The world is an egg

Can building a house be an act of resistance? Alfredo Manjate at his home in Chamanculo, 2011.

A couple of months ago, at an embassy function here in Maputo, I ran into someone who I was friends with in elementary school, in Maryland, and who I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. Since then I’ve repeated the story dozens of times. The world is a handkerchief, a Spanish friend said. The world is an egg, say the Portuguese. The world is a village, everyone says, but really it’s Maputo, a city of some two million, that’s the village. I’ve been interviewing Alfredo Manjate, a retired schoolteacher, in Chamanculo, a Maputo neighborhood which I’ve mentioned here quite a bit. When we first met and I explained who I was and what I was up to, Manjate told me that he had an American professor once, a historian. He fetched the professor’s book to show me. More than three decades ago, at Maputo’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Manjate’s professor of history was Allen Isaacman. Allen Isaacman is my professor at the University of Minnesota.

This past week Allen and his wife Barbara made one of their frequent trips to Maputo, and Allen and I went to Chamanculo so he and Manjate could become reacquainted. As our visit ended, Allen signed the book Manjate had shown me, the Portuguese translation of The Tradition of Resistance in Mozambique, a book Allen wrote with help from Barbara.

Manjate had his own story of resistance, and like so many of the histories that Allen has written over the years, Manjate’s did not involve guns or violent revolt. Simply building a house, the house we visited, was an act of defiance.

Allen Isaacman, Andrade Muhale, and Alfredo Manjate at Casa Manjate

In 1972, Manjate was 32 and living with his wife and children in a small house he rented in Chamanculo. It was a wood-framed, zinc-paneled house—less flimsy than the reed shelters most people lived in, but nonetheless cramped, sizzling hot when the sun was out, and leaky in the rain. He was finally earning enough to build his own house, and he resolved to build in cement. In Chamanculo, as in all the city’s outlying African neighborhoods, building in cement was, with rare exceptions, prohibited. Building in the bairros at all, for that matter, was officially illegal—or at least unauthorized. By maintaining most of the city’s African population in a grey era of the law and in endlessly precarious, informal conditions, municipal officials could remove households at a whim and without advance notice, such as to make way for the expansion of the European quarters of the city. A house built of reeds can be knocked flat in moments. A house built in concrete block will give a bulldozer pause.

First Manjate “bought” a piece of land. Since all the land in the area was legally owned by a man named Nunes, Manjate didn’t acquire title to the plot. He had simply purchased from the woman currently occupying the plot the unenforceable right to occupy it himself. The local régulo, the Portuguese-approved traditional leader who by an older set of norms was considered the “owner of the land,” got a cut in the transaction. Nunes, for his part, collected a small annual rent. Manjate then worked with a builder to figure out how many rooms he wanted, what size they should be, and how many bags of cement and concrete blocks and wood window frames and zinc roof panels he would need to buy.

In Maputo’s neighborhoods you build little by little. When you have some money you buy some concrete blocks, the builders lay some courses of wall, and then everything comes to a halt until you save up more money to invest in the project. A house that would take days to complete if erected all at once can take years in actuality, and this is without considering the rooms one adds as a family expands in size over time and with added generations. As I’ve said before, people are always building their house, building onto it, or else thinking about building.

As the concrete block walls of Manjate’s house went up, incrementally but surely, neighbors would tell him he was crazy. Police laughed and said that once the house was done, they’d have to come back and knock it all down. This was how it worked, Manjate told me. It may have been illegal to build in concrete, but the police waited until a house was complete to do something about it. Perhaps Manjate had a better sense of timing than everyone else did. When he started building, he roughly estimated how long construction would take, and he was optimistic that when the day came to move the master bed from the zinc-paneled rental into the master bedroom of the concrete house, the Portuguese would be gone. His new house was intended for occupation in an independent Mozambique.

And this is more or less what happened. The house was ready in late 1974, during the negotiated transition to independence. One day in 1975, though, sometime after independence, Manjate received a citation. An envious neighbor had ratted him out to the new authorities. His house wasn’t illegal exactly, but he apparently needed some permission that he hadn’t acquired. He went to City Hall and because the world is an egg he found that one of his former students was manning the desk. He paid a small fine and he went back home.

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12 Responses to The world is an egg

  1. David Morton says:

    Also, this just in:

    The world is a pea, say the Brazilians.

  2. Eduardo Bueno says:

    Nice history…as always!

    E é isso aí: o mundo é um ovo! In Rio de Janeiro we used to say that there are just 3 people in the city: “you, myself and someone we both know”


  3. A recurring theme in Mozambique is that no one follows the law, because in order for laws to be adhered to, the enforcer himself must be subject to it. People flouting the law is nothing new here. The roads and walkways of the city are occupied by informal sellers – by law they are not supposed to be there – but because police don’t apply fines, our roads and once pristine pathways are transformed to flea markets and rubbish dumping grounds.

    What ever happened to that initiative to ban plastic bags? Buried in history I guess, like everything else that’s supposed to make the city better.

  4. David Morton says:

    Tough commentary, Adarsh. Speaking just of Chamanculo, things have improved considerably since the city recently instituted door to door service in which guys with wheelbarrows pick up your trash. The previous system was to find a place, anyplace, to burn your trash and then to cover it with dirt. When people in Chamanculo speak to me of a Golden Age they talk about the decade after independence, when the grupos dinamizadores kept everything under control and mobilized neighborhood watches and trash pick-ups. Crime was non-existent, neighborhoods were clean, even as the civil war picked up pace and city services collapsed. At least that’s how that time is remembered. But that kind of voluntary spirit only emerges, as anywhere, so long as there’s a revolutionary spirit, and that’s always a fleeting thing.

  5. Great story about the Isaacman connection! The world is an egg indeed.

  6. Benedito Machava says:

    Hi David. Good posts as always. I worked in Chamanculo A, B and D in a project on Policiamento Comunitario with Helen Kyed. I heared a lot of stories on houses and grupos dinamizadores´role in organizing the bairro´s life. There´s a “saudosismo” of the “times of Machel”, when everything functioned well! There was no crime, the bairro was always clean, and eveyone participated in community activities! Well, diving into Tempo articles on Chamanculo in the 1980s, the story is another and the titles are like this: “Chamanculo: Bairro do Crime”. People bear an idea of the 1980s that is not, in most of the times, realistic…

    • David Morton says:

      Hi Bene and Anne,

      Thanks for the reality check (though my thanks are a little belated). I’m very interested in that study, Bene. I’m reminded of something I read some time ago about Americans and how they perceive crime. In polls, respondents always say crime in their area is getting worse, even when stats tell a different story.

  7. Anne Pitcher says:

    Hi David,
    I’m catching up on your posts. How exciting it must have been for Allen to meet with a former student! I agree with Benedito that ha muito saudosismo pelos anos oitenta mesmo que nesse altura houve varios dificuldades, confusao, etc.

    However it is difficult to see how anyone will be romantic about 2011 a decade from now as food prices and gasoline escalate, inequality deepens, e triste.

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