Salomao Chicanequisso Cuinica is the Community Leader in the village of Nhampugnaune, in Guija District, Gaza Province, South-Western Mozambique. Nhampugnaune’s 2,300 people are spread across four barrios or districts. Each barrio has a secretary who reports to Salomao.
I met Salomao at the World Food Programme monthly food distribution in the village, managed by Samaritan’s Purse. He was overseeing the event, ensuring equity amongst the twenty-five participant families. This is how it works: at least one family member has to work for a minimum of three hours a day on a Samaritan’s Purse food-for-work programme, such as building a dyke to access fields across a flood plain, or cultivating a seed multiplication initiative. In exchange, the family receives a monthly food package consisting of maize (75kg), yellow split peas or beans (7.5kg), and 3.7 litres of Soya bean oil.
Some families live on this alone – I’d just witnessed both their payday and their monthly shopping trip, all rolled into one. Other families have a little meat, I was told. Indeed, I saw the evidence of this myself. As I walked around the village, I saw one large fish cut open and left to dry on the straw roof of a mud house, and about fifteen to twenty charcoaled rats waiting for preparation outside another. Even the empty Soya bean oil cans themselves come in useful. Six or eight of them had been beaten flat and made into the door of one family’s little circular mud-and-thatch hut.
There was no electricity in the village, but the government had promised to supply it. “When did they promise?” I asked. “Oh, years ago,” came the reply. Malnutrition levels in Gaza are showing worrying levels of 11%. The official figure for HIV/AIDS in the country is 1.4m, with 13% of 15 to 49-year-olds living with the virus. But come to Gaza Province and the official figure becomes 19%, the highest infection levels in the country. Local district estimates put it at more like 50%.
The previous owner of Salomao’s jeans was clearly an entirely different shape from him. His ancient vest was full of holes. I guess his attire was a reflection of his financial status. Salomao Chicanequisso Cuinica was not a rich man. He also looked like a man on whose kindly shoulders rested many a care. An observant man, I thought, though a man of few words. But with the food distribution over, he was happy to tell this strange white visitor to his village something of his life and aspirations.
Appointed as Community Leader in 1976, just twelve months after independence, Salomao witnessed Mozambique slide into civil war. The village of Nhampugnaune was on the front line. The fighting was bitter, and atrocities were committed on a massive and horrific scale. One of Salomao’s early tasks was to lead his community to safety, across the Limpopo River to the nearby town of Chokwe. It was six years before they returned. Upon venturing back, Salomao re-established the village in a position he considered was far enough away from the river to protect it from flooding, but close enough to access the water for crop irrigation. “It’s a good place to be,” he told me.
Droughts followed. Then floods. Either way the crops failed. Salomao couldn’t remember the years. But he remembered 2000. While the West mopped its collective brow with relief on discovering that its computers had survived the Y2K scare, the inhabitants of Guija District had other things on their minds. On 27 February, 2000, the Limpopo burst its banks. In the few hours that followed, 700 people died. A total of two million were affected. Around here, it is spoken of as “the time of the floods”, perhaps more accurately written as “the Time of the Floods”. Capital T, capital F.
The flood water stopped just short of the village Salomao had repositioned. There was no proud smile upon his face when he told me this, but I think maybe his shoulders went back just a little. His people were spared their lives. But of course, their harvest was not so fortunate. 2000 was yet another year of nil return.
So Samaritan’s Purse opened a field office in Guija, providing simple and appropriate relief initiatives such as water filters, seed multiplication, food for work programmes and HIV/AIDS awareness training. The transition from relief to development is well under way. The hand-out is giving way to the hand-up.
I asked Salomao what were his major concerns for the future of Nhampugnaune. His replies were clear, simple and realistic. He wants a well for the school, in order to save the children from having to walk such a long way for water. And he looks forward to the day when each family in the village has a water filter.
I realised with a degree of embarrassment how Western my questions were. “When were the worst drought years?” He didn’t remember the year. “How many families in the village have a water filter now?” He didn’t know. “Quite a few now,” he thought. I sensed him looking at me inquisitively. “Why is this white man so obsessed with mere numbers?” But I continued. “How often were people sick before they used the water filter compared with now?” Again, he didn’t know. All he knew was that they used to be sicker than they are now. Fair enough. So much for my quantifiable research!
Just before I left in the back of the Samaritan’s Purse 4WD, I gave Salomao a tiny token gift from the UK. And I realised he had come out of his shell a little. He put his arm round a young lad’s shoulder, and his weary burdened face gave way to a big smile. Then he raised his arms above his head and applauded our departing vehicle, rather like a substituted footballer acknowledges the crowd. Against the odds, over maize and rats, through conversation and respect, we’d somehow connected. But the next monthly shopping trip is still a full moon away.
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...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.