Friday, August 15, 2008

The Breadmakers


My apartment is packed into a tightly stacked series of block-like buildings, a product of the hasty Portuguese construction period that has left its architectural mark throughout this land. Each night, after the sun has set beneath a brilliant backdrop of reds and purples, and the urgent sounds of traffic and horns outside have finally died down, the breadmakers arrive at their post in the bakery next door to begin their evening shift. Through my kitchen window I can look out across the alley and see these men standing in two rows around a large metal table. To their left is a large vat of fresh dough. To their right, the mouth of a wood-fired brick oven, piping red. With the precise rhythm that is borne from countless hours of repetition, their hands move collectively as a unit, grabbing small portions of dough to throw into a roll on the table in front of them, pass down the line, and send into the fire. I would have never noticed this nightly event were it not for their singing; to make the hours pass, the entire group—maybe 12 of them—combine their voices and construct old traditional songs deep into the night. There is usually one man who sings the main verses, his voice carrying loudly over the rest, telling ancient tales that I wish I could understand. Others punctuate his performance with periodic tones or words repeated over and over. Beneath it all, a few hum low, loud and steady—filling the room with sound you can almost see. Put together, this collection of sounds creates a complex, soul-stirring epic that is neither (or both?) joyful nor sorrowful, and seems to shake the whole building down until the music spills out into the alleyway and bounces this way and that. I think to myself how lucky I am to be living here, in this place that at first appeared to be a drab slum, but at night soon transformed into a place alive with tradition and meaning. Each morning I head downstairs to buy a few rolls for breakfast, and am greeted by the bakers behind the counter dressed in all white. After so many visits, they’ve begun to tease me a little in the way that is uniquely Mozambican: as I stepped up to place my order yesterday, one of the younger ones came forward, and with a completely straight face offered me his half eaten bean cake. I stood there dumbfounded for a few seconds before I realized it was a joke.

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