Friday, September 08, 2006

Adeus Lizbeth

A minha colega, esta a sair
E eu vou ter muitas saudades para voce
E por que?
Porque nós não nos conhecemos
Assim como nós devemos ter
Eu aprendi amar-te quando não havia muito tempo
E aprecie suas ofertas somente quando ja foi.

Falamos uma lingua,
Mais que Portanhol ;)
E um lingua das nossas almas
Unido pela harmonia de nossa canção ao Senhor

Nós trabalhamos para servir-lhe,
Nós amamos para elogiá-lhe
E nós procuramos encontrá-lhe.

Pode você ir completamente do espírito,
Dirigido por suas palavra e ação
E protegido por sua mão

Sempre estamos juntos
Na mente, no corpo e na alma

Sua colega e amigo,


This past Wednesday we had an emotional despidida (going away party) for one of our senior staff members Lizbeth Martell. Liz was the longest standing employee here at MMF and was an important pillar of this organization. Her insight, her smile and her wealth of experience in microfinance and development will be surely missed. Liz has decided to return to home country of Hondorus to begin a new chapter in her life. We all hope that peace and happiness with follow her during this long journey and new career direction.

In honour of Lizbeth, we went to one of her favourite restaurants in town, the classic Costa do Sol. This is a place that has been owned by the same Greek family for nearly 80 years, never ceasing operations during the civil war and continues to serve the undisputed “best LM prawns in Mozambique.” While this final statement can certainly be up for debate, there is absolutely no arguing with the high quality of the seafood at this timeless Maputo icon. We enjoyed a spectacular feast and the shared stories, laughter and vinho verde late into the night.

The staff had a chance to each say a few tributary words and present Liz with some gifts of appreciation for her time here in Mozambique. I was particularly impressed with Cremildo’s simple yet touching gift to Liz, an old 5000 meticais note bearing the image of the Samora Machel, Mozambique’s revolutionary hero and first president of the independent state. This small rare note, representing the spirit of the small yet significant contributions of microfinance clients in this country, will follow Liz around the world and into this next chapter of her life.

It was truly a special night that none of us staff here at MMF will soon forget.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

50 000 Virgins Dancing in the Sun

That title is sure to attract some attention. It certainly is a sight that you don’t see everyday. The event is the annual Reed Dance in Swaziland and we all jumped at the opportunity to see such a glorious display of Swazi culture. The history of this event dates back hundreds of years and is rich with ceremonial traditions that pay respect to the Swazi Royal Family and the endurance of the Swazi people. I will likely never see a cultural event of this nature and magnitude ever again.

The Reed Dance brings together Swazi girls from every part of the country to the Ezulwini Valley (The valley of the heavens) for a week long ceremony of singing, dancing and feasting. The girls can be anywhere from 5 to 20 years old and will present the Queen Mother with freshly cut reeds from the surrounding areas to rethatch her house after the winter months. Traditionally, the girls that participated had to be virgins as the ceremony was to honour their commitment to abstinence until marriage. Now the only requirement is that the girls cannot be married or have any children.

The girls wear brightly coloured traditional outfits and anklets that shake to the rhythm of their dance steps. They are also nearly all topless, displaying nearly every shape and size of breasts imaginable. This year the number of participants was estimated to be just over 50 000, creating a breathtaking spectacle of colour and song. What impressed me was that, despite the copious amounts of young flesh in front of our eyes, the event was very asexual. The girls are very comfortable with their bodies and their bare breasts seemed to be a natural part of their costumes. Still, despite the genuine beauty of the event, I definitely encountered a fine line between photography and perversion that inevitably comes when one is surrounded by so many half naked teenage girls.

What was so interesting to me was the contrast between the rich and poor participants. Some girls, obviously from wealthier families in the urban centers, had beautifully elaborate costumes, jewelry and meticulously prepared makeup and hairstyles while many of the poorer girls from the rural areas arrived in just simple capalanas (the ubiquitous African wrap dress). The Reed Dance also attracts a large number of Swazi guys dressed up in traditional warrior regalia. Periodically, these guys would run out, perform a dance and bow at the feet of one of their favourite girls. I was also impressed with how Swazi princesses would dance right alongside the rest of the colourfully adorned participants. Members of the Royal Family could be identified from the rest of the girls from the red feathers in their hair and their entourage of female security guards.

The popular rumour regarding the Reed Dance is that it is an event where the king gets to choose his next wife from the horde of maidens dancing in front of him. While the king certainly has picked a wife at the Reed Dance in years past, this is not the explicit purpose of the festival. Still controversy surrounds the event that seemingly promotes polygamy and sexual liberty in a country that is suffering from a horrible 42% HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. It will be interesting to see how long the country will continue such a traditional event against mounting criticism from within Swaziland as well as international observers. It is heartbreaking to look at this mass of girls and consider that over one third of them will have their lives cut short by HIV/AIDS, many of them already born with the disease.

Swaziland is such an incredibly traditional society and the Swazi people are immensely proud of their cultural heritage. They are one of only a handful of true nation-states in the entire world and vigorously defend their traditional way of life. The fact that each year more and more girls turn up to the Reed Dance illustrates that interest in such cultural celebrations is increasing rather than waning. Aside from the sunglasses and cellphones used by some of the girls, the nature and appearance of the event has not changed in over 200 years. We were all so grateful that we got a chance to be a part of this remarkable event but to answer the obvious question: no, none of us returned to Maputo with a Swazi princess on our arm.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Joy of Visitors

Last week I had the pleasure of having my good friend Reynold come and visit me here in Maputo along with his girlfriend Anne. This was exciting because they were the first friends from home to come and be a part of my life here in Mozambique. Visitors are always such a blessing and we had such a good time getting caught up on the past year of our lives, exploring new frontiers and reminiscing about the “good ol days.” It was also a real pleasure to finally meet Anne as she far exceeded all of the glowing reports that had made it over to me here from Winnipeg. Anne is currently working as a hospital chaplain and has a refreshing outlook on the Mennonite faith and contemporary spirituality. Her and Reyn really seem to complement each other, which is essential in any good relationship. You certainly get my two thumbs up Anne, welcome to the family!! (ha ha)

Like most tourists that come to Mozambique, my friends had a definite hunger for some fresh seafood and lounging by the beach. I was able to satisfy their appetite with some grilled prawns and fried lulas (calamari in Portuguese). Always the adventurous types, I think Anne and Reyn must have walked every street in Maputo twice during their excursions around the city, marveling over the fresh coconuts, massive pineapples and peri-peri cashews.

On the first weekend they were here we set off for Chidengale Beach, a seaside paradise that I had been told of 400 km north of Maputo. We set off on the Saturday morning on cramped local bus, enduring the four hour journey to the sleepy beach community. We had every intention of camping on the beach to save some money and enjoy the outdoors to the fullest. I even borrowed a tent from my friend John so we would not all have to cram like sardines into my two person tent.

The bus was so full however that we could not all sit together and we had to pile all of our luggage into a giant pile by the main entrance. When we arrived at our stop at Chidengele I had to get out of the driver’s door as it was impossible to leave by the regular entrance. I had to walk around the bus to pick up John’s tent from the chaotic pile in the middle but before I was able to retrieve the tent the bus abruptly pulled away leaving me cursing and running frantically down the highway waving my arms in pursuit. My efforts were all in vain. The tent was gone.

The only thing that could have raised my spirits at that point was the beautiful 5 km walk through the wilderness on route to the beach. We passed old run down colonial buildings, reed huts and a massive fresh water lake where the naked locals were bathing and washing their clothes in the hot sun. The beach was spectacular as well and we spent the rest of our daylight hours chucking the Frisbee around and body surfing the massive waves. At night we were treated to a magnificent display of stars, contrasted against the rhythmic calling of the surf. This was the Mozambique that Reyn and Anne came searching for and they certainly found it that weekend.

We parted company the next day, myself returning to Maputo while my friends continuing north to the beaches in Inhambane. They returned the next weekend, bronzed by the sun and full of stories from their week at Tofo and Barra. We decided to check out Swaziland for a couple of days and took off once again on public transit for Mbanane. When ever one travels by chappa (bus/van) in Africa, they have to leave all notions of personal space behind and take along an extra dose of patience. Of course a long wait at the border is always easier when you can have a cold beer to pass the time. Here’s a shot of Anne and I enjoying some of the finer points of border stopping.

We packed our time in Swaziland with great meals, visits to “cuddle puddles,” exploring cultural villages, climbing around waterfalls and late night poker tournaments with our friends at the hostel. We learned a bit about the history of Executioner’s Rock, the highest point in the Swazi Royal Valley where criminals were ordered to jump off if they were found guilty of witchcraft or murder. The mountain commands a dramatic presence, especially in the late afternoon sun.

I had such a great time with Reyn and Anne during those two weeks and I wish them all the best back in Winnipeg this fall. Their visit made me even more excited for the visits in October from my parents and from my friend Doug Rhoads, whom I have not seen since we lived together in the West Bank seven years ago. Anyone else interested in coming to Mozambique? My place is always open to those that make it here!!