Dismantling Violence in Mozambique

I love this country and I hate it. It is my country, its blood flows in my veins. No one who has not lived like this can understand. The war has gotten into us all, it lives in us, affecting our every move and thought. If I walk outside I wonder if today is the day I will die … the terror lives in me … the war lives in us. 1 In her ethnography A Different Kind of War, Carolyn Nordstrom (1997) gives a detailed account on how the war stories Mozambican civilians told each other helped them survive the atrocities of war as they rebuilt their devastated lives and society.

After a long and meaningless war during which one million out of sixteen million Mozambicans died and four million people were dislocated from their homes by only sixty thousand military and rebel troops, civilians were determined to dismantle the violence and establish peace (Nordstrom 212). Nordstrom traveled throughout Mozambique and did intensive research in the north-central province of Zambezia from 1989 to 1996.

During this time she experienced war, along with the civilians, and diligently recorded their stories which helped her “to understand the presence of self and creativity that average people exhibit in both surviving military violence and forging new worlds to replace those shattered by war” (Nordstrom 9). She was an engaged observant and hence an active and reflexive producer of knowledge. In her book, Nordstrom includes myths, songs, stories, and poetry that reveal ordinary people’s and children’s resistance to war and their “world making and self-affirmation” (204). War makers in Mozambique were numerous.

The politicians, the soldiers, the looters, the traders, the merchants, and the civilians of all ages, were participants in the war, one way or another. They shared a “culture of war” but each experienced war in a unique and different way. She concludes that it was this “shared culture, this cross-fertilization of ideas extending beyond local and regional communities … [that] ‘created the conditions for new ways of coping and knowing'” (11). She recognized a “creativity” in ordinary people, not only to survive but to rebuild their lives in a new and imaginative way.

This paper will explore Nordstrom’s notion of understanding war and creatively overcoming violence through shared stories. Nordstrom argues that violence is a learned cultural product. She disagrees with the Hobbesian notion that “the natural state of humans is a violent one” and that only the elite or the institutions can achieve order in a state (12). In Mozambique, she came to realize that “innovative solutions to society and war were instituted largely by average citizens who found themselves on the frontline of political violence they neither started nor supported” (Nordstrom 13).

Mozambicans had the courage and the skills to resist violence. For they too had realized that violence is learned, and therefore, can be unlearned. Violence was multi-layered. It was not only physical but also psychological. A woman expresses: “they have not just killed my family and taken my home, they have killed my soul. They have spit on it and killed it” (Nordstrom 114). Civilians were “exposed to homelessness, hopelessness, helplessness, and inhumanity” (Nordstrom 141). People experienced violence at many levels and in different ways.

For many violence was insufficient food and goods, or being a deslocado (an outsider in a new area), or not knowing if other family members were alive or dead, or not being able to give the dead proper burials, or physical torture (rape, mutilations), or sleeping in the bush like animals (Nordstrom 121-125). War exhausted the Mozambicans. “The killing fields of Africa” saw “the most violent and devastating [war] of contemporary times” (Nordstrom 39). Therefore, Mozambicans were not only interested in survival but also wanted to put an end to the meaningless killings.

They began “the war against war” (Nordstrom 147). They set out to “de-legitimize violence” and “reconstruct a new political culture” (Nordstrom 143). Healers and teachers started physical and psychological care, believing that violence is learned therefore can be unlearned. “They treated violence like any other disease” and helped the deslocados to build new places to live (Nordstrom 144). Rituals were performed to commemorate the dead. Continuous cleansing ceremonies were held to heal the physical and emotional wounds.

People who returned to their villages were given physical and spiritual baths in order to reclaim a new life and reenter their communities. “Reintegration helped a person reconstruct a viable life” (Nordstrom 146). Anger was redirected by allocating land to people to restart farming. Returning soldiers underwent ceremonies which “removed the war from them” (Nordstrom 147). Ceremonies were also held to calm the spirit of the dead, whose death was meaningless, or they were deprived of a proper burial, so that their spirits would not come back and harm their families and communities (Nordstrom 161,162). Stories of atrocities were shared.

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