Malhangalene is a fairly central neighbourhood of Maputo, lively with plentiful markets, but for some university students it has also become the place to go to visit some very special friends.
The Nostra Sinhora dos Desemparados Institute which accommodates about 90 elderly and a few disabled people is here in Malhangalene. The religious community who run the house open their door to whoever comes knocking in search of shelter and care. People turn up accompanied by volunteers from the parish, neighbours or even alone.
It is a welcoming place, with well-tended gardens and courtyards, and gives refuge to poor elderly people who often have no home or family, many of whom are no longer able to look after themselves.
Growing old in Africa and in Mozambique is not easy. In recent months elderly people have been the victims of increasingly violent incidents. AIDS and the lack of adequate healthcare services have caused the death rate among adults to rise at a staggering rate with the result that the intermediate generations in families no longer exist. It seems strange that elderly parents are outliving their offspring and so they have come to be regarded with suspicion, as if they have stolen the lives of the younger people, often finding themselves accused of witchcraft and cast out from their community.
After years spent taking care of their children and grandchildren, just when they are at their weakest, they find themselves on the streets with no financial support and nowhere to go..
Many elderly people have ended up at the Nostra Sinhora dos Desemparados Institute In this way. While the bodily ills have been cured by the welcome and treatment given by the religious community, the wounds caused by the sense of having been abandoned have yet to be healed.
But in the last few months something new has been happening: there’s a regular date on Saturday mornings that nobody wants to miss. The friends of the Eu DREAM movement arrive and for many of the elderly guests this is the only visit they have had since they arrived here.
The first person we meet is Marta who has been in a wheelchair for the last ten years. She says, ‘What use am I to anyone anymore?’ But then between hugs, smiles and stories, she looks at the visiting friends and adds, ‘ Well, I can bring you blessings……, after all, who else has as much time as I do to pray for your well-being? You have become my reason to live’.
In the courtyard we meet a group of elderly guests who have gone blind and are telling their stories. One tale, sometimes quite dramatic, follows another, but in the end the joy of having young people there to listen to them and to realise that they have not been forgotten predominates and they end up with singing and dancing. They have much to recount about the history of their country, the wars, but also about how peace finally came.
Maddalena,74 years old says, ‘The world changes quickly but we have to remember where we came from’.
From one of the rooms the commentary of the South Africa v Ghana football match can be heard causing much excitement amongst the group of men who are watching. Paolino chats about next year’s World Cup and insists that the young university students send him at least three copies of the photos they have taken. He wants to send them to far-off relatives to show them he is not alone but has friends who come to visit him.
As we are leaving we meet Luis on his way back from the market. He is of Portuguese descent and loves reading. He tells us about his favourite authors. We discover that years ago he was in Italy as a refugee for a few months in Perugia. Cacilda would like to hear more and smiling slyly from under his huge white moustache says, ‘This was the first episode. We’ll hear the second one next time, that way you’ll come back’.
Time has passed very quickly. It has been a cold, wet morning but on our way out, a man with Down’s Syndrome opens the gate and smiles as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. ‘Come back soon’, he says, ‘ when our friends arrive the sun comes out too’.