Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Portuguese may be the official language of Mozambique, and it is understood by everyone we have encountered, but most Mozambicans speak one of numerous local dialects as their first language. In many northern villages, including Ribáuè, this language is Makua.

Our team is getting by fine with Portuguese, which nearly everyone we've talked to understands, but we're also picking up on some basic Makua phrases, such as "Koshukuru" (Thank you). Interestingly, as a result of centuries of trade ties, the language exhibits extensive Arabic influences—water is maasi, and the standard greeting is "Salaama".

By far the most common word we hear, though, is macunha, which translates to "white person". As I mentioned in an earlier post, throngs of children call out to us (usually abbreviating the term to cunha) when we walk down the street, making it rather difficult to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.

Incidentally, based on the fact that local kids have no trouble chanting "Cunha! Cunha!" in my direction, even when I'm walking alone, I've concluded that the term refers to all light-skinned individuals rather than just Caucasians. And of course, light-skinned is relative in sub-Saharan Africa—our Dominican team member, though quite tanned, is not spared either.

Sometimes I get (un)lucky (especially in Nampula and Maputo) and children will instead shout "Chinês!" as they follow me down the street like some strange Eastern ambassador-cum-B-list celebrity. I've already become somewhat desensitized to this treatment, and I remind myself that they are merely curious kids, but it's still a bit jarring every time. Part of me wants to stop and explain to them that not every Asian is from China, and that, in fact, many Koreans would be highly offended to be confused with the Chinese—but then I wonder how much good this would do when certain misconceptions are so firmly embedded in the local culture. After all, even my 40-year-old Spanish teacher in Barcelona was genuinely perplexed when I explained to her why I would prefer not to be referred to as "el chino"...

When I do open my mouth, the fact that I speak Portuguese with a Brazilian accent only confuses locals further. The usual response takes the form of raised eyebrows, a smile, and the occasional dropped jaw. Sometimes I'm asked where in Brazil I'm from. Once, a wide-eyed teenager actually said, "Ele fala..." (He speaks...), his voice trailing off. I almost replied, "Dude, I can still understand you, you know," but refrained from throwing English into the mix for fear of giving the kid a heart attack.

This morning, I decided to try a new strategy. Instead of ignoring the calls of "Macunha!", I turned around, smiled, and replied, "Moçambicano!" The kids stopped in their tracks and seemed really confused. One poor guy almost looked like he was about to cry, and I wondered if I had offended them. But then they started to giggle and ran off in the other direction. Granted, now they were yelling "Ele fala português!" but at least that's a step up from name calling.

And who knows, maybe they'll think twice next time before startling the next foreigner with cries of "Cunha!"