Notes on Muidumbe

Source: Paolo Israel. 2005.'Mapiko Masquerades of the Makonde: Performance and Historicity' in East African Contours. Reviewing Creativity and Visual Culture. H. Arero, Z. Kingdon (eds). Horniman Museum, Critical Museology and Material Culture series, London

The plateau of Mueda was the last zone in Mozambique to be effectively occupied by the Portuguese (ca. 1917), and the first to consistently rebel against colonial rule (1960). After independence (1975) the FRELIMO government inherited the colonial administrative divisions. The huge ‘Circunscrição dos Macondes’ extended over 22.200 km2. Its name was changed in Distrito de Mueda, but it was left unchanged until 1986, when the government proceeded to a reorganisation of the administrative divisions. Two new small districts were carved out the enormous Mueda district: Nangade and Muidumbe (The easternmost part of the district was carved out of the district of Mocimboa da Praia). 

Muidumbe was created the 25th of July of 1986. The communal village of Mwambula was chosen as the administrative seat of the district, which extends over 1.987 km2 and is inhabited by almost 70.000 people.

The district is characterized by a sharp separation between its plateau area and the lowlands around the Messalo river. The plateau is approximately 650 m above the sea level, and is dry and clay-like. For this reason it is fertile only during the rainy season. Women walk long distances to the slopes of the plateau to fetch water. The lowland area, on the contrary, is humid and fertile. During the dry season it provides the plateau with vegetables and fruit. In the lowland areas people produce sugar cane  which is used mainly to distil alcohol. Two lakes around the Messalo river are rich in catfish, which is dried and sold to plateau residents. Lowland areas abound with less pleasant animal species: malaria-carrying mosquitoes and tsetse flies on the small side, and wild game on the larger side. These zones are also especially prone to cholera, because the sandy soils do not allow for the construction of proper latrines.

The partition between lowlands and plateau is heightened by the lack of communication. The National road n. 1, which goes from Maputo to the Tanzanian border, passes through the Muidumbe lowlands around the Messalo River. The only road connecting the lowlands with the plateau is in dire condition. While small vehicles can pass there during the dry season, in the rainy season no one dares to face the muddy, slippery climb that leads to the plateau. This means that the only way to get from the plateau to the lowlands (and vice versa) during the rainy season with a vehicle is by taking a detour of about 160km through Awassi and Mueda. This implies also that most of the agricultural production of Muidumbe lowlands is sold on the national road, for the benefit of residents of nearby districts (Macomia, Mueda, Mocimboa) and as far away as the city of Pemba. Local people are accustomed to move between the plateau and the lowlands by foot, a tiring 30-km walk.

Muidumbeans have stayed true to the project of socialist modernization through communal villages. Today, 22 communal villages exist on the district, 14 on the plateau and 8 in the lowlands. Communal villages had to be built along roads, in order to facilitate communication and transport. Actually, only 3 villages in Muidumbe are completely off the road. All the inhabitants of the district are supposed to have a house in one of the communal villages. However, as the plateau land is most suited for staple crops (maize, manioc and millet), most people plant income-generating crops (rice, fruits and vegetables, sugar cane) in the lowlands. In order to stay close to the field during the crucial period of production, people build huts near to their fields that they might inhabit for several days or weeks before coming back to their own houses. These huts are built without the requirements that apply to construction in communal villages: they are not organized in rows and are dispersed on the land. In other cases, people colonise new zones in the lowlands and live there permanently. These settlements are generally not recognized as villages by the government, unless they comply with the norms that regulate communal villages.
All villages have a political representation of the government and the party, namely a president and a person who represents each area of governance (agriculture, education, culture, etc.). The administrator is the foremost authority in the district, together with his district cabinet. All village authorities are elected democratically. Kin-based authorities have no formal power, although they are often very influential in settling disputes between clan members and in counselling the activities of the official government. More and more villages have young leaders, who mediate and ally with kin-based leaders.

Administrative partitions often foster identities. In the nation building process, the Mozambican government enforced administrative policies with the objective of strengthening the sense of belonging to the nation, the province and lastly, the district. This strategy was meant to substitute ethnic loyalties with identities based on the actual structure of the Nation-State. Moreover, the FRELIMO government promoted the identification of the people with their leaders, both on a national and local level. The plateau area of Muidumbe encompasses historically symbolic sites: Nangololo, the first mission in the plateau, Nang’unde, the central military base of FRELIMO, Matambalale, where Shibiliti and Vanomba started their march on Mueda that led to the infamous massacre, and Nshongwe, a village where three hundred guerrilla fighters were caught in a landslide that caused their death.  For these and other reasons, Muidumbeans consider their district as the heartland of Makonde people (ntima wavamakonde).