Yesterday, Paul and I went for a little stroll and I thought I’d tell you about it. If I don’t, my recent posts will mislead you into thinking that I live in idyllic surroundings, full of gorgeous flowers and trees and with only exotic birds and blue-headed lizards for company.
It was a very, very short walk by my former standards: no more than a few hundred metres. We simply walked out of the house, turned left along the sandy path, then carried on down to the gate of the children’s centre, took a right turn along the main road and walked for around two minutes as far as the bakery. We bought seven baguettes (a snack for the 22 boys we help to care for). Then we came back.
On such a short walk you might think there would not be much to see. On the contrary. There is almost too much to see. It is overwhelming to the senses. If you were to play I-Spy here, you wouldn’t have a chance of guessing. There are simply too many options.
The main road is filled with a constant stream of traffic: noisy lorries, big 4x4s, dilapidated cars, battered minivans packed with people, big, lumbering buses, flatbed trucks laden high with sacks and boxes. These vehicles are not staying in lane. The concept of “lanes” is somewhat fluid here. So there is a lot of veering, swerving, edging out, overtaking and undertaking. A sense of movement sideways and backwards as well as forwards.
It’s not just the vehicles weaving in and out. Pedestrians have to do it too as there are obstacles to dodge: piles of tyres, haphazardly parked cars, groups of people (waiting for a lift, welding things, buying things, selling things, shouting animatedly at one another, staring at the white people walking past). The sand underfoot is littered with flattened plastic bottles, scraps of plastic and broken flip-flops.
We walk past a string of shops: single story cabins of varying dimensions, though each one is little more than four walls, a roof and a counter. They sell a bewildering array of items, some of which are depicted on hand-painted signs. We see teetering piles of wire cages, bricks, heaps of gravel, metal rods. There are car parts: exhaust pipes, wheels, unidentifiable tools, bottles of motor oil, headlamps and steering wheels. A girl sits by a barely-roadworthy car, its open boot revealing bananas, tomatoes and sacks of rice. Across the road, a large container holds wooden roofing beams, fanning out in a semi-circle like an enormous flower arrangement. To the left and right are piles of cloth, mounds of discarded packaging, plastic chairs, boxes and crates. It is no exaggeration to say that all these things are a fraction of what can be seen, noted and remembered while walking just a few hundred metres.
I did not take any photographs and hope you will understand why. The picture at the top of this post was taken some years ago, while driving through a different part of Maputo.
Back in the simple stillness of the house, I recalled a moment from The Poisonwood Bible. (If you haven’t read this book, it is a beautifully written but challenging story about a family of missionaries to the Congo in the 1960s). I was specifically thinking about the character Adah’s reaction when she eventually returns to the US: how all her reverse culture shock was encapsulated by the sight of a well-ordered road:
“It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what?”
This, in turn, got me thinking about the concept of straight lines and Mr Giles. Mr Giles was my art teacher at school. The main thing I learned from him was that he did not like straight lines and absolutely abhorred ruled lines. He made us write the following phrase in our sketch books: “A RULED LINE IS A DEAD LINE”. Clearly, some sort of impact was made, as this phrase comes easily to mind after 35 years.
Our dusty, sandy, noisy suburb of Maputo does not have straight lines. There are just a few stretches of pavement and kerbs. If straight lines are dead lines, it follows that this is a place full of life: life lived out in the open, in full display, dirt, noise, mess and all. There is an honesty and immediacy about this that I appreciate, but walking here is not easy, relaxing or comfortable.
So I continue to seek beauty and peace within the walls of the children’s centre where we live. Even here, it is not always obvious. But for those with eyes to see, it can be found in the trees and flowers, the gardens, the skies, and in the children themselves.