When Váldemar bothered to come to class, he sat in the back row. He was a short, brooding kid whose uniform was always incomplete, usually missing its necktie or belt. There was something unnameable about his face that made him look old.
Most of what I knew about Váldemar was bad. It was his second year in standard eight, and he wasn’t doing well. He was often absent without excuse; according to the school’s attendance policy, he should have been expelled weeks earlier. On top of this, he had a hard time getting along with other students — they were either afraid of him or simply didn’t like him. There had been a few after-school fights.
In my English class, Váldemar was mostly a non-presence. He spent his time staring out the window or scribbling in a notebook. The only time he spoke was when I called on him, and even then he would offer up an answer in studied succinctness, saying only what needed to be said.
And his answer was always correct.
That was the thing about Váldemar: Technically, he was my best student. He aced my notoriously difficult tests. He was comfortable with English, and he spoke it more fluidly than any of my other standard eight students. His written essays were well-constructed and even funny sometimes.
I once asked Váldemar how he had acquired such a solid knowledge of English. As usual, he shrugged it off.
“My brother studied in South Africa,” he said. “I guess I learned from him.”
It sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. Plenty of students had family members who lived and worked in South Africa. Living so close to the border, they had ample exposure to English, however beaten up and slang-strewn; yet most of my students struggled with the language. From my own slow acquisition of Portuguese, I knew — to master a language, there must be an underlying motivator.
One afternoon, I discovered what motivated Váldemar. I was sitting on my verandah eating a papaya when he approached, notebook in hand.
“Teacher,” he said, “I want to speak with you about something.”
I invited him to sit next to me.
“Yesterday I heard a person talking. He said you were doing hip hop in the village, but I didn’t believe him.”
I laughed. Word spread quickly in Moamba.
“It’s true,” I said. “In a way. I’m trying to help some friends find a place to put on a show. So far we have had no luck.”
Váldemar flipped through his notebook.
“Teacher,” he said, “I have written down some words that I do not understand. I am asking if you can help me.”
“Sure,” I said. “Read them to me, and I will tell you what they mean.”
“Okay,” he said. “The first word I would like to know the meaning of is ‘babysit.’ ”
“That’s when you pay someone to watch your children.”
“Oh,” he said. “Like an empregada.” He started to write the word in his notebook.
“Kind of,” I interrupted. “But a babysitter doesn’t usually clean the house or cook for the whole family, like an empregada. That’s called a maid or a housekeeper.”
“They just watch the children?”
“But teacher, why can’t aunts and grandparents watch the children? Or neighbors?”
I understood Váldemar’s confusion. In Mozambique, there was no exact equivalent to a babysitter. When parents were away, people took care of each other’s children. I tried to explain this difference, but it didn’t seem to help.
Váldemar skipped to the next word.
“That’s like when something opens up, like this.” I demonstrated with a piece of paper. “Like a flower after the rain.”
Váldemar nodded and wrote in his book. I was proud of my explanation.
“Next,” he continued, “I would like to know what is the meaning of ‘slut.’ ”
He waited patiently as I shifted where I sat.
“A ‘slut’ is a bad word for a girl — well, any person, really — who likes to, well, sleep with a lot of different people.”
“Just sleep with them? In their beds?”
“Not exactly. It’s like a person with a lot of boyfriends. Or girlfriends.”
Váldemar considered this.
“Teacher,” he asked, “can you tell me what is the difference between a ‘slut’ and a ‘bitch’?”
“Where exactly are you getting these words?” I asked him. He handed me his notebook. Written across two pages were the lyrics to Eminem’s “Superman,” one side in English, and the other in partially-translated Portuguese. I saw that there was a big red question mark next to the line “leap tall hoes in a single bound.”
“It would take a long time to explain all these words,” I said. “Besides, it’s not worth it. This song is terrible.”
“But teacher, I thought you liked hip hop.”
“I do,” I said. “Even some of Eminem, I like. But I do not like this song. It talks about women in a bad way.”
Váldemar grew quiet.
“Teacher, Eminem is very popular.” There was an element of challenge in his voice.
“I know,” I conceded. “He is a good rapper. I just don’t agree with him all the time.”
Váldemar contemplated this.
“I still want to know what these words mean,” he said, looking directly at me. “Then I can choose to use them, or not use them.”
“What do you want to use them for?”
Váldemar took his notebook back and slowly turned the pages, as if showing me photos in an album. Line after line was filled with his graphite scrawl — unfinished lyrics in Portuguese and English, refrains crossed out and re-written.
“It is my dream to rap in English,” he said.
The two of us were silent for awhile.
“Why English?” I asked him.
“Why do you want to rap in English? Why not Portuguese, or dialect?”
“These languages are good for talking, for singing traditional songs. But they are not …” He searched for the right words; not finding them, he switched to Portuguese.
“Não estão equipado para o hip hop.” They weren’t equipped for hip hop.
“Rap needs slang — it needs attitude, power.” He explained. “Portuguese doesn’t have this. Dialect is too old. Only English is good for this.”
I thought of the vernacular that informed the street conversation of Moamba’s youth. Most of it was a bastardized form of English, crammed into a Portuguese verb structure. Thus, work became jobar, relax chillar, and murder killar.
I thought also of what was keeping Váldemar in my class, and, perhaps, in school.
“Alright,” I said. “Make a list of the words you want to know. Bring it to class. After each lesson, I will tell you the meaning of 10 words. But only if you come to class. Does that makes sense?”
“Good. I’ll see you on Wednesday, then.”
Váldemar began to gather his things.
“I know a place,” he said.
“A place in the village where we can do hip hop. We can go there tomorrow.”
The next day, Váldemar took me to Matola’s compound and introduced me to its chain-smoking proprietor. Matola was a man of almost unbearable thinness. This, combined with his penchant for sleeping around, had given rise to the rumor that his frailty was caused by disease. Like most village rumors, it turned out to be true: Eight months after I met him, Matola would be fighting for his life on a dirty cot in a corner of Maputo’s Hospital Central.
But that afternoon, Matola was warm and smiling. I introduced myself and explained what I was there for.
“Que bom,” Matola said, cutting me off mid-sentence. “I would love to do something for the kids of this village; anyway, my compound stays always empty these days. I have a stereo and an amplifier that is not being used. It is a crime, the way this village has stopped. Nobody moves as they used to! Let me know when you want to do this thing, and I will open my doors.”
Word went out, and that Friday evening kids from the bairros converged on Matola’s compound. At first they stood around eyeing each other, but the chance to rap into a live microphone soon won them over. Within minutes they were competing for a chance to rhyme, egging each other on and applauding the smoothest lyrics.
That first improvised session became a weekly event. Every Friday, kids from across the village gathered to freestyle or test new songs; others showed up just to listen. One week, Negroid brought a CD of samples, and soon the air around Matola’s compound was full of lyrics rapped over dubs of old songs from Snoop Dogg and Mos Def.
As the kids performed for each other, Matola would sit behind the bar and tell me unfinished stories about the colonial days. One evening in May he reminisced about the annual village fair, which was celebrated every year on June 1.
“The roads back then, they were asphalt; black and strong and straight, swept clean and polished like straps of leather. Colored lights were strung on posts from the Hotel Moamba all the way down to where the Pipoca is today. Senhor Tovene was brought in to paint murals on the walls — Donald Duck and other things. He was an old man, but he could paint. Made it look just like it looked on television!
“The day before the fair, trains would come from Komatipoort, some even from Pretoria. People brought things to show or sell — strange animals, machinery, seeds, handmade desks and chairs. Things of quality.
“Let me remind you that in those years the train came five times a day, had a first class, and a second and a third; it all depended on how much money you could pay. My father used to sell coffee to the passengers, real coffee, not this powdered dirtiness. There were curtains, tables and everything right there inside the train! Music!
“Back then it was a true fair, not like today where men sit around and drink tontonto and hunt women. It was against the law to drink anything but beer after dusk. The Portuguese, they didn’t want any confusion. It was something to see. You could buy any kind of thing! I still have a generator that my father bought 30 years ago.”
Matola took a pull on his cigarette.
“I think sometimes about how quickly things rust in this village. I wonder if the wind around here isn’t salty. Corrosive.
“It’s not how people say it was. At independence, when those Portuguese left, they didn’t take a thing. They left it just as it was; every piece of it. It fell into our hands and it rusted.
“I’ll tell you what the problem was: We didn’t think of it as ours, even though we built it, we built it with our sweat and blood. We were told it didn’t belong to us, so we didn’t hold on to it.
“We let it die.”
Coming next month in Part III:
A ghost, a stereo, and how Moamba’s young hip hop community fell apart.