Friday, 5 July 2013

S is for Samora

The first president of independent Mozambique in 1975 was Samora Moises Machel, barely known outside the liberation movement Frelimo.  As was sometimes ruefully remarked, independence came too quickly and too soon, and the flight of European colonialist in its wake left a desperate lack of skills and experience in an impoverished country. International solidarity, with engineers, medics, instructors from the communist bloc and sympathetic westerners helped to some degree. Sarah Lefanu and her husband were among these idealist cooperantes, aiding development in conditions of extreme austerity. 
Underdevelopment was a minor problem however compared with active hostility from neighbouring South Africa and Rhodesia, tacitly supported by the US.  Just over a decade later, Machel and his delegation were killed when their plane was lured by a decoy radio beacon to crash into a hillside.  Nelson Mandela, then still on Robben Island, made his only request to leave prison to attend the funeral, which was refused. In 1999, president Mandela unveiled a memorial to those murdered, saying ‘It is painful that our quest to understand the causes of the crash remains unfinished.’ By this date he was married to Machel’s widow, Graça Simbine who with characteristic grace and dignity is now presiding over another death.

In S is for Samora: a lexical biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream, Lefanu deftly weaves an irregular text combining life story with political history, past and present personal narrative and documentary evidence. Its patchwork quality reflects the fact that many aspects of Mozambican history remain obscure, forgotten or concealed, but such is also the nature of memory, public or personal – and is moreover the inevitable though seldom acknowledged aspect of the biographer’s craft, which does well to present glimpses of its subject in various places and time, like a photo album.  One of the vivid sequences describes Lefanu’s unplanned trip, driven by the late and then very elderly Malangatana, artist of the revolution, the Machel ancestral home at Xilembene, where mama Graça happened to be visiting.  Initially cool, Graça melts when she learns Sarah was a cooperante (when Graça was in fact her employer as Minister for Education), and declares the visit, prompted by Malangatana’s dream, to be providential.  Sarah also gets to meet Samora’s surviving brothers.

TMalangatana he Mozambican revolution is long over, but this book gives a synoptic view of how it felt then and now.  I don’t think it’s easily available, so here is a link:

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