Monday, November 26, 2012

The Courageous Story of My Friend Alberto

As I get ready to leave Mozambique, there is one person very close to me who has a remarkable story of loss, poverty, persistence and dedication that I have yet to tell.  It’s the story of my good friend and counterpart, Alberto Camisola.   

Alberto lives with his family in a small homestead about three kilometers outside of the mission.  The first time I met Alberto was on my veranda during my first few weeks at site.  He approached me to ask if I could bring my guitar and camera to his house to film his family singing and dancing to a few church songs they had learned.  I thought the request was a bit unorthodox, but I was eager to make friends, so I accepted.  On the agreed upon day, he walked me to his house and we chatted for the duration of the 30 minute walk.  That was the first time I got a brief look into Alberto’s sad yet inspiring story, and was the beginning of a friendship that would last my full two years of service.

 Alberto at his house in Mangunde with his sons Isaias (left) and Camisola (right)

I learned that Alberto was studying in 7th grade at the time (despite being in his 30s), and was volunteering as an HIV/AIDS community activist at the hospital, as well as working painstakingly long hours on their subsistence farm, in order to provide food for his family.  Since that first meeting, I invited Alberto to be the co-leader of my JUNTOS youth group (HIV/AIDS music group for students), and have seen him ascend into a leadership position with the volunteer activists at the hospital.  In addition, I spent a memorable two days walking with Alberto from Mangunde to Dombe, a 100 kilometer journey that allowed us to spend a night at his family’s house on the first night and brought us closer together.  Now Alberto is working with my former roommate, Mike, to gain funding and build a pre-school for orphans in the Mangunde area.

Alberto leading us and a gaggle of kids on our cross-country walk to Dombe

A couple of weeks ago I went to Alberto’s farm to help him prepare it for planting.  He had his son meet me on the road and accompany me on the 15 minute walk through the bush to find his plot of land.  When we arrived, my jaw dropped at the broad swath of land I saw in front of me.  I had expected a small family plot, and what was spread in front of me was an expanse of cleared land that could have fit five football fields inside of it.  Isaias, Alberto’s son, pointed to a figure in the distance which I presumed to be Alberto. He was standing with his shirt off in the diffuse morning light with a machete on his hip, and the fragmented remains of a tree underneath him.  As I approached him I noticed that hidden beneath his ostensibly small frame was a muscular farmer’s body with wiry and taught muscles, presumably the product of years of manual farm labor.  While Alberto was clearing full sized trees with the only tools he had, a machete and an axe, his wife was on an adjacent plot hoeing the land that had already been cleared with their one year-old son hanging on her back. 

He handed me the axe and we began taking down the next tree in what seemed like an interminable line of trees that would need to be felled before the farm was ready for planting.  I got to work, hacking away at the next tree with my axe, and imagined the kind of dent you could put into this work with a chainsaw instead of an axe and hand-held machete.  As the morning wore on, I decided that there was no better place to hear Alberto’s full remarkable story, from start to finish.  So I asked him to start at the beginning and tell me

Alberto was born sometime in the early 1980s on a small rural homestead in the Mozambican province of Manica.  The 1980s in Mozambique were characterized by civil war, bloodshed and, for those not doing the killing, fear.  The central region of Mozambique, where Alberto was raised, was an especially active warzone, and rural families lived in constant fear of raids from both sides, RENAMO (the rebels) and FRELIMO.  RENAMO owned the rural districts, while FRELIMO owned the cities, but the whole innocent country was caught in the cross-fire.  If you didn’t take sides with FRELIMO you were assumed to be RENAMO, and if you didn’t join up with RENAMO you were assumed to be fighting for FRELIMO.  This left simple rural farmers, like Alberto and his family, with nowhere to go and no one to protect them.  Thousands of peasant farmers fled to South Africa or Zimbabwe and thousands more abandoned their homes and took to hiding in the mountains of western Mozambique. 

Alberto’s most vivid childhood memories are of putting out the fire and hiding in their house or fleeing into the bush upon hearing army jeeps approaching in the distance.  On one particular occasion, the young Alberto hid in his house as FRELIMO troops approached and accused his father of being in collaboration with RENAMO troops.  Alberto was later told that they forced his father to join the FRELIMO army that day.  I asked him what would happen if he had refused to join.  He laughed and said no one was allowed to refuse; they would simply shoot you.  After all, why would any Mozambican refuse to join the national army unless he was a member of the rebel front? 

That was the last day Alberto saw his father.  He can only speculate that sometime during bootcamp, where thousands of Mozambicans died due to the harsh conditions, or during the brutal fighting itself, his father passed away.  With his father gone, there was very little left for Alberto and his family in Mozambique.  If they stayed in a dying Mozambique, the young Alberto was at risk of being recruited into the army himself; plus, poverty was so sweeping that there was no hope in continuing to raise a family in such a forsaken and war-torn landscape.  I am not clear on all of the details of the next 10 years of young Alberto’s life, but I know that soon after his father’s disappearance he became separated from his family in Manica, and fled on foot through the mountains into Zimbabwe to start a new life. 

Under the governance of the now infamous Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe was actually a somewhat functional nation-state in the mid-90s.  As opposed to the small subsistence farms characteristic of Mozambique today, Zimbabwe was comprised of large plantations normally owned by white land-owners.  While labor on the plantations wasn’t exactly easy living for the poor African farmers who worked them, it was at least a job with a reliable wage that they could take home to their families.  In his late teens Alberto easily found work at a large rose plantation and began looking for a home and a family.  He found a wife and in the late 1990s they had their first son, Isaias.  With the unrelenting work ethic I know Alberto has, he soon worked his way up the ranks at his plantation and gained a higher wage as a foreman of his work group.

In the year 2000, however, there was a major shift in the political landscape of Zimbabwe.  President Mugabe announced that he would be confiscating plantations owned by white Zimbabweans, and redistributing the land to Zimbabwean war veterans and formerly landless black Zimbabweans.  He gave the white landowners only a few weeks before seizing the land, encouraged blacks to invade white plantations, and did not compensate the landowners in any way for their losses.  The result of all this political turmoil was that Alberto, along with thousands of other black farm workers, found himself jobless once again.  Even today, 12 years after the land seizures, formerly productive fields go fallow and the new landowners often fail to achieve the productivity that was once a source of pride for Zimbabwe. Since then, the Zimbabwean currency has tanked (to the point that they adopted the US Dollar as their currency in 2009 to dig themselves out of the massive deflation of the Zimbabwean dollar), and their government has floundered in attempts to right its economy.

After a few jobless years in Zimbabwe, trying haplessly to raise a family, Alberto decided that Mozambique was now peaceful enough to attempt to return to(the civil war had officially ended on October 4th, 1992, and refugees were slowly finding their way home).  Unfortunately his wife was Zimbabwean and didn’t have any intentions of returning to Mozambique with Alberto.  She elected to stay with their son, Isaias, and Alberto was forced to journey back across a border having lost a family for a second time. 

With no money, no food, and only the clothes on his back, Alberto trudged 200 kilometers on foot through the Chimanimani mountains that lie on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and tried to start a new life again in Mozambique.  This time luck, or God, as he would tell you, was on his side.  He had heard about a small rural mission called Mangunde that had farms and employed local workers.  He made his way along the same bush paths that he would later guide me through on our cross-country trek this June, and found his way to Mangunde.  There, with no friends or family to support him, he asked the local chief for a small plot of land to build a house three kilometers outside the mission.  As he integrated into the community of Mangunde and became acquainted with the workers at the hospital, he met a special foreigner who he endearingly refers to as Dr. Uva. 

Dr. Uva and his wife were volunteering at the hospital at the time, but took a liking to Alberto, and took him under their wings.  It was just the break that Alberto needed.  They introduced him to other hospital workers and eventually set him up with a job as a community activist for HIV/AIDS.  Step by step, he got his feet underneath him here in Mangunde and made a name for himself.  Realizing that the only way he would be able to have a real future would be if he graduated from secondary school, he began studying 4th grade in 2008.  This year he passed 8th grade, and next year has plans to move into 9th grade.  He remarried a few years ago, and, in 2011, with his new wife, had his wifes first son, his second, Camisola.  Through his work with the hospital, he received a cell phone and bicycle, two things that poor people simply don’t have, and, with a monthly stipend of 1,000 meticals ($40), he’s been able to add new huts to his homestead, begin raising chickens, and acquire new land to continue farming. 

In June of this year, Alberto received word from Zimbabwe that his ex-wife had fallen into hard times and his first son, Isaias, was not studying, and had been left to fend for himself at the age of 12.  Now that Alberto had a house and a stable situation to bring another child into, he sent his aging mother with money for transport (which PCVs Mike and Mac funded) to Zimbabwe to fetch his first-born son.  Since she didn’t have phone and there was no way to contact his family in Zimbabwe, Alberto had to  wait and hope that his ex-wife and son would both agree, and that his son would make a safe passage through the mountains and into Mozambique to be reunited with his father.  Weeks and months went by and Alberto began to lose hope that his son Isaias would ever arrive.  On a hot day in August, however, we received news from Alberto that his mother had arrived at their house with his long-lost son, her grandson, Isaias.  It was a glorious day and auspicious homecoming.

A few weeks after Isaias’ arrival, Alberto invited Mike and me to his house to celebrate the long-awaited reunion of his family.  Young Isaias was a little timid, and seemed to be confused about all these new people who were now part of his life, but we ate chicken, drank neepa and celebrated for Alberto.  On that particular day, it seemed like we were celebrating more than just the arrival of Alberto’s son; it seemed like we were celebrating every amazing accomplishment that Alberto has been able to scrape out from nothing in this third try at life that he was given in Mangunde.  Getting by on his sheer determination and will to succeed, Alberto took himself from a feeble orphan and refugee in Zimbabwe to a successful and respected man in the Mangunde community.

Mike and I drinking a local beverage at Alberto son's homecoming

Celebrating Isaias' homecoming

While we were taking a water break from clearing the brush on his farm that day, I asked Alberto a question: where do you see yourself in five or ten years?  He told me that the most important thing for him was to finish school.  With God’s help, he said, he could pass 12th grade in four years.  But then what did he tell me after that?  He didn’t say he wants to be a nurse, or a teacher, or even a community activist, as I would have expected.  No, Alberto’s dream, above all other dreams, is to be a musician.   He wants to be in band, save up enough money to get a guitar, a piano, and a drum set, and produce church music with his family.  That’s what brought him to my house on that day two years ago.  He had seen me playing guitar on my veranda, and it ignited in him his dream of recording music for his band some day in the future.  My first instinct was to scoff at his musical aspirations and write it off as some kind of pipe dream that would never come true.  Currently he is years, maybe even decades, away from getting close to his dream, but after everything he’s been through and come out on top of, I can’t doubt him anymore.  If the cards fall his way, maybe we’ll be hearing Alberto’s family band on the radio someday.  

Standing outside Alberto's family's house on our walk to Dombe


  1. sweet story, Ian. proud of you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this story Ian, twas simply wonderful. I'm going to give Alberto an especially powerful hug next time I visit Mangunde.

    And the way I see it, learning to play guitar's nothing after surviving the Dombe walk! ... Lord knows it wasn't going to walk to itself.