Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Land of Contrasts

How to describe Mozambique, this land of contrasts where the country’s flag depicts the image of a farmer’s hoe crossed with an AK-47? “We’ve got to do something about our flag,” my Mozambican friend, Marcia says smiling. “It’s an embarrassment.”

College graduate, daughter of an Anglican priest, wife of a U.S.-educated Ph.D economist, Marcia, like Mozambique, is a study in contrasts. She knows two vastly different cultures—the one she grew up in and that of the U.S. She embraces them both. Speaks both languages. Accepts the differences in their values and ways.

While an AK-47 might not be a fitting symbol for a national flag, when crossed with a hoe, symbol of agriculture, it is a fair representation of the country’s history and economy, this land of rich soil, sun and rain, where it’s easy to grow most anything except when revolutions and civil wars get in the way.

Contrast is everywhere—in the sights and sounds, textures and tastes, and in the feel of things.  My first look at the place was a slow drive over pot-holed roads  from the airport through crowds of pushing, shouting people and buses, vans and taxis belching black exhaust and vying for position on the crowded roadway.

Small stands built from sticks or concrete blocks, roofed over with rusty strips of corrugated iron of multi-colored pieces of plastic lined the rutted streets. Men and women, young and old were selling everything from peanuts to plastic toys, underwear to umbrellas. Shoppers, I learn, can usually make only small purchases: enough charcoal to cook a single meal, one cigarette, a single onion, or a small fish. This is the flourishing “informal economy,” the way many Mozambicans support themselves, one day at a time.

The scene changes as we approach Avenida Kenneth Kaunda, also known as embassy row. The street widens, the potholes disappear, wisteria and jacaranda trees grace the sides of the road with blooms of lavender and crimson. The sidewalk is broad here as we pass the embassies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil, Tanzania, Italy. None looks as imposing as the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy. Several guards, iron spikes in the driveway, metal poles and bars on the windows attest to paranoia, perhaps justified. I don’t know.
Avenida Kenneth Kuanda ends abruptly as the Indian Ocean comes into view just beyond a large Holiday Inn billboard encouraging newcomers to “Come to a Place You Know.” And I suspect western travelers, jet-lagged and visually overwhelmed by now, do just that.

Wildly out of place yet strangely comforting are the dozens of KFC signs on lampposts along the road. There were so blatant that I began to wonder if KFC was perhaps some official government acronym. How did KFC get permission to advertise on city lampposts? Probably, they paid. In any case, there was no avoiding the fact that the Colonel had arrived in Africa.
Avenida Julius Nyerere parallels the sea and there, on the ocean side of the avenue, you can see homes of the rich and famous; Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel and Mozambique’s presidential mansion, more embassies and the homes of the ambassadors, and homes of well-to-do ex-pat families.

On the inland side of the avenue, there’s a bustling village of stick shacks and small concrete block homes. Tiny stalls dot the neighborhood and offer food and other necessities for sale.

In any culture where the gap between haves and have-nots is wide, as it is in Mozambique, there are startling contrasts. People live side-by-side, on the same street and in two different worlds.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Arriving in Mozambique

“I left my broken down running shoes in Mozambique. Along with a big chunk of my heart.” That’s how I started a few words I wrote after I came home from nine months away-- where I learned about Janet Mondlane. Here’s the rest of it, to give you a taste of the place.

I’ve been home six months now, long enough to know I’m not the same person any more. Sights, sounds, tastes and smells from halfway round he world live in my head. I think about the people I shared my life with there. Those, like me, have left, and those who will never leave.

What about this Sub-Saharan nation whose eastern coast meets the startlingly blue Indian Ocean for 1500 miles? Whose inland edges butt up against Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa? I saw only a small part of Mozambique, met only a few of its 20 million people. But I saw enough country and met enough people to come under its unlikely spell. Enough that I obsessed with learning its history, in order to understand its wrenching poverty, the reasons for its suffering and the strength and persistence of its people.

I went to Africa because I had been drawn to the place since childhood by Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and the great grey, green, greasy Limpopo River. And I had a place to stay, thanks to the hospitality of a daughter and son-in-law. So I rented my house in Colorado and said good-bye to my job for a year.

I’m embarrassed now, to admit that I had to check a map to learn where Mozambique lay among Africa’s fifty-three countries. It’s an American thing, this deficiency in geography. Maybe it’s because we live in a big, beautiful, powerful place and it’s easy for us to conclude that nowhere else is really all that worth knowing. And unlike the people in most of the rest of the world, we have been hard-pressed to see the need for learning a language other than our own, or much point in learning in depth about places beyond our shining shores. But our world shrinks daily and we can no longer afford to hold these attitudes.

I came home from my sojourn eternally grateful for enough time in another place, so different from my home, to provide the window through which I view the world to grow brighter, more flexible, with more capacity to expand. I still have a long way to go, but the process has begun.

It’s an endless sit in a small seat to get from Denver, Colorado to Maputo, Mozambique. My overnight flight from Denver to Frankfurt, Germany took nine hours. After a 12-hour pause there, I boarded a ten-hour-5,400-mile flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. There I spent six hours between flights checking out the shops and the people, getting my first taste of Africa. I didn’t know that my dollars would be welcome in the shops and restaurants so by the time I was served a dried out ham and cheese sandwich by South African Airlines on the one-hour flight to Maputo, it tasted gourmet. I was starving!

A few hours later, seated with my family at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Indian Ocean, I had one of those, “Where am I and how did I get here?” moments. My jet-lagged mind worked overtime trying to fathom the jumble of shouting people, honking vehicles, street vendors, tarp-roofed stick shacks and pungent smells that lined the pitted, potholed road to town from the Maputo airport. There I was, ordering a seafood salad, surrounded by three grandchildren and their parents who had made this commitment to take me in for nine months, full of wonder at my good fortune.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Remembering Mozambique

Between September and May in 2004-05, I lived in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, with my younger daughter, her husband and their three young children. They spent more than five years in the country where my economist son-in-law worked with issues around poverty reduction. What a guy he is, to invite his mother-in-law to be part of their family for so many months!

While I was there, I did some substitute teaching at the American School, tutored some graduate students in English and each week did a bit of research and photography to send home a blog I called Come to Africa with Me.  In the course of doing that, I delved into the history of Mozambique, a Portuguese colony until 1975. That’s how I first learned about Janet Mondlane, an American who played an important role in supporting the liberation front that made independence possible after a struggle that lasted more than ten years.

I became fascinated with this woman who married an African and left her home country to work for his dream of independence. She has been called “Godmother to a Revolution” and I think has not been properly recognized for all that she did.

I decided that I wanted to write her life story, and I have been working on White Shadow off and on ever since. I think it is about ready to come to life and I am excited to share it.

Because I have taken some liberties and added some incidents to flesh out the story, White Shadow is historical fiction closely based on the life of Janet Mondlane. Over the next few weeks, I will share some of Janet’s story here in hopes that you will be interested in learning about this remarkable woman. She is now a Mozambican citizen and still lives in Matola, a town just outside the capital city, proof that the history of Mozambique is recent and accessible. She has worked hard to establish and maintain the Eduardo Mondlane Foundation in honor of her husband who gave his life to free his country.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Nostalgia Time

Sub-zero temps, piles of snow, the end of the holiday festivities—maybe it’s time to hunker down a bit and clean out some files. In the process of doing that, I came across a letter written to me by my maternal grandmother on the occasion of my engagement in 1958.  It gave me a nostalgic look at another time and a new appreciation for my British grandmother, Gertrude Amy Payton, born in 1876.

Here are a few excerpts:

My wish to you both—that you will have chosen wisely and will be as happy as I was in my short married life. Take my sound advice, dear girl, and be sure that David is insured before marriage. Life is uncertain and I should not like to think you had a married life as short as mine was. I had to be both parents in one and my children had a difficult life. They were deprived of food, clothes and toys, etc. That is what has made them all such fine characters and so wonderful to me in my old days.

Your gift is money, dear, with my very best wishes. Take a little of it for a present, the rest to the bank and promise not to touch it except in an emergency. If you are teaching, you won’t need many dresses. You won’t have time to wear them and fashions soon change.

Happiness in this world is bringing your wants down to necessities. When your mother said you took 15 skirts back to school, I thought of my own two cloth skirts, now very old. Please, dear, don’t buy anything on “hire purchase.” Better to go without. My Charlie, 55 years ago, said it would be the ruin of England. Like living a lie, having things you can’t afford to pay for. Pare down and don’t owe a penny.

An engagement is a testing time. I made Charlie promise to tell me of my faults and I would do the same for him. I did not like him smoking a pipe before breakfast. He left off that. We were engaged for two years. Love covers a multitude of sins.

Life is not easy these days. The old Victorian days were slow but sure, heavy-going and thrifty.

Leave cocktails alone and smoking—two ways for money to vanish.

Well dearie, “Elizabeths are born to rule and bound to command.” Live up to your name and follow your mother except, do not smoke.

Your fond Granny Payton

Monday, January 2, 2017

Women's running--then and now

It was many years ago when a friend of mine told me that she had quit running because her calves were getting bigger. Her decision didn’t make me quit, but it did make me think. My calves have always been pretty big and if I kept on running, well, they would only get bigger—and then what?

Last night I came across a skinny little book hidden away on my shelf called The Female Runner, published in 1974 by World Publications. My 23-year-old runner granddaughter, Abby, was visiting and we chuckled together over the foreword which begins, “The runner’s world is, always has been and will for a long time to come continue to be a man’s world. Women only get to sample the leftovers from it.”

It goes on to say that females make up only one percent of the running population, run in shoes designed for men, race in meets that no one notices and get what’s left of expense money, prizes and publicity after the men have taken theirs.

How times have changed! These days women often outnumber men in races of all distances and garner prize money and recognition equally with men.

The book has less than 50 pages but contains a whole lot of fascinating information in 10 short chapters written by males and females involved with running themselves and with training women runners in those days. They discuss the physical and psychological restraints that affect the performance of women runners and they advocate for change.

Did you know that the ancient Greeks beheaded any female who dared to watch a warrior athlete perform? One superintendent of schools refused to let girls run cross country because “they would just go out into the woods and get laid by the boys.” Dr. Kenneth Foreman was told by a colleague that he was a fool to work with female athletes because they were incapable of tolerating stress and would only get into trouble with male athletes if he let them train together.

Dr. Joan Ullyot, 3:13 marathoner and author of Womens Running, began running when she was 30 and has long experience training women runners. She commented on the irony that women were limited to running sprint events for years when their physique made them unsuitable for short explosive action and much more suited to distance events. “Women are made to run long rather than fast,” she insisted.

I didn’t enter a race until I was 40 in 1976. For the five years or so before that, I ran a mile or so every morning, most of that time with no thought of ever going faster or longer. But at that 10k race in City Park a couple of blocks from home, I had a taste of success. Two years later I ran my first marathon. I decided to do it because it just seemed so impossible—to run 26.2 miles. It was a kick, and afterwards I figured I could do most anything!