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. Continue reading