Searching for a girl’s fate — in the darkness, amid the Mozambican floodwaters.

Photo by Mercy Air Switzerland / AFP

“There were areas where the rising waters had left teachers on one side of a river, and their pupils on the other.”

Allafrica.com, reporting on flooding in Mozambique, 26 January 2013

The train had stalled somewhere out in the darkness beyond the village. Its double-throated whine and roll became another way the night had learned how to talk to itself: A guttering diesel sigh of protest that keened through the wet winds. Like the rest of us, it was watching the waters, guessing at how much the sodden earth could hold.

The road that ran from the schoolyard to the marketplace was a sticking mire of shadows. The village had been blacked out for days, and in the darkness it was impossible to avoid the puddles that spilled over the muddy cattle-ruts. My shoes and socks were almost immediately soaked. On either side of the raised embankment, the bairros looked as if they had been abandoned without warning; their wet side-paths were littered with overturned buckets and sopping, severed palm fronds, with plastic bags and rusting tin cans. This was the game of disappearance the village had learned through years of war and unannounced night-raids, betrayed only by a shuddering scatter of lamp-lit windows and the bleating of a solitary goat.

I walked past the sunken hollow that had surrendered to the rainy season weeks ago and that now was presided over by the throaty bullfrogs that sometimes the village children would catch and cook. I wondered how much further the rain could transform the village, make things disappear. I had seen photographs from the floods of 2000, when all that was visible of the land around the Nkomati River were the tops of trees. When the waters had receded, they had displaced hundreds of landmines that had been carefully mapped out and sequestered; thereafter, not even the tenuous logic of war dictated where the mines could be found.

As I walked, head down, I thought I heard the sound of the healer’s drums emerge indistinct and sluggish through the rain, but it was gone as soon as it came, and I dismissed it. Who would be healing on a night like this?

A woman materialized from the darkness. She was clutching a capulana around her head and her back was bent against the rain. I thought she was going to walk past me to the road that led to the Praça de Estrela but she reached out her hand and grabbed my wrist. She looked up into my face.

“They call you teacher?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said. The rain was soaking my back. Directly across from us, past the flooded yard of the warehouse that held the Igreja Universal, the preacher shouted hoarse imprecations as he paced back and forth in the candlelight. The woman’s face was worn and streaked.

“I am the mother of Ninhas. You know Ninhas?”

“Yes,” I said. I knew her. I thought I knew her. There were so many; they sat 50 to a class, two students for every one desk, scratching notes on the pulpy pages of their composition books, repeating verb conjugations.

She is.

We are.

I am.

“I am the mother of Ninhas,” the woman repeated. “Come with me.”

Before I could ask, or politely refuse, or even understand what was happening, the woman stepped off the road and onto a path that led through the labyrinth of Bairro Matador.

I followed.

Ninhas. It wasn’t her real name, clearly. It was the lopped-off end of the diminutive nickname by which so many of the village girls were known. As I followed the woman down one side path after another, however, a picture of her began to emerge: Tall, skinny, with an elusive, self-effacing smile and a brittle nervousness. I had taught her the previous year and she had been shy in class. When called on she stumbled over pronunciations and her fingers fluttered to her face to hide her insecurity. Please, teecha, she would say when I pressed her to repeat her answer. Please, I’m not know.

Outside the classroom, however, Ninhas would often linger in the open-air corridor that ran alongside the teacher’s housing complex, braiding hair or playing jump-rope with some of the younger girls from the boarding school. I would sit outside on my veranda, still in my white teacher’s robe, and Ninhas would strike up a conversation through the fence. She would ask me if I knew certain American celebrities such as Beyoncé or Alicia Keys, if I had seen the movie “Titanic,” if all Americans owned cars. One afternoon she taught me the name for the tightly-corded, golf ball-sized tufts of hair that lined her head in concentric circles: Totochinos.

“What does it mean?” I asked her.

“Teecha, it means this,” she told me, pointing at the side of her head. “Only this.”

I told her it was one of the few perfect words I had ever heard.

The path forked, split, snaked around stands of mafura trees and seemed to double-back on itself. In the rain and darkness, I quickly lost sight of the crumbling, colonial-era arena that gave the bairro its name and had served as a point of orientation for me on the few times I had passed through the area. Bairro Matador was sprawling and unkempt and wasn’t on the way to anything. As we moved farther away from the road that split the village in half, the few concrete houses we had passed disappeared, giving way to single-room reed-and-mud houses with corrugated tin roofing. Flamelight shone through ill-fitting door frames, and the smell of kerosene lanterns drifted undiminished through the rain.

Every now and again, the woman walking on the path ahead would turn back to look without stopping. At one point, walking as closely behind her as I could without tripping over her feet, I tried to ask her what we were doing. Is Ninhas sick? I prompted. Often the villagers would stop me to tell me that their child was ill, and did I have money to help pay for medicine? Or they would ask for other things: English dictionaries, bicycles, wine, bread. Almost always I deferred. Sorry, I would say, showing the palms of my hands. My giving is my teaching, I would tell myself as I walked away.

On that night, I wondered if I was merely being led into another request that I would be forced to turn away. But the woman did not answer me, either because she did not want to or because she did not hear me. She just kept walking. My feet were hopelessly swamped, my jeans soaked around the ankles.

The narrow path squeezed between two compounds and curved around a small concrete barraca that was shuttered against the rain. As the path straightened out, I realized immediately that the woman was no longer in front of me. I sped up, thinking she would be around the next corner, but she was not. After a few minutes, I backtracked but was no longer certain that I was still on the same path. A half-dozen identical muddy trails broke off from the path where I stood. I started down one of them but quickly came upon a cashew tree that I knew we hadn’t passed. I doubled back again.

I stood there, the rain running down my glasses, turning in slow circles, waiting for the woman to emerge from the night again. I did not call out, because it would have felt foolish and desperate, and undoubtedly would have brought the nearby neighbors out of their houses. What would I tell them?

I waited for about five minutes before deciding I would have to find my own way back to the village.

Ninhas. Ninhas of the totochinos and the breakable laugh. Her fingers and the fingers of other girls running across the ciphered pages of British magazines that had been retrieved from the city; drawing chalked squares against the wall of the school corridor; peeling back the rinds of a halved orange until the fruit was inside-out, bearing its citrus flesh to the tongue. Their yellow uniform shirts and green pants blazingly clean in a way I had never been able to figure out after months of washing my own clothes by hand and finally giving up, ceding the job to my empregada. Once, Ninhas had seen me out on my veranda, pounding a rolled T-shirt against the side of the concrete washbasin the way I had seen other women do. My hands were rashed red from the cheap Omo detergent that was sold ubiquitously in the village.

“Tell me,” I asked Ninhas, “what is the secret to cleaning clothes?”

“Teecha,” she had said with an edge of suggestion in her voice, “How many willing girls do you think walk behind you? Even here in the school you could catch one.”

Her brazenness took me aback. But what did I really know about Ninhas, about any of the students I taught? They had lived childhoods cleaved in near-equal halves between war and peace. They had gone from nothing to cell phones, from nothing to CDs to mp3s, from nothing to “Fama Show” and Brazilian telenovelas. This is what I had thought: That nothing had come before and that nothing was not just at the edges but sometimes even at the very center of this new dispensation. But this nothing aligned all too comfortably with what I could not comprehend, what I had not lived.

One of the first assessments I had given my students, after I had taught them the English words for “brother” and “sister” and “parents,” was to write a short essay about their families. For about 20 minutes they wrote meticulously on half-sheets of paper as I sat at the front of the class, sweating under my teacher’s robe. At the end of two days I had more than 200 essays to read and grade. I sat down with them at my kitchen table that Friday night with the BBC playing on my short-wave radio. I saw variations of the same essay over and over again.

I have two bradas. I have one sister. I have not father. I have not mother. Father killed, mother killed in war civile. One sister died malaria. I live with aunt, cosin. I love aunt but am missing parents. I love mother. I love father.

After grading about 50 of these essays I had fallen into despondency. I shared a few of them with my housemate, a chemistry teacher from the north of the country.

“How is this possible?” I asked. “These children have lived through so much.”

My housemate leafed through the papers, laughing to himself.

“Bullshit,” he said. It was one of his favorite English words. “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.” He pulled papers out of the pile each time he said the word. He held out Ninha’s essay. It read much like the other ones.

“This one’s mother, for example. Lives in the village,” he said. “She sold me kiabu just the other day. From what I could see, she is completely living.”

I sat there, confused. “Why would she write that?” I asked my housemate. He smiled at my failure to see the obvious, and at all the naiveté that was behind that failure.

“Afinal,” he said. “Students in America do not cheat?”

The next time I gave a test, I monitored the students with a vengeful vigilance. By the end of the day, I had confiscated over a dozen of the small, tightly-folded pieces of paper that students cribbed in the palms of their hands. They were known as cabulas, a word that was also used to describe truancy: The willful absence of a student from the classroom.

I found my way back to the village center, where late bread-sellers had gathered under the eaves of burnt-out stores. Wet resemblances of people moved down the side-streets. The heaving drone of the train hung over it all. I turned off the main road and walked past the empty station to the João Cristovam. The courtyard was especially waterlogged, its once-white walls ashen with the wear of dust.

I took my usual seat near the window at the bar in the elapsed hotel lobby. Four strangers drank around a plastic table in the corner. The radio babbled in a soft, warm way. Mana Laura was counting change behind the counter. Looking up, she started and held her hands against her chest.

“You gave me a fright,” she said. “I didn’t see you come in.”

I apologized, and asked for a bowl of soup. The small square service window to the kitchen opened, and the cook peered out.

“It is teecha,” she said. I nodded to her. I was teecha to everyone.

When the soup came, it was hot and salty and somehow potatoes were involved. I soaked it up with chunks of bread and, looking around, was surprised to see that the four strangers were gone. They had been replaced by the man everyone called De-mining and two of his friends. De-mining was wearing a red baseball cap with lettering that I could not read. He smiled through missing teeth.

“Ey, professor,” he said to me. “All those things we said the other night, let’s forget them. Only the good things we remember. The rest?” He waved his hand dismissively. “Forget.”

He was talking about the previous week, when he had caught me dancing with one of his old girlfriends at the village club. I agreed that it was better to forget. We raised our glasses to each other across the bar.

As we began to drink, Celestino and Ferreira walked in; both taught with me at the secondary school. Celestino looked somehow thinner in his thick old jacket; Ferreira was trailed by one of his girlfriends from the village. She looked like all of his other girlfriends: Dark, skinny, with shoulder-length braids and a fixed and frightened smile — a photonegative of his thick, boisterous, worldly wife. The three of us acknowledged each other with a series of curt greetings and handshakes.

Ferreira and his pita stayed for only a moment. Celestino and I drank together for a while, but he told me his heart wasn’t in it — he wanted something stronger, sweeter than beer. Before he stood up to leave, I told him about the encounter I’d had with Ninhas’s mother, not mentioning the fact that I had gotten lost in Bairro Matador.

“Ya,” Celestino said. “Coitada. Ninhas caught the craziness.”

“What?” I asked. “What craziness?”

“I don’t know,” Celestino replied. “You have not seen how she hasn’t come to school these past weeks? Something is not running right. She ran away from her house. Disappeared.” Celestino leaned in. “Some students said they found her there by the river, nearly naked, eating soil.”


Celestino nodded and cleared his throat. “They brought her home,” he said.

“But what happened, really?” I asked.

Celestino got up and motioned for Mana Laura. He stood there for a moment in silence.

“These are things of this place,” he said. “Maybe they are a woman’s things. Maybe not. But there are many things here that you will not understand.” He paid Mana Laura for both of our drinks.

“But don’t worry,” he said without smiling. “Everything gets resolved.” We shook hands in parting, and Celestino headed out of the lobby and back into the rain.

Ninhas had once told me a story about madness. It was after class one afternoon, and I was sitting around on a bench in the corridor with a group of students from the village. We had entered into talk of spirits, things we had heard from the next village over, from the city, from the inscrutable north. Jossias, a student whose insistence on logic and rational thinking was almost an ideology, had just finished a story about a man who was said to have stolen an ear of maize from a powerful curandeiro and become lost forever after in the man’s otherwise modestly-sized maize field.

“But it is just a story,” Jossias said with a pointed smile. “After all, if the man was lost forever, how is story being told here?”

The girls dismissed Jossias’s skepticism and sought to outdo his story with better ones. It was Ninhas who told the story of the maladroit hunter.

This was during a time of drought, Ninhas related. The hunter had gone many weeks without a kill. His family was going hungry. They were eating nothing but sweet potato and cacana. Each morning the hunter would go home with his rifle, and he would return empty-handed. He went to a curandeiro to seek help. The curandeiro threw his articles of divination in the dirt and read them carefully.

“You must go hunting in three night’s time,” the curandeiro told him. “Bring six bullets with you. You will shoot six animals. The first five animals that you shoot, you must leave. These animals are not for you or your family. The sixth is the animal that you may take home to feed your wife and children.”

The hunter was satisfied with this. He went home and prepared himself, and on the third night he went out hunting, promising his family he that he would return with some nyama to fill their stomachs. He went into the bush, and the first animal that he saw was a skinny rabbit. He shot it, laughing to himself.

“This poor beast would not even satisfy my infant son,” he said to himself, and, as instructed, he left the rabbit where he found it.

The next animal he came across was a young baboon. He shot this one as well, telling the slain monkey that his second-to-last daughter, who was a finicky eater anyway, would have eaten the whole carcass and asked for more. He left the monkey where it had fallen from the tree and continued his hunt.

So it went, with each successive animal getting larger — but still the hunter followed the curandeiro‘s instruction. By the time he shot the fifth animal, however — a fully-grown bush-buck — the hunter was feeling tired and famished. He had been out in the bush for hours without anything to eat. He was resolved not to bring the meat home to his family, but he didn’t see a problem with eating a small portion of the buck himself; he was already thinking of the time and effort it would take to transport the meat of the next animal all the way back to his family. So the hunter built a small fire and cut a meager portion off of the buck’s hindquarters. Satiated, he struck out to find the sixth and final animal.

After some time, the hunter came across the thing he sought: a mature, well-fed impala. The man took his position upwind of the impala and got ready to spend his final bullet. This, at last, is the beast that can feed my entire family, the hunter thought to himself as he raised his rifle to take the shot.

“And this is where the hunter went insane,” Ninhas said. She paused, letting the moment draw out. Even Jossias was captivated by her story.

“Why?” I asked her. “Why did the hunter go insane?”

“Because.” Ninhas replied matter-of-factly. “Because when he took aim at his target, he saw his own face on the face of the impala. His own face looking back at him, laughing. This caused him to become crazy, right in that instant. He laughed at his own self, laughing. He cried as well. He shot the impala with the face that was his face, and he ate its meat without cooking it. He began to run back to his village, and as he passed each animal that he had killed he saw that he had actually killed a member of his own family — in the place of the bush-buck was his wife, and the other animals were his children, all the way down to the rabbit, which was his infant son.

“He returned to the village talking nonsense. No one saw his family after that, and the hunter was never again normal. For the rest of his life he was a crazy person, even until he was an old man, talking about the impala whose face was his face.”

Puxa,” Jossias said, snapping his fingers. “That was a story alright.” He looked at the other students, and then at me. A look of restraint came over his face, and his voice dropped to a near-whisper.

“Teacher,” he said. “These are just war stories, mais nada.”

“Like the war stories you told in your English essays,” I said to the students, regretting the words the moment they left my mouth. Ninhas brushed off my comment with an affected frown.

“Teecha,” she said. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Some falsified stories have pieces of the truth,” Jossias said pointedly. He himself lived in the village with an older cousin because both of his parents were gone. For all I knew, his story had been the original from which the others had copied.

“Even me,” Ninhas said, her eyes downcast. “My family made it through that situation of war. I had two sisters. One, we were twins.” Ninhas hesitated here, a nervous smile playing on her lips.

“But my one sister was taken by the floods. The other, my twin, we were playing near my mother’s machamba. She stepped on a landmine.”

I was almost back at the gates of the schoolyard before I acknowledged the drumming. The rain had abated, and the rapid, rhythmic pounding came clearly across the cleansed air from the fringes of Bairro Matador. Was this where Ninhas’s mother had been leading me? I knew little about the business of healing beyond what I had heard through stories; much of what happened at the curandeiro‘s compound went unspoken. Why I would be needed, or even wanted, in this ritual was beyond my understanding; but in my wringing inebriation my thoughts kept returning to Celestino’s story and to the strange woman’s bent back as she led me through the rain.

I turned from the main road and headed back into Bairro Matador.

Following the sound, I took a side-path that branched off to the left. In the temporary cessation of the rain, doors were open to let in fresh air; here and there, silhouetted figures stood in doorways and watched me pass. Cats stepped tentatively out from under the eaves where they had taken shelter. The air quickly became heavy with humidity, even as the clouds pulled apart to reveal a tear of stars above the village.

Ninhas. What had happened to her? Where was she in all this? What could I even know?

As the winds shifted, the sound of the drums shifted with it. I changed my direction once, and then again. I passed through a small, open square bordered by white-painted stones and concrete benches. The drums were deeper, frantic, closer. I took one path and then the next. Shadows peeled out of the encroaching heat. I perceived a strange light that shone on the undersides of the mafura leaves. Bugs landed on my back and I gently picked them off, apprehensive about the acidic secretions of the blister-beetles that often came after the rains. The drums faded. I stopped in a tangle of sweet-smelling roads and listened. The wind shook water from the palm trees.

South. The drums were coming from the southern edge of the bairro.

I circled around to the outskirts. Within a few minutes of walking the number of houses had thinned out and I found a wider path that separated the bairro from the deeper darkness of the sweeping river-basin that stretched all the way to the hills along the South African border. Out there were the machambas where the villagers grew vegetables and the abandoned colonial plantations and, of course, the Rio Nkomati itself.

The path curved out and angled downward; on a few occasions, I nearly lost my footing in the slick mud. The drums were becoming more distinct, and ahead I thought I could see the faintest hint of firelight that possibly signified the healer’s compound. I followed the path, moving farther away from the bairro. I had never been out this far before. I lost track of time as I walked.

Eventually, I reached a place where the path was severed. The Nkomati, having overflowed its banks weeks ago, had breached into tributaries that filled the empty creek-beds and pooled in the low-lying depressions that spanned the basin. The path that I was on descended directly into one of these flooded depressions. Reeds and small trees grew up through the dark water, mottled by the night-wind.

I stopped at the edge of the path, listening to the drums that came from the distantly-lit compound. I imagined Ninhas out there, dancing her way into healing, the curandeiro‘s weathered hands cupping a mixture of herbs and rainwater and holding it over her head. Perhaps there would be certain words spoken to drive out the pain or madness of the world. Perhaps there would be a marshaling of ancestors and spirits. Perhaps there would be small incisions made across the shoulder blade with a tinctured razor. I had heard about these things but did not understand them. Celestino was right. I would never understand them.

I stood on the path for a long moment, holding my breath, feeling my heart beat in my chest, willing it to follow the beat of the drums. But the drums were too fast, and they came from some other place.

Article © 2013 by Dennis Wilson