I woke early on Wednesday to the sounds of sirens and chanting crowds. The usual morning noises were absent. There were no children’s voices still thick with sleep playing under my window. There was no scraping of sand being raked into neat rows. No birds twittering as they caught insects for breakfast under the eaves. No trucks in the distance zooming past on the highway north with their heavy loads in tow. The peaceful sounds of a regular Zimpeto morning had been replaced by panicked yelling as loud and repeated “pop pop popping” cut through the air and smoke wafted in the window.
As my mind struggled to make sense of these foreign sounds, I trawled quickly through my memory banks until I retrieved a memory from two and a half years ago... Where have I hear d these sounds before? I can “feel” the memory, I can smell it and taste it... but what is it? There’s a sense of panic attached to it, a bad taste in my mouth... Is that noise possibly gunfire? And then I remembered.
I jumped out of bed, went into the next room and pulled back the curtain. I looked past the school building and soccer field to the highway and it all came flooding back to me. The streets were on fire once more.
The cost of bread has risen 25%. The government has just raised the price of water and electricity. Shapas (public transport somewhere between a mini-bus, a taxi and an accident waiting to happen) cost 30% more than last week, now priced out of reach of many people who cannot get to work or take their produce to market to be sold. Such price rises led to a day of rioting in 2008 and it seemed now that history was repeating itself.
The average monthly income here is $37. Almost 60% of the population is unemployed. More than 70% of Mozambicans live below the poverty line. When I say "below", I mean no electricity or running water, living in a reed hut with holes in the roof, chronic illnesses untreated though manageable, struggling daily with the thought, "Where will our next meal come from?"
A city-wide strike was called to protest against the price rises with text messages the main form of rallying. Many Mozambicans have a cell phone even if they do not have running water – a typical paradox in developing African nations. Mozambique is a country struggling to grow beyond its “developing nation” status and those on the streets are led by a generation who feel they have never had a voice or the power to change their circumstances.
I have never had to go hungry. I have never been forced to live without running water or electricity. The greatest sacrifice I make in a financially tight week is to do without coffee or cheese or meat. I have never missed a meal because of a lack of money. Even here, living on a very limited income by western standards, I am rich compared to my Mozambican brothers and sisters.
Many, many Mozambicans have been hungry for a lifetime with nobody hearing their cries. I cannot condone rioting and violence but I daily come face-to-face with the pain and frustration of a people desperate to be heard. Such frustration will inevitably spill onto the streets during times of pressure if this is the only outlet the people feel they have.
Throughout the day, the rioting continued across Maputo. A militant and determined band surged destructively back and forth along the potholed two-lane highway outside the Centre’s long yellow wall. The crowd worked in rhythmic unison to overturn a bus, setting it on fire and blocking the only road north out of the city. The army advanced, using one of their own vehicles to push it off the road, metal grinding fiercely on metal as the bus easily gave way to the force of the armoured personnel carrier full of soldiers with rifles cocked at their shoulders.
The army moved back, then a car was overturned and destroyed and a pile of tyres set on fire, creating a thick black cloud rising above the chaos. This time it was the police who moved in, firing round after round of teargas and rubber bullets. The crowd again retreated and the vehicle was removed from the road, smouldering through the day outside our gates.
Most of our 300 kids stayed inside, apart from some youth who sat around on the soccer field, keeping enough distance to be safe but close enough to see the action. Occasionally a semi-trailer would roar past at speed and twenty teenage boys would jump up and cheer, high-fiving wildly as the semi ran the gauntlet of the rioters. Even here, even now, boys will be boys.
A group of high school students who ventured outside sat 15 metres in front of me as they watched the action. Suddenly they moved as one, screaming hysterically, and ran back towards the school buildings as they pulled their shirts over their faces. I glanced quickly around to see what had spooked them so abruptly... Suddenly, my eyes began to sting and my throat tightened as an invisible cloud of teargas reached me. Who knew I could move so fast!
I raced into the house, only 50 metres away. As I stumbled through the door, I was unable to open my eyes and felt like I was choking on the acrid, painful gas. My eyes felt like pins were being stuck into them and my throat burned but soothing cool water soon eased the pain. I received just a breathful – our guards at the front gate were in the midst of the worst of all the gas and smoke and I cannot imagine how awful that must have been for them throughout the day.
As the afternoon progressed, the rioting crowds flowed forward like waves surging into shore as they moved towards the police to taunt them by throwing rocks. Then they would stream back from where they came, retreating as the police began to fire from their armoured vehicles. This pattern of attack/withdraw/attack continued throughout the first day.
At the Centre, we went about our days as normally as we could. Most of our workers could not get here although a few managed to make it, walking for hours through the tumultuous streets. Now that’s commitment. School was cancelled for the week. Food was rationed as time went on. Nobody could leave the Centre... nobody wanted to. The younger children remained in their dormitories. The youths grew tired after a few hours of watching the action and withdrew to the playground and dorms. We closed our windows against the teargas as it wafted through the Centre for much of the day.
At one point I felt anger rise within me as some of our youngest kids, seemingly safe in the Baby House, were affected by the gas. Up until this point, I was willing to see both sides: a people who have suffered more than anyone should have to in a lifetime versus a government trying to draw a nation gradually out of poverty and underdevelopment. There are no easy answers and no quick fixes in a country like this. But when the babies are caught in the middle, there is no excuse.
The action moved from outside the Centre on the third day but continued in pockets in the city, and then began in other towns north of Maputo. Looting has continued for a third night in the city but all is quiet here on the northern outskirts today. I hear occasional gunfire and police sirens in the distance this morning but all is calm here.
Ten people have been reported dead and almost 500 injured.
There have been calls for more strike action on Monday.
Here at Zimpeto, there is a definite sense of a clear boundary of safety drawn around our land and a peace that surpasses understanding that envelops us. Psalm 91 (quoted from The Message) has never been more real to me:
“ ‘God you’re my refuge and I’m safe!’ That’s right, He rescues you from hidden traps and shields you from deadly hazards. His huge outstretched arms protect you – under them you’re perfectly safe; His arms fend off all harm...
“You’ll stand untouched, watch it all from a distance... because God’s your refuge, the High God your very own home. Evil can’t get close to you, harm can’t get through the door.”
We could not have been closer to the violence of the past days and yet Zimpeto Children’s Centre and all its residents remain untouched and blissfully restful despite all that is happening on our doorstep. It is in times such as these that the Bible becomes so real to me, speaking directly into my circumstances with promises I need to get me through.
All that the Bible promises to me, I pray also for this city ripped violently apart in past days and for this nation trying to stand under the weight of a tragic past that still holds it down from becoming all it is destined to be.
Please pray with me, friends! Let us believe for better for a people who have never experienced “better” so find it difficult to imagine all God’s possibilities for themselves.
To whom much is given, much is required. We have received so much and now we have an opportunity to give into the future of this nation. You can pray. You can give to support the work here. You can go, either to work or to visit and see for yourselves all that God is doing. You can speak up and be a voice for those who have no voice. Please consider how you can be involved.
If you have always wanted to “make a difference” in the world, now is your chance.
Pray. Give. Go. Speak.
Get involved and see what God can do through you!