The Lion’s War: Life Histories, Forgotten Art and Alternative Geographies. An Interview with Paolo Israel

I Interviewed Paolo Israel on December 10, 2020, via Zoom, as has become the norm during the pandemic. Our conversation revolved around war and violence in Mozambique, especially the insurgency that is currently raging in Cabo Delgado province. In our conversation we looked critically at Harry West’s take on witchcraft, the limitations of Marxist and post-Marxist views of the insurgency, the ethical conundrums of using data distributed via social media without consent, and the challenges of the double lack of access to a field that has been closed by war and a pandemic.

Paolo is an anthropologist and historian, currently a senior lecturer at the University of Western Cape. He holds a PhD from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in Paris, focusing on Makonde masquerades in northern Mozambique. At present he is working on two projects. The first is a nonfiction book titled The Magical Lions of Muidumbe, in which he blends interviews, life stories, descriptions of dance and anecdotes to provide a panoramic view of a witch-hunt and also society in Muidumbe, where it occurred. The second project is a history of the 1960 Mueda massacre, for which he has studied Portuguese intelligence documents and interviewed several actors.

Paolo Israel interviewing Simon Nshusha, Matambalane, 2014 (picture by Fidel Mbalale/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

A detail about the picture. Paolo is wearing a white necklace, which was tied around his neck during the ritual of kummwangalela (patronage) held for Nyusi during the 2014 elections. This ceremony took place in Muidumbe at all national elections. Anyone who so wished received the necklace from a master of ceremonies (these were always women, the mothers of the initiates), and was obliged not to remove it until the candidate was victorious.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carmeliza: Thank you for accepting this interview and for giving me your time. I’m going to make this an informal talk and see where it takes us. We can work around your research, your interests. You sent me a particularly good list of these, so we can talk around the issues raised. We will conclude with the violence that Cabo Delgado is experiencing today. Let us begin with life histories. I have read some of your writings. One of those that you sent, an obituary of Simon Nshusha [pictured above], was also published in the weekly Savana. You look at the past from the perspective of lived history, and a lot of your publications are about life histories. Tell me a little bit about the insights that you have gathered through this, and how your work has grown into this specific way of doing anthropology and history.

Paolo: Thank you for the question. I’m interested in life histories and in stories in general. As I mentioned, my academic career has moved between anthropology and history. I would say that probably what keeps them together for me is my interest in storytelling. My research in Cabo Delgado initially tried to re-inject a sense of historicity into the tradition of Mapiko masquerades, which were viewed in terms of the colonial paradigm, as something unchanging, traditional and tribal. That required my reconstruction of the histories not only of the people involved, but also of the masks and genres involved. And some of the latter can be viewed as characters.

Mbangi, the transformation of a crazy mask since colonial times

For instance, one of the masks used dated back to precolonial times—the only mask from those times whose memory I managed to collect. It was called Mbangi, and it was basically a crazy guy. This mask, representing a guy dressed in leaves, was used as a resistance tool against the Portuguese invasion in 1917. Essentially it was used as a decoy to scare and distract the invading soldiers, whom the Makonde would then shoot with arrows. From these beginnings, it moved into a genre of masquerading called Nshindo, which is performed during funerary wakes, where it became just a sort of funny character. And then from there it was transformed again into Neijale, a mask that emerged after independence: a jester who does not go to FRELIMO’s political meetings and goes astray instead.

But then I also became interested in life stories. This was complemented by work that I had been doing on the history of the Mueda massacre [that took place on 16 June 1960]. With people’s life stories I’ve been trying to complement the drier histories that one gets from the colonial archive. You mentioned Simon Nshusha, who was probably the first person to openly, if not directly, ask for independence, provoking the colonial administrator into a fury and revealing the activities of the association he was part of. And Nshusha died just around the time of the first Al-Shabaab attacks in Muidumbe, on the Makonde plateau, this year [in April 2020].

Pedro Seguro, voluntary child soldier of the liberation war

There are two other life stories that I have been working on recently. One is that of my friend Pedro Seguro, who was the former administrator of the Muidumbe district. He was born during colonialism and exposed to the structural oppression of colonialism. And then he went to fight in the liberation war right at its beginning, in 1966. He was sixteen, technically a child soldier; but he and others in his position did not think of themselves as child soldiers because they were not coerced. He proceeded with his studies at the Mozambique Institute,[1] and got caught up in the troubles there. Though it was not his fault, he was sent back to the front. He fought in what were called the second, third and fourth sectors of Cabo Delgado, then went for training in the Soviet Union. He became administrator, and visited Muidumbe just around the time it was occupied by RENAMO in 1991. He fought to reclaim Nangololo, and the village of Muambula, from RENAMO. And then he retired, finally, in 2005. He was my host when I was there. His passion was building houses, which he could not do because his life had been captured by the struggles, by the state.

Seguro built a big house in the village, then a pensão [boarding house] and many more. And then finally everything was burned down in this year’s attack, when the Al-Shabaab got into Muidumbe in April. They threw a bomb into his house, and it exploded inside. I think they made this gesture because it was a big house, and maybe they knew it was the house of the former administrator. In the second attack, Pedro was still there, and he stayed a week in the bush before managing to escape, being brought back to safety by his first son. So his is the life of someone who has gone through three wars in his lifetime. In the long evenings I spent with him, during which we would eat by candlelight, because there was no electricity, he told many anecdotes from the war. He always ended by saying “A guerra não vale a pena” [the war is not worth it]. He said that he did not expect to have to fight another war after the struggle for independence. And now there is a third war. It is very sad, and it gives us a sense of what the province of Cabo Delgado is like.

Conscripted soldiers of the civil war

Another of my friends has a similar story. He was born during the liberation war, and fought in the civil war as a soldier. He was conscripted by force by the state, and then was finally demobilized in 1994. In the last attack on Muidumbe he was forced to stay for two weeks in the bushes. His house burned, his fields were lost, everything was lost. And now he is a refugee in Pemba. These are typical stories at the moment.

Carmeliza: Sometimes the personal histories get forgotten in the statistics. When one says that it is the Al-Shabaab, or terrorists, or insurgents, and then the Defense Forces, these are nameless figures. But when one starts naming the insurgents, because they have names, they have parents, they have siblings in the villages, people know them. Then it takes on another character. One gets a different sense of the violence and the war, wouldn’t you agree?

Paolo: Yes. I also think that we don’t have enough life stories of the insurgents. We don’t even have many refugee life stories yet. I remember when I was at the conference at Pemba last year (2019), there were a few testimonies. We have even fewer from the insurgent side. Sergio Chichava just published one. I think it’s particularly important to try to understand events from that side as well; what leads people down that route.[2]

Carmeliza: I like the life story you told about this Makonde kid who went to the mines and then came back as an insurgent.

Paolo: It’s not entirely confirmed. You get this information from rumors. But it’s one of the stories I heard, about a kid who left at a certain point for the Namanhumbir [ruby] mines (in Montepuez) to work there as a garimpeiro [artisanal miner]. This garimpeiro business is quite old. I remember in 2002, when I began fieldwork there on the streets of Pemba, people were selling all sorts of semi-precious stones. I don’t know exactly what they were, but it was tourmalines and such. There was one mine that was at the border between Meluco and Muidumbe, called Shashasha. My friend and research assistant, who passed away before all of this began, worked there, and he told me a bit how it was. There were foreign people who were illegally overseeing the mine: Somalians, Tanzanians. So, it’s an experience that the kids from the village had before the Namanhumbir mines were found. The story of this kid is that he went there, his family didn’t hear from him for a long time, and then apparently he came back in April as an insurgent. The speculation is why. No one really has an answer. But I think one point is that there’s a sense of oppression from a gerontocracy of war veterans. In Mueda and Muidumbe and the whole Makonde area there were already a lot of pensions at the beginning of the 2000s. After 2005, in the Guebuza era, people were showered with pensions. People who didn’t exist got pensions; forty-year-old people got pensions. Many young people from the new generation, they didn’t want to work the fields because there just wasn’t any hope anymore. Some still had a link to that kind of culture, but then all the opportunities were blocked by this big gerontocracy of war veterans. There were cases of kids who went and stole pensions from their parents. There was a lot of that: hit the old grandma on the head and steal the pension in a very violent way. This could build into that kind of marginalidade [marginality] of village youth.

Carmeliza: Sort of a generational clash?

Paolo: A generational clash, definitely. I wrote about the story of the War of Lions. This happened when I was there, and as much as it was couched in a discourse of witchcraft, and there was a tension between the traditional authorities and the state, it was very much a youth rebellion. So you could already see youth tension in the early 2000s. It is probably some of the same angst that has fueled Al-Shabaab on the coast.

The permanence and naturalization of violence

If I can interject something here about the mines. You can find online a short video of torture in the Namanhumbir mines. Besides people being buried alive, if you look at that video, you can see it’s basically a reeducation camp. Because it’s not only violence going on. What the video showed was these garimpeiros who were made to stand still, with the guards going around and whipping them. And then they were made to say things such as “Eu sou um marginal”: I am a marginal. So there seems to be something about that culture that comes up in terms of histories of violence. I wonder if this is some replication here that has a direct link to the place’s history? That is a working hypothesis for now.


If you look at the chicote [whip], the law of the chicote never went away in Cabo Delgado. I don’t know about the other provinces of Mozambique. I remember when a video leaked of a woman being chicoteada [flogged] and everybody was surprised. That has been happening, not every second day, but every week and very often. There are all kind of milicianos [militias] who administer floggings. I think that because of the closer relationship with the liberation struggle, things are more entrenched. It’s my sense, at least, but I don’t have hard comparative data to confirm it.


My research assistant got an inordinate amount of chambocos [clubbing] one time, after being accused of stealing a can of paint—which belonged to me, by the way. When I was away, he was given twenty-five lashes by the policia communitária [community police], which are known there as grupo 12. He ended up pissing blood. That is how it was.

Operacão não pisa pneu [Operation do not step on the tire]

In the 2000s, in Pemba, there was this operation called Operacão não pisa pneu. It was pioneered by Joaquim Nido (the police commander) and José Pacheco (the governor). They cleaned up the streets of Pemba. The meaning of não pisa pneu was that if they caught you loitering about after the informal curfew that was enforced, the police would pick you up and you had to get in the back of a truck sem pisar pneu (which meant without stepping on its tires). They would throw you in.

The curfew was there to crush the criminality in Pemba. And it worked, but it was very violent. So it is part of this genealogy of violence. You have the Montepuez jail massacre,[3] you have Operacão não pisa pneu. Then you have the riots in Mocimboa, which curiously people aren’t mentioning that much. That was a sign things were about to explode.

Carmeliza: I remember Mocimboa as the only place in the country where ethnic tensions come up during elections, even though there’s violence in other places, like for example Gaza. But the violence in Mocimboa and what happened in Montepuez was very particular in terms of consequences and the number of dead.

Paolo: In Mocimboa, there were clear ethno, political and religious fault lines. I was in Muidumbe during the 2005 campaign, and I saw from very close up how everything was completely entangled. What happened is that from Mueda truckloads of Makonde headed to Mocimboa, all with FRELIMO flags, and marched on [majority Mwani] Mocimboa for the last day of campaign. It was really like a conquest march. And then they came back. That was not even a year before the riots, which happened in the aftermath of the first Guebuza election, in 2004. People weren’t happy and there was a riot, a big riot, in Mocimboa in September 2005. But it went a bit under the radar. It wasn’t as bad as the Montepuez case, but more or less the same intensity.

Carmeliza: So there’s a general uprising of the youth and against these old men in power. But the issue with the mines is also interesting. I mean, the violence around them is extreme. Something that people don’t talk about is the youth that come to Montepuez from all over the north of the country. I did five years of fieldwork in Cuamba, and the young men there are disappearing to the Namanhumbir mines. That’s where they go. It seems that even though the Mozambican state isn’t present and has managed to establish a weak unity, people on the ground are establishing their own networks. There are some connections that transcend administrative boundaries. And that takes me on to the issue of forgotten art and alternative geographies. I’m not sure if your masquerades are a forgotten art, because they’re not so forgotten in my opinion.

Paolo: The masks are not forgotten. And it should be said that, oddly enough, they haven’t made it onto the UNESCO heritage list yet. With a Makonde president, that’s rather bizarre. But anyhow, the masquerades are well known. But what I meant by forgotten art, it’s partly a personal consideration, that when you know these places that are now at the center of the insurgency get turned into names that make the international news, they’re obviously framed within a certain discourse of war, as a humanitarian emergency, etc. They become markers on maps of atrocity and war, often misspelled. But each of them is a site of art, of culture, and there’s almost an underlying geography to the province that isn’t a geography of ethnic tension or violence, but a geography of beauty. I could begin with Tufo and Mapiko in Mocimboa. And if you go south, to Mbau. Mbau was the site where in January 2021 the first major defeat by the FDA occurred. There were over 100 soldiers from the Escola de Sargentos de Boane who were attacked frontally by the insurgents. I think twenty-two soldiers died. It was the first military incident where you could see that these people could take on the Mozambican army. Mbau was the birthplace of famous singers called Namwalu and Shambili. They were masters of a singing style in which one voice follows the other. And it’s amazing. These songs are making the rounds now on social media because one of them begins by saying “Why war in Mozambique?” Of course, it refers to the civil war. “What is this war in Mozambique? Where does it come from?”

There was a tradition of masquerading calling Nshindo in which masks would dance through the night and throughout the day—amazing masquerades. In Nakitenge it was the same. In Myangalewa, there were masquerades, songs and timbilas. In Mwatidi, there was a youth mask who went around on a bike, called Naupanga. In Awashi, where the naked woman was killed,[4] there were many dance groups. Each of these places, which are now wastelands, had this kind of deep history of art [see the map at the end of the interview].

Awashi was kind of famous even before this event. Maybe because it’s like a crossroads; you can’t miss it when you go anywhere, you need to pass it. And they sold these roots, ming’oko, that people are eating now to survive. Near Awasi and Nshinda there was this man who sang with the pankwe [traditional zither]. An amazing Pankwe singer. Another amazing pankwe singer used to live around Luchete. He used to wander all those villages, which are now wastelands and the insurgents’ bases, from Mocimboa to Mucojo (Luchete, Naquidunga, Nazimoja). He was a storyteller. I met him once, and I had the good luck to record him. He was a bit crazy, hunchbacked, and he went around the villages. He didn’t have a house and he just improvised these songs on a zither, which he called Iwaya.

An iwaya/magita/magalamponi/pankwe (picture by Rui Assubuji/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

There was one song he sang that was a story of how he was captured by RENAMO people and was basically taken around the province. It portrays a geography of war that looks very much like this war. He was taken around as a slave, and tried to reach the Makonde. There is a war being fought with arrows and guns. The main point is that one should not forget that this province is very rich with art, dance, sculpture and music, and all this is being ignored and annihilated by the conflict.

Carmeliza: Do you feel that this war is destroying art in ways that previous wars did not manage to do?

Paolo: Maybe it will survive the war in some way. But the emptying out that is happening now hasn’t happened in the same way before. Obviously, when there’s war, there’s a strong impact on those forms of expression. The last years of the RENAMO war were the same. People weren’t paying attention to art. But now you have a situation in which from Mocimboa until Awasi, and then up to Myangalewa and the coast, most of the villages have emptied out.

Carmeliza: I want to go into our written exchanges now. When you sent me your wonderful personal trajectory, my comment was that I found it interesting that you didn’t mention Harry West. You mentioned that you respect him and he influences you. For me, you two are the biggest references for Makonde history and anthropology and culture. And I don’t think anyone else has done such profound work. Also, you’ve worked on similar things, but differently. You said that you disagree with some of his readings of witchcraft. I’m curious to hear how you disagree and why.

Paolo: First, I’d like to say that Yusuf Adam needs to be recognized. Yusuf Adam has done a lot of work, so you can’t leave him out of the “Makondologists.” You go to Yusuf’s house and it’s a treasure trove of field notes. I have a huge personal respect for Yusuf. Recently, and this has been blocked by COVID-19, we’ve initiated a project of digitization of all the interviews that the Oficina [de História] team made in 1981,[5] of which 150 survived in the Arquivo Historico and another forty at the Centro de Estudos Africanos.

About West, he did amazing work, and I think he was more systematic than me at the beginning. He was accompanied by Marcos Mandumbwe, who was also amazing. When I began my work, West was the reference figure. His book Kupilikula came out as I was finishing my fieldwork, but I’d read his PhD. I had no intention of working on witchcraft at all because that was his topic. But then in 2002 as I was doing fieldwork, lions began to eat people in the lowlands of Muidumbe, and in reaction to this there was widespread suspicion in the district. Pedro Seguro, the administrator (whose life history we discussed at the beginning), was suspected of being the mastermind behind the lions and of coordinating an international trafficking of organs that these ghost lions harvested. And I was accused of being his foreign buyer.

You can read a lot of things into those events and Harry has written about them. I was there, and I had the fortune to do research with Estevao Mpalume from the Ministerio da Cultura, a local scholar who is amazingly skilled in interviewing. I learned how to interview with him. I’ve been writing about this recently, and just to be able to relisten to those interviews led by somebody who has an amazing skill at asking questions without shame is such a boon. Now I’m able to understand what was going on; at the time I wasn’t. I was just sitting and listening to the translations at the end. Harry came later, with his analysis of this war of lions, about which he also wrote an article, which I think was a bit more secondhand. And I agree with some of his understandings of this event and of witchcraft in general, which can be read as a metaphor for neoliberal predation—the Commaroff argument that witchcraft is a metaphor for popular dissatisfaction with global forces, and that there’s a symmetry between the occult nature of witchcraft and the occult nature of the flows of capital, in this case organs.

What this analysis misses is the violence. I think that if you look at witchcraft as discourse, it’s just talk. But then when it escalates into witch-hunts, which was the case at the time, when twenty-five people got lynched, then you need to have something else that accounts for the violence that takes place. And you need to think about that violence. And the sort of playful, metaphorical, discursive nature of witchcraft needs to be philosophically paused. I think that witchcraft is always both metaphorical and non-metaphorical. It’s always a metaphor when you say that somebody is a witch; you’re always saying that somebody is unsociable or selfish, greedy, envious. You point to some major flaw of the person or you point to some major social crisis.

At the same time, if you discuss witchcraft only as a metaphor, then the metaphor loses its power, because to use it as a metaphor you have to believe in witchcraft in a literal way. And after working on that and after listening again to all the interviews, I think that to work on witchcraft you need to believe in it a little bit. If you take a purely secular approach you’re going to miss out. You need to leave the door slightly open to the possibility of something that’s beyond your understanding.

Carmeliza: I’ll now discuss one thing that you’re now into, and I guess because you haven’t been to the field, a way of following it is by following social media. How has this been? How has it been to not be able to go to the field, partly because of the violence that’s going on so it’s a no-go area and partly because the possibility of an alternative source of information is there. How has this transition from actual field to the digital field been for you?

Paolo: I was in Cabo Delgado between 2017 and 2018. So I was there for about a month when the insurgency began. I traveled around and went to Pangane and to Mucojo in late 2017, early 2018. I was doing research on Ningore. I don’t know if you heard about him. It’s a very fascinating history. He was the biggest witch hunter of Cabo Delgado, and maybe in the country, who operated in the 1980s. It was a mass movement, the Ningore movement. I haven’t written about it yet. But basically Ningore made the rounds of the whole province to exorcise witches with a machete. There was a deep connection between this exorcism and reactivating practices that were done in the colonial period. But he cleansed people during the civil war. And I think there was a connection between that and the anxiety about the enemy. So, we were interviewing the Ningore family, which was from Mucojo. I could see, especially because I’ve been to Pangane before, how the place has changed. It was a gut feeling, but also I spoke to some people. There was a sense of Islamic radicalization in Pangane. It was very, very palpable.

Then I went back last year (2019) for the Pemba conference. Not to do fieldwork, just to attend. And I wanted to go to my Muidumbe. It would still have been possible. The roads were a bit dangerous, but not too bad. I couldn’t go because my plane ticket didn’t allow it. And then COVID-19 came. So, 2020 for me was like these places I have known don’t exist anymore. Myangalewa, I spent three weeks in that village researching this and that, it was taken off the map. People don’t live there anymore. Shitashi, I spent quite some time there. There was a massacre. People don’t live there now. Mbau, Nakitenge, I had a very good friend from there, we spent weeks there. They were the first to go.

So I tried to phone people. The line between personal concern and fieldwork is very thin. You’re just phoning people to see whether they’re alive or not and then they tell you stories. At the beginning of the year, there was this huge trouble in communication due to a surveillance system that the government had put in place. Someone told me it was Chinese software, but basically after you made a few phone calls to specific areas they identified your phone. And then you heard a voice that said with an Asian accent: “Hello, hello, I cannot hear you! Hello, hello!” And then they hung up. I couldn’t phone anybody because my phone had been targeted. So I started changing phones. I used my wife’s phone, then someone else’s. Then after a while your phone works again, so you can phone again. Or else they recorded you. There was a conversation where you talked with somebody for two minutes and then the conversation began again. You heard the person say: “Kaka, umumi?” Brother, how are you? The person told me this a few minutes ago: why is he repeating the same thing? To sum up, there was this blockage of information.

And then the big anxiety, I couldn’t travel because COVID-19 had arrived. I had plans to go to Maputo. I had some hopes to go to Cabo Delgado. In April, when Muidumbe was attacked, I got to talk for the first time with friends. So that’s when the social media thing kicked in. There are several chats. There’s the Pinnacle News Chat, which is amazing. And there are Makonde chats. The media that are most shared are these little voice notes that people send from the war zones. And I can listen to and understand those in Makonde. I don’t have access to any others. They really give you a sense of practical information, or emotional information, or judgment about things.

Just to mention a few that were deserving of analysis. One of them generated the news about the 117 insurgents killed in Awasi by FDS. It was a recording. There’s an intellectual point here to be made about orality. You can sort of gauge the trustworthiness. People always ask, well, where’s the sound clip? A written message isn’t trustworthy. But if you hear somebody saying, my friend, here we are, they are bombarding, throwing this and that from helicopters, the people believe it. And there’s a reason for that. People can read the local codes; people can read the accent of the person. People can understand from the message whether the person knows the local geography and so whether the person is from there or not. People have ways of gauging the information.

Another example is an eighteen-minute clip from a militiaman from a village in Muidumbe, who describes with an extraordinary amount of detail the first hours of the attack and his own experiences. It’s an amazing document that came through social media.

Carmeliza: Now there’s a law against disseminating messages via social media. You’re liable for any message you disseminate. If a person didn’t give consent, they can take you to court. Technically they can take anyone who has disseminated a message to court. You shouldn’t be sharing without consent.

Paolo: That’s interesting. There’s also an interesting ethical discussion to be had about this. I’m one of those who’s against ethics by regulatory committee. How can you regulate anthropology and field work by filling in forms? What happens if I phone a family member to find out how the situation goes and the family member doesn’t know that the call is being recorded? The person phones in good faith because they want to know if the family member is alive. At the same time, they record the conversation, and they share it with the world without any kind of ethical clearance. And that lands on my cell phone. What do I do with this? It’s an ethical quandary if the person who gave that information did not agree.

Carmeliza: Technically, from what I understand, you shouldn’t record or disseminate things from others, even if you share them in a public group. And I think the intention is in a way to control information, the circulation of information related to the war and other things. Because social media is extremely powerful in Mozambique.

Paolo: Yes. If you look at how this information is being generated., one of the major actors at the moment is Pinnacle News. It’s this little independent news agency based in Nacala. And it’s all basically posited on sharing. The way it operates, it has a lot of groups and people who post. Sometimes they just tweak the message. For instance, the news of the massacre in Mwatibi, we still don’t have clarity about that, but it made the BBC and Al Jazeera. That was Pinnacle News; it came from social media. Somebody has either voice messaged or texted Pinnacle, and the news jumped from there to Carta de Mocambique, from Carta de Mocambique to Al Jazeera.

People are following Pinnacle. But it’s very wobbly. It’s a very anarchic space. But when you read news by Pinnacle, it means somebody has said it. And there’s a sort of checking. More, sometimes there are jokes. There was one in May that people were debating whether it was a fake. It was a sort of gallows humor. There’s this guy who phones:

“ – Hello. Who’s there on the phone?

– Who’s there?

– Who’s there?

– No, who are you?

– No, the owner of this phone is dead. I cut his throat. He was my uncle. No, I cut his throat.

– Who are you?

– I am an Al-Shabaab.”

The person who speaks is clearly a Makonde. One speaks in Makonde and the other speaks Makonde with a Mwani accent. He goes on and verbalizes what the Al-Shabaab are going to do. Now we want to get to Mueda, to kill Nyusi [the president], to kill Pachinuapa [a veteran general owner of mines in Namanhumbir – both Makonde], to destroy everything. It was very popular. Through gallows humor, it was a popular interpretation of the reasoning of the Al-Shabaab.

Carmeliza: There are two clips of the insurgents when they came into the Mocimboa and Quissanga, in which there’s apparently popular support for the Al-Shabaab. There’s this clip about a Mwani kid from the islands who kept saying “You know me, you know who I am. I am a child of the land, and I am here to liberate you because this government is unfair. It’s not treating you fairly.” It’s the first time that something is mentioned about the unfairness of the government and the like. I’m not talking about what’s discussed in the Makonde closed channels, but what’s going around in public channels. There’s not been much mention of the reasons for this war.

Paolo: When it comes to this insurgency, there’s a lack of understanding of its ideological underpinnings. I think that partly it’s because we have a Marxist or post-Marxist field that’s so saturated with the idea that everything boils down to economic causes. Surely the economic forces are there, but I think there’s work to be done on the specific ideological underpinnings. And I think that especially in the initial phases of the insurgency, there was too much dismissal of the Islamist side. People have now changed their minds. Eric Mourier-Genoud stressed the local much more. Yussuf was a bit skeptical about the Islamist factor, but now he’s worried. Hanlon did not change his mind. But I think there has been a shift into acknowledging that it is an important factor. But we still do not know clearly what the ideology is exactly. But it is not an incidental factor. This is my take, my sense.

I was listening to Liazzat Bonate talking at ASA the other day,[6] and talking to another colleague of mine, Andrea Brigaglia, who’s a specialist on Boko Haram. There seems to be something very peculiar about the kind of Islamic State ideology that’s different from the al-Qaida one, insofar as there’s much more emphasis on chaos, on Armageddon, on the end of the world. And that seems to be the modus operandi at the moment. This is something that Salvador Forquilha mentioned as well. They don’t do it like RENAMO did, finding support. They aim at emptying out the space.

There’s work to be done in that respect, but from somebody who understands Arabic, Swahili. Somebody who has a good grasp of the longue durée histories. And I think Liazzat is the one who’s best placed to do that.

Carmeliza: In a way, I understand why there was this reluctance in centralizing Islam. Because in an Islamophobic world, to centralize Islam becomes dangerous for the Muslim people who aren’t involved, for the non-radicals, even for conservative non radicals. There are a lot of people who are extremely conservative Muslims, but they’re not Islamist radicals. The point that was made by Liv Tønessen was an important one: that to be a Muslim, if we take this as an ISIS standpoint, is a very narrow vision of who is Muslim. Which means that everyone can be a victim. So rather than a clash between religions, it’s a purification of Islam—a point that Liazzat also made.

Paolo: There’s the whole war on terror discourse that one easily falls prey to. That’s something else you see on social media. In the Makonde social media, you begin to see Islamophobia. With the destruction of Nangololo there was a lot of grassroots Islamophobia. And that’s definitely something that it is very risky.

Another point for which I don’t have clear proof, but one that also needs to be considered, is the history of banditry as a possibility. That’s how RENAMO operated. That’s something that was said a lot, last year especially. That some people adhered to this to make a life out of banditry. It’s a possibility.

[1] The Mozambique Institute was created in 1963 in Dar-es-Salaam by FRELIMO, the liberation front. It was managed by Janet Mondlane, the American-born wife of FRELIMO’s leader, Eduardo Mondlane. It collected funds and oversaw the humanitarian works of the front, chiefly education. The troubles were a student rebellion against Janet Mondlane that occurred in 1968–69. They protested the predominance of white teachers, being forced to go to the war’s front lines, and political assassinations on the Cabo Delgado front (see Costa, C., 2018. ‘O Instituto Moçambicano e o Estado Social dentro da FRELIMO.’ Tese realizada no âmbito do Doutoramento em História. Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto).

[2] More has been published since the interview: see Macalane, J. and Jafar, J. (2021). Ataques Terroristas em Cabo Delgado (2017–2020): as causas do fenómeno pela boca da população de Mocímboa da Praia. Universidade Rovuma. Extensão de Cabo Delgado.

[3] An incident where around 100 people affiliated with the opposition were suffocated after they had been crammed into a small jail cell in a prison in Montepuez.

[4] This refers to an incident where four gunmen beat and shot dead a woman that they accused of being an insurgent. They filmed the incident, which went viral on social media and spurred international condemnation and a report on human righst violations the incident by Amnesty International.

[5] The Oficina de História was part of the Center for African Studies (CEA) at the University Eduardo Mondlane. Created in 1980, it set to rewrite Mozambican history using oral sources and focusing on subordinate historical actors such as peasants and guerrilla fighters. The focus of the Oficina was contemporary history, “focusing on the old liberated zones in the post-independence era, the socialisation of the countryside and the cooperativization of communal villages” (see Fernandes, C. 2013. History writing and state legitimisation in postcolonial Mozambique: the case of the History Workshop, Centre for African Studies, 1980-1986. Kronos, 39(1), 131–57).

[6] African Studies Association, USA.

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