‘Lost in translation’ in Mozambique

For non-Portuguese speakers, working in Mozambique can be difficult. And entertaining.

Reporting in Mozmbique can be exciting and intriguing, but also difficult and dangerous when you venture into Sofala province – where Renamo fighters are fighting government soldiers.

But it’s the lighter moments that keep us journalists sane. Like the minibus taxi that whizzes past us on the highway carrying what seems like hundreds of goats strapped on top of the car. Animal rights groups would have a field day here.

Or stories from villagers in Gorongosa of the truck driver carrying crates of soft drinks. He panicks when he sees soldiers guarding the bridge. He thinks they are rebels waiting to ambush him, and tries to make a U-turn. The truck overturns and he runs for dear life. The soldiers shout out at him, telling him it’s safe. But he is never seen or heard from again.

That village had copious amounts of soft drinks for weeks. The nameless truck driver is now a legend.

The funniest moment was trying to find someone who fought during the Mozambique’s civil war and lost his leg from a landmine. My portuguese is limited to ‘bon dir’ and ‘te amo’.

I am relying on my translator to help me find someone perfect to interview. We go to the war veteran’s association in Beira and we are given the address of Mr Pinto Tualfo, a war veteran who lost his leg in 1986. We are told he’s just left that office and was heading home. We get to the neigbourhood and ask people in the area where Mr Tuafo lives.

We are immediately directed to an old woman sitting under a mango tree.  Remember, I told you my Portuguese was non -existent. All I can do is watch helplessly as the drama unfolds in front of me. My translator starts speaking to her.

Suddenly she looks shocked – terrified. Then she screams and starts shaking her head. She can’t believe what my translator said to her.

Eventually her son in law intervenes. He speaks Shona, a language I speak very well. What he says next leaves me dumbfounded.

“The man you are looking for died three months ago,” he tells me, “so unless you are following a ghost, someone is playing games with you young lady.”

Naturally, I am taken aback.

“But I was told at the war vets office he just left there and was on his way home?” I say to him.

‘Tail between my legs’

The old woman is still in shock and it dawns on me the mess I have created here. What on earth have I done?

The man asks my translator to say the name of the man we are looking for again.

Turns out he said the surname wrong. The man we want is very much alive and lives two houses away.

Imagine my embarrassment! How on earth was I going to recover from this colossal case of mistaken identity? Also how am I going to stop myself from strangling the translator?

We’d just made an old woman believe the husband she buried three months ago was alive.

I sit down next to her with my tail between my legs. Her son in law basically tells her Haru Mutasa is an idiot and I am so very sorry for the inconvenience caused.

She looks up at me. I wait for her to rip my head off. She then shrieks out laughing and literally rolls on the floor.

“Thank god he is still dead!” she says. “We were married for a very long time and I loved him. But I can’t bear the thought of having to live with him all over again. Once was enough.”

In the end no major harm was done. The incident is simply a classic case of ‘lost in translation’.

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