Paulina Chiziane (Majacaze, 1955) is surely one of the most prominent figures of current Mozambican literature, and not just that. She is an essential reference for the country’s feminist movements, a woman who confronted particularly conflictual aspects of African cultures in her literary works with startling intensity, developing themes that no one else wants to hear or discuss, not in the private sphere, much less in the public or political spheres. These are silenced themes, taboos, especially painful, pending and unresolved subjects, such as the Mozambican civil war (Ventos do Apocalipse, 1993), women’s rights in polygamy (Balada de Amor ao Vento, 1990, and Niketche, 2002), black magic (O Sétimo Juramento, 2000), traditional healing (Por Quem Vibram os Tambores do Além, 2013), racism and other forms of discrimination (O Alegre Canto da Perdiz, 2008).
Paulina Chiziane has made significant contributions to the (re)interpretation of Mozambican society, and we still owe her the recognition she deserves. She created a unique voice, a feminine voice in a dominant patriarchal environment, born not from any artistic motivations, but from a profound necessity to narrate Mozambique.
Her style testifies, above all, to her deep passion for writing and is characterized by feverish prose, rich in experiences, told by one who accompanied the developments of the country’s recent history with profound empathy. For her, theoretical discourses, literary trends or writing traditions are secondary. In fact, she possesses a sharp intuition for literary beauty, not only from an aesthetic point of view but also content-wise. Chiziane’s narrative comes to life with a captivating vigour. Her books took me on multiple inward journeys, journeys of pain, guilt, cruelty, greed, luxury, love, compassion, desperation and other disturbing sentiments, in addition to helping me to understand the fundamentals of the complex social and cultural scene of Mozambique.
During my fieldtrip to Mozambique – financed by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation – I spoke to the author in Maputo, in the cafeteria of the Mozambican Writers’ Association on 4 August 2014.
In your writings there are characters different in social classes and skin tones. O Alegre Canto da Perdiz is a case in point. What was the stereotypical image of the Portuguese in colonial times and how has this image changed since then?
There were several images. People looked up to the Portuguese as superior, in the sense that they had access to scientific and other knowledge. Later, there was the image of the oppressor, a terrible fear of the Portuguese. Colonial repression was very harsh. The older generation felt it most. For example, in school textbooks, when I studied in colonial times, a white man would be depicted with a hat, safari outfit, a gun, all proud, and a black man would be represented with a skin dress, always a ridiculous image. I cannot recall seeing pretty images of Africans in colonial books. People of the black race were constantly portrayed in a manner that shows their inferiority. Also, when talking about racial tensions, there was one more popular image, that of black people around a bonfire, and a great pot, and a white man with a hat and a gun in it to demonstrate that we were cannibals.
I am now 59 years old, I was 19 at independence, and I lived with these images until I was 15 or 16 years old. These are the four images that my contemporaries and older people are familiar with. I attended a Catholic primary school. When I began going to church, God was white, and the Devil was black. This changed with time but not completely. The angels of God are still white to this day, we do not have black angels yet.
How about the Portuguese who arrived in Mozambique more recently due to the economic crisis in Portugal? Are they welcome?
More a relationship of distrust. We are together, but no one knows what the other will do. And so, the Portuguese return without experiencing the language of Mozambican liberation and the process. Many leave with old thinking intact. Very few come with an open mind. This explains the people’s distrustful reactions.
In the colonial period, there was a class of assimilated Africans who renounced their culture in order to obtain an identity card and a set of privileges. Today, the descendants of this group continue to form a specific social class? Is this still relevant?
This continues to be relevant. The descendants of the assimilated are those who had access to education. Even in the colonial period, the few people who studied nursing, worked in basic public services, and the very select doctors, were all from assimilated families. People with new knowledge were needed at independence. Therefore, the descendants of the assimilated occupied a large part of decisive public positions. There were ordinary people who pursued an education as well, hence diluting the significance of the class question. But the distinction is still visible today. The manner of a young man from the old assimilated class is different from the manner of an ordinary son from an ordinary family.
And the mestizos belong to the same social class as the assimilated or do they form a different social class?
They are of a different class. I think that there should be research on this. While black people fought for independence, mestizos were in a less clear situation because they had the parents’ privilege, and independence would not make a big difference for them. This dilemma persists. Take for example Zambézia, the most miscegenated province. It was there that I learned that a mestizo or mulatto is an individual locked in an uncomfortable situation, always searching for an identity. Among black people, he is treated in a certain way; among white people, he is treated in a different way. He alone has to create his own world. It is how mestizo groups come about. There are cases of children of a black mother and a white father who dissociate himself from the woman who gave him life and join the other mestizos. Many of them were born from rape or an adultery relationship, never from a socially acceptable relationship. This causes discrimination by the white people and by the black people. A mulatto is an individual living a life of identity dilemma. In Zambézia, as they are numerous, they create their own identity, always swinging between black and white. While this is common in Zambézia, it is less so in Maputo. Sometimes, a mulatto thinks that he is white in front of a white man, but when he is in difficulties, he feels that he is a black descendant. Next to white people, he feels inferior but close to power. There is no research on miscegenation in Mozambique to my knowledge, but I think that it would be worth it. Their identity is totally influenced by two poles: black and white.
What is the identity of a mulatto today? Are they adjusting upward or downward? In Mozambique, the situation of the mulattos is very complicated. They are above black people.
In O Alegre Canto da Perdiz, Delfina wants to have mulatto children with a white man, an objective that she finally achieves. Afterwards, she discriminates against her black children and favours her mulatto children. Nowadays, do some women still think and act like her?
Decolonization is a long process. It takes a lot of time. And today, in this independent country, black women married to white men are financially more stable even if they are discriminated. The problem persists. I wrote O Alegre Canto da Perdiz in Zambézia for a very simple reason. I had a neighbour who was mulatto or mestizo (I do not differentiate between the two terms). Another woman used to do cleaning and cooking in her home. I initially thought that she was a domestic helper. Soon I realized that she was not a maid but sister. At home the mother of the mulatto woman and of the black woman was the one who gave orders. Food should always be ready, and the place should always be clean when the mulatto daughter returned because the dark daughter was responsible for these chores. I befriended the family. The mother of the two daughters said, “I am fine, I have good houses that my husband left me, my white husband. I enjoy a good financial situation because of the father of this one. Now the father of that one, what did he give me? Nothing. I manage to eat and educate my children thanks to the money that I receive from the father of this one.” Therefore, it was the mother who stayed in the middle and made a racialized distinction. A black mother can be more racist than her own children. I came to know the family in 2001 when I went to Zambézia to work. It was surprising for me because up to that moment I had thought that racism was a fault of the white people, but black people can also be racist. After all, what we call racism is not more than the search for better living conditions.
If the black man and the white man were equal, this woman would not act in that manner and would not treat her daughters like that. In the provinces of Zambézia and Nampula, we witness several similar cases up to this day. In Maputo, it is less visible, less obvious, but the problem exists. Women married to Asian, South African white men, entitled to health care in other places, with cars, with access to their husband’s benefits.
Generally speaking, in the post-colonial period, we categorize the former colonizers as the culprits and the colonized as the victims. But in O Alegre Canto da Perdiz, black characters are not portrayed as pure victims of the colonial system, but also perpetuators of violence and injustice. Apparently, this distinction between the culprit and the victim is not so clear-cut.
No, indeed. The cooperation of the black people was needed in order to develop the colonial project. And we did our part. (I am not very familiar with the history of Mozambique and of Africa. I cannot cite data or exact periods). One of the Mozambican slave masters lived in the Niassa province and was black, King Mataca. He converted to Islam later and had about 300 wives. Today, if you go to Niassa, an enormous province (said to be as big as the entire France), you may walk 100 km and not meet anyone. I searched for answers. What really happened was that this king led a slavery campaign, armed all the soldiers and set out to sell his people. Some fled in order to avoid being caught, some were caught, and an entire province was deserted. The Portuguese did not do this. This man was very powerful. He sold slaves to the English, Dutch, Portuguese… He established himself as a great slave trader. In the Nampula province, there was another case involving a similarly well-known individual whose name I do not know. These processes have two sides to them.
The characters in the novel O Alegre Canto da Perdiz refers to Zambézia and Mount Namuli as the cradle of humanity and, therefore, the basis of their identity. It seems to me that there is not yet an idea of “Mozambicanity”, of a possible Mozambican national identity, only a regional one, Zambeziana. Do you think that we have a Mozambican cultural identity nowadays?
I think so. We are living in an artificially designated geographical space and we have something in common, slavery, Portuguese colonization, we speak the same national language, we connect with one another. In both the national liberation war and the civil war, there is the bad side, but also the good side, such as the mixing of cultures. There is constant movement from the North to the South and today we see people from all origins in every corner of Mozambique. People are learning to live in harmony. This for me is the beginning of an identity formation that can take a thousand years, or less. It is a very long process.
Then the wars had a positive impact on Mozambicans in that they got to know one another because of forced migration?
In Niketche it is very clear that the South of Mozambique is patriarchal, and the North is matriarchal. To what extent do patriarchal systems, very powerful in the world, impose on matriarchal ones?
The strongest patriarchal system is Islam. As a result, it is very influential in the North of Mozambique. The matriarchal system does not survive there. Then, the State inherited patriarchal laws from a Judeo-Christian European system. Also, in Mozambique, principal leadership comes from the South, which is traditionally and typically patriarchal. The perfect matriarchal system still exists but is rare. It has been penetrated by Islam, the State, Christianity, cultures of the South. As it is a matter of power, men hold on tight and dominate.
Last week in Pemba I talked with a businessman from Kenya. He lived regularly between Kenya and Mozambique and said to me, “Macua women are very aggressive.” I got the impression that he felt somehow threatened by matriarchal systems.
Men are not prepared for this. A Macua woman reacts when she is not satisfied in a sexual relationship, and the community around her is supportive because she has right to life and to sex. People from patriarchal systems do not understand this. I felt strongly about this. The profoundest wish of a woman from a matriarchal system is to be respected, saying, for example, “I like you, I want to marry you.” Women go to war, bring a man home, while in a patriarchal system they would have to wait for someone to appear.
I am from the South. The education I received was the following: a woman should not say what she thinks or feels, she has to obey her man unconditionally. Macua women are different. They act in their power, they defend their rights. This may be what the Kenyan man felt.
In a way, Macua culture is very modern. In my country, in Germany, women today have the full right to demand sexual pleasure, but only after many years of feminist movements…
Another important issue is the colonization process itself. African people were considered cultureless by the Portuguese colonizers, who wanted to impose their own supposedly superior Judeo culture. But among African people there were more developed cases. Sometimes I say, we embrace Christianity and many colonialist values blindly. Today we are searching for a paradise that we had and lost. For example, even in the Bantu region of the South, where men are powerful, married women go to live in the house of their husband but never lose their name and identity. In Christianity, this is not true, a woman marries and adopts the name of the husband. Our justification is that a woman, as an individual entity, embodies a story and the protection of her ancestors. If she loses the name of her original family, she loses her ancestors’ protection, and her family will not be happy.
According to our Bantu tradition, a woman should be greeted by the name of her ancestors. The Portuguese arrived and said that this was backwardness. The assimilated Africans absorbed this religious thinking as value. Today, Mozambican women demand rights to things that they already had but lost through accepting a system without serious thoughts. Clearly, we had little chance as colonial subjects. But African cultures have a lot to contribute to world development. For one like me who lived among the Macuas, when I follow the global feminist movements, I say to myself, “But we had all it all.” Feminist movements, even in Mozambique, adopt the European model when they fight for women’s rights and do not reference the practical experiences of their own culture. This is not to say that we have feminism, but that we have a tradition, various traditions. Even in the harshest patriarchal system women have some rights. In Europe women were totally disregarded. European Christianity arrived and destroyed everything, rendering women worthless.
We discussed that the civil war helped to form a national identity. Let us take Ventos do Apocalise. Migration as we talked about, people who fled and abandoned their land, their ancestral ties. Didn’t this cause spiritual problems? That is, spirits live on the land they were born according to African beliefs. Put this way, didn’t migration somehow cause spiritual disturbances?
This question is interesting. My answer will not be the best. This is another area of study. Let us take a step back, to the time of tribal wars. There were a lot of wars between the Zulus, Ndaus, Rongas, Changanas. Today, people who are a little older than me and claim that they are possessed by spirits speak Zulu from the South, Ndau from the Centre and other languages when they enter a trance. They also speak the languages of the people who died in the tribal wars. New dynamics was created because of the old wars. Today, with wars and migration, interesting phenomena are surfacing, too. In my opinion, the world is dynamic as well. The joining of one group or the other may cause conflicts, but there will eventually be harmony. Some days ago, I heard that a Portuguese man went into a trance and spoke Maconde of the North of Mozambique. He had fought in the war and had always lived remorsefully for having committed errors in the war. Suddenly he hallucinated and began to speak Maconde as if he were a Maconde man of Cabo Delgado. Doctors gave their interpretation, Maconde natives gave their own interpretation. According to the medical explanation, a combination of conditions was the cause of his madness, but the Maconde people judge that it was the return of their ancestors, of spirits. The world we live in is dynamic. Someone I knew, who was originally from here but died already, used to speak all these languages, Nguni, Zulu, when he was in a trance. There are ruptures, of courses, which later create new dynamics, new understanding about life.
I have heard several times that traditional healers can speak several languages in a trance. I wonder if those were languages that they heard, for example in their childhood, but never learned to speak actively, and therefore the brain stores memories of these languages accessible to the person not when he is sober and awake but when he entered a trance. I am not sure if my explanation for this phenomenon is satisfactory.
I do not think so. This is how I understand it. Science, all scientific discoveries that have been made up to this day, according to the scientists, account for only 10% of our brain capacity. The world is infinite, and Human Being at 10% has not yet reached infinity. There are many more discoveries to be made. I think it is necessary for us to be more open-minded in order to do in-depth research on such phenomena that affect many people. For example, in Mozambique, when such things happen, we look immediately to psychiatry, which follows a European rational model, for answers. People are treated with good-quality medicine, but medicine is not always effective and alternative therapies are needed. Western knowledge is not perfect. In the civil war, my mother suffered from serious psychological disturbances after a brother’s violent death. We took her to a psychiatrist, and she received psychiatric treatment, but she was not cured. Then, an urban doctor took over. She felt better, but did not really recover after trying psychotherapy, after which we were referred to a Zambian psychiatrist. The psychiatrist began asking questions about my mother’s origins and beliefs. We explained that she had strong traditional roots. The medical professional said, “For your mother to recover, you have to take her back to the roots of her tradition for it is a particular language that she understands. From there her reactions will be different.” Now a psychiatrist, normally a well-dressed lady speaking Portuguese and in high heels, or a similarly well-dressed young man, would not reach her subconscious mind. It had to be a traditional healer, equal to what she knew in her childhood, it needed to be a ritual that was closer to her than what was conventionally practised. My father was reluctant but gave in eventually. He brought the traditional healer home. My mother saw her speak and prepare. My mother’s reaction was surprising. She exclaimed, “Yes, I recognize my mother’s spirit”. And she began to communicate with the spirit. The traditional healer, who was good in what she did and knew she art thoroughly, played the role of my mother’s mother and brought her peace of mind, tranquillity, blessing and all things good. A week later my mother became well again.
If we analyse the role of the traditional healer, she did nothing more, nothing less than putting my mother in her own world where she understood the signs and helping her overcome the problem. When the Europeans arrived with supreme cultural knowledge, they regarded medicine as a mechanical problem: here is a patient, extract a tooth and replace it with a dental implant, and the problem is solved. When they see that machines and mechanics are imperfect, they go to the one called psychiatrist. The psychiatrist is one who studied according to a European framework, and who does not realize that there are several environmental factors that make an African an African. With this I suggest that for any culture to develop harmoniously, there are knowledge systems that should be preserved and studied. What we think is irrational today, who knows if it will be thought rational in the future. What is important is to search constantly for the truths.
There is another interesting question: when the Europeans arrived in great style, they said immediately, the Africans do not know God and do not have churches. They need to have a big church for God and pray. They are backward and worship idols under the trees. However, a good traditional priest points out the best place to pray to God: no walls. It must be an open space because God is invisible. He is represented by cosmic forces: the Moon, stars, sea, water, trees, everything. Therefore, we should pray properly in the open air and not in a church. Today, what still needs to be debated and studied is the belief that religious acts are conducted in cathedrals. Africans in general reject this because for them God is the expression of the entire cosmos. One only sees four walls in a church. Where is the union of the cosmic forces? Nowadays, more and more people are beginning to recognize that God, if He exists, can be worshipped in the church, on the street, and in any other place. Then, Africans with such freedom are the most religious people because they communicate with God in any place and at any moment. Meanwhile, in a church, the priest is present only at eight on Sunday morning when mass begins.
As you just explained and knowing that Bantu cultures are very good at absorbing other beliefs, other cultures, without conflict or contradiction, for example, I talked to two traditional dealers (in Nampula and in Maputo) and both told me that they collaborate with the hospital, with modern medicine. They say that sometimes they need the hospital’s diagnosis beforehand to be able to treat a patient. Bantu cultures also absorb Islam and Christianity without offending local religious spirits. It seems to me that European cultures are more rigid in this regard. Is my observation correct?
Yes. I think that Europeans are rigid for no reason. They appropriated the great traditions without learning about their origins. Then they set dogmas. For us, knowledge about the history of Christianity and Islam is important. The history of the Holy Bible is impressive. I like reading the Bible to look for differences. When we open to Genesis and Exodus, the first territorial reference is in Africa: Egypt. Then come Abraham and Moses. I like the stories of the three great figures. Abraham and his sterile wife arrived in Egypt and received an Egyptian slave as the Pharaoh’s gift. Then Ishmael, the father of the Arab nation, was born. Therefore, the history of the Arab world begins in Africa. Moses, raised as a prince by the Pharaoh’s daughter, became knowledgeable and received the great revelation on Mount Sinai in Egypt, wrote the Ten Commandments in Egypt and headed for the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments, God’s Law, were written on African soil by an individual born and raised in Africa. Africa was the cradle of Christianity and Islam. However, when the Europeans took up history, they invented something different to wipe out the origins of the great deeds of what they consider religion, and this gave rise to many other events. They wanted to exclude Africa, but it should not be. Africa is part of the history. Time passed, much has happened, and our people are once again colonized with a supposedly European doctrine that really began here. I think we need to begin to discuss this.
The Holy Bible is another school of irrationalism [smiles] but also the basis of great powers. Yes, we have to learn to co-live with other cultures because we are oppressed and we need to survive, we need to resist. Africa can add to our knowledge, not contradict it. Respect and research are the key.
Do you think that FRELIMO is dealing well with African traditions? How do politics and traditions co-live? How is the interaction between the Association of Traditional Doctors and FRELIMO, for example?
In 1975, the Declaration of Independence was made in a colonial language: “No more obscurantism, no more traditional dealers, no more rites of passage! We want a new world, we want scientific socialism!” But what is scientific socialism doing to our rich culture? FRELIMO saw that it would not do because it caused other conflicts. Now we are in a stage where we are progressing very slowly, we are pretending that we are respecting tradition and culture, but it is only superficial at times. The problem is that the work that must be done is yet to be done.
What difficulties do you encounter in using Portuguese to tell stories which, if told in local languages, would probably be livelier? What is your relationship as a writer with the Portuguese language?
Conflictual. Surely, I learned to read and write in Portuguese, I am familiar with Lusophone literature. But there are cultural peculiarities that Portuguese is not able to transmit. Besides, Portuguese is a language of domination and of segregation. When I write and choose words, I am sometimes in shock: traditional healers are the centre of African knowledge. But what is a traditional healer in Portuguese? The dictionary gives an evasive, simplistic definition that intends simply to hush the traditional healer to one side. Supposedly, he is one who should be banished and eliminated.
Is it the same in Brazilian dictionaries?
There are some differences. Not too different, but yes. In general, Brazilian dictionaries are more progressive. Portuguese dictionaries are books of white culture. Therefore, a traditional healer is incompetent, untrained and unlicensed. My Porto Editora dictionary is from 2002, I am not sure if changes have been made. If you look for the word “palhota”, which is a house made of straw and palm, you find: “rustic habitation typical of the black race”. Why is that? Today, it is known that this type of construction is the most ecological. It is fresh, it cools down when it is hot, it warms up when it is cold. Why associate poverty with a race? There are several aspects of supremacy of one culture over another. Words in the dictionary are examples. Sometimes, I want to describe a reality (I am talking about the South), I want to transmit a proverb or a way of thinking, but I have to translate approximately. The result is not exactly our identity, but a construction of it. It is not what we want it to be. Writers are still not doing a lot of cultural exercise yet. I think that perhaps we will dedicate more space to our own culture in time. We will continue to use Portuguese for very long time doubtlessly because it is our language of communication.
Personally, as someone interested in Mozambican culture and literature, I hope that local languages will be recognized as official languages, but the problem is that there are many of them. Is it possible to choose one standard language for the South, another for the Centre and yet another for the North, and group the other languages as dialects related to one of the three major languages, respectively?
I am not sure if this is a good solution. I think about this issue with great displeasure because we, Africans, had our own socio-cultural structures. For example, the Changana language is important. There are speakers in the Gaza province in Mozambique, in Gazankulu in South Africa, and in Zimbabwe. The Changana territory is enormous. White people arrived and divided all. Now, they want us to invent a new language. It is difficult. Another example is Macua: Macua encompasses four provinces: Nampula, Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Zambézia. The territorial coverage is great, and it was a state.
I will bring up another aspect before discussing national identity. When I leave here and go to Nampula, I feel like a foreigner because the culture there is very different. And when I go to Cape Town in South Africa I feel at home. This is because I am Chope and we live among Changanas. Our traditions are close to those of the Changanas and Zulus of South Africa. I understand Zulu spoken in South Africa. Before colonization, we were one significant people, and now we are obliged to reconstruct. The future will tell, but it is challenging to re-establish the old boundaries. The languages, though, remain. There is Macua in the North, Changana in the South, Chona in the Centre. Something may be created from these.
How was your experience and that of your family in the civil war? Where were you? What effects did the war have on you? I am also thinking about your novel Ventos do Apocalipse.
The war was country-wide, and every family suffered, with very rare exceptions. We all suffered from the war, directly or indirectly. I lived in Matola with my parents and my children. The street became the biggest hospital on several occasions because medications were taken from the hospital, nurses were captured, people were kidnapped. This was a scene from the last years of the civil war. I worked for the Red Cross at the time. I was young and almost inconscient. I travelled the whole country in open fire. I witnessed a lot, cried and said, “War never again!” I lived in a civil war, I saw massacres before me, I saw people collapsing and dying before me, shooting before me, mine victims before me. I saw people running from one place to another. The Red Cross gave assistance to groups that fled from one community to another in search of peace. I also worked in refugee camps in Zimbabwe through the Red Cross of Mozambique.
The civil war must have been very traumatic for people. People do not talk much about the war, still recent history. I suppose also that it is politically impossible at the moment for people to demand any type of compensation, for example for the child soldiers who are already adults. What memories of the civil war are activated today?
Unfortunately, on top of the horrific memory of the civil war period, we also bear the crushing pain of the replay of the war scenes. At least I heard from the people – not from politicians – that they do not want to hear the war mentioned. But our leaders insist… This is the situation: when the pain is unbearable, people do not want to talk. I think they have no energy for such weighty subject. People who were themselves victims bore crushing, inexpressible pain. The rest who lived through the war indirectly should help them to rehabilitate, to demand their rights. We are absorbed by other worries, though… There are associations, for example, that talk about the right of children but do not offer accompaniment. A child comes, is helped, goes, and we do not know where to. Perhaps one day these suffering children will gain consciousness and revendicate their rights. But, on the other hand, the marks are being removed.
Novels like Ventos do Apocalipse of yours or Os Sobreviventes da Noite of Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa talk about the cruelty of the civil war. Can literature be therapeutic? Can it console people?
I think so. It is unfortunate that we are so few. We need to write more. I will not talk about others but about myself. Ventos do Apocalipse was my first book, but publication was financially impossible at the time. I started writing another book, and when there was some money available, the Mozambican Writers’ Association chose to publish Balada de Amor ao Vento first. But Ventos do Apocalipse was a very troubling story for me. As a Red Cross worker, I went to the Gaza province, to Manjacaze, where people were arriving because of the massacre. I had arrived very happy, ready to run from one place to another, and to work instantly. We gave out food aid, helped people to form social groups, we gathered children, we organized people who would then give identity to the children and form new families. My colleagues and I coordinated these activities at the community level: discover who knew how to read, who was strong, etc., and assign people to work beside the government, for life management.
I met an elderly woman, she looked at me, frightened, and ran away from me. As I was busy, I saw her but did not pay attention. I walked around the camp and met her again and she ran away. I realized that it was me she was running away from. So, I tracked her down. She was in a tent alone. I went near and entered. When she looked at me, she began to cry. She only said, “My Uxeme” (Uxeme was her daughter’s name), “when I saw you enter, it was as if my daughter returned from death. She was assassinated yesterday. You two talk and walk alike. What you are now, she was before. When I saw you, I saw my daughter, but I said no to myself, it was not her. This makes me suffer.” I sat down, I chatted with her and tried to console the woman. I left and felt a sense of revolt because I understood what the problem was: her daughter was pregnant, was buried in the common grave. The woman did not even get to attend her funeral, she had to abandon everything to come here and stay in the centre, only to meet someone who reminded her of her daughter. For many months I travelled thinking about this. Before I realized it, I was writing about these memories. Ventos do Apocalipse was like a cure for me because I was always dreaming about that woman, hearing her cry and I was not at ease. Once I started writing, I felt some sort of relief. Literature can work like collective catharsis and be a kind of collective memory. The young generation needs to know what happened yesterday, but unfortunately that are very few stories. I hope that one day there will be more because some of what happened was terrible.
I do not know if you are familiar with the texts of Lina Magaia [1940-2011]. Tragic stories. Take Duplo Massacre or Dumba Nengue. I like something about her: She does not respect writing rules, be them journalistic or other rules. She simply puts sentiments on paper. She writes plainly and confrontationally.
We talk quite a bit about African traditions. I would like to ask one more question about the conviviality between African polygamy and Christian monogamy. Do you think that polygamic families will disappear with time?
Polygamy will not disappear. It will only change names. Here we are all monogamic and all polygamic at the same time. The conflict between the two is, in truth, a society losing its structures. Polygamy offers advantages to society but carries disadvantages for women’s rights. On the other hand, polygamy is an economic question. A woman who shouts, “No more polygamy!”, if she meets a rich married man, she will forget her principles and go live with him. I have witnessed multiple cases. Girls who study well in university can suddenly forget everything and leave with men who have a lot of assets, shops and bank savings. They sign a so-called marriage contract, not marrying officially, because the Law only permits marrying one woman.
I know a woman with a university degree in Economics who went to work in a province and met a man with two women. He was so rich that on her birthday he offered her an agricultural tractor that cost more than a Mercedes Benz. The women looked left and looked right and said, “What I earn as an Economist amounts to nothing. The sea is before me and so let me take a dive.” She accepted the gift. Soon enough, the man opened a supermarket for her and gave her a fleet of trucks. And she said, “I studied Economics so that I have time to sleep, and I am working here because I need money. Here is a man who offers me everything.” She forgot about the rest and took what was hers. She has three children now. She lives in harmony with the other wives. But it is harmony for money considerations. Each of them knows that if she quarrels with this husband who gives them all, she will lose all. This is why it is easy to be peaceful. The opposite is also possible: men who stay with three or four women who work for him. There are two sides.
What is love within this system? I talked to a woman in Maputo and she told me that to love is to care. When I tried to explain to her what love means to me in my culture, she stressed that here love is not exclusive. Do you think love is different from culture to culture, or is it universal?
This is a big debate. I think we have no answers yet. What I believe is that love is a sentiment, and this is universal, although each culture constructs its own ideology of love. I enjoy reading about polygamy and there are common threads. Take the example of King Solomon. He is said to have had about 800 lovers and about 750 concubines [smiles]. Of these 1,500 women, he considered one to be his wife: Sabá. This means that, within this system, the other women formed just one number, and there was only one chosen wife. In Mozambique, Mataca was King, who, according to some books, had about 600 women, and according to others, had about 350. One woman, though, was different: Achivanjila. She was buried in Niassa in the district of Majune. So, the others were just a number.
Sobhuza, the king of Swaziland, had himself 250 wives, but he chose me to be his wife. Even within this system, love is universal and clear. Suppose he showed love to one, he would say that he loved the others too, because love is everything, we love our children, cows, chickens, then these women are like the cows and chickens in a way. There are other stories about Arab princes. Another example is Taj Mahal. He built a palace to hold many women, but he dedicated that palace to one among them only. This is an exclusive relationship that everyone wants but not everyone gets. The History of Man shows this, that a man can have many women, but loves only one. However, in our culture, love is a masculine, not feminine right. A man can love, but a woman cannot. A woman has to love according to cultural values, explaining why love is care. In reality, it is the same love.
Your newest book, Por Quem Vibram os Tambores do Além?, which you co-authored with the traditional healer Rasta Pita, was not published in Portugal.
It is interesting. No one comments on the book until now. I returned from Brazil a week ago. The book is very well-received in Brazil. The Brazilian public thinks the book interesting. I met Brazilian traditional healers that assured me that the development of traditional healing is exactly as described. There were people from different countries, for example from Columbia, who asked me if this traditional healer would be available for cultural exchange in Brazil, because what he related in the book is very similar to what they have. I met a spiritual chief who had also read the book and said to me, “My training was like that.”
Once again, I am lucky because I did something that everyone found strange and everyone thought that the book should not be published initially. But people from outside said that this should be written. The same happened with Niketche. Our story was hidden for many years. What was depicted as an irrational world, what psychiatrists and psychologist considered irrational, can be explained differently in the end. Understanding this world can be useful.
Yes, I agree that more research is needed on what is spiritual and magical. I also think that it would be enriching to collect Mozambican myths and oral tradition because people are losing the habit of telling children stories. For example, the matriarchal myths in O Alegre Canto da Perdiz and others in which the world was originally dominated by women, were they real or did you invent them?
They exist. I heard them in the most traditional places. In cities no one hears them. We only know Adam and Eva. But work is underway. Some books were published, although a lot is yet to be done. There are extraordinary myths. The myths of the South, for example, are almost extinct because they are not collected. For me, what is important is to dare to provoke, and from there, people will realize that they need to explore these treasures.