If the residents of Chirodzi-Sanangwe are relocated to make way for a dam, it will not be the first time everyone has had to pick up and go. During the 1980s, people frequently had to flee into the mountains for weeks at a time when Renamo patrols came through, burning everything in their path. And about a decade before, in 1973 and 1974, during the very last gasp of Portuguese rule, colonial troops relocated villagers to a camp in Chococoma, a community about six miles up the sandy track.
The aldeamentos, as such camps were called, were the Portuguese equivalent of the “strategic hamlets” used during the war in Vietnam. Classic counter-insurgency strategy dictated that you starve out guerrillas (in this case Frelimo) by cutting off their food supplies, and you did that by concentrating farmers in places where you could keep watch over them and their livestock and their produce. As the Americans and the Portuguese eventually learned, rounding up people and destroying their homes was a terrible way to win them to your side.
The central village of Chococoma was divided in two. One half was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, and was presided over by Chococoma’s traditional leader just as before. The other half, also surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, was administered by Chirodzi-Sanangwe’s traditional leader. (Both leaders served at the pleasure of Portuguese administrators.) Each family was given a small plot within the fence to build a house and grow vegetables. Boys were allowed to leave the camp during the day to graze livestock close to the camp, and during the growing season there were some places nearby where people could seed and harvest under military supervision. But there was no going back home. Colonial troops had torched the homesteads and fields of Chirodzi-Sanangwe when they removed everybody to the camp in Chococoma. The year or so of captivity in Chococoma is remembered by the residents of Chirodzi-Sanangwe as a time of great sickness. With so many people forced to live in such close quarters, cholera outbreaks were common. Others died of malnutrition.
A couple of the people who accompanied me on my interviews in Chirodzi-Sanangwe had lived in the Chococoma camp. One was Adelino Tioneque. He is the assistant secretary of Chirodzi-Sanangwe and he’s also one of Chirodzi-Sanangwe’s more successful entrepreneurs. He has a small store in the central village with a stereo powered by solar panel, and two years ago, tired of waiting to see if a dam would actually be built, he went ahead and expanded his house and store. The new structure is brick, probably the first such building in the community’s history. (There was once a store built of stone, but we’ll save that for another time.) After about a week of interviews, I interviewed the people on my research team. We took some folding chairs from Adelino’s store, set them out in the community parliament next door, and Adelino told me what it was like living in the Chococoma camp, when he was about eight years old.
At first he talked of the misery of living in the camp. Then he told me the story of how he got out. He told it to me with long pauses after each sentence because he saw me writing everything down. But I also got the sense that the pauses helped him savor the recollection.
In the mornings I’d go to school. Afterwards I’d go and graze the cattle, outside the fence. Frelimo came to steal the animals—and they stole me too! It was 1973. We slept two days in the bush, walking to the principal Frelimo base in Cangudze. Before we got there, I fled. You see, every creek cuts three times.
In the dry season the creek beds are trails, and the bush is a labyrinth, facilitating Adelino’s escape.
I had to sleep that night in the bush. I got back to the aldeamento at six p.m. The entire colonial post came out to meet me. They embraced me. They asked me lots of questions. “How many Frelimo were there?” I responded, “They are many! They have lots of guns!”
The army commandant went into his post to get a big gun. “Were they the equal of this?”
“This is nothing!”
They asked, “Did Frelimo decide on a date to attack the post?”
In truth, I hadn’t heard anything about an attack, because I had fled. But in any case they kept me three weeks at the army post. They asked me, “Your brother, he wasn’t in the Frelimo group?”
“But at least your uncle?”
The next day they showed me money. They said, “If your brother is out there it’s better to give us his name, to get this money here.” I said no.
My uncle lived in Tete city. When he heard I had been taken by Frelimo, he came to the aldeamento. He went to talk to the commandant. My uncle was a teacher. The next day, the commandant said, “Today you’re going to the city with your uncle.” We went in a car, with a military escort.
We got to my uncle’s house. They said, “Every Saturday you must appear with your uncle at the local army post here.” But after three weeks of checking in, they said we didn’t have to come back.