I had been in Moçambique for three days when I met the fishermen: a group of guys about my age, walking down the beach. Snorkeling gear – flippers, masks, and tubes – protruded from old maize-meal sacks. “Bon dia,” I called, and smiled. Though Moçambicans might speak XiTswa, Changaani, or any of a dozen other Bantu languages, Portuguese is the national language, a linguistic vestige of the colonial era.
They returned my smile. “Como estas?”
“Steu bien,” I replied.
They laughed. “Tut bien.”
I joined them as they walked down the beach, talking amongst themselves. I interrupted and pointed to myself: “Howell.” The one wearing a Billabong t-shirt and stunna shades, who could have passed for Jay-Z, nodded and reciprocated: “Mac.” The others went in turn: Loyce, Lino, Jolino, Don Yao. We walked without speaking for a while.
I waved down the beach. “Praia?” Heads nodded. Working some sand between my fingers, I looked at my new friends questioningly. “Areya,” came the response. Mac and I chased a crab scuttling across the beach. “Caranges,” he explained. Mac held out a mango to me. “Manga?” I accepted the gift and thanked him. “Muto brogado.” I had about reached the extent of my Portuguese.
For a long time we sat on the beach, looking out over the strait as my new friends chatted quietly. After some some time, they waded out into the water to their dhow. I had not yet explained my intention to join them, but nobody protested or seemed surprised when I followed to the dhow. I go, you go, we go: “Eu vo, tu vais, nos vamos.” Jolino poled the boat out to deeper water, and everyone worked to haul up the yard with up the mast. The wind caught the triangular lateen sail, and we pushed out into the strait. “Nos vamos na agua.” The wind soon caught my hat as well, which tumbled out behind the dhow. I gave it up for lost, but Loyce dove overboard, retrieving it within the minute. He hauled himself aboard, smiling. “Chapeu,” he explained triumphantly, holding up the hat.
In the middle of the strait, they cast the anchor overboard and furled the sail using strips of palm fronds. Each man’s gear – a maize meal sack filled with old plastic bottles to serve as a float and another empty maize meal sack to store their catch, both attached by a long line to a large rock anchor – went into the water. Donning their snorkels and flippers, the fishermen turned backwards over the edge of the dhow and followed their gear into the Indian Ocean’s beryl waters. One dove and returned a couple of minutes later to show me their quarry: sechenel. Sea cucumbers.
Within minutes, all had disappeared from sight, leaving Lino and I alone to man the boat. Lino was not one to talk much – even in Portuguese. I do not know how long we were there – I had neither my phone nor watch – but the hours passed quietly. And slowly. At one point he handed me a hook and line. Not really sure of what to do, I baited it with the entrails of something – I’m not sure what – and threw it overboard. My half-hearted attempts proved – unsurprisingly – unsuccessful.
Eventually, the fishermen returned one by one with their maize meal sacks, now full of sea cucumbers and conches, and hauled themselves aboard. We cut the palm fronds tying the sail to the yard, unfurling the sail into the wind. The wind at our back, we were making good time back to shore under full sail. Once underway, Mac cut off the worn-out end of the rope used to haul the lateen sail and cast it overboard. On a whim I reached into the water to retrieve it. When he looked at me quizzically, I pointed to my temple and said, “To remember.” He nodded once, smiled, and handed me another length of rope.
I never learned how to say goodbye in Portuguese. When the time came for us to part ways, I simply said “Muto brogado,” gave a half salute, and went on my way.
I still have those lengths of rope I grabbed out of Bazaruto Strait. Fraying and scattering irritating bits of fiber everywhere, they hold a place of honor on my desk: worthless as rope, but invaluable as a reminder.