Native arts begin to get international recognition

A. H. Saleh

Mozambique’s wood carvers, dancers and authors are starting to generate interest in their work in neighbouring countries and beyond, now that the country has put the civil war behind it 

Mozambique, which stretches from southern Tanzania to the northern edge of South Africa and is flanked by Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland along its western borders, is a vast territory brimming with a multitude of cultural traditions. 

Some 60 different ethnic groups, and 40 languages and dialects have been identified in the region. Both the ethnic and language groups spill over into the neighbouring territories. The Makua-Lomwe, the largest group in the country, sprawl over the northern areas which they share with the Makonde, who live nearer the coast, and the Yao near Lake Malawi. Major southern ethnic groups include the Tsonga, the Karanga, the Chopi, the Shona and the Nguni. 

With similar language groups scattered about the southern African countries, Mozambicans formed an important part of the labour force employed to work the mines in South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Large numbers of Mozambicans fled to neighbouring countries during the 16-year-long civil war and many still live and work in their adopted countries. 

Despite a substantial exodus from the rural areas to the relative safety of the cities during the civil war, some 85 per cent of the population still live in the countryside in traditional villages composed of mainly round, earthen huts with thatched roofs and surrounded by thorn perimeters (boma) to keep out wild animals and enemies. This has preserved a traditional way of life in a more or less pristine state, although new experiences are constantly added on to the repertoire of songs and dances that form the collective history of the villages. While each group has developed its own form of cultural expression, every village adds a twist to the general theme. Mozambique, like many other African countries, is a treasure-trove for the anthropologist, especially as so much more is still to be discovered and recorded. 

The government has established the National Institute of Culture to collect and preserve traditional music, crafts, stories and myths. There is also a national performing arts company called Nambu Productions, as well as a national dance company; both stage contemporary productions based on traditional forms. In 2011, the international pop star Beyoncé was so impressed by the quality and vigour of the dancing she saw on a visit to Mozambique that she flew a troupe of tofu dancers to the USA so that they could teach her back-up dancers some of their unique moves. 

Music, song, dance and story-telling are at the heart of the country’s traditional culture. They give formal expression to rites of passage, which include the transition to adulthood, births, burials, marriage and religious beliefs. Formal ceremonies involve all villagers and even members of the communities who have left for faraway places return to join in the celebrations. This is when the musicians, singers and dancers, who are ordinary farmers in their day jobs, take centre stage. Traditionally, musicians make their own instruments into which they impart their own personal and family nglo, or spirit. This, they say, enables them to beat out the ancient rhythms of their people and to play in harmony. 

A wide variety of drums, made from stretched animal skins, are used by the various groups. The creative Makonde people use wind instruments, called lupembe, made from animal horns, wood or gourds. The marimba, a sort of xylophone, is popular throughout the country and beyond, as is the mbira, made of metal strips of different pitch inserted into a hollow wooden box. Contemporary musicians, as far away as Zambia and Zimbabwe, use the marimba and mbira to produce tunes similar in style to West Indian calypso and reggae. The marrabenta style, which mixes traditional rhythm and instruments with the sounds of modern guitars, saxophones and trumpets is popular in urban centres and lends itself to contemporary international trends including hip-hop and rap. 

The dances used during ceremonies can be both spectacular and, at times, alarming. For example, the Chopi don lion skins and monkey tails and carry spears and swords to enact dangerous hunts as well as battles. Makua men, clad in multi-coloured rags and masks representing spirits, stomp around the villages on stilts. 

The Makonde, expert wood carvers, wear frightening masks and costumes and chase shrieking women and girls. Some believe that this dance symbolises the men’s attempts to wrest the power of women by terrifying them. While the dance has an element of fear surrounding it, it has clearly not worked – most Mozambican societies are matriarchal. On the Island of Mozambique, Swahili women perform complex dances with subtle movements and even add rope skipping to the routine. 

While retaining a strong belief in traditional religions, the majority, especially in urban areas, are Roman Catholic, as can be expected given the Portuguese suzerainty over the country for such an extended period. Interestingly, Zionism, with an African twist, is the second most popular faith after Catholicism. There are also a number of Protestant sects, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 

Islam has flourished in the northern-most tip of the country since at least the 12th century. In fact, the name ‘Mozambique’ is believed to have derived from the Swahili Musa al Baig, the title of an Arab or Swahili chief who dominated the Ilha de Mocambique (Mozambique Island). As they had done along the east African coast further north, Arab traders intermarried with local people to produce the Swahili ‘race’ with its distinct culture, alphabet (based largely on Arabic), language and literature. Swahili is the predominant language in this area. Islam, according to some reports, is making strong gains further south in the country. 

The cities, particularly the capital Maputo, reflect the Portuguese era. Roads are wide and there are jacaranda-covered avenues. Here the Portuguese settlers could live instead of just surviving back in Portugal and they built some magnificent edifices. Restaurants serve classic Portuguese dishes, many of which are based on the rich seafood harvested from the coast. The giant Mozambique prawns, grilled and served with the now world-famous piri-piri sauce, made fortunes for exporters when the Portuguese held sway over the country – and they are still in big demand in South Africa and Portugal. 

Formal literary and artistic output has been limited, largely because of the war, but several new movements in this direction have started. The distinctive Makonde wood carvings, often composed of sinuous, intricately intertwined scenes from daily life, were once dismissed as ‘native art’ but are now regarded as extraordinary objects of art. Contemporary artists include Malangatana Goenha Valente who works on large canvas to bring to life the often deadly conflict between native and Portuguese cultures. 

Luis Bernardo Honwana wrote searing depictions of colonial life, in his book We killed Mangy Dog and others. He was an early writer, and important documentary film-maker, who fell foul of strict censorship and was imprisoned. Noemia De Sousa, a mestiça (mixed race) is considered the ‘mother of Mozambican writers’ and a powerful voice for women in the country. But the best known writer to emerge from Mozambique is António Emílio Leite (Mia) Couto who won the US$50,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature last year for lifetime achievement. His magic realism work includes the novels Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo, as well as a short story collection, Voices Made Night.


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