There are chameleons in Nomba. I encounter them in the dirt paths nears my home, creeping across the trail. They move with slow, careful steps. Some take the pale green color of sage. These have just left the undergrowth; their skin is slow to adjust. Others turn to sand; they’ve made it more than halfway across the path. I judge their progress in their pigments. When the chameleons see me they falter. Their movements turn rigid with hesitation. They can’t decide to stop or to continue. Instead they dance: each leg performs a sort of Egyptian robot move, shivering in its forward arc. Little by little the lizard shuffles off the path.
Nomba is one of the four main bairros of the city of Lichinga, capital of the province of Niassa. Niassa sits in the far northwest of Mozambique, hugging the shores Lake Malawi. The first sentence of the chapter on Niassa in the Bradt travel guide reads as follows: “Niassa is Mozambique’s driest, most remote, poorest, and least densely populated province.” A friend recently sent me a message with a quote from another book regarding Niassa: “One aid worker I spoke to called it the ‘Siberia of Mozambique.’ A Western diplomat in Maputo told me there’s a saying that ‘If Lichinga isn’t the edge of the world, you can certainly see it from there.’” Indeed, I have moved to the province with the largest territory and the smallest number of human beings. However, my site – Nomba – hovers just on the periphery of Lichinga, a city with a population estimated at 165,000. The Portuguese founded Lichinga in 1931 under the name Vila Cabral. It rests at an altitude of 1350 meters (4,430 feet) on the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, permitting forestry companies to cultivate large pine forests that crop up in the view from my porch. Hills undulate in all directions, green like you imagine Africa would be. Mountains decorate the horizon. Thunderstorms decorate the afternoons. And nights call for jackets. The view from the end of the world is beautiful.
I live in the casas escolares – school housing – for the Cristiano Paulo Taimo secondary school. An NGO constructed the school three years back: cement buildings, green, corrugated metal roofs, covered walkways, twelve classrooms, an outdoor gym. I commented on the beauty of the school to my director. She replied, “De forma só. In form only. Twelve classrooms aren’t enough for more than two thousand students.” Three houses rest just down the hill from the gym. Each house is divided in the middle into two homes. I live on the southern side of the most southern house in the group with my roommate, Nick Davis. We do not have running water, but we do have a 2,500-liter rain collection tank in our yard. We do have electricity, though tonight I’m writing by candlelight because the power went out hours ago.
When I need groceries, I walk 45 minutes to a labyrinthine outdoor market in Chiuaula, a neighboring bairro. There I can find everything I need: tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peanuts, kale, bananas, mangoes, rice, beans, carrots, cabbage, eggs, baobab fruit. In the States I pay extra for locally grown produce; In Lichinga, I have no other options. Sometimes I stretch the walk over: I wander through new paths, up and down new hills. There is a small barraca – a neighborhood bar – en route to Chiuaula with the words Panandi Panandi written on the side. The white paint is stark against the mud bricks. The phrase means “Little by little” in the local language, Yao. It serves as a marker for me, a reminder that I am arriving where I need to arrive.
I do not begin teaching until the trimester starts in early February. Until then, I just get lost in Lichinga. I try to blend in, but as I pass by children point and shout at me, “Muzungo! Arungo! White man! White man!” I’ve been here for a month, but my pigment refuses to change. My response is different every time. Sometimes I tense and say nothing. Other times I laugh. Every now and then I pretend to panic: “Where?! Where is the arungo?” The children don’t understand the joke, but it makes me feel better. I’m just a chameleon crossing the road. Panandi panandi.