PictureA small chapa just beginning to be loaded (not one we took). Note the goat behind the rear wheel. It is about to be tied, front legs and back legs, and placed on the bed of the truck.
JUNE 30: I always set the alarm on my phone on voyage days, but I never need it.  Still, the one time I don’t set it, that will be the one time I will be late.  This day we cannot afford to be late because we have no control over our travel connections.  By five I am up taking a nice, long hot shower: the last one I will have for a week, I know.  A little after six, Mr. Joe and I are on our way to Cobué on the speedboat.  We stop at the beach by the church in Mala to pick up Mr. Elias, then on to Cobué, where we dock by the White Buffalo boarding house beach and wade ashore.  Once again we climb the slope to the two tailors’ porch to sit and wait for the early chapa out of town.  Soon it became clear something was wrong.

This particular chapa we were going to take is owned and operated by one of the businessmen in Cobué.  Elias went over to talk to him and found out that the chapa had broken down somewhere on the road between Metangula and Cobué, somewhere where there was no phone reception and no reception near enough to walk to for them to tell the owner where they were.  There is phone reception between Metangula and our destination, Luiga, so it had to be somewhere before our destination.  The businessman had a deal for us.  He was sending out a truck today to repair the chapa.  He could take us as far as the chapa had broken down.  Then, if we wanted to go any further, we would have to pay the fee for hiring a private driver.  This was a huge gamble.  If the chapa had broken down halfway from Mandambuzi to Luiga, we could conceivably afford the rate the rest of the way.  If, on the other hand, the truck had broken down halfway up the mountains from Cobué, we would be stuck there until the next chapa came along – or we could pay an exorbitant rate we could not really afford.    

PictureThe chapa from above, almost two-thirds loaded. The passengers are debating whether the goat will suffocate underneath them. Half think it will, half think it won't. I do not know how it did.
We were not really sure what to do.  I tried to call the lodge, but my phone would not make calls out for some reason.  We borrowed a boatman’s phone, which worked, but nobody was at the lodge yet.  I left a message for someone to call us back.  Ten minutes later, the repair truck left.  There went that option.  By the time the lodge called back, I could anticipate what was going to happen.  I asked if we could get a ride back to the lodge and try again tomorrow.  We can’t really afford two trips to Cobué.  I’m afraid you’ll have to stay there overnight.  Maybe you can work with a choir if you are bored. [click]  I had anticipated the first two sentences.  Rather than stew over the unintentional insult, I chose to ignore the third.

There was nothing for it but to head to James Bondo’s house and restaurant.  It was not yet ten o’clock, and we would be in Cobué all day.  Churches had already begun services.  We took a little tour of town.  We went down to the new boarding house for girls the Wilderness Trust is building for girls in the other villages who want a high school education.  The dormitory is now finished; it only awaits the construction of a kitchen and the toilet.  The hope is to have it ready for the start of the new school year in January. 

We came back and ate the lunch that was meant for us to take on the trail to Chissindo.  In the afternoon, we walked down the main shopping street twice: the second time to repair the sandals Joe had bought back in Chigoma that had now broken.  The cobbler was not there, but he had left his tools at the farmer’s market, so he and a merchant found some thread somewhere and Joe sewed a temporary fix.  We came back to find that Mr. Bondo’s wife had heated water for us to wash.  I didn’t really need to wash because of my long shower that morning, but it was something to do.  Joe and Elias went to the lake to bathe.  When they came back, we pitched our tents.  Their tent was just outside the restaurant, but I would stay in my tent inside the restaurant.  The restaurant has a gravel floor, which is actually kind of a practical floor for a restaurant, though I doubt it would go over well in the United States.  This brought us up to about two thirty.

We had been told there was going to be a soccer game between the Cobué Secondary School and the men’s team from Chilola at three o’clock.  I was looking forward to this novel way to alleviate boredom, but we were halfway there when we found out it had been cancelled because the Chilola team had not arrived on the chapa coming into town from the north. 

While in the area we looked again, but the cobbler never came back all this day.  We checked many times, which involved a walk past the farmers’ market and past one of the many liquor stores.  Liquor stores here sell something called “sachets,” little individual-size pouches that contain an unregulated potent substance of unknown origin.  The most popular, judging by the number of these sachets littering the pathways, goes by the name of “Double Punch.”  When I first was walking the paths two months ago, I saw these pouches and wondered if they were juice packets for the children’s school lunches.  Lily was incensed: “Juice is a luxury here!  Families could never afford to send their children to school with juice!”  I spent a lot of time on trails pondering the luxury of juice versus the apparent necessity of mystery hooch, when I wasn’t observing how frequently these empty sachets were strewn on the path together with free condoms distributed by the United Nations.  But I digress….  Ah, yes.  I was actually noting the irony of this particular liquor store’s name.  Underneath the list of three types of sachets it had for sale, including the ubiquitous “Double Punch” (not the cheapest, by the way), was the name of the store: Mulungu Alinane – God Is With Me.  Something new to ponder on the trail.

Joe and I took one more walk around town while Elias visited with friends.  It was between four and five by now, so we simply sat on the front stoop of James Bondo’s restaurant and waited for dinner.  Some children between the ages of four and ten saw me and began to sing: “Chauta!  Chauta!  Ndiye mbusa wanga, sindidzasowa kanthu.” This is the song I have been teaching everyone in the villages.  Children appear to really love it, and now on my return to Cobué, I find that it really has “gone viral,” if you can imagine a sort of Nineteenth Century sense of that term.  Children know the song and know that I am the one who brought it.  Seven of them stand in a semicircle in the restaurant’s front “yard” near three stray goats, and we give an impromptu concert of this same song about ten times straight.  The goats aren’t bad, either….  Sometimes the tailors or their customers watch this strange sight for a while, and then return to what they were doing.  This little vignette really made the whole day feel worth it to me.  I had no idea the song was going over that well!  One young boy of about six was trying to learn the solo verses as well.  We passed the time until it was time for dinner.

Mr. Bondo made a delicious dinner of corn nsima, rice, beans and mustard greens.  I turned in early for bed since once again we were going to try to catch the early chapa.  Pea gravel is surprisingly comfortable as a sleeping surface… or maybe I have gotten a little less choosy since I have been here.  Whichever was the case, I was asleep in no time.

JULY 1:  Today we woke and packed early to be ready for the chapa.  The early morning weekday chapa has a double long bed to pack in twice the people and belongings.  I steeled myself with our breakfast of tea, rolls and bananas.  Despite the promise of an early start, the chapa was still loading and rumbling about town until it reached us just before nine.  We started to run to pile on.  “Take these bananas!”  Joe said, handing me two of the tiny bananas, I imagine for the hike.  I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but I had an extra pocket in my hiking pants.  I put them in there.

Mr. Bondo was taking this same chapa, and as I approached, he knocked on the front door.  “Please!  You will be going in here!”  I really didn’t want to, but I could tell everyone expected me to.  Mr. Joe said “See you in Luiga!” and jumped into the back.  Someone took my pack, and up I hopped, and now the ride began to seem like something from Alice in Wonderland.  Maybe it was Mark in Manda. It does have a nice ring….    

PictureOne of the small open-air houses of Luiga. You may be able to make out the bed (blue) visible from the outside. The round building to the left is a granary for corn.
As I vaulted up, a man began banging on my hiking boots incessantly.  I turned around to see who it was, and it was the senior immigration officer of Cobué.  He did not recognize me.  The driver was saying of me “He does not know Portuguese, only English.  Only English!”  I wanted to show them I knew Nyanja at least a bit:  “Ndikhale pano?” [Should I sit here?] I said, indicating the back area of the cab.  “Eee,” [Yes], but it turned out I needed to remove my shoes before getting in.  I climbed back and put my feet on the center tool storage area to take off my boots.  Mr. Immigration came back with me and stretched out as far as he could, piling his suitcase and Hulk Hogan backpack in his corner and using them as pillows.  It was evident that such an important personage expected the full backseat on his own, and that he was miffed that I had the audacity to be there.  He put his feet on my leg.

The front seat, it turned out, was reserved today for the chefe do posto.  This is the name of the government’s representative in a district – sort of above the level of mayor but below the level of governor.  This is an appointed position, but it is done from Maputo, a very long way from Lago District, where we are in Niassa Province.  These chefes do posto are often moved around seemingly at random.  This particular chefe do posto is unusual in that he is local.  He jumps into the front, looking jaunty and happy today in his pink Colorado Rockies hat.  From my view in the rear-view mirror, the back of the large double-length chapa looks very full but not horribly uncomfortable.  Still, I am painfully aware of my very privileged position sitting in the front.  I am also painfully aware of the Immigration officer’s feet and the two bananas in my right lower pants pocket.  I am a little squeezed; I only hope the bananas remain intact for the journey.  Despite the fact that everyone in the truck but me is local, they choose Portuguese as the language for conversation.  That leaves me out, but I catch that something has happened with Nelson Mandela.  There is something to not being able to keep up on the news, but I would like to have known what this was about.  No chance, though: the Portuguese is too advanced for my limited study.

We begin lumbering out of town and up the oito oito [the eight eight], which I have learned is the local nickname for the twisting, turning mountain road I so learned to loathe on my last chapa ride.  Obviously it is not nearly as bad when riding in the front, and this driver is going much more cautiously than the one on my previous trip.  We stopped just before the T-junction where I got off last time. One of the workers who loads the chapa jumped off the back to relieve himself in front of the truck.  Four elderly men and two young women take this cue to jump off the back and do the same, although all but one elderly man choose to go some way into the woods.  After this impromptu rest stop we resume our journey.

Once we get to Litanda, it seems we stop every two hundred feet or so to pick up people and cargo.  Cargo in this rice-producing area right now often means three or four giant bags of processed rice to take to Metangula or Lichinga to sell.  Nobody seems to be getting off.  I am wondering how the back is for Joe, Elias, Mr. Bondo and all the others.  Sometimes the chapa stops just because the driver knows somebody and wants to catch up.  Of course the people in the back have no idea why we are stopping, but they must simply sit and wait patiently.  The owner of this chapa gets in when we reach Mandambuzi, and he comes into the back and sits between Mr. Immigration and me.  He promptly falls asleep and his head falls onto my shoulder.  I am beginning to smell bananas.

On the other side of Mandambuzi, the chapa slows again.  “Carne!  Carne!”  The chefe do posto and Mr. Immigration are interested in this development as well.  The driver has spotted a woman with a metal bowl on her head.  They recognize her as a local meat merchant.  The driver stops and purchases the slabs of raw meat she has been carrying in the mid-day sun.  He briefly debates with her whether he should wrap them in his colleague’s t-shirt that is on the front seat: “He never wears that one anyway,” but in the end thinks the better of it.  He opens the front toolbox and removes all the tools, then puts them in the compartment of his door.  This requires his moving his toothbrush and toothpaste, which he does, then receives the meat in his hands.  He places the meat in this toolbox, but from my angle I cannot see whether there is anything between the raw meat and the bottom of the box.  He then wipes his hands on his pants and readjusts his toothbrush.  On we go, as the men discuss various ways to cook meat.

We enter a different sort of habitat than I have been before while here:  mountain woods with different trees that grow much more closely together.  We have left Mandambuzi and there are no houses or fields at all, just trees.  It stretches on and on.

We stop again.  This time it is the chefe do posto who must answer the call of nature, but he must do something a bit more significant than was done at our previous stop.  Two men hop out of the back with machetes.  The chefe do posto squats down in the woods but within view of the chapa nonetheless.  A few minutes later, the two men are hacking at twigs and saplings and covering this unexpected byproduct of our trip.  All resume their places on the chapa and we start up again.  The chefe do posto takes out a bag of cookies, opens it, digs his hands in and then hands it to the driver and Mr. Immigration, who each take some.  Then he offers it to me.  “Não, obrigado,” [No, thank you]  is all I can manage to say.  Is it my imagination, or is one of the bananas starting to feel a little soft?

A little more than three hours after we boarded, we have reached Luiga.  We get all our belongings and jump out.  The back of the chapa looks as if it has sixty or more people on it.  It rolls off, leaving us at the edge of this village.  We are across the road from the president of the village’s Umoji Association, and we cross in order to speak with him and learn more about what is going on with choirs in the area.  The trip has taken too long for us to hike to Chissindo today; we would still have an hour to go when it got dark, on a mountain trail in a leopard area.  We will need to stay here and leave tomorrow.    

PictureThe Roman Catholic Church of Luiga, cassava drying in the front. Notice the entrance is only about four feet high under the thatched roof.
It turns out that the president (Luiga does not have an mfumu) is not there, nor are many other adults from the village at the moment.  There is a funeral in Thulo, the next village south, and people from Luiga and Chissindo are there to pay their respects.  For the mourners of Chissindo, this would of course be a one-day journey there, the funeral, and a one-day journey back.  Hearing that there are many people from Chissindo who have come, Elias borrows a bicycle and sets off to meet his friends and perhaps relatives and to learn what exactly the state of choral music is in Chissindo.

Meanwhile, we talk to two teenagers here in Luiga.  It seems that there is in fact no choir here after all.  Maybe it would be “a good idea” to form one.  Maybe tomorrow?  The problem is that there was a choir until the choirmaster died last year, but all the former singers are at the funeral today, so it won’t be possible to do much about it right now. I have been here long enough to know what all this means.  They have no intention of forming a choir, but it would be impolite to say so.  All of what they say is true, but the fact remains that they could send word to these homes now or this evening to spread the word that we are here and that the choir is starting up again.  The fact that they do not offer to do this tells us all we need to know.

There are no adults to visit, so we sit for a while and watch the teens play bawo, the African strategy game that involves rows of stones or marbles on a long wooden board.  I sit and watch for a long time, as they play one another and Joe.  I want to learn the rules but it is too complicated to figure out just by observing in one afternoon.  I decide I want to learn, though.

After we all tire of bawo, the teens offer to show us the church.  Why not?  We walk down the road, and after about five houses, I hear unmistakably “Chauta! Chauta!  Ndiye mbusa wanga, sindidzasowa kanthu!”  I can’t believe it!  Here, in Luiga, the song got here before me?  A teenager comes running up to us.  “Zikomo kwambiri!” [Thank you very much] he says to me with a big smile.  It seems an odd thing to say.  He tells Joe that he is from Mcondece and sings in the choir there but is visiting family in Luiga; do I remember him?  I say that I do vaguely, which is my equivalent to the answer the boys gave me earlier about the choir.  Now I understand: he was saying zikomo kwambiri to me because he was teasing me.  I must have said it too much for his taste when I was in Mcondece – no doubt to the amusement of the teenagers in the ensemble.  I probably did say it too much, but they were so formal there!  I didn’t know what else was appropriate to say in such circumstances. He means it in good fun, though; I don’t take offense.  We head to the church together.

The church is charming but tiny.  There is a cross in the front behind the altar and in the back.  Joe asks the teenager who brought us if this is an Anglican or Roman Catholic church.  “I don’t know,” he answers.  This is just where we go to church.  Joe is incensed that the worshippers here do not even know what denomination they attend, but it makes sense to me; why do they need to know if this is their only Christian choice?  We find out later that it is a Roman Catholic Church.    

I am learning more about Luiga.  This is a nomadic village consisting of buildings along the single road.  The fields people cultivate are far away in the mountains, so they live in Luiga for eight months of the year, and then they go to work their fields for four months.  When the children left the open air schoolhouse each year for a few years, the government gave up trying to provide a teacher, so the children here have no school and no prospect of a school.  There is no clinic.  There is a borehole well.  There are two small stores for general supplies, and there is a woman with clothes on a tarp, selling from her front yard, with the usual crowd around trying things on, though I do not see anyone buying.  Many people’s homes are tiny, and most are in some stage of disrepair.  The clothes here are more ragged than in most other villages I have seen.  This is clearly one of the poorest villages in the region.  I am finding it all a little depressing.  I wonder why the children would not want a choir; what else was there to do?

The younger children here are fascinated and repelled by me.  They edge close to me, but if I move in any way, they scream in terror and run away.  This evening around the fire as we prepare our dinner, one child gains the courage to shake my hand, and all the others scream.  Two more try it, but they cannot bring themselves to touch me again, and they run off.  A drunken man comes to the fire and begins to speak very loudly to everyone and nobody in particular.  I never understand drunken people well here; I hope he does not turn to talk to me.  Joe and I move over near our tents to eat our pasta dinner.  Nobody joins us.

Elias has not yet come back from the funeral, but others are returning.  The president and his wife arrive after a while. The president explains to Joe that when Lily came through, she did not see him because he was working in his field.  Thus, she got an incomplete message.  Someone told her that the choir had met, which was true, but they had in fact decided not to begin rehearsing at this time.  He was so sorry for this misunderstanding.  So, there we have it.  No choir in Luiga.  Now we must wait to hear from Elias regarding Chissindo.  It is long past dark, and Joe thinks he may have had to stay in Thulo, especially if his bicycle had problems – not an unreasonable thing to think might have happened.

I crawl into my tent as I hear the drunken man talking to the president, railing against azungu [white people].  I shut it out.  I remember the bananas.  They are mushy and black, but only a small bit of one has been smeared into the pocket.  It will dry. Tomorrow, no matter what, we will go.  That is fine with me.    

Comments are closed.


    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013