Tete province is the left arm of the Y that is Mozambique, a dry and rocky place famous for its goats and notorious for its heat. It’s gotten a lot of attention in recent years for its coal deposits, too, which are located not far from the provincial capital, Tete city. China needs the coal, Brazilians are helping dig it up, and you can measure the increasing activity at the Moatize mines by their ripple effect in downtown Tete, as the Hotel Zambeze gets a makeover, a coffeehouse opens, and Land Rovers hog curbsides.
I’ve been to Tete a few times over the last couple of years. Mozambique plans to build a large hydroelectric dam there, on the Zambezi River, about forty miles upstream from Tete city and about forty miles downstream from where an even bigger dam was built in the last years of Portuguese rule. Cahora Bassa, the first dam, was catastrophic for people in the Zambezi Valley. Some 40,000 people were displaced by the dam and its huge reservoir, and the altered river flow seriously undermined fishing and riverside farming all the way to the Indian Ocean. Mphanda Nkuwa, the second dam, will displace far fewer people, but it will displace them nonetheless. I was in Tete to interview people in Chirodzi-Sanangwe, the remote array of villages by the Zambezi that the new dam will sink underwater. But I’m not writing about the dams right now. I’m writing about Jake Thaio Katuluza.
Jake (pronounced kind of like the French “Jacques” but in two syllables) lived in the homestead closest to where I pitched my tent on my more recent trip to Chirodzi-Sanangwe. He was tall and lanky and had red eyes, and he always managed to be smoking a knuckle-sized tuft of tobacco, not the easiest thing to procure in the village during the dry season. He made it known from the moment I arrived that he had stories he was eager to tell. He had been places a lot of other people around hadn’t. In Chirodzi-Sanangwe people tend to speak several languages, including Nhungwe, Sena, and Shona, but few speak Portuguese with ease. Jake spoke Portuguese, and he spoke German.
Jake is from the western-most district of Tete, near the border with Zambia and Zimbabwe. In 1981, when he was 13, he was told he had been chosen for a special privilege. He was one of six students from his area selected to go to school in East Germany. The privilege was more than a top-flight education, it was an escape from a war that in the coming years would only get worse.
East Germany, though, was a long way. From his village Jake first walked to Zumbo, and from there he and the other students embarked on a three day boat trip across the length of Lake Cahora Bassa to the small city of Songo, skimming above the trees and villages submerged by the dam not so long before. The road to Tete city was beset by Renamo forces, so they waited several days for an armored column to escort them there. A military transport then flew them to Maputo, about 700 miles away.
The group was pared down further in Maputo. Two of the boys with whom Jake had started out failed their exams and repeated their journey in reverse, back to Tete city by military plane, back to Songo by armored escort, and then across the lake. Jake made the cut, but he still had to wait another three months in Maputo, the main collection point, as teens filtered in from around the country. A lot of logistical matters had to be settled. Clothes, for instance. “Because we didn’t have shoes, we couldn’t get on a plane,” Jake said.
The Escola da Amizade, the “school of friendship,” was located in the small town of Stassfurt, about two hours from East Berlin. The only students were about 900 Mozambican teens, and they all lived together in dorms. But they weren’t isolated from the world around them. Most of the classes were in German, so they were soon communicating easily with the people they met. During vacations each was paired with a German family. Sometimes they’d go to the beach. Sometimes they’d be shown “what Hitler did,” Jake said. This socialist paradise really was a kind of paradise, and it became the only reality he knew. Stassfurt was his home for the entirety of his teenage years.
When Frelimo and the DDR dreamed up the School of Friendship, the idea, in part, was to transfer specialized skills to young Mozambicans so they could go back to Mozambique and help develop the country along East German lines. But Jake’s technical education was cut short unexpectedly. In 1987, now 19, he was only a few months into his coursework in mechanical maintenance when he was ordered home. Industrial development no longer registered high on the list of Frelimo’s priorities.
Arriving in Maputo for the first time in almost six years, Jake and other students from the School of Friendship were trucked out to an army base, in nearby Boane, for basic training.