Friday, August 25, 2006

Dia de Hommems

I think of all the days of the week here in Mozambique Friday is my favourite. The beginning of the weekend, the reception of pay cheques, the close of the work week and an early finishing hour all contribute to give a Friday a joyous feeling on the streets of Maputo. The tradition of some of the MMF staff here is to go to the popular Museu Baracas for some good home cooked Mozambican lunch and a cold beer or two. These baracas are an ideal meeting spot for the men of Maputo to share stories, crack jokes, wax philosophically and relax after a long work week.

It is no wonder that Fridays in Mozambique are also referred to as “Men’s day,” a day for men to feel like kings and enjoy the camaraderie of their closest friends, colleagues and associates. This seems to suit the women of Maputo just fine as they also get a chance on Fridays to get together with their girlfriends in one of the numerous “salaos” (beauty saloons) throughout the city. For every baraca selling beer to the men of Maputo, there is a salao catering to the beautification of this city’s women.

My colleague Narcisso also emphatically refers to Friday as “Sex-ta Feira!!” a cleaver take on the Portuguese work for Friday seixa-feira (pron. saysh-ta fah-rah). Mozambican guys are no doubt extra “charged up” on this day and become slightly more emboldened in their relations with the ladies. In a country where the fight against HIV/AIDS relies so critically on the promotion of safe sex, discussions regarding the Mozambican sexual culture inevitably become rather controversial. This same controversy was displayed at the recent International HIV/AIDS Conference held in Toronto. The issues at hand are the common perceptions, and misperceptions, about African sexuality, and, in particular, the sexual nature of African men.

HIV/AIDS strategies in Africa have long followed the popular “ABC” creed (1st Abstain, 2nd Be Faithful, 3rd Wear a Condom). Now there is a huge debate opening up between organizations and donors that openly advocate the use and distribution of condoms and those that push abstinence and monogamy messages while denouncing the usefulness and morality of condoms and other safer sex practices. The fight against HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, and in many parts of Africa, is burdened by this debate and the foreign interests that are involved in the advocacy of each position.

My opinion is that HIV/AIDS strategies must recognize the importance of promoting safe sex among youth and young adults. Certainly faithfulness and waiting till one is ready to engage in sexual relations are important values and principles to promote, but certainly not at the expense of providing support for access to safer sex knowledge and materials. Africans are very sexual people but all of us in this world are sexual beings with sexual appetites. Recognizing the realities of sex, defending sexual rights of both men and women and safeguarding against harmful sexual practices are integral in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Mozambique and throughout the world.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts of mine on Firday afternoon, but I should go as I’m already late for the Baraca!!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Taking of Xefina Island

A few kilometers off the coast from Maputo lies the tantalizing and enigmatic island of Xefina (sha fee nah). For months my friends and I have been starring across the Maputo Bay wondering how we could explore this island and working up the confidence and energy to make the journey. Last week we finally transformed our dream into a reality. We organized a group of 20 strong adventurers, comprised of Brits, Irish, French, Brazilians, Argentines and a lone Canadian, and set off for a weekend excursion to “colonize” the largely uninhabited island.

Our mode of transport would be a small fishing boat that we hired from some local fishermen who would take us across the bay and guide us throughout the island. The plan was simple enough. We were to arrive at Costa Do Sol at 12:00 on Saturday and the boat would make two trips across the bay with all of our gear and crew. When we were all assembled at the beach that afternoon the sea was at its complete low tide, requiring us to walk about two kilometers out into the ocean on the exposed sand bars in order to meet up with the boat.

The first group was taken across without incident while the second group, which included myself and the majority of the tents, food, booze and instruments, waited patiently on the other side. Suddenly, as if someone flicked on a light switch, the wind became quite violent, stirring up the sea with great force and bringing in the tide at a rapid pace. We were forced to flee back to the shore in order to stay dry. We waited and waited for the boat that never returned, frantically trying to work out a plan B for getting across to our friends stranded on the other side without tents or food.

Finally, one of the fishermen came running down the road telling us that we had to walk 5 km up to another point along the shore where it would be easier to navigate the boat through the intense wind. The sand from the beach continued to pummel us like Bedouins in the Sahara as we reached our departure spot and assessed our situation. We had a rickety little fishing boat to take us, along with our piles of supplies, across an increasingly violent and menacing sea. The situation looked perilous and spirits were beginning to sink faster than the Titanic (not a very encouraging image).

Throwing caution into the wind, we climbed aboard the vessel and within no time got completely drenched from the pounding waves. We each took turns bailing out the boat and sharing the one rain jacket that brought momentary warmth. Freezing cold and examining our waterlogged supplies, we had nothing to do but repeatedly sing uplifting songs to the likes of “here we come Xefina!!” spurred on by our energetic captain. We arrived at the island’s main fishing village, home to Xefina’s 50-60 permanent residents, and were greeted by the strange and almost ghost like locals. Our arrival must have been a huge surprise to them as VERY few white folks make it across to the island.

The environment of Xefina can be described as a combination of the eerie and bizarre. Walking across the island we came across the ruins of the old Portuguese jail that was used up to 1975 to incarcerate political prisoners or any Mozambican deemed to be a threat to the colonial state. In this respect, Xefina can be seen as the Mozambican Robben Island. Many of the prisoners that were sent to this island were never heard from again, feeding the rumours of the terrible dungeons and torture chambers that lay beneath the complex. In addition to serving as a penal island, Xefina also was home to leper colony during the colonial period, further contributing to the overwhelming feeling of “restless souls” roaming the island.

When we arrived at the opposite side of the island we were once again confronted by the gale force winds and the realization that we could not find our campsite. Shivering madly in our wet clothes, and without cell phone reception, low spirits began to slowly turn into panic and fear. One of our guides and I went out on a reconnaissance mission, tearing through the thorny bush and eventually, to our extreme relief, hearing the calls of the search party from the first group. After a joyous reunion with our other friends, we trekked on to our campsite where the promise of fire, food and alcohol quickly revived our ailing spirits.

Our campsite soon came to life with the preparation of our BBQ feast, the sharing of wine and other “island concoctions,” the singing of campfire choruses and the camaraderie that was fashioned out of the trials of the day’s journey. After midnight we all went for a moonlight stroll along the beach to explore the ruins of the enormous batteries built by the Portuguese to defend Maputo Bay during the first and second world wars. These massive cannons and lookout towers are now completely in ruins and are crumbling into the sea. Walking amongst these ruined monuments of war, under the clear light of a full moon, was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

We awoke the next day to an island paradise, an entirely different world to the one that we arrived at only the night before. The beaches were pristine, the water cool and soothing and we had a spectacular view of Maputo City. After a lazy breakfast on the beach, we set off once again to explore the batteries and take pictures of this most bizarre spectacle. We felt as if we were walking around in a Salvador Dali painting. We also came across a munitions building that still housed over 200 rusted bombs once intended for the massive cannons. Walking around that place gave us all a seriously creepy feeling.

Later that afternoon we met up with our fishermen guides and we all piled into the one boat for our return to Maputo. This time the sea was like a sheet of glass, a night and day contrast from our previous trip over to the island. Arriving exhausted but altogether grateful for the experience, we agreed that “colonizing” Xefina had certainly been more difficult and demanding then we had anticipated. The island however, definitely left its mark on all of us. Undoubtedly, one of the most incredible yet strange experiences of my time thus far here in Mozambique

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Looking Forward

Part of the reason for my recent tardiness in blogging is that we have been having some pretty important visitors here at MMF over the past few weeks and this has kept Cremildo and I pretty busy. I know that this is a lame excuse but I will stand behind it for the time being. We started off by having Pauline Achola visit us all the way from MEDA in Waterloo. Among her many job titles, Pauline assumes the role of HIV/AIDS promoter and program coordinator for MEDA, making her my direct supervisor at the MEDA head office. Pauline was here for a week to check up on the progress of our HIV/AIDS program, meet with a few of our partner institutions and consultants and discuss MEDA’s future involvement in Mozambique with microfinance and HIV/AIDS.

Our week together was filled with many meetings, consultations and brainstorming sessions as we ironed out some of the challenges that we had encountered up to the mid-way point of our project. Always a hard worker with a passionate vision for development, Pauline brought a refreshing presence to the MMF office. We even got a chance to take Pauline out to Bela Vista so she could visit with Male Yeru, one of our most interesting and progressive partners in our project.

While we reached the conclusion that our HIV/AIDS program is running smoothly, the real issue at hand for her visit was to try and come up with a concept paper for MEDA’s next microfinance intervention in Mozambique. Unfortunately, due to a number of circumstances, MMF will be forced to shut down its operations in Mozambique at the end of November this year. That means that myself, along with the rest of the MMF staff here in Maputo, will all be out of work come Dec. 1st. MEDA would like to continue to work in microfinance in this country and part of our job description now will be to come up with the right programming concept, as well as the right financial and implementing partners, to transform this dream into reality.

The concept that we are working on would target Mozambican youth aged 16-22, particularly those who are living with HIV/AIDS or who have been orphaned by parents with HIV/AIDS. There are a great number of these youth throughout the country and we would like to work with them to develop those with the right skills into strong entrepreneurs and responsible microfinance clients. Therefore, the concept would have three components:

  1. Providing the targeted youth with appropriate HIV/AIDS prevention and care services through established NGOs and youth associations in Mozambique
  2. Providing the youth with business and life skills training though local vocational schools and apprenticeship programs.
  3. Providing a loan guarantee fund that could be channeled through local microfinance institutions to help young entrepreneurs develop their businesses.

Of course this concept is still very much in its development phase as we still have to fill in many of the gaps and establish many of the required partnerships. However, we had a very encouraging meeting last week with the Executive Secretary of CNCS, the Mozambican government department in charge of HIV/AIDS programming, and they seem to be very interested in our ideas. If we can get CNCS on board as a financial partner that would be HUGE. We have our fingers crossed permanently as we continue to work on the finer details of this project proposal.

Last week we also had Caroline Hussein from MEDA visit Mozambique to put on a training workshop for MMF partners on youth microfinance. This was particularly interesting for Cremildo and I as we are putting together the above mentioned project proposal and wanted to learn more about this exciting new programming area for MEDA. The workshop was well attended and the participants eagerly dove into the material and shared experiences from their institutions. Cremildo even did a fantastic job of facilitating some of the workshop sessions. My multi-talented colleague never ceases to amaze me!! I'll leave you with some pictures from the training.

Caroline Hussein getting the discussion started

Boaz Ackimu, a MEDA technical advisor from Tanzania, working up the participants and driving home a point

Cremildo getting in the groove of presenting

The obligatory group shot

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Heart of Darkness and Light

The other night I sat down with some friends and watched the classic Vietnam War flick Apocalypse Now. The last time that I had watched this movie I was just a 16 year old lad intrigued by the promise that the film would expand my mind and take me to the furthest depths of human nature. While I was certainly impressed by the film back then, the subject matter, for the most part, went completely over my head. A little bit too much reality for a teenage boy to handle.

This time around I felt a bit more prepared for the journey up the river. Perhaps my experiences over the past 10 years have exposed me to some of the darkness of the human existence that the movie so vividly portrays trough its characters and setting. The senseless carnage of war, the shameless exploitation of both soldiers and innocents and the degeneration of civilized ideals in the face of terror are all displayed in the recent conflicts and genocides in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Many images from the film have been permanently burned into my mind: The US soldiers surfing against the backdrop of a Vietnamese village obliterated by fire bombs and napalm; The slaughter of the entire crew of a fishing boat by the overzealous platoon in their search for “Charlie” or the insane Kurtz coolly dropping the severed head of the last “sane and moral” soldier at the feet of the imprisoned Martin Sheen. The movie, besides being a cinematic masterpiece, forces us to examine our own human potential for evil and immorality and the horror that we each have the capacity to manifest here on earth.

The main theme for Apocalypse Now was of course taken from Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s account of the social and psychological nightmare of the colonial experience in the Belgium Congo at the beginning of the 20th century. After many years of civil unrest, tyrannical governments and large sections of uncharted, lawless territory, the Congo still represents all of the horrors that the world generally associates with the “Dark Continent” of Africa. For some fascinating insight into the Congo’s colonial and contemporary history, check out either King Leopold’s Ghost or the fictional, yet poignant, Poisonwood Bible. Both highly recommended reads.

Now the Congo has been thrown into the international spotlight not for its civil or economic strife but rather for its promise of hope. The country recently held its first democratic elections in 40 years, signaling a possible new direction for the war-torn nation and the dawning of a new era of peace in the heart of Africa. While many figures in the international community are certainly watching the results and the aftermath of the elections quite closely, my good friend Joel Marion is also on the ground in Kinshasa observing the whole process. Joel got the amazing opportunity to work as an election monitor and is still in the country plying his skills in conflict resolution. If you want some first hand insight into the situation over there right now you should definitely check out this link to his blog.

Looking at the turbulent history of the Congo, and the massive reconciliation effort still ahead for those working to cultivate peace and democracy in that country, I am continually impressed at the democratic record of Mozambique. In the early 1990s, after 17 years of civil war, Mozambique was, for all intents and purposes, the poorest country in the world. A complete political and economic basketcase. However, once the ceasefire was signed in 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO, and the UN peace keeping mission was deployed, the entire conflict stopped immediately. This is quite unlike many of the countless failed UN interventions into civil conflicts in Africa. Since 1992, FRELIMO and RENAMO have engaged in open and constructive political dialogue as the two leading parties in the country.

Despite its violent history, Mozambique can now legitimately be considered a prime example of a post-conflict democracy in the developing world. The hope now is that other conflict ridden countries in Africa, such as the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda or Sierra Leone, can also achieve this goal of peace and political legitimacy. May those who are working to achieve these goals be blessed with strength, wisdom and perseverance. Through the hands of many will the darkness be transformed into light.