Across Mozambique

Bike 350 1
Riding east to Cuamba
Unlike throwing luggage into the boot of a car, preparing my bike for departure usually involves quite a procedure: repacking a pannier with laptop and cables, zipping on my tank bag, then strapping the Ortlieb drybag - containing overnight stuff: sleeping bag, sleeping mat, wash bag, clothes, etc - across the back seat. (After which I might discover my towel still draped across the fairing to dry.) A brief check of the bike, zipping up jacket, inserting ear plugs, fastening helmet and then pulling on the light motocross gloves... and I'm about ready. Preparing outside the guesthouse to leave the pleasant town of Lichinga, capital of the north west province of Niassa, curious onlookers were gathering. A crowd always generates a bigger one, and by the time I was ready to depart it was with quite a send off from the grinning and cheering gallery (invariably males of a certain age - women seem to be otherwise occupied). And the racket off the (lighter, replacement) exhaust seems to fire them up a bit.

After yesterday's respite of some sealed road to Lichinga, it was back to dirt road from here, though fairly well graded, which wound its way across the hills. No matter how well graded a dirt road, its still an unstable surface so I never get the bike into top gear. Mozambique being a poor country, the roads are generally quite empty, save for the odd truck and
‘chapa’ - minivans stuffed with passengers. These tear along at hectic speeds, throwing up clouds of dust behind them which makes it difficult, and dangerous, on a bike! I either let them speed on ahead, or if their pace is a little slower than mine, it can be a tricky operation tailing them until its safe to overtake. Invariably they are oblivious to my presence, and its only when I’m nearly abreast, indicator and full beam on, do they hear the approaching sound of the loud exhaust and veer over. The manoevre certainly gets the adrenalin going.

Stopped by a one man police roadblock, I professed not to understand any Portuguese (not too far from fact), having read that the
‘transitos’, or traffic cops, have a reputation in this country of finding the slightest thing wrong with a vehicle, particularly a (rich) foreigner's vehicle, as an opportunity to exact an ‘on the spot fine’. He had the word ‘licence’ in English, and then pointed at the bike saying “documento”, both of which I produced. I couldn't understand what he was then getting at. After a few fruitless minutes not progressing much on the communication front, he returned the documents waving me to continue on, an approaching chapa replacing me in his attentions. Because I’d entered the country at the remote lakeside settlement of Cobué, I didn’t have my carnet stamped, and nor did I have road insurance, so was a little relieved taking off.

After a lunch of (the ubiquitous) omelette and chips along the dusty wide main street of Mandimba, leaving town I passed the turnoff west for the border post with Malawi and headed east for Cuamba. A disused railway line that once carried goods to and from Malawi, ran in the same direction, cutting across the dirt road constantly, needing a slowing down to cross the kerb high rails. The hilly terrain was levelling out, and at this lower altitude it was warmer and the vegetation denser. Well trodden red dirt pathways disappeared into the thick green bush, occasionally offering a glimpse down them of a cluster of barracas - the mud huts. The huts of the Makua, the tribe from this area of Mozambique, were square in design with overhanging roofs of makuti, or dried palm fronds, supported by posts a few feet out from the walls. The roof is built first as a free standing structure supported by the posts, with the mud walls being added inside.

I had read an account of the British consul, Maugham, meeting the Makua bandit leader, Marave, some time before the Second World War. Fifty warriors armed with guns accompanied Marave...
“Their woolly hair, grown long for the purpose, was twisted into innumerable thin, long tails or plaits carried backward and reaching to their shoulder-blades. Their cheeks were slashed with deep longitudinal cicatrizations several inches long, and so deep in some cases, as completely to penetrate the flesh, their upper teeth being visible through the gashes... Slung over their shoulders were bags of monkey or cat skin, which contained their ammunition, snuff and other necessities.” The consul was taken to their stronghold. “Nothing could have exceeded the dignified courtesy of my reception, or my surprise to find this terrible chief so refined and considerate a host.” He was never captured.

Cuamba is laid out in a grid in the European fashion, arranged around a central praca, or square. The train station on the edge of this small town seemed to be the main hub of activity, the dusty dirt streets sleepy and quiet as I rode through looking for a pensao, or guesthouse. The Cariaco suited the bill - at about €7.50 quite cheap I was to find by Mozambique standards, and though the room was a windowless cell, clean. It was straight down to the station then to check out the train timetable to Nampula, the region’s largest city to east.

I hadn’t taken public transport yet on the journey through Africa and felt it might offer me a different type of ‘cultural experience’. Mozambique’s only railway, and previously Malawi’s main trade connection with the coast, cut east across the top of the country, following the old trail used by slave traders in the 19th century to bring their cargo of ‘black ivory’ to the Indian Ocean. I knew I would not appreciate any of the - “stunning“ according to the guidebook - scenery with my eyes cast down onto the road surface ahead.

Yell vendor 250 1
In the throng of people queuing, hawking or just hanging out, I was directed by the ticket office around to the freight office, where the official there accepted my estimate of the bike’s weight and charged me €15. As departure time was 5am the following morning, he wanted the bike left there overnight for loading early. Not prepared to do that, I assured him I would be there at 4am to supervise its loading. Returning then to the passenger ticket office it was of course closed. After sitting and waiting on a bench outside for an hour, just regarding the comings and goings (though a white man is not invisible) I eventually bought a €7 second class ticket for the ten hour journey.

I stopped in a bar across the road from the pensao for a refreshment, and was joined by a bearded guy in his fifties- the only white face in town. It turned out we were drinking the last two beers as the owner didn’t have the money to reorder stock - business was done in cash here, no credit terms. And, the electricity being off, the beers were warm. Ray had seen me enter town. He owned a Honda Goldwing, a big cruising bike usually associated with well maintained European and American highways, not the back blocks of the African bush, but he told me he took it everywhere, maintaining its low centre of gravity meant he didn’t fall over much, just paddling along both feet on the ground on the rougher surfaces. I took my hat off to him.

Ray had come out to South Africa from England in the seventies, and not finding it much to his liking had drifted north to Kenya. A few years ago he found himself in Mbamba Bay, a remote settlement on the Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi, where he ended up managing the only hotel. “I had two tourists in the time I was there”, he said. “Any other business was from visiting civil servants or holidaying NGO employees. The road is pretty difficult at the best of times, but in the rains the only access is by boat.” The owner of the hotel, a Tanzanian lady, had lost interest in the place and Ray, who had since “got involved” with her, had plans to lease the hotel from her. He painted quite an idyllic picture of a life away from it all that appealed to him.

So what was he doing in Cuamba? “Well, she has a house here. She buys maize grinders from Tanzania and I give her a hand selling them here in Mozambique and in Malawi. There’s a good market but its not easy. We delivered one recently to Quelimane, about eight hours drive away on the coast, but the guy didn’t have enough to pay for it,” he grimaced. “He knows we’re not going to drive back here with it, so I have to go back there again to collect the money!” Maize is the staple subsistence crop in most of sub Saharan Africa, and a grinder makes life a lot easier for farmers accustomed to milling the corn by hand. “In Malawi some farmers don’t really deal in cash and we can get paid in cattle. Last week we had to smuggle twenty six across the border - its illegal to export cattle from Malawi - but its not so difficult. I paid the border guard $10 and we moved them across in a truck at three in the morning. Sold them yesterday in the market here.” I liked Ray, a quiet, understated Englishman, who seemed comfortable in this environment, and though expressing frustration at times at local business practice, didn’t seem to exhibit any of his nation’s characteristic attitude of superiority.

Train to Nampula
The following morning, or rather 3.30am in the middle of the night, I strapped my luggage on the bike, and pushed it out of the compound before starting it - so as not to wake the whole place. Through the deserted town, on the approach to the station more and more people could be seen shuffling along in that direction, most laden with bags. The small fluorescent platform light faintly illuminated a scene of bedlam, passengers struggling to board, calling out, relations seeing them off, porters and labourers pulling carts through the crowd, bags being shoved through windows.

Recognising and hailing a station guard who had chatted with me during my idle wait for the ticket vendor the previous evening, we established a goods carriage near the rear of the train in which to load the bike. The guard summoned a passing yardman to unlock the carriage, which needed about ten minutes of banging and levering with an iron bar and wedge to prize open the large sliding door before I had enough room to get the bike into the small space available. I stacked the surrounding bags of maize tightly in, under and around the bike for support until I was happy it wasn’t going to shift. The door then had to be closed - which of course involved negotiation with the yardman, and a further ten minutes of banging, grinding and brute force. Eventually, everything secured and a few bob paid to the two labourers, I set off up the platform in the darkness in an attempt to find my carriage, aware at this stage I had broken the cardinal rule of getting a seat early.

Second class meant six passengers to a compartment. Mine when I found it, had five adults and six children stuffed in. As the tickets were numbered, the ticket inspector insisted I take my allotted seat. “They’re only children”, he responded when I pointed out the carriage was too full. Muttering about not fair to disturb the sleeping children, I squeezed into a neighboring compartment, the occupiers graciously sharing their space.

Scenery 350 1
So this was what it was like to travel with the public, I mused, settling down with a sense of anticipation to the long journey ahead. My fellow passengers in the compartment were two sisters, Betti and Maria, a brother, Socrates and the father, Papa, travelling to Nampula for the wedding of another sister; and two guys in their mid twenties on leave from the military. None had English, which suited me fine as I didn’t have the energy to pursue polite conversation at this early hour.
After an hour or two of dozing, day had broken and the passing countryside could be seen out the window. Massive granite outcrops, known as inselbergs, towered dramatically over the surrounding savanna (a word used in various guide books to describe the landscape of any type of woodland that doesn’t have a canopy. In Northern Mozambique its mainly ‘brachystygia’, a type of scrubby tree that adapts well to dry conditions.)

As we progressed in the journey, commerce got more intense at our stops - vendors selling bananas, grilled corn, mobile phone credit and a range of vegetables. In larger towns the platforms, or at smaller villages the side of the tracks, were thronged with local people shouting their produce for sale up to the passengers, arms hanging out through open windows.
Hands stop 350 1
I was told fresh vegetables were not so easily available in Nampula, and expensive, so passengers took the opportunity to stock up en route. Betti was a hard bargainer, dismissing offered vegetables thrust up to the window if the price wasn’t right, or agreeing a price and purchasing a few bags off another hawker. As the journey went on, every available space in our compartment including the luggage racks high near the ceiling began to fill with bags of bananas, oranges, potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages and cauliflowers.

Though I had been told there was a restaurant car, I had bought some snack food to get me through the day, and didn't need to avail of the fare cooked on the train (galley pictured below). As the day progressed, our stops became a little longer, until I began to wonder if we were going to arrive on schedule - my inexperience with African public transport! I discovered there was work on the tracks ahead and we were going to be delayed. The afternoon dragged, with increasingly longer stops.

Galley 530 1

I have a memory of two profound pleasures, though very basic, and passing (as all pleasure is!). One was after ten hours, sitting in the heat of the train stopped in the middle of nowhere for two hours in the late afternoon, the dining car having now run out of food, water and tea - variously, wondering if we were stranded for the night, why hadn't I ridden my bike, and then accepting my fate with resignation. I remember the vague flicker of elation on hearing the train whistle blow and the jolting clatter of metal on metal as the carriages were slowly tugged forward and we began to move again.

The other basic pleasure was self inflicted. In an Indian corner shop in Cuamba the previous evening, a bar of Nestle chocolate had caught my eye and, disregarding my suspicion that it had probably been sitting there a long time, I greedily bought it. In the early afternoon I succumbed to temptation and ate half of it before reluctantly accepting the crumbly texture and milky colour were obvious warnings it was not in edible condition. (Shamefully I offered the rest to my fellow passengers.) Three hours later, predictably - about the time it takes for the metabolism to process food from the stomach, through the inspection procedure in the the digestive tract, and then, in this case rapidly, through the lower intestine - the gurgles in my stomach and injections of saliva in the mouth gave notification of imminent bowel action. Not moving in my seat, concentrated in conversation with my fellow passengers in pidgin Portuguese/ Spanish/ English, I ignored the sensations, until their insistence led me to accept mind over matter wasn’t going to work - my mind wasn’t powerful enough to combat the inevitable.

Carriage 530 1
The prospect of resorting to the toilet after twelve hours of public use - I had passed it in the corridor a few hours earlier not daring to draw breath - wasn’t appealing, and so I boldly marched past the guard at the entrance to the 1st class carriage and into the luckily vacant toilet. The simple yet profound pleasure I refer to was the utter relief after the thorough evacuation. I was left weak, drained, but satisfyingly purged, as I eventually made my measured but confident way back to take my seat.

The train arrived in darkness into the city of Nampula at 7pm, four hours late and fourteen hours after leaving Cuamba. Mobs of people - faces illuminated by the station lights - were pressing against the wire barrier. I had been warned that the station at Nampula had a bad reputation for ‘ladraos’ and realising my luggage was a little vulnerable to theft, asked the two off duty military from my compartment for help in watching it as I managed to liberate my bike from its carriage, none the worse for its long piggy back ride. Fixing my lugagge on amid the mayhem of pushing, shoving and shouting people, I fired up the bike which managed to clear a space.

But I wasn’t free yet. Two uniformed policemen at the gate, the breath of one of them smelling strongly of drink, aggressively demanded an exit fee before they would let me out. I took out my mobile phone and called a contact I had been given here to notify him of my arrival. This appeared to have some effect on the two policemen. Despite my initial reaction of anger, fortunately I had enough wits about me still to realise this was a scam, and not to take it seriously. I tried to lighten the situation (invariably the right action), the face of one broke into a smile, and they changed their demand to a request for a present for a few beers. I refused, and rode past them and into the streets of Nampula, not knowing where I was going but appearing as if I did!

A large city - it became capital of Northern Mozambique after the Portuguese moved their main military base here against the Frelimo uprising (the previous capital Ilha de Mozambique was too small and distant) - before disembarking I had studied my guide book map of Nampula and now had my bearings. After discovering my first two accommodation selections were full (it was Friday night), I found a hotel, the Lurio (at €16 pushing the budget a bit), where I could park the bike securely, and breathed a sigh of relief. I was here, the bike was in one piece, and I had all my luggage. Result!

Ex pats in Nampula
After a shower and change of clothes, I walked around the corner to join a group of about twelve ex pats at the Copacabana restaurant, their weekly get together. I had been invited by Romuald, a friendly and helpful French national working for a teacher training NGO, who I’d been urged to contact by Vincent and Phillipa, colleagues of his I’d met a month previously. (It was Phillipa who reminded me of an article I had read about Africa before my journey. It was great to read it again, and pick up some tips!) Various nationalities were represented, working for NGO’s, government agencies and some private enterprises.

The cheery group urged pizza and beer on me which was extremely welcome. Answering a query about where I’d come from in Mozambique, I mentioned arriving in Cobué and Rob Patterson a Scot sitting beside me laughed and said,” You paid for that road!” Not quite understanding, and assuming the road from Cobué had been funded in some way by the EU, Rob, who worked for the NGO, CARE corrected me. “No, your government repaired that four years ago. I was the project supervisor!” What an extraordinary coincidence. This rough track along the shore of Lake Niassa, on which I apparently was the first overland biker to have riddden, had in fact been the focus of Irish government aid. IrishAId, the development arm of the Irish government, had an ongoing involvement in that inaccessible and sparsely populated north west province of Niassa.

But that was only the first surprise. I informed Rob they didn’t do the whole track, as the final twenty kms before Cobué - twisting up, down and around like a rollercoaster over the surrounding mountains - was very rough, with a rocky, unstable surface. And so many river crossings, with makeshift bridges at times too difficult for a motorbike to cross. “Ah, those must be the bridges I built still there!” Exclaimed Allan, seated next to Rob, with a grin. “I was up there just after the war in ‘92, checking out forestry options. Took us weeks to get there. Most of the bridges had been blown up by Renamo, and so we had to build them again to get anywhere!” He described exactly the crisscross pattern of short logs infilled with stones that I had had to negotiate, and was delighted to hear they were still in operation. I could not believe the coincidence.

It was a fascinating evening as a few of us remained discussing the situation in Mozambique. The literacy rate is one of the lowest in Africa, although resources are now being put into Education. (I subsequently received an email inviting me to a university graduation in Beira of this year's class of thirteen doctors (seven female and six male). There are six hundred doctors in Mozambique to care for a population of 17 million. Three hundred of those are Mozambican.) As a country recently opened up to international investment after many years of civil war - and with much of the natural resources such as minerals, forestry and fishing, not to mention tourism, as yet unexploited - the climate was ripe for development. The question was how was this being managed. There wasn't great optimism around the table. Predictably the potential for personal greed is seen as being responsible for much abuse of the country’s ecology. Concessions on huge rafts of wilderness, for example, were being sold off to Malaysian and Chinese logging companies. The conscensus was there was an ongoing serious corruption problem, despite the present government’s image of attempting to grapple with it.

Mozambique has been the focus of a major increase in international attention - and aid money - over recent years, and it was suggested that the corruption wasn’t just on one side. Our idea in the west is that corruption happens in developing countries, that we in Europe are more ‘civilised’, that just doesn’t happen here. However I was to hear those westerners that have discretion as to where funds are directed, if they are in any way susceptible to influencing, are in a position to benefit hugely from redirected money - backhanders. International development aid involves vast sums of money. An anecdote was given of the head of the Danish government aid organisation in Mozambique, recently furnishing at great expense his new multi million dollar house in Cape Town.

Allan in particular was an interesting character. “I used to be famous you know,” he smiled self deprecatingly. “You’re from Dublin? That green building in your new dockland development, the Financial Services Centre - I designed it!” This was becoming too many coincidences in Nampula to believe. Allan had apparently been the design architect in the team of New York consultants that were awarded the contract for that symbol of Irish economic rejuvenation back in the early nineties, which subsequently made the country a model for emerging economies around the world. My sister, who works in the property development business in Dublin, confirmed Allan Schwarz’s fame. Later, I was told he had been Professor of Design at the prestigious M.I.T. in the States.

Making a difference
i met Allan at a later date and learned more of what he did in Mozambique. Originally from South Africa, he had given up his career in the States - believing “at this stage of my life its more important what I do, not how much I make” - and, after spending time investigating and researching the Cameroon, then Central African Republic, chose Mozambique to pursue his next direction. With a background in carpentry before he took up his profession in architecture and design, he now designs and produces ‘forest products’.

“I design jewelry and furniture, train local craftsmen living near the forests to turn the products using hardwoods - waste from the logging companies - then market it in Europe and the States.” His markets are usually at the high end, and his jewelry has been on the cover of French Vogue magazine. Proudly showing me photos of his nurseries with acres of pots of saplings ready to be planted out, he described his project to replant clear felled forestry. His other pet project was beekeeping, supporting local farmers establish hives near the forests. “They get honey, and the trees get pollinated.”

Another interest Allan has is the production of tea tree oil. “We had approached the Australian Department of Agriculture for information and samples to start something here, and they point blank refused any cooperation. It was an Australian product.” He smiled. “However some time later, we got a request from the Australians to investigate growing and producing tea tree oil in Mozambique! It seems their production just couldn’t keep up with market demand and they needed help. So not only did we get samples of trees, but any information and advice we needed!” He supplies his tea tree oil to The Body Shop, a lucrative contract I imagine.

Allan is also trying to interest The Body Shop’s parent company - the giant cosmetic group L’Oreal’ - in marula oil. Studies show it has anti skin cancer properties, which has implications for the lucrative outdoor activity market. He mentioned other natural products that are suited well to the Mozambique climate. Meeting with Allan was quite an intense experience. Here was someone with the confidence, the credibility, and I imagined the financial clout to make things happen in this emerging country, to the benefit of local people. Predictably his views on NGO’s were not particularly positive, believing the people would only benefit by helping themselves.

One of the duties I had to perform while in Nampula was to report a theft to the police. In the eight months of my solo motorbike journey in the continent to date, through west, central and South Africa, I hadn’t had one thing stolen from me. Arriving in the hotel from the train after my first experience on public transport, I realised my compact camera was missing from my tankbag, the pocket unzipped and empty. I had my suspicions. Betti had been crawling around the compartment packing and stowing the bags of purchased vegetables up above, where my bag was. At the wedding, to which I’d been invited the following day, she pulled up in a car at the church and deposited some of her family, said to me something about having no camera and had to go and buy one, and disappeared, not to return for the whole ceremony! I mentioned to her brother Socrates afterwards that I’d ‘lost’ my camera in the carriage, and to ask Betti if she had found it there was a $40 dollar reward, telling him where I was staying. It was a forlorn hope. My main disappointment was the loss of the photos still on it - including a number from my arrival to the beach in Cobué, and the road out of there. There's also a scarcity of pics at the beginning of this update. (I was delighted when a Swiss teacher on the ferry kindly emailed me a photo he’d snapped of the unloading of the bike (previous update)).

‘We lost by death 60% of our whites, including all the teetotallers. According to my experience teetotallers do not stand a fever country as well as experienced drinkers.’
George Pauling, engineer on Zimbabwe to Beira railroad construction at the beginning of the last century.

Inselberg 350 1
Romuald drove me out to join a few of the expats for Sunday brunch at a Lodge set at a lake with an inselberg a half an hour's drive into the beautiful countryside surrounding Nampula. Lucia, a Brazilian community hygiene worker, was recovering from a recent bout of malaria, an occupational hazard in these parts. There followed a discussion on different methods of prevention, most of those living here not taking prophylactics because they are seen as harmful over an extended period of time. "I tried those mozzie wipes", quipped an Australian, referring to the treated tissue, "but the buggers wouldn't stay still long enough. Same with the mozzie stick - couldn't get them to stick to it. As for the malaria pills, they're a waste of time. Crushed them up into a fine powder and served it with a garnish and still the baastids wouldn't eat it!"

Arthur 500 1
In an internet office in Nampula, Arthur Jokela (pictured right taking a photo of me taking a photo of him taking a photo of me...) told me of his project developing “a theme park for Africa” (www.mafuwa.org) near Beira, further south, growing bio fuels as an alternative to burning the miombo - the woodland found throughout central and east Africa - and test growing aloe and various herbal alternatives to combat local illnesses. “A combination of amaranth and moringa is a powerful support to the immune system, effective against infection. Also moringa and artemesia tea. Clinical trials have shown it to reverse six HIV positive cases in Tanzania.”

I had come across
artemesia before. While staying in the town of Bobo-Dialasso in Burkina Faso, I met a French farmer and his wife who were growing the plant in the dry Ardeche region of France, and were driving around West Africa distributing artemesia seeds. I had passed some on, along with the explanation leaflet, to the monks in the Cistercian monastery I stayed at near Benguela in Angola. It is a Chinese herbal remedy for malaria, among other ailments, and was being accepted more and more by the West as a convenient, cheap and very effective malaria treatment, and in fact is the active ingredient for Coartem, a pharmaceutical prescribed in Africa against malaria. (In my 1st Aid bag I have a box of Coartem, a plastic bag of dried artemesia herb given to me by the French farmer, and a treatment dose of the expensive Maladrone.)

“Artemesia is the base of ACT which the World Health Organisation is recommending as a therapy against malaria. It is better
alone as a combination therapy - but of course the pharmaceutical companies, and the Gates Foundation (who are funding research into malaria eradication), ignore this because you can grow the shrub in any back yard!” He exclaimed. “You just take artemesia tea when the fever strikes - gallons are required. Its worked for two thousand years in China, has no side effects, and there’s no resistance build up in the mosquito population - which the pharmaceutical companies and the Gates Foundation dispute.”

Using terms such as p.b.l. "thats ‘project based learning’, which is a lot more effective than classroom training”, Arthur smiled and admitted to being an academic for too long. Claiming to be one of the original professional protesters back in the sixties, he says he has spent most of his adult life researching sustainable ways of living, acutely significant now with the growing threat of climate change and resource depletion.

Meeting fascinating characters like Allan, Arthur and others, accidentally, people pursuing ‘worthwhile’ directions in their lives, left me feeling a little frustrated at the transitory nature of my passing through. There seemed so much to be discovered, investigated, learned and engaged with in Mozambique. The potential of this country was making an impression on me.

(Any claims made above are repeated here unverified.)


Nampula eve 530 1