Ana Laura Frederico da Almeida Cumba, also known as Chinoca, lives in what was once her father’s house. In the 1960s, when she was a little girl, it may have been the biggest house in the neighborhood, and it was also one of the few built of cement blocks. Most of the rooms are rented out now, except for her bedroom and the kitchen. Chinoca is a curandeira—a traditional healer—and she has converted the kitchen into her consulting room. Patients take a seat on a raggedy sofa. She sits on the floor. A wide wooden bowl, covered with a mirrored panel, is put between the sofa and herself. On the wall, in white chalk, there’s a rough sketch of a mermaid, and next to it Chinoca has written her two cellphone numbers. A naked green light bulb hangs from the ceiling, so that when it’s turned on the kitchen feels slightly more aquatic. “I spent three years under the sea,” Chinoca told me.
Chinoca means “Little Chinese,” a nickname that derives from the shape of her eyes, which she inherited from her mother. Whether her mother was actually of Chinese ancestry she does not know. But her father, Frederico da Almeida Cumba, was African royalty, of a sort. He came from a line of régulos, a Portuguese word with no precise English translation, but that means something like small king, or chief. In the colonial era, régulos were counted on to enforce what was called customary law—a body of traditions in part invented by the Portuguese, just as the office of régulo essentially was. The legal system imposed on the “natives” who lived in the shantytown suburbs of Lourenço Marques was much the same as that imposed on the “natives” who lived in the countryside. All of Mozambique outside the official borders of cities and towns was considered undifferentiated, uncivilized bush.
Though a hereditary position, the régulo served at the pleasure of the colonial authorities. He collected hut taxes for the colonial administration, he rounded up men for municipal work gangs and military service, and he ordered whippings with a hippo-hide whip when he or the law was defied. He ruled with the help of cipaios, his personal police force, which was more fearsome, some say, than the Portuguese police. For two decades, until independence, Frederico was the most powerful black man in Chamanculo.
In 1955, Frederico was working in the mines of Johannesburg when a Portuguese administrator sent word that Frederico’s nephew, then Chamanculo’s régulo, had been arrested, and that Frederico should return to Lourenço Marques to be the new régulo. (I’ve also heard that Frederico’s predecessor simply died in office.) Chinoca said that her father didn’t have a choice in the matter. Yet the benefits of his new position were obvious. In general, régulos received a commission for the men they rounded up for forced labor. In Chamanculo I’ve been told that anytime you settled on a plot of land, Frederico got a cut of the transaction. He grew wealthy, relatively speaking. In addition to his big house in Chamanculo, he had a house in outlying Matola, and seven houses of wood and zinc that he rented out. He also had a car.
It’s hard to say where Frederico stood in the colonial pecking order. He was friends with the local Portuguese administrator, a man named Apolinho de Oliveira, but he didn’t get along so well with Oliveira’s successor, a man with a reputation for brutality and known in Chamanculo as Malalanhane—“The Thin Man.” In 1971, secret police brought Frederico in for questioning—perhaps because he wasn’t sufficiently vigilant regarding the “terrorists” thought to be hiding out in his neighborhood. Régulos didn’t necessarily serve their Portuguese superiors blindly, and some gave the Portuguese a great deal of trouble. They enjoyed some leverage, if they were inclined to use it, because the Portuguese could not simply install someone who would be perceived as a mere toady of the regime. A régulo totally lacking the respect of his so-called subjects would have trouble keeping order. From the relatively few conversations I’ve had on the subject, it appears Frederico inspired neither love nor terrible fear. “He was doing his job,” said one longtime resident.
Chinoca, born in 1962, was the youngest daughter of Frederico’s third wife. So her memories of her father as régulo are a child’s memories. She remembered the weekly banja, on Sundays, when her father would spend the entire day judging cases of marriage strife or property disputes or claims of witchcraft or robbery. His chair would be set up under two mango trees in the clearing beside his house. In chairs next to him would sit his counselors, who would ask most of the questions. Frederico himself usually only spoke when issuing judgments and punishments. Cases were heard from seven in the morning until five at night, and were held in the open, except for when one of the parties was an assimilado; these cases were held behind closed doors, in the régulo’s house. The most serious cases were usually passed upward to the Portuguese administrator.
The plight of accused criminals plucked at Chinoca’s conscience. Before they were to be whipped, the men were ordered to step into sacks, which were then tied around their waists. The purpose of the sacks was to collect what the bowels let loose. One time, Chinoca used a bar of soap to make a copy of the keys to prisoners’ handcuffs, and she freed several before they could suffer the punishments her father ordered.
On September 7, 1974, Portugal signed the accord that set the timetable for Mozambique’s independence. Groups of protestors fearing Frelimo rule staged demonstrations around the city. An armed mob took over the radio station, and white gunmen roamed African neighborhoods, shooting people randomly. The reaction to the attacks was fierce. In Chamanculo, people ransacked cantinas, many of them (though not all) owned by Portuguese. A crowd marched on the house of the régulo. In the group were people Frederico had punished, and also the husbands of neighborhood women Frederico had cheated with. But Frederico and his wife were in Matola at the time. Only Chinoca, then 12, and her older sisters were at home. Chinoca found her father’s gun. She could not find bullets. She opened the door, waved the gun in the air, and the crowd dispersed.
Sometime after independence, Chinoca joined a Frelimo youth group. Her mother continued working as a schoolteacher. Frederico was now out of a job. He eventually found work at a nearby gas station, where for years afterward he manned the pumps. He died in 2001.