The Oil of Tradition
In 1992 the road from the city of Tete to the town of Chitima—located in Cabora Bassa district (as previously known under colonial times) in the northeastern province of Tete in Mozambique—now called Cahora Bassa from the Nyungwe word kahoura-bassa, meaning "finish the job"— was impassable, except by armed convoy. It was best to travel from Tete to Songo (a village on the Cahora Bassa dam) and then continue on the winding dirt road through the mountains to refuge in Chitima.
Chitima sits in a valley with no relief from the sun's heat, except from the shade of a giving tree, the overhang of a thatched roof, or a fresh breeze that arrives in the early morning hours before the sun has a chance to rise. It has been said by some that the name Chitima comes from the word cindima, meaning "darkness." Apparently, the area around Songo used to be covered with very large trees, forming a dense forest that practically kept the day in darkness. When the forest was covered with mist, the area would stay without sun for days and days. Though this dense forest no longer exists, replaced now by open space which keeps the area in constant sun, the name continues.
In 1993, a potter Lodia Magiricão lived with her children in a small, round earthen house in Chitima, with beautiful wrinkles around her eyes. Her husband long passed, and the dried-up fields hard to farm, she provided for her family by making pots and trading them for food. She would tell the buyer to fill the pot they desired with maize or sorghum, and just like that the bartering was complete.
Lodia was born in the village Chioco in Tete's Changara District, and eventually arrived in Chitima in 1988, after fleeing her war-torn, mine-infested village and taking refuge in Malawi with her brother.
Upon arrival, Lodia had a dream. Her ancestral spirits came to her and instructed her to make pottery, showing her a vision of where to find the dongo (clay). Upon waking, she set out to look for this dongo. She found it near the bank of a dried-up river bed, about a 25-minute walk from her round house—she could smell its essence, she said.
On this day, I sat with Lodia as she described the intricate process of pottery making, ending with pieces of bark neatly arranged on the ground in the shape of a square. The formed pots are placed on top of the bark, and then more bark placed vertically between and around the pots, in the shape of a tepee, until the pots are no longer visible. The bark is set on fire by hot coals placed on top. And when the entire bark is burned a few hours later, and the pots lay alone amongst the ashes, she knows she has finally finished the making that brings her survival—her wealth.
Dongo—she said—"It's my oil."