“Life is not true because it has a meaning; it has a meaning because it is true”.
(Alberto Asor Rosa)
Imagine a fourteen-year-old boy listening to his maternal uncle telling him, day after day, about the memories of his first years of life.
He, who cannot remember anything about his life, lines them up like the pieces of a puzzle.
That boy is me and my uncle’s memories became my memories.
I was born in Tanzania where mum and dad emigrated to work on a large machamba, a sisal plantation.
I am the last of six children.
My mother got to the hospital too late and died giving life to me.
I grew up in the mission, raised by the priests and the nuns.
My heart may still be there, in the mission, my first home. That is why my heart is always in prayer!
I never knew my mother’s milk, only cow’s milk.
And that cow’s milk must have been very nutritious: my uncle told me that when he met me, I was “fat, fat, fat!”
I stayed at the mission for ten years.
One day my uncle arrived at the mission. He had heard about his sister’s death. He came to take me to live with him.
Why had ten years gone by? Does that seem like a long time to you? Well then, imagine a country where news is passed by word of mouth, the paths trodden are just tracks in the middle of the woods and the bushes and the only means of transport is often your feet.
And then travel is expensive, there’s not much money and it takes time and effort to put aside. So this is how ten years became yesterday!
We stayed in Tanzania for two years, in Massisi in the province of Ntuara. There were other Maconde in the village.
When I arrived in Mozambique, I wanted to go to school.
I started selling peanuts so I would have enough money to pay for it.
Finally, when I was about fourteen years old, I went to college. A beautiful college, in the middle of a wood, full of girls and boys.
I learned to read and write!
“If I learned to write at this age, I can learn everything!” I said to myself in excitement.
And my “everything” was to become a diocesan priest.
At the end of college, I entered the seminary in Pemba with eighteen other young men. We were all put up in the bishop’s house.
The bishop appointed me leader of the group. I was not lucky to be chosen!
The task of enforcing the rules of life in a seminary is really difficult. There are those who go out and come back too late, those who hang out with girls and those who have too much fun. These young men were expelled, and me along with them. The rector of the seminary considered me to be their accomplice.
My heart still aches if I think about it.
My life’s dream was shattered!
I went back to the village disappointed, bitter and angry at the injustice I had suffered.
“Hey, Agostinho, they threw you out because you liked women too much!” my neighbours jested.
I let them believe that, the words to tell them about the injustice burned in my throat! Even today nobody knows the truth …But that’s all right. Nobody would believe me anyway!
I felt hemmed in by the village and I knew that my future lay elsewhere.
One day, without saying anything to anyone, I left.
I did not have anything of value with me, just the name of someone from the village who had moved to Pemba.
When I got to the city, I made my way to him. I tried to find out how to get around the city without getting lost.
Instead I found a welcoming home and this man, Faustino Rafiqui, was like a father and a brother to me.
There are two people to whom I owe what I am: my aunt, who by pinching my cheeks, taught me the practical rules in life so I’d never get lost and this man, this father I chanced upon, who taught me the moral rules that guide me in the world, in my way of behaving towards others.
In Pemba, the problem of school recurred. I wanted to start studying again, but I had to find a job first so I could pay for it.
I came across the theatre, without which I would not be here in Alcatraz to tell you my story, quite by chance.
I found out that a company that produced toilets wanted to put on some theatrical shows in villages to advertise its product.
I introduced myself to the theatre company who took me on and after that project there were others, all to do with educational theatre.
Fate came my way and like a strolling player showed what it had in store for me: the director of the theatre company decided to enrol all the actors, who had studied up to the fifth year of high school, in a teacher training college.
He decided my future for me and this is how I became “Professor Chipula” and this is how I like to introduce myself to others even now that I no longer teach and I work for the Department of Education organising theatrical performances.
In 2001, the school assigned me a class in Palma.
In Palma, years after I ran away, my relatives found me. We had not heard from one another since my sudden departure. None of us knew anything about the other.
You may wonder why I did not let them know. Didn’t I miss them?
Of course I missed them, but you cannot pay much attention to nostalgia when you live in a country ravaged by war and poverty. It was dangerous to move about, we only travelled by sea because only the sea was safe and my village was on land.
Even after the Peace Agreements of Rome, the streets were filled with kalashnikovs. The war had ended, but peace was still a long way off. The bandidos attacked without warning, burning buses and killing people. We could only travel in convoys escorted by the army.
I remember that one day the convoy with which I was travelling was attacked. Fear took hold of me. I started running, running and kept on running without even looking where I was going.
I suddenly found myself on the ground, with a sharp pain in my head. “Now I’m going to die”, I thought.
But I did not die. I did not have any gunshot wounds, just a huge bump. I had been hit by the branch of a tree that I had not seen as I fled.
When there is violence everywhere, even a tree can get hurt you!
My story, for the moment, ends here.
In my life I have made choices that at times were very courageous, but I have never allowed too much courage to let me lose my grip on a balanced life and make me commit mistakes that I could not correct.
And I must continue to do so: my whole family depends from me, from the “youngest one” in my house.
There is a moment in life when we realise that the road we have travelled along suddenly acquires a meaning. The meaning of my life is give to others … and you do not have to be a priest to do that!