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Paradise Found And Lost

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We took this photo of Vilankulo from the water.
Caption
Dark hands shaped the graying wood on the old Arabian sailboat, called a dhow, which sits abandoned here on the beach in Vilankulo, Mozambique. Several other dhows, in better states of repair, float here in the Indian Ocean, as fishermen prepare them for a day of work, much as they have for hundreds of years. They call to one another and the wind carries the sounds of their native language, Chitswa, to my ears as I sit on this abandoned boat and drift back in time.

Caption
Arab traders from Yemen first arrived in Mozambique in the 7th Century AD, in graceful dhows almost identical to the ones these fisherman are using today. North of the Zambezi River, they settled and interbred with the Bantu tribes to form the unique Swahili culture. Here in central Mozambique, Arab influence is limited to a few things, such as these dhows. The massive nets are loaded and the first dhow takes off, being rowed by about five men because the wind is weak. Their calls suddenly unify into a beautiful, harmonic chant-like song, drifting further and further away from me on shore. I am mesmerized.

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Caption
The people of Vilankulo have skin the color of polished ebony, darkness of pure Bantu working in the sun all day as fishermen. Chitswa is one of the 14 native languages in Mozambique, which all stem from the Bantu language, as do Swazi, Zulu, and Xhosa. Chitswa is spoken by practically everyone here, with Portuguese a second language to anyone who went to school. Many people, including 12-year-old Neto, who helped us carry our bags to the hut where we are staying, also speak some English now that the civil war has ended and tourism has started again. Most tourists come from English-speaking South Africa or Zimbabwe, so Neto was excited we had come from as far away as the United States to visit his little town.

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We slept in one of these thatched huts in Vilankulo.
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Vilankulo moves with the calm, cheerful pace of a people who live simple lives on the ocean. There are no phones in the entire village and most people get their water from wells and cook over fires. Yet everyone has time to stop and talk to each other and to me. I find it impossible to even explain what it is I do. Who's heard of the Internet here?

Three women walk down the beach, balancing huge loads of laundry on their heads. The colors of the world stand out against the beige sand, blue ocean, green plants, dark skin, and the festive reds, blues, yellows, and greens of the women's clothes. One young woman, who has lost an arm to one of the thousands of landmines that still lurk in the Mozambican countryside, walks up to the old boat to see what I'm writing. I tell her it's in English, and she explains she can't read, anyway, even if it were in Portuguese or Chitswa. Soon we're chatting in Portuguese about the weather and how beautiful Vilankulo is, and she invites me to come see her home. I follow her off the beach, across the sand path "road" and along the footpaths through the circles of huts. I have peaked over the low hedges and into these yards before, with everyone calling "bon dia" or "boa tarde" to me as I pass, but this is the first time I've been invited to enter.

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Lost in thought...enraptured by village life.
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We reach a "yard," which is all sand, with three large shade trees, a cooking area with a fire, and a small vegetable garden, with its borders marked by low bushes and four circled reed huts. I wonder at how anything can grow here, since it appears to be all sand. I sit by an older woman on a straw mat in the shade of a tree who is preparing food for dinner. The children stare shyly from around the yard, and a 13-year-old girl named Amina brings me a cup of hot water, some sugar, an open can of condensed milk, and a large roll. It's like tea time, without the tea! I learn, in my travels, to appreciate simple pleasures, the gift of simple living, given from people with great kindness.

Men, women, and children busily go about their daily business here. I add milk and sugar to my hot water, and begin to eat my roll, as chatter goes on around me in Chitswa. Sometimes it seems to be about me, sometimes it seems to be normal, everyday conversation. I sit and politely but curiously observe the family, while they, polite but curious, watch me.

The older woman is peeling the tough outer layer of manioc, a long, starchy root with a white inside. Manioc (also known as cassava) is one of the main staples of the diet here in Mozambique. Later, a neighbor brings half a huge orange pumpkin-like squash called bowbra that she accepts and cuts up. She is preparing Matsapa, a traditional dish, which is made of manioc root, bowbra, manioc leaves (which are like spinach), coconut milk and peanut butter. I know it sounds strange, but it's really tasty, I promise!

After chatting for a while, and getting a Chitswa lesson, we came to the reason for my being invited here. My host, Yeisa, sells crinolins, which are the beautiful pieces of cloth that most women here wear as wrap-around skirts. Their brillant colors and fanciful designs were laid out on the sand for me to admire. Of course, I had to buy one, and, well, maybe I paid a bit more than I would at the market, but it was well worth it for the kindness I was shown. I return to the beach, carefully wrapped in my new crinolin. The sun is higher in the sky, and all the dhows have either gone out to sea or are now stuck on the sand that now pokes out of the water. The tide is far out, now, and it appears one could almost walk to the nearest island. Walking down the beach, I hear the sound of women singing in harmony coming from somewhere in the huts. Further down, three young, barefoot kids in shabby clothes dance to a far-off radio. The children are not shy and come up to me and say "Hello sister!" with a big grin. Then they hold out their hand and say, "Give me one thousand." This is the only English they know, to ask for money. One thousand Mozambican Metacais is worth about 16 US cents. It's not a lot of money, but it makes me sad. The children have learned that, when white folks come, they should ask them for money.

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A few of the young residents of Vilankulo.
Caption
I want to believe in this paradise, where simple chores are communal tasks in idyllic locations. Where song is a part of life, a part of work, a part of death. Where there are no phones, no televisions, and no kids with guns in schools. Everyone here seems so fit and healthy, the families so close, the community so strong. But things like this remind me, that the Garden of Eden has been lost, that these people have tasted the "forbidden fruit," that they are already conditioned to want the things they do not have, things that tourists represent.

Further down the beach, I encounter a man cleaning about a dozen of the ugliest sea creatures I've ever seen. I ask him what they are.
"Macachuchu," he replies.
"Do you eat them?" I asked.
"No. I sell them."
"What do the people who buy them do with them?"
He shrugged. "Who knows?"

Unfortunately, I know. Macachuchu are an endangered species that live in the sea here. They are protected by law. Recently, though, some Chinese decided that this bizarre creature was an aphrodisiac. Now, there is a strong black market for them. They are bought up from local fisherman and sent to China to be sold at absurd prices to old men seeking fabled virility.

My heart breaks. This man doesn't know. How could I ever explain to him? As far as he knows, there are plenty of these strange things out there. He's probably never heard the word "biodiversity" or "extinction." I realize the irony that the only way these people will be able to protect what they have is if they are educated about politics, economics, environmental issues, history, and all those things that run this world. Their lack of exposure to all this makes their lives seem so idyllic, so simple, and, at the same time, it makes them vulnerable to exploitation. These children, who dance in the wet sand, with bright smiles and ragged clothes, they see me and smile and laugh. "Hello sistah! Give me one thousand." Please give me this sweet fruit you have. Share with me the knowledge, the power. The tide rolls out, between my toes. There is no stopping it.

Abeja
 

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