(This is Part I. Part II is here.)
In Portuguese bookstores, history shelves sag with memoirs by Portuguese vets of the colonial wars in Africa. And in bookstores in Mozambique, the same space is reserved for memoirs by antigos combatentes, those who joined Frelimo’s guerrilla war for independence. What you will not find in Mozambique, and what I did not come across in Portugal, are published accounts by Africans who served in the Portuguese forces. There were thousands of such men, some of them highly decorated. As it happens, I’ve met many more African veterans of the Portuguese armed services during my research in Maputo than I have former guerrillas.
I’d hate to distort Valente Matsinhe’s story by relating here just the small fraction of it, 45 years ago, that he served in the Portuguese army. The first time I met him was at Khovo, the historic Maputo campus of the Presbyterian Church of Mozambique. Swiss missionaries established Khovo in the nineteenth century; there’s been a Khovo longer than there’s been a city. This was one of Eduardo Mondlane’s haunts, and because the church valued local languages and cultures, and because not a few of Frelimo’s leaders had graduated from Swiss mission schools, the Portuguese secret police kept a close watch on the place. Matsinhe later became one of the church’s leaders, and with architect Pancho Guedes he built a number of schools and churches in southern Mozambique. He eventually became a pastor himself.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, though, he was the guy who kept the floors clean. He was Khovo’s custodian, and he also lived at Khovo, he prayed at Khovo, and was for a time the star bass voice in the choir. Matsinhe was from the Gaza countryside. Coming to Lourenço Marques and staying at Khovo was the only way he could go to school past the third grade. He attended classes at night. In 1964, during his second year at a public high school, Matsinhe was almost expelled. The administration had assumed that as someone attached to Khovo, he must surely be an assimilado. He wasn’t. If he wanted to stay enrolled, he’d have to go through the process of becoming Portuguese. To be “assimilated”—rather than a mere “native”—he also had to register his name for the draft. Later that year, the war broke out in Mozambique’s far north. Matsinhe was called up shortly after. The choir singer and accountant-in-training was then trained in heavy weapons and flown to Niassa, more than 1000 miles away.
I don’t know many people who’ve been to Niassa. It’s the least populated and most isolated corner of Mozambique, and it was a great place for Frelimo to give Portugal trouble. In Niassa, Matsinhe and a column of troops would go out on night patrols, stalking the bush in a single file. For the most part, this entailed waiting to get ambushed. Their greatest fear was running into Makondes from Cabo Delgado, who at the time made up the bulk of Frelimo’s fighting force, and were known for their ferocity in a firefight.
“Every night we’d go out, I don’t know how many hours, and at times we’d go for days without returning, or eating anything. I did this for fourteen months. For most people, after a year you had the right to ask for a transfer to Lourenço Marques or Nampula City, for a break from combat. But you needed to know someone. I didn’t know anybody. I was from the Swiss mission, and I didn’t have the courage to ask anybody to protect me and get me transferred.”
During his tour in Niassa, Matsinhe’s company fell into four ambushes. One ambush followed a raid on what Matsinhe described as a Makonde camp, which they found empty except for the bowls of food left behind. The guerrillas attacked as Matsinhe’s patrol headed back. I regret not filming my interview with Matsinhe, because what he described for my voice recorder requires a visual. Everyone dropped to the ground when they came under fire. A Portuguese officer buried his head between Matsinhe’s legs and a soldier had his head hidden somehow behind Matsinhe’s head, and so they were all tied together in a knot. Matsinhe kept his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t fire. He kept his head propped up, looking for where the shots were coming from, and waited to be killed. Ordered to lower his head and take cover, he refused. “I said I was tired of patrols, of not sleeping at night, it’s better to just get shot and die on the spot. You see what rage does?” Both of the men with whom he was entangled were hit, one later dying of his wounds. In fourteen months, Matsinhe was never wounded.
I just re-read my interview transcript with Matsinhe, and it’s full of indications of “risos,” parts of his story where we both laugh, because we’ve come to yet another turn of fate that from the perspective of the 21st century seems particularly ridiculous. Like the time when he had to navigate a minefield and he locked eyes with a leopard, and he dropped the animal with a pistol shot to the head, surprising even himself with the cool deftness of the maneuver. On another ambush, Matsinhe’s patrol was comprised mostly of Africans. “It’s funny, but if the Frelimo soldiers saw that the patrol had more blacks than whites, they didn’t really attack. They just made a lot of noise, enough to make us flee,” he said. “They knew that we were brothers–that we were with the Portuguese because we were forced to be.”
I pointed out that many Portuguese were serving against their will, too. He acknowledged the fact, and it led him to recall another story.
(Story continued here.)