Staple food in Mozambique includes rice, manioc, potatoes and xima (sheema) – a dazzling white mash made of maize meal or cassava flour prepared by pestle and mortar with much female elbow grease. But there’s also an enduring attachment to the European legacy of bread.
The line that beggars on the street trot out is always about giving spare change “so I can buy bread”. They can all say this in Portuguese. (In London the line is usually about a cup of tea). Raggedy kids hang around the bakeries, pleading for misshapen rejects or rolls that have fallen on the floor.
You can tell when the new batch of fresh bread is due out of the ovens by the crowd milling around any bakery, and of course the unmistakable smell of hot bread wafting about. In Maputo I used to join the (fast moving) queue at the bakery opposite my flat, and could rarely resist devouring a hot roll on the way back home.
The bakeries are mostly independent and no bread is packaged. They all make similar bread – mostly white rolls, half size chunky ‘baguettes’ and pan loaves – but everyone has a favourite place, and an opinion about what good bread is, and which bakery does the best for this and that purpose. I have my own views now as well.
Bread is rarely served up with meals here, except with soup, or as a hamburger. An egg sandwich is not a UK-style hard boiled egg mashed up with mayonnaise, but a hot fried egg (with runny yolk) in a crusty bread roll with a shot of chilli sauce – great for street breakfast on the run!
Local people don’t make toast. Butter and jam came from Portugal originally, now mostly from South Africa, and are on sale at inflated prices in the import shops.
So I wonder what it is about bread that is so important to Mozambicans… mostly they seem to eat it just plain as a snack.
But bread is certainly symbolic of food and survival. During 2010 the price of several essentials was creeping up – water, electricity, petrol – mainly because of the depreciation of the Mozambique metical against the dollar, rand and euro. The increase in the cost of living was hitting the poor hardest, so when a big increase in the price of bread was announced in September. There were demonstrations, street barricades and the burning of tyres.
The protest slogans and rap songs all focused on bread and hunger, and in this clip the song refrain is ‘povo no poder’ (the people in power). The police, already known by human rights organisations for its violence and excessive use of force, fired on demonstrators with live ammunition, killing 13 and injuring over 500, while around 300 were detained.
After this mayhem, a government U turn restored subsidies that had not helped the poorest much in any case. Economists report that the subsidies on fuel and domestic electricity mostly benefit the richest section of the population. As for bread, 42% of the subsidy on wheat flour benefits the same rich people, with only 6% of the subsidy benefiting the poorest.
When bread prices went back down, it seemed like a popular victory at the time, and the rioting stopped. But the local people say that the bakeries, while maintaining their original prices, seem to have gradually reduced the size and weight of their various products.
As for me, home cravings kick in at times. One Sunday I absolutely had to have poached eggs on toast… so I rigged up a toaster with bits of wood, a couple of wire coat hangers and a few paper clips. It does the trick well enough and I get that gorgeous toast smell. I also splashed out on a jar of South African raspberry jam!