It’s one of the most stimulating aspects to embarking on travel to unknown or less well-known parts: a perspective on one’s own life. It takes seeing things with your own eyes -images in the media somehow don’t register nearly to the same extent- to remind you that the way you live is by no means the only or best way. There are many ways to skin a cat. Houses needn’t be the way your house is, four-square and, well, Cape Townian. Lives don’t have to be dominated by the concerns that rule your life and the people in your society. One doesn’t have to shop in supermarkets and malls or drive cars on smooth roads. There are other options open and they work! How easy it is to lose that perspective when one is cocooned at home.
On our trip we spent time in two places that begged comparison: rural Mozambique and the Eastern Cape, ex-Transkei. I don’t know the reasons for the differences we witnessed.Geography and climate must play a huge role. Culture, development, infrastructure, all these aspects create a complex picture difficult to untangle. I have made some flying guesses which might very well be wrong. After all, we were visitors driving through the land, not living in it or studying it. My apologies if I have got it completely wrong.
Mozambique is a huge country and there is one main road that runs north, recently upgraded. Villages line the route. Huts are arranged on either side of the road as if it was a suburban street instead of a thundering artery carrying huge trucks loaded with tree trunks the girth of silos and the occasional visitors such as us. Front doors face on to the road. In fact, it feels as if you are driving through people’s houses, invading their private spaces. The roadside is the focus of life. The road teems with people, mostly walking or riding bicycles and with the odd motorbike, three simple tiers that I assume are the expressions of upward mobility ( excuse the pun) in the society. Markets congregate on the verges. Vendors of charcoal and produce string out between the villages so that it becomes difficult to tell whether one is passing through a village or not. (Visitor’s note: Finding an unpopulated spot to take a bush pee can be difficult.)I read somewhere that Mozambique’s population is 12 million. I could swear we saw every single Mozambican along the road. What we did not see was signs of habitation in the bush away from the margins of the road. Perhaps vegetation obscured our view but I find it hard to believe that the landscape would not afford us any opportunities to see signs of habitation further in. I assume that the population has gravitated to the road and cling to it as an economic lifeline and that the vast hinterland is being depopulated.
How different was the Eastern Cape! The N2 is a terrifying experience. Cars and trucks whizz along it at high speed. Very few people walk alongside it (wisely) but even the side roads we took were remarkably free of pedestrians. Many of the local population had wheels and there were lots of very new cars to be seen. Many taxis and bakkies were about… had people largely given up using their legs as their main means of getting around? I can understand this as the terrain is mountainous and walking from place to place must be completely energy sapping. In contrast to Mozambique, the vista from horizon to horizon was peppered with homesteads clinging to the hills. The density of human habitation was such that one felt slightly hallucinated from the repeated details stretching into the furthest distances, as if one was viewing a painting by one of the primitive style artists such as Grandma Moses or those Early Renaissance landscapes from Sienna by the Lorenzetti brothers. As we drove through, I was searching for a word to encapsulate what we were seeing.”Is there a term, peri-rural, that is the equivalent of peri-urban?” I asked Peter.
The condition of the roads themselves? The worst stretch of road we encountered was between Flagstaff and Mkambathi in the Eastern Cape. That bit of spine-jarring, juddering driving was far worse than negotiating the furthest northern reaches of Mozambique. It’s hard to believe but true.
The average village home in Mozambique is a small mud, wood and grass structure that seems almost fragile. Panels of woven palm create roof tiles, walls or fences. Front doors are made from the heavy, dense wood of the region and look incongruous placed in crumbling mud walls. There are a number of more Western structures. The thing that strikes you is just how small these can be, almost like children’s playhouses.
The homesteads in the Eastern Cape were fascinating. Nearly every plot of land had three structures: a small traditional rondavel, its thatch roof often replaced with tin or asbestos cement, an afdak or flat roof structure sometimes separate from ,sometimes an extension of the rondavel, and thirdly, a conventional Western house, either complete or in the process of being built. The styling of the latter structures is peculiarly bourgeois, what we in the Cape call northern suburbs. Nearly all are made of face brick and have metal windows, heavily burglar barred. The front door is framed with a portico on pillars. Bizarrely, most of the homeowners seem to choose a rather fancy design of column like twisted sugar barley. We wondered if these three structures are remnants of the development of the homestead over years, again signs of upward mobility: first a traditional round hut, then the afdak extension and finally, the conventional Western house. The rate of building that is going on in the Eastern Cape seems unbelievable. Sugar-barley houses are being built at a rate of knots. What is a sure bet career in the Eastern Cape? A builder or, since the householders might be doing it themselves, a building material supplier.
For the average Mozambican, getting food on the table is a struggle. There are no fat people to be seen and people work hard to get their food. You see small fields of cassava, groundnuts, mielies,sugarcane, sweet potatoes, rice,vegetables and fruit trees including avocados and nut trees, everywhere. This is a simple agricultural economy. The environmental damage is obvious: food pressure means driving through areas of indigenous forest that are being slashed and burnt and turned into food.(Is this as destructive as the deforestation taking place by commercial loggers to feed the voracious appetite for good, hard woods in the West and Asia? Hard to tell.) It means watching people catching the tiniest reef fish in their nets. It is hard to criticise hungry people. But one thing is for sure: the diet of fish (dried away from the coast), vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans, and let’s not forget the miracle food of coconut, has got to be the most healthy diet you can find.
In the Eastern Cape, we had to look hard for the remains of a mielie field. We saw a bit of cattle herding but not nearly as much as we remembered from years before.There are no fruit trees, even those that would suit the harsh climate and thin soils. The towns are humming with shoppers buying, buying, buying. Fast food outlets are doing a roaring trade. Fat adults and teenagers abound. The contrast with the lithe, energetic Mozambicans was pointed.
Baby-making seems to be the number one Mozambican national pastime.I have never seen so, so many children. Nearly every woman of child-bearing age and many a child , some as young as six, has a baby attached to their hip. There are flotillas of children kicking up the dust wherever you look.As an ex-teacher I could not help thinking: How on earth was Mozambique schooling these millions?
At the same time there are very few old people to see. In fact, the scarcity of people over 40 or 50 was so marked that we played a game of spotting elders and did not come up with more than a number in the teens for a whole day’s driving. It was spooky. The reason that first comes to mind is Aids but could it be that they were all simply indoors ( a cultural thing?) and would it be the 50 plus generation that would be decimated by the disease? Questions we couldn’t answer.
In the Eastern Cape we saw a good sprinkling of the elderly. Was this a sign of better Aids treatments available or better general access to medical treatment?
From these contrasts we deduced that there was a cost to getting a toehold into the middle class, which was how we summed up the Eastern Cape scenario. The rural Mozambicans we saw had very little chance of “making it” in the Western sense but the quality of their lives was not without its merits. I do not think it is naive and romanticised to say that as people fling themselves into a higher trajectory, they lose as much as they gain. I’ve pondered this issue before with regards to my parent’s decision to immigrate to South Africa so that they could “make it.”
Yes, travel gives you lots to chew on.