At noon my phone beeps with an incoming text message: Come downstairs. It's lunchtime.
I type the final paragraphs of a petition for the rights to a parcel of land near the river, suspend my computer, and head down to the warehouse.
After 2 months of eating cookies, cup-of-soup, cashew nuts and whatever other non-perishables I can store in my desk drawer instead of a proper lunch, I have felt the sorry effects on my body. I have gained weight, and not surprisingly feel sluggish during the day as the result of subsiding on carbohydrates, tea and coffee.
I've found a solution, however, to my lunch woes. My colleagues on the top floor of the office - the financial people, the administrators, the paper-pushers - may be content to go through the day with no lunch break, but the boys in the warehouse take a much more sane approach to eating. They actually set aside an hour each day, at a fixed time, to enjoy a proper hot meal.
Each day, we share a communal lunch. I cook family-sized portions of chicken curry, lasagne, rice and beans, enough to go around.
The first day I cooked for the warehouse boys, Raimundo, the cashier who sits inside a locked metal cage and deals with all the money from the fresh produce transactions, was afraid to eat my food.
"It's different from what I know," he said, one eyebrow cocked, examining the tray of ground beef and potato casserole I'd brought to work. "This is white people food!" he teased, sending a broad smile in my direction, all the while ensuring he was out of arm's reach lest I try to run after him and give him a smack upside the head.
After watching Ahmed and Paulo try my food with no disastrous effects, Raimundo consented, gingerly taking a bite. He chewed slowly, his tongue taking in the taste of the white people beef and potatoes, then suddenly clutched at his throat, fell to his knees, and mimicked the slow, painful death of someone who has been terribly poisoned.
"Fine," I said, turning my back and feigning indifference. "If you don't like my food, I'll just give your portion to the other guys."
"Noooooooo!" Suddenly Raimundo was up on his feet, full of health, grabbing for the serving spoon to pile on his plate a generous helping of casserole.
Now that Raimundo is over his fear of white people food, which I think was an honest concern on his part in the beginning, though masked by humor, we all eat together like the mismatched members of a little family. Paulo and I take turns bringing the main dish. His wife cooks delicious Mozambican and Portuguese-influenced food - matapa, couve, cacana, cozido, rice and potatoes. I supply the so-called white people food, though usually with a heavy dose of New Mexican, Indian or Italian influence. Raimundo contributes, too, bringing local delicacies for me to try such as raw manioc, badjias, and chamussas and rissois filled with meat and shrimp.
We divide the food into 2 tupperware containers, then heat everything up in the crazy microwave from 1988 that has found its final resting spot in our office kitchen. I am the only one who can make the microwave work, the labels and numbers long having worn off the front panel from years of being pressed by oily fingers. I have a special combination of buttons that I press to get the microwave to work, a sequence I invented by trial and error, though guided in large part by the memory of the giant microwave my mom's ex-husband would use to make nachos back when I was in middle school.
Once the food is hot, we crowd around the desk at the warehouse entrance and enjoy our communal meal. Ahmed buys 2 large bottles of coke or sprite, which we drink out of teacups due to the lack of proper plates and dishes in the office kitchen.
We share tupperwares - one for me and Ahmed, the other for Paulo and Raimundo - sometimes eating with forks, and sometimes eating with our hands depending on the food. Both Ahmed and Paulo are Muslim, and they remind me and Raimundo how it is pleasing to Allah for us to eat from the same plate, to use our hands, to connect through food.
For all of my hangups concerning shared drinks and food contaminated by the saliva of others, I am surprisingly happy eating this way with my colleagues. In fact, I haven't been grossed out a single time by the idea of communal plates, utensils or cups.
On the days when nobody brings food from home, Ahmed will order take-away meals for us, usually grilled or fried chicken with chips. I once asked Ahmed how many chickens he eats per week; without hesitation, he said at least 6!
After lunch, I sit and socialize with the boys for the remaining part of the hour. We have established a special friendship in the past 2 months, something I think came as a bit of a surprise to all of us. We joke with each other, we laugh, we tease. We talk about serious subjects as well - relationships, race, money and, of course, work. Ahmed, Paulo, Raimundo and I have managed to create that over-used workplace concept of team spirit. We have each other's backs. We make each other smile. No matter how shitty the day, it is always more bearable because we are all in it together. As they say in Mozambique, estamos juntos.
These are the friends I've been hoping to find in the last 2.5 years. We are friends because we are colleagues, because we enjoy each other's company, because we have things in common no matter how different our occupations, backgrounds or individual paths. Our friendship is based on these commonalities, not on the fact that I am a foreigner looking for an "authentic" experience with Mozambicans, nor on the perception that I represent money, a job opportunity, a leg up, a status symbol. We are friends because we are friends, full stop.
In addition to our daily lunches, we have established a wonderful weekly tradition. Every Friday, at the end of a long work week full of trucks, potatoes, onions, bananas, erratic bosses, electrical outages and everything else that operating a business in Mozambique has to throw at us, we get in Ahmed's tricked out Honda Civic and go for beers and food. Each week we choose a different place to sit and shoot the shit. Sometimes I treat the boys, sometimes they insist on being gentlemen and treating me, sometimes we split the bill. It doesn't matter what each person's money situation is for that week - we work it out among ourselves so that nobody is left out of the Friday beer because of financial concerns. It will all balance out in the long run, we figure.
Last week, Ahmed, Paulo and I went for beers at the Clube dos Professores, a tucked away little restaurant near the University. Raimundo wasn't with us - he stayed back in Matola because of the torrential rains that had been falling for several days. He didn't want to deal with the hassle of taking an inter-city chapa at night through the flooded streets, so we dropped him off on our way into Maputo.
Ahmed, Paulo and I sat at a table on the covered patio and ordered pizza and several rounds of 2Ms. There is a summer promotion going on right now, so with each beer we got a sort of lottery ticket. Over the course of the evening, Ahmed won 2 free drinks, and Paulo scored a 2M printed bandana. I was unlucky, perhaps the result of my ominous birthdate, as Ahmed kindly reminded me with each frustrated ticket I scratched.
As we drank on the patio, the rains intensified. Water had been falling on Maputo for the previous 2 days, and the city was already flooded due to the poor (ou seja: non-existant) drainage system in the streets. But the rain that fell that night at the Clube dos Professores was of biblical proportions. The drops thudded on the tin roof with such force that we had to shout in order to hear each other. The water accumulated on the street outside the restaurant and reached such a level that it began to creep over the front steps, innundating the patio floor and the inside dining areas. The water poured down from the sky and we realized: we were stuck, at least for the time being. It simply wasn't worth trying to brave the flooded streets of Maputo in Ahmed's low little car. We looked at each other, and smiled. "Another round, please!" We drank and laughed and marveled at the rain.
I confess: part of me wished the water would never stop coming down.