It’s time to tell you about some remarkable people I have met in Mozambique. Magaya, is our programme manager and an employee of Habitat for Humanity. He is a modern African. A vibrant caring (my son would rate him as “really cool”) professional that stands astride the chasm between the post- colonial Africa of the 20th Century and the progressive ‘cutting edge’ of the Africa which is to be. It is a joy to observe this man as he works as the interface between a group of ten Brits who have arrived to build houses and the residents of a deeply rural community into which we have blundered.
This morning Magaya informs us that we are to start two more houses today (they will be our fifth and sixth). This means that we dig more foundations, mix tons of mortar, shift large quantities of sand, cement and breeze-blocks blah blah – you get the idea – it’s very hard work. But Magaya has a magical smile which inspires manic enthusiasm in those who behold it and renders us completely incapable of groaning the tiniest protest.
And so we carry our aches and tools to follow our ‘foreman’ Manuel even further in to the countryside than on previous days. It is a hot walk down a woodland path. (Although it is only 7.30am the heat in this part of Mozambique comes on as if by a switch.) A lizard some two feet long darts across our path to remind us that, despite the greenery, this is no jaunt in the English countryside.
Suddenly Manuel turns off the road – there is no track; our route is evident only by trampled grass which leads to a clearing in the tall grass. In the middle of the space is a solitary ancient woman who greets us with reserved, tired eyes. She holds a rudimentary hoe and quickly resumes the pecking action with which she has cleared the grass from a sizable patch of ground. I notice the woman but I do not see her – my mind is on one thought only, “The ground isn’t even cleared!” This means at least an hour of additional back-aching labour before we can get on with the usual back-aching labour!
Manuel becomes animated, we seize shovels and hoes of our own, and to the music of cheerful encouragement from my companions, we begin to clear the remaining grass as he directs.
You should meet Manuel. He has guided our little group through every step of the building work – it is no exaggeration to say that each member of our team has come to love and respect this tiny, fizzing master builder. I doubt he reaches 5ft in height; and like Magaya, he is magical, but his magic seems to be from the very ground of his country. A loose-fitting red and white woolly hat incongruously crowns his Bob Marley ‘dreads’ atop a face which seems at once always to be smiling and set with the authority of practical wisdom. He has prodigious strength and stamina and a quick, crackling bush fire laugh. He is a natural teacher and leader seemingly without impatience or anger he communicates expertly. This is part of his magic – he appears to need barely four words of English to teach us all he wants us to know. His strongest rebuke is to take whatever tool we are using gently from our hands and enjoin us to be “Caaaalmmm”; a word he smoothes out with a warm growl as he demonstrates the method brick-laying or rendering he requires of us.
And then there are Ed, Dan, Rob, Lucille, Ben, Steve, Holly, Matt and Barry. It seems to me remarkably, they have been summoned as if by a spell; a group of people from a distant land have come to stand with Manuel and Magaya – ancient and modern Africa. They came to help improve the lives of people they had never met. They came to learn and to give everything they had. I have watched these remarkable people work with every ounce of their strength for hours under an African sun without shade. Their skin has been burned and blistered, their muscles torn. Though their clothes were deeply darkened with sweat and their faces creased with strain, I heard not one complaint or saw anyone show the slightest hesitance to grasp the next task. Though they literally stumbled and fainted with fatigue they did not let up.
I think that my companions truly saw the old woman in the grass clearing – the lady who with antique bones and sinews had cleared most of the space needed for her house.