Let me ask you the following:
When was the last time you walked into a 5 star hotel while carrying left over grilled fish in an oven bowl wrapped in a towel?
Most likely never, but you may guess by now, this was what I did last Friday. I had dinner with an Italian, two Spanish, a Frenchman and another Dutch. All of us gathered around a dinner table in Maputo and conversed politely. The dinner was hosted by the Spanish, which served a variety of Mozambican sea life. Potlatch style, the Italian had prepared the fish, 3 pieces of ‘bom peixe’ as any Mozambican would confirm to you. They can seldom tell you the name of the fish, but as long as the fish is good, life is good, right?
The evening progressed merrily around the table. The wine may have played a role in this and we tried very hard to consume all the food. We did not try hard enough, at the end of the evening there was 1 ‘bom peixe’ left and plenty of ‘camaroa’ (shrimp) as well. We offered our hosts to keep it, but they politely declined and my Italian friend and I needed to take our bowl with fish back home. We had come by taxi, with the bowl on my lap, wrapped in a towel to keep the fish nice and warm (we were out of aluminum foil – my mom will be proud, I had used the last of it days before when baking an apple pie after her recipe).
For the way back we wrapped up the left over fish again in the towel, but instead of taking a taxi, we decided to walk off our heavy dinner before heading to our Oxfam guesthouse. As a destination, the Italian proposed to have a brief visit to one of the most expensive hotels of Maputo. ‘You just walk straight in, the guards won’t stop us.’ Which I believed, I’ll shamefully admit, in my experience as well, when you are white you are simply believed to have money in most African countries. You can enter any establishment like this without question. Still I felt a bit giddy about the whole situation. Here we were, carrying left over fish, into an extremely expensive hotel, to have a look at their, I must say, beautiful garden with stunning views over the sea, even at night.
After a nice tour and spying at a rather exclusive party also taking place in that same garden, we were ready to head home. It was for the most part extremely quiet on the streets. Perhaps it is not advisable to walk this late on Maputo’s streets, but for me the most dangerous part is probably the pavement. Besides the many uneven tiles, holes without any coverage, unexpected sewer outlets you do not wish to step into and during the day the many street vendors you do not wish to run into, the parked cars are probably the most difficult to navigate. Parking in Maputo is probably not allowed everywhere, but it certainly is done everywhere. While confronting these usual Maputan pedestrian challenges, I noticed quite late a man was calling us from behind.
Now my Italian friend, never misses a chance for a social interaction. He is always prepared to spare a person a few kind words, I have even seen him shake hands with a kid high on glue and for this young man he was no other. The young man looked extremely thin, his clothes were a thin beige jacket, a T-shirt and his pants were ragged at the bottom. He was asking us for money.
Begging in Maputo is unfortunately not uncommon. Mozambique is and will be for the coming times one of the poorest nations on this planet. My Italian friend said we could not give him money, but then I think we both saw it at the same time, the look in this young man’s eyes: hunger. He was directly looking at our wrapped bowl.
Seeing poverty is one thing, being confronted with it by a simple look, is something I will never forget. My filled up belly and the knowledge of the fish in the bowl made me really uneasy, feeling immediate guilt is probably the best description. My Italian friend asked in his mixture of Portuguese with Italian accent, ‘Would you like to eat?’ The man nodded. I felt a sort of relief, at least we could offer him something, but then another awkward moment happened. The Italian unwrapped the towel from the bowl, exposing the fish, and with our good table manners in mind, we realised we didn’t have anything to hand him the fish with. We would have to give it straight into his hands. I don’t think the young man would have minded, but somehow we couldn’t give it to him like that. It felt rather undignified and stupid just to hand him the fish like that in his hands. My Italian friend pointed out that the bowl was not officially his to give, but of the guesthouse we stayed in. It made me laugh, perhaps it was severely inappropriate, but the struggle of my ever so kind Italian, my nerves over the situation, our predicament how to hand over the fish, and this young man transfixed with is eyes on the fish, was just rather tragic and funny to see at the same time.
I told him, ‘Give him the bowl as well, please. I’ll buy a new one.’ He finally handed over the bowl with the fish, and we quickly walked away, left only with our towel. Maybe out of shame, but also to leave this man to his dinner.
We both laughed our nerves away. ‘He will probably sell the bowl,’ my Italian friend remarked, ‘Well, then he’ll have money for another dinner,’ was my response. A few steps later I added. ‘We should have given him the towel as well. He could have used that better, it’s a cold night. He may have been able to keep warm a little better.’ My Italian friend nodded, to which I added, ‘And I don’t think the Oxfam guesthouse will miss the bowl, after all, this is what they are supposed to do. This is one of the people we should be working for.
’Ps And for those of you who’ve read the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide of Douglas Adams, like me, you may find this a new reason to carry a towel around, just in case you need to hand over a fish