Glória and Company

Glória da Conceição Nhambirre with her first son, late 1930s (Source: Sérgio José da Costa)

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.

José da Costa, aka Xibinhana, at his cantina, 1960s (Source: Sérgio José da Costa)

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.

Glória (far left) and José (second from right) at their daughter's wedding, early 1980s (Source: Sérgio José da Costa)

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.

Loja Xibinhana, Chamanculo, 2011

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.)

Sérgio José da Costa and his son Aldo at Loja Xibinhana, 2011

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10 Responses to Glória and Company

  1. David, this is a very interesting story. In my book, Pounders of Grain, I had some limited information from the archives regarding a much earlier time period (from files titled ““Emprego de Mulheres Indigenas na Cantinas na Venda de Bebidas ou Outras Artigas,” 1915-1916”), that resulted in this paragraph:
    “Throughout the colonial period women in Lourenço Marques turned to prostitution or allied themselves with non-African men in long-term relationships. As an official police report from 1915 stated, “Some shops employ native women to sell alcoholic drinks, food and other merchandise for use by the natives, and they exploit these women allowing them to enter into prostitution.” The report went on to ask that the Native Affairs section of the government intervene and punish the shop-owners. In reply the government official commented that they were investigating the problem, but “nearly all of the shop owners based in the Malanga area have native women working at their counters.” Further official letters expressed some sentiment for banning African women from working in the shops, but legislation along those lines was not introduced. That approach would have been problematic for the shop owners, many of whom were Chinese or Indian, and who usually claimed the women as their wives, as the legality of their relationships was “a fact that is difficult to prove false.” It is not clear from available evidence if the women were viewed as prostitutes simply because they were living with (and possibly married to) non-African men, or if in fact they were earning money through sexual activity.”
    I think the situation you describe was a bit unusual, and I too would love to know if there were more women cantina owners.

    • David Morton says:

      Thanks so much, Kathy, I was hoping you would weigh in on this. What I’ve been coming across a lot lately in my interviews, and which I have to untangle, are patronage relationships. Even if you weren’t assimilado, for instance, you could do certain otherwise prohibited things so long as a Portuguese vouched for you/assumed the risk. I heard about one African businessman (a big-game hunter who I’m sure to write about down the road) whose own son, an assimilado, was his “padrinho.” I wonder to what extent African women were able to take advantage of such arrangements, as Nhambirre appears to have–whether as wives, girlfriends, or simply business partners.

  2. DINIS MARQUES says:

    David
    I was surprised with this photo….It seams the photo was taken in the same place (cantina) I have worked from 1965 to 1967. The man Sergio José da Costa is him relative to my old boss José da Costa??? Can you clarify a little bit….
    Thanks and regards
    Dinis

  3. DINIS MARQUES says:

    David
    Did you showed my photos at Chamanculo to Sérgio ? if yes, did he recognoize himself in one of the photos???? I’m not sure….

    • David Morton says:

      I did show him, and he couldn’t recognize anyone except Adelino. The photos were a bit too small to make anyone out. He could not tell, for instance, if the woman in that one photo really is his mother.

      He did point out, however, that the kid comparing his height to yours in the photo captioned “The Same Age” is the same kid wearing his cap sideways in the photo above showing Xibinhana pouring a drink. He was well known for being tall, apparently.

  4. DINIS MARQUES says:

    Thanks David…good work.!
    Regards
    Dinis

  5. Carlos Batista says:

    Obrigado Sr David.
    Trabalhei nessa cantina, lembro da D. Glória e do Sr José da Costa. Lembro até do costume que ele tinha de conversar com as pessoas com o cigarro na boca. Realmente as feições da D. Glória e do Sr José da Costa são tais como as conheci em 1965, quando cheguei a Moçambique.
    Obrigado por avivar minhas recordações daquela terra chamada Moçambique.
    Carlos Batista

  6. Rosa Reboreda says:

    Estou impressionada, David! Encontraste mesmo a cantina! Esta historia é fantástica…

    Rosa

  7. Pingback: Frederico’s family album | Hotel Universo

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