What I Might Not Have Learned from the Cabora Bassa Dam

El Reino del Cafe


The Cabora Bassa Dam had been under construction for years when I first became aware of Mozambique. Mozambique, along with Angola and Guinea Bissau, was one of three major African territories occupied by Portuguese forces. All were in open rebellion. Portugal, the oldest European colonial power, was determined to hold on at any cost to its primary sources of wealth. A US war was in full swing in the former French colony of Vietnam. Portugal relied on US weapons and advice to conduct their own war in the colonies – complete with the napalming of villages, corralling farmers into “strategic hamlets” and terrorizing the population from the sky. Portuguese commander Kaluza de Arriaga even flew to Washington to absorb wisdom from US General William Westmorland.

The faltering Portuguese dictatorship saw the dam – slated to be the largest in Africa – as the solution to a multitude of problems. It would mean economic salvation, supplying electricity to all of southern Africa. It would be a military asset, effectively blocking guerrilla infiltration from Zambia and a large section of the Malawi border. Just as important, it would boost Portugal’s prestige, showing it to be an important regional player: one committed to developing – not just exploiting – its colonies. The pace of construction increased as the independence movement led by the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) gathered momentum. Frelimo was as interested in stopping the project as Portugal was in constructing it. This contest would teach me an enduring lesson… or not.

The tie-in with Viet Nam was just one reason I became interested in Mozambique. Another was that, along with the other major territories (as well as Cape Verde, East Timor and Sao Tome) it was one of the last old-style colonies dating from the early conquest era – as was my Puerto Rican homeland where independence agitation was at a high point.

I was a teenager when word came that Frelimo had destroyed the dam, dealing a crushing blow to Portugal’s dreams of glory. This was one of Frelimo’s prime strategic objectives. The jubilation would turn out to be short-lived. By 1974 the strains of multiple colonial wars had become too much and the government in Lisbon was toppled in a junior officers’ rebellion. Thus ended a dictatorship that – like that of Spain’s Franco (who died the following year) – had been passively allied with Hitler and Mussolini. Sooner than they could have expected Frelimo leaders found themselves in the capital figuring out how to finance the dam’s completion.

The lesson stuck in my mind. People fighting immense odds often do not consider the conditions they will face if they win. Even if they have faith in victory it seems distant from the pressing needs of the moment. I would encounter this dynamic – sometimes in harsher terms – in other situations. Peoples that, on winning their freedom, exact revenge on their former oppressors or rivals instead of incorporating them into the project of social renewal end up saddled with internal conflict and instability. Gandhi knew this: the world we create through our struggle is the one we will inherit. We (or those who come after us) will harvest what we sow.

Nelson Mandela was looking ahead when he defended the language rights of Afrikaaners, the social base for South African fascism:

“Today South Africa has almost three million Afrikaaners who will no longer be oppressors after liberation but a powerful minority of ordinary citizens whose co-operation and goodwill are needed in the reconstruction of the country.”

I was thinking about this a couple of years ago and decided to dig up the circumstances of the attack on the dam which had crystallized this lesson for me so long ago. It turns out it never happened. The Cabora Bassa project was defended by three thousand Portuguese troops and three concentric rings of over a million land mines. Frelimo never got close.

They did have some success blocking supply convoys and attacking small, defensive outposts. As the regime teetered foreign investors would abandon the project. But a decisive blow against Cabora Bassa? Nope. Maybe one of those smaller skirmishes was misrepresented for propaganda purposes. Maybe someone in a solidarity office in Berlin or Oakland got carried away writing a press release. I haven’t been able to find out.

So I’m left with an interesting conundrum. I learned this lesson (which I remain convinced of) from an incident that didn’t happen. So what I learned from was a story, one that turned out to be fictional. Perhaps it just gave me an opportunity to articulate a belief I held but had not consciously grasped.

I think this is the case. The moment of revelation is the tip of an iceberg of belief that has long been forming beneath the waves. What iceberg of assumptions about love, money, race, food, gender and all the other dimensions of our existence pre-determine the lessons we think we’ve learn from any experience? There are times when an incident can force a choice: when we harbor two conflicting narratives and something happens that tips the balance one way or the other. Perhaps what we think is revelation is most often recognition.

I am reminded about this when reading or listening to the news. Pundits and reporters draw “obvious” conclusions that flow “naturally” from the events they are narrating. Conclusions that only make sense in light of layers of unspoken assumptions about not only the situation at hand but history and power and the nature of human beings.

Forty years ago I thought that a half built dam on the Zambezi River had taught me a lesson about wisdom and foresight. Instead it taught me about humility and doubt. Or did it?

Originally posted to Opine Season on August 14, 2013 

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