Twenty years on, Jake recalled his epic moments in all their mundane detail. The number of teens from western Tete picked to go to East Germany. The number of groups into which the students were divided once they got there. The hour at which his flight to Bulgaria took off on his return to the DDR. The static months and years that filled in the long gaps between journeys was just normal time, barely worth the telling. In East Berlin he worked in a factory fitting cable into rubber casings. One week he would work mornings. The next week afternoons. The third week the overnight shift. And then back to mornings. He did this for about a year. Then the Wall came down.
Jake remembered the end of communism differently than you probably do. He recalled the “confusion” (a word with a meaning in Portuguese much closer to “chaos”) of that November and the reunification that followed, when the Mozambicans, Angolans, and Vietnamese who worked in East German factories came to realize that their time was up. Management at the cable factory offered the Mozambicans a choice: a decent buyout now, or an uncompensated termination perhaps only a few months down the road. Either way they were going to have to go home. Jake took the buyout. But if he had to go back to Mozambique, where the civil war was reaching a crescendo, he was going back prepared.
Jake turned his three million marks into American dollars, socked away $500, and went on a shopping spree with the rest. He bought two TVs, two VCRs, a four-burner stove, and a family-sized refrigerator. He bought a gas-powered generator, too, because although Mozambique was home to one of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dams, virtually no one had electricity. He and two other Magermane put their belongings and all their new purchases in a shipping container at Hamburg. They were supposed to meet it in Maputo two months later.
When Jake arrived in Maputo the container was not there. He grew anxious. His domestic appliances were going to keep him afloat in Mozambique, possibly alive. How, it wasn’t quite clear. Maybe he could sell them, or rent them out. In any case they were all that distinguished him from the desperate millions. Every day he’d go to the docks, and every day he left despondent. He couldn’t leave Maputo until he knew the fate of his container, and Maputo was a city virtually under siege.
His wait ended three months later, with the container’s miraculous arrival. Jake had it forwarded to Beira, a port city much closer to his home in Tete. But now the war seriously threatened his plans. The countryside between Beira and Tete was overrun with Renamo guerrillas. “I was lucky,” said Jake. “I had a girlfriend who had a brother, and this brother was high up in the army”–Jake motioned to his shoulder, where the patches would go–“and he was in charge of what? A military airplane.” The hard part was getting the appliances from Beira’s port to the airstrip. Not everything fit in the truck. So the TVs and the VCRs were sent on the risky overland route by military truck via Zimbabwe. The refrigerator, the stove, and the generator went directly to Tete city by air.
The war kept Jake in Tete city, and he stayed there even after the war’s end in 1992. He got married, and found a job fixing radiators. He rented out his appliances, but they didn’t earn him enough to meet the expenses of city living. In the countryside you didn’t have to pay for food or an apartment, and so he and his wife moved to his wife’s village about halfway to Songo. They had five children together. In 2005, he took a second wife, Ecita Tomás, a cousin of his first wife who lived in Chirodzi-Sanangwe, the village where I met him. He has had one child with Ecita. He likely has a seventh child, in Germany, as his German girlfriend was pregnant when he departed in 1990. He hadn’t talked to her since then, and he didn’t know if she received the last letter he sent her, about ten years ago.
In the countryside, Jake said, his appliances were of little use. The generator needed gas to run, and there was no gas, so there was no electricity for the VCRs and the TVs and the refrigerator. He sold the stove, which he could never find a use for anyway, and with the money bought a cow. Cattle and goats are the principal investments you make in the village, the best security against hunger. But even when drought decimates the annual crop you never eat the meat of your own livestock. You sell a cow to a middleman who will sell it in the city, and then you buy corn. Often, though, the drought kills your livestock before you can sell any of it.
Jake alternates weeks with each of his two wives. On the morning following our first conversation, he waved goodbye from his hut and headed off on the trail through the bush to his first wife’s homestead, a couple of miles closer to the paved road. It didn’t look like he took anything with him.