As we wandered into and around the wooden cooking shelter, we skirted plates and bowls heaped with the cooked, unpolished rice. Inside the cooking shelter, breathing was difficult because of the thick smoke hanging in a band from ceiling to the waist level of an adult. The wood frame and palm leaves making up the ceiling were black with the soot of many years of cooking many meals. “Ten minutes” was Zak’s answer to Dylan’s question of how long the rice took to boil. Because the Sena don’t remove the starch, and much of the nutritional value, through polishing (unlike most of the rice sold in North America) the grains adhere to one another. Not only more flavorful and nutritious, it is unnecessary to use utensils to pick up the balls of white, with fingers used instead.

Zakarea’s wives swatted chickens who came too close to the plates of rice. Numbering 40+, the chickens too were an indication of the level of wealth surrounding us. “Yes, we eat a lot of chicken along with the meat provided by Zambeze Delta Safaris’ hunters” Zak answered. I then posed a very ignorant question to the wealthy Sena. “And, do you use the chickens for eggs?” Zak’s gentle smile and soft voice asked a rhetorical question in answer to mine: “Why would I want to eat an egg that will become another chicken?”

Getting back to the demonstration of the preparation of the rice for cooking, Elizabeta took the seeds banged into her hand and poured them into the nearest of four Pilaus. Picking up the heavy Rosewood pestle, complete with the artisans decorative carving near one end, she pounded the tip into the base with a rhythm learned from much practice. After 20+ blows, Elizabeta scooped the now separated grains and husks into a shallow, circular tray woven from palm leaves. Flipping the tray caused the chaff and rice seeds to sail into the air, with the wind doing the work of blowing the lighter husks away. As she continued to flip the tray, the remaining material became lighter-and-lighter in color. Finally, the only thing remaining in the tray were the snow-white grains of rice. Nothing goes to waste in Zak’s family’s economy. He smiled and pointed at the ground and said something to Dylan in Fanagolo – a type of communication originating in South African Gold and Diamond mines that attracted people from many different language groups. The literal translation of Fanagolo is “Like this and like that” and reflects the hodge-podge nature of the patois made from, in the case of Zak’s and Dylan’s conversation, Portuguese, English and Sena, with a good bit of hand movement thrown in for good measure. Zak’s pointed finger, smile and Fanagolo translated as “whatever rice is lost during the separation becomes chicken feed.” To prove the point, several chickens charged in and pecked the ground near Elizabeta’s feet.

Yes, Zak is a special case in his ability to turn hard work into wealth unimaginable for most Mozambiquans. Yet, his economic standing is just the extreme of the burgeoning middle class. As we drove away from Zak’s home, chickens and fields of cassava and millet, and his welcoming family, I realized again how fortunate this part of Africa was to have men and women from very different cultures, experiences and beliefs working toward the goal of improving human lives while simultaneously resurrecting the varied ecosystems making up the Marromeu Complex of the Zambeze Delta.

Excerpt from Mike’s Upcoming Book: BRINGING BACK THE LIONS: International Hunters, Local Tribespeople, and the Miraculous Rescue of a Doomed Ecosystem in Mozambique

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