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A Majestic Excursion to Mount Gorongosa (Part 1)

DJMualaBy DJ Muala

Thursday, June 5, 2008

From Chitengo to the Murombodzi Falls
A two-hour tour of contradictions through mythical landscapes

Departure point: Chitengo

We had already reached 8:15 when, after giving chairs to everyone and to me too, Vasco Galante sat down opposite Greg Carr. The American philanthropist was seated towards the back, right next to our VIP for the day, the CBS journalist Rebecca Peterson (from the North American TV station). And of course I was opposite Rebecca. There was the Gorongosa National Park journalist, Carlitos Sunza, in the front, and the pilot Bertus was next to him. The term philanthropist here simply means a person who not only uses words to improve the general well-being, but who also takes action, day and night, giving everything they’ve got and making great personal effort for the well being of all.

After this, Bertus moved without delay to start the machine.

And there was a startling noise as the 6-seater machine that had been asleep over night came to life. The pilot ventured out of the helicopter to check if the doors were securely closed. It reminded me of the popular saying – it’s good to trust, it’s better to distrust.

So the pilot re-closed the doors and windows and confirmed the state of his vehicle before takeoff. This is what they call responsibility. Sometimes just using words to talk about responsibility isn’t enough.

We got onboard. I took part in the adult talk. I heard about the anxieties of the wakulu wakulu, the big shots. Adults who had every right to choose their travel companions.

I was proud to be there with Greg, Rebecca, Vasco, Carlitos and Bertus. Still, I had fleeting anxieties in the first moments after boarding and sitting among my hierarchical superiors. Our VIP Rebecca was in front of me – this was Vasco’s strategy for us to sit so that I could share what experience I had with her. I could tell her about the histories that I write, about the people of Gorongosa, and about the area we were flying over. It was a strategy that didn’t work out very well. The language barrier between us made communication difficult.

You see, my official language is Portuguese, and I can communicate in English and in other languages. My companion’s first language was English, and she knew only some words and phrases in Portuguese.

I think she quickly forgot that we could still converse in English. She got caught up in the thrill of flying over this territory full of animals, as we traveled towards the largest tropical forest in Southern Africa, located on Mount Gorongosa.

She graced us with her smile from the very beginning. And she waited for our outpouring of explanations, mainly from Vasco and Greg, who reported on numerous issues.

Much of the conversation centered on general information, such as the traditional name of the current Site One, the small residential quarter of the Park reserved for junior staff.

Vasco agrees and furthers his point by citing the traditional name of the new Chitengo Restaurant – Chicalango.


Other questions concerned the beautiful wildlife and how much we could see in the particular section of the larger Park ecosystem that we would cover on our visit.

Rebecca listened attentively to the conversation. Sometimes she jumped in and determined the direction of the conversation.

For me, the landscape seemed somehow different now than it had been in March when I last admired it on a trip to the Cheringoma Grotto. And of course it would be.

Time changes everything and everything changes with time. Things change. Nature – inanimate and animate – changes. Just like feelings change with time!

In March it’s more green. There are marshes and swamps everywhere. And there are many places in the Park where the roads are sometimes cut off by dangerous, raging high waters. In March, the trees don’t seek water. But in June, the situation is quite the opposite. Fires threaten dry grass – the same grass that is a defiant green in the landscape in the third month of the year.

Today, we went in a sight-seeing direction that was different from the route we took that month. This time, Greg didn’t mention the area with the elephants. And I already suspected how the mountain would effect our entire crew two and a half hours later. But we went.

Just minutes after takeoff, we were charmed by the animals. Over here there was one, over there they were in groups. The rare albino waterbuck even made an appearance that day.

Albino Waterbuck_cropped 
Albino waterbuck: genetics on display.

The only thing we couldn’t determine was if the animals were males or females. Some ran away frightened by the motors of the loud aircraft. They followed their instinct of self preservation. Yes sir, the animal population at the Park is multiplying little by little.

The 16 years of peace at the Park and the Park restoration project are helping the animals multiply. The animals ran into their safe houses – under the trees!

The aircraft didn’t stop. I felt sorry for the tousled trees. They were being punished by a helicopter, just as often happens with the fragile roofs of our houses in this zone of Mozambique. When this type of engine hovers just above these young roofs, they cry for their parents to brush their hair again. And it can take several hours to disentangle the hair of these traditional habitats. Our thatched huts.

Poor trees! Thanks to their animal abilities, animals can at least make a furtive escape from the hunters.


Bela-Vista means only Bela-Vista – Beautiful View. Just leave aside the metaphors and imagine the phrase word for word. Even in our Portuguese from Gorongosa, it’s still possible to grasp the essence of each element in this juxtaposition. If there are still comprehension difficulties, then substitute the term: Bela-Visão – Beautiful Vision. Vision of the open spaces from here forward. The well-conceived colonial-era lodge was to be situated on one of the distinctive rises of the region. This particular rise is in a prominent location that allows for a majestic panorama over the remaining area of the Park – except for the zone behind the mountain.

How to get to Bela-Vista?
To get to Bela-Vista, follow the road that leaves Chitengo, passes through and continues to other parts of the Park. A Park inspection point was intended to inhabit the area next to Bela-Vista.

I diligently asked our inexhaustible guide if there was a plan to rehabilitate these infrastructures in the future, since they are restoring the animals, tourist infrastructure at Chitengo, and the communities neighboring the Park. Vasco readily answered that it’s part of the plan.

As we were leaving the Park, there were many fields where deep green alternated with patches of blondish brown. The green was from the trees. Big or small. The grass was brown because it was dry, violated by the sun and deserted by the manna from last season.

Outside the park, the scene was the opposite – a lot of blondish brown interrupted by patches of obvious green from the mango trees. Along the rivulets of water there also still appeared some deep green. The brown here is already quite disturbing. The houses blunt the effect amidst all this brown.

Tsiquir Gold Mines

Arial view of Tsiquir Gold Mines.

Save the animal habitat and refuge!
The adults also flee from the noise of the helicopter!

What kind of adult runs away and why? Those who are exploring the gold mines of Tsiquir.

They run out from the mines. To hide in the bush. Probably because their houses are far away from the mine pits. How is it that these animals (if animal means physical mobility) coincidentally find refuge underneath the trees when they are overcome with fear? Some (rational) animals illegally exploring gold from the Tsiquir mines took refuge under the trees. Already within the Park, other (irrational) animals were also fighting for survival – they ate and looked for food. Surprised by the noise, they ran for the trees without thinking. Trees, trees!

Trees, the only life protection.
Two simultaneous incidents involving animal behavior in relation to trees. Two unforeseen events. And witnessed by six people. Animals that instinctively had to run back to the trees to protect themselves from an imminent danger. They knew they wouldn’t regret it.

Even Mother Earth who sustains us retreats to the trees to create more life. So that she can strengthen her position in the orbital race and be proud among the group of other planets, the earth relies on the trees! By way of trees, she gets animals, rains, humanity, and other life. But by way of animals, she doesn’t get a single tree. She simply loses her status as one of the other contestants (planets and heavenly bodies) in conquering lives for herself.

When they heard and then finally saw the helicopter, why did the humans there decide to flee under the trees? And what about the (irrational) animals within the Park?
Could there be a mutual intelligibility between the two behaviors?
What consciousness is there for the rational ones at Tsiquir?
They almost make me believe that human limitations are quite severe indeed. They are even incapable of clearly seeing each moment in life.

Nevertheless, there’s a Thomas in the Bible who still doubts. I saw a few scared ones standing over there, inert. They didn’t run away into the forest. Even after we circled around the mines two times. They were still there – immobile and halted.

What did those mines look like?
A large colony of holes carved out of the subsoil. And the view from above revealed humans all over the outside and inside of the holes. It reminded me of the dynamics of ants entering and leaving their homes, each ant with his pack. And the packs of these ants below us are rocks unearthed from below and brought up for inspection by the waters and the poisonous mercury. The fugitive gold is inspected. As rare to find as wisdom. Where are the water and the mercury of wisdom?

On top of that, the holes actually become water wells, awaiting rings so they could mitigate the lack of the precious liquid in the villages. And there would be real gold for all in Tsiquir if those wells could be fitted with rings and covers. There would be potable water for use in communities that need it the most. After partaking in the scarce mineral deposits, these neighboring villages see the few remaining sporadic rivers and boreholes as solutions to the crisis of that vital indispensable liquid. By tradition, this generation has inherited practices that now need to be readjusted and contextualized.

And the Thomases, who want to see it to believe it, will still be present in many humans – these are the infamous fearful ones. And the fearful ones will continue standing there outside the mines.

Likewise in Tsiquir, the presence of destructive human action was plain to see, action that is frequently linked to the necessity of survival: the predominate agricultural practice of slash and burn (locally, mathema). There were bald areas on top, on the slopes, and in the valleys of the mountainous areas, as there were justifiably bald areas in the large residential yards. 

It’s interesting to observe how the local communities grow dizzily: there are few residential yards with one house. Many have five or more houses. With the parents’ house often in the middle, and the houses of sons and daughters around the father’s house. It’s an aggregation of family that keeps on growing. Planning to have children here first requires planning the number of wives and chindes (dependent women). And being someone’s wife means having at least one child with him. And the chindes? They accept that there are fewer men in Gorongosa, but they don’t accept that they will have fewer children with the small number of available men!

So this was why I saw such a concentration of houses within each yard. And there are so many similar yards as well. I’m sure that each family has a large farm plot. Shared by all of the members of the family. But still under the control of the parents. And as the children advance in age and in responsibility, they detach from the large family farm plot and run their own mathemas. They tenaciously start their own farm plots, these adolescents who get married or get pregnant at a tender age, and then the plots are given to the pregnant girls, still in their adolescence, who set up their own home. And so according to the norm, they become heads of households. They become parents with a farm plot they share with their family members.

Sometimes there’s even an exploratory breaking away from the family plot. This is in line with the century’s trend, started by Mr. Santos Mosca, of buying and selling agricultural products in this part of Mozambique.

So, the father’s farm plot is without question for commercial purposes. Commerce that springs from food products can today be seen exploding along the streets of dear Gorongosa. Gorongosa’s interior is not on the fringes. And the many Mr. Santos Moscas of this era are commonly called manhambanes (people who come from Inhambane province).

It’s a practice that is tied to our daily life. We find here in Gorongosa farm plots for the mother/mothers, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, cousins, and everyone who shares the same residential yard. They may have farm plots in various places because the manhambanes buy and sell produce from the plots. And the farm plots come from mathemas – slash and burn. It’s only the trees that lose in this vicious cycle. This is how it is in Tsiquir. This is how it is in Nhancuco. This can be seen in Gorongosa town for those who have visited there.

I just want to know where people hide their conscious when they don’t send a wake up call to those who need it.

I’d like to know where we camouflage our collective responsibility to care for the equilibrium of our habitat – our ecosystem in agony.

Unsustainable agriculture causes more and more devastation to our ecosystem, yet it isn’t abolished. Maybe because it’s cheaper to eat than to criticize the process that brings us the food. And criticize here isn’t to be confused with deny, rather analyze and take a stand. Urge people to understand this dilemma of ultra-rapid ecological imbalance that is already difficult and will be worse in the future.

We circled around the mine area two times. The emotion that I had contained shortly after boarding the aircraft grew again into a monster inside me when I saw from afar the mines I had always heard about. My sorrow at not having a camera with me now seemed like a lack of respect. And I couldn’t do anything but just be glad that our VIP of the day had brought her camera with her. Of course a journalist doesn’t forget her camera and she had hers. And Vasco helped her, well aware that Carlitos was seated by the pilot and was also filming at least the most remarkable landscapes. And the Tsiquir mines were obviously not an exception. From the mines there arose a conversation among the three distinguished guests in back. The visitor commented on the possibility of making the mines official so that people could exploit the gold in a transparent way. Vasco, knowing his material thanks to his frequent interactions with local and central authorities, succinctly explained to Rebecca the general view about the Tsiquir mines. He added that the last time he saw the excavation, the water was a brownish red from washing the rocks in it. He believes that recently less mercury has been used, which already generally reduces water pollution. These cloudy waters certainly flow into the park.

And because the conversation about the mines was in English, two adjectives – stark and sharp – were introduced to make a contrast with the natural landscapes we had seen. Vasco tried to clarify the difference between the two adjectives in the description. Greg assumes the position of lexicologist. He explains the difference. He uses all available resources – words and hand gestures, and you can see he strains to clarify. He achieves his goal. After all, is it necessary to expend a lot of effort to achieve your goals? And we, his auditorium, prove to him that we have clearly understood the difference. And the class of the lexicology professor, Greg, ended with feedback from the questioner. He associated sharp with nítido (clear, distinct) and decided the meaning of stark was somewhere between austero (severe, austere) and forte (powerful, acute), and in the end he decided to abandon synonyms. And Bertus responded from the cabin to confirm that he had understood Greg’s explanation.

And I didn’t add anything because the vocation of being a teacher never belonged to any one person in particular. It’s like business or commerce. We’re all businesspeople in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. In the same way, we’re all teachers, whether with training or without. These are two activities as inherent to human nature as the shadow is to the human body, and they are only enhanced by specialization.

But the helicopter is going quickly.

On To Nhancuco
As we were arriving, the conversation turned to a different topic. Paying careful attention is Vasco’s job. Many times he even surprises us. He remembered immediately to point out to our Rebecca that we were already in Nhancuco as the helicopter banked above some local plant nurseries. Rebecca wanted to see the nursery from above. So we all pointed with our hands to show her the house that had the many plant-filled plastic bags. But this was not part of Bertus’ mission. His job was to leave us in Nhancuco and fly to the village of Murombodzi/Kuangueresi, where he would wait for us. 

From the grass where the machine landed, we disembarked into the yard of the Nhancuco primary school. Ummm, ummm! This is who quickly showed up upon our arrival:

• seven colleagues responsible for the nurseries based there in Nhancuco,

• fifteen adults, among them nine women (probably taking a break from their farm plots near the grassy landing pad where we alighted)

• twenty eight children clothed in the local manner without care for bodily hygiene or for the tattered clothes they were wearing. Greg extended his hands to these children and greeted each one with a squeeze of the hands – the same child hands that had just been pulled from their daily local routine: throwing stones at birds, helping their mothers work in the fields, playing mago (a game with small stones in holes in the dusty ground), pulling boxcars made of cane and tin cans, etc… while they waited for it to be time to go to the nearby school. We also followed Greg’s good example.

The current physical condition of the Nhancuco school


Current Nhancuco school, soon to be replaced by new classrooms about 800 m from this location.

Walking along the patio of the school, we noticed the pitiful situation. A single teacher by the name of Perino Perino was teaching by himself, in the same period, in two mixed classrooms filled with more than 4 different classes. He must be a teacher as good as Socrates!

What boggles the mind is that that same child of God would then have to face the same situation in the following periods, but obviously with different students. This means that he would circulate among at least eight different classes. Therefore, there would be no less than sixteen different lesson plans taught by the same teacher in one day.

Maybe a super-human could give quality lessons that had a real impact and were tailored to the lives of the students in Nhancuco. On the other hand, it could be all rote, taught in order to fulfill a program laid out in frequent curricular meetings with other professors. And students don’t fail according to this strategy, so they’re all pushed along to the next grade level. At the end of the day, be proud to be a teacher…

And this is how we train our wise citizens – autonomous, conscious, responsible citizens, that will know how to defend their rights and recognize their civic responsibilities in the world of tomorrow.

A teacher could be like this when he’s left to his own luck. While he’s in one classroom giving instructions to some handful of students, the other classroom is empty – the students left to run wild. He who doesn’t know students was never a student himself. And that’s not his fault, is it?

In those classrooms, I looked in vain for a chair. But sometimes our eyes deceive us, I didn’t see any except for blocks of stone. Some were perhaps taken from the ruins of the old houses of Ferrão that were sold to the family of Carlos Palhinha during the colonial era – the ruins are still close by. Even I would go grab myself a block and sit on it rather than sit on the very dusty floor.

And what about the blackboards in those classrooms? They looked like rags tied with string and hanging at a 30 degree angle. The bottom of the blackboards rest on two posts stuck in the floor, the top is lashed to one of the construction poles of straw and reed. From behind, the blackboards rest on the poles in the wall. And the classes? What do they rest on?

I’m not ashamed of the realities inside my country. But I never get used to these facts. And they are particularly shocking in an era when development is the resounding principle in politics. It’s not even a matter of electricity, information technology, school lunches, transport, or clothing that’s adequate and clean. Those things that most people define as basic conditions. Here it’s clear that the concept of basic conditions is relative.

And Vasco, always attentive, made sure to introduce me to a colleague of my same profession, the adept teacher in Nhancuco. I greeted him, squeezing his hands with an eagerness to hold the chalk that powdered his right hand. As is common in right-handed people, his left hand held the lesson planning notebook, where he had notes to write on the board.

The community of Nhancuco only saw us from afar as we passed by on the road. We saw a modern car parked there, belonging to someone from outside the mountain region who was looking for the traditional healers (maybe to cure an illness, maybe so that the chief would be more of a chief according to local beliefs). Despite seeing the car, we continued along our road.

This was so that our Rebecca would know that at least the precariously critical physical conditions of the construction that was now called a school would soon be replaced by new classrooms, situated about 800 meters along the road from the current school and almost completed. After we had gotten a good look at the new classrooms, we returned secure in the fact that Rebecca had seen the improved future school building. The fumo Randinho, the traditional leader from that area of Nhancuco, made himself known to us. He walked with us to some of these places and until the nursery house.

One of the Nhancuco nurseriesClip_image004 
One of the nurseries of native trees in Nhancuco, Mount Gorongosa.

Angelo is the agricultural technician and supervisor who takes care of the nurseries. Fresh out of the bath, he joined us along the path to the only nursery we visited, in front of the workers quarters. Angelo had a break in his work routine today. He had to explain to us, and principally to our guest, the five different groups of indigenous plants present in the plastic bags in the nursery. And in English. The plastic bags with the plants are well organized by species whose scientific names will be labeled by Tongai, a colleague from that work team.

Our curiosity to see the nurseries didn’t keep us from going to see the real fields where those plants are used to reforest the bald parts of Mount Gorongosa. And we visited one of the planted fields. There are the plants. Already in flagrant growth. They are reforesting the old farm plots that have already been abandoned and surrendered by owners who have been reformed.

(To be continued…)


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 2, 2008 10:38 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Majestosa digressão à Serra da Gorongosa (parte I).

The next post in this blog is Snapshot From Gorongosa.

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