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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Hacktreks

Nivali - Mozambique
Erik Kristensen
Images Stig Nygaard

History seen through a community
The history of Africa is written in the faces of the people who live it through their daily struggle. To understand the changes that happen in Africa, one needs to hear the tales of how the struggles that people have faced have affected them; how they have lived and died with them.

The community of Nivali is an impoverished community in northern Mozambique.
To get there, one must drive for more than two hours outside the provincial capital Nampula, on a desolate road towards the city of Pemba. Amid impressive stone columns that occassionally litter the landscape, one must drive onto a one-track dirt-road that during the rainy season is all but impossible to drive on. A 25 Km uncomfortable drive brings one to Nivali: there is no electricity or running water; only one water-hole, donated by a European NGO, where the women huddle around with baskets and pots to fill the water that is most valuable in a place like this.

The isolation of the area is telling: In the early 1950’s a lion stalked the area, killing many villagers. Some of the village elders, Mr. Adrian Baltazar (77) and Mr. Jaime Riquela (57), vividly told about the threat of the lion as a changing moment in the village’s history. Away from the rest of the world, they had been at the mercy of Africa’s nature.
A local villager finally managed to kill the lion.
"He had a ground-nut farm near Alua", was all they told of this apparent hero.
Mr. Adrian Baltazar is one of the oldest community-members: his parents were among the first settlers in Nivali sometime in the early 20th century. However, nobody in the community, even the elders, had any idea on where these first settler had come from; they were all farmers, and their parents had been farmers.

As subsistence farmers, they were all highly dependent on their crops and therefore the elders as Mr. Baltazar and Mr. Riquela mentioned a locust plague in 1934-35 which caused massive destruction of crops, and a serious famine followed.
"Many people died. Mostly children", Mr. Riquela said, even though he had not been there himself, but vividly remembered his parents telling about the event.

The community had, as still is the case today, been a victim of the merciless African nature many times: In 1956 the community was hit by a devastating cyclone. Community members told how all houses had been razed to the ground. Still, there was a clear sense of challenge towards the merciless nature; the elders conclusion about this event, was that it had led them to put greater effort into building more solid huts.

Although cyclones had returned later, they had not been felt as bad as that one.
Not so the case of famine.
These farmers are still very dependent on weather patterns for their food, which almost exclusively comes from their own plots.

Hunger is never entirely far away - everyone in the community has experienced it -, but many have also experienced more serious famines. They tell it with a serious expression, but with a casuality that this is what one can expect from life – if one has never experienced it differently.

They told of grave famines in 1957 (as a direct consequence of the cyclone), 1960, 1975 and as late as 1980. The last one was in the memory of many of the community members, and one woman told how she had been forced to fed the children with roots.

The isolation of the community makes it vulnerable not only to natural disasters, but also to the scourge of diseases that we would hardly think about in Europe. The Frelimo government tried, right after independence to build health posts all over the country, but failed to create a lasting impact. In Nivali there is also a small health post, impossibly trying to help without electricity, resources, or medicine.

Malaria remains one of the worse killers, but once in a while the community has been hit by worse diseases: In 1998 the community was hit by a cholera epidemic and several people died; everyone seemed to tell about a family member who perished. Another epidemic, this time meningitis, hit them in 2000, killing several children.

Natural disasters, hunger and diseases; one would have thought that Nivali had seen it all, but this was not the case, as colonization and war had also been part of the community.

The Portuguese colonizers even made it to this faraway place: In 1940, Portuguese settlers planted the first cashew trees, thus beginning one of the most important commercial crops in the area during colonial times. Today, cashew nuts are still important, as the many trees planted by the Portuguese colonizers are still visible everywhere. But many of the trees are too old for any significant productions, so whatever is produced, goes to the community’s own consumption.
Portugal, a declining country at the edge of Europe, had during the Salazar regime sent thousands of settlers to their African colonies. This was even felt in area like Nivali. In 1948, the first store in the community was opened by a Portuguese colono, as they called the settlers, Mr. José Pereira. The store was small, and primarily catered for other Portuguese settlers in the area, as well as the so-called asimilados, which they called the locals who had accepted Portuguese customary law and adopted Portuguese customs.

The first school in the community was opened in 1948 as well. It was small, and aimed at Portuguese settlers and asimilados.
Mr. Riquelme said that he had been to the school as a child: "But I was not asimilado enough, so I dropped out", he said almost casually, yet with some hidden pride. Mr. Riquelme later became a member of Frelimo, who had in 1964 initiated a war of liberation against the Portuguese.

The war was hardly felt in Nivali until independence finally came in 1975: all community member who had been alive at the time said they had celebrated when the news arrived – partly by Frelimo soldiers and by the Portuguese leaving; Mr. José Pereira’s house and store had been ransacked and destroyed as the community had rejoiced in their country’s independence.

But "it was a step back in time", Mr. Motola said as they all remembered the sudden food shortages that hit all over Mozambique when the Portuguese left. The Portuguese settlers, in control of the entire economy, basically took everything with them when they left, most importantly, their skills and machinery for agricultural production. Freedom proved a difficult struggle for Mozambicans, and in Nivali they had to resort to planting more land and new crops to try to feed the population. Still, there was famine.

After Mozambique gained independence, the Portuguese left an impoverished and poorly educated population behind. The newly independent Frelimo introduced state Socialism, and this was felt directly by the farmers, as farm cooperatives were introduced all over the country, also in Nivali. In 1981, following hunger and a massive government attempt to educate the poor communities, community-villages were organized under government guidance. It was in this period that the community actually started to feel that there was a Mozambican government, when a national census brought government officials out to Nivali, and a new currency was introduced, the Metical.

However, the young Mozambican state was soon embroidered in the great politics of the cold war as the rebel group Renamo took up arms with South African and American support. The horrible civil war that followed was primarily fought in the rural areas, and Nivali suffered it directly, and everyone who was alive remembered when the first attacks happened 1985. Hundreds were killed in a single massacre in a small church. People immediately left the community to seek refuge in more safe areas.

The entire community was completely abandoned for eight years.
In 1992 Renamo and Frelimo signed a peace accord, aptly mediated by the Catholic church. In 1994 the first multi-party elections took place. Everyone in the community remembered that they had been out to vote, and Frelimo gained a huge majority in Nivali, as well as gaining the power in the the rest of the country with Renamo now acting as the main opposition party.
"Some people voted Renamo, as they were fighting with them during the war, but most people voted for Frelimo, and we want peace", Armando Pasqual (37), member of the farmer association of Nivali, said, displaying the general mood of people who had little idea about what the war had been about.

The years following the peace accord have brought a fragile stability to Nivali, as well as to the rest of Mozambique.
Over the past eight years Mozambique has experienced significant economic growth: foreign investment has multiplied in areas of mining and tourism, and Mozambique has become an exporter of electricity and aluminium. However, the growth has largely been concentrated in the south and in the urban areas, and a community like the one in Nivali is still isolated and poor.
"Although things are not as bad as they used to!", Mr. Jaime Riquela says when confronted with their poverty. "We are now organised and have more materials to work the land."

In spite of the apparently unsurmountable obstacles a European newcomer sees, everything must be seen in relation to all the what Nivali has gone through: how the community has undergone tremendous changes, as the history of Mozambique was unfolding around them, from colony, to liberation war, independence, socialism, civil war to becoming the poor developing country under massive donor tutelage it is today.

They have seen people die, they have reconstructed their village, and are more aware than anyone that change is slow, and may be influenced by unexpected events.
This is a wisdom that is all but impossible to grasp for an outsider.
These are the people that are forming this young country, Mozambique, and their strength at the hardest of times is the country’s biggest strength.

© Erik Kristensen March 2009
erikclevesk at

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