Bernard, part 2
I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
~ Bob Dylan (1976)
We crested a little hill and a fuller view of the city, Maputo, appeared. My step-dad had met us at the airport in his chauffeur-driven red station wagon. Car models, even in the 80s, were designed and named differently all over the world, whether made by Ford or GM. I think this one was called a Cortina; standard transmission with right-hand drive.
My mom, step-brother and I had waited until after the Virginia school year ended before we joined him in his new assignment; a posting with the United States Information Service. As the Cultural Attaché, he had arrived months earlier along with a small team of diplomats and their families, to reopen the American Embassy in Mozambique.
Howie, my mom’s new husband and now adventure guide, provided commentary as we drove from the airport along a paved road that cut a path through white sand. People walked on the edges, many carrying loads on their heads; white fabric sacks, boxes, stacks of firewood. My first glimpses of this African country I’d only even heard of a few months before, were otherworldly; the juxtaposition of deteriorated urban and refugee rural.
The black top that lead from Mavalane International Airport into town looked newly completed, deep black and smooth, joined by roundabouts with freshly painted lanes. Moving away from the airport with its familiar infrastructure, the road became less elaborate, edges dusted with sand. No sidewalks or other intersecting paved roads, just sand. A looming, dark green military truck, carrying helmeted soldiers standing in its tall bed passed in the other direction.
Cement houses were set back from the road, not in neighborhoods, but isolated, stretches the equivalency of city blocks between them. More “buildings” of corrugated zinc sheets appeared. Not zinc roofs, entire houses, obviously houses, made out of zinc panels including the door. Here and there, with my nose basically pressed against the window, I could see where cardboard filled in pieces in the walls.
Bernard, part 1
He sat in the tiny office, a small rented room in the Convent school. He was slim, but everyone was slim. His soft…
We traveled closer to town and the density increased, more people walking in groups, more shacks and lean-tos. Now block walls concealed the ratio of zinc to cardboard. Roadside fortresses rose up next to my window. Speeding past, I forced my tired eyes to grab as much as I could, to gobble up the sights, with my brain lagging so far behind. Objects that I should have recognized remained unnamed, my spinning head unable to collate the images fast enough, to make sense of what I saw. The tops of the fortress walls glittered in the sun; rows of broken bottles lined up like twinkling toy soldiers, jagged shards pointing toward a wide, crispy blue sky.
The southern portion of Mozambique is flat and slopes toward the sea, toward South Africa and the end of the world. The terrain allowed views for miles in every direction. Red-tile roofed apartments, the same white sand of the roadside covered the beach and the ocean beyond spread out like an undulating blue-gray sheet all the way to the horizon. Against the enormous sky, buildings began to rise as we neared the city itself. “Those cranes have been frozen like that for nine years,” Howie said, as casually as if he’d said, “And on your right you can see the Eiffel Tower.” The closer we got, the more detail came into focus. From far away everything looks good. Proximity revealed decay.
Maputo was the skeleton of a once thriving colonial city; famed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, until the pull-out and the wars. Left for its flesh to rot and wither, leaving shredded remnants that wavered in the breeze. There were buildings and roads, but most didn’t operate as designed. High rises stood unfinished next to the rusted out crane arms, poised in mid-air.
Closer now, with the blue ocean on my left, I could see every window in every high rise broken or missing, with only darkness beyond. It looked and felt more like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie than a place to live.
“At Independence in 1975 the literacy rate was 2%,” Howie was continuing his history lesson tour-guiding. “Independence is a generous term. The Portuguese colonizers destroyed what they could on the way out. Cutting the cables to the cranes at the ports, removing sections of railroad track, even taking the plans for the electrical grid and sewer systems with them. But the worst part of their ugly legacy is they didn’t educate the people.”
“This looks worse than some cut cables,” I said, not really able to process the sight out the window.
“The challenge is beyond just the crumbling infrastructure,” I was beginning to think Mom already knew all this, she seemed unfazed. My nine-year old brother was concerned about getting to a bathroom.
“The rebels in the north and the south, well, all over really, have forced the people from the countryside into the city. There are a million people living here, but they’re from the bush. They’re living in those buildings, the ones that look bombed out?” I felt paralyzed, eyes, cheeks — except for my neck, which kept nodding as he spoke, like some hypnotic reflex beyond my control. “There is little to no electricity. They have just brought their outdoor village way of life indoors. They cook over open fires in the darkened hallways.” I forced my head to turn on my neck and now I saw not just fabric, maybe laundry, billowing out of shattered windows, but smoke blew out of some too.
“Why?” was the only thing I could get my mouth and brain to agree on.
“Why do they cook in the hallways?” The information had settled in him over the months he’d been here alone. Maybe the jarring effect of such a notion had lost some of its sting.
“It’s a combination of what is familiar, that there’s is no electricity and nowhere safe to go.”
“The ocean is beautiful,” I chirped, hoping to find some positive attribute for the summer vacation I thought still loomed ahead.
“Yes, it is from here. Best you stay on the Promenade, if you’re going to be near the ocean. In fact there are still some Acacia trees left along one section,” this was said encouragingly, like telling me there was cake still left after a party. His tone was more somber with his next sentence: ”They’re being cut down for firewood, you see.”
“But stay on the Promenade. You can’t walk on the beach,” Howie said with a sternness I’d not heard before.
He acknowledged my wide-eyed expression by staring intently into my eyes, then casually turned around in his front seat to face the windshield. “Landmines,” was all he said.
Bernard, part 3
For those who only know revolution as historical event or rallying cry, it can be colored with dangerously romantic…
Bernard, part 4
I drive in a haze of fear, insecurity and disbelief. There’s only one hospital. The brain drain, particularly of…
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