For the last 3 days I have been driving the route between Maputo, Mozambique & Lusaka, Zambia — transporting some equipment for project partners who are meeting there. To say the least, it was an adventure — perhaps a miracle that we made it all the way through — and a trip that I learned a lot from.
At one point, Xavier, my colleague from Mozambique who was driving with me, said — “You know this road is a lot like Mozambique. As the national road of Mozambique, it is supposed to be in great condition, but look at it.”
Then my mind retraced what I had seen on our journey, drawing analogies to the state of Mozambique, of Africa, (and of “development”):
– richness of land
– incredible endurance of people (e.g. women walking huge distances along the road barefoot or with sandals, carrying massive loads on their heads and a baby strapped to their front and/or back)
– lots of police stops, looking for bribes (but let us pass as our truck conveniently looked like a
government vehicle so they were worried about stopping us)
– more potholes
– kids with shovels half-way filling in potholes, but not all the way, so they can show you they are working and can ask you for money (to actually fill the pothole would ruin the business idea)
– lots of places to grow & harvest (people selling bananas, oranges, pineapples, coal, cashews, papayas, maize, honey, etc…)
– fellow travelers from all over — South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc
– buses and trucks packed full of the maximum amount of people you could possible fit in that space
– lots of beaches to enjoy, off the beaten road so that not as many people have access to them
– seems as if no one is there looking out to warn you about dangers ahead
– goats & cows crossing
– trucks or cars broken down (just when get up a good speed, a pot hole comes out of nowhere — taking many cars by surprise, and leaving them broken by the side of the road)
– houses & towns still burned from the 16 yr civil war which ended in 1992 (war was between the resistance movement and the government)
– gas station credit card machine was broken, so I walked with someone for about 20 minutes through town to 3 different ATMs that didn’t work, and then the fourth one we found worked, so we could pay and go
– flags from the main 3 political parties posted every once in a while along the way
– national parks without animals because they were all killed during the civil war
– if there is electricity in most villages along the way, it is often only available from 6pm-11pm at night
– lots of industry, informal markets – more and more people walking with massive loads on their heads, backs, or bikes
– local materials used creatively to build homes, corals for animals, stands to sell, places to gather
– kids smiling & waving to you all along the journey,
ready in an instant to dance and laugh with you if you wish
If this road was to tell you about the country, what would you think the country was like?
Here are a couple particularly poignant experiences from the journey – along with some of the lessons or insights that came with them….
Ingenuity & Creativity of People
About half way on the trip we needed some money, so we found a bank.
Outside was a man who offered to exchange money at a higher rate than the bank. Nice.
After asking my friend, he confirmed it was a good rate, so I decided to change 100 Euros. The man counted out several 200 Mt bills and a lot of 50 Mt bills, and handed it to me to make sure he counted it right.
When I counted it, I found he was 300 Mt short of what he promised to give to me. He recounted it, and I was right, he was 300 short. So then he gave me an additional 300 in 50 Mt bills.
Only a day later did I realize that when he took the wad of bills back into his hands he took out about 8 of the 200 bills (1600 Mt), which you couldn’t tell because of how big the stack of 50 bills was – when he added in an additional 6 of the 50 Mt bills.
He understood the psychology, had good slight of hand like a magician, and overall was very creative in thinking the whole scenario through.
Other people tried to cheat us along the way, store keepers, police, rental company, import manager.
Even the boarder guard on the Zambian side wanted a bribe, but in the end accepted a gift of a pineapple and a banana from me instead. 🙂
Only this one guy changing money outside the bank was actually creative enough to trick me in a new way (at least new to me).
The “impossible” journey: (& unexpected surprises with “progress”)
From Massinga to Vilanqulo there is a stretch of road (about 80km) that they tore up and pulled up because it was so bad, leaving a lot of dirt and two bypasses on either side of the main area.
Because it was dry season, they were probably not expecting the rain to come — only when it did on the morning before we arrived, all the was left was one of the craziest mud-rally areas you can imagine.
Huge semi-tracks getting stuck, jack-knifing, sliding sideways into ditches or blocking entire areas. Other smaller cars trying to go places that left them half-burried in mud, or jammed into some space they could not escape from.
Imagine dozens of trucks like this, but in 6-20 inches of mud.
When we first encountered an impassable traffic jam, as the one driving, I proposed we back up and try and go on the prohibited central area — only when we jumped the sand/mud barrier, and started immediately sliding in a fish tail and sometimes almost slipping and skidding sideways where our back end got near the drop off areas, Xavier told me that was the worst mistake we had made.
To me, it felt similar to fun times of driving in snowy parking lots in Minnesota winters, where we would try to get the car to do that – and since we were still kind of moving forward, I decided to see how far we could get. It also was one of the rare experiences where I felt like my many hours of playing video games came in useful — as my skills in driving crazy road conditions actually did seem better because of it.
Some other cars saw us take a new route, and found a different creative solution on the far left side there was another road they could make progress on, and so after a while they slowly passed us — until they got stopped by some huge trucks stuck that were coming from the opposite direction.
To make a long story short, we found ourselves overcoming one huge seemingly impossible obstacle
after another (massive potholes, huge trucks stuck, very deep water/mud, etc) — with periodic cheering & sense of relief until we went a little further & saw what was ahead next.
Eventually we were the only vehicle that was left making forward progress — many others trying to get out of their stuck vehicles and themselves sinking a foot or two in mud. Local people had come out on the sides of the road to watch all the excitement.
We didn’t give up, and we kept thinking of creative ways to solve one problem after another — until finally we were the first car to make it all the way through — people on the other side did now know how.
When we finally made it to the other side I couldn’t help but stop the car and dance with some local kids in the rain — we were all laughing so hard.
Lessons learned about “progress”:
• when trying to move forward, expect unexpected challenges
• with each challenge there is an opportunity (to grow, to learn, to be more creative than in the past, to change direction or to overcome)
• when you have overcome one, there will probably be more
• celebrate the victories along the way
• don’t take yourself or others too seriously
• you don’t need to believe when someone else tells you that you can’t or that you have made a mistake in trying to do what they could not do
• it helps to have capable equipment (e.g. 4 wheel drive)
• learn from the mistakes of others
• help and/or warn others when you can
• believe you can find a way — even if no one else has done it before
• sometimes it is good to go slowly, to learn from what is going around and plan well, and sometimes it is good to go fast, to have the momentum you need to get through the muck
• enjoy the challenge – as another way to strengthen your “muscle” of being willing to do what others think is impossible
• and as one of my personal secret weapons, I always feel even more joy when giving ultimate thanks and credit to God – for the victories, for the challenges, for the journey itself
President of Mozambique – “We are not in poverty”
About 3/4 of the way to Zambia, we suddenly came to a stretch of road with no potholes, we
We even saw trucks for the first time working along side the road, with about 10 men surrounding one pot hole they were filling in.
Then we realized why —
as we saw a lot of government cars coming from somewhere. The president had been visiting.
Later that night we saw on the news him speaking at that event. He said “Mozambique is not in poverty, it is not real poverty – the poverty is in our minds, the minds of the people. The country is very rich, but people do not have the idea on how to use these resources. It is necessary to develop the mind — to use their minds to explore the resources of the country.”
Xavier said he agreed with that. He talked about how some people have creative ideas – but they are usually focused on cheating others, like the man who “changed” our money outside the bank.
Xavier talked about the richness all around, just that the people have not had the ideas yet on how to improve the conditions.
To me, Xavier seems like one of the national treasures of the country — someone with all along the trip shared lots of ideas for how to increase production in the land, how to distribute goods more profitably, how to create juice factories, and also asked if we could draft an entire ICT curriculum for secondary school teachers while we were driving (as the government now introduced the requirement for teachers to teach it, but not many are capable to yet).
Soon I have some good friends coming to Mozambique to work with the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Sure seems like a big job on their hands – but with people like Xavier, and some ingenuity & determination – there is no doubt about the richness that can be tapped into.
Those are a few of the lessons learned on this journey down the National Road of Mozambique.