“I want to be a witness even when there is no-one left to ask me to give evidence.”

(Christa Wolf)

If you ask me to talk about my childhood I smile because the first person I think of is my grandmother with whom I lived when I was little.

It is a memory that fills my mouth with a sweet taste: my grandmother is the cake that she made for me with sugar and “masciamba” that first she picked in the field, then ground and cooked.

She was a strong woman because women who work in the fields are strong women who are not afraid of hard work.

She was always the first to wake up and to go and fetch water from the well and she continued to do so even when she got old.

We children who had to live through the days of war entrusted ourselves to her.

War is not just a question of soldiers and weapons.

You have to live through a war to know what happens to everyone else when the sound of weapons fills your ears, when your eyes widen in fear at every sound to see that thing “over there” that can save you from whoever arrives unannounced, bringing death with him.

Women in war know this all too well because every day they fight to snatch fragments of life from disaster, to stand firm when the world around them is crumbling.

They are the ones, with their routine gestures, who defend themselves and their family from the abyss, trying to make sure that everything continues to make sense.

We lived in a suburb of Mapapa.

The “bandidos” attacked the town first and then came to us as well. Sometimes you did not see them for days, and then suddenly they returned to raid things and people.

My grandmother was the one who prepared the food every day. She put it in metal containers and then she would call us, Come on, put everything away and then let’s go!” she would say. We all took the capulana with the food and followed her into the woods

Day after day after day at three in the afternoon the whole village decamped to the woods. This place had become a camp site and we stayed there like animals hiding and hoping that the “bandidos” would not find us.

I never saw anyone die, but I often heard of neighbours who had died.

I was very young at the time, but the knowledge that I had escaped death stayed with me. It is very sad to say, but this was also part of my childhood.

My aunts were kidnapped by the “bandidos”. One managed to escape from their camp after being held prisoner for three months.

She came home, but death had already made its way inside her and shortly after took her away. She was a casualty of war.

The bandidos used the women in their camps; this is why women were allowed to survive their massacres.

“…the women have to work for them… especially as women”.

Another of my aunts was also kidnapped. She remained a prisoner in their camp for a long time until she too managed to escape.

She went to South Africa and never came home to Mozambique. She was an exile of war.

My mother always talked to me about her. I met her for the first time last year. I was overwhelmed!

We filled that distance created by time with a flood of words…but it was also an encounter filled with silences, free from those words that no-one wanted to utter or hear.

Fate often follows paths that at first seem mysterious.

Now, as I tell you about myself, I think that my path to destiny could only have been the one that led to the theatre.

I put on performances about violence towards women, for gender equality. It is a fight not only for the dignity of women, but for the entire human race.

We women are rebels by nature against the absurdity of oppression, against the arrogance and violence of the power of men.

The performances that I put on are a message of respect because only if we learn to respect one another can we live in peace.

When I create theatre for women, all my weaknesses are transformed into strength, into an inner desire for change.

When I was about ten years old, I went back to Maputo to my mother and grew up fast, perhaps too fast.

Time is a stone that rolls quickly.

I enrolled in school and started from the class one because the school in Mapapa had not taught me much. Meanwhile, I helped my mum with her work.

School in the morning and the market in the afternoon, in the city centre where my mum had a food stall. The cycle repeated itself every day.

In 1998, I met my father for the first and last time.

My mother was the one who taught me everything in life. Even today if I manage to find something to eat and work, if I find the strength to educate my children and to build a relationship with my husband day by day, I have only her to thank.

When I was seventeen I got pregnant with Tomas, my rapper son.

The father did not want to take responsibility for my “belly”. He wanted me, but not my belly and cleared off.

I left school and continued working.

I stayed at the market stall until the day before I gave birth and with the money I earned bought some clothes for my baby and a capulana in which to carry him.

After Tomas was born, I went back to school, but I also started working again: my only concern was to take care of him and to have enough money for whatever he needed.

Tomas was one year old when I came across the Luarte Theatre quite by chance.

That day, the theatre company was performing in a disco near my home. I decided to go and “…Oh!!!” I was bowled over by how wonderful it was.

After the show, I went to see my friend who was an actor. “What do I have to do to act?” “You have to train. Come to our centre, we train every Tuesday at six pm.” “But I’m at school at six pm!” “Well, it’s up to you”.

I skipped school and got into theatre and theatre got into me.

Now I want to tell you about an episode that I have never told anybody about… So much time has gone by that now for that crime, if there ever was any crime, I can no longer be punished, not even by those of you reading about me.

The house where we lived always flooded in the rainy season. I saw my mother, standing in water, cooking sopa which she then sold.

We slept surrounded by water.

At the time I was pregnant with a big belly, so I slept on the kitchen table to keep out of the water.

My greatest dream was to buy a plot of land on which to build a house for my mother, a place where she would always be dry.

But it is not easy to buy a plot of land, you need “lots and lots of dinero” and my ambition always remained just a dream.

In 2002, lots of Chinese people arrived in Maputo and I found work in a shop owned by one of them.

One day, that day, while I was sweeping, I find a package on the floor. I opened it and Wow… so much money, loads of money!!!!!!!!!” … My heart still beats as fast as it did then when I tell the story.

“Maybe my boss has not noticed… maybe… maybe…” So many thoughts filled my head and then vanished one after the other. Just one remained “I can buy a plot of land for my mum!”

I hid the money on my belly from where a life had sprung and ran home.

But in all stories, especially those that seem good, there is always a ‘but’.

When I returned to the store, I immediately realised that it was not a day like the others.

The owner, after letting us in, closed the store. He had noticed that the money was missing!

I confessed my guilt and gave the money back. He forgave me. The plot of land vanished and the dream continued to be just a dream.

My sister was the one who bought the land for my mum. I have managed, with a lot of hard work, to buy the plot next to hers.

It has done me good to talk about myself. It has made me look inside myself. I have recognised an inner strength that has allowed me to make choices that have made up for private grief.

When I see my aunt again, I will ask her to tell me all her story…I’m ready now!

The time has come to close the wounds and live with the scars.

This story is dedicated to my mother, Elisa Chambal, an amazing woman who gave me the strength to face life.

God rest her soul. May she rest in peace!

Obrigada

Arlete

ARLETE 03