Friday, April 28, 2006

Never, and Never Again.

One of the highlights of my Cape Town trip was definitely Robben Island. Ever since I was in my early teens, and beginning to have my political consciousness awakened by the events going on in the world, I have been interested in the symbol of Robben Island and how it represents one of the worst forms of systematic racism in human history. South Africa’s Apartheid State required the authorities to be able to arrest any and all political dissidents and make them disappear from the rest of society. For nearly 30 years, the greatest leaders of the African National Congress, and other political activists that fought against the massive injustices of Apartheid, were cut off from their beloved land and housed in the harsh conditions of Robben Island’s maximum security prison. The cell you see below was the home of Nelson Mandela for nearly twenty years as he lived out his sentence and dreamed of a South Africa free from racial discrimination.

The tour of the island was very powerful, beginning with the 20 minute boat ride over to the island. Robben Island has served as a place of banishment for the British and the Dutch for hundreds of years. It used to be a home for insubordinates of the colonial government and the local African leaders who refused to give in to the demands of the European authorities. During the 1800s it was used as a leper colony by an Irish mission and during WWII it housed artillery and the batteries for the Allied forces in South Africa. The maximum security prison was only built in 1960 under the order of the National party and the first political prisoners began arriving to the island in 1961-1962. As I sat in my comfortable chair on the boat ride over I could not help but think about all the others that have crossed Table Bay in much more deplorable conditions, destined for existence of shame and exile. I got a similar feeling when I toured Alcatraz in San Francisco. Walking in the steps of prisoners, as a tourist with a camera in my hand, can be quite a surreal experience.

The tour of the island revealed a whole “community” that had been built up around the jail. We were shown the countless sports fields built by the black prisoners for the exclusive use of the white guards. We were also shown the limestone quarry that the prisoners worked in five days a week using only pick axes and buckets. They would spend one week moving the rocks into a giant pile then spend the next week moving that pile to another location in the quarry…continuing this monotonous process for months on end. The hole that you see above is particularly interesting because it was one of the only places of privacy afforded to the prisoners. Here was where they could go to the bathroom and eat their meager lunches, although the location served a more important purpose in allowing the prisoners the opportunity to share ideas and discuss political events. Many of the former prisoners call this hole the “University of Robben Island” as it provided the opportunity for younger prisoners to be educated by the senior leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. The conversations held within that hole had an indelible impact on the forces that helped to bring down the apartheid state in 1994.

What was also incredibly fascinating about Robben Island is that all tours of the prison are conducted by former inmates. I was expecting someone as old and grey as Mandela himself but was pleasantly surprised to have Samuel, a guide in his late 30s who had spend five years at Robben Island from 1986-1991. Samuel was an absolute wealth of information, providing us with a no-holds barred, honest account of life in the jail. Despite being incarcerated for much of the prime of his life, Samuel did not display any anger or resentment towards his former guards or rest of South Africans. Samuel strongly believes in moving forward with a progressive vision of a new South Africa, one in which people of all races and creeds and claim equal ownership and live together harmoniously. This progressive spirit is evident in many of the Robben Island staff, where former prisoners and guards live side by side to preserve the island as a symbol of both South Africa’s dark history and bright future. It was truly an inspirational experience to be a part of Robben Island and see the power of the human spirit triumph over the forces of evil.


"Never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land shall ever experience oppression of one by another"

- Nelson R Mandela 1994

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Cape of Hope and Storms

Well after spending just five days in Cape Town I can now understand what all of the hype is all about. It is an absolutely beautiful city with pretty much everything you can possibly want literally right there at your doorstep. Cape Town is sort of the cultural magnet of Southern Africa, attracting artists, musicians and students of all walks of life into its arms. The creative energy and the cultural mix of the city puts Cape Town in a league of its own. Beauty, art, history and jazz are all blended in with the contemporary political and social dynamics of post-Apartheid South Africa. Here is where Europe meets the "Dark Continent" and where the First World crashes headfirst into the Third.

I had been looking forward to two days of touring the Cape Region but the weather was absolutely terrible for the weekend and did not really clear up until the day Cremildo and I got on a plane back to Maputo. Table Mountain, Cape Town’s famous landmark and destination for traveling pilgrims like myself, was completely blanketed by think rain clouds making any attempt at an ascent next to impossible. As a result, I had to concentrate on the intriguing side of Cape Town to be found indoors. I went out to Robben Island, the South African Museum, The Cape Town gallery (which had a fascinating display on Picasso and Africa…highly recommended!!), the Aquarium and the colourful Bo-Kaap neighbourhood. I also had a fantastic time taking in the Long Street night life, hopping in and out of pubs, clubs and cafes with seasoned travelers until the sun began to peek over the horizon. Favourite spots included: Jo’burg, Marvels, Cool Runnings, Mama Africa, Mr. Pickwick’s and the Long Street Café. Ja, such good times!

Then Sunday and Monday we had our conference amidst the luxurious confines of the Hotel Commodore and the BMW conference center. The event was extremely well organized and brought together leading microfinance consultants, practitioners and partners from all over the continent to talk about strategies for mitigating the impacts of HIV/AIDS. Glancing over the participant list, I could see that there were 30 different African countries represented at the conference, each bringing their own experience and cultural insights to the table. Cremildo and I felt quite honoured to be a part of the event and we met many fascinating people. Our presentation went very well and we were even able to give Paulo Cuvilla from Male Yeru a chance to highlight the work of his institution. If the purpose of these events is to gain knowledge and build networks between people then I can say that we were quite successful. The learning tools we acquired this past weekend will help us tremendously over the coming months.

Thank you Africap for putting on such a quality event and thank you Cape Town for giving me a taste of Africa’s Mother City. I will carry a piece of you with me until we meet again.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Today I have the wonderful opportunity to go to Cape Town for the weekend. I will be spending two days as a tourist and then my colleague Cremildo and I will be attending a one day “super conference” on economic mitigation strategies for HIV/AIDS. This conference is being put on by Africap, a huge economic consulting firm out of Dakar, Senegal and will involve people working in the area of microfinance and HIV/AIDS from all over the continent. I will be presenting on our HIV/AIDS project here in Mozambique, specifically on the importance of forming partnerships for MFIs in the implementation of HIV/AIDS mitigation strategies. Then we will be participating in a Round Table discussion, fielding questions from the other participants. It is a tremendous opportunity for learning and exposure for both Cremildo and I, as well as MMF-MEDA and our work here in Mozambique!!

I am also very excited about being able to tour around Cape Town for a couple of days. I have wanted to visit this part of South Africa since I was about 13 years old and so I’m really looking forward to it. I am planning on climbing Table Mountain, visiting Robben Island, drinking my share of Cape wines and soaking in the multicultural flavour that is Africa’s Mother City. I only have two days and I plan on making the most of my time there!! I promise many pictures and stories when I return.

Blessings and peace to you all!!


Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Monday

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died; 
my richest gain I count but loss, 
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, 
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine, 
demands my soul, my life, my all. 
               - Isaac Watts 1707

Feliz Pascua!! Happy Easter!! This was how people in Maputo shared their Easter greetings with each other this past weekend. For a country where religion was quite suppressed during the socialist regime, I was surprised at how big of a deal Easter seemed to be here in Mozambique. The Christian community seemed to come out in full force and made a louder noise than at Christmas time. Our office took the afternoon off on Good Friday so people could attend church or just share the holy “spirits” in the baraca. I was able to join with some other Christian friends here in Maputo for a time to reflect on the sacrifice and significance of the Passion Week.

Then on Easter Sunday I woke up super early to join my empregadda Rebecca and the rest of her family at their church in Hulene, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Maputo. The service was entirely in Shangana, the local Mozambican language, but I was still able to enjoy immensely the three hours of singing, dancing and genuine worship despite not understanding a single word of what was being said. The pastor even called me up to the front to say some words and presented me with a Portuguese bible. White guys with beards and long hair are a pretty uncommon sight in Maputo and are almost unheard of in these all-black communities. As a result, a lot of Mozambicans think I look like Jesus so you can imagine how popular I was on Easter Sunday!!

After the marathon service I was invited back to the home of Rebecca’s sister Gloria for Easter Lunch. The afternoon was spent eating, sharing stories and, of course, more singing and dancing. I also got to play with all of the beautiful children in the neighbourhood who came out in earnest to see who this stranger was in their midst. By the end of the day my soul was cleansed and I was on the most incredible spiritual high.

Lord help me find the meaning of your resurrection,
May I rise above the forces that work to hold me down
Speaking love and showing light
May I join in the chorus of the living,
The work of the righteous,
And the world wide dance of those who believe
In the power of your Name

This is my prayer for the countless souls
Who live and breathe
For the Resurrected Africa
One that rises like the sun over the shadows
of death and disease and war

Alleluia, the freedom is here!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Portuguese Frustrations

Seven months here in this country and my Portuguese is still pretty terrible. I’m embarrassed when I struggle to string a few sentences together and then stand blank faced as the person I am speaking to rattles off a torrent of Portuguese responses and I’m left desperately trying to catch enough words so I can follow along at a minimal level. Of course, some days are better than others, and I really should give myself some credit as I’ve made some great strides in the last couple of months. But over all, my Portuguese skills remain pathetic.

Many people, even university linguists, bounce around the theory that Anglophones have a particularly difficult time learning other languages. Something to do with never growing up being forced to speak a second or third…or seventh language. I guess you could call this the curse of having the lingua franca being your native tongue. I can see some truth to this. Growing up in Western Canada, I NEVER had any pressure on me to speak another language, outside of trying to get a passing grade in our French classes. But then again, I seemed to be more preoccupied with playing cards with my friends then learning how to conjugate verbs in le passé simple.

Living abroad just opens you up to the necessity of language skills. I am genuinely impressed at many of my friends here that can confidently speak 3-5 European languages..or my African friends that can speak two or three on top of the tribal languages they grew up with as kids. Language is such a fascinating cultural phenomenon and I envy people that can fluently move from one language to the next while hiding their obvious foreign accent.

But when it comes to my pathetic Portuguese, I really can’t blame geography or my unilingual upbringing…it’s purely a matter of laziness. I do most of my work here in English, writing reports, researching information online, attending meetings, despite living in a Portuguese speaking country I can do most of this in my native language. I’ve become dependant on a translator for presentations and interviews and am rarely forced into a working situation where I can only speak Portuguese. But on the street, or in a meeting with only Portuguese speakers, my weakness is clearly exposed. I’m not saying that after seven months I should be fluent, but I certainly should be further along.

A big part of my problem is that I still haven’t got a firm grasp on basic pronunciations in Portuguese. They have a lot of sounds that my tongue just can’t seem to get around all the time. It can be embarrassing but it had led to some pretty funny situations as well. For example, one time I was riding a chapa to work and approaching my stop. In Portuguese, you say “paragem” when you want to get off a bus but I said “parabens” which means congratulations!! I got a pretty confused look from the door man.

Another time I wanted to know the time so in portuguese you say “ Que horas sao?” except I pronounced it “coracao” which means “heart.” I later found out that this is a secret code for homosexual men in Mozambique to determine if the one that they are interested in is indeed on the same side of the fence. Another time I asked for the price of carrots and ended up asking for the price of a woman. That got some good laughs from the ladies in the market. Another verb I also mix up is sentir (to feel) and sentar (to sit down). You can imagine the look I got from one of our colleagues when I asked her, instead of whether they would like to have a seat, if they would like to feel themselves. Good times being the stupid bumbling foreigner!!

Despite all these mix ups and frustrations, speaking Portuguese can be a lot of fun, especially now that I can see myself improving more rapidly. I still have a long way to go but at least I can hold my own now in a basic conversation. I also have a nice Mozambican guy for a Portuguese tutor, who has been teaching language classes for 30 years. He likes to do “practical Portuguese” lessons which normally means hanging out in the baracas drinking beers and speaking with the locals without using any English.

So there is my language rant. Anyone else got any thoughts on the matter or any funny language mess ups they would like to share? I’d love to hear that I’m not the only one that embarrasses himself on a regular basis!!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Let’s get this show on the road!

I think that it is high time that I gave an update on my work progress here in Mozambique. Now that I have signed this new contract with MEDA I have assumed the ambiguous title of HIV/AIDS Program Coordinator for the Mozambique Microfinance Facility. One of my main responsibilities now will be in directing from our end MMF’s HIV/AIDS project we have recently begun in collaboration with Development Alternatives International (DAI) and Economic Consultants International Africa (ECIAfrica) in Joberg. The development world is really just one big alphabet soup of various acronyms!!

This project that we have just begun in March involves the selection of four Mozambican Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) to receive more direct technical assistance from our team of consultants as well as some funding to be used towards the implementation of action plans for HIV/AIDS. We are happy with our four participating MFIs as they represent a good mix of different lending methodologies and geographical regions in Mozambique. The first is Male Yeru, an MFI that has about 1200 clients in Southern Maputo province specializing in microenterprise development loans for individual clients. Male Yeru is a close partner of MMF and we are tremendously happy to see them willingly take an initiative on HIV/AIDS.

The second is Banco Oportunidade, one of the biggest MFIs in the country serving urban clients in Maputo, Beira, Chimoio and Quelimane. They offer individual loans as well as group lending (3-7 members) and village banking (10-30 members) to their clients in some of the most heavily infected HIV/AIDS regions in the country. We are extremely impressed with their commitment and progress so far on HIV/AIDS as they have already begun to offer training sessions for their staff in order to have them better equipped to answer questions and confront the challenges of dealing with clients living with the disease.

The final two participating MFIs are the two from Nampula province that Cremildo and I worked with back in the beginning of February. Caixa das Muheres de Nampula (CMN) is an association of some 2000 women that focuses on issues of economic and social development while teaching these ladies how to properly utilize small enterprise loans. Since HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects women more than men here in Mozambique, as is the case in most other countries in Southern Africa, we are excited to work through this challenge with through a specifically female perspective. Finally, Ophavela is a microfinance operator that overseas the rotating savings and credit associations in the rural districts of Nampula province. They have a very interesting lending methodology and are eager to begin addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS in these rural areas where very few NGOs dare to venture.

We held our first learning workshop for the project last week in Maputo, inviting each of the MFIs to an intimate gathering where we could review our project objectives and begin to plan our courses of action for the next seven months. We also provided a brief overview of the HIV/AIDS and Microfinance workshop we held back in September to refresh the participants on the main focus areas associated with building a strategic response to the impacts of HIV/AIDS on the clients, staff and overall operations of MFIs. The participants were able to share some laughs as well as their experiences and insights into how their institution has dealt with this challenging issue. After a full morning of presentations, the participants were able to break into one-on-one groups to discuss their proposed strategies with our “tag team” of consultants, Dominique Brouwers from South Africa and Henriqueta Hunguana from Mozambique. We are especially excited to have Henriqueta as a part of the team as she is easily the most experienced and well respected microfinance consultant Mozambique has to offer!!

After the two day workshop, the whole project team went out to the Costa do Sol restaurant for a big wrap up party. For the past seven months I had been told about this legendary restaurant, rumoured to serve up the best prawns in all of Mozambique, but I had never been inside its doors. The meal was absolutely incredible and we all sincerely appreciated the opportunity to discuss non-work related topics over wine and sumptuous seafood. Back in July, while I was at my internship orientation at the MEDA offices in Waterloo, I had made a pact with Ruth Dueck-Mbeba that we would sit down and share a plate of prawns and a bottle of vinho verde when she came to visit here in Maputo. Well seven months later we finally fulfilled our promise. This picture above of Ruth, MEDA’s longest serving consultant, holding our precious bottle of Casal Garcia is truly priceless.

Then of course we have the lovely ladies, Frances Bundred my co-facilitator with ECIAfrica, Henriqueta Hunguana and Pauline Achola, HIV/AIDS project manager for MEDA. Without the input of these fantastic women this project would never have got off the ground. Everyone involved in this event put in a tremendous effort and we have much to look forward to during these coming months as we continue to work with our participating MFIs on pro-active solutions to HIV/AIDS.

Monday, April 03, 2006


One of the greatest things about learning a new language is discovering interesting new words that just don’t really translate well into one’s native tongue. In Portuguese there is a wonderful example of this in the word “saudades.” It more or less means to feel strong nostalgia for a person or a place…something like what we would call homesickness in English but more specifically related to one’s emotional attachment to certain relationships. As a sentimental fool myself, I particularly enjoy this word and the meaning that it has in my life right now.

This past week I have had to say good bye to my best friends here in Maputo as well as my beautiful apartment that has been my first home here in Mozambique. I became incredibly close to Peter, Caitlin and Wes during these past seven months and will look back fondly at the countless memories we’ve shared together in this wonderful country. They have been a constant source of joy and support for me here and a healthy reminder of my homeland that at times seems so very far away.

Together we have explored Mozambique’s pristine coastline and unique cultural mix, grooved to Afro-jazz at either Gil Vicente or Café Camissa, brought down the house at Clube Naval, laughed at each others frequent Portuguese mistakes, shared meals with friends from around the world, tried to solve the world’s problems during our numerous balcony sessions, exchanged multiple stories of happiness and sorrow from life in Maputo and discovered what it means to be white development workers on a black man’s continent. Oh and we also found time to start a band together called Samora Machel and the Revolutionaries. Our first album should be out by the end of the year with a world tour to follow in 2007. We’ll keep you posted.

Of course, nobody can leave quietly from this country so last week we threw Peter, Caitlin and Wes a massive Desperdida, which is basically a big going away party in Portuguese. The night was full of music, drinking, dancing and good times for all, a perfect way to send off my Canadian Comrades. Their house was packed with more Mozambicans then I have ever seen in one apartment and naturally things got a little steamy…a real festa Africano!! This picture above is my favourite picture I have of the "Three Stooges" putting back the pineapple surprise that someone had concocted.

The night also signified the handing over of their apartment to me as I moved into the place this past Saturday. I loved my old apartment but our lease came to an end of the month and we were no longer interested in staying associated with our old land lady. IN my whole time in Mozambique so far nobody has given us nearly as much grief as this lady has in the past couple of months. We have fought tooth and nail over ridiculous things and embarrassingly it has degenerated into a situation where nearly every conversation we have together is confrontational. Cathy and I have felt cheated at every opportunity by this women and have wisely chosen to part ways, both of us learning valuable lessons about renting apartments in developing countries. Our moving day experience was one of my worst days here in Mozambique and I really don’t think that I should dwell on all of the details. Let’s just say that it was an unfortunate ending to an enjoyable stay in a classy apartment.

But as much as it is hard to say goodbye to the old apartment I look forward to keeping the good times rolling in the new apartment, a place that is already full of so many good memories and positive energy from my experience here in Mozambique. And like all friends that come in and out of our lives, I know that Peter, Wes and Caitlin have each left a part of themselves with me to remind me of the many things we’ve shared together

A meus amigos:

Podem suas almas estar livre dançar, seus coraçãos esteja livre amar e suas mãos estejam livres trabalhar em o que lhe significa a maioria. Podemos nós nunca esquecer-se que em Mozambique, em Canadá, e em cada canto do mundo...a luta continua!! Eu vou ter os muitos saudades para voces e eu espero por nossa reunião seguinte em Africa ou o Winnipeg Folk Festival!!

Paz e Amor