The régulo’s daughter

Frederico da Almeida Cumba, chief of Chamanculo from the mid-1950s until independence. The X, which you'll see in other photos in this post, is a common way to indicate the deceased. (Source: Ana Laura Cumba)

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

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Letters from Macaloge

A Portuguese soldier at Macaloge, Niassa, in an undated photo from

(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. Continue reading

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African soldier, Portuguese army

Valente Matsinhe at his home in Machava, 2009

(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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Maputo at night

The actual Hotel Universo, still under renovation.

I’ve been in an intensive material collection mode the past few weeks, hence no new posts. That will change very soon. In the meantime, here’s a slideshow of images (after the jump), mostly from Ronil, the neighborhood where I lived earlier this year. Actually, Ronil isn’t so much a neighborhood as it is a point of reference. “Ronil” is the name of the auto dealership at the corner of Avenidas Eduardo Mondlane and Karl Marx. It’s just across the street from the Hotel Universo. Continue reading

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If you happen to be in town…

What's that doing here? An undated postcard of the Louis Tregardt Garden of Remembrance, Maputo, the only Voortrekker monument outside South Africa.

I’ve written here before about the care with which Frelimo disposed of many colonial-era monuments following independence. I said I’d save the most interesting tale for another day. That day is Wednesday. That’s when I’ll be giving a talk at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane about one of the Maputo monuments that Frelimo left alone: the Louis Tregardt Garden of Remembrance, the only Voortrekker memorial you’ll find outside South Africa. Somehow this little island of Afrikaner history kept its gates open, its bushes trimmed, and its walls whitewashed at a time when the rest of the city was falling into physical ruin–and as the Afrikaner nationalists running apartheid South Africa were devoting considerable effort to destroying Mozambique.

Details of the UEM event are here. If you’re not interested in unusual monuments, please come for Sandra Roque, an anthropologist who will be discussing the artificial urban/suburban divide in Angolan cities.

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The world is an egg

Can building a house be an act of resistance? Alfredo Manjate at his home in Chamanculo, 2011.

A couple of months ago, at an embassy function here in Maputo, I ran into someone who I was friends with in elementary school, in Maryland, and who I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. Since then I’ve repeated the story dozens of times. The world is a handkerchief, a Spanish friend said. The world is an egg, say the Portuguese. The world is a village, everyone says, but really it’s Maputo, a city of some two million, that’s the village. I’ve been interviewing Alfredo Manjate, a retired schoolteacher, in Chamanculo, a Maputo neighborhood which I’ve mentioned here quite a bit. When we first met and I explained who I was and what I was up to, Manjate told me that he had an American professor once, a historian. He fetched the professor’s book to show me. More than three decades ago, at Maputo’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane, Manjate’s professor of history was Allen Isaacman. Allen Isaacman is my professor at the University of Minnesota. Continue reading

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