Monday, June 29, 2009

The Sound of Stories

Mozambicans punctuate their speech with the most wonderful assortment of exclamations I've ever heard. From grunts of dissatisfaction to falsetto squeals of delight, stories are told with great, melodic accompaniment. It's sadly quite difficult to capture these sounds in writing, though I will try.

There is a particular sound made to express disbelief or injustice, sort of an "Êêê!" that is low in pitch and delivered with a glottal stop at the beginning, a bit like what happens when one is punched in the stomach, but with a strong, vocal grunt instead of a wheezing out of air. Our guards do this one frequently, and I can hear them "Êêêê"-ing back and forth while they tell stories to pass the time.

An example of use might be:

"O patrão disse que ia me pagar o salário na semana passada, mas até agora, nada."

"Êêê! Não pagou nada? Assim não se faz..."

Another common one is a high-pitched exclamation used to show excitement. It is a bit like a glissando on a piano, starting from way up in the treble notes and running down about an octave. This expression sounds like a squeaky "Iiiih!" at the beginning, and ends on a lower note with a hint of breathiness. This excited interjection is one of Zeca's all time favorites, and sometimes he will tell a story so full of "Iiiih's" that I wonder if he might hyperventilate.

An example:

"Iiiih, Dona Ali. Tas a ver aquele gajo que era guarda da minha praça, aquele que andou a roubar espelhos? Iiiih! Parece que a polícia apanhou ele, e iiiiiih, o gajo tentou fingir que não era com ele, mas iiiiiiiiiiih, quando olharam na mochila dele tinha quatro espelhos, e aí já não tinha como negar. Iiiiiih, esses malandros, pá!"

There are many other animated expressions used by Mozambicans on a regular basis, but one has a special place in my heart (and in my vocabulary). It is an exclamation frequently used in Manica Province, and it is a two-part sound: Xiiiiiiiiii-uaaaaaaaah (or in English-pronunciation, Sheeeeeee-whaaaaah). The first bit you say with almost a falsetto voice, starting at a very high register, then come cascading down with the pitch until you are at a guttural end. It is used in a very specific context, essentally light-hearted situations about which one might say in Portuguese, "Vai dar merda."

For example, one of our old housemates was an absolute genius with computer hardware. The guy was a real IT prodigy, and would dismantle and reassemble laptops and hard drives well into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes just for fun. While he was undeniably brilliant, he also was a bit like a bumbling, absent-minded mad scientist. Half the time the computers he'd take apart would never work again, and he'd spend many hours working to solve complex networking issues only to have Ricardo walk in and discover he'd forgotten to turn on the wireless button.

My maternal grandfather was this way with vehicles; he had a garage full of cars and assorted machines that he'd tinkered with and would only function - with a bit of luck - for him.

So, this two-part exclamation would be used as follows:

"My laptop has been having problems lately, I think something is wrong with the hard drive. I gave it to André to have a look."


Rico and I throw this one around all the time in our conversations, a unique reminder of our time spent in Chimoio. I'm sure people must think we are crazy, but it's become one of those expressions that perfectly captures what is sometimes inexpressable with words.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Check out the pair of owls that came to roost on my mother-in-law's verandah in Recreio, Rio de Janeiro. Beautiful, aren't they? Anybody know what kind of owls they might be?

I always feel awe when I come across an owl. Here in Mozambique (and in other parts of Africa, if I'm not mistaken), owls have a pretty negative connotation and are associated with death and sorcery.

I vividly remember coming across some huge owls while driving at night between Espungabera and Chimoio, holding my breath while they flapped their wings as if in slow motion and took flight just in the nick of time.

Just last month while doing field work in Gurue, in a gorgeous part of Zambézia province, my friend Andrew and I saw a big owl swoop down at night to catch some unseen creature in the lawn in front of the dormitory where we were staying.

I also clearly remember owls from my childhood. There were several barn owls that lived in the trees surrounding the house where I grew up in New Mexico. As part of school activity in 7th or 8th grade, we had to find and dissect owl pellets. Pretty crazy stuff. You can see from the droppings how easily these creatures can take on macabre associations.

Nonetheless, they are on my good list. They eat rodents and snakes, and just with that I'm happy to have them around.

A Bit of the Latest Jewelry Collection

I have been hard at work lately designing new fusion jewelry pieces with antique trade beads found at Ilha de Moçambique and Ghana, semi-precious stones, pearls and silver. My goal is to make massive amounts of jewelry in my last few months here in Maputo and try to sell nearly everything prior to heading back to the US.

If you are in Mozambique and interested in viewing or purchasing an Alexandra Amaro original, please email or leave a comment here. I do custom-designed pieces and have a small inventory on-hand to show. I will also be doing several fairs and events prior to September, so please leave a comment or send an email with your contact info if you'd like to be notified.
If you are outside Mozambique, you can purchase pieces at my Etsy site here. New pieces will be added to the site after September.

Stay tuned for more!

Cluster-style earrings with antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads, turquoise, sterling silver.

Cluster-style earrings with antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads, pearls, sterling silver.

Sterling silver spiral-wrapped Hebron trade beads (300+ years old) found at Ilha de Moçambique, turquoise, Hill Tribes fine silver pendant

Bracelet with a mix of antique trade beads found at Ilha de Moçambique, sterling silver.

Custom-designed assymetrical necklace with a mix of antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads and Hill Tribes fine silver.

Detail of assymetrical necklace.

Triple-strand fusion bracelets with antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads, semi-precious stones (white with pearls, red with garnets, blue with sodalite) and silver accents.

Bracelet with a mix of antique trade beads found at Ilha de Moçambique, garnets, sterling silver.

Sterling silver spiral-wrapped antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads, pearls, Hill Tribes fine silver textured drop.

Skunk beads (originally made in Venice, found in Ilha de Moçambique), Swarovski pearls, sterling silver.

Sterling silver spiral-wrapped antique Ilha de Moçambique trade beads, Swarovski crystals, chrysocolla lance-shaped drops.

Mix of antique trade beads from Mozambique Island (made to imitate porcelian), sterling silver wire links, howlite carved rose.

Necklace with mix of blackwood (pau preto) discs from Nampula Province, soapstone rings from Manica Province, resin beads and sterling silver wire work.

Necklace set with mix of Ilha de Moçambique antique trade beads, freshwater pearls, sterling silver.

Detail of Ilha de Moçambique white and pearl mix necklace.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Where has the light gone? Suddenly it seems like frail rays of light even at four in the afternoon are a bit of a miracle; the stronger hours of morning sun appreciated exceptionally.

I feel the rhythm I settle into during the winter – the tropical, mild, delicious type as far as winters are concerned – and wonder how people manage to leave their houses in Northern climates, how I ever existed as a functional person during the many cold periods spent in New Mexico.

Granted, a part of this reclusiveness might be attributed to the special sort of blues that come with too many years lived abroad in the same 'developing' place. There is an enclosing of one’s social radius, the somewhat sad crush of similarity when discussing with a new resident or with family back ‘home’ the basics of life where you live – it is no longer the exciting discussion it once was as new details were appreciated, different customs celebrated and experiences eagerly shared – rather you are jaded, too tired to move beyond the routine stories except on really marking occasions.

It is easy to slip into a shell at this phase. You likely have a couple of core friends whose contracts don't end in the subsequent six months, enough to satisfy minimum emotional needs. The city or town is as familiar as the back of a hand, and the appeal of most destinations has tarnished. It’s more appealing to stay home, with good company – or none at all – than to go out and find live music, have a beer just for the sake of it and in the process stay out until one in the morning, or go to another of an endless series of dinners at upscale restaurants that involve semi-agreeable chit-chat with at least six other parties you’ve likely never previously met. It becomes irresistibly tempting to stay in and drink a bottle of wine or three, watch trash on TV, compulsively check email, and eat Indian takeaway.

I know. I’ve been in this phase for about the last year and a half.

But I’m at least aware of it, and therefore on occasion make colossal effort to get into a social phase (only to usually enjoy being out and wonder how on Earth I could feel so noninclined otherwise). I confess to having been a bit of a social butterfly lately, meeting several new people from the blog, enjoying the occasional girl’s night, and even a proper party or two. It’s been nice, but surely part of the reason I’ve been so tired.

Then again, maybe it’s simply the time of year. Mozambique is particularly affected by the changing length of a day because it is quite far South, doesn’t observe daylight savings, and is also located at the far edge of a time zone. All factors combined mean dusk at 5:07pm (official, as of the solstice yesterday) and, in December, sunrise at a merciless 4:50am! Think about what that does to your day to have the sun burning bright prior to five in the morning…in my experience, unexpectedly, it’s been quite nice. Although I’m far from being a morning person, I am an earlier riser and in a better mood during the Mozambican summer.

It will be strange to be a ‘new’ person in the Bay Area. I look forward to being on the fresh, enthusiastic side of conversations about cities and culture again. I hope for, with time, wise eyes with which to look back upon this experience in Southern Africa. Maybe I will be able to write about the way I wish I’d been able to do while actually on the ground. I take solace in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver apparently wrote “The Poisonwood Bible” several decades after her early experiences in the Congo. When the words are meant to come, they will.

Roses Trump Paper

Our 1-year wedding anniversary is coming up on July 5th (side note: where the hell did the first half of 2009 go?), and to celebrate Rico and I have decided to take a weekend trip to the Summerfields River Lodge & Rose Spa near Hazyview in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Sounds divine, no?

If a weekend of therapeutic baths, massages, leisurely walks through rose and macadamia plantations, delicious food and wine, and the stellar company of my husband doesn't make me feel rested and content, I honestly don't know what will.

We're foregoing the paper-themed first anniversary gift and instead going with a bit of luxury. Although I'm sure we could find some handmade paper with rose petals at some point during our trip and bring it full circle. I'm thinking Casterbridge in White River would be a good candidate.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I Might Try Counting Sheep

Times like this I wonder how people cope with exhaustion - like new mothers who continue to work full-time jobs, or college students working nights to pay for an intense semester of classes, or all of the crazy workaholic development people I've run across in the last few years.

You see, friends, I am unforgivingly tired. I sleep and sleep every chance I get, yet it doesn't seem to help. I fear that the constant fatigue I experienced in the months prior to moving to Mozambique is already starting. I remember about 6 weeks back in Austin where I was physically incapable of a night's sleep, there was so much on my mind and on my to-do list.

Things aren't even close to that breaking point yet here in Maputo, but still, I feel overworked and under-something...under-socialized? under-rested? under-alcohol-ed?

I've been meaning to write all of these fabulous travel accounts, first from my week of field work in Zambézia and Nampula interviewing maize millers, then from my quick vacation escape to Ilha de Moçambique last weekend. However, I have not been able to get down to it and write a decent travelogue.

At times like this, I have faith that these slumps are part of a larger cycle, that soon I will be feeling spunky and rejuvenated, and with the writing fireworks setting off brilliant bursts of inspiration.

Until then, I take solace in the fact that I've been going strong with the jewelry making and with the preparations for applying to school in the Spring. I suppose, when you think about it, I am actually holding down the equivalent of at least a couple full-time jobs at the I'll cut myself a bit of slack.

It's been a productive day of creating necklaces, cooking spicy meals, catching up on emails, and brainstorming about the structure of a business plan. I'm going to treat myself now with a glass of red wine and one of my favorite programs - "Air Crash Investigaton". Horrifying, I know, but I actually really love understanding how a series of small, random, seemingly unrelated events can lead to total disaster and systems failure - and am in awe of the investigative process that leads to the answers. I also think that somehow, perhaps a bit perversely, watching a program about one of my greatest fears makes it easier to face. It also reminds me not to take anything for granted, and that's always a good note on which to end a day.

Boa noite, here's hoping it's a restful one.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Northern Bound

I'm heading up to Ilha de Moçambique today for a mini-vacation with Ricardo. He's been working based in Nampula these days, and it will be nice for us to take some time off together in that region. I wish we could do 2 weeks of holiday, but a weekend will have to suffice as we both have work obligations that make it impossible to fall off the radar for an extended period at this point.

I'm looking forward to this trip more than I can express. I hope to come back to Maputo not only relaxed and rejuvenated, but with a suitcase full of beads and pottery shards.

Enjoy your weekend, wherever you may be.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Africa Agri-Culture: Non-Homogenized

I always come across the most interesting articles and blogs related to agriculture in Africa, but seldom get around to posting them here. I'm going to try and change this trend for the last few months we are here in Moz.

Speaking of Mozambique, here is an (optimistic) article on what could happen with agriculture in this country, assuming the critical constraints to development are addressed. Click through to the full article, "Mozambique Could Become a Field of Dreams".

I recently discovered a blog simply called African Agriculture, which seems to provide good news updates and opinion pieces. Click here to visit.

Finally, here is a link to a publication called "The Conversation Behind Closed Doors" that was prepared by senior associates of Baird's CMC. Apparently the report reveals the attitudes toward corporate investment in Africa among leading U.S. corporations -- according to senior officers of 30 American Fortune 100 corporations we interviewed. The fundamental question is: Why has Africa not attracted more interest from the U.S. business community?

I had a look at the executive summary of "The Conversation Behind Closed Doors" and it was intriguing. However, most of the points highlighted in the summary are the same ones on the Laundry List of Conditions for Development and Investment Promotion that any of us who have worked in private sector development for a reasonable length of time could cough up on command. I suppose these issues may be relevant for the CEO of a company not familiar with investing and operating a business in Mozambique or Nigeria or the Sudan, however these are most certainly issues that the governments of these countries, in addition to the people working on the ground to promote a many of the changes called for, are almost numbingly familiar with.

I asked the study authors to clarify who the intended audience is for this report. Is it the US companies who might potentially expand operations into Africa? Or is it the potential recipient countries of said US investment? I'd be curious to know, and see how that might change my evaluation of the report contents.

One final note on "The Conversation Behind Closed Doors", but this is just me being picky: along with all of the other choir-singers, I am tired of hearing Africa referred to as if it were one sad lump of a country, or one fabulous unified destination for investments.** The tagline for this study is "Inside the Boardroom: How Corporate America Really Views Africa." Isn't that just a bit pretentious? Assuming that the suited and tied occupants of the US Fortune 100 boardrooms could possibly have a view, much less a *real* one, on all of AFRICA?

Perhaps this seems petty, but it drives me nuts. Maybe it's just a bad day. Do any of you find this tagline bothersome?

Regardless, I'd like to read the full report so that I might make more meaningful commentary.

**Yes, I realize I'm fully in hypocrite territory because of my blog title. Africa's right at home on a list of two cities and a country! Despite my best efforts, it seems I was also guilty of referring to "Africa as a unit" prior to moving to Mozambique.

Forward Motion

Uff, my workload these days has been unforgiving! It's not totally overwhelming yet, but definitely close to the threshold of what I enjoy taking on.

Blogging keeps getting bumped to the back burner (aka "I'll do it on the weekend") along with the treadmill, proper grocery shopping, and coffee/drinks with several new acquaintances.

I'm not complaining, though. I'm grateful for the work in all its versions - jewelry fairs, jewelry classes, maize mills project, proposal writing, translating - because each hour worked is a step closer to what feels right. Moving forward, making and saving money, enjoying the space in which you're not quite sure what comes next.

I've also had time for small leisure moments, despite the busy schedule. I've cooked quite a bit (stewed chicken in homemade tomato veg sauce, apple crumble), hung out with friends and had indian takeaway and wine, hung out with super girlfriends and sketched in preparation for my application to art school (I've been super keen on finding sketching partners these days, as I want to learn as much as possible on how people draw), watched some trash on TV and even done a Pilates class.

It's nice that Rico is in the same rhythm at the moment work-wise. We often sit across from each other at the living room table with a glass of wine so that, even though we are both working on a deadline, we can enjoy the other person's company. It's sweet, and brings back the good old Chimoio days when we'd sit in plastic lawn chairs in an under-furnished room and knock out fundraising proposals.

I'm looking forward to the weekend. Hopefully it will be restful, but even if its not, at least it will be fun. That is one element certainly not lacking in my life these days.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


It is starting to sink in that we are leaving Mozambique.

It's a familiar feeling, that of starting to savor every moment because you wonder when, or if, you will ever be able to approximate it again.

The bright turquoise waters of an estuary ebbing past an old suspension bridge, under the potholed highway, before forming whirlpools at the juncion where river meets Indian Ocean.

The Southern Hemisphere stargazing on crisp just-winter nights, locating Orion's belt, the Pleiades, the Southern Cross and even rusty Mars against the dark backdrop.

The sweet-salty crab at Clube Naval.

The parties and dinners and realization that I've formed an incredible, although often geographically transitory group of friends.

I have suddenly shifted into minimalize mode. In addition to it being practical (and necessary) to de-clutter before a move, it is almost as if the extra clothes and furniture and papers distract me from that which I truly want to appreciate in these last few months.

I reminisce frequently about my final time in Austin, what an incredible experience that was out to the last unexpected morning in the city.

Leaving is such a bittersweet experience, but it's almost like I most appreciate where I've been and the friendships I've made in those moments just before I give a kiss and walk onto a plane.

Here's to enjoying what's still to come.