I came to Mozambique with the eyes of a curious child. Zimbabwe woke the questioning adolescent in me.
During our eight-day trip we sat behind many tables, shaded by canopies of palm leaves; we listened to prayers, and to poems recited by children, but written by adults; we listened to many speeches by officials. We watched numerous gatherings of village people where the women and children danced, sang, clapped their hands, and ululated. We received presents of cassava, pineapple, bananas, ground nuts, and even a chicken. Although they thought better of a live offering in the end! And we talked, and looked and listened.
Villagers in Mozambique still live in the Iron Age: huts, made of palm leaves, cooking on a wood fire in the open air, no electricity, and water needs to be fetched from afar. Carrying is done by the women. Almost all wear capulanas, the African multi purpose cloth: serving as a skirt, a headdress, a sling to carry a child on the chest or the back, a sheet for bedding. In spite of their ultra primitive circumstances they dance and they sing and they smile. But underneath that smile lies the suffering. Of the women who are in a subservient position, and the children, who are beaten at school and abused at home.
The local development workers, both in Mozambique and in Zimbabwe are incredibly dedicated and resourceful. They all understand the organisation’s message: it may help, but it is the community who owns the project. The people themselves will decide what they need and how they need it.
In spite of this message we have heard many eulogies, poems of gratitude, songs of praise. We have heard requests for more help. “Thank you for what you gave us, but we would like some more.” The needs are overwhelming.
Most of the projects we saw in Mozambique involved schools, livelihood, and safety for girls in schools. At one secondary school Plan was building dormitories for girls. Many students live too far away from school to be able to walk there every day, so they live in squalid shelters around it. Girls are susceptible to rape and other abuse. Though I also wonder about the boys. Another program tries to raise awareness about physical and sexual abuse in schools. Teachers discipline children with corporal punishments. Girls are urged by their parents to offer their bodies to teachers in exchange for higher marks.
I saw a disciplined society. The roads are in a dismal state, full of potholes. Left hand driving was more theory than practice, as the drivers wove their way around the ruts and bumps. Alongside the roads people walked: women carrying water or firewood or basins of laundry, children, sometimes very young, walked to school or were also carrying water. Sometimes we passed a man on a bicycle. Never did any of these travellers stray onto the tarmac. Even the smallest of the children, walking alone, stayed on route. One evening when we had penetrated into the hinterland to visit a project, we saw the little children stride home in the darkness along the sandy paths. They knew their way as kittens in an immense garden!
Where Mozambique charmed me and made me marvel, Zimbabwe drew out the questions: the hunger, AIDS — not just the illness, but also the ostracising —, girls and women abused in any possible way.
To what extent were the projects a drop in the ocean? And again: how sincere were all these orchestrated profusions of gratitude? What pleasure, for instance, do students derive from sitting quietly in benches, waiting for the honoured guests, whom they can hardly see from afar? To hear endless speeches about how important these guests are? Bla-bla-bla.
While I escaped the official business and scouted for some students to talk to I met a boy who kept saying: “Bye, bye!” in a squeaky voice, in answer to my questions. At first I saw him as a bully (which he still might well be!), but later I realised that he obviously resented our visit, and resented this white lady’s interference. Could I blame him? What business do we have to receive honour and gratitude, especially in view of the history of Zimbabwe?
E., who was travelling with us, pointed out that it is a society that has undergone much difficulty and remains in transition. He thinks one of the challenges that exists is that of helping that society find a balance somewhere they have not had before. And this is not going to be easy. Peace and security will have to become more common features before anything else settles.
So Africa desperately needs our help. That much is clear. But how? Not in the way of the old missionaries: we will tell you what is good for you.
It would be nice if official visits to recipient countries could do away with the protocol, but I understand that in part it has to do with the local culture: protocol is a way to establish ranks. How could you avoid the orchestrated eulogies? I have no idea. Do away with the separating tables, spend some time with the people themselves and hear them. A squeaky voiced Bye, bye, or a spontaneous embrace have told me more than the speeches.
We did it once. Instead of asking our questions from behind the table we went down on our knees to talk to the boys and girls of a “girl child” awareness group about menstruation.
We may have heard the exact same answers, but it made it easier for me to look the students straight into their eyes and to praise the initiative. To tell them that they do something that we in Europe could learn from. As indeed we can!
The projects that impressed me most were the ones that involved hardly any money, but a transfer of knowledge: the coconut oil extraction by village women in Mozambique and the micro finance scheme in Zimbabwe. Here women were given tools to generate an income.
For if there is one thing that became abundantly clear during this trip, it was that empowering the women is the best way to developing a future for Africa!