Instead, They Sing

Friday, August 4, 2006 | Lichinga, Mozambique

A member of the crew that ferried us to the Mozambican mainland on their handmade craft.
That evening at Mango Drift I got to know Rene and Joop, two thirtysomething guys from Amsterdam who were, I learned, planning on going from Likoma to Mozambique the next day, as I was. We decided to leave together early the next morning.

Soon after dawn the two spirited Dutch men and I set off together, hiking back across the island to town, where we made arrangements with a local dhow captain, who agreed to sail us the 10 kilometers to the Mozambique coast of the lake around midday, once the wind picked up. At noon we hopped aboard the small dhow as its three young crew members unfurled the sail—a sunbleached, multi-color patchwork of burlap rice sacks, bedsheets, t-shirts and plastic flour bags, hand-stitched with a large, uneven weave that left the sail gaping with holes. Sweating in the relentless sun, Joop and I threw a line overboard, jumped in and let the sailboat tow us along in the cool water.

We waded ashore in mid-afternoon at Cobue (pronounced "cob-way"), the tiny lakeside village that serves as Mozambique's local immigration post. When we stepped onto the beach, a stooped old man walked down from a hut on the nearest hillside and extended a wrinkled hand in introduction. "James Bond," he announced, "Welcome to Cobue." James Bond was, we soon learned, the owner of Cobue's only restaurant (the aforementioned hut) and the town's only English-speaking resident.

After completing the visa formalities, we dropped our bags at one of Cobue's two small guesthouses, on one of Cobue's two small streets. Walking around town before our dinner (chez James Bond, by default) we came to a large ruined church, the typical Portuguese tilework above its entryway the only remaining testament to its one-time splendor. Its roof collapsed, windows shattered and walls scarred by graffiti and bullet holes, the church was no doubt a victim of Mozambique's long civil war, which began soon after its independence in 1975 and lasted into the early 1990s.

A pair of local boys followed us into the crumbled structure, trailing a frightened vervet monkey by a leash. They placed the monkey atop the church's main altar and giggled cruelly at the tortured creature's efforts to escape. Disgusted, we ignored their requests to photograph the monkey.

Having heard horror stories of travelers trapped in Cobue for four or five days, Joop and Rene and I were all too happy when James Bond told us during dinner that a truck would be leaving early the next morning for Lichinga, the nearest major city, located several hundred kilometers to the south. At one point in the trip, James cautioned, the truck would have to stop to pick up "a little wood," but we shrugged off this slight inconvenience, eager for any ride at all.

* * *

The next morning, after several hours of jolting along the dirt road, the large flatbed truck pulled to a stop. Swatting clouds of voracious insects, we stood aside in disbelief as a crowd of villagers began loading the truck with the enormous bundles of branches that lined the road. "They're probably only taking a little bit of it," we said to each other, hoping in vain as the spot where we had been sitting was slowly engulfed by kindling.

The thick, red East African dust stuck readily to the sweat covering our body and clothes as we again got under way. The truck pitched forward over the potholes while we clung desperately to the massive pile of branches. Nearly four meters off the ground, we perched on the shifting bundles, ducking tree limbs that overhung the roadway. The women who had loaded the wood onto the truck's bed (while the men watched from the shade, for the most part) had climbed aboard to join us for the ride. Their thin bodies wrapped in tattered, brightly patterned cloth, they now sat atop the pile with us, relaxing and not betraying the least sign of discomfort. All afternoon, as we sped through village after village, the women clapped and sang traditional call-and-response songs, and erupted in gleeful laughter when we attempted a rendition of "Old MacDonald."

Traveling with locals, by the typical local means of transport, is a painful experience in Africa. My body hurts after every time I grind out a day sucking dust in the back of a speeding truck. But on this day and many others, I lived with the realities of life in Africa—its hardship, its refreshing simplicity, its energy. The Africans who lead such lives full-time display a degree of resilience, patience, and warmth rarely encountered in America. When hurtling down a rough dirt road in the back of a vehicle, squatting on a loose pile of tree limbs, aware that an unseen hanging bough or a sudden blown tire could end their lives at any instant, they don't pray desperately, hold on with white knuckles, or beg through tears to get out and walk. Instead, they sing. This day and every other in Africa, I see and feel on some elemental, primal level that these people are truly ALIVE! Meanwhile, sheltered back home, the rest of us are just going through the motions.

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