In Part II: How a young loner began learning English through Eminem and found a new home for rap in Moamba.
In Part III: A ghost, a stereo, and how Moamba’s young hip hop community fell apart.
In Part IV: How hip hop found another unlikely new home and earned two young rappers enough money to record their first song.
In Part V: After months of waiting and hours of frustration in the studio, how a new song entered the universe.
A year and a half after we recorded our song, I was working a consultancy job in Lichinga — a small provincial capital in the north of Mozambique, about 30 miles east of Lake Malawi. Lichinga was a quiescent place, weighed down by the daily rainfall that fed its forests of pine and teak. In spite of sporadic rumors of untapped gold reserves to the north of town, Lichinga was a mute settlement, sad and isolated.
I had been sent to Lichinga to establish a private school that would cater to the children of wealthy Mozambicans and expatriates who had moved there for development or missionary work, or some hazy combination of the two. I wasn’t having much luck. As small as the town was, it was difficult to get families organized. When they did meet, they all had different visions of what the school should be. Many parents were reluctant to put money into the project; they thought that some NGO should cover the expenses. The missionaries informed me that they preferred to home-school their children with a “Christ-centered curriculum”; in unguarded moments, they whispered a reluctance to expose their children to the “local population.” I quickly grew tired of the vacillation. I began to wonder if working in Lichinga was just my way of avoiding going back to America.
One afternoon during a long walk I got caught in the rain. I ducked into a streetside bar called the Kelucha. It was empty, except for the bartender and an old patron who sat in the corner, drinking cheap whiskey out of a plastic cup. I ordered a beer and a bowl of bean soup and half-watched the television that sat behind the bar.
The rain came down heavy. Soon enough, it began to seep through the blue tarpaulin that had been used to cover holes in the roof. The bartender sighed and made his way around the room, placing empty pots below the leaks.
As I ordered my second beer, I began to recognize the images on television. They were shots of Moamba: the train station, the post office, the Ka-Pileka, all looking impossibly close. Last was a shot of an empty stage at the edge of the public gardens, where I had spent so much time with my thoughts and an apple.
“Chefe,” I asked the bartender, “what program is this?”
“It’s called the ‘AIDS Road Show,’ ” he told me. “Something of the government. They go to different villages and talk about AIDS; then they let the people from the village give a show. Last week they were in Namaacha. Today is Moamba. It’s mostly shit.”
I ignored his comment and asked him to turn the volume up.
On the screen an overenthusiastic host lectured the villagers about condoms and fidelity. This was followed by a play with a plot indistinguishable from any of the dozen such acts I had seen before: A man gets sick. His friend encourages him to get a test. His test comes back positive, and he goes to a clinic where a nurse explains what AIDS is and tells him he can live with his disease if he eats well and exercises. His wife is upset at first, but she agrees to stay with him as long as he uses protection and stops cheating.
As the actors walked off the stage, the host announced the start of the talent show.
“Today’s program is a little heavy on the hip hop,” he announced apologetically. “Even so, I hope everyone can enjoy it.”
Seven hundred miles away, in a leaky bar, I watched as my friends took the stage. First was Negroid, followed by NSP and some solo acts — Real Dog Simon, Snake, and a few kids I didn’t recognize.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about the two people who should have been there, but weren’t. The first was Váldemar, whose feverishly scribbled lyrics had, in the end, been no match for the other forces in his life. Seeing that he was headed for failure, he had simply stopped going to school. One afternoon he got into a fight with some kids who were much bigger than he was. A few days later he disappeared, presumably to South Africa.
I had caught up with his mother at her stall in the market a few weeks before I left for Lichinga.
“I guess there was no other way out for him,” she said, squinting into the distance. “Maybe he’ll come back someday and live a straight life. It’s doubtful, but anything is possible.”
The second person missing that afternoon was Matola. After several cycles of exacerbation and remission, he had succumbed to his disease. His compound closed and his sister came to take care of his affairs. She ended up staying for good, using the money he had left behind to open a small kiosk at the bus stop where she sold soda and beer.
So it was: The inspired man who had embraced this new music and its potential to redeem the lives of a handful of poverty-bound teenagers, given way to the haunted man who had turned away from that possibility in a failed attempt to save his own life. His death was about many things, to be sure, but looked at through a certain limited lens it came down to an intangible choice — between tradition and modernity, belief and rebellion, sickness and hope, between holding on and letting go. It was a choice made by everyone and no one, a choice that gave life and took it away.
“This song goes out to everyone that helped us, but can’t be here today,” Diabo said into the microphone. As the beat began to play, the two of them paced back and forth across the stage, chests out, hands waving. They were slow at first, a little off-rhythm, but they got it together in time for the chorus.
“Esta vida é nossa!” they sang, over and over.
This life is ours.
This life is ours.
This life is ours.