Hierarchy: sibling words that speak
Of a structure
Stacked top to bottom.
Bricks laid on
Together we will build a stronger country.
Together we will succeed.
Pillars piled higher
Our trajectory is an equation:
Labor times labor is common
Wealth. A redistribution of it.
I am not a commodity. I am a
Can you hear me?
I am a brick on the bottom.
They tell me I am essential to the construction,
To the foundation.
Have they forgotten I am porous?
Mere mud baked in flames. I cannot
Sustain, my pores contain too much
Stale air withheld,
Withdrawn inside below
The weight of weightier
The power is the proletariat.
The power is the people.
Comrade, are you listening?
Bricks bake with heat but they weather
Redistribution requires an unstacking of the stack.
Wait until I crack.
Wait for me to creak.
Because when I try to speak, comrade,
It’s like speaking in the mud.
In Mozambique, there are two types of people: those with weight, and those without. A person can be sized up at the belly, attributed a name: chefe. Kids at my school joke about the chefe belly: the rounder an individual – generally – the closer he is to chefe status. Chefe translates to boss, someone superior.
Bellies started showing up at my school two weeks ago. They waddled here. They bounced over there. Never with haste, the only purpose the extension of a finger in an odd direction. What is that over there? A cobweb in the hallway? That should be taken care of. And there? I think I see dust on that window. Hurry, hurry. We don’t have many rags, so we’ll use paper in soapy buckets to smear the glass.
With the chefes came the magic. I heard it before I saw it. The rumbling roar of diesel in combustion. Computers started working again. Lights in the office operated. Keyboards began to be used. Lists named, numbered, saved.
A momentous occasion was upon us: for the very first time, the national minister of education would come to Niassa – to my school – for the opening ceremony of the school year. The school needed beautification: grass was cut, walls washed, the hanging gutter above the gym re-installed, a Periodic Table painted in the chemistry lab, the name of the school re-painted at the entrance, chemicals for the lab received and organized – even the road found itself mysteriously re-paved with gravel to smooth out the small swamps that had formed. The date was set: 7:30AM on Friday, February 6th.
The fourth and fifth of February passed without rain. The morning of the sixth arrived in similar fashion. Nick and I arrived at 7:20AM under clear skies. People swarmed: ants preparing the colony for the arrival of the general. A large banner draped itself across the front of the office with stenciled, blue letters: “Your Excellency! We thank you immensely for the beautiful school which you inaugurate.” At 7:30 a military band could be heard marching along the perimeter. How far had they marched? The main road is 2 kilometers away. They approached, the tune louder and more chaotic. A hoard of children followed. The band entered the school grounds. No minister yet. They dropped their brass in the grass and sat down to wait. We all waited. The professors lined one side of the entrance. A crowd of children squeezed into the other side. “Wait, no,” somebody must have thought. “This isn’t right. Send the children to the gym.” The children moved in mass. One professor berated them: “Don’t run.” We stayed in our line. We reorganized our line. One more time. “Okay, okay. I think the order is right now.”
A truck pulled down the road with flashing sirens. More trucks, siren-less, followed. The band – holding their brass once more – kicked into gear (a rather clunking gear, like shifting from 4th straight to 1st). The cars stopped just outside the gate, perhaps to appreciate our newly painted logo. The minister’s entourage entered first. He followed. Our line, I must say, was top-notch. I hope he noticed as he proceeded down the length of it shaking each of our hands. Our director followed just behind, repeating some pleasantry with each grasp of the hands. Servility is word I have not yet searched for in my Portuguese dictionary. The minister arrived at my hand. He is a tall man, taller than me, with a face confident in its authority. “You must be Peace Corps,” he said in English and continued down the line.
Hand after hand, the minister was funneled towards a group of twelve students in school uniforms – beige on top, black below. They performed a slow stepping routine and sang: “Thank you; thank you, government; for the choice; of our school…” The minister waited in front, patient eyes observing the performance. The remaining 40 or so of us crowded along the side, eager eyes focused on the minister.
The procession flowed logically; it had been mapped out beforehand. The minister turned around to face the régulo – a local leader appointed out of respect as a type of neighborhood watchman – and his three companions. They wore ancient military uniforms, complete with caps and sashes draped across their chests. The lines on their faces sagged. Their shoulders too. They appeared carved out of the past, dark ebony anachronisms. In their lives: the colony of Mozambique waged a war for independence; the communist state of Mozambique waged a civil war; the capitalist state of Mozambique wages a war against poverty. Their wooden faces no longer react to the wrinkles of the day-to-day. On their knees in the grass, the four men chanted in the local language. The régulo kneaded corn flour against the ground. He tossed it at the base of a tree. The school received its blessing.
The procession eventually found its way to the gym with the minister in front and everyone else hovering close behind, looking at him looking at cobweb-less hallways and smeared windowpanes. The gym is an airplane hangar without walls: an enormous metal roof supported by cement pillars. The minister took his seat on a stage at one end of the concrete basketball court. Behind him rose a wall wrapped in the green, black, gold, and red colors of the state. A framed photo of the current president hung on the wall. Other important figures sat to his left and right. They began to give speeches: the director of the school, the daughter of the founder of the school, someone from the district of education, a representative from a university donating books to the school, a representative from a cell phone company donating books and mosquito nets to the school. With great power in Mozambique comes great presents. Panem et circenses.
The crowd overflowed in the back of the gym, spilling onto the grass outside. The teachers lined the sidelines of the court in chairs. Across from me, the four anachronisms weathered the time motionlessly, eyes shut. Words no longer seemed to mean much to them. I tried to listen, but the speakers found themselves out-voiced: at some point, clouds had invaded the sky and began to release their cargo on the metal roof. It arrived slowly, a dull patter blowing into the gym from the open sides. Umbrellas sprouted up to cover the patriotic stage. The speakers kept speaking. But Niassa was three days late for a storm and the sky has no respect for human ceremonies. Thunder cracked. A deluge 72 hours in the making arrived at the helm of a gusting wind. The power to the microphone cut out. The minister and his entourage fled to the center of the gym. So did the teachers and anyone else who wasn’t forced to run for cover under other buildings.
I looked across the gym. The régulos had not flinched. They have lived here long enough to know when rain is coming. They had selected seats in the dry area of the gym. When the ceremony eventually resumed from the middle of the court, the four relics remained unmoved.
There are two types of people in Mozambique: those attuned to the Earth and those who’ve become more concerned with the weight of their footprint than the condition of the land. The former will witness the latter washed away with the first heavy rain.