Local Lessons

My mornings are currently filled with Chuabo lessons. Chuabo (chew-ah-boo) is a Bantu language spoken by roughly 970,000 people (for reference, there are 1.3M people living in Nassau County, NY alone) in parts of southern Zambézia, my site included. I am the only student in my class and Pió, my professor, is teaching me Chuabo in Portuguese. Needless to say I’m always just a little bit confused but still, I adore it.

Chuabo is like a game. The words are so delicious, so much fun to say. For example:

Mudhilevelele is simply, I’m sorry.
Mbuga (mmbooga) is uncooked rice.
Oyeluwa (oy ye loowa) is to be late.
Ziza (zeezah) is family.
Miyo dhili Paige (meeyoo deelee Paige) is I am Paige.
Miyo dhamwana Louis e Lydia (meeyoo dahmwahna) is I am the daughter of Louis and Lydia.

The fun goes on and on. I mean it – try and say the words out loud for yourself. Learning Chuabo has been so fascinating because it is a small but meaningful window into pre-colonial Mozambique.

They use camisa, the Portuguese word for shirt, most likely because shirts simply didn’t exist prior to the Portuguese arrival. This rule applies for spoons, metal plates, and plenty of other items brought in. In response to my request for traditional Chuabo names, Pió explained that there weren’t any. I pushed back – there must be – and he elucidated without a single hint of malice that Chuabo names no longer exist because the Portuguese found local names too difficult to say. They eradicated traditional names in exchange for Marias and Salvadores, Felipes and Victorias. They don’t use gender at all in Chuabo. There is no difference between he or she, his or her, in any context unless in relation to one another as in a brother and a sister. There is a hierarchy of nouns that distinguishes a person from an object. For example, you use oddu to indicate ‘this person’ but edgi to indicate ‘this object/animal.’ There are a jillion ‘classes of words’ around which the language is structured, all of which have different rules, that I have yet to begin to comprehend. I haven’t even touched verbs yet. And still today, I had to mime out the verb ‘to cough’ to communicate it to a Portuguese speaker. I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me.

I’m so grateful for these experiences. One day, an employer might pause and hover over, ‘proficient in Chuabo,’ on my resume. How many people in the world get the opportunity to learn the language, and thereby some of the culture, of an ancient people? Time and time again, that same sense of gratitude and incredulity washed over me during my time at site in Namacurra. Here are a few my most profound experiences:

  1. My supervisor introduced me to the school at conçentração, an assembly all of the students have on Friday morning to make announcements and give updates. He gave a speech that more or less translates to:

    She has left her home, her mother, her father, everybody and everything she knows to come here, to be with us, and teach. She is our family now. We must welcome her, we must protect her, we must take care of her.

    I welled up in tears on stage and thanked him, my colleagues, and the students, humbly.

  2. My host mãe at site eventually decided it was time to be introduced to all of the chefes do bairro, or the bosses of the community. She took me from house to house, proud to present me, and formally introduced me to the important people in my area of town. The ritual was and is so important. I was formally accepted into my community. While staring at the stars that night I reflected on the fact that I might be the only western person to ever have had such an experience. 
  3. My students and colleagues (with the facilitation of Sidney) made me feel so welcome. One night, some of Sidney’s best students came over her house for an exchange of food. We made bean tacos with mango salsa and they made matapa, fried tilapia, papaya salad and coconut rice. We scarfed it down. We danced and danced and danced. They taught us African dances both modern and traditional, I taught a little bit of ballet, Sidney taught the Spongebob, we sang Mozambican dance music and rapped Eminem. True exchange if I do say so myself. 

    Some of my soon-to-be colleagues held a get together in ceremony of Sidney’s first chicken killing and my need to try frango Zambéziana, a traditional Zambézian chicken dish cooked with coconut, lemon and garlic over xima, or a thick Mozambican version of grits, or rice. We talked, got to know one another, witnessed and applauded the chicken murder, cooked, ate, and drank. A few days later, some of them came over to Sidney’s house to learn how to make bagels. Little by little, I extended roots in Namacurra and made friends made in spite of of language and cultural barriers.


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