A few observations about Mozambique, Nutrition and Globalization

Everywhere I go I observe people. I watch what they are doing, I listen to the things they are saying, I notice their physical appearances and especially given my interest in nutrition and gastronomy, I observe what they are eating and drinking. My observations related to this last theme are troubling and foreshadow major challenges in the social welfare of Mozambicans. These observations come from spending large amounts of time in rural subsistence based agriculture communities as well as in urbanized/westernized Mozambican cities.

In order to contextualize the drastic changes that globalization and economic “development” have brought to the traditional Mozambican diet it is important to say that the situation is typical of most global South countries. People mostly lived in small subsistence agriculture communities and had diets rich in unrefined fermented grain porridges (sorghum and millet here in Africa), lots of vegetables, legumes and fruits, very little dairy or meat and no refined sugar. This was accompanied by an active lifestyle of physical labor and walking. With the arrival of global trade and industrialized convenience, the food markets have been flooded with refined flours, sugar, chemical flavorings and inexpensive meat and dairy products. The shift in diet also coincides with a shift in lifestyle from rural subsistence agriculture to urban environments, sedentary lifestyles and wage labor. These shifts are well documented and this should be of no surprise to anyone, however to hear it talked about in literature and then actually see the process unfolding around me in the village is quite a different experience.

It is the western bias to applaud this shift from rural, subsistence, “underdevelopment”, towards urbanization and “developed” as a positive, inevitable fact of human evolution; which it most definitely is not. Globalization is ironically only a fact of human destiny for the one monoculture that is promulgating itself across the planet, wiping out indigenous cultures in its path. In the past this was proselytizing religion; today it is corporate capitalism. Subsistence agricultural communities in general are mostly self-sufficient with the vast majority of people living sustainable lifestyles with more than enough food, air, leisure time and cultural activities. It is only the western consumerist, materialist mindset that says that living with enough is actually not enough, and that we must constantly strive to have more, “develop” and produce more, which in western actions translates into further resource extraction and ecosystem destruction. Let me repeat this: The vast majority of people living subsistence lifestyles are happy, have enough food, leisure time, cultural activities, material possessions and most importantly, live in an ecologically sustainable way. Poverty is a term invented by western cultures; but I digress.

The health effects of these dietary shifts are also well documented; drastically increased rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When I arrived in Africa I expected to encounter most people fitting into the typical stereotype of Africans living on a meager subsistence lifestyle. Instead I encountered many people overweight, gorging themselves on cheap overabundant processed foods. In my experience, real hunger in Mozambican society seems to be the case of fairly rare and isolated incidences. Most hunger is related to behavioral choices or unfortunate family circumstances. Families where parents have died (usually from AIDS) and left multiple children living with grandparents or the oldest child are serious situations and definitely should be the recipients of food aid and social support. The behavioral choices resulting in lack of food are usually related to alcoholism by the father of the family, where instead of providing food for his family he spends his money and time consuming alcohol. I discovered this throughout my travels. I show up to a village and there is usually a group of men sitting under the shade drinking. Usually one or two (visibly intoxicated) will right away start begging for food, imploring that their farms did not produce for lack of rain or they lack money to buy food. I begin to question the other men, asking them if their farms produced this year. Of course the farm produced they say, it rained very well, we have plenty of food, and nobody in my home will be hungry this year. The begging men then change tactics and say that they don’t earn enough money to buy food. I begin to question them on their budgeting and financial planning. Most men do odd construction jobs, cut reeds, harvest wood or produce cows for financial gain. Very quickly it becomes obvious that whatever money comes in immediately goes right back out and into the local bar. This is not hunger; this is stupidity and irresponsibility for which these men’s families are suffering the consequences.

Also in my experience the situation in the cities has already shifted from a cultural norm of subsistence, to a cultural norm of overconsumption and caloric excess. Don’t get me wrong, the obesity and dietary problem is nowhere near as bad as in westernized countries, and there are many fit and healthy people. The concern is the trend however, and there is no doubt that the trends in obesity and sedentary lifestyles are beginning to have serious consequences for the social health system, which is already stretched to its capacity. Aside from the just the overconsumption of calories, the lack of nutrients and chemical additives present in processed foods as opposed to whole-foods is a major cause for concern, especially given the correlation between long-term exposures and increasing cancer rates as in the West. I have witnessed on multiple occasions people harvesting the fruit in their yard to then sell and buy cheap processed crackers and sodas that obviously lack the nutritional value of the fruits. Processed food is a double-whammy for the traditional diet; higher quantities of calories coinciding with much lower quality of nutrients.

The real danger of this trend is that it seems to be completely under the radar of government and NGO health initiatives. Working in the “development industry” and talking to colleagues, I am exposed to and hear about many different ideas and projects related to education, health, food security, disease prevention and immediate health interventions such as malaria bed net distributions or HIV testing. Not once have I encountered a nutritional education program that focuses on avoiding obesity, processed food and sedentary lifestyles. Most of the programs are still in the mindset of treating malnourished children and food insecurity. Both of which definitely exist and should be addressed, however not to the complete ignorance of the issue of overconsumption of processed foods. I consistently meet people who are overweight with type two diabetes and other related complications who have no idea about the steps they need to take to reduce their weight, let alone treat their condition through dietary and lifestyle modification. Even the Doctors in the hospitals do not know how to advise their patients. There is wide scale ignorance about nutrition, diet and the benefits of physical activity; in the past, most people were healthy because the cultural tradition of subsistence agriculture dictated their activity patterns and diet. Now in the face of making food choices in a globalized food economy, the ignorance of nutrition and physiology becomes blatantly obvious by the poor food choices I often observe.

In an example of the Western mindset’s problem solving strategy of treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause, the issue of nutrient fortification is a hot topic at the moment. Instead of shielding people from the influx of processed foods through restricting trade, and teaching them about the value of their traditional diet, the brains in the “aid” world think that treating malnourishment is as simple as adding in nutrients to the staple items in the diet. However this ignores the real issue completely, which is the fact that many people are malnourished because they have stopped eating their traditional diets or because of cultural norms in household food distribution. (for example. the youngest children eat last at meal times etc.) Foods need to be fortified when their innate qualities of nutrients have been taken out by processing (milling, refining, high temperature cooking and pasteurization etc.). People who eat strictly whole food diets in general are not malnourished! On the issue of nutrient fortification the most important thing is to be skeptical; which western food producer is going to get the multimillion dollar contract to do the fortification, or which biotechnology giant is going to get the contract to splice the gene for more vitamin Z into such and such a plant.

The vast majority of these NGO project’s goals are seeking behavior change, and seem to be operating with the premise that education is the key. They tend to reason that if only people knew how HIV was transmitted, they would avoid contracting and spreading HIV, or if people knew more about the lifecycle of the Anopheles mosquito and the Malaria parasite, they would avoid getting malaria. Education is celebrated as a key factor in behavior change, which certainly it is, for those already interested in change and aware of the problem. But in a fact and knowledge saturated western world, where almost everybody knows the dangers of a poor diet and physical inactivity, obesity rates and its associated health complications are the highest in the world! So clearly this issue goes way deeper than just educating people about nutrition. These issues of behavior change must be recognized to exist on the more profound levels of cultural conditioning. Mozambique has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. Is this because of lack of education and prevention? In certain instances probably; but in most instances it is important to realize that Mozambican culture is probably one of the most sexually promiscuous cultures in the world! To bring the subject back to diet, as I’ve already said, America and the west are saturated in education yet the populace makes poor choices and over consumes. I argue that this is a result of the profound cultural conditioning that teaches people a value system based on an unquenchable thirst for material consumption which leaves a perpetual void and lack of fulfillment in people’s lives that they then desperately try to fill with prepackaged entertainment such as television, trash media and the stimulating pleasures of eating fatty, sugary, processed foods.

Another issue with Mozambican culture and the influx of cheap processed foods is that traditionally this is a culture where a big fat body is a signal of power and influence in the community. From cultural traditions hundreds of years old, when all communities were strictly agriculturally/pastorally based, a fat body demonstrated virility, ability to provide for a family or clan and an abundance of food and wealth. This African cultural ideal is still blatantly obvious in Mozambican society; most of the police officers, government officials, merchants, ministers and people in power positions are overweight. In fact when I first arrived and made this connection I was shocked by just how consistent this pattern in weight really is. So now in this global food economy, a cultural tradition that symbolically values obesity, combined with an overabundance of cheap processed calories means that literally anyone and everyone can have that “chief’s belly”, and trust me, many people do! In a country like Mozambique where basic health services are already asking a lot, it is difficult to quantify obesity rates and the associated societal costs; as is done in the West. However I think if any sort of academic study was done the results would be surprising. While the aid world fixates on periodic famines, HIV and malnutrition, the global processed food industry is exploiting new markets in countries like Mozambique that have no awareness of the impending costs and problems associated with these dietary shifts. Mozambicans seem to be enjoying “the good life” of the novelty of processed foods and beverages, without any realization of the future dangers to themselves and their public health systems.

Aside from the cultural issues, another observed phenomenon seems to be accelerating the advance of the western diet here in Mozambique; marketing. In general, people are very naïve to advertising techniques and marketing strategies and I would use the term “media illiterate”, which means that they may have difficulty discerning the advertisement from a real factual media situation. It is a well observed fact that in the West, the food and beverage industry routinely uses advertisements to promote the ideas that their products will bring happiness, health and fulfillment to the users, including vulnerable target audiences such as children. The same techniques are used here, except that the population is much less exposed to solicitations and may or may not understand that the true objective of any advertising is to sell a product. A potent example is the advertising campaign that Nestle used in the 1980’s to sell cows-milk based baby formulas to third world mothers, with the disastrous effect that women all over the world began to believe that their own Nature-perfected breast milk was deficient. This false advertising also sells the idea that to eat processed and store bought food is a luxury, and playing into the cultural theme, something that wealthy people do. Many times I have heard people stigmatize the local vegetarian dishes as “poor-people” food, and that when they are “rich and successful” in life they will eat lots of meat and drink as much beer and soda as they please. A major concern in countries like Mozambique is that there are neither consumer protection services nor strict quality control systems. Corporations are pretty much completely free to use whatever tactics they want to promote and sell their products.

Finally, a third issue that I have observed negatively affecting the diets of Mozambicans is the arrival of chain-grocers and fast food outlets. In Xai-Xai, the district capital 1.5 hours away I have observed the arrival of 2 South African chain grocers and several fast food restaurants including a KFC, just in the two years I have been here. Due to their vigorous advertising and super-efficient supply chains, these grocers affect the local economy by undercutting prices in the local market. Additionally, the vast majority of products sold are imported, unhealthy processed foods and sodas, with the profits from these sales going right back to South Africa or wherever in the West the corporate headquarters may be. One of the worst things I have observed is that through the stores advertising campaigns they have tricked Mozambicans into being proud to have these corporate atrocities invading their neighborhoods, because they are symbols of “development” and “economic advance”. I am constantly explaining to Mozambicans why I will never shop at these box stores when I can support the local vegetable vendors who desperately need the money to support their families. I have given many a passionate soap box speech and have convinced many people after explaining the true economics behind these stores and the way they are mining the local economy.

We are now faced with many difficult questions. Should the food industry and corporate food outlets be held responsible for increasing obesity related health problems? Of course they should, but the revolving door of politics and industry, as well as corporate greed are much too strong to hope that they will ever be held accountable or have a sudden ethical epiphany. Unfortunately I think the situation is going to have to reach a critical point as it currently doing so in the West, before people really wake up and start talking about social solutions. For Mozambique this still lies much further off in the future because as I said, this issue is not even on the agenda at the moment and so the food industry will continue to move in and exploit under the banner of “development”, while more people sit fat and content to live the “good life”; until their foot needs to be amputated because of their diabetes and hypertension.

Photos: Traditional Mozambican food that I have cooked throughout my time here

Mathapa – Crushed Mandioca leaves, onions, tomato and garlic stewed in coconut milk and peanut flour

Xiginha (Shi-geen-ya) – Mandioca root simmered in coconut milk and peanut flour with a bitter local leaf called Cacana (which i have actually seen growing as a weed in Florida!)

Matzao – same as Mathapa, but with pumpkin leaves instead of Mandioca leaves

Couve – same as mathapa, same as Matzao but with collard greens instead of other leaves. Starting to see a pattern here?

Bush meat – probably Impala. It was delicious.

Beans – pounded beans cooked in coconut milk with tomato, onion and garlic

Dried insects! – delicious, they taste like nutritional yeast

Various local African fruits – Macuacua, Masala and Mafura

Chief belly admiring pig

Religion and the Wisdom of Uncertainty

An incredulous gasp followed by “You don’t go to church?!” is the response I received after giving my answer to the question of where I pray. “Why don’t you go to church?” Demanded the follow up question. “Because I don’t believe in that god they speak about in your church” I provocatively replied. “Oh so then your Muslim!” was the response, as if it were all that simple. “No, I actually don’t believe in that god either” I replied. By this point in our street-side conversation people began condescendingly snickering as if saying, “Ha look at this fool foreigner, and he clearly knows nothing about the world”. The follow up question was “well what DO you believe in then?” And here is where the biggest shock of all came, and the point of this essay, in my concise yet world-shattering reply of “I don’t know”.

For a bit of background, this conversation with the villagers about religion has repeated itself so many times and unfolds in such a predictable pattern that I honestly don’t even bother having it anymore. The ubiquitous Christian bible banter has so thoroughly infiltrated itself into the culture of southern Mozambique that to not go to church is to live a moral life on par with stray dogs. I came here with the expectations of learning about indigenous cosmologies and traditional beliefs and have been sorely disappointed. I have encountered many traditional beliefs about witchcraft and spell casting, but even these have generally been subsumed under the domain of “demons” and “spirits” that have their origins in the references to Satan and the bible. I have questioned many people, trying to get a glimpse of a traditional African cosmology, usually with the simple question of “How was the world created?”, and the results are always a recitation of the biblical story. The biblical influence must go so far back into the history of this culture that most people I’ve questioned have never even conceived of the idea of cosmologies that existed in Africa before the arrival of European influences. The world is as explained in the bible, and it was always that way. The people who admit to the existence of pre-colonial traditional beliefs usually rationalize these beliefs as ignorance before the true word of god and the bible arrived with the colonizers. It always interests me how the ultimate truth about man’s purpose and the origins of the universe seem to coincidentally go hand in hand with mass economic and social exploitation.

The conversation continued; “What do you mean you don’t know? You have to believe in some sort of religion!” the villagers said, as a crowd formed around us in the street. I replied “No actually I don’t, and I think that it is all this certainty in the world that is a major problem.” Paradoxically, I prepared my pulpit, climbed up and began to preach to the masses. “Do you want to know the truth?” I asked, being extremely dramatic. Eyes widened, “yes! Tell us the truth!” and so as theatrically and drawn out as possible I informed the people, “The truth is…. (Drumroll)….there is no truth! Nobody knows the truth or the origins or the purpose of the Universe! Not the pastor, nor the rabbi, not the scientist, nor the mullah; Nobody knows!”

The villagers stood dumbstruck, mouths agape, as if I had just told them that corn porridge was the worst thing in the world. An unsettled chatter rippled through group and I was surprised to see that I now had the villager’s attentions, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to expand some minds and I actually did physically climb up onto an overturned plastic crate where I then broke out into the following monologue:

“Dear citizens of Manjacaze, I am here to inform you that you have been lied to by the powers that be! In my opinion, strict adherence to religious dogma and the corresponding certainty of belief is an epistemologically dangerous position, and here is why: First of all, certainty is a completely indefensible position. There are always going to be counter perspectives, evidence and facts that contradict the certain position. Even the most fact oriented “certainties” of the sciences are consistently being contradicted and updated when new information becomes available. I don’t even need to specifically mention any of the dubious stories and sanctioned gossip of most religious scripture to show the indefensibility of those positions. Two thousand year old hear-say is not verifiable and therefore ultimately indefensible.

Certainty is a closed box; a pre-fabricated, pre-packaged cosmology that can be sold and spread easily amongst a population of willing certainty seekers. Certainty is a necessary and self-imposed limitation (although usually not consciously) on the human imagination. “You want to know why the world is like this?” Certainty asks, “Well just read this little passage in this book that was written by some divinely inspired men (always men by the way, never women) and you will find the answers to all your questions”. Certainty is hierarchical and reliant upon outside influence and experience to bring truth, purpose and meaning to the lives of the believer. Certainty demands obedience and does not tolerate even the most well intentioned questioning. Certainty does not deal well with new information; certainty tries to rationalize new information within the framework of its dogma and is a constant victim of the confirmation bias. Certainty is a simplistic and static framework for reality; and completely antithetical to subjective reality as a complex, evolving, unfolding experience. Certainty imposes itself upon the believer and spreads itself out of its own righteous indignation.”

A large woman at the front of the crowd began….”but in the bible it says that….” Already anticipating her robotic response, I immediately cut her off and asked her “why are you so certain that the stories in the bible are true?” She began “well, the stories in the bible are true because the bible says they are true”. I nodded in disappointment. “I am sorry dear woman, but in your certainty of the bibles truth you have committed a logical error. In an argument, self-reference does not prove validity. I am going to give you some homework to think about. I am going to say two statements to you. Are you ready?” She said yes. “This statement is true. The previous statement is false.” She stared at me. “So go home and think about this and tell me which statement is true.”

Regaining my balance on the soda crate I continued to pontificate: “A friend and mentor of mine once used the phrase “the wisdom of uncertainty” to describe his cosmology and I am going to shamelessly borrow it, because there really does exist wisdom in uncertainty. I have been accused by religious people of taking the “cop-out” position of agnosticism as a defensive position and of being afraid of commitment. However my position in uncertainty is based on the fact that I still haven’t found and cannot hope to find a pre-packaged cosmology that can properly explain and do justice to the felt experience of reality. Uncertainty is dynamic and evolves when new information is presented, and not just within a pre-existing framework but opens the possibility of radical change. Uncertainty does not impose, but instead reposes, waiting for the inevitable and patient unfolding of experience. Uncertainty is creative and open ended, spontaneous, curious and empirical. Uncertainty is in essence ego-less and the opposite of dogmatic.

It’s all fun and games to talk about the theory behind religious and moral certainty, but we don’t live in the world of theory and philosophy, we live and function in the world of practice. And as the history of man demonstrates, Certainty has had terrible consequences in the practical world. When talking about the most egregious acts against humanity, the holocausts, genocides, environmental disasters etc, I have heard people question, “how can people do those things to other human beings or to the Earth?” A full answer is not possible, as we will never know what was going on in the masterminds of these atrocities, however one common thread can be drawn; the people behind these acts were absolutely certain of their ideals being the one right way to live. Hitler was absolutely certain that the German culture was a superior people. The American colonizers were absolutely certain of their racial and “civilized” superiority to the Native American tribes and therefore could justify their extermination. The Christian man is certain that he is outside of the rules of ecology that govern the rest of the natural world, and that Man is superior and has dominion over other life forms. Man’s (specifically not Women’s) divinely appointed right is to rule and control the Earth and if the vengeful, wrathful and fickle patriarchic deity is appeased during his or her lifetime, heavenly paradise awaits him in the afterlife; therefore we see concentrated animal feedlot operations, the subjugation of women and minority groups and massive ecosystem destruction in the name of resource extraction. The Earth is essentially a dirty dish towel to be thrown away in anticipation of the real posthumous reward of certain belief in the dogma. This idea of the danger of certainty came to me after a discussion I recently had with a Christian missionary; after explaining how I derive purpose in life from my position of uncertainty, he said “If you think there is purpose and meaning in uncertainty, just imagine the things you could do if you had certainty!” And he was right! If I were absolutely certain in my cosmology I could go out and proselytize, homogenizing the world in the process, in order to save the uncertain people from their tragic ignorant fate, just like he was doing. In contrast, uncertainty is accepting of differences and diversity, because it admits and celebrates that at the end of the day, or at the end of a life, the Universe really is a mystery.”

A teenage boy in the crowd shouted out: “Well if the Universe really is a mystery and the truth is that nobody knows, why do so many people go to church and believe in god? Is it really possible that all those people could be wrong?”

“Thank you my young friend for bringing us to our next topic. So why are people so attracted to certainty? Because it conveniently gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives that in the absence of this certainty would be a gaping existential void. Certainty is easy when the dogma is handed down from the authorities. Uncertainty is difficult because it relies on the self. Uncertainty depends on a certain level of introspection and imagination in order to derive values, meaning and purpose in life. Certainty is packaged to appeal to and answer the most profound question that any self-reflecting human being can ask themself, which is “why am I here?” Certainty in contradictory and “faith” dependent religions is a fear-inspired reaction by people that need to have closure on this fundamental question. Faith is not something to be applauded and aspired to; quite simply it is the surrender of reason to certitude. Uncertainty does not provide this comfortable closure, but instead leaves the mystery intact and ever present, which to most people, is way too scary a position and so they mostly unconsciously choose certainty, and go about their business of ritual recitation and myth making. Where certainty depends on the immanence or know-ability of a cosmological truth, uncertainty is rooted in a transcendent quality of experience that lies outside the limits of human knowledge and comprehension.”

The crowd was clearly agitated as I had pulled the rug out from under their comfortable sense of purpose and certainty. I quickly realized that maybe my approach had been too harsh, I had ripped the Band-Aid off too quickly and the gaping void of existential despair was too much for the people to bear in their current cultural mindset. The people clearly needed to believe in something to give their lives purpose and fulfillment. Fearing of inciting either a riot or an all-day affair of binge drinking, I called attention to the agitated and humming crowd:

“So if I were to go about consciously designing the ideal cosmology and theory of reality what are some of the characteristics that I would want this framework to have? Most importantly I would throw out the idea of absolute truth. Would you stop and ask a termite about the ultimate purpose and truth of the Universe? No? Then why would you ask a talking ape? In my opinion, to think that human beings have any grasp on the profundity of the mystery of the Universe is preposterous. So really what we are seeking is a cosmology that is true-enough. True enough for the circumstances of being incarnated in flesh and living in complex social proximity to other incarnate beings (both plant and animal). Secondly, this cosmology would be commensurate with the subjective felt experience of reality by being adaptable to the influx of new information. I commend science for in principle its open-endedness and reliance on observation and method to discover new things about our world. Our cosmology must be able to adapt to new information in a constantly evolving world.

Thirdly, this cosmology must promote ideas that are in line with the ecological reality of the planet. This means that humans must see themselves embedded in and completely dependent upon a complex web of relationships between plants, animals, and the non-living materials of this planet. Humans are not superior to any other organisms and do not live outside the ecological rules that govern biological systems. Proper action in the world would naturally follow from this belief and humans would live within their means and with respect for the health of the planetary ecology.

The idea of how our cosmology would derive practical guidance for living a moral life is more complicated because it would ideally stem from personal responsibility and conscious awareness of action. Do as to others as you would want done unto yourself would be the governing morality and right action would follow from right belief. This cosmology would recognize the innate worth of each individual human being and life form and celebrate diversity rather than ostracize and judge people into strained conformity. If this cosmology is beginning to sound utopian and unrealistic, it is only those things to the extent of the lack of Human consciousness and imagination. The state of the world today and all of its problems are the physical manifestations of certain cultural, institutionalized and individual belief systems about what the world is and what Humanities purpose is. The world is what we collectively and individually decide that it is. If we collectively (or at least the unconscious majority) see the world as a limitless source of raw materials and human labor power to be exploited at the cost of ecological health and cultural sustainability then our world will look like it does today. Or if we collectively see the world as an earthen paradise to be protected and cared for with the purpose of life being to spread as much love and good will as possible, then this is what the world will become. If we want to see real change and actually realize a sane, livable and long-term sustainable global culture we must awaken as each individual mind to the wisdom of uncertainty.”

With a triumphant emphasis on the last word I leapt off the soda crate and stood eagerly waiting for the clouds to part and the muddy waters from last night’s rains to instantly turn to wine. Clearly after hearing my soap-box speech the villagers would fall over themselves in ecstatic enlightenment. It was not to be however as the villagers shrieked in laughter, shook their heads in pity and continued on their way to church, clutching their bibles and wearing their funny little hats. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and continue on my way, clutching my Kindle loaded with Heidegger, Husserl and Jean Paul Sartre; an incommensurable gulf of mutual incomprehensibility left gaping open in the street.

Photos: Food: Squash lentils, Green papaya coconut soup, best papaya ever and random shot with friend and Norwegian Heavy Metal band comes to Manjacaze!

Mozambique #25 Local Language Fun

 

One of my new interests and hobbies has been learning the local dialect of Changana, which is a language in the Bantu family and is related to Zulu, Ronga, Machope, Tsonga and a few other obscure dialects. This language group generally covers the north eastern corner of South Africa, southern Mozambique, including the capital of Maputo, and up into Zimbabwe. When the European colonizers divided up Africa they had no regards for cultural or linguistic ties, but made arbitrary lines on the map; hence the wide spread of these languages across borders. It is also interesting to encounter words that sound awfully similar to their English equivalents. A watch in Changana is watchy,a book is booky, a teacher is teacha, to read is the same as the Portuguese verb, ler. I think this is evidence that throughout the evolution of the language and hence the culture, these words and ideas were not originally developed here, but instead were imported from foreign exposure.

 

I would never say that I am fluent in Changana, but I have learned enough to have basic conversations, greet people, do all of my market business, talk scatology and very importantly, insult people. Do not underestimate the importance of insulting people, it has saved me many times from being ripped off. In passing people I can understand the gist of peoples conversations, but certainly not in its entirety.  I have discovered how incredibly valuable and entertaining it is to understand a language that nobody expects you to understand. My teachers are the women who sell vegetables in the market, and other friends in the community. Usually I spend thirty minutes per day in the market just chatting with the women, and when I come across a word I don’t know, or something I want to say, but don’t know how, I ask them and write it down in a notebook. They are used to this little routine by now, but found it incredibly funny at first.

 

Being a bantu language, Changana is totally different than any language spoken in the west. There are an assortment of interesting sounds that don’t exist in my previous linguistic repertoire such as grunting, whistling between the teeth and sounds that are normally reserved for throat clearing, hissing and clearing out boogers. Except these sounds are mixed into the middle of words, which makes for some funny sounding conversations to the untrained ears. Every language in the world has its own characteristic patterns of sounds, pitches, textures, and rhythms that our lips, tongues, teeth and breath have learned how to make. In order to learn Changana I literally had to retrain my mouth to make sounds that previously I did not have the capacity to do. When writing down words in my notebook I get right up in the face of the speaker and watch how their mouth moves when they make the word. My women teachers like this as well, and have learned to face me and speak slowly as they repeat new words. They probably think I am quite dumb, but when it comes to Changana I am but a child learning for the first time. Imagine a mother standing in front of a baby saying ma – ma, ma – ma very slowly. Except now it’s a little more complicated “swa-nan-zia, swa–nan–zia”.

 

There are three large factors that have contributed to my learning Changana with relative ease, and none of them are because I am amazing at learning languages. Languages are like math problems, once you figure out the pattern and the formula, it’s a simple task of applying the rules and memorizing vocabulary. The first factor is that grammatically speaking, Changana is a very simple language. There are three verb tenses; past present and future and the verb stems don’t conjugate like they do in Portuguese or English. I will give a small example to demonstrate. Here is the verb to like. Ku Randza.

 

Mena Ni randza – I like

 

Wena U randza – you like

 

Yena A randza – he/she likes

 

Hena Hi randza – we like

 

Vona Va randza – they like

 

 

 

And in order to make the sentence negative you simply add a in front.

 

 

 

So I don’t like becomes:

 

A ni randza.

 

 

For the past tense you simply add ili to each verb stem :

 

Mena Ni randzili – I liked

 

Wena U randzili – you liked ………etc

 

 

For the future tense you add in front – ta – :

 

Mena ni ta randza – I will like

 

Wena u ta randza – you will like …. Etc

 

So, the general structure of Changana is very simple, although there are certain irregulars and special cases, like any language.

 

The second factor is that the general level of conversation that people have in Changana is very simple. In casual conversation most people are not delving into abstract philosophy or engaging in work that requires a highly specialized vocabulary. The basic level of conversation I hear around town is mostly related to daily chores, eating, cooking, selling or buying things, relationships and family. Lucky for me, James Joyce did not speak Changana, hence the vocabulary is quite simple and repetitive. Also there are many verbs that have double meaning, which simplifies things even more. For example the verb to want and to need are the same.

 

The third contributing factor is the fact that I am immersed in Changana. In the larger cities in Mozambique, Portuguese is the primary language heard in the streets, but in the villages and smaller communities such as Manjacaze its usually only dialect that is spoken. So just by hearing a thousand times the same greetings, chitchat and market gossip, my brain has just passively absorbed the language like a sponge. It has been quite fun going from hearing strange mouth noises to actually understanding the meaning associated with those funky noises. This is a double edged sword however as not understanding anything usually made for the perception of quiet and solitude, even amongst bustling markets and crowded taxis. However now I hear words and meaning, my brain latches on, and markets become noisy and distracting places. Understanding is not a conscious choice, it either happens or it doesn’t, and once you cross that barrier into understanding you cannot easily go back.

 

The real fun in speaking Changana however is playing around with people. As I said before, everybody assumes I don’t speak and so they will openly gossip about me, thinking I don’t understand a word they are saying. My strategy for maximizing the fun is to let them speak, gossip, discuss my appearance, the fact that I am not married or whatever it is they are talking about, and then confront them, in Changana. One time in a taxi the women were talking about how they saw me riding my bike way outside of town, and that they thought my cycling clothing looked funny. I turned around and told them that I love riding my bike and that I thought their cloth headwraps looked strange. The looks on their faces were absolutely priceless and they began apologizing profusely for talking about me.

 

Oftentimes people will refer to me by the term “mulungo” which literally means white man, and is borderline offensive, sort of like the South American gringo equivalent. Usually in groups of men, there is always one obnoxious idiot that wants to show off in front of his friends and make some derogatory comment about me as I pass, always using this term mulungo. He will usually ask me, “hey white man, where are you going?” however using the diminutive form of the word in order to be insulting. I like to respond in Changana, “Thank you for asking black man, I am going to your house to visit your wife, play with your kids and eat all your food”. I haven’t been beat up yet, and the obnoxious men are rightly put in their place.

 

The best is speaking Changana in Maputo, as white people are fairly common, however white people speaking Changana are very rare. I make friends incredibly easy when speaking Changana, as people tell me that it demonstrates that I relate well with the people and have an interest in the culture. I have gotten loads of discounts and free stuff in the markets just by speaking, and its really too easy to make people laugh. I just start talking about bathroom humor, the swear words that I learned or harmless little insults and I immediately have a crowd around me listening and laughing. People tell me all the time that when I go back to the US I must teach people to speak Changana. I try to explain the futility as obviously nobody speaks it, nor probably has ever heard of it.

 

Video: http://youtu.be/U7Vthkgz__k

In front of my office there is a nice old cashew tree that people are accustomed to sitting in the shade and getting absolutely hammered on the locally brewed corn beer. They usually yell things at me and I yell back. This day there was a guy playing the guitar, and actually quite well, so I went over and danced around a bit with them. The guitar player stopped playing because he said he was tired. So I bought him more beer to energize him. The song is about trying to cross the border into South Africa.

 

Mozambique #22 The Ripped Pants Story

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.