Chivambo loved to tell stories, but this one was his favourite. He told it as often as he could. Some heard it when he was preaching in the Presbyterian Church at Chamanculo, back in the 1960s. His colleagues listened to it in the dormitory of the mission college. And others still heard it as they lugged their weapons on their shoulders, on the march to liberation.
Once upon a time…
A man caught a tiny eagle chick. He took it home and put it in the hen-house. Brought up like a chicken, the eagle even ate what ducks ate. It behaved like a true chicken.
A biologist passed by one day and, astonished, asked:
“An eagle in a hen-house?”
“It was an eagle, but I turned it into a chicken in spite of its size,” the owner of the hen-house replied, as proud as could be.
“No,” the biologist replied. “An eagle is an eagle. It was born to rule the loftiest realms of the sky.”
“This one here? It’ll never fly!”
They argued. The owner of the hen-house was adamant, and so they made a bet. The biologist lifted the weighty bird on high and said:
“Eagle, oh eagle, open your wings and fly.”
The bird looked this way and that. It saw the chickens pecking at the grain. It returned to the ground and went on with its life as a chicken. Its owner, all smug, commented:
The biologist didn’t give up.
They carried out the experiment three more times, and nothing happened! The eagle really was a chicken. On the fifth occasion, the biologist forced the eagle to gaze at the sun while he implored:
“Eagle, oh eagle, open your wings and fly!”
The magnificent bird opened its wings and launched itself into flight, higher and higher, until it disappeared over the horizon.
Eagles, like swallows, are the children of freedom.
“You’re out of your mind, Lurdes,” the girl friends from her part of town told her, “you’re not a woman!”
“Why? What does it mean to be a woman?” She asked, in disbelief.
“Oh, what a daft question!” They said contemptuously. “Haven’t you ever seen them in magazines or soaps?”
“I’ve no intention whatsoever of wasting my time braiding dolls’ hair,” she replied angrily.
“But you should busy yourself with women’s things. For example, you should worry about looking more sensual. Prepare your trousseau. Do a cookery course, then another one on etiquette, while you wait for a man to come along, to marry and have children with. Isn’t that what women are good for?”
“I’ll do all that one day!…”
“One day? Do you mean you’re going to waste your youth waiting for that day?”
Human blindness manifests itself when it comes up against the chosen few. As we contemplate geniuses, we the mediocre, find them different, strange, curious and worthy of the harshest criticism. In confronting them, we feel we are perfect, and time after time we injure them with the poisonous sabres hidden in our tongues…
“I know a good stylist. Do you want to come?”
“I haven’t got time, I’m training.”
“Oh, that’s all we needed to know. Don’t come and tell us tomorrow that you haven’t got a
“The swallows, swooping around in the sky, are my inspiration. When I’m chasing a ball across the turf, I feel as if I’m flying to conquer the world. I’m going to join a soccer team. What’s wrong with that?”
“You’re going to wreck your body, Lurdes! You’ll end up with rock-hard muscles. Men like women whose skin is as smooth as the fruit of the cashew. They like soft muscles like the flesh of a young chicken. You’re going to play football? You’ve gone stark raving mad.”
“Yes, I may be mad. But I’m drawn to soccer. Can we go to your stylist after I’ve done my training and played in the cup?”
“You must be joking! The two things just don’t go together. You either choose one or the other.”
“All right. I’ll think about it, but please, let me fulfil my dreams and follow my own path.”
No one quite understood how she managed to join a men’s soccer club. She must have been chosen out of curiosity or as an experiment. Or out of respect for the article in the constitution concerning the equality of men and women. Maybe because they forgot to insert in the laws governing football that this sport was the exclusive preserve of men. Or it was a mere oversight, because no one had ever imagined such embarrassing circumstances!
On the day of the game, she performed like a maestro and scored the goals for her team of men. She played with elegance, and without any inhibitions, much to everyone’s astonishment.
“But who scored?”
After the goal they had all longed for, came the team’s embarrassment. How could they celebrate their goal with the usual effusive bear hugs, embraces, high jinks, carrying the goal scorer on their backs, leaping across the field like goats frolicking in the fields, if she was a woman? How could they hug her, pummel her, carry her, in all that mad, joyous freedom, if a woman’s body can only be touched by her man?
The radio commentators provided a terse description of events. They didn’t know quite what to say, a journalistic jargon for goals scored by a woman hadn’t yet been developed. To try and remedy the situation, the announcer made a string of stupid comments.
“Oh, how weird. The winning goals were scored by a woman rather than a man,” the commentator cried. “Women don’t usually play soccer.”
It wasn’t long before this awkwardness spread throughout the team. For the men began to feel they were lesser men and she, a woman, felt more powerful than them.
“It’s damaging for team morale,” the coaches claimed. “This woman can’t remain here.”
The coach of the opposing team barked at his players.
“I’ve spent the best part of my time and most of my energy, coaching a team of clucking hens. At least if you were hens, you might lay a goal. As men, you’re supposed to be better than her. As for her, she’s really good. She’s an eagle in a hen-house full of male chickens. I can’t take such humiliation, I resign!”
This girl’s case shook the whole country. The men defended their domain by decree. “She can no longer play,” they said. That was the rule. Let it be carried out. And so Lurdes was legally removed from the sanctuary of men.
The women celebrated her removal. For a woman had to focus on her beauty to be a proper woman. She should wear her make-up. She should be a true ‘miss’, well groomed and sleek, like a prize filly. The men celebrated. For it is so embarrassing to have a female rival. A woman’s victory signifies man’s dishonour.
Poor Lurdes. She had to endure pressure from women. She courageously put up with the exclusion of men, who swiftly removed her in the name of the law. She was discussed at the highest level in meetings only attended by men wearing suits and ties, she was discussed at meetings in bars, by market women, by journalists, commentators, sports personalities, who all devoted their time to her story. It must have been even harder for her to hear her case being broadcast to the four points of the compass, by newspapers, the radio and television.
One day, a man passed by and saw a female player of exceptional stature among the team. He approached her and said:
“Girl, you are magnificent. You belong among the gods.”
At the time, she didn’t understand what was going on.
Then the man led her away from the team and said:
“Girl, you’re an eagle! You belong in the sky, and not on the ground. Open your wings and fly.”
She looked around in every direction and shuddered, overcome by fear of height. And she didn’t fly.
She tried again, her gaze fixed on the golden sun. She concentrated hard and took off in flight. She soared higher and higher until she was no more than a dot on the far horizon.
She was, after all, a golden eagle.
Golden Eagle was also the name of the club from which she had been banned by decree. In this world of ours, the blind are unable to glimpse the truth. They removed the eagle from the club and were left with a bunch of chickens, because they failed to realise that she was the real golden eagle!
At school, they called her Maria de Lurdes. Others just knew her as Maria. Her surname was Mutola, because her ancestors rubbed their bodies with the sacred oil of the mafura tree. They daub – or as we say in our language, they ‘tole’ – their bodies with oil, thus giving meaning to the name Mutola, those anointed by the gods!
After she gave up soccer, she developed another skill. She became an athlete. In the world of athletics, she was just known as Maria Mutola.
Mutola eyed the heavens with each step she took and ran with a lightness and purity of soul, lubricated by the m’tona, the magic oil of the mafura tree. In each gesture, she raised the flag of our nation on high, synthesising the dreams of every generation among all the people in our country.
A royal eagle, she flew up to meet the gods. From there, she brought us the warm rays of the sun that comforted our souls and lit up the night in our lives. A victory here, a medal there, our flag fluttered in triumph, until she attained the golden throne of Zulwine’s heaven, Olympus!
That is why, each time an eagle flies past, the swallows dance through the air and everyone in the country looks up ecstatically and exclaims:
“Thank you, Mutola, you are the spirit of Mondlane in the flesh, and you flew like an eagle!
You turned your own body into that of Chivambo.
Daughter of the spirits of the N’Wanti, Kambana, Dzovo, Maundlana, Maxele, Ngomati, Nyathe – the mighty Zambezi!
Out of your eagle’s wings, you wove the Chitlango, the shield, that raised us to the highest point of Zulwine’s heaven, there where death doesn’t exist.
You anointed the body and soul of our people with m’tona, the sacred oil of Olympus.
Thank you, Mutola, eagle of the gods!”
Notes on translation:
Mutola is taken from a collection of three stories, first published in Brazil under the title of As Andorinhas (The Swallows). The first story, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ (included in English translation in Imagine Africa, Pirogue, Brooklyn, 2014), has as its main character, Ngungunyane, the ruler of Gaza, Southern Mozambique, who resisted the Portuguese in the 1890s. The second story, ‘Maundlane, o Criador’ (Maundlane, the Creator), focuses on the life of Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane (1920-1969), the founder and leader of the main Mozambican independence movement, who was assassinated by the Portuguese political police. This story, ‘Mutola’, completes the trio of stories evoking the lives and career trajectories of these Mozambican heroes. Maria de Lurdes Mutola (b.1972) is a Mozambican athlete, who won medals at the Olympic Games in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) as well as many other accolades, and is regarded as her country’s greatest middle distance runner. The daughter of a railroad worker and a market vendor, she began her sporting career by playing in a men’s soccer team in Maputo, before winning a scholarship to train as an athlete in the United States.