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A parched people yearns for old recipes for rain


BEIRA, Mozambique -- A special ritual has been passed down through generations of tribal chiefs of the Ndau people, who live in the middle region of this war-ravaged, drought-scorched country.

They call it simply "the ceremony," as if there were only one ritual important enough for anyone even to bother mentioning.

In the old days, when there was drought, they say the ceremony brought rain. If there were other problems, they say it brought solutions.

"When my grandfather was alive, he would go to the cemetery and ask the ancestors for rain," says Ines Comanuel, a 63-year-old Ndau woman. "Before he could come home, it would rain. And after three days, he would have to go back to the cemetery and ask it to stop."

Mrs. Comanuel sits on a small wooden bench in her little front yard and recalls how easily problems were solved in the days before Mozambique won independence 17 years ago.

The government banned the ritual and the "regulus" -- tribal chiefs who performed it -- as superstitious rubbish to be thrown out in the new era. In those early days of a now-abandoned Marxist revolution, it also banned churches and seized church properties.

That's when the worst problems started, say the old folks who were officially stripped of their traditions, and who are casting around now to understand their prolonged suffering.

Mozambique has been the battleground for a nasty civil war since independence, and it has suffered one natural calamity after another, the latest of which is drought.

"In the old days, it wasn't like this. We had enough rain, and we had enough food," says Mrs. Comanuel. "But everything has changed, and it's very difficult to understand what's going on."

She said it's especially difficult to understand why the new rulers don't consult the old people.

"There are so many things we could tell them," she says, without elaborating on the wisdom of the ages. Those explanations or details of the ceremony are not shared.

But while the old traditions were banned, they were not forgotten by the people who live in the village-like neighborhoods on the outskirts of Beira, a coastal city in central Mozambique.

Many of these simple, uneducated people were never won over by the revolutionary forces who took over the country in 1975, after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule.

Many believe Mozambique is being punished with drought and war because the ancestors are not being appeased, as they were in the days of Mrs. Comanuel's grandfather, Luis Bumbe, who also was revered as a powerful witch doctor.

"He used to cure everything," she said. "Some people came here almost dead. He would throw the stones and call the spirits."

During the days of Portuguese colonialism, the government built a comfortable brick house for her grandfather to show its respect for his position in the community, said Mrs. Comanuel. Despite their other sins, such as failure to build schools and educate the indigenous people, the colonizers chose not to disturb the local religions.

But the Communist government of the 1970s nationalized the house and made it a community center as part of its push to create a new society free of both colonialism and superstition. As a result, Mrs. Comanuel remembers the Portuguese fondly and, ironically, resents her Marxist liberators.

"Most people still believe in the old ways. Sometimes they come to us and ask us to do the ceremony," she says, but her family is worried about government harassment of anyone who performs it.

The power to perform the ritual has always been held by a member of her family -- her great-grandfather, her grandfather, an uncle and a younger uncle who died before passing on his powers.

But now people appeal to her 77-year-old mother, Rosa Luis, as the person who might have the power to save them.

Unfortunately, the days of really powerful regulus may still be lost. Mrs. Comanuel says the influence of the regulus has diminished because their status as community leaders has been taken away. The government appoints the leaders now.

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