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Where the fire burns: Accounts from Mozambique

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Mozambique Diaries

An account by Summer Rayne Oakes

Esther, Allan and I on the long road through Mozambique. ph: Esther Havens
Esther, Allan and I on the long road through Mozambique. ph: Esther Havens

We pulled up to the small transportation town on the Zambezi about 45 minutes behind schedule. A queue of cars was parked perpendicular to the great river. Drivers in pick-up trucks that carried 30 men deep waited around the vehicles, laughing and mingling. There is no bridge crossing the Zambezi. Instead a giant ferry--an inefficient transportation system perpetually funded by the Dutch government--carries cars and passengers across for a few metical per person. Not a bad deal, considering that 24 metical equal about 1 dollar in the U.S. The ferry was in no danger of coming, so Esther and I nosed around the town for a cold draught of Coca-Cola. Prices in towns are always a little high. I probably got charged too much, but I didn't care. I got a soda for Allan and me since I knew he would never buy himself one. It was made very clear on the trip that our inimitable host, (who is a native African, though the fair-skinned variety), is consistently annoyed by those that charge higher prices based on his skin, and would often leave the shifty ragtag mango and drink sellers that approached our car in a cloud of choking dust. Passing by a town on the way to the Zambezi. ph: Esther Havens
Passing by a town on the way to the Zambezi. ph: Esther Havens

The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa, threading through dense Miombo forests, croc-infested dambos, and in many cases, barren land adulterated by the human hand. It has its source in Zambia and pulses it's snaky blue-brown body through Angola and slithers along the borders of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and finally through Mozambique, where it can boast being the largest river that empties into the Indian Ocean. For site-seekers of Africa, they'll know that the Zambezi feeds the continents most precious natural feature and the world's largest waterfall: Victoria.

A dozen or so bare-assed boys, glistening like black onyx, frolicked in the muddy waters. It was nice to see the young Mozambicans putting condoms to good use--as inflated latex balloons tied to sticks that had an uncanny resemblance to delicate lacewing egg masses waving in the breeze. The site was paradoxical, if not borderline comical. It's the type of sick humor that is birthed out of tragically-unfortunate situations and accompanies statements like, if AIDS were funny, it would look like _____. AIDS and Mozambique go hand-in-hand. It's currently estimated that 2 million people are living with HIV or AIDS in the country, constituting a prevalence rate of about 14 percent, putting Mozambique among the top 10 most affected countries in the world. Within two more years, the number of children orphaned by AIDS will escalate to 900,000.1 Out of the eleven provinces in Mozambique, Sofala, where Allan's main operation lies--and our ultimate destination, falls in the top 3 highest in AIDS rate at 18.7 percent, just behind Manica (21.1 percent) and Tete (19.8 percent). ]Naked Mozambican boys frolic with inflated condom balloons in the Zambezi. ph: Esther Havens
Naked Mozambican boys frolic with inflated condom balloons in the Zambezi. ph: Esther Havens

At an HIV/AIDS-testing unit we passed on the road for out-of-town truck drivers, test results came back as 100 percent positive. Every single person passing through the testing facility had the AIDS virus. The results were so shocking, if not utterly unfathomable, that the mother organization back in Europe sent a team to have all the samples retested. Much to their surprise and horror, the results were conclusive. Everyone had AIDS. A boy casts his eyes off into the distance in N. Mozambique. ph: Esther Havens
A boy casts his eyes off into the distance in N. Mozambique. ph: Esther Havens

That's just one of the harsh, matter-of-fact realities insidiously eating away at the confidence of this forgotten country. But if you think AIDS is the main issue, therein lays a deeper concern: Education. More specifically I mean the education of women: the hardworking backbone that will be the phoenix out of the golden red fire that the country has seemed to light under itself. Of the adults living with HIV/AIDS, an estimated 57 percent are women.2 The contraction rates are clearly correlated to the low educational level and exceedingly high illiteracy rates among women. The gender imbalance is so stark in Mozambique (Allan says it's even bad for Africa), that women rarely ever get a chance to get a decent education. Instead, they are sentenced to a life of subordination: tilling fields, building homes, preparing food, collecting firewood, bearing children, and preparing any item--from charcoal to litchi fruits for their unfaithful husbands to sell on roadsides--money that will ultimately end up in the men's empty stomachs in the form of bootleg banana booze. Women hoist tea tree trunks after harvesting at the Mezimbite Forest Centre. ph: Esther Havens
Women hoist tea tree trunks after harvesting at the Mezimbite Forest Centre. ph: Esther Havens

Being a woman, it's hard not to play out in my mind a peaceful, yet powerful uprising of these women--hoisting their country onto their heads, as they effortlessly do with a bundle of trees. I'm no feminist, but I delight in the idea of a liberated Mozambican woman waving her fist in the air after standing up for herself and arm-wrestling her nation's men to their knees. (God knows a lifetime in the fields have disproportionately given the women bigger shoulders, forearms, and hands than their male counterparts anyway!)

Somewhere between my daydreams of The Great Liberation of Woman and the idea of a bare-assed boy and his condom balloon being snapped up by a hungry Zambezi croc, (which Allan says is quite common)--the ferry appeared. The flat, black beast parted the waters as it approached the sandy shoreline, sending the croc-cavorting kids fleeing in all directions, covering their tiny peckers from laughing eyes and Esther's camera lens.

Car engines geared up in crescendo as the gaping, black ferry ramp yawned open, slapping the water as it fell. Trucks roared up, some skidding wheels, and a hundred or so people vaulted themselves from watery shore to mouth of the ferry, like a giant exodus of people praying the grass may be greener on the other side of the river. Hand dug canoes sit in the water of the Zambezi. Bike in foreground. ph: Esther Havens
Hand dug canoes sit in the water of the Zambezi. Bike in foreground. ph: Esther Havens

For how long the wait for the ferry is, the trip across the river is surprisingly fleeting. Traversing it is exciting, nonetheless. Perhaps after a long car ride, it's refreshing to be on another mode of transportation, where you are overlooking endless miles of water as opposed to endless miles of beat-up land. You'll have to forgive me because I don't mean to diminish its grandness from the perspective of a road-weary traveler. Crossing it seems like a rite of passage in Africa. The dry terrain somehow makes you hold it in a higher esteem. The waters seem to hold a sway over you, much in the same way that I'm sure many of the men in hand dug-out canoes have felt over the centuries. Road aflame: A common site in Mozambique. ph: Allan Schwarz
Road aflame: A common site in Mozambique. ph: Summer Rayne Oakes

By the time we reached the other side of the river, we could feel the darkness setting in. The miles and miles of endless dusty roads and bamboo houses slowly transform into a beastly specter, rearing its ugly head like an animal caught eating its young. Chestnut-colored women with bent backs look over their shoulders with torch-fires in their hands, setting the short wicks of their own lives aflame until they are swallowed up and extinguished. The little greenery that exists in this once lush terrain is gathered at night and burned in bonfire-heaps in order to clear the land for no apparent reason. In the morning, the women are tasked to look for firewood to cook meals, the same wood they haphazardly burned the night before. Women burning grassland to clear for farming or for small rodents. ph: Allan Schwarz
Women burning grassland to clear for farming or for small rodents. ph: Allan Schwarz

The darkness looks like a warzone. Serpentine fires flick their orange flamed-tongues to taste the inky black night. Gray smoke bloats and tumbles over the streets in ghostly waves. Shadowy humanoid forms nightmarishly emerge from the wreckage like haunting zombies. Their soot-cloaked faces fade into the pitch black night, forcing you to squint and slow down so as not to clip one with the side of your car. Allan is morose. Or serious. Or deep in thought. He's haunted. I can't tell if he hates driving at night because he's afraid of killing someone accidentally with the car, or because he sees what he fightsstrongly for sucked up in seconds by the rapacious flames of human despair. Like a priest under the guise of night, all the world's sins are revealed like an open wound. The reality of poverty seems much more apparent now. And it strikes you in the hot oily night like an ice pick to the spine.

Fires burn like a deadly specter into the dark hours of the night. ph: Summer Rayne Oakes
Fires burn like a deadly specter into the dark hours of the night. ph: Summer Rayne Oakes

1 INE, MISAU: Impacto Demográfico do HIV/SIDA em Moćambique, 2002

2 Commission of HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa. Mozambique: The Challenge of HIV/AIDS Treatment and Care

For more sustainable design and development stories and personal vignettes from the front lines, check out the just-released book, "Style, Naturally" available on Amazon.com.

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