Dr. Seuss may have been a frequent visitor to Nhangau. These marshes are filled with impossible plants and fantastical creatures: ghostly fluorescent trees with fat purple trunks, foot-long striped lizards, perfect lily pads and swaying cattails, pale blue flowers that stand straight out of calm clear ponds, huge intimidating birds with long colorful beaks. Patches of bright green vegetation punctuate the tall undulating grasses, like sudden islands, covered with splayings and climbings and collapsings. Some trees are short and humorous, others shaped like vast dinosaurs, and some have improbably tall trunks that draw your eyes up, up, up, until you are face to face with the Divine. Out among the marshes sit slender white birds. They glide through the grasses like vague phantoms, and then, wings whispering, they slip into the sky and take flight, and are lost in clouds made of their same color.
Nhangau is a small community on the outskirts of Beira, Mozambique. I am here to witness the christening of a new development program, sponsored by a local non-governmental organization, in this poverty-stricken bairro. With some work and luck and blessing, these families will be divided into groups to help each other solve their problems. Where the problem can not be solved without some extra resources, the NGO plans to provide those resources. The idea is better homes, more balanced nutrition, less sickness, more income, more family unity, a clearer sense of community. A quick glance around the village, and it is immediately apparent why these goals are so important. Some of the houses, built out of sticks and mud, are caving in on themselves.
A crowd of people is waiting for us, although we are late. They are almost all women whose ages elude me. In a country where the average life expectancy is 34 years, age can be deceptive. Mothers look like grandmothers; grandmothers like great-grandmothers. There are very few great-grandmothers. From time to time, the youngest mothers look like children themselves. Four-year-old children have infants tied to their backs with long bright pieces of cloth, something that I have yet to learn how to do.
The women seat themselves in the dirt, in this patch of emptiness that is apparently the village square. The few men are standing behind them in a broken concrete structure that was perhaps intended, at one point, to be a house. The NGO’s staff members stand and begin to explain what this new program will do. A girl in the front row is breast-feeding her baby. Another woman is looking out into the marshes. One young woman in the front row is listening with rapt attention, and her face is like something beautiful under a full moon.
At the end of the presentation, the floor is opened for questions and comments. There is a pause where heat and silence hang in the air like fat dragonflies, and finally a woman stands.
I am old. I am a widow. I am poor, she says. And, thus introduced, she begins to tell her story, because it is her own.
One by one the women stand and introduce themselves. One by one they open their mouths and tell stories of poverty, of death, of hunger. So many men are dead, from AIDS or the civil war that raged through Mozambique until 1992. Many of them are caring for children who are not technically theirs but were orphaned by the ravages of AIDS, this disease that is changing Africa, and the planet, forever.
I care for two grandchildren. My husband was killed by bandits thirteen years ago. I have five children of my own, and since my brother died, I have four more. I have a fish-selling business, no husband, and three children to look after. I walked five kilometers to be here. In my village, I have no house.
I am shocked at how many husbands are dead. I feel tired just thinking about how much work these women do. They have no running water or electricity, no telephones, no grocery stores, and no money. And yet, they are not asking for any of those things. After they tell their stories, they invariably offer ideas for personal solutions. One woman would like two goats, to start a little family of milk-producing goats. Another says she would like to breed chickens and sell them. A third woman says if she could get some seeds, she could plant her garden. She smiles when she says this. I look into her face and imagine her, up to her elbows in dark dirt, seeds splayed across her skirt, throwing back her head and laughing.
So tell me, what would you do? Imagine yourself living in an African village near the sea, surrounded by marshlands and rice fields. Your husband is dead, and you are caring for nine children. You did not go to school, so you never learned to read. All around you, people are dying of a mysterious and brutal disease that is sometimes attributed to black magic. How will you eat? Will you plant a garden or fish or hunt for lizards in the tall grass? Who will take care of the harvests, if you can arrange a garden? Who will clean the house, and cook the food over the open flame? How will you keep the fire going? Who will walk a mile every morning to fetch clean water? How will you earn money to buy clothing and other things that can not be hunted down with a spear? How will you pay for your children’s school uniforms and pencils so that they can study? What will you do when your children get sick? Or when you get sick? Who will build the latrine? Who will repair the house when the sticks begin to break apart? What if you have AIDS, too? What if your children have also contracted this death sentence? If you are sick, how will you find the strength to cook and clean and weed and breastfeed?
Even in a home with a man and a woman, the average African woman does an overwhelming amount of work. According to one United Nations publication, women do 95 percent of the domestic work, as well as up to three-quarters of agricultural work, in rural regions of Africa. Their workdays begin before the sun rises, and continue long after the moon has crept out of hiding. Despite the continuing stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home, rural women do far more than keep house. They plant, plough, care for livestock or small animals, harvest crops, weed, ho, process and store crops, sell or trade food items, carry heavy containers of water on their heads, find fuel, and forage for food. Additionally, rural African women often create other small money-making endeavors, such as making soap, weaving, or selling handicrafts.
Often, a woman does all these things with a baby tied to her back, and perhaps one more resting like a quiet bean in her womb.
And when the husband has disappeared, there is even more work for the women. Sometimes the children have to stay home from school to help cook and plant and care for babies. These children will also grow up without learning how to read.
As they tell their stories, the women are often speaking in Sena, a local tribal language that I don’t speak yet, but one Portuguese word keeps appearing: Comunidade. A sentence jumbled with words that I can’t quite make out and then an unexpected moment of clarity, sparkling and pleasantly warm, like a firefly: Comunidade. Comunidade. Community.
One of the workers translates the Sena dialogue into Portuguese for me. Portuguese is the national language of Mozambique, but few people in the villages feel comfortable speaking it. Mozambicans speak a flurry of regional dialects, and I am limited to Portuguese. I ask my translator if there is a word for “community” in Sena. He seems unsure, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The women are talking about something shining and crucial; language becomes quickly irrelevant.
It seems that progress is being made. Or maybe, in a case like this, it is something more akin to returning to the roots.
At the end of each telling, we clap, together, for the woman who has so courageously opened her mouth and poured herself out in waves. It feels like a group therapy session, or Alcoholics Anonymous, with this rhythmic clapping and choral speaking.
Finally there is a break in the stories. For many seconds, no one stands up. Someone asks, Is there a man who would like to comment?
Nhamala, comes the unhesitating response. The word is almost sung by this impromptu choir of ten women’s voices, vibrating with different tones, harmonious even without a melody.
Nhamala. It is finished.
And so it finishes with the stories of so many women, and no men.
It is time now to make the groups, no small task in an unhurried culture such as this one, in a place that refuses to be rushed. I am on the outskirts watching as the groups are assembled, when a young man in a rusty-looking wheelchair approaches me and asks me what is going on. His legs are spindly, his feet useless, his eyes like two bright stars. I try not to stare, although the temptation alone embarrasses me. Staring is a reflex that is scolded out of us as children but never completely disappears, no matter how many times we are faced with differences. We talk for a moment, small talk, harmless talk, and suddenly he stops and fixes his eyes on mine.
I am full of suffering, he says. I have no family.
I realize, with a start, how much easier it is to hear stories that represent lives from across a courtyard, and to clap with the crowd at the end of their courageous tellings, without looking directly into any eyes. I send the young man a look that I hope he understands is reaching and compassionate, but I can not bring myself to respond.
They have asked me to write down names of group members, and I have agreed. Now I am sitting in a chair, the center in a flowering of clear faces, regretting my willingness. Some of the Portuguese-derived names are simple, to my relief; others sound like they are made up entirely of consonants, or clicks, or a river flowing over stones. A bird could tap out these names with her beak better than I can write them. I have a feeling they will re-take the names after I am done.
By the time I have filled a page with misspelled names, the crowd has dispersed and I am left with a collection of children sitting behind me and on the sides. I turn to one and ask him his name, and he jumps with a start, stumbles backward and trips over the dozens of bare feet extended around him. I laugh, which startles all the children closest to me, so that they trip and stumble in a kind of childlike panic until some are on the ground and others are holding themselves up with their little fingers. I have caused a stampede, which makes me laugh even more, and then the kids join in. Some of them giggle, some whoop, some dance with their knees knocking and legs flailing in every direction.
In the distance, the marshes are barely visible over the tops of several crisp thatched roofs. The sky, though, is always visible. I know Texans are proud of their vast skies; they should pay Dr. Seuss a visit in Nhangau. The sky here is the ceiling of the whole world. The sky here is a blanket woven of dreams and drumbeats, spread with a kind of careful abandon over the tops of tall eternity-bound trees. The long brown grasses brush the clouds, and sway, and seem to dance to the distant rhythm of the breeze. As I watch that place where vegetation meets sky, where earth meets heaven, a white bird emerges like a ghost from the grasses, and seems to float. It catches the wind, like a slip of paper or something made of hope, and rises, and rises.
We are leaving, and the young man in the wheelchair makes his way toward me. I shake his hand and tell him goodbye, then unexpectedly he declares again the same words as before, this time more resolutely: I am full of suffering.
Since we are human, we tell our stories. We tell them sometimes loud and angry, thunder laid down across our eyelids. We tell them sometimes soft and pensive, and the whole universe echoes in the ear of the listener. Since we are human, we tell our stories to anyone who will listen, and sometimes we are asking for help, but more often we are just asking for a heart to open up to us, and want us to come inside.
I am full of suffering, he said, twice.
How much easier it is to hear these words from across a courtyard, when a whole community shares the burden together. How much easier, then, to hear them from across an ocean; with so much sky and distance between, such a burden seems very small, like something an ant could carry on its back.
About the Author
Melissa Lambert works full-time with a child abuse prevention and treatment facility. In her spare time she writes and translates. Spare summers tend to lead back to her college roots in international development work and academic research. This particular essay was born last summer in Mozambique. Her work may also be found in Cezanne’s Carrot, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Right Hand Pointing and Inscape.