30 March 2007

Long Shadows

I've been reading The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith over the past couple of weeks. It's been taking a while, not because it is dense or long (which it is), but because it is for the most part depressing.

Independence is supposed to be a good thing - democracy, peoples' right to govern themselves, citizens shaping their national future, etc. However, Martin's work chronicles 50 years of African leaders exploiting, murdering, enslaving, authorizing genocide, and in general destroying African peoples and landscapes. Some of the most disgusting and depressing parts of the book chronicle how my own country supported some of the worst leaders like Charles Taylor in Liberia or Mobutu in the Congo. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, the US government also supported Pol Pot in Cambodia. Then there are all the fuck ups the US participated in politically, economically, or militarily (or are those really all the same thing?) in various countries throughout the African continent in the name of globalization and the Cold War against communism.

Anyway, each chapter chronicles one big man (and his cronies) after another bleeding the life out of the people and the land. Recent news stories about Zimbabwe demostrate that the phenomena continues. Mugabe is being sternly warned by other presidents of southern African nations, as well as his own party, to step down and not run for re-election next year. Will he? Even if he does, Zimbabwe will be suffering from the shadow of his rule for a long time.

My biggest critique is the dearth of information about Mozambique. It seems to be Africa's forgotten country - both in the popular and scientific literature. There are a few pages (out of 752 total) that discuss the war for independence from Portugal and a couple more on the RENAMO-FRELIMO conflict but not much else. Is it because Mozambique is a Lusophone country (Angola has a chapter, but it also has oil reserves and diamonds)? Is it because Mozambique is overshadowed by its neighbors, South Africa and Zimbabwe (Swaziland, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Botswana don't get much mention either)? Or something else that I am just not seeing?

27 March 2007

Mozambique in Mourning

Unknown Weeping Woman. Alfredo Mueche/IRIN

Although people are carrying on with their regular business, the atmosphere in Maputo is a little different. Newspaper headlines highlight the most up-to-date counts on dead and injured, aid agency vehicles carrying food, supplies, and volunteers make daily treks out towards the neighborhoods that have been destroyed, and groups of sad people in their best clothing cluster together. What happened, and what the Mozambican government is going to do (or not do), are the major topics of discussion whenever two people meet.

Officially, 101 people are dead (at least that was the number of bodies delivered to the morgue so far). The city of Maputo is providing coffins for the funerals which started on Sunday. Searchers are also trying to hurry with body recovery in the destroyed neighborhoods because the high temperatures we've been having the past few days are speeding up decomposition (which will make it harder to identify remains). More than 100 children are reported missing according to the allafrica.com news. That number hides the fact that other children are among the dead and injured. The city's psychiatric hospital was destroyed (Which may explain the man with no pants or underwear and a too small tee shirt that I passed on the street yesterday. He was talking loudly to himself in Portuguese as he ran along.).

People are really upset with the government. Apparently, when some munitions (at the same depot) went off in January, the government said that they would take care of it. Well, nothing happened and now a lot of people are dead, injured, missing, and without homes. The army is cleaning things up, in cooperation with HALO. So far over 1400 pieces of unexploded ordinance have been recovered. Most of the pieces are Soviet-made BM-24 rockets (~1m long and 112kg). Some of the ordinance is too big and dangerous to move, so they are getting rid of it on site (whatever that means, I wouldn't want to be around). They also need people who read Russian (particularly former soldiers) to help with the ordinance remaining in the Malhazine depot.

The Malhazine Depot is slated to be decommissioned, but when? And what about the other 30 munitions depots in and around Maputo as well as the others throughout the country? What are the storage conditions like in these places? What will be done about the safety of local residents in the meantime? These are among the questions that many Mozambicans are asking.

My favorite quote so far has got to be the following from the now former Minister of Defense Tobais Dai - even though it has nothing to do with Thursday's debacle. Apparently, after the last explosion at Malhazine in January 2007 which seriously injured 3 people, he said it was their own fault for building their makeshift homes (i.e. cane homes) too close to the military depot. Dai was recently (as in this weekend) fired by his brother-in-law, President Armando Guebuza.

Most of what I've reported above can be read in the local papers and on All Africa news (one of the best sites I have found for reading about what is going on in Africa). BBCAfrica carried on story and a video about the explosions, but I haven't seen anything else since (it is another good source for Africa news but it doesn't necessarily have the little local stories - great pictures though). I think that it is pathetic that nothing has been reported in the US news, although the US mainstream media did carry stories about people dying in Madagascar's cyclone and the recent Japanese earthquake. I am not saying that these are not valid stories, but why only natural disasters and not a disaster caused by governmental negligence? Is it because the American public can only handle one of those at a time?

Some links to the online stories:

Mozambique: Government Negligence Blamed for Deadly Blast

Mozambique: Explosions - Death Toll Reaches 100
Mozambique: Explosions - Death Toll Now 101, First Funerals Held

The picture above has been featured in several local newspapers and I got it from the AllAfrica News site. It was taken by Sr. Alfredo Mueche at IRIN.

25 March 2007

Pictures from Thursday and afterwards

All of the black and white photos in my blog come from O Pais (The Country). Unexploded ordinance sitting on the street and in someone's home.

These last 3 images came from the BBC and AllAfrica.com news sources. The current count is 100 dead and 450 injured.

This last picture shows one of the bombs going off.

One Mozambican minister blamed the incident on Global Warming.

24 March 2007

More Follow-up on the Maputo Explosions

More rumors are swirling around Maputo about what happened. Some verified by eyewitnesses, while others are still just hearsay. The current official dead count is 76 and hundreds more wounded. Eyewitnesses will tell you that the count is way too low.

Eyewitness accounts:

That big explosion I posted about - the one that caused my hair to fly up even though I was located 3 miles from the burning depot and inside my house. That bomb registered an 8 on the Richter Scale (that's the scale seismologists use to measure earthquakes just in case you forgot). I am glad I stayed in my apartment, although at the time I really wanted to see the fire and smoke (it does pay to occasionally listen to the little reasonable voice in the back of my head telling me to do the safe thing). The news reports that the shockwaves were felt over 25km away from the detonation - windows were shattered.

Natalina, Ventriss, and Etienne were out shopping and watched the roof of the department store they were in twist, buckle and shake. Natalina suggested to the store manager that they might want to consider closing early. My friend Bill saw the really big explosion as a gigantic, 50+ft tall fireball from his terrace. He works out by the depot and said that he wasn't sent home until 5pm. He was thankful (and proud) that his teenage sons were smart and got themselves and their grandma into an alcove without windows, inside the house.

Smaller explosions also registered on the Richter Scale. Maputo is build on sand dunes, so I would guess that it is very easy for shockwaves to travel. If my brother, the geologist, reads this maybe he'll fill me in a little better. Also, don't tell mom and dad. But if you do, Wil, let them know that I am okay and in one piece. If you don't, I'll kick your butt when I get home.

The munitions depot that exploded was located at the end of the airport runway - so no flights until noon yesterday. There were tracer bullets, Soviet-made short range missiles, bombs, etc. that exploded in the fire. Whole families were crushed in their homes as they huddled together as far from windows as possible. Other friends, who were in the neighborhoods checking up on friends, report that at least 2 people found headless spouses. Lots of people had stomach wounds from the shrapnel and flying debris. The dead and living had lost legs and arms. Homes were flattened. The news here reported a lot of confusion and panic as people tried to board chapas to get out of the area. I don't know if anyone was hurt in the rush, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The schools that sent children home when the bombs started exploding now have many children missing. Schools that kept children have not lost students. Three schools of over 1000 students in near proximity to the depot are completely gone. One political scientist student who went to check on friends, found 4 young men (early 20s) trying to get women and children on chapas out of the area because of the remaining unexploded ordinance (more on that later). She found a little, disoriented boy wandering around more than 10 km from his home - apparently he just ran in the confusion and was still discombobulated the next day (finally I got to use that word). He lacked the $0.20 he needed to catch a chapa home, so she gave him the money hoping that he had a family to go home to.

Natalina told me of 2 different families that have unexploded ordinance sitting in the middle of their living rooms - short range missiles. They have no other place to go. There is also an unexploded bomb (or missile, didn't catch which) sitting in the middle of Maputo's main cemetery. Unless people, mainly orphans, are still squatting in the cemetery (like they were in 2004), few people should be hurt.

Overall, the sense is that there are way more dead than reported. The Minister of Defense reported that 3 people were dead Friday morning. Soon after, the Minister of Health reported 72 dead saying he had proof in the corpses sitting in city hospitals. Consulates and agencies are prepared to help with the bomb clean up and storage, but as of Friday afternoon at 4pm there was no word from the Mozambican government according to my sources. The aid agencies that work with children did receive a call for help.

So what happened? Apparently, at least 20 tons of unexploded ordinance were being stored in an arms depot in the Malhazine neighborhood. This is only one of 30 arms depots located in and around the city (hence the vaguely worded US Embassy warning). The conditions for storage are not good and Mozambique has "hundreds of tonnes" of unexploded ordinance left over from the Civil War. It was the heat that set them off and it isn't the first time this year. There were some explosions in January too. I don't recall the incident, so it must not have been so big or killed so many.

It may sound like I am excited over all of this. I am. Excited that I am still alive and unhurt, and that my friends and co-workers are alive and unhurt. It's an excited relief - the afterglow of an adrenaline rush. But there is a little worry in that I know the temperatures will climb again. Bill put it like this at the weekly volley ball game, "We've experienced living in a war zone without the war." (Yes, we played volley ball the next day. Most people are carrying on with their business, even though they also recognize that this is a major freaking disaster. The socializing helped let off some steam and talk.) I cannot imagine how the soldiers and civilians in Iraq (or anyone living in a war zone past or present) deal with this on a daily basis - they also have the added negative that you don't necessarily know who the enemy is or when they will strike. At least, Mozambique is a country at peace with itself and its neighbors.


Apparently I wasn't as safe as I thought. Supposedly, there is an unexploded short range missile sitting in the middle of the Safeway grocery store parking lot. That is about 1 kilometer from my house. I don't think I'll be going to check. Some of the missile and bullets and bombs launched before they exploded, so my 4 kms or so from the depot wasn't really that much of a distance for a short range missile.

23 March 2007

Follow-up on Explosions

The explosions last night were a big topic of discussion at the university this morning. Several of the windows had been shattered and glass was strewn on the floor. Several people, my own age, that I spoke to said that it reminded them of when they were children. Their first thought was, "Is the city under attack?"

At last count there were 72 confirmed dead and more than 200 injured. Although the official news story reported differently. I assume that the numbers will change as they dig their way out of the mess. This morning people were still being dug out of the rubble - sans arms, legs, and in some cases, heads. Houses surround the airport, both cement block and reed constructions. So it is not surprising that people are dead. But it is sad.

There is still at column of smoke on the horizon at 12 noon today.

This is the statement issued by the US Embassy to Mozambique:

"The U.S. Embassy is sending this Warden Message to advise the American community about the current situation following explosions that occurred in Maputo on Thursday March 22.

Please be advised that the Maputo airport will remain closed until further notice. Additionally, please be alert when traveling anywhere around the city or on the outskirts.

The possibility exists that unexploded ordinance could be present in the city. If you receive any information regarding unexploded ordinance, the Mozambican government would like you to contact them on a special phone line established for this purpose: 84 250 4920. Please also contact the U.S. Embassy with information about unexploded ordinance on phone line: 21 49 0723.

Also, please contact the Consul directly is you have any information about injured Americans: 82 300 0835."

What does this mean? Were the explosions at a munitions storage facility or what? Are there multiple storage facilities around the city that I need to worry about? What about the military base 2 blocks away? Nicely vague, but ultimately unhelpful. I guess I'll just go back to my business and hope for the best.

One last question though, it has been hotter than yesterday in the past few months, so what happened yesterday to trigger the explosions?

22 March 2007

Explosions in Maputo

When I was a kid, okay well maybe into my teens, well maybe into my late teens, my dad would occasionally sit my brother and I down for the talk about appropriate things to put into the attic for storage. See, in northern NY we really only needed A/C about 2 weeks out of the whole year and even then my cousins in Georgia would tease about needing A/C for 90F weather (but the humidity is killer). The attic temps would regularly climb above 100F even with the fans on. Putting stuff that melts or otherwise reacts badly to heat was not a good idea.

Somehow my dad always seemed to find fireworks up in the attic. The little blackcat kind. Not me put them there, I swear. Fireworks are illegal in New York, but we always magically had them, probably because my dad enjoys setting them off as much as my brother and I. We were duly warned multiple times about the dangers of fireworks and leaving them in hot places. Which brings me to this afternoon's tale of confusion and perhaps terror for a few.

About 2 o'clock this afternoon, I started hearing rumbling even though the sky out my office/bedroom window was a beautiful blue. I thought perhaps it might be thunder despite the sky, because many times the sky is blue on one side of my apartment and cloudy and raining on the other side. I looked out the kitchen window, but no clouds. Hot and sunny. Then I thought, maybe an earthquake. Maputo had one last year around this time and it sounds like the 4.something one we had in NY when I was in middle school. But the rumbling continued for too long with no shaking.

Then I thought, well maybe the upstairs neighbors are moving furniture. Nope, they'd need to move an entire warehouse for the amount and duration of noise I was hearing. Still puzzled, around 3:30 I heard an explosion. People on the street below seemed startled but then continued with their business like nothing unusual happened. At this point I was thinking, thank goodness Mozambique isn't at war or experiencing civil unrest. However, the conspiracy theorist that lives at the back of my brain reminded me that 2 motorcades had gone by my apartment yesterday, and that I have been seeing lots of cops and military police on the street this past week. However, I live within 2 blocks of a military base and 4 blocks from the police station, so no go.

After 2 more window rattling explosions, I went up on the roof to see what I could see.

Not much. In the direction of the airport there was a column of smoke like something was burning. I texted my friend Natalina, who has been living here longer than I to see if she knew something. She wrote back "Arms depot. When it gets hot de bombs inside..."

It was the munitions storage facility out by the airport. When it gets hot here, the bombs detonate. However, I could have also checked my email, but when the power starts going off and on I don't like hooking into the power grid. I would hate to fry my laptop. This is what the warden from the US embassy sent me:

22 March 2007
Explosions in Maputo

The U.S. Embassy is sending this Warden Message to advise the American
community about explosions that are occurring in the Maputo area today
22 March 2007.

The explosions are apparently heat-induced weapons explosions at a
weapons site near the airport. This is not confirmed.

Americans in the Maputo area are advised to stay indoors, away from all
windows and away from the area around the Maputo airport until
explosions cease.

If you are in danger please contact the U.S. Consul on 82 300 0835 or
via the numbers below.

Thanks for the email warning. It is times like this that I wonder what would they do in a real emergency - like if the power was cut because of a cyclone or civil unrest or earthquake or tsunami. I hope that they have a plan, but you never know.

I continued cooking dinner. Around 5:45, there was explosion so powerful that the air pressure change whipped my hair about like someone was standing next to me and blowing hard. At the time, I was standing in my kitchen with the window barely cracked open (just so I could get some fresh air). The airport is about 4.5 km from my apartment (2.8 miles), so that was one hell of an explosion. I hope no one was hurt, but I doubt it.

There have been a few more explosions, but even the rumbling has calmed down since the sun set.

Dad was right.

18 March 2007

Sunday Afternoon in Maputo

The cool temperatures (mid 70s) and overcast skies made Maputo quite pleasant today. I'm not sure where the stormy weather came from - perhaps a tail from Cyclone Indlala that is sacking Madagascar right now. KwaZulu-Natal had some freakish weather earlier this week that killed several people. Then, there is the shitstorm that has been heating up Zimbabwe over the past few years.

Coconut vendors - A good drink at the beach.

A couple of hard-bargaining beach salesmen. They tried to get me a few minutes later, but I had no money. They also didn't realize that I knew the current SA Rand to US Dollars to Moz. Metacais exchange rates and can calculate that sort of thing in my head.

Futebol is very popular. Most players are barefoot, but check out the red socks on the guy in the second picture.

Boys with new toys. Kids here are pretty inventive and imaginative. I guess that's what happens when you don't have much access to t.v., video games, and money to buy lots of toys. The toys kids make here are pretty cool.

Future DJ

One more since this kid was such a ham.

These ladies were having a great time gossiping and laughing despite the back-breaking chore of washing clothes by hand and fetching water. They loved it when I tested out my Changaan. The adults seemed pleasantly surprised that I could say hello respectfully and tell them that I was a student of their language and culture in Changaan. The children found the mulunga (white person) who could speak their language hysterical - almost to the point of ROTGL.

Since it is a Sunday afternoon, these kids may be working just to give their parents or grandparents a day off. But maybe not. School is not free in Mozambique. It costs money for tuition, uniforms, supplies, and books. Parents struggle to send their kids to school. I don't know what the fees and supplies cost, but the average yearly salary is maybe 200-300 USD. On regular school days, I often see children working - selling cashews, newspapers, oranges. Other children work with their parents and sell food at the markets. Orphaned children beg and will carry your groceries at Mercado Central in exchange for a few metacais. School, in general, is not free in southern Africa. Pretoria had a student group march and run amok on Friday demanding free education for South African students.

Famba khwatsi.

13 March 2007

God's Window found in Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

This past weekend I traveled with my friends Natalina, Ventriss, and Etienne to God's Window in South Africa (Mpumalanga Province - Place of the Rising Sun). Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world. It was a little strange passing through towns that are mentioned in the archives I've been reading for the past month (yes, I have been working too. More on that in another post.) The Pilgrim's Rest, Sabie, Graskop, Nelspruit areas are part of the Delagoa Bay (now Maputo Bay) trade hinterland. Gold, ivory, other wildlife items, and agricultural products found their way down the Drakensburg (Dragonback) Escarpment to Delagoa Bay for shipping to India, Portugal, Great Britain, and other far off places in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Entering South Africa at the Ressano-Garcia border crossing. Yet another disease for my mom to worry about - she recently sent me an article from the Watertown Daily Times (of all places) on a deadly strain of TB that had crossed the South African border into neighboring countries. But moms and dads are supposed to worry, right?

Enjoying cold water on a hot day.

Better than the Windows version of Bliss.

Me on the trail we were hiking near Graskop.

A cool looking grasshopper. Yeah, I probably spend way too much time being fascinated with stuff like bugs and butterflies and flowers... speaking of which, these lilies were blooming all along the roadsides. They didn't have any smell though.

God's Window. Remember to...

That must be one humoungous bottle of Windex.

Somewhere, off in the far, far distance is Maputo and the Mozambican coast. The Drakensburg Escarpment marks the 1000m transition from the lowveld coastal plain to the highveld (Transvaal).

The Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon

Lisbon Falls

Mac Mac Falls


Clear cuts and reforesting

Current screensaver

Plug for Ecological and Environmental Anthropology Journal

I am no longer officially working at the online journal Ecological and Environmental Anthropology, but I am going to put in a plug for them. Hey, you never know who's reading. They're accepting submissions for the next issue. Plus, you can check out past issues online for free (video too).

Call for submissions

Ecological and Environmental Anthropology (EEA) is an online,
peer-reviewed journal produced in the Department of Anthropology at
the University of Georgia. The editorial board of EEA is pleased to
announce a call for submissions from diverse disciplines including
anthropology, conservation biology, ecology, environmental studies,
geography, political science, and sociology, as well as from
professionals specializing in conservation, health, resource
management and other fields related to human ecology.

EEA 's mission is to engage in exploration of the complex and dynamic
relationships between humans and their social and physical
environments. We hope to provide fertile ground for integrative dialog
among the subfields of anthropology. We also hope and foster
interdisciplinary discussion among academic anthropologists, scholars
in other social and natural science disciplines, and non-academic
professionals in all fields engaged in the study of human-environment
relationships. Through the journal's online format, EEA takes full
advantage of technological innovations that aid in the dissemination
of research in ecological and environmental anthropology. In addition
to traditional manuscripts, we encourage submissions that take full
advantage of the electronic medium and push the boundaries of
conventional scholarly communication. Acceptable formats range from
audio/visual presentations to online symposia. Submissions will
present original research, critical reviews of published works, and
new eco-cultural models and paradigms.

Potential authors and other interested parties should visit to our web
site http://www.uga.edu/eea for submission guidelines and in order to
view previous issues of EEA. Submitted manuscripts that do not conform
to EEA's submission guidelines will be returned to the author(s).
Electronic submissions are preferred, and should be sent to