Sunday, March 26, 2006

Free at Last.

I rejoice today, along with friends, family members and admirers, for the safe release of Jim Loney, Harmeet Sooden and Norman Kember, the Canadian and British members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams that were kidnapped almost three months ago in Iraq. We can only imagine what sorts of things these men experiences during their captivity, and the stories will definitely be coming forth in the following weeks as the men begin to feel confident and prepared enough to take on the media. CPT has done, and is continuing to do, amazing, front line work in the devastated city of Baghdad, exposing the injustices of the American led occupation and standing alongside the Iraqi civilians as their country degenerates into a chaotic civil war.

It is a bittersweet happiness we feel, however, as Tom Fox, the only American CPT hostage, was killed a few weeks back, his body dumped in a Baghdad garbage bin. A man of strong faith, social justice and political conviction, had his life tragically struck down simply because of the nationality he carried. His work, and the ongoing message of CPT…that Christians should be prepared to give their full effort, even their lives , for peace and justice to be manifested on this earth. Their voices, and the voices of the countless others involved in the denouncing of the cruel, illegal and destructive occupation of Iraq, will not be easily extinguished.

I was especially touched by the words of CPT members as they attempted to put this experience in a comparative context to the lives of countless Iraqis that are suffering immense hardships in their homeland. They comment that as difficult as this ordeal has been they have experienced only a small taste of what Iraqis have heaped upon them on a daily basis with the car bombs, road side explosions, ambushes on innocent civilians and the constant kidnapping of those desperately trying to work to improve the situation in the country. In a statement the group said "During these past months, we have tasted of the pain that has been the daily bread of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis... We renew our commitment to work for an end to the war and the occupation of Iraq." Reports are now showing that up to 30 Iraqis are kidnapped each day on the streets of Baghdad.

I hope that the story of CPT can show the world, and especially our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, that there are many people who are motivated by the teachings of Jesus to continue the struggle for peace and justice from their own back yards to the farthest corners of the earth. The words of Jim Loney make a joyful sound,

“With God’s abiding kindness, we will love even our enemies.
With the love of Christ, we will resist all evil.
With God’s unending faithfulness, we will work to build the beloved community."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

You say Ponto and I say Ponta!!

This past weekend I set off with some friends for a camping trip to Ponta D’Ouro, a beautiful stretch of pristine coastline at the Southernmost tip of Mozambique. There were many squabbles among the group as to the proper spelling and pronunciation of our destination and we never really reached a consensus, especially given the fact that we encountered about ten different versions of the name within the town itself. However, there was a unanimous consensus amongst the group that Ponto was indeed a spectacular ocean paradise. Warm turquoise water, huge crashing waves and soft white sand was exactly what we were craving after being cooped up in the city for the past month.

The only downside to Ponto is that it is completely overrun by South African tourists. I had not seen so much white meat sizzling in the sun during my entire time so far in Mozambique. The Boers come in with their huge boats, 4 X 4s, quad bikes, jet skies and completely drown out any tranquility the beach may have otherwise possessed. And the campsite is literally one huge braai (BBQ) with Boerwurst, steaks and beers served up from 7AM until well past sundown. Without any hesitation, we elected to camp at a backpackers lodge further up the shore where we could relax amongst the reed huts and the gentle breeze coming in from the ocean.

One of the reasons why Ponto is such a haven for Boers is that it is extremely difficult to get to from Maputo. The roads from South Africa are freshly paved while the road from Maputo is a 200km stretch of soft sand that is just waiting to swallow up any unqualified vehicle that dares to make the journey. This highway is easily the worst road I have seen in Mozambique. I had been out to Ponto once before, back in December with my boss Pierre and his family and we got stuck for over an hour despite having a Kia Sportage 4 X4!! This time, however, we elected to all jam into a Ponto bound public chapa that could easily traverse over the challenging terrain. The chapa driver, Julio, was actually a client of Male Yeru, one of the MFIs that we work with and I was present on the day that he received a microloan to purchase the chapa and begin his business of transporting locals and tourists from Catembe to Ponto. Julio does very good business and certainly doesn’t mind doing overnights at Ponto with his kids that come along for the non-stop bumpy ride.

On the ride back we ended up having a very energetic conversation with some locals about soccer, South Africans and global poverty. They got quite a kick out of learning that our friend Gustav was Mozambican, despite the fact that he is a white guy from Sweden. Gus was born in Maputo and spent the first fifteen years of his life living in Mozambique and Swaziland. They called him “O Chefe de Missao” (the head missionary). We then all stopped at this road side vender when a lone woman with her two children sat selling bananas, a string of dried fish and some umkombotsi, which is local homemade corn beer. Looking around I could not see any other sign of life for miles and I wondered how a woman like this could possibly make a living selling these products in the middle of nowhere. She must walk a great distance just to get to the road where she probably waits all day for just a few customers. What other options does she have I guess? The men in the chapa loaded up on bananas and beer and we were quickly on our way, leaving the woman to return to the shade of a nearby tree and wait for the next vehicle that could be hours away.

While we were hoping for some gender balance on the trip, it ended up turning into mostly a guys weekend. Here’s a shot I got of the boys when we were on the ferry boat back to Maputo. Left to right you have Peter and Wes, my trusty Canadian comrades, Dan the Brit and Gus the Swedish Mozambican. Dan has an interesting philosophy towards language. He has lived in Maputo for as long as I have, teaching English, and simply could not be bothered to learn Portuguese. He believes that any Mozambican that wants a good paying job in the country will need to learn English so by speaking with the locals in any other language is only hindering their long term development potential. He is a very funny yet crazy character and on Sunday evening I think he was still hung over from the St. Paddy’s day party we went to on Friday night.

The lone female in the group was my friend Maria, who bravely put up with the barrage of testosterone throughout the trip. Maria is a documentary film maker from Colombia who is here in Mozambique to gather material for her next project on the history of African slavery and the contrast between traditional and contemporary African societies. She has found work here producing short films for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. She has an incredible eye for capturing images and I have immensely enjoyed assisting her in filming the nature and the people around Maputo. She has taught me much about opening my eyes to the beauty that exists around me every single day. Mas buena preciosa!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Shamrocks and Shenanigans

Happy St. Patrick's Day Everyone!! I'm hope all of you are wearing green and feeling a little more Irish today. Last year I was part of the Bastard Sons of the Golden Boy St. Paddy's Day reunion concert in Winnipeg and we had a riot singing our favourite Irish diddies and good ol folk tunes from the East Coast of Canada. The night of course was full of whiskey and pints and I remember falling off the stage as we were well into our third set. Truly a night for the record books! This year I dought I will find any Guiness, Leprechans or "Kiss me I'm Irish shirts" in Mozambique but you never know...four leaf clovers can pop up in the most unexpected places!! I hope every one has a merry ol time tonight from the first pint to the parting glass...

Of all the money e'er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I've ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh, all the comrades e'er I had,
They're sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e'er I had,
They'd wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stepping Back in Time

Ah I am getting very lazy in my posting. It is now a month after my fantastic trip to Ilha de Mozambique and I am only now sitting down to write about it on the blog. Ilha has definitely been one of the hi-lights of my time so far in Mozambique. It was amazing to kick back for a few days and explore this country as a tourist, after living in the big city for the past six months (where does the time fly away to, really?) After bidding farewell to Cremildo in Nampula, I hopped aboard a chapa bound for Ilha and spent the next three hours sandwiched between a 350 pound Mozambican Muslim named Amir, who had an opinion on absolutely everything, and an 80 year old Makua woman who kept feeding me these exotic little fruits that I had never seen before and laughing each time I popped a different one into my mouth. The old lady was actually the last one to get onto the chapa and since it was already full to the teeth with people, goats and bags of charcoal the driver simply picked her up and stuffed her through the open window into the seat next to me. A scene you just don’t get back home in Canada.

When we finally got to Ilha I was surprised to see that the Island was actually connected to the mainland by a 3 km bridge built by the Portuguese back in the 1960s. As we crossed the bridge and came closer to the Island I began to feel more and more of the weight of history that hung in the air throughout the place. Ilha de Mozambique has been a meeting place of world cultures for centuries and its diverse inhabitants have constantly been struggling to co-exist on this 3.5 km x 1 km piece of land. Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Europeans have each left their fingerprints and their seeds on this tiny Island. Long before the Portuguese found their way around O Cabo de Boa Esperança, the Island provided the Islamic Empire with its southern most trading post center along the East African coast.

However, the Portuguese had their sights firmly set on this strategic island and fought the Arab inhabitants, eventually establishing the Fort of St Sebastian. It was this impressive Fort that would protect the Portuguese as they built their colonial headquarters and their dominance over the region of what is presently known as the country of Mozambique. Actually the origins of the name “Mozambique” came from this initial contact between the Arabs and the Portuguese as the Portuguese explorers encountered stiff resistance from the islands inhabitants lead by the Arab sultan Mossa al-Bique. Ilha served as the colonial capital of Mozambique until 1898 when the Portuguese moved it south to the port city of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). Many Portuguese remained on the island but as the FRELIMO Guerillas increased their offensive in the northern parts of the country during the 1960s, the government decided to remove all administrative resources from Ilha and concentrate them in the much more accessible city of Nampula. No longer serving any administrative or commercial purpose, the Portuguese abandoned Ilha entirely by 1970, leaving the remaining inhabitants in a perpetual time warp on the future world heritage site.

As I stepped out of the chapa and walked around the narrow streets of “stone town” I encountered a remarkable sight that was half ghost town and half vibrant community. Children raced through tiny alley ways while their mothers called at them from the windows of 400 year old buildings. Here was a historic European city that was essentially “taken over” by the dark faced inhabitants that had watched the sun rise on Ilha’s eastern horizon for many years before the arrival of the White Man. I was immediately surrounded by local boys who wanted to sell me everything from beads to sea shells to guided tours of the island. I first needed accommodation and while I had brought along my tent for some beach camping I thought that the experience of sleeping in a nearly 500 year old colonial home would be something to check out.

One of the boys stood out from the rest and introduced himself as “Harry Potter.” He convinced me that I should come and see the house that his brother took care off on the Eastern side of the Island. When we got there I was simply amazed at the place. It was fully renovated and full of antique colonial furniture with huge gothic style windows opening up to the sweet sounding waves and the cool caressing breeze of the Indian Ocean. I immediately jumped when I heard that the place only cost $10/night to stay.

I then finished my day by exploring the 500 year old Fort with a local tour guide named Anibal. We walked all over the fort, past the 300 cannons still pointing menacingly out at would be attackers and the impressive water cistern that sustained the Portugeuse inhabitants under countless military sieges. The cistern still served as one of the Island’s main sources of drinking water until only a few decades ago. Finally, that gleaming white building above is the chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest European building in the Southern Hemisphere. Simply amazing!!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Here's a happy family shot! Last night we had a big Canadian send off for our friends Cortney and Guillon, who head back to Canada on Friday. Cortney is the one in black and Guillon is the one wearing the Canadiens jersey. They had been up in a small town in northern Mozambique called Mocimboa da Praia for the past three months and it was great to see them back in Maputo for this past week and get caught up on all of their stories from the field. Life certainly was a lot more difficult for them up there than for us in cushy Maputo as they suffered robberies, work delays, visa problems and incessant marraige proposals from an assortment of locals.

The other folks in the picture are Wes, Cathy and Caitlin...Peter got stuck taking the shot!! The potluck was a riot and the food was fantastic. Cathy and I always talk about how we never use our dinning room set nearly enough so it was great to see it loaded up with friends. We ate and drank our fill while reminicing about all the good times we've had here in Mozambique. It is coming to a point where a lot of the close friends I've made here will be moving on, leaving me to make new connections and friendships in this wonderful city. Still it sucks having to say goodbye, especially to such genuinely good people like Cortney and Guillon

Eu tenho amei cada minuto de nosso amizade. Nós somos seperatos mas juntos. Ficam bem e sempre vao com Deus


Friday, March 03, 2006

Seasons of Blessings

Life truly is a strange and magnificent ride. And I have felt myself pushed and pulled through every twist and turn of this ride during these past six months. I have learned much, seen much, been pushed off the ledge, been drawn in closer and finally learned the true meaning of carpe diem. Living and working in Maputo, Mozambique has been an experience that has, without question, impacted and guided me in ways that I could never have imagined. I have come a long way in these past six months in seeing more of the type of work I want to do in my life and I have made connections that will continue to influence my life in positive ways for many years to come.

The reason why I’m feeling such a strong seize the day mentality is that this past week Maputo was hit by its strongest earthquake in over 100 years. We were all awoken in the middle of the night to the shaking and rattling of everything in the room. A very strange experience for a boy that has never felt the earth move under his feet before. My first instinct was that is was my neighbours getting rather frisky with some late night activities but soon became aware of the geological force that was sweeping across the city. The earthquake measured 7.5 at the epicenter up in central Mozambique and 4.6 here in Maputo. If the epicenter was close to Maputo I cannot even imagine what sort of damage and loss of life it would have caused. Office and apartment buildings would have fallen like dominoes, transforming the city into an instant ground zero. Perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic but such an experience can bring you closer to the realization that the gift of life can be taken from us at any moment and that we should live each day on this beautiful earth to the fullest. So many times in our lives, in our careers, in our faith and in our relationships we are focused intently on the great mystery that is the future, neglecting the clear and present reality of today. As Dave Matthews sings, “the future is no place to place your better days.”

Another reason why I am feeling so alive these days is that I have been granted a contract extension by MEDA to continue my work in HIV/AIDS and microfinance here in Mozambique. In fact, I am now MEDA’s HIV/AIDS program coordinator here in Mozambique and I have been given the responsibility of facilitating an HIV/AIDS technical assistance project we have begun in collaboration with another NGO based in Johannesburg. This has been quite an honour for me and a real affirmation from MEDA for the work that I have done here so far. This new contract will keep me here in Maputo until the end of November and I am excited for the new opportunities that will come my way and the new challenges that I will undoubtedly face in this new position.

So this brings me to my final point, or more of a proclamation really. I am issuing a challenge to all of my friends, family members and associates scattered anywhere around the world…seeings how I will be here in Mozambique for the better part of 2006, I would really love it if some of you, any of you, would come and visit this beautiful country with me. The first person to make it to Maputo will get an all expenses paid weekend trip to one of Southern Mozambique’s spectacular beaches…complete with all the laurentina or amarula you can drink. Come on…that has to be some good incentive!!

Peace and Love to you all


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Final Day

The final day of our work with Ophevela saw us go further “into the bush” then I had ever been before with one of our MFI partners. Cremildo and I were joined by two credit officers from the small town of Monapo and proceeded to drive 150 km right into the middle of nowhere to meet loan groups that existed in the rough but beautiful countryside of northern Nampula province. Basically the whole of Northern Mozambique, from Nampula all the way up to Pemba in Cabo Delgado, has inselbergs scattered about in the most picuturesque manner that locals have dwelled among for centuries upon centuries. While the scenery is indeed beautiful, there are not a lot of jobs to be found in these remote areas and the living can be harsh and deprived. Here is the "road" that we took to go and visit the villages.

The first loan group we visited that morning was the poorest out of all of the groups we had visited so far. The group of 30 members had accumulated less than $50 in savings over the past three months. One of the elderly female members was allowed into the group despite the fact that she could really only afford to save 1000 MZM per week, the equivalent of a nickel back home in Canada. Despite the lack of business in these rural areas, the members were deeply thankful that Ophavela existed so they could invest in whatever meager income generating activities that were possible. And there was also a deep rooted sense of pride in the village, evident in the fact that the group had pooled their savings together and collectively purchased matching fabric to make “special outfits” for the group meetings. Here the women are in their capilanas (skirts, the essential female African outfit) and the men in their snazzy shirts, ready to get down to business.

In total we visited five village loan groups that day and at each location we were treated to singing, dancing and an eagerness on the part of the members to discuss their challenges, future plans and thoughts on HIV/AIDS. This group of women featured below even wrote their own song of praise for savings and loans that they enthusiastically presented to us. It is encouraging to see many of the members use the loan money for productive things such as new farm land, bicycles or sewing machines. I was also amazed at the strength and determination of the women members that we interviewed who often were the sole breadwinners in the family. Many of these women would speak passionately about their work and families while non-chalantely popping out their breasts to feed their hungry babies. This has been a common occurrence no matter where I have conducted client interviews in Mozambique and while at first this made me embarrassed I quickly realized that it was a natural action and that I was the only one in the group that feeling uncomfortable. My experience talking to rural Mozambicans, as a result, will be forever linked with the smell of sweat and breast milk.

Another thing I discovered about Northern Mozambicans, particularly the Makue people that we worked with around Nampula, is that they believe much more strongly in traditional medicine and “magic” then the Shangana people around Maputo. Some of the clients told me that they would at times use money from the group to pay for traditional healing ceremonies and visits to witch doctors. Even my colleague Cremildo admitted that his Makue friends in Maputo believed “too much in the magic.” This was compounded by the fact that on Thursday night Cremildo’s cellphone mysteriously began to flash on and off and lock the keys whenever he tried to call somebody. Cremildo was convinced that some Makue had put magic on his cellphone as a visit to the Mcel store the next day failed to fix the problem.

As we finished up our final group interview on Friday afternoon Cremildo and I were exhausted and our brains were fried. We savoured every mouthful of our greasy egg sandwiches and warm bottles of coke and bid farewell to our hosts. One of the older female members, a real matriarch in the community, spoke up and said that she didn’t want us to be like all the other visitors from Maputo (read: wealthy Mozambicans) and abroad (read: whites) that would visit them in their villages and then never come back (read: forget about them). We both assured her that this was not our intention and that we are hoping to work with Ophavela more in the future on rural microfinance and HIV/AIDS. After what we saw over those three days completely convinced me that they would be an important partner for MMF in our HIV/AIDS initiative.

Cremildo and I then spent our final night together in Nampula catching the final game of the Africa Cup of Nations with the host nation Egypt taking the crown in a shoot out victory over Senegal. We then checked out a Brazilian Carnival party hosted at the main community center in Nampula. Mozambique is often considered the “Brazil of Africa” as the music, costumes and dance are a unique blend of African and Latin American culture. Needless to say, the whole town was out at the event and Cremildo and I both had sore necks from having our heads turned repeatedly by the countless number of gorgeous women in attendance. A good night of partying was what we needed to wrap up a fantastic week of work in Nampula and to prepare myself for my next three days on the Island of Mozambique.