Friday, April 9, 2010

Confronted with stories of Mozambique’s dark and recent history

While strolling around town after the Mozambican Women’s Day celebrations, we visited the home of a friend and gathered on chairs in the shade, eating fresh oranges and sugar cane from his backyard while we talked. It was an unusually revealing conversation about the civil war, a topic I rarely hear people talk about. The small community is made up of almost exclusively of supporters of the ruling Frelimo party save for the owner of the house we were visiting. Though the conversation was not unfriendly, they were openly criticizing our host for supporting Renamo and recounted stories of the atrocities that the party inflicted on townspeople only decades ago.
I sat in silent horror as they told us about locals whose wives were kidnapped and murdered, of the pits they dug that were filled with cadavers, of the heartless torture inflicted on individuals (things I don’t have the stomach to write here). In those days you didn’t dare leave your house after five o’clock. Jeeps with spotlights patrolled the streets looking for disobedients. Soldiers would force people to carry incredibly heavy burdens for many kilometers until they could no longer bear them at which point they were shot and killed. School-aged children were recruited to dig the mass graves and they laughed in glee as the bodies were mutilated and burned, brainwashed to relish death and violence. Some of those children are the parents of my students. You wouldn’t know it now. They seem like good, friendly people. In fact, it’s easy to forget there was ever a war here at all, until you see the pockmarks in cement walls where bullets once hit, the crumbling structures that have not yet been torn down or repaired…
The conversation went on to describe life under the communist government prior to the civil war. Everyone was forced to work on communal farms and the sparse production was severely rationed. Breadlines stretched on endlessly, many people never receiving their portion. Women would wake up before dawn and place a rock to mark their place in line. Rice was rationed so strictly that people were given only one kilo to last months. Those who were single or widowed and did not have employment were taken to slave away on government farms, receiving nothing in return.
I was disturbed by the levity with which they told these truths. They laughed and slapped their knees as they talked about a man whose ears were cut off and was forced to chew and swallow them, of unborn babies being cut out their mother’s wombs, of the children digging the mass graves. When talking about the digging up of human bones in their gardens my face must have shown my horror because I was told not to worry, that the floods washed the shallowly buried bodies away back in 2000. I gnawed on sugarcane to try and occupy myself, wanting to understand the history of this place but at the same time feeling increasingly tired and weary of absorbing the difficult information.
I think they were laughing because that was all they could do. There are not enough tears to cry and not enough hours to morn all the awful things that happened. I have the luxury of feeling bad. The people who really lived through these things have to put it behind them. There are enough problems to deal with now that it is impossible to dwell on the past.
Still, sometimes I wonder why people seem so complacent with the problems they face in the present. Why don’t they get angry about corruption in their local governments and schools? Why don’t HIV-positive people do more to educate others about the disease? Why do children repeatedly go to the hospital with malnutrition not because there isn’t enough food but because their mothers don’t know how to feed them? How can people still walk down the streets and laugh and smile and drink beer and cheap whisky?
But then I step back and look at the incredible progress that has been made in Mozambique. I see hundreds of kids in their school uniforms every day walking down the same main street where machine guns once roamed. I see busy stores and gardens, women selling produce at the market. At the hospital people are being educated about cholera, free HIV testing and treatment is administered, mothers of malnourished babies are learning how to make healthier meals. At school, my students want to learn English because they see potential in their futures.
Although it’s painful to hear about the suffering of the past, it allows me to see how far Mozambique has come. I can focus of the positives, the accomplishments, and do my small part to help my students and the individuals in my community to continue to move forward.

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