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The Cemitério de S. José de Lhanguene is not the oldest cemetery in Lourenco Marques / Maputo. It was preceded by the Cemitério S. Xavier and  the S. Timóteo – the former which is still in existence but in an unfortunate state. Alfredo Pereira Lima who was one of Mozambique’s foremost historians; researching and recording the history of the city wrote that subsequent to the 1st world war, there was a need for a new cemetery to be established which is how the S. José de Lhanguene came to existence.

A programme organized by the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Maputo was held earlier in the week. On the agenda was the offering of prayers and a small introduction of each of the members who lay buried there. A small group of community members gathered at the entrance of the cemetery at 9 o’ clock as had been planned. For a June day in the southern hemisphere it was sunny and not particularly cold.

It is interesting to note that there is now a new cemetery 30 kilometers away and that this cemetery is “closed” but burials continue, especially when they related to family and far exceed capacity of the cemetery. All semblance of order has been lost and since the independence of the country from Portugal in 1975, inadequate planning and upkeep has resulted in the unfortunate removal and replacement of tombs – that is to clarify that bodies have been dug up and plots reconditioned for new burials. At one point, space had become so limited that plots were made in places not appropriate such as the walkways and internal roads. A recent announcement in the newspaper this year provides some hope that the city council is working to remove unclaimed or abandoned plots in an effort to restore some dignity to the site.

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There are only a handful members of the Baha’i community buried here. The friends were able to identify some of the sites and offer prayers but a small number of tombs could not be found. It is most likely that these at some point lay unattended and were removed and reconditioned for new burials.

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As the old saying goes, “fortune favours the brave” and even this derelict and crumbling part of the city I could see remnants of what once was the very blissful resting place of so many of its citizens. It is quite common to see in southern Europe elaborate markers, monuments and vaults. Mozambique being a colony of Portugal (a southern European nation), it is not surprising that these traditions have been brought over.

At the front of the cemetery, one will find rows of family vaults supposedly of the wealthier families of the city who decided that their dead should be buried together and who could afford it. Each more beautiful than the next but equally befitting the celebration of life.

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One of the many casualties of the revolution in Mozambique, the mass exodus of these families led the grave sites and vaults to be abandoned. The ensuing civil war for the next sixteen years sealed the fate and severed any possibility of allowing the families to return to Mozambique. Not long afterwards vagrants moved into the cemetery broke into the vaults and caskets looking for anything of value to be sold.

DSC_3039The official history of the cemetery begins in 1951 when the CMLM (City Council of Lourenco Marques) identified, formalized and opened to the public the new burial grounds. Alfredo Pereira Lima recounts,

Shortly after the end of the Great War of 1914-1918, to attend the mass burials of the many hundreds of indigenous victims of the pneumonic epidemic, the São José de Lhanguene Cemetery was opened. From the date of its establishment until 20 November 1951, this cemetery was reserved for natives who had to be buried in a common grave. From that date onwards, the City Council was compelled to provide the city with a new cemetery and the burial grounds of São José de Lhanguene was then enlarged and opened to the public on that date. The opening ceremony in 1951 was filled with solemnity. After the Catholic ritual of blessing the Campo Santo, followed the first official burial: that of the bones of the old settler Vitor José Milho da Rosa. This old settler who resided in the S José de Lhanguene Mission had expressed the desire to be buried there, even though at the time the cemetery only contained mass graves, and his wish was respected. The Cemetery Section of the City Council exhumed his bones [from the São José de Lhanguene Mission] placed them in a small urn and this was the first official burial in the new Cemetery, giving his grave Number 1.

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So with that, the members visit a few more of the graves and offered prayers. Most of those buried had pioneering roles with the establishment and growth of the Baha’i Faith in Mozambique. Papa and Mama Sabapathy arrived from Malaysia in 1970s just as the country become independent; Papa Nduna whose grave could not be located was one of the founding members of Local Spiritual Assembly; Mama Charlotte arrived from the USA in the 1950s and was later deported for her activities not returning permanently to Mozambique until 1983.

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The catalyst for this event was the rehabilitation of the grave site of Mama Charlotte which was completed in June. The site had over the last twenty years degraded and the gravestone had been damaged. Vandalism and theft are an on-going concern at the cemetery which has lead certain improvisations such as the installation of steel barriers and monthly payments to the staff to “stand guard”.

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I continue my exploration of the films on the Criterion Channel and stumbled upon the works of Claire Denis, the stumble eventually turned into a week-long binge on titles related or set in Africa – both pre-colonial and post-colonial.

My first stop was the movie Chocolat released in 1988, taking place in Cameroon, West Africa. The story is told from the perspective of France a young girl living in the country while it was still a possession of France. France befriends Protée, a quiet and diligent house servant who seems to understand and appreciate her childlike aloofness of the situation they are in.

While not specified, the story appears to be set around the late 1950s – just before the independence of Cameroon – and the sense of hostility is palpable. France’s father, Marc, appears to play the part of an administrative official; while his wife Aimee spends the long days while he is away tending to the affairs of the house. For their part, Marc & Aimee have settled well into the idyllic colonial life. They know their stay is uncertain but they have developed love and respect for the land which they live in.

This is highlighted especially through the relationships with their staff who also concede to their authority. This is until one day when a plane crash forces the family to take in a number of strangers whose own opinion in respect of the above delicate arrangement is different to say the least.

It is also worth mentioning that the relationships like many other things (as we now know) may have been undergoing a transition. France seems unaware of her place as a colonial settler; Marc respects and treats the African leaders as he would if they were French; Aimee and her girlfriends take a physical liking to Protée – all of which would be unthinkable had the story been placed only few decades earlier.

The arrival of Luc, a drifter in the plane that unexpectedly lands further accelerates this process of disorder. Luc engages in behavior that is both confrontational and provocative. He picks up on Aimee’s romantic feelings for Protée; showers in Protee’s outdoor bathroom; openly reads literature that denigrates Africans and continually challenges the status quo. Other characters too from the plane openly hurl insults at the servants and doctors much to the consternation of both Marc and Aimee.

The film does not make a reference to either a beginning nor the end of this era but any viewer who is remotely familiar with Africa’s history knows that what could follow is most likely a war and the mass flight of the settler population. The movie flashes back and forth between the past and the present. We are shown a grown up and contemplative France who has returned to Cameroon and has befriended an African, who is in a strange twist an African American who himself has returned to the land of his ancestors in an attempt to reconcile lingering feelings of attachment. Will the white African and the black African be able to see eye to eye, who is more an African? These are some of the questions being asked.