age however, production seriously declines such that the majority of older trees planted in the 50’s and 60’s by the Portuguese are now only producing 2-4 kg per year. Hardly worth it when considering how much space a fully grown cashew tree occupies in a plantation or at home. For your information, depending on the quality of the raw material, approximately 5-6 kg of raw material will produce 1 kg of cleaned and processed cashew nuts that you would find in a store. So the source of income for rural communities is diminishing each year that the trees age and the sad reality is that very few people are planting new cashew trees to make up for the decline. Lack of foresight is what I would call it, and despite a government program to graft and distribute 40,000 improved variety grafted cashew trees per year, the future of cashew production does not look very sustainable.
But I totally digress, the real issue being my insatiable hunger for cashews. Here in Manjacaze nobody sells the processed nuts, the only option is to buy the unprocessed in-the-shell nut and roast them yourself, which is actually a dangerous and tedious process due to the highly flammable nature of the oily nut. The process of roasting the nut is to heat a big tin pan over a hot fire and put in the raw nuts until they ignite in a fiery explosion as the oil burns off and the shells char and become brittle. The tell tale signal of roasting cashews is a thick, uniquely smelling smoke that the charring nuts produce, which travels long distances, pervading the neighborhood with its sweet, musky odor. Then once cooled, with a wooden stick and a small wooden plank or rock you sit for hours and individually break open each nut, precariously beating the shell to not crack the tender, deliciousness inside. Each nut is hard earned, and I certainly value eating each cashew nut much more, having the experience of processing. Something hard earned always has added value; it tastes better when I grow it myself, or the view is sweeter from the top of the mountain if I cycled there rather than drove. I don’t want things to be just given to me, what fun is that?
So this fateful morning I realized that ide been living in Manjacaze for two months and I still had not learned how to roast cashew nuts. I was on my way to the market on this lazy Saturday morning when I smelled the tangy odor of roasting cashews. Like a dog on the trail I put my nose to work, calculating wind direction, average velocity, trying to find the source of my temptation. Climbing through yards with curious children gawking, hopping fences and clamoring through thick hedges I finally saw the telltale smoke curling skyward from the backyard of a house near the cemetery. I casually entered the yard, finding a woman, a teenage girl and a young boy hopping around a steaming pile of charred cashews. The woman called out “welcome! how are you?” almost as if we were old friends, not like someone would greet a random white man wandering into her yard. She introduced herself as Maria and invited me to sit, and after accepting I explained to her my situation of having this craving, but nobody to teach me the art of cashew beating. We readily hatched a plan. I would go to the market and buy cashews, bring them back, roast them, beat them, then share the proceeds with her for helping me. So off I went to the market to buy 10 kg of cashews to beat with my new friends. Me being a novice at this cashew beating game, I had no idea the length of time associated with processing a quantity as large as 10kg. That first day, I spent three and half hours huddled over my little wooden plank, body contorted, miserably hot, cracking open nuts. I learned that hard way that 10 kg is an ambitious goal. Maria’s instruction was thorough and before no time I was a professional, doing the whole process of roasting on the fire to the actual nut cracking.
Over this span of time working with Maria I recognized some aspects of personality about this woman that were different from most other Mozambican women I had ever met. First, she was fearless of me. This may sound strange, however in rural Mozambican culture women are generally deferential and shy towards men, especially visitors. However Maria was open, cracking jokes, teasing me, asking questions, etc. It was a very spontaneous, organic and lively interaction that was different from a lot of what I had experienced visiting other homes. The second thing about her that stood out to me was the fact that she was always smiling. Her demeanor and way of moving through her world was one of effortless joy. She just seemed to float around her work space, from the kitchen to the fire, totally absorbed in each task, completing each with a casual precision and grace honed by years of practice. I was captivated just watching her work. She had a wild imagination and ability to play as well. The whole time we were beating cashews we were imagining that we were in a make believe cashew factory and that she was the overseer, me the lowly worker. It was hilarious to hear her joke about punishing me for cracked nuts and withholding my wages for burned cashews. After finishing the arduous task of cracking all those cashews, she invited me to eat dinner, and I left the house seven hours after arriving, knowing that ide gained a lot more than just cashews.
Over the next couple of months I started spending more and more time with the family, meeting the rest of the members including Maria’s husband. Maria is 52 years old and was born close to Manjacaze into the same family as Eduardo Mondlane (the founder of FRELIMO and leader of Mozambique’s independence movement). She is the second wife to her husband has had 4 children with him. Outside of Mozambique she has visited South Africa, but that is her only exposure to foreign cultures. In her spare time she likes to make and sell soup in the market, wash clothing, cook, clean pots, water her garden and visit with family.
Maria taught me how to cook many of the traditional Mozambican dishes, speak changana and countless other little lessons. Being close to a Mozambican family has given me an unusual insight into the culture, as Maria carefully answers all my curious questions and explains traditional beliefs and practices. We have an incredibly organic relationship; I call her Mom, she calls me Son. She always calls me out if my clothes are dirty or if I have dirt under my finger nails (which is always) and best of all she has a wonderful sense of humor. Due to huge gaps in cultural conditioning, Maria will never really understand me nor the worldview that I hold; I will always be a bit of an oddity in her eyes. But a boy needs a Mother, and being that my biological mother lives in a different world right now, I had to procure a substitute. To give you a bit of an idea of this woman’s spunk here are some excerpts:
One time Mama had a group of visitors sitting in her yard, gossiping about who knows what. I show up and sit down for a quick chat. I have mentioned that Mozambican women use a piece of colorful fabric called a capulana to wrap around their wastes and heads as decoration and clothing. I was going through a phase where I was asking everyone the origins of the capulana tradition. Nobody knows. Everyone just uses them, without knowing why or from where the tradition originated. So I asked these women visiting Mama the standard questionnaire about the Capulana. Again nobody knows, and I made some snide remarks about how they are like cattle following the herd without knowing their origins or purpose (jokingly). I was wearing a collared shirt at the time, and Mama looks over at me and says “Um excuse me Son, what is the origin and purpose of your tradition to wear a shirt that has that strange collar on top?” Mom, why do you have to call me out in front of all the visitors!? I obviously had no idea, and had to admit so in front of the women who began to tease me. I was rightfully put in my place.
In demonstrating that universally human sense of humor for sex and scatology, Mama likes to send me text messages with raunchy jokes; something I would expect from a 15 year old, not a fifty something Mozambican woman.
Sometimes in the evenings if I am feeling lonely, or in need of some human interaction I go over to Mama’s house and we sit in the kitchen house, around the fire, talking, joking, laughing and enjoying the fire. It has become a ritual in some sense, and makes the bite of missing home so much less to know there is a warm environment for me to go to whenever I need it.
Mama knows that I love her cooking and probably 2-3 times per week invites me to eat with the family. I randomly get text messages “come eat your favorite dish at my house at 1pm”. Uh ok! She also does not eat meat, and so I can always count on great vegetarian food. She always makes me serve two servings, in order to “be well” and “grow well” in her words. Without fail, every time I finish the first serving, she thrusts the pots towards me and says in the same demanding tone “two plates”!
I like to take the opportunity of being close to the family to expose them to new ideas, foods, music, etc. I have shown them picture from my travels and my family, videos, books, ideas about cool technologies, new foods and we have had countless religious and philosophical questions in which I try to explain a different world view other than the Christian dogma they have been conditioned to believe. One time when Mama invited me over for dinner I wanted to bring something to share. So I made a salad. Mozambicans do eat salad, which is usually always the same; lettuce, tomato, onion, salt, oil and lemon juice. I decided to introduce the family to one of my salads; lettuce, spinach, moringa, arugula, cucumber, pepper, carrot, tomato, onion, garlic, beets and cilantro, with a dressing of sesame tahini, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. So I brought the salad and watched as Mama served a giant helping on her plate. Mama has a very selective palate and does not like many foods, so I warned her that maybe she should try the salad before serving such a huge portion. “Nonsense my son, I know I will like it, you made it afterall” was her reply. I felt like I was advising a child whose eyes were too big for their stomach. As she took the first bite I watched in detached amusement as her face puckered up like she had just eaten a lemon and she shook her head, letting out an involuntary sound of disgust. She had never had cilantro before, and clearly was not a fan. I told her, “Mom, clearly you don’t like the salad, why don’t you give it to me, as I will actually enjoy it, and you wont have to suffer through eating the enormous portion you served yourself”. She flat out refused, claiming that she liked it (although obviously not enjoying it), and me and the kids watched as she struggled for the next 30 minutes, forcing down bite after bite. To this day we still laugh about that salad and now, 6 months later she has finally admitted that she didn’t like it. “The problem was the cilantro” she loves to say.
In late summer there were beautiful wildflowers growing all over Manjacaze. I sort of got obsessed with bouquet making and decided to make Mama a bouquet. So one morning I arrived at her house and proudly presented the flowers. Like always, Mama gave a huge smile and said “ohh you brought me medicine!!”. I looked confused, “medicine? What do you mean?”. She went on to explain, “ya all you have to do is take one look at the beauty and you will immediately feel better”.
I introduced her and the family to butternut squash soup, peanut butter banana sandwiches, curried lentils, oatmeal and even made a green spinach smoothie for her. After telling her that I eat a green smoothie every day she asked me if it comes out like it goes in. I told her to try it and let me know. I tried to explain to her what Manhattan is like. I would do anything to be instantly transported to times square with her, just to see her reaction. She might die on the spot.
In discovering how easy it is to post videos to youtube I decided to ask Mama to prepare a greeting to the world. I told her about the internet (that was an interesting conversation) and that she was set to be world famous. I asked her if she wanted to prepare a message. See the link for the message.
Photos: Cashew roasting and a few random photos of the family.
As always – illuminating and fun. Nice to meet your Mama!
Excellent site. Plenty of helpful info here.
I’m sending it to some pals ans additionally sharing in delicious.
And certainly, thank you for your effort!