Written by Mike Saum

Aba na aba kwijaza kibaba.

Little by little, the basket fills up.

The truth of this local proverb is exemplified in the day-to-day life of the Mwani, a least-reached tribe living on the northern coast of Mozambique, and the ministry of the AIM missionaries who work among them.

Of the 100,000 Mawani people, a third of the tribe lives in the city of Mocimbao da Praia. A walk through town reveals remnants of Portuguese glory. Wide, paved avenues intersect rutted, muddy roads. A sprawling city garden going back to wild engulfs a cage that once housed a leopard – now just a rusted reminder of the ill-conceived and ultimately unsuccessful attempts of colonial powers to subjugate the beauty and strength of this African nation. But to truly glimpse the heart of Mwani life, one must walk farther down the road, through the neighborhoods and markets, down to the shore.

The Beach
The word mwani literally means “beach” and life in Mocimbao da Praia is tied inextricably to the ocean: crafting boats, mending nets, and most importantly, catching fish. From a distance, the coastline seems picturesque: an idyllic locale for a stroll or a swim. The briny, ebbing eddies seem to beckon and call forth cadence, but the reality is less appealing. The problem: the Mwani fear latrines. According to their beliefs – a syncretistic amalgam of traditional animism and Islam – majini or evil spirits live in such holes. So instead of using latrines, the people make their way each day down to an otherwise pristine beach.

Boats of every size and shape dot the coastal waters. After fisherman cast their nets onto the waves, teams on the beach assume the arduous task of hauling in the catch. Strapped into makeshift harnesses, the men pull in unison with all their weight and will, and slowly but inexorably, step by step, the nets are drawn. When the fish have been gathered and aching backs have been stretched, the process begins anew. Other fishermen spring to mind when watching this work: James and John, Peter and Andrew – all leaving their boats on the Sea of Galilee for a more important work – another job requiring patience, perseverance, and teamwork. Sometimes the nets come up empty. There is no guarantee of a catch at the end of the day, but the work continues. “I will make you fishers of men….”

Approaching the fish market, the open sand gives way to expansive hills of shucked and discarded oyster shells. Nearby, the mongers proffer their catch amongst the flotsam and jetsam: squid, sting ray, barracuda, tiny sardines, massive grouper. Scattered phrases in Portuguese can be heard among the crowds, but most speak Shimakonde or Kimwani. These languages – like most of Mwani culture – were heavily influenced by Arab sailors who navigated the East African coast centuries ago trading for ivory, precious metals, even slaves. To benefit financially and to avoid becoming slaves themselves, the Mwani adopted Islam, in part, as a means of survival. Now, within the reckoning of local culture, being Muslim is tantamount to being Mwani.

The Fields
While the men pass their days at the shore, Mwani women toil in the fields and gardens, planting and harvesting manioc root, beans, sorghum, and a staple of cultural and spiritual significance – rice. According to the Entwistles, two AIM missionary families working in Mocimbao da Praia, the rice harvest marks the pinnacle of animistic activity. Barred from the Mosque and largely disenfranchised from the formal Islam practiced by men, Mwani women strive to ensure a bountiful crop by holding ceremonies and séances and enlisting the help of Curandeiros, healers and spirit mediums, to placate the dead and communicate with demons. In exchange for a white chicken or a bit of money, a Curandeiro will fend off danger and disaster by marking the boundaries of a paddy with magical dawa or medicine, warding the perimeter with beads and bottles, swatches of red or white cloth, even bones.

“Rice is a major part of their culture, a major part of their lives,” relates Sharon Entwistle concerning Mwani women. “When the rice is ripe, that is when the demons begin to attack. The women will have ceremonies where they negotiate with demons and try to figure out how to get the demons to leave them alone. In speaking with my friends, they tell me, ‘We know we can negotiate with the demons today, but tomorrow they will be back,’ but just for the relief of a few hours or a few days they will continue with the ceremonies.”

In spite of this cycle of fear, the crop must be gathered. After the rice is harvested and dried, the women pour the grain into a wooden mortar and pound the kernels with heavy poles. Emptying the contents into a shallow basket, the women vigorously shake the husked rice. Clouds of chaff dissipate in puffs of dusty waste as the quality product is winnowed from the dross. After one last shake, they pour the rice back into the mortar and pound it again.

The young Mwani church has gone through similar trials. The worries of the world and the daunting bonds of culture have pounded the burgeoning yet vulnerable body of believers.

“There are times when people are coming to the Lord,” Steve Entwistle admits, “You’re excited. You think that you’ve got the core group of a blossoming Mwani church, and then within a month or so, several of those same “believers” have fallen away and you are left with maybe two or three. That’s happened a couple times with us, and it’s been discouraging. But one thing that we have realized is that [our ministry] is about being steadfast, being faithful to the calling that God has given us.”

The Market and Neighborhood
Crossing from the fields into the markets and neighborhoods, sights, smells, and sounds bombard the senses: the aroma of spiced potatoes and flatbread frying in hot, brown oil; bolts of colorful cloth rolling and furling from a merchant’s stall; the measured, ringing hammerfalls of a jeweler shaping delicate needles of glowing metal into rings of gold.

Pacing among the wooden stands or sitting amidst the baskets in the dust are Mwani children. With the adults busy at the shore or in the fields, kids as young as four or five years old spend their days hawking wild fruits, homemade bread, or doce – a simple confection made from sugar and crushed peanuts.

Those without such responsibilities run wild. Throngs race up and down the street, recklessly chasing a homemade soccer ball fashioned from an inflated condom wrapped in plastic bags, lashed together with string or strips of old tires scavenged from nearby rubbish heaps. There is little else they can do. With no supervision and a very limited education system that leaves many illiterate, future prospects seem bleak.

With such concerns in mind, some Mwani and Makonde Christians in partnership with AIM missionaries opened the Mwani Community Center known as Tumaini, a local word meaning “hope.” At Tumaini, children, youth, and adults can visit a lending library, enroll in preschool, take classes in English, play volleyball or even shoot baskets. This haven within the neighborhood – a tangible demonstration of the love of Jesus Christ – provides opportunities for relationships and discussions about matters of eternal significance.

“We’ve seen some inroads into the community,” Steve affirms. “Initially, there were people who were angry; there was a lot of distrust. But the fear that surrounded Tumaini like a cloud has dissipated. As we continue to show love in the community and try to be friendly with people, slowly but surely, those barriers began to just fall away.”

Outside the gates of the community center, a dozen men gather to play a mancala-like game called Mbao, tossing smooth stones on to a hand-carved board with practiced negligence. Months ago, some of these same men vehemently opposed the establishment of Tumaini, even sabotaging construction efforts. Today, many see the value of this positive presence in the neighborhood.

“Things are different now. There is more openness, for sure. We are known as Christians in the community and very often we will be asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ or ‘Why have you come to Mozambique?’ and we are able to come right out and share with people. The time of the closed doors has gone.”

The Church
Passing through the rest of the city, many other places merit a visit: the hospital where Dan Entwistle cares for the region’s sick children; the prison where Steve shares candy and the Gospel each week; the house of Fatima, a young friend and neighbor who died of AIDS shortly after putting her trust in Jesus.

At the end of a long walk through Mocimbao da Praia and Mwani life, one might neglect to notice the small church building – a modest house of mud walls, thatched roof, and earthen floors. There is no banner or marquee, no milling crowd outside, but inside gather the faithful few – 10 believers out of 100,000 Mwani.

After a morning spent telling the biblical story – from Creation to the Cross – to a gathering in town using vivid, laminated illustrations, Steve offered some insight into AIM’s ministry in Northern Mozambique:

“It’s not about the numbers. It’s not about seeing quick results. It takes patience. It takes love. It takes an attitude or perspective that sees the long haul, the eternal picture. God is the one who is really in control, not the missionary, and we trust Him for the results.”

Good things may come slowly, but they do come. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the servants of God, patience and persistence can yield abundance. Seeds are being planted. The nets are being drawn.

Little by little, the basket fills up.

Aba na aba kwijaza kibaba.

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