When I moved to Mozambique, I took with me certain expectations, many of which have already been realised.
I fully expected meltingly hot summers that lasted for half the year. I knew that clean feet would be a thing of the past and that noisy children would be raking the sand under my window at 5am in the morning. I understood that the hot water supply would be inconsistent, that the electricity would shut down regularly and that internet access would be slow at best and non-existent at worst.
I hoped for regular meals out and an occasional hot afternoon meandering slowly through the upmarket, air conditioned mall in town. I longed for adventurous drives into the bush to stay with the locals, and road trips with new friends to view the magnificent northern Mozambique coastline. I dreamed of glorious orange sunsets and clear African skies reaching on forever. I even planned some holidays, perhaps to Swaziland or Tanzania or South Africa’s Cape Town way down at the bottom of the continent.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the adventures of last night.
I received the call with only 23 hours notice that something was up. I was invited to a reception and was I free? Of course! I had never met the woman on the phone – she was an Australian working at the US Embassy, which made no sense to me at all. But a free night out is worth a lot to a tired, dusty Aussie living in Africa, so of course I said yes. I hung up the phone then thought, “Did she just say ‘The Palace?’”
At 10.30 the next morning, the gilt-edged invitation was hand-delivered to confirm what I had begun to suspect was someone pulling my leg. “The President of the Republic of Mozambique invites Senhora Wendy Walker to an Official Banquet at the Palacio de Ponto Vermelho...”
And so it began. I was officially invited to the Palace for a State Banquet being hosted by the President and First Lady of Mozambique, in honour of our very own Australian Governor General who was dropping in briefly during her ten nation tour. Being an Aussie living in Maputo is serving me very well indeed.
So, how to proceed? First, a quick dash to the nearest clothes shop forty minutes away. But no, the car wouldn’t start. After an hour’s delay, I borrowed a vehicle and was on my way. Then home with a new skirt to ask Laura’s help with the rest of the outfit. Only then did I think to get the invitation translated precisely. Oh no! Formal! A cotton skirt would never do.
I am an Aussie gal living in a developing nation in a compound with 300 kids. I play in the sand. I climb splintered wooden play equipment. I carry babies around at every opportunity. The only reason I wear shoes is to avoid catching those tiny little worms that bury into one’s skin and lay their eggs there. I fight a daily war against dust and grime which I will never win so I may as well signal surrender and relax. The closest I get to formal is tying a capalana over my cut-offs and swapping my grey thongs for black ones for church on Sunday mornings.
It did not occur to me to bring a formal gown from Australia to my orphanage-home in Mozambique. What an oversight.
Laura took charge. God bless Laura. “Wendy, we’re going into town. We have to SHOP! Meet me at the car in 15 minutes.” So Laura drove me all the way into town to buy clothes. She also drove me all around town showing me how to find the Palace and how to get home at the end of the night. Here I was thinking, “How hard can it be to find a palace in the middle of Maputo?” I never would have made it there and back in the dark Mozambican night without this tour.
We had less than an hour to find something floor-length and formal. For the first time in my life, I was thankful that my dress size is more Harare than Hollywood. The first thing I tried on was a floor length skirt. Perfect fit. Done. Second shop, black wrap top. Done. I believe I just witnessed a miracle. In and out in forty minutes for a job that could have taken months back in Australia.
Home. No time to sit down with just over an hour to get back out the door. I borrowed a selection of handbags and shoes and wraps and jewellery from my “ladies in waiting”, all as excited as I was. Showered then searched for the blow dryer for its first use in Mozambique. Then makeup (I had to remember... is it liner or shadow first?) and finally worked out the rest of the outfit. No time for trial and error. The last thing I did was slip on some borrowed sandals - perfect fit! I felt like Cinderella being dressed for the ball. Then Sandra took photos and sent me on my way.
I hiked up my long skirt and clambered into the big old filthy, noisy, borrowed ute, wearing very unglamorous sandshoes for the drive. It was about then that I started laughing and did not stop all night. I drove the fifty minutes through smoky, smelly Maputo, dressed up to the nines, feeling very much like a princess driving a pumpkin.
I pulled up at the boom gates to the Palace but was refused entry, even with my fancy invitation. What to do? “Nao falo Portuguese! Do you speak English?” I begged as several guards with rifles gathered around my car. Then, right next to me, an official vehicle with flags on the hood pulled up. Someone opened the back window and called, "Wendy, is that you? Follow us!" It was the woman from the US Embassy who had phoned the night before to invite me. I realised I must be even more conspicuous than I thought. I took a deep breath, waved and smiled at the armed guards then drove past them. I was in.
I pulled up behind all the clean, sleek white government cars and slipped out of the high cab of the ute, hoping not to catch my now-dusty dress on the way down. Then I realised I still had my sandshoes on. Back up into the cab, changed my shoes and got out. I looked across the road to see the official party from the other car waiting patiently for me and watching every move.
I made it half way across the road before a guard caught up and told me to move my car. Back I went, inelegantly hitched up my shiny black floor-length gown, climbed in and started the car again.
I tried to back up over the curb and onto the footpath as instructed. I was still being watched as the car chugged loudly then stalled. I started up once more then skidded the tyres trying to get the back wheels over the high gutter. Finally and after much revving and screeching, I gave up with half the hood still hanging out over the road. I motioned thumbs up to the guard then refused to look his way again, in case he made me move the car further.
Out I climbed once more and honked the horn accidentally on the way down. I scurried away from the guard, inasmuch as one can scurry in slip-on Cinderella sandals, and joined the very patient group waiting for me. I was laughing as I introduced myself. Why were they not smiling?
Finally – finally! - I walked in with my new friends who then left me on my own. I took a deep breath, walked up to complete strangers, held out my hand and said, "Boa Noite. Chama me Wendy. Do you speak English?" Every Australian I met knew other Aussies there with whom they wanted to chat so, feeling like an unwanted extra, I made for the Africans and was welcomed warmly.
At Table 17, I sat between a Presidential Aide and the Tanzanian Consul to Mozambique. What delightful company they were. I learned that not all Presidential Aides speak English, that my poor Portuguese is apparently very amusing, and that Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti are a must-see for anyone living anywhere near Tanzania. I believe an open invitation was extended. I believe...
The military band played the Australian National Anthem (oh my) and O Presidente da Moçambique made a speech which was translated via headphones on all the tables. The translator kept referring to the "Australian General Governor" which made me giggle, quite inappropriately.
We – about 200 mostly Africans with some washed-out Aussies in the mix - were seated at round tables in a giant white marquee with crisp linen, fresh flowers and air conditioning. The special guests were seated on a long table up high at one end. Imagine the Last Supper African-style. GG Quentin Bryce looked stunning in bright pink but so skinny and fragile compared to the Mozambican women that I fully expected her to be blown over at any moment.
On the table were red and white roses with a tall, wooden giraffe standing up in the middle of each arrangement. The food was part Mozambican (kassava, maize meal and bean leaves) and part “western” (turkey, prawns, citrus sorbet and spinach mousse) which was a bold blend of cultures, no less. The entertainment was provided by several apparently well-known Mozambican musicians – Amelia Moiane, Madala, Gabriela and Eyuphuro. It seems that one single name is all the rage no matter where in the world one is famous.
After three hours of superlative service by white-gloved waiters, the fascinating company of Kilibi and Cassimiro and some scintillating conversation in which I learned much about African ways, the President suddenly rose to leave. The band played the Mozambican National Anthem and we all stood and clapped. Within moments, our tables were being cleared and we were ushered out.
Everybody waited out by the road for their government cars to pull up and I realised that my big ol’ 4WD was parked right in front of the crowds waiting for their drivers. I paused then decided that any semblance of dignity had been lost when I stalled the first time, or perhaps it was when I got out of my car wearing sandshoes. Or was it the horn-honking? I clambered in, watched by about 50 people. Started up. Then stalled again. Perhaps my dainty little Cinderella slippers were the problem. So I changed shoes, started up again, pulled onto the road right in front of the crowd where the car shuddered loudly to a stop once more. Something was wrong and it was not about the shoes.
Gradually the crowd dispersed to their cars, driving around me and leaving me stranded in the middle of the road. My car was in the palace grounds, all the guests were now gone and all was silent. A dozen armed guards were staring at me, wishing I would leave so they could all go to bed.
Eventually one of them took pity, came to my window and motioned for me to get out. What's a girl to do? The man had a gun. I got out, by now an expert at hiking my skirt up and slipping off the car seat. I stood in front of all the guards in my floor length black and my sandshoes. And I laughed, smiling and gesturing palms up with a shrug to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” I am sure the young man on the end laughed. I’m sure of it.
The guard had the same trouble as me and kept stalling which made me feel so much better but did not help me get home. The car was stuck in 4WD and there was nothing I could do about it. So I could drive home but only in low gear, slowly. I thanked my helper, climbed in once more, waved to the guards, and called “Obrigada! Boa noite!” I smiled directly at the one on the end who, I swear, lifted his hand just a little by his side to wave back. I drove off into the night as we all breathed a sigh of relief.
This night was an adventure beyond anything I could imagine for myself. It was a free gift I will always remember. It is not, though, the presence of the President that I will think back on particularly, nor the speeches nor the military band nor even the grandeur of the Palace.
I will think back on the overwhelming peace with which I was enveloped as I walked through what had the potential to become a tense and frustrating day. I will remember the selfless joy of friends helping me, laughing with me and ushering me into a dream, blessing me with their time and energy and cars and clothes and shoes and even their money.
The magnificence of a Presidential Banquet was somehow eclipsed by the charm and wit of dinner companions as interested in my culture as I was in theirs. The five course meal drew less appreciation from me than the gracious patience of Mozambicans willing to converse with a westerner who does not yet speak their language. The frustration of a broken-down car was completely overshadowed by one guard willing to step from his post to assist me, and another smiling ever so slightly as we shared a joke.
I will forever remember the humour I discovered somewhere deep inside me as two worlds collided and laughter lessened the impact. This is the place where I want to reside, where laughter and peace lead and all else must follow.
Now, if only I could find that other slipper...