The horse door

Dinis Marques, Leiria, Portugal, 2010

Whenever I’m in Maputo, people frequently feel the need to inform me that there’s a pen behind my ear, as if it got there without my knowing it, with the implication that I should remove the pen immediately, like it’s a bug. I always do. One time I asked an older man about this. He said that he associated the wearing of one’s pen with the Portuguese men who ran the cantinas in the colonial era. Cantinas—the general stores that doubled as bars—were essentially the only legal business establishments in the city’s shantytowns at the time. The cantineiros (or at least some of them) kept a pencil behind their ear, and registered a tick on a scrap of paper whenever you ordered a beer. According to Jeanne Marie Penvenne, the man behind the counter (who if not Portuguese was likely to be Indian or Chinese) was often called mumaji—derived from the Ronga pronunciation of the Portuguese for “more”—because the cantineiro, impatient to bump up your tab, would prod you with “Want more?” the moment you emptied your glass. Here in Portugal I recently interviewed Dinis Marques, who has been many things—salsa dancer, film extra, radio operator in the Portuguese army, bookkeeper for the Mozambican revolution, and all-around bon vivant—but whose first job, before anything else, was as a store clerk in a cantina in colonial Maputo.

Lourenço Marques, as the city was then called, was booming in the 1950s and 1960s. Shopkeepers and other businesses were eager for cheap white labor, so they’d write home to Portugal announcing they needed help, and inevitably there would be someone who knew someone who was desperate to leave Portugal, whatever it was that awaited him in Africa. Dinis lived in a village about 100 miles north of Lisbon. In 1965, at the age of 15 and with a fourth-grade education, he and two friends booked passage on the Pátria for the 19-day journey to Mozambique. “My parents had no idea about geography. They didn’t know where Mozambique was. But when my friend’s friend said to come, my parents said it was alright with them,” he said. “Our objective was to see life beyond Portugal, something other than farming.”

The friend’s friend owned a cantina in Chamanculo, one of the city’s oldest African neighborhoods, home to many of the men who worked at the port and the railroad. José Costa, the Portuguese cantineiro, was known by his customers as Shibinhana. The cantina was the only building in sight constructed in permanent materials (most Africans were prohibited from building in brick or concrete block) and the only one with electricity. Shibinhana and his African wife and their children lived in a well-crafted wattle-and-daub house next to the store, in which Dinis and his friend Carlos shared a room. (See images here.)

The first customers of the day were the men headed to the docks, who would shuffle in a little after six and buy bread. A little later, women would come in to buy sugar, rice, onions, or peanuts. Some would ask for just a single escudo’s worth of cooking oil. Some would buy kerosene for lamps. In the evening, men would come and sit at the tables and eat sardines or tuna out of tins with bread and cheap wine or a strawberry soda or a bazuca (bazooka) of beer.

Officially all cantinas were supposed to close at 8 p.m. In practice, the front doors would be shut, customers would come in through a side entrance out of view of the street, and the cantina would stay open until midnight. In interviews I did in Maputo many people told me about the horse-mounted police who patrolled African neighborhoods and arrested anyone out after the 9 p.m. curfew. Dinis said that the cantina’s side door was known as the “horse door” because sometimes the police would slip back there to see if the cantina was operating after hours.

As long as the cantina was open, Dinis was working, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Even with all that time in the cantina, he had only the most basic of interactions with the customers. They would order something in Shangaan or Ronga or Chopi, and until he learned a few words in these African languages, he would have to go to Shibinhana’s wife for a translation. Dinis had Wednesday afternoons off. He and his friend Carlos would catch a bus on the main road and head to town—the “city of cement”— and see a movie or hang out in a café. The limits of Dinis’s knowledge of Chamanculo extended to the cantina, the hut where he slept, and the bus stop. “We were three kilometers from the city of cement and it felt like 500 kilometers,” he said. “Chamanculo was the bush.” After a year with Shibinhana, Dinis moved onto to another cantina in Chamanculo for a year, and he came to think of his world as smaller than it had been in Portugal.

(Story continued here.)

An abandoned cantina, built in the colonial era, Maputo, 2008

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10 Responses to The horse door

  1. David Morton says:

    If you’re curious about Portuguese immigration to Mozambique and Angola (and you read Portuguese) check out Cláudia Castelo’s 2007 book Passagens para África: O Povoamento de Angola e Moçambique com Naturais da Metrópole (1920-1974).

  2. David Morton says:

    A little help from those in the know: Is “shibin” (as in the Shibinhana mentioned above) related to South Africa’s “shabeen”? Has to be, right?

    • Funny, you bring that up! Strange coincidence, is it not?

      I thought so myself because some Changaan words surprisingly have their roots in English too. I discovered on a trip to Manhica some years ago, when the locals offered me a cup of tea, they gave me an “iSpoonhi” for the sugar – which was a teaspoon 🙂

      Adarsh P.
      Maputo/Melbourne, Australia

  3. Eduardo Bueno says:

    Dear gringo. Great words. I’m really enjoying reading your texts. Cheers!

  4. Mufana says:

    beautiful story.
    The Denis at his best.
    I want to be when he grows up like you!

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