Maputo has the classic plant of a Roman city, with main roads perpendicular to each other, in the squares free from the main streets, the Indigenous “bairros” have developed.
At the end of Edoardo Mondlane’s avenue, there is an amazing market I definitely recommend visiting. I’m talking about the Mercado de Xipamanine: the biggest and more chaotic city market.
If you decide to visit it, I strongly recommend you refrain from displaying anything expensive (cameras, smartphone etc) as the place also has a reputation of being a meeting point for trading and dealing stolen goods. Moreover, Xipamanine is one of the poorest bairros in the capital and get in trouble there is not a good idea.
You can safety reach Xipamanine with a “chapa” (the typical mini bus located just around the corner). The market features vendors of all kinds of vegetables, breads, eggs, scattered on pavements and sidewalks, and groups of children and teenagers that for a couple of coins take care of your car. From now on you can see the vast expanse of booths, set in a dusty land where mountains of clothes, “capulanas”, baskets, appliances, spare parts, furniture, food, recycled cardboard and much more.
To understand what this city’s swelling hides, you have to leave the “bigger” streets and enter the narrow alleyways between one stand and the other. These intestinal alleyways are so narrow that they only filter a dim light, and when a “Mulungu” (white person) walks around the place – only frequented by locals, they do not walk unnoticed, although, Maputo is a cosmopolitan city and many foreign live there.
Being a foreigner has gather me the attention of the sellers who are always very gently, calling me to see their merchandise. However, I was not there shopping, rather because I knew that Xipamanine is the forge of Mozambique’s traditional medicine.
After photographing some of the stupendous collections of empty plastic bottles, the backyard animals (painted for ritual use), the bulbs, the mattresses and food-street have returned to the darkest and most hidden part of the market. And there is a whole district dedicated to traditional care.
On these benches, between the well-ordered goods, one can find virtually everything: beside the holy water of Lourdes, the rosaries, the small Buddha, there are animal skins, bones, stones, dried herbs, skulls and other dry animal parts, roots, plants, gorgeous pumpkins emptied of their content and decorated in colours of high symbolic value, needles of porcupine, big quantity of shells.
This is not surprising as in Mozambique, traditional medicine is still alive and, in spite of what you think, it lives pacifically with Western medicine and with the other various religions. The seller has acted with me, like any pharmacist and herbalist in our cities, and always very kindly explained to me the use of everything that caught my attention: a piece of incense to drive out evil spirits from house, a monkey bull to catch good luck, shell amulets for fertility and much more.
What particularly catches my attention are objects that I knew to be specific to “curandeiros” (healers): skeptics, various powders, and characteristic terracotta containers to mix the ingredients. The curandeiros are the central figures of these ancient rituals: they could clearly be defined as shaman species in contact with ancestral spirits and nature. They resort to solving maladies, illness and a range of different other problems.
The curandeiro is a very respected figure in the Mozambican society – a real point of reference for the community: the reasons why the population addresses its therapies are various: from malignant to headache, to tuberculosis, to pregnancy for which the traditional doctor takes on an authentic obstetric function. At one point, I noticed that a healer wandered among the stalls, hunting for material for his work, just one of these figures made recognisable by the unmistakable wig and the leather skirt. He also wore himself to the life of the beautiful bottles covered with colourful coral, essential for ceremonies.
Only the curandeiro know the strength and the specific function of every single ingredient in the liturgies necessary to carry out its role.
After talking with my Mozambican friends, I came to the conclusion that this figure has the role that the psychologist has in our society that he listens, advises and, importantly, often directs to hospital care that would otherwise not be considered.
One thing to not underestimate is that for a long time the curandeiros are also active in raising awareness of sexually transmitted diseases. For this reason, the Government of Mozambique recognises and authorises the practice of traditional medicine alongside the Western medicine.
Indeed, one might conclude that the healers represents a bridge between tradition and the West, which allows conventional medicine to be heard without forcing the hand.
Next to the curator there is another character who, by simplifying a lot, can be said to deal with black magic: the “feticeiro” (wizard or sourcerer). In this case, it is even harder to get a clear picture. A feticeiro can be a curandeiro but is not necessarily so. Being a bad person, his identity remains secret.
From my point of view, knowledge of these fascinating practices is necessary to approach at least a little the extraordinary cultural complexity of the Mozambique world. Its doors, however, are often closed to foreigners, especially if they are only passing by. That is why a walk to Xipamanine could represent the only way to throw a sneaky look out of the lock. Probably, coming home, you seem to have some secret or perhaps it has been a spell that has affected your mind.
by Nunzio DeNigris