The story of a gentle soldier

manual-the-gentle-soldierWhen I think of Manual, I think of Forrest Gump. It seems that for a good part of his life, this gentle man ran from one war to another , doing everything in his power to avoid conflict – the political conflict he neither supported nor wanted any part of.

Manual was born in 1931 in Muxungue, central Mozambique. It was a simple life in that imports had not been introduced to the area and they lived on what the local land could provide. His uncomplicated childhood would be just that, his childhood. His adulthood would tell a different story – an age that coincided with the colonial reign and their struggle to remain in power and finally 15 years of guerrilla war between the 2 Mozambican political parties, Frelimo and Renamo.

Manual flees slavery

In 1947, Manual fled Mozambique and crossed the border into Zimbabwe where he lived for 2 years. Although the slave trade had been banned, the colonial Portuguese representative in Muxungue  was openly supportive of the ‘old ways.’ Whispers in the village of continued slavery soon became a terrifying reality – with young, fit men forcefully being captured and sent to Maputo to be sold.

In 1949, the Slave trading representative was replaced with a new representative – a Catholic Pastor. He encouraged the people to convert from Zionism to Catholicism and he taught them Monogamy. He also put an immediate stop to slavery making it safe for Manual to return home. Manual imagined that after he’d returned to his village, he’d find himself a wife and start a family. He’d settle down and continue on the path of his ancestors, of tending to crops and living a peaceful life.

Manual Returns and is involuntarily taken to Beira to work for the Portuguese government as a labourer

But this was not on the cards. On his return, he was made to pack his bags once more. The ruling Portuguese government had a strict policy that all Mozambicans had to participate in manual labour. He was taken to Beira to work on a 6 month contract. Fleeing was illegal and they were warned that if they tried to flee, they would be shot. They were only paid at the end of their contract.

Manual returned home once again and in 1952, his father arranged for him to marry a girl named Eliza from a neighbouring family. She was still very young and there was no rush to start a family. They believed, as we all do, that they had a whole lifetime together. They wanted 3 or 4 children, they wanted to plant more crops and they wanted to build their own home.  But Manual and Elize only had one daughter together. Their ‘honeymoon’ had been cut short and Manual was once again, packing his few belongings into a dusty sack and saying ‘goodbye’ to his young wife and baby daughter.

When I met Manual -an old peasant farmer walking down a dusty road in Mafambisse – I could never have imagined the places he’s been to, the things he’s seen and experienced. I could never have imagined his story. 

Already, Manual had been forced to leave his life twice. And I soon learned that this was only the beginning of his incredible story.

Manual Discovers Asia

The Portuguese Government was in its prime years, with many colonies dotted all over the world. They needed to defend and protect their claimed land from other prying powers hoping for a cut out of the world atlas.

In 1956, Manual was forced to join the Portuguese military. He was taken to Beira for training. Many, many miles away, overseas in fact, China was growing as a threat. Portugal had claimed the small island of Macau and China was showing interest. They needed a strong military presence in Macau and Mozambique and Angola were the obvious colonies to source their soldiers from.

In 1958, a ship carrying many Angolan soldiers arrived in the port of Beira. Manual and hundreds of other Mozambicans joined them on board, knowing they would be travelling to the other side of the world to guard a country they had only just heard of. They’d be there for 2 unpaid years.

The ship first stopped in Nampula to pick up more Mozambicans and to stock up one last time for the long voyage to India, Singapore, Hong Kong and finally, to the small island of Macau. It took them 28 days and 2 ship changes. They were fed rice, bread and sweet potatoes for a month. And for a treat, they were given a metal mug of wine every night. When I asked Manual how he felt about this experience, he told me that he was not worried or scared. In fact he felt it was quite an adventure – smiling while telling this part of his story.  He said he enjoyed his 2 years there, after all there was no war on Macau – they were only guarding it. And although he was not paid for his service, on his return he was given an identity card. For the first time in his colonial experience, he mattered. He was able to return to his family in Muxungue at free will and was permitted to seek out a job.

Manual went home to his village carrying the sack of belongings he’d left with 4 years ago. He also came home with stories of strange places and strange people, but most importantly, he came home with an Identity card.manual-i

Manual returns to Muxungue and his family

Of course he joined the police force. It was the best job in town. Food and beer was plentiful and life would be good for him and his family. Manual did not go into too much detail about this time of his life, but I did see his smile gradually slip from his face. He told me he was not happy about the amount of alcohol being consumed by the police and perhaps he was speaking about himself too. He decided to move his family to Beira, to leave Muxungue and the life of a policeman – to live as an ‘honest’ man, he said.

It was also around this time, that tension between the Portuguese Government and the Mozambican Frelimo party was flaring up and verging on war.

Manual leaves the Police Force

He arrived in Beira with his family, rented a house and soon after, was offered a well-paid job as a ‘labourer.’ The only trouble was that the job was not in Beria, it was up in the north part of the country, in Tete. It would mean that Manual would have to leave his family once again. He reasoned that it would give them a good start in Beira, he’d be able to clothe and feed his family with ease and give his daughter an education. It was an opportunity that he couldn’t possibly turn down.

He left them and travelled with others up North, with transport fees paid for. But something was amiss. Upon arrival they were ushered into a building and given uniforms. He recognized those uniforms immediately, because he’d already worn one before.  He’d been conned.

It was no ‘ordinary job,’ it was a ‘soldier’s job.’ Bewildered and angry, Manual realized he was expected to fight for the Portuguese military; against his own people. This time, he discarded his uniform and ran for his life!

Manual moves to Mafambisse

manual-portraitIn 1971, he secured his next and final job as a security guard at a Portuguese owned company, the Mafambisse sugar mill – a job he hoped would not involve any fighting! He moved his family to Mafambisse, built his home and planted Cashew nut trees and rows upon rows of pineapples. There they lived peacefully until 1976, a couple years after Mozambique had won their independence.

By this time, most of the Portuguese had fled Mozambique, many of them leaving overnight with only a suitcase and 150 US dollars. The country was now singularly run by the communistic party, Frelimo. It was in 1976 that the anti-Frelimo resistance group, called Renamo, was formed and so the beginning of a brutal guerilla war that would last for 15 years and 1 million people losing their lives.

1976 was also the year that Manual was fired from his job. With the departure of the Portuguese, Frelimo took over the mill. Employees who were previously employed by the Portuguese were fired and the Frelimo army moved onto the estate and would remain there for the duration of the civil war. It was the last day Manual would work for anyone. After years of involuntary service for a government, he decided ‘going on his own’ was his only choice and though sometimes financially risky, he’d live a peaceful life.  He’d farm pineapples, maize, mangoes and cashew nuts. Manual proudly told me that his entire family worked at the ‘shamba’ and that he’d employed workers too.

The Mozambican civil War

The years to come were anything but peaceful. During the day, Frelimo soldiers would ‘drop by,’ demanding chickens, goats and other fresh produce to feed their army. And at night, Renamo would attack. They’d kidnap boys, young men and often girls too. They’d torch homes and kill the villagers because it was considered a Frelimo stronghold. It was very dangerous to stay in your house at night.

Some families would disappear into the thick of the sugarcane fields at night and sleep there. It was never comfortable.  It was a mosquito breeding ground and home to all sorts of other insects and animals. While they were safer in the way of Renamo attacks, the malaria was rife. Others, including Manual went to the factory and slept there, in close proximity to the Frelimo soldiers. In the later years of the war, after tediously trekking to the factory every night with family and grandchildren in tow, Manual dug a deep hole in-between the overgrown pineapple plantation, close to their home. The grandchildren were old enough to reason with and to follow instructions, to be absolutely quiet at night. Before they were allowed to sleep in the hide-out, they first needed to learn how to survive a war and to understand the danger; to know when to hold their breath and when to lie deathly still. They needed to know the consequence of ‘noise.’

There they would sleep at night with sharpened senses; waking with every crack of a twig or rustle of leaves. Lying still, waiting for dawn.

In 1992, the war finally ended. In its wake; death, a scarred and traumatised society, buildings, bridges and roads bombed,  a generation of orphans, no education, children kidnapped, landmines that still explode to this day, families lost or separated and haunting scenes of brutality that never really leave. After 20 years of ruthless killing, there are no winners in this war, only losers.

Manual is 85 years old and still lives on his small plot of land in Mafambisse, surrounded by his grandchildren and great grandchildren. The cashew nut trees stand tall, surrounding and shading the busy homestead. Pineapples still grow. Chickens peck away at a bucket of dried rice and a cat twirls its tail around a leg of a child.

For 22 years, Manual has had peace. His only daughter had 9 children, of which 6 of them survived. His beautiful wife is still with him and they’ve reached the twilight years of their life, having survived and escaped the war.

But the past lurks in the shadows. With renewed tension between the old rivals, Frelimo and Renamo, Manual has a new worry.  He worries about his grandchildren; young men and women at the beginning of their lives, educated and ready to start a family – ripe for the pickings of an army and another generation of senseless fighting.

“I am still determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have also learnt from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not our circumstances.

Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.”

Margaret Peters

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