Tag: Mozambique

Giant rats sniff out TB in Mozambique

This picture taken in March 2005 shows one of nine rats who helped Mozambique sniff out landmines. (Pic: AFP)
This picture taken in March 2005 shows one of nine rats who helped sniff out landmines in Mozambique. (Pic: AFP)

Giant rats may strike fear and disgust into the hearts of homeowners worldwide, but researchers in impoverished Mozambique are improbably turning some of them into heroes.

At Eduardo Mondlane University in the capital Maputo, nine giant rats are busy at work – sniffing out tuberculosis-causing bacteria from rows of sputum samples.

These are no ordinary rats, as they have undergone six months of training in Tanzania. Their most distinguishing asset is their impeccable sense of smell.

Placed inside a glass cage, a rat darts from sample to sample, then stops or rubs its legs, indicating that a sample is infected with a TB causing bacteria.

Once the task is complete, it is given a treat through a syringe for a job well done.

“Within 30 minutes, the rat can test close to a hundred samples, which normally takes a laboratory technician four days,” said Emilio Valverde, TB program director at APOPO, the organisation leading the research.

The project, which started in February 2013, has brought hope to thousands of TB sufferers who sometimes receive false results and test negative using the standard laboratory system.

In 2006, tuberculosis was declared a national emergency in Mozambique, with 60 000 people in 2014 said to be infected, according to the ministry of health.

That number was a 10 percent increase from 2013.

Samples delivered to the university for testing are collected from 15 health centres across Maputo.

Rats in training

Belgian group APOPO is planning to expand the program to other parts of the country, while working on getting the system approved by the World Health Organization.

The organisation claims rat testing is more cost effective than other conventional methods.

Each rat costs around $6 700 to $8 000 to train, with a six-to-eight-year life span.

The cost is lower compared to rapid diagnostic test GeneXpert, which costs up to $17 000 per device, setting the state back between $10 and $17 per test.

The kitten-size rats are also used by APOPO to detect landmines by sniffing out explosives.

They are light enough to cross terrain without triggering the mines, and are followed by de-mining experts who reward the rats with bananas.

The rats weigh up to 1.5 pounds and are said to be “easier to catch and train” – according to Valverde.

Samples pointed out by the rats to contain TB bacteria are then sent for further tests using fluorescence microscopy, a more sensitive laboratory technique.

The results are sent back to health centres, allowing patients to start treatment early.

Although TB is a treatable disease, in underdeveloped countries like Mozambique it can be deadly if left untreated and is particularly harmful to people living with HIV.

Mozambique is one of the countries worst affected by TB and 1 in 10 adults is HIV-positive.

With World Tuberculosis Day being marked on Tuesday, the Mozambican Ministry of Health said it was cautiously monitoring the APOPO work.

“This technique has to be compared to others that are available and already WHO approved, such as GeneXpert or LED microscope,” said Ivan Manhica, who heads the national programme for tuberculosis at the health ministry.

According to the WHO, TB killed 1.5 million people in 2013.

New choir brings opera to Mozambique

(Pic: Flickr)
(Pic: Flickr)

A dozen singers belt out Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in a classroom at the Pedagogical University in Mozambique. The country has just two professional opera singers; this year, the duo are training young Mozambicans to perform a new show based on a book by the country’s most prominent author.

International opera performers Stella Mendonça and Sonia Mocumbi, the daughter of former prime minister Pascoal Mocumbi, have returned from careers abroad to teach Mozambicans from all walks of life how to sing.

Leaving her home in Africa to study in Europe at 15 was difficult for Mendonça, but in Mozambique at the time an aspiring classical musician’s only option was to go abroad. When she studied at a conservatory in Lyon, one of the directors insisted she could not sing opera because the shape of black Africans’ heads affected resonance.

“I was very happy to prove him wrong,” Mendonça says. Her outrage at his comments pushed her to work even harder.

After 30 years in Europe studying then performing across the continent, Mendonça returned to Mozambique to share her skills at home. Last year she launched the Musiarte music school in Maputo. In addition to offering classes in piano, violin and guitar for children and adults, the school is training a choir to perform Terra Sonâmbula, a new production based on the book by Mozambican novelist Mia Couto.

The dozen or so singers come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Those who can’t afford to join pay a token fee for vocal lessons and instruction in music theory.

Mendonça is a commanding figure in front of her students, and she conducts the choir with panache.

“My big preoccupation was that I don’t want to keep this for me,” she said of her skills. “I have a responsibility to be a mirror for young people here.”

Gizela Mangaze joined the choir in July 2013 after learning of Mendonça’s return to Mozambique. “We heard Stella Mendonça was putting a choir together. She’s quite famous among the music scene.”

Mangaze says the choir mixes formal technical coaching with traditional Mozambican styles, producing a unique sound that differs from European operas. “We love rhythm and our voices are stronger and have more body. It sounds different,” she adds.

Terra Sonâmbula – translated as Sleepingwalking Land – is required reading in Mozambican schools. The novel chronicles the journey of an orphan and an old man during Mozambique’s civil war and illustrates themes such as the discovery of national identity and making the best of a bad situation. One day it occurred to Couto and Mendonça that the book title sounded like an Italian opera, and they enlisted the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, the creator of the Kurt Wallander series of mystery novels, to transform Mozambique’s most famous novel into the country’s first libretto.

Mendonça believes nurturing music and the arts is essential for Mozambique’s future. The country became independent from Portugal in 1975 and plunged into civil war after just two years. It emerged 15 years later as one of the poorest countries in the world. Today the economy is booming thanks to the recent discovery of gas fields in the north, but the growth has benefited only a small section of the population and underscored social inequality.

“I think none of the country can develop without developing the culture here,” Mendonça says.

The choir’s repertoire extends beyond the Italian classics. In addition to staging shows at the end of each trimester, they have performed the German national anthem for German Unity Day, and sung at a farewell for the ambassador of Switzerland.

Production has hit a few snags so far. The global financial crisis and Mozambique’s presidential elections this year sapped resources from potential sponsors.

In spring 2010, Mankell lost the only copy of the Terra Sonâmbula libretto when he was arrested aboard the Gaza flotilla. “That libretto is still in the hands of the Israelis,” Mendonça said. “He had to rewrite it.”

Opera is a far stretch from popular entertainment for most Mozambicans, but Mendonça insists the combination of two favourite national pastimes – storytelling and music – will ensure its public appeal.

Twenty-year-old Suneida Gizela Maquito was one of the original members of the choir, in which she learned to read music. She is optimistic that opera will gain popularity as a genre in Mozambique. Her dream is to perform in the United States, perhaps even for Barack Obama. “I want to show them that even in Mozambique we have beautiful things. There is something good, and there are talented people coming from Africa.”

Clare Richardson for the Guardian Africa Network 

Tradition and beauty: Mozambican women’s mussiro masks

In the northern coastal region and islands of Mozambique, it’s common to come across women with faces covered with a natural white mask, called mussiro or n’siro. The purpose of the mask seems to have evolved over time. Nowadays it tends to be considered more as a means of beautifying the skin but, according to oral accounts, mussiro masks used to carry other subliminal messages related to the civil status of women.

Matope Jose, writing for the local Mozambican blog Mozmaníacos, sheds some light on its historical tradition: “The Nampula province is traditionally known as the land of muthiana orera (simply beautiful ladies). The women from that region of the country have a technique that is particular to them: they treat the skin from an early age, using a sought-after forest species called mussiro, a plant that by law must be preserved and multiplied, and that is used more generally by communities to cure various diseases, as well as for decorative purposes.”

A woman from Ibo Island, Mozambique, with a mussiro mask on. (Flickr/Rosino)

In a video by Julio Silva, women from Angoche explain how the tradition has been passed down to today’s generation from their grandparents, and they show how the cream is extracted from the Olax dissitiflora plant using a stone and some water:

“This is the plant that we, as mussiros, use on our faces. It is what you can see on my face, that’s the plant.

I am Fátima, from Angoche. This mussiro, our grandparents first used it to show when a girl was a virgin. Then she would enter a house. They painted themselves with this mussiro to become white, until a boy came along who they fell in love with and married; only afterwards did they stop using the mussiro. Only afterwards, they use the mussiro like this, when someone is outside, in order to be white, to make their faces beautiful. This is mussiro. The plant is in the forest. While we usually go and meet our husbands, the great grandparents go and cut it and start selling it.”

According to Baia magazine, although mussiro was traditionally used by virgins or by women whose husbands were away, its usage has changed over time: “Nowadays, this paste is widely used and has been “liberalised” for all women, from the north to south of the country, so that it can be used not only by the Makwa or Makonde women, but also by the Manhungue, Machuabo, Maronga, Machope, Matswa, etc. It is already considered to be a beauty treatment used by all women especially concerned with African feminine beauty. Some designers are expecting their models to use this “Afro paste” on major catwalks, as they do at Mozambique Fashion Week.”

 This post by Sara Moreira was originally published on Global Voices Online.

A bad shoe day in Maputo

The generosity to be found at busy intersections on the streets of Mozambique’s capital can be puzzling to first-time visitors.

My Canadian-based partner, Imelda, was hardly a first-time tourist — she grew up in Maputo. But she was still caught off guard when a couple of shoe-shine boys crouched down and set to work on her best stilettos while we were waiting for a robot to change.

For a moment she thought she was lucky — perhaps it was a new local custom, a way of offering compliments of the season? But when she looked down she was shocked.

Her clean white shoes had been covered in black-tan shoe polish. Before she could recover, the leader of the shoe shine brigade stood up with his waxy brush and demanded: “100 Meticais, menina [sister].”

In a fit of rage typical of a backhome diasporian, Imelda waved down a municipal police officer. Climbing off his motorbike the burly officer burst out laughing when he heard Imelda’s complaint. When he calmed down, he addressed the chief waxer: “Do Santos, sort out your customer!”

Then, leaving no doubt about whose side he was on, he told the boy: “At least today you can afford sardhinhas [tinned fish].” He started laughing again as he climbed back on his bike and rode off. Imelda was left fuming about corrupt police and — more immediately — about how she was going to address the meeting we were on our way to with any dignity in her smeary black-brown heels.

We were going to Maputo’s Alumni Scholars Club where Imelda was to give a speech describing her experiences as a young Maputo girl who had moved to Canada where she was doing an MBA at a top university.

Clearly the guest speaker needed to look her best and live up to the “returning banking alumni” image.

Her nails and make-up were immaculate and when she got dressed that morning she had settled on a white Giorgio Armani suit — complete with matching stilettos. She cursed the shoe polishers. “I am not gonna throw you a single dime. Just look at what you’ve done to my shoes!”

But the polish boys simply threatened to apply another layer of liquid black wax. The leader spoke: “If you don’t give us 50 Meticais we will confiscate your shoes. Do you know how much wax costs?” While he presented his ultimatum, the other boys tried to grab Imelda’s shoes off her feet. The situation was getting crazier and eventually I threw a 100 Meticais note (about R40) towards the boys, grabbed a sobbing Imelda and rushed for the nearest taxi.

Maputo’s streets have become synonymous with the unwelcome attentions of shoe-shiners. Waiting for a robot to change at a busy intersection makes pedestrians easy targets. Most of the time the boys don’t even use genuine shoe polish, but a dense industrial liquid that often corrodes shoes. Most disturbingly they don’t care about the colour of the reluctant customers’ shoes. They apply whatever they happen to have.

Having cleaned your shoes, it is common to threaten to seize them unless the ransom is paid. As we hurriedly looked for replacement white shoes in Maputo’s boutiques, Imelda could not come to terms with the change in her shoes — from crisp white to greasy black. People like Imelda — returning diasporians and tourists — are the most likely victims of the shoeshine boys.

We locals have adopted a more cautious approach to robot crossings in our seaside capital. 100 Meticais for a compulsory shoe polish? That’s a good day’s business in Maputo.

Skand Felicio is a pharmacist in Maputo. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.