A travel moment in Massaca

April 2006. Some of us had travelled for thirty hours to reach Massaca, a village south to Maputo in Mozambique. There were nine of us. You could have argued we were all good people. We were all professionals from the western world, coming to help the underdeveloped world, coming to build local houses for widows and orphans. We were going to give back, be useful, give a meaning to our life, do some good in this world. We were genuinely full of good intentions. But soon enough we realised that when we were building houses, we were building local structures which would not last more than a couple of years; when we were working for free, some unemployed and more skilled men were not getting a job. When we questioned the validity of our action, we hurt people’s feelings.

Some of us blinded our eyes to the drawbacks of what we were doing. Some of us stopped working, started walking the village, playing with kids, chatting with the people, asking all the questions crossing our minds to understand people and their views on what we were doing.

More and more our group split between those wanting to believe we were bringing help, that we were making a difference in the life of Massaca and those of us who were not convinced.

One day a suggestion was made to visit a school like some visit exhibitions. I wondered if we were going to visit a hospital next, like some kind of royalty bringing her altruist smile and kind words to the disinherited. The group decided to buy school supplies as suggested by the organiser. And there we were, loaded with rubbers, pens and notebooks on our way to school. We first met with the headmistress but strangely enough we did not gave her the school supplies, we did not leave it to her and the teachers to identify which child needed the most a notebook or a rubber. We thought we knew better under the guidance of our Mozambican leader. Some of us got a bunch of pencils, others notebooks and we all jammed into a classroom. It was dark, the room was filled with children sitting on the floor. A Portuguese woman started distributing pencils randomly under the direction of a filming American guy; the gesture was simple, like a farmer planting seeds in a field. She was slowly making her way through the sea of little black arms stretched towards her, the kids were shouting to grab her attention, some piling several pens under their legs, some getting nothing. As tears were coming to my eyes, I left my pack of notebooks on the teacher’s desk and walked away. I walked and cried, and walked and cried some more walking towards the edge of the village, purposely staining my white trainers by scuffing them into the bright red earth. Maybe one day we’ll decolonise Africa, but not today.

H Soulages

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