Luscious Black Label

‘If you were me, would you have stopped nibbling at that fruit, which tasted more luscious than sweetness itself? I never stopped plucking it. I picked one fruit after another. The sweet juice would spill out of the corners of my mouth before I learned to eat more discretely.’ — Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross

Perhaps I’ve been a little hard on Timor.

I’ve just returned from my third time in Mozambique in under a year. I’ve only been to Maputo and Niassa. The latter, while connected to the contiguous territory of Mozambique, is akin to Oecusse, in that its capital and most of the province is effectively cut off by land routes to the rest of the country. Only experienced truckers and brave motorists make the trip. But most fly.

The thing that I have most had to come to grips with is Leadership. Power. How it is exercised. There’s much cheap talk of “governance” by the donor governments and international institutions in Mozambique.

bar in middle of nowhere

People in Niassa fear and respect local authorities (régulos) in a way I did not expect. Some fear dated to before consolidation of colonialism — to a time of warfare, when leaders gained power through might and magic. After socialism and the civil war, with the advent of multi-party democracy, the ruling party opted to incorporate régulos into government structures. Since 2000, much of their power is in their official contact with the State. Then some were recognised as the legal representatives of their communities. They were given uniforms and certain other privileges by the Government. Now, when foreign investors roll into town, these are the first to sign away community lands for seemingly small rewards like bicycles.

At a provincial and national level, power exists in different and ‘newer’ forms. Aside from the quite powerful figure of the provincial Governor, there are the Directores, rather high-level civil servants who seem to be part of a large network of patronage. These are people who do not make enough money to live the way they do. They construct mansions west of Maputo, or wherever they may be stationed in the Provinces. They have a fleet of Japanese cars. They often have big bellies.

I mostly came into contact with this Power on airplanes. The flight between Niassa and Maputo is a learning experience, because these Directores have ample opportunity to kick back and relax. No pesky desk or meetings to get in the way. The flights have ample beer and whisky. On the stopovers (there are often two), these gentlemen rush across the tarmac and make it as quickly as possible to the bar, where they drink two double Black Labels on ice.

Even in the most remote provincial bar I noted the presence of whisky. A couple of places even had Black Label. It was a bit like the VIP lounge in a bottle.

Am I naïve to think that things have not gone this far in Timor? (Yet)


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