(Story began here. This is the second part.)
Sometime in 1966, in Niassa, a Frelimo attack nearly wiped out a company of Portuguese troops. At least that’s what Valente Matsinhe’s commanding officer told him. Of one hundred men based at the barracks in Macaloge, 70 were killed. It’s an astounding figure, and I don’t know enough about the colonial war in Mozambique to be sure whether the news reached Matsinhe with its accuracy entirely intact. But whatever happened at Macaloge was devastating. Thirty men remained in the shattered company. They lacked officers to lead them. They were all buck privates.
The rump force was ordered to stay put. As weakened as they were, as scared as they likely were huddled in the Niassa bush, they were told not to leave their base until a fresh company came to relieve them. In the meantime, they had Matsinhe. Though just a corporal, Matsinhe was to be the acting officer-in-charge until the replacements arrived. He was flown in by helicopter.
Why him? The commanding officer told Matsinhe that he was perfect for the job: he wasn’t “racist” (that is, he didn’t seem hostile to the Portuguese), he wasn’t a bad person, and he was patient enough to endure the months of waiting. This doesn’t fully explain why Matsinhe’s superiors thought an African conscript would be the most comforting presence for the thirty Portuguese holed up at the decimated base—an unusual situation no matter how you look at it. Maybe the Portuguese forces in Niassa were experiencing a temporary shortage of gentle natures like Matsinhe’s.
The order not to leave the base made Matsinhe’s job easier. There would be no combat, not unless the base was attacked. Recognizing the vulnerability of their position, he suggested that the men make nice with the villagers who lived in the immediate vicinity of the base. Otherwise, the men simply marked time. They settled into a routine of cooking and eating. Helicopter deliveries kept them well provisioned.
The helicopter also brought mail. Within a few days of Matsinhe’s arrival, one of the cooks approached him with a request. He could not read the letter he had received from his girlfriend, and asked Matsinhe to read it aloud to him. Once Matsinhe proved amenable, the cook informed the other men, and Matsinhe soon discovered that no one in the company could read or write. This is not especially surprising; in much of Portugal at the time, you were lucky to get past the fourth grade. The men were used to paying their officers 100 escudos to read letters and another 100 to write responses, a hefty chunk of monthly pay that for auxiliaries like themselves fell between 300 and 350 escudos. The task now fell solely to Matsinhe. He refused their money. “I said, I’m in the army, you’re in the army, why would I charge you for this?” The men were told to each pick a day for an appointment at Matsinhe’s cot for a session of reading and writing letters.
A few months later, Matsinhe embarked on a longer-term solution. “For several years I taught at a Swiss Mission primary school, and I said I want to teach you to write. Are you okay with that?” He ordered thirty notebooks, pencils, and pencil cases for the next helicopter delivery. For two hours every night he conducted lessons. Three months later, the men passed literacy tests, qualifying them for a slightly higher rank, and significantly higher pay. “The Portuguese even had discrimination among themselves,” Matsinhe told me.
After six months of waiting, the replacements finally came. The men were to be shipped back to Portugal, and Matsinhe was to return to his company. When the men had received their first raise, they had pooled their new earnings together and offered it to Matsinhe as a gift, and he had again refused, telling them to send the money home to Portugal. So this time the men instead bought him some articles of clothing, something it would be rude to turn down. Matsinhe’s service was up in 1967, and he returned to Lourenço Marques.
Almost 15 years later, Matsinhe was in Switzerland on church business. At a souvenir store in Lausanne, a man approached Matsinhe and asked him, in Portuguese, if he were Mozambican. The Portuguese had been one of Matsinhe’s troops at Macaloge. He told Matsinhe that, thanks to his help, he was able to eventually earn his high school degree when he returned to Portugal. He insisted on buying the gift Matsinhe was ringing up at the counter. He also invited Matsinhe to stay with his family in Portugal, but following that chance meeting in Switzerland, Matsinhe never found himself in Portugal to take him up the offer.