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May 25, 2002

Time to make the Massa!

Women in Moçambique are strong, in the very holistic sense of the word. They have a strength of character that is unbreakable, spiritual strength, and physical strength. I am in awe. Women in Moçambique and in may countries throughout Africa do an extreme amount of work on a day to day basis. There is firewood to gather, children to tend, food to cook, clothes to wash, water to fetch, farms and animals to care for, and much much more.

This week, I had the opportunity to have just one lesson in a job typically done by women in Moçambique: Making Massa.

Massa is a staple here. It is made from corn flour and is cooked to form a thick paste, almost like a smooth oatmeal. The name for cement is also 'massa' and I think that helps to describe the texture. Most people in this area eat massa at every meal. It is inexpensive and it is filling, very important qualities when there might not be other food to eat.

To actually make the massa, though, is an extensive process which is almost entirely the work of the women here. Walking through any given village at any given time, the women can be seen at all stages of massa making. First, of course, the corn has to be planted, grown, and harvested. Then, the corn has to be dried out in the sun. Once the corn is dried, it is placed in a very shallow basket to separate the kernel from all other parts. The basket is moved up and down in a very rhythmic fashion. The kernels move to the side closest to the woman and the extra moves to the far side to be tossed out. It looks and sounds simple....I had the opportunity to try. Women in Moçambique have been doing this for hundreds of years. I am sure that it is not ever something that a girl learns in a lesson from her mother. It is just something that is done. But, for me, it did not come so naturally, much to the delight of my mentors. One of the students at the vocational school sat behind me and held my hands in hers as we moved the basket together. Again, the patience of the people here astounds me. And, the students are endlessly eager to have me experience all aspects of their lives. It took me much longer to complete the separation of the kernel and the extra than it took them, but I learned. Although I am sure that I still need practice.

Making MassaAfter the kernels are all separated, it is time to grind them. The women use what looks like an enormous pestle and mortar from pharmacies of old. Part of a tree trunk is hollowed out to form the base which stands about 3 feet high. The pestle is a polished wooden beam about 5 feet in length and easily weighing 20 pounds. The corn kernels are placed into the base. The women take the beam in their hands, raise it above their heads and, with great force and speed, lower the beam into the corn. Again and Again and Again. Until the corn is ground into a flour. It almost sounds like music to listen to them work. There is the thud of the beam hitting the corn and the slight grunt that the women make because of the physical exertion.

Once the corn is fully ground into the flour, it is allowed to dry again. At that point, the flour can be mixed with water over a very high flame to form the massa.

And, the next day, it is done all over again.