A Freedom Fighter at Rest, and At Ease With Her Own Contradictions

Are a country’s traditional cultural practices a lodestar for a post-colonial people, or a historical burden that holds back progress? In this interview with Mozambiquan novelist and writer Paulina Chiziane, onetime activist with the anti-colonial leftists of FRELIMO, both beliefs are on display. Suspicious of ‘western’ medicine and imported religion, she wants to bring traditional healers out of the embarrassed shadows, and deplores the rise of Pentacostal churches. But at the same time, she condemns the patriarchal conservatism of Mozambique, the weight of its traditions.

On a warm November afternoon, Aldino Languana, a Mozambican painter and documentary filmmaker, drove us to Paulina’s house, located on a suburb of Mozambique’s capital Maputo. We had managed to schedule an interview after we met Aldino at Paulina’s book launch cocktail party and agreed to have the interview filmed by him – he is currently making a documentary about the writer. In a little more than an hour, inside an improvised room within her home’s living room, Paulina bared her vision of western colonialism in Mozambique, criticized the arrival and influence of foreign churches and Brazilian soap operas in the country, and talked about the importance of giving a voice to those that are seldom heard; and she did all of that in the most serene manner, as if she couldn’t feel the weight of her obligations.

-To whom do you write, Paulina?
At first – I’ve been writing for over 25 years – I wrote to myself. I remember writing small poems on my school notebook etc. After my writing evolved a little, I published a very intimate novel, the fruit of my observation of the world […] Nowadays, I’ve grown tired of suffocating myself, obsessing with my creations, because on every street corner there are people that have something to give, a story to tell, but they lack the skills of reading and writing-like traditional healer Rasta Pita. He has a magnificent story to tell, but he’s learned more from African traditions than from the formal school system. He knows how to read and write at only a very basic level, not enough for him to write a book. To me it is very easy to grab a tape recorder, listen to the man’s story and transform it into a book. And that was exactly the task I set out to complete.

I am very sensitive to the concepts of roots, identity, and, therefore, I am very aware of the conflict that exists between African and Western thinking. I like to compare both universes, and I have found that many of our African values are disappearing because the people that hold that knowledge cannot read or write. So I have decided, in the case of this healer in particular, to lend my writing for someone else to tell their story. If you look at the way the book was structured, you see that it is his biography, his worldview, written down by me. […]

-Telling these traditional stories is a mean of combating the impositions of colonialist knowledge?

Yes, because people from Mozambique don’t really know these healers. Whatever information people here have on them was read in books written by anthropologists and sociologists during colonial times. An African viewed from a Eurocentric perspective. There are some books and the theme that are slightly better, but they’re still written by western academia and are filled with stereotypes used to describe these individuals. In the experience I’ve had, the healers speaks for themselves and in the first person. […] This book sheds light onto a particular class of professional; it helps change some people’s views and opinions on the figure of traditional healers.

-The fact that many Mozambicans consult with healers, benefit from their knowledge, but publicly hide or deny it, is very striking. Why do you think it is important to question those taboos?

Because it helps people become more confident. In my opinion almost everyone here is in favor of questioning these taboos. Every African person visits a healer at least once in their lives. There’s a very simple reason behind that: traditional medicine offers solutions that western medicine can’t. The way I see it, western medicine is almost mechanical, it treats the heart, the foot, the eye, while traditional medicine goes beyond. Therefore, I want to use the same words and expressions as this healer.

One needs to consider three levels when treating the ill: the individuals themselves, society and god. [The healer] makes his diagnosis by throwing pebbles or shells and asking the spirits what the eyes of the ill person tell about them as people, what the eyes of the world tell about them and what the eyes of god tell about the same person. In order to treat his patients, the healer considers individual, social and spiritual dimensions.

The relationship between patient and healer is quite different from that between physician and patient. […] The spiritual realm is ignored by the western world. […]In the western world, people tend to seek priests when doctors cannot help them, but not in Mozambique. When they reach that stage, people seek a healer who will put them in contact with the world beyond the physical one.

-But why is there still such aversion? Is it because it is a taboo? Or is it because of foreign influence, the direct influence of western knowledge?

In my opinion, it began because of the influence and pressures of western knowledge. And that pressure still goes on to this day! It exists to this day in an independent country because of those who think they hold scientific knowledge. So, today, the pressure is exerted mostly by Mozambicans, and not by the colonialists, that have gone already.

This country has been free of colonialism for over 40 years, but we still haven’t had the “time” to openly discuss our own identity. At this moment, a great deal of pressures is being exerted by the churches, which are centers for superstition, but are also centers for taboos, because they strongly convey the ideal of the satanic, the diabolical. Within our tradition, we fear witchcraft and witches already. We already possess these horrible superstitions; why does the church have to bring more of them?

-Do you believe that the Universal Church [a Neo-Pentecostal church originally from Brazil], that is so present here in Mozambique, has any influence in the marginalization of traditional healers?

Yes, but they are not the only ones. In my opinion, all foreign churches, like the Assembly of God, The Church of the Twelve Apostles etc. bring with them a colonizing ideal. The only thing is that they’re not as aggressive as the Universal Church. All of those churches deem all that is spiritual, all of African spirituality, as Works of the devil. They all think like that.

-Do you think that the Church hinders the progress of society, for example, when it comes to empowering women and homosexuals?

I have no doubt that there is a good side to the church. I criticize only certain aspects of it. In the history of Africa, of Mozambique, we’ve had churches that give education, help orphan children, and that do really important social work. But at the same time they have this colonizing mentality. They give, but they also make the people and communities they help lose their values in favor of everything that is western. And that definitely isn’t good!
[…]

-Have you seen any progress in the feminist movement when it comes to breaking some traditions?

Things are getting better, I can’t deny it. Speaking from my own experience, when I was 18, every woman’s dream was to get married, have children and find some mediocre job. We would just sit and wait for a groom to show up. Forty years after that, everything’s changed. Women today want better lives, better jobs. They are fighting for their autonomy. Even in rural areas, where tradition is strong, if you ask a mother today what is her dream for her daughter, she will tell you she wishes her daughter goes to school and gets a decent job. And that mentality is very different from 20 years ago, when a mother would initiate her daughters in the rituals necessary to find a husband and settle down.

-I have been struck by the racism within Mozambican society; all that is white is overrated here.

It is an economic question, it has to do with how the colonial system has shaped the structure of life in Mozambique. It is a scar that will take some time to disappear, and that is why we should keep discussing these subjects, something seldom done around here. I’ve worked in Zambezia (a province distant some 1,600 km from Maputo), where reality is much harsher. The best work posts, the best job positions and houses go to mestizos…

I wrote a book called The Joyous Song of the Partridge where I discuss this shocking situation. Because we see racism, many times, as something that comes from white people, and that is not necessarily true. My book talks of a woman married twice: with her first husband, a black man, she had two children; the same happened with her second husband, a white man. Therefore, this woman has four children: two black and two mulato. What did she do? She treated the black kids as second class sons. She would say “My mestizo children are special, the black are not”. The white father would offer her silk and lace, bread and cheese, while the black father would only offer bananas and coconuts. It’s an economical question. And I’m not dreaming this up, I’ve encountered such a family. The mestizos own gas pumps, companies, they are rich people; and the blacks are supposed to serve them. And the first person to perpetuate this behavior is the mother, whose skins is darker than her sons’. […]

-In the 1980’s, you were an activist for feminism and for the Frelimo party. How do you see the party today?

I’m not sure, I don’t allow myself the time to analyze things sometimes. It is sort of a refusal to analyze something because of the disenchantment it brings me. I was part of the group, of the revolutionary mayhem of the time, like organizing strikes, gluing posters to walls, I did all of that. I had a big dream of seeing a better, fair country etc., but time revealed new realities. Many of those in power today were part of the movement against colonialism, capitalism and corruption. Today they practice what they’ve condemned in the past. […]

The ones that fought against capitalism in order to create a more equal society are capitalists themselves today. And the ones that dub themselves fathers of democracy are the same that violate peace and create disturbances all over the country.

-How do you see the organization of Mozambican civil society today?

[…] I have worked within some movements of the civil society. In order to be strong, a civil society must be autonomous financially and politically, but that is not what happens in most of Mozambique’s NGO’s. Our NGO’s rely on foreign investments: therefore, their opinions will always be aligned with the opinions of those putting the money on the table. And that is why I say we don’t have a civil society in Mozambique yet[…]

What we have today are groups of people financed by foreign organizations. In a way, they contribute to change, because they bring in a new vision and are able to make things more dynamic in this country. […]

-Foreign investments and cultural interventions are very strong here in Mozambique. To what extent do you think these aspects influence the future of the country?

I don’t believe in aid donations. If they give something, they are doing it because they want to take something in return. I don’t know what motivates them to give, because no one just hands out things for no reason. The potential of this country has been known for a long time. In the 1940’s and 50’s, we discovered oil here. The individuals or institutions that donate something do so because they know that tomorrow they’ll collect the fruit of their donations. They are buying our country […]

-How did Brazilian soap operas arrive in Mozambique and how did they help create an idea of society in Mozambique, especially among the young?

You have been here for quite some time already, and I’m sure you’ve noticed the kind of soap opera that airs in Mozambique. On those soap operas, the manager, the millionaire, the scientist are all white. The delivery man and the killer are usually black. In recent years there’s been some change, I can’t tell exactly when it happened, but now, for example, there’s a soap opera where a white woman is friends with a mestizo woman. They go out for walks; they go to parties and public places together. We wouldn’t see that in the first soap operas that were shown here. Before, the black or mulato woman would be in charge of cleaning. It was just like that: mestizo woman were always portrayed as prostitutes, as drug addicts. The black woman would sweep, the black man would carry heavy loads, cook, serve. And white people held a much higher status. But the wind of change is blowing, even if it’s at a very low speed. […]

-What do you think is the biggest challenge for Mozambican society today: freeing itself from foreign influence or from questions connected to tradition, such as the patriarchy?

[…]I remember that 10 years ago I had a calm life, my economical and financial situations were stable, I and had to go to a family meeting in which the elder wanted to have the last word on family issues. My grandfather and his brothers were the ones directing the family meeting.

According to patriarchal rules, women should be excluded, because all decisions were to be made by male members of the family. They made their decisions, which included the payment of some expenses, left the meeting and called the rest of the family to tell them they have something to pay. I said “I’m not paying for something unless I know what it is”, and they said “Oh, no! You have to pay because the elders have decided so”.

That’s when I realized that what was happening there was not an imposition, it was just the system used by them, a patriarchal family system where women have no voice. It will take generations before we see any real change.

-On the way to your house we were discussing the documentary they are filming about you. Could you comment on the second part of the film, where a more spiritual moment, when you were sick, is portrayed?

[…]I’m not sure what happened to me, because I was working. I was really focused, searching for that evasion, that abstraction, looking for a brilliant idea, and all of a sudden my mind went on a trip (she laughs). I went somewhere I couldn’t come back from (she laughs). It was a horrible crisis! I didn’t know what I had, and the assistance I got at the time wasn’t very good, because the diagnosis wasn’t clear.

I was hospitalized for a week and I’ve been treating myself since then. So I don’t know what explanations to give… as a writer I know – writers and most artists once in a while take their journeys to the unknown (she laughs).

During those journeys I meet entities that are part of me. I meet my late father, or my uncles, or my mom; people I used to see and with which I used to live on a daily basis. What drove me to psychiatry was precisely that: my [dead]father would come and talk to me, I would gladly respond to him, and people would say “Paulina is talking to herself”; I wasn’t talking to myself, I was talking to my father. Obviously, with time and the treatment I stopped seeing those images, those manifestations.

Medicine offered an explanation to my condition, the one I just gave you. Tradition explains it differently. And religions offer yet another explanation. Religions say it was the devil’s work, as if my father had ever been a demon – and that’s the greatest insult they can make at human dignity. Physicians have their logical reasons, because they work according to logic. And tradition is quite clear: it says I’ve had an encounter with my relatives, with their spirits.

-Do you believe in anything?

I believe in two of them, but not the third. I believe in physicians, in what Medicine says, because it is logic and coherent, and I believe in my tradition. As for the church…. God rid me of it!

-What do you like to do apart from writing and thinking of new projects?

I like to sit on my porch staring at the vast nothingness with a glass of beer (she laughs).

Douglas Freitas and Marcelo Hailer Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard