Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Drums of Mozambique

Here are two blogs you should check out:

ganzmozambique – This is the story of our friends Pamela and Riley Ganz. They were in our Portuguese class with us, and are still here training and learning Portuguese. Pamela is a PA (which means she’s a doctor in Moz) and Riley is a computer guy with a lot of experience in network administration and data management (he was at Microsoft for 7 years). They’ll be headed off to either Ilé or Gile at the beginning of next month. We’ve been nearly inseparable for the last month and a half, and it will be sad to see them go.

The Adventures of TAS (the African Suz) – This blog reports the happenings in the life of Suzie Dyer, our friend from back home in McMinnville. She’s a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali (which is about as close to Mozambique as Nashville is to Alaska) teaching entrepreneurship classes, and, it sounds like, a host of other things. Suzie is going to be living in the sticks of Mali in a place that, get this, might even have running water! You go girl!

Okay, back to us. Three weekends ago all of our American friends had abandoned us again for a trip to Malawi to deal with their visas. Lara and I had the whole house to ourselves, which, as we realized, is really freaky. It was just after we’d had dinner that we sort of looked up at each other and reflected upon how we were in southern Africa where the paved road meets the dirt path with no police and no ambulance to call and the only thing standing between us and the wilds of the Dark Continent were locked doors and a guard with a walkie-talkie. We made it through fine.

The next morning I had an appointment to go buy drums with Paulo. Dr. Paulo Pires is the Program Coordinator for FGH in Quelimane, and I wish every one of you could meet him. He’s a Portuguese expatriate who speaks excellent English, dances well, and smiles constantly. Agnes (pronounced an-yes), his wife, is French and speaks absolutely no English whatsoever. They call her a gypsy, but I can’t confirm whether she is or not. The only way we can communicate is through our heavily America-accented and her heavily French-accented Portuguese, so one of our big goals in our Portuguese study is being able to consistently speak with her.

We were headed to one of the outlying communities to pick up the drums. We took Paulo’s car, but he didn’t know the way, so one of his security guards came with us. He had been to this village and knew many of the people there. I had been down this road before. At the very edge of the pavement there is a giant open-air market that you could buy everything you found in the stores for half the price. But today we weren’t stopping at the pavement.


Roads outside of the city proper are always one lane wide, and usually not paved. The quality of the road also depends on where the road is located. This road was essentially a causeway through what will become a swamp during the rainy season. The picture here is of one of the best parts of the road. Two-foot ruts are common, as well as passages that are too narrow for a car due to new growth. Then, inexplicably, there is a perfectly sturdy steel bridge that someone put in probably fifty years ago. The scariest part of this road is a bridge the locals built over a creek. It consists of a pile of dirt about four feet high on one side of the creek, a similar pile on the other side, and four or five loose coconut tree logs for the car to drive over. It looks like a beaver dam, and our car passed it with maybe 6 inches of clearance on each side.

We traveled for about a half-hour on this road in Paulo’s Mitsubishi Colt (an SUV/pick-up style car with an extended cab), jolting and jostling all the way, until we came to a small village. The road we were on continued forward, but we turned right between two mud huts. This turn slowed us down considerably, and as we did boys from the village ran up and jumped in the bed of Paulo’s truck. As more and more kids hopped in, the rest of them lost their inhibitions and we were soon as packed with children as we could have been.

As if I hadn’t had enough reason to feel like I was outside of America yet, I felt really American for thinking, “What if one of these kids falls off and breaks their leg and we’re held liable?” This concept, which is very familiar to Americans, wouldn’t even begin to enter the collective mind of Mozambique. It’s one freedom that Americans don’t have: the freedom to help someone out without worrying what the consequences will be.

One more turn off the main road put us in the narrowest passage I’ve ever attempted on four wheels. Imagine the stakes: your mudding in your friend's Jeep way out in Warren County, your car is full of kids, and there’s not a winch for a county radius. We made it through safely, though Paulo said he’d never try this again in his car.

The passage opened up into our destination village. I’d never been in a place like this, and it was exactly as I had imagined. The mud huts were spaced far apart, maybe fifty feet between, and a path wide enough for our car wound it’s way back into the forest. As we drove back, mothers tended to dinner at small fires under tree trunks that shot up like fireworks to the sky. The children of the village all came running out as if they’d heard the ice cream truck, and they waved and squealed with delight to see their friends from the next village over riding in the back of a big white truck. The ubiquitous coconut tree canopy both connected the far corners of the community and set it apart from the surrounding country so as to impart an overriding oneness to the abstract layout of the homes. Warm, protected, comfortable, connected: this place was everything a community should be.

We stopped just before a cul-de-sac at the north border of the village and got out. There were two tree branches had been driven into the ground about four feet apart with another lashed between them at waist height to form what looked like a small old-style football goal (the “H” type). Three drums of increasing size were leaned against the cross bar at a slight angle. A man about my age stood over the drums with a torch made from a bundle of dried fronds. He held the flame to the head, then would take it away and hit the drum a few times, then repeat, for maybe five minutes. It took me a minute to finally realize that he was tuning them.

They’d set up a table and chairs behind the drums, and a fellow that Paulo knew came to greet us and beckoned us to sit. As we walked to the table the drums suddenly started.

Another fellow had taken the place of the tuner. He straddled the middle drum from behind, with his legs between the two outside drums and the middle. This stance put his hands at the perfect angle to strike the drums. His right hand kept a steady beat on the deepest drum, which alternated between a syncopated and dancy boom boom-chik, boom boom-chik and a straight boom boom boom boom that landed unrelentingly on the beat and made you want to get out of your seat and jump up and down like a madman. I can’t describe the sound of this drum in any written language that I know; the sound didn’t enter your body through your head. The first organ in your body that this drum talked to was your heart, followed immediately by your liver. Eventually your nervous system recovered from the onslaught enough that you were able to process the sound in your conscious mind. The sound can only be described as a boom, the most round, rich, and perfect boom you’ve ever heard in your life. It was about an octave lower than a monastery chanting om, more like a didgeridoo but without the nasal reediness. No one was in charge of the dance except this drum, and when it spoke everyone listened.

The two other drums were higher, and fluttered about between the barrage of the first drum like two chickens daring each other to dart between the legs of a charging elephant. The rhythm teetered constantly on the brink of disaster (at least to my Western ears) but never once fell over the edge. Instead, it invited you to the edge and grabbed you by the collar to throw you over as soon as you came near.

On top of all that, there were auxiliary percussionists. Two guys, one of whom was wearing a black dress shirt straight out of The Matrix with hair in cornrows and wrap-around sunglasses to match, had maracas made of tall-boy beer cans and sticks for handles: shukkashukkashukkashukka. Finally, there was a guy sitting on a stool to the left of the drummer with two sticks a little larger than claves. He was beating the sides of the smallest drum in a pattern the sounded like a dozen boys throwing pebbles at a tin lean-to. I couldn’t begin to reproduce it, and I don’t think I can even remember it. I’ve played experimental music with jazz orchestras alternating between 5/8 and 7/4, but I couldn’t follow this guy. Not only was the rhythm schizophrenic, it was LOUD and it was FAST. I can’t imagine how this guy kept it up, because each dance lasted about ten minutes and immediately went into another one. He didn’t stop until after the third or fourth dance when another guy took over for him.

As they started, folks from the village came to dance, mostly children. A circle formed around the drums. The dancers bent at the knees and waist and stomped their feet to the rhythm, methodically snaking their way around. They stuck their backsides out and moved them up and down. They were so close to each other that one person’s head hovered over the next’s sacrum. It seemed inconceivable that no one stepped on another’s toes, but it never happened.

Children were doing this dance. Babies were doing this dance. Toddlers with their baby brothers on their backs were doing this dance. The youngest child could not have been two years old. Obviously this dance is how they teach the children to walk, because everyone knew it.

The circle being formed, the singing began. There were about forty people dancing, mostly children. One of the drummers would call out a line in Chuabo (the local language) and everyone in the line would sing back. The chorus was mostly children, and it was beautiful. Clear harmonies rung out over the drums. I don’t know the first word of Chuabo, but celebration reverberated from each tongue in the line, and the message was clear.

While every young girl in the village was in the line, every young boy in the village had gathered around the table to stare at us. The funniest little guys you’re ever seen, probably between the five and eight years old, all bunched up together. They all wore tattered clothes and were covered in dirt (just like I was when I was four). They all kept their heads pointed down (as if they weren’t staring at me) but their eyes were open and every pupil was aimed my way. Of course I tried to interact, but it was like trying to touch two magnets together: they kept a radius of about five feet the whole time.

The group played for half an hour or so, and then Paulo went off to purchase the drums that we’d come for. I was left all alone with my broken Portuguese in an African village miles from the city that didn’t yet feel like home. I sat and watched from inside the gaggle of boys feeling very foreign. Then one of the leaders of the group sat down beside me and we started talking. From what I could gather, he was telling me about how he wanted to buy matching capulanas for the whole group but they couldn’t afford them.

So here’s a good time to introduce what will become a recurring theme for us: if you’re white, about once a week you’ll run into someone who will unabashedly ask you for a large sum of money. It’s really disconcerting, because they’re not even shy about it. The format is usually the same: they start by talking about how they need something, but they can’t afford it. Then they usually try to get you to ask how much it costs, or just wait there for you to say something about it. Then, if you don’t say anything, they ask you for it straight out. This situation is awkward enough when you speak the same language, but imagine how I felt after I finally understood after asking him to repeat the same sentences two and three times. Once I got what he was trying to say, I sat quietly and watched the drums trying to ignore the new tension at the table.

Then, about a thousand years later, Paulo came back with four guys carrying drums. They put drums in the bed of the truck and Paulo came over to where I was sitting.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” he said in one of the greatest accents ever to speak English.

“Oh yeah, these guys are incredible!” I told him. He sat down between me and the capulana guy, who promptly started in on Paulo. Paulo just nodded and smoked, and he didn’t respond. Maybe that's the approach I need to take.

After a few more minutes of dancing, a lady came over and talked to Paulo. Paulo nodded and stood up.

“I’m going to get some… salad,” he said to me. “You can come if you want.”

I was totally intrigued. There wasn’t a restaurant in 15 miles, but we were going to have lunch? I wasn’t about to sit there by myself again, and this “salad” mystery had really captured my curiosity. I followed Paulo, who was following the lady down a footpath away from the drum circle. At first it seemed a little weird for the entire audience (Paulo and I) to just get up and leave, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and continued to play even after we left.

We walked past a few houses before I realized that one of the boys was following us. He was probably about seven, and could have been the child of this woman but I couldn’t get him to speak at all. He followed us past a graveyard and some of the best scenery I’ve encountered yet in Mozambique. The path led past what I could only describe as miniature savannah, flat grasslands that spread for two hundred yards until the next bit of forest.

We came to the end of the footpath and this lady’s mud hut. There was another woman there, and a young girl nursing a child. I stood there for a moment as Paulo spoke to the women (I didn’t understand much) and took in my surroundings. Paulo broke away from the women when another man walked up carrying a full burlap sack big enough for fifty pounds of coffee.

Paulo motioned to the girl. “That baby is fifteen days old,” he told me. He asked the girl if that was her baby, and she nodded. He asked her how old she was, and she told him, “deziseiz.” Sixteen.

Next, we continued down the path that I thought had ended to a garden where another young woman was sitting. Here Paulo began pointing to heads of lettuce in the ground, and I finally understood what he meant by “salad.”

“It’s much cheaper here than in the market,” he said. “Do you want some?” I told him to negotiate two heads for me, and he did. They wrapped them in sacks, and we headed back.

We stopped at the house to exchange pleasantries before heading back to the car. By then the coffee sack was open and a fifth of its contents were flopping around on the ground. Live fish, each about ten inches long, of a type I’d never seen before. They had flat heads like catfish, but scaly bodies that mutated into a tail that you would associate with a small mouth bass. They reminded me of sour cream packets. I found out they were called “aguadoce,” or Sweetwater. They asked if I wanted to buy some, and I respectfully declined for fear that whatever substance had altered their DNA might somehow infect mine. The man shrugged his shoulders and began taking each fish in his hands, snapping its neck, and tossing them into a boiler pot.

We headed back, the lady in front, Paulo, me, and our little tag along behind. I asked the little one if he wanted a ride (we’d passed a man with a child on his shoulders on the way in), he nodded, and I picked him up and sat him on my right shoulder. We made it back to the cul-de-sac, said our goodbyes and thank you’s, and headed to the truck.

As soon as they sensed we were leaving, about 20 kids surrounded the truck, expecting a ride back from whence they’d come. Paulo was happy to oblige but had his guard instruct the kids to be careful of the drums in the back. The four together were large enough to fill the bed, and standing up would require being ankle deep among them.

And that was my first taste of real Africa. No pavement, no buildings, no Internet, no electricity. Nothing but raw, beautiful humanity and genuine community. I hope I get to see it again soon.

7 Comments:

Blogger Laine said...

Thanks for sharing another African experience with us. I look forward to your blogs. Ella is following your written trip also. Inspired by your description and the video, we tried "The Dance" around the house.

October 4, 2007 at 7:49 AM  
Anonymous The Morgans said...

We love the blog. You're on an amazing adventure. We're friends of Bill and Nancy Selph and are living in New Zealand for the year. We too have seen what freedom comes from not worrying about liability. There are more kids here w/casts on their limbs, but it makes for much more adventurous individuals. Thanks for the wonderful commentary. The Morgans

October 5, 2007 at 1:20 PM  
Blogger Laine said...

Grand Doddie is spending the night at my house. She just read your blog which she enjoyed! She says:
"It's so awesome and hard to relate to your change of living. I went to lunch with Joe and Joe Thursday. Mr. Joe says this will change your lives forever and Africa will be with you for the rest of your lives. We love you and think about you everyday."
Love,
Grand Doddie
P.S. When will you publish your first book?
Hello to Lara

October 5, 2007 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Moe-Moe said...

Hey you two...I hope all is well in Africa. I will be sure to keep you both in our prayers and it is really cool that you can still keep in contact with everyone. If you do happen to speak to Susie, please let her know that I love her and am thinking of her, too.

Monica

October 8, 2007 at 3:37 PM  
Anonymous H Camp said...

Kevin, your writing is not only very interesting, but of high quality artistically. Jane and I enjoy it as well as Lara's narratives, also well written.

October 10, 2007 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Andrea T said...

Hey KHarv and Lara! It sounds like ya'll are having a great time and are having an experience that is going to forever change your world view. Kevin, you should seriously consider publishing this blog when you return. Stay safe and keep writing!!

Peace, Andrea

October 10, 2007 at 9:07 PM  
Anonymous John Harvey said...

Tho I couldn't actually hear the drumming I felt and imagined it vividly thanks to your musical prose.

Sheila and I just spent a few days living large in Chicago. I couldn't help drawing odd comparisons between your current reality and our recent escape.

Kevin and Lara, thanks for taking the time to keep up this fascination journal.

October 29, 2007 at 7:31 PM  

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