Have you ever gone searching for someone you didn’t know? You didn’t have a face, or a name or a photo tucked in your wallet, no last address, no trail, nothing. All you have had were stories that precede them. Most people called her “a force of nature,” others referred to her as “unstoppable.” There are stories from the lips of men detailing her sheer force of presence, how tempestuous, known for blowing things out of proportion. She was an irony. Her appeal was her destructiveness because real beauty alters. Wouldn’t you already want to find someone like that?
So I got on a plane, window seat. I stared outside at the tongue of clouds. I read a few chapters of a book. I said no to the drab inflight meal. I rested my head against the window and felt the body of the plane tremble against my forehead. When we landed I checked into a small hotel, showered with water that was a bit too hot and got into bed with the said book then slept before I could finish a page.
The next day, at mid-morning, I headed north for the nine-hour journey. Two gentlemen sat at the back. We chatted and stared out the window, at the ocean alongside us. The city receded behind us and gave way to farmland and humble dwellings. I wore my headphones and listened to Grounded by Theroux and Deeply Human by the BBC. Mostly, I gaped out the window at the passing landscape and hills and clouds. We passed over massive steel bridges and passed women sitting by the roadside selling fruits. We stopped at a long stretch of grassland and bought some traditional palm wine from a group of boys. It tasted of piss. Another three hours on the road; more hills, more clouds. A small stop to stretch the legs and take a piss in someone’s farm. Lunch at 4pm at a small town centre, in a market. Sardines and pap. Back on the road, conversation drying up as the sun set on us, darkness embracing the road shrinking it to a yellow line. No other cars in sight; just us and darkness and the yellow line. At 10pm we finally arrived at the ecolodge, bonetired. As I walked to my room I could hear the ocean and smell her saltiness.
We were in Inhassoro, Northern Mozambique. The lady I was looking for, I was told, was called Eloise. Just one name. Like Obama. Or Mandela. That’s how famous she was.
The next morning we set off to find Eloise.
We drove over dunes alongside the bluest ocean I ever saw. We drove past palm trees and squat vegetation, the sun shining overhead. We drove for an hour before we went over a hump of dune and drove onto the whitest, loneliest and most extraordinary beach I have ever seen in my life. It stole our breaths from our lungs. And it was deserted, devoid of any human or dog, or camel, or men selling curios. It was as if everybody had gotten into a big ship and abandoned it. It was like a postcard, a trick of the mind. This was Inhambane Bay – 470km northeast of Maputo.
The car idled as we took in this astonishing vista. The ocean lapped towards us in waves. Seagulls skirted over the water. We sat there, the vehicle’s air conditioner humming silently, for what seemed like half an hour waiting until finally we finally saw a figure, a lone man, a fisherman, in tattered pants flaying in the breeze emerging from the bush making for the ocean. We stepped out of the chilled car and approached the man in the heat rising from the sand.
He spoke only Portugues. We spoke only English and Kiswahili. Fine, I also spoke Luo which is as useful in Mozambique as a hoe in an ocean. Our driver spoke Portuguese and a smattering of English – enough to borrow salt, as we say back here in Kenya. The lone man was João Mahote. He was a fisherman. His father was a fisherman. His great grandfather was a fisherman. He came from a long line of men who were betrothed to the ocean long before they were born. João could tell how much fish he could catch by looking at the size of the moon and the shape of the clouds. He spent a great deal of time in his house at night, staring up at the sky. You could say he’s always looking up, a statement that can be both figurative as it is literal.
I asked him about Eloise.
He remembered Eloise of course. Everybody around there remembered her. He made a sound in Portuguese and placed his gunny bag on the ground then adjusted his belt, which was a strap of clothing. I noted that his waist was the circumference of a potted plant. In his gunny bag he carried a snorkel, handmade and patched up fins that had seen better days and a small knife – because any self respecting fisherman carries a knife. He – like many people I spoke to – described Eloise like a character from a movie. There didn’t seem to be any beauty to her that I had anticipated, just malice and rage.
Eloise came with her eyes closed, with her wrath folded in her fist and violence raging in her heart. Nobody could stand in her way or negotiate with her. She came with the sole purpose to do only one thing; leave a mark. But she was also kind because Eloise always gave you a fair fighting chance. She warned you. She gave you time to brace yourself, to nail down anything that will be lifted away with her fury, to move away from her. She gave you time to save yourself from her blinding cruelty. And when she finally came, she came at dawn when fishermen were coming back from the ocean. They could hear her howls; thunderous and murderous. When you heard her you just knew her heart was filled with darkness.
The men and women who measure the wrath of cyclones classified her as Category One.
She came with winds of 140km/h and gusts up to 160km/h according to Mozambique’s National Institute of Meteorology. She was one of the worst tropical cyclones to hit Africa on record, claiming hundreds of lives and putting more in settlements. Eloise tore into the coastline, ripping weak houses from the ground, blowing the roof hats off, bending trees, destroying crops, children screamed and animals scampered for safety, she was loud and furious and strong and mean and she kept coming and coming and coming. For two days Eloise lambasted the coastline of northern Mozambique and beyond, punishing it…
Do you know the only thing that could stop Eloise?
Anyone at the back?
Very few things can stop Eloise. In fact, nothing can, but only one thing can reduce the force of her vengeance.
Any lucky guesses?
Mangroves don’t fear cyclones. They stand before them with their legs apart and shout, COME ON, GIVE IT YOUR BEST, ELOISE! The parts of the coastline that didn’t get hit badly all had mangroves because they, and other coastal wetlands, are the first lines of defence against incoming cyclones by reducing their wrath. João didn’t know this. His fellow villagers didn’t know this. Their ancestors didn’t know this. I bet you also didn’t know this. I certainly didn’t not until the International Union for Conservation of Nature started sending me to Kwale, Kilifi and Mozambique to write about mangroves and why they are important for coastal ecology. [I could have just said they are important because they provide many diverse species of birds, mammals, and fish with a unique and irreplaceable habitat, but I prefer to just use the word ecology, seems a bit smart, ey?]
Anyway, João, his mates, and their ancestors had been cutting mangroves for years, to make furniture, boats and firewood for cooking. Of course they had been warned constantly that it affected even the fish because the fish breed in mangroves but not nobody listened. Then the government put its foot down and made it illegal. Then Eloise came and the coin dropped. “Sometimes it takes pain like this to understand how important these trees are.” He said. But it doesn’t have to take pain. Nothing has to take pain if we just treat the environment tenderly.
Anyway, today is World Wetlands Day. You might be thinking, oh, that’s great for fishermen and those who live along the coastline, let them celebrate it. But wetlands affect you. Most immediately one day you will go to your favourite sushi joint and find it closed down. But they are also good for clean fresh air because 30% of land based carbon is stored in peatlands, and for clean water because swamps and marshes remove pollutants and lastly a billion people depend on wetlands for their livelihood.
Turns out you and João have more in common than you imagined. Next time you are at the coast try planting a mangrove instead of lying in your room watching cat videos as you sip a margarita.
Happy Wetlands day from us and IUCN.