La Tierra de Mangas y Cajus

Any road around Nampula takes you by villages, houses, and farms surrounded by mango and cashew trees.  Mozambique was historically one of the biggest exporters of cashews – since the time of the civil war, Brazil and Indian have overtaken it, though Mozambique is beginning to be viable competitor again (thanks in some part to work by Technoserve!) – and Nampula is cashew central.  Though I think I can now recognize a mango tree from afar, I no idea what a cashew tree looked like until this week.  Now, I see them everywhere!  Nampula should practically be renamed – Cashew Land.

My work this week was supposed to take me down to Zambezia – the province south of Nampula – however, because that forestry company is at even MORE of a beginning stage than this one and isn’t even set on where they will be working yet we’ve cut it out of the baseline and have instead increased the numbers we need from each site.  This meant that I had some time up here to fill; so, we decided I could remain to make sure that the team that is working in the second district up here continues to work smoothly and also so that I could begin some of my qualitative interviews.

I was a bit anxious because I know gender can sometimes be a poignant and explosive topic and also because of the translation challenges I was afraid I wouldn’t understand what was going on and wouldn’t be able to keep a conversation flowing enough to keep some of the women talking.  After several hassles this morning and forgetting the tape recorder, we were finally on our way – only a couple hours late!  I put some music by Zimbabwean musician Chiwoniso onto my ipod in the hopes of calming myself down a little and also centering myself around the group I was about to try to understand – African women.

Needless to say, my nerves were a bit unnecessary.  As we drove BACK to Nampula city at the end of the day, at that time of day when the bottom of the clouds are glowing like the dying embers in a campfire and the African plain looks a bit like it could be one of those old timey museum dioramas with stuffed animals in it, I thought “This is the kind of day that make you forget the crazy travel, bumpy roads, struggle to make friends and a community, and lonely meals in bars alone when you get back to America!”

I started by interviewing a group of women.  My colleague, who is translating for me into Macua – the local language – introduced me and explained what we’d be talking about.  We then talked to them for a bit under an hour asking questions about decision-making, autonomy, education, health, leadership skills, businesses skills, and what their husbands do around the house (or, as the case may be, don’t do!).  They were friendly, full of laughter, and happy to talk.  I didn’t get most of it translated yet, but at breaks in the conversation Belchion would tell me what was said and ask which way to go next.  I think tomorrow we’ll need to do even more of that – but for day 1 I was satisfied.

Then we picked 5 or 6 of the women who had spoken a bit more to ask more specific questions about business, education, children, family-planning and more.  These I tried to video-tape, with my camera, which was new and foreign to them.  They all smiled when I started to show them their images talking back to us.  Digital cameras are such a great “in” for the contemporary development worker – men, women, kids all love posing and being able to see themselves.  It’s such a great way to enter a community and make people calm and feel approachable.

Anyway, all of the women talked about businesses and skills they would like to start or need.  They all talked about how credit wasn’t available and that since there was no bank in town it was hard to save.  Now, micro-credit has books and papers and studies written extensively about it at this point – and I haven’t done enough research to be educated in these opinions – but credit constraints have at least been proven as a market failure in this type of village.  There is no way for people to borrow or be entrepreneurs.  It’s easy to argue that many of these women wouldn’t be great entrepreneurs or that most micro-credit for these women would be used for consumption and not business, but some of them would be able to do something real with it and trying to understand who would be able to capitalize on it, what skills they have already or still need, and which markets they might serve is a key question.

In today’s conversations I really only touched the surface and sadly don’t have much more time (if any!) in that village.  However, some of the ideas women suggested were selling dried fish, opening up a restaurant in town (where there actually aren’t any right now – cause we were looking for one ourselves!), running a maize mill (because there isn’t one anywhere around so all of the women pound by hand – though one woman described walking to the nearest one while she was pregnant and giving BIRTH on the way!), or studying to be a local health worker or traditional birth attendant (probably not much money in that though many people would pay in-kind somehow).

After the women, we talked with a group of men.  I was a little bit more overwhelmed with the men – they were more organized, the older leaders of the community were more vocal, and I was afraid they’d be a bit more suspicious of me – so I didn’t stop Belchion as often for translations.  That said, again, I probably shouldn’t have been nervous because the little old man who is the “secretary” – the government created post for the head of the village – was a very kind man who later said I should come back and teach in the village school!  His counterpart then gave us a bucket of groundnuts as we headed out!  The only thing missing was a meal of xima and village chicken!  ☺

Later, in the car, Belchion translated more of it for me (and it was all recorded).  One of the most interesting things THEY said was an acknowledgement that any decision they make they have to discuss with their wives – one person said if he wanted to buy a motorbike, even knowing that he would be the main user and caretaker of it, he would have to ask his wife.  This may seem obvious to us, though in a traditional Mozambican, or even southern African, concept of gender suggests that the man is the head of the household and makes all financial decisions.  They also said that a couple years ago men would have been uncomfortable with their wives working but today they recognize that their wives can help the whole family if they work… sounds like good progress!

Finally, we sat and talked with a group of 7th graders (who ranged in age from 10 – 18) and talked with them all (boys and girls) about whether or not they like school, if they want to continue to secondary school (all said yes), what they want to do when they finish school, how they will pay for it, if they want to get married and have kids and if so, at what age.  It was very interesting.  ALL of the students said they wanted to have between three and five children and gave ages for marriage between 20 and 27.  That said one is already married (the one who was 18) and has a kid, with a second one on the way! (He also said he only wants three kids – to which I suggested to Belchion that we help take his wife to the clinic to get some birth control pills or condoms!)

Interestingly very few of them knew much about AIDS – they’d heard of it of course but, to us at least, didn’t know much about how it was transmitted or how to prevent it.  It made me want to find a Peace Corps Volunteer somewhere in the area and say – GO teach!  Oy, it’s scary and sad, and also particularly heart breaking to think that that smart, eloquent boy with the kid will, at least statistically speaking, probably be HIV positive in the coming years… He’s young, smart, sexually active, and probably will have (if he doesn’t already) more than one sexual partner, which will exponentially increase his likelihood of contracting and then passing on the virus.  It’s hard to not want to just drop everything and head into these villages and start preaching about HIV – though I’m not sure what’d I say or even what language to say it in!

That all said, the interviews, the comfort I felt being back in the village, the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and the need to try to tell a story from all of this make me think more and more that I should get a PhD.  I think that better understanding the linkages to health with women’s economic empowerment are exactly what I want to study more and then get out to policy-makers, or be one myself.  Anyway, I’m getting more and more used to the idea and less and less intimidated by the whole process.

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One response to “La Tierra de Mangas y Cajus

  1. I was very convinced by the founder (I forget his name )of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh about the efficacy of microlending to village women. I wonder if Mocambique has any policy on microlending.
    Women, of course, always work albeit as part of the family enterprise. And that is precisely the raison de’tre for polygamy. But yes, independent income/cash generation is altogether another issue.

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