I was in Leiria, a small medieval city about 100 miles north of Lisbon, when I first heard about Xibinhana’s cantina. I was interviewing Dinis Marques who, 45 years before, at the age of 15, left for Mozambique to work at the cantina, owned by another Leiria native, José da Costa. Da Costa was called Xibinhana by his African customers–it meant “bulldog” or “pitbull” in XiRonga, I learned later. Dinis did not know much about him. Dinis and I sat in the office of a social club for Portuguese who used to live in Mozambique. About a hundred yards up the hill was Leiria’s main attraction: a castle built in the fourteenth century by Dom Dinis, the Poet King, on the foundations of a castle erected almost 900 years ago by Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. It was a chilly fall evening. Despite the colorful Africanesque motifs on the walls of the club, Mozambique felt far away.
Dinis later sent me wonderful photos of himself at the cantina, located in the neighborhood of Chamanculo. But he had only worked for da Costa for a year, in 1965, and so I knew only the most generic details about the place. It might have been any cantina in the African neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city now called Maputo, and in many ways it probably was. In at least one significant way, I recently discovered, it wasn’t. I had assumed that the cantina no longer existed—that its owner probably left Mozambique after independence, as most Portuguese did. I didn’t take into proper consideration da Costa’s wife, an African woman named Glória da Conceição Nhambirre. Though she lacked the catchy nickname, she was the cantina’s real owner—the entrepreneur in the family, according to their son Sérgio, who now runs the store.
Nhambirre and da Costa met in the early 1940s, when both were in their teens. Nhambirre, the daughter of a fisherman from Inhambane, had already been married, twice, and had two sons. Her first husband, an Indian storeowner in the border town of Ressano Garcia, had married her in the traditional way, by presenting her father with cattle. Whenever her family visited, he dressed her up in pretty capulanas, otherwise he treated her like a servant, and so she left him and returned to Lourenço Marques. Her second husband, a man of mixed race, fled to South Africa following a fight with a white police officer. She met da Costa soon after the outbreak of World War II, when he was shipped to Mozambique as a soldier in the Portuguese army. After leaving the army, da Costa worked as a mason’s assistant. He earned a pittance. It was her idea to acquire land in the mud flats of Chamanculo, set up a tent, and sell firewood.
Africans at the time were not permitted to run businesses or own property unless they legally “assimilated” as Portuguese citizens—an impossible hurdle for all but a relative few. (And it was rare for even an “assimilated” African to own a business.) So it was da Costa who would put his name to official documents. He also registered Nhambirre as a legal personage, arbitrarily deciding her birth date. Nhambirre pushed to get the cantina built, and she handled most of the buying and selling. Da Costa himself had very little business acumen. He remained a fixture behind the counter. At his feet would be a bulldog named Lisboa known for biting people when out on the loose. Da Costa resembled the dog. He could be a vicious drunk, he was irritable with customers and abusive with his family, and his fleshy cheeks rounded out the picture.
The Africans of Lourenço Marques neighborhoods often had a tense relationship with their local cantinas. They relied on them for almost every need—food, water, booze, mail, telephone calls—and their extreme dependence on cantina owners often led them to suspect that the cantineiros were cheating them, as they often were. African clientele had little leverage in this relationship. Sérgio recalled the men who arrived for their daily bread shortly after 6 a.m. before heading to work, and how they carefully selected their 1.2-escudo loaf, rejecting it if it was not sufficiently toasted. Another exercise of power was calling da Costa “bulldog.” Da Costa hated it, and so did his wife, and so it stuck. Only a few years ago, after their mother’s death, did Sérgio and his brother paint “Loja Xibinhana,” Xibinhana’s store, on a wall facing the street. For more than half a century the cantina had no sign.
Over the years, Nhambirre expanded the family’s operations. She opened two more cantinas. She built rental units in the yard of one of them. She invested in cattle and at one time was raising 300 pigs. She built houses for the family in Maputo and neighboring Matola. Da Costa professed that his wife was the brains behind the operation, and this led to drunken fistfights with his poker buddies, other Portuguese cantineiros, who called him “José da Preta”—José of the Black Woman. (In Portuguese, to refer to someone as preto—the color black—has a derogatory sting.) The white cantina owners once blustered about sabotaging their Indian competitors, who seemed to undersell them by a few cents on every item, but da Costa challenged them. “Did any of you run a store in Portugal before you came here? The Indians were traders in their own country before they came here. They know what they’re doing.” “He knew that if they could attack the Indians, they could attack his wife, too,” Sérgio said.
Nhambirre and da Costa, though never legally married, were together more than 40 years. “She thought she owed everything she had to him, he thought he owed everything he had to her,” said Sérgio. Da Costa didn’t expect to live long into old age, and he feared that when he died his wife and their children would lose everything. So all their businesses were put in her name. Among the hundreds of cantinas in and around Lourenço Marques at the time, were the three known as Xibinhana’s the only ones owned by an African woman? Possibly.
Da Costa made just one return trip to Portugal, in the early 1980s, when he went back to Leiria to help his sister resolve a property dispute. One afternoon, as he sat in a park, a bicycle ran over his feet, and he knew for sure that he wanted nothing more to do with the place. He died a few years later at the age of 60, in Mozambique.
(To be continued.)