Skip to main content

Review of S is for Samora: A lexical biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream


By Simone Doctors

S is for Samora: A lexical biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream. Sarah LeFanu. Hurst and Company, London, 2012. Pp. 321. ISBN. 978-184904-194-2 (pb). £16.99.

This is a fascinating book about Mozambique’s recent history and transition from colony to republic, and the role of Samora Machel in that process, written from a unique, personal viewpoint by a former cooperante (volunteer development worker). Over thirty years after independence, Sarah LeFanu revisits Mozambique and her own memories of the early years of independence and compellingly brings together multiple threads from the history and the present of a complex country. The title is rather misleading: the book is not actually a biography of Samora Machel, although the addition of the words ‘Mozambican dream’ makes it somewhat more plausible.

Taking a ‘lexical’, thematic, non-chronological approach, the book deals in great detail with some aspects of Machel’s life, leaving others aside, and includes many entries providing background information. For example, the entry ‘Nachingwea’ gives considerable insight into the impact on Machel of the Frelimo military training camp of that name in Southern Tanzania during the 1960s and 1970s. Entries such as ‘Aircraft’ and ‘Tupolev’ go into extensive details about the 1986 plane crash which killed Machel and 34 others and analyse the evidence relating to the frequent accusation that this was the result of a plot by the Apartheid South African regime to use a decoy beacon to lure the Tupolov carrying the Mozambican president and his closest collaborators into South African air space and then to fatally crash into the Pequenos Libombos mountains. Two appendices reinforce the book’s strong emphasis on Machel’s alleged assassination: a facsimile of the transcription of the Tupolov cockpit voice recorder data, originally included as an appendix to the 1987 report produced by a tripartite Mozambican-South African-Soviet commission of investigation into the crash; and a feature written for the Mozambique News Agency in February 1987 by the journalist Carlos Cardoso about the details of the crash and the subsequent alleged cover up by both the South African and Mozambican authorities.

The thematic/lexical organisation means the book jumps around, building up a multifaceted account of contemporary Mozambique, using entries which are alternately historical, cultural and, at times, autobiographical reminiscences only indirectly related to Samora Machel. A number of entries deal with significant figures of recent Mozambican history, some of whom – including the artist Malangatanaya Ngwenya and Machel’s widow, Graça Machel – LeFanu has interviewed personally. Despite the apparent incongruity, the approach of combining first person input with purely historical accounts of the independence struggle works, at least for a reader with first-hand knowledge of living and working in the country, although some of the ‘insider’ references might be less accessible to a novice reader.

One reservation concerns the artificiality of the lexical approach which, somewhat opportunistically, uses a mixture of Portuguese and English titles, and some in other languages, to order and structure its material. The criteria for giving some titles in Portuguese, others in English, others in both languages, are not clear. Thus the entries under the letter A are: Aircraft (a discussion of the fatal plane crash); AK47 (about the presence of the Soviet-made weapon on the Mozambican flag); Aldeias Communais (on the communal villages intended to bring services such as health and education to the rural population); Alfabetização/Literacy (on the importance of education to the pre-independence struggle and post-independence agenda); Antepassados (on certain of Machel’s ancestors); Antigamente (on the significance of the term used to refer to the times of Portuguese colonialism); Assimilado (on the honorary white status of certain black Mozambicans under the colonial regime; and Azores (on the Portuguese archipelago of islands used as air bases by the United States Air Force). Most of the entries contribute to the compelling account delivered, but one can’t help wondering if the same effect could have been achieved without the occasionally heavy-handed lexical device.

LeFanu is disarmingly honest about her problems writing the book and the difficulty of getting interviews and pinning people down upon returning to Mozambique as an ‘outsider’ thirty years after her time as a cooperante; the frustration of unanswered emails and cancelled appointments she describes will be all too familiar to anyone having conducted research in Mozambique. She comes to the conclusion, also likely to resonate with ‘outsiders’ undertaking research in Mozambique, that the ‘insiders’ are closing rank and keeping the truth to themselves, that ‘knowledge is property; the biographer a potential thief’ and that ‘the story is not mine to tell’. However even this account of failing to obtain information adds a fascinating and revealing layer to the complex portrayal of the country she offers.

In summary, this well researched book is attractively, frankly and engagingly written and the highly personal approach adds significantly to its interest and to the richness and complexity of the picture of post-independence Mozambique it portrays, including the suggestion of an insider/outsider dichotomy. The minor objections indicated above do not detract either from its readability or from its genuinely innovative contribution to the literature on Mozambican history and society. It is recommended for scholars, students, journalists and travellers, both novices and old hands of the 1970s generation of cooperantes.

Reviewed by: Simone Doctors, independent education consultant, (formerly of Université de Reims Champagne-Ardennes, and Universidade Pedagógica, Maputo).

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 121-123]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: