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  • Frans Bijsterveld

Before the Chachacha . .

Updated: Mar 30


Whether stuck on a long flight, at the back of a bus or even lying in bed, the marking of time will quickly give way to a world as rich as mazondo (trotters), cooked to grilled perfection on an open fire. Join Frans on his journey from Sri Lanka, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and finally Holland. The stories are often linked to colonial histories that always find a way of intersecting with Frans’s personal life. He was born in Sri Lanka but shortly afterwards moved to what was then Rhodesia, where he grew up. His ancestors include Döel Zeederberg, who owned a stagecoach company famous throughout Southern Africa. There is also João Albasini, a Portuguese man who established trading routes between Mozambique and South Africa and later became the de facto leader of the mighty Shangaan tribe. He even has a story reflecting the link between Baron Manfred von Richthofen and a small Rhodesian town called Selukwe as it was known then.


San Francisco Book Review


Star Rating: 5 / 5


In Before the Chachacha by Frans Bijsterveld, an opening quote from Soren Kierkegaard reads: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” It really sums up this delightful book as a whole, as well as the sheer joy Bijsterveld clearly had in writing it, as the excitement and life fly off the page as the reader combs through these wonderful and memorable stories. The book begins with a beautiful opening line in the first story “The Junction”: “Perhaps inspired by the magnificence of the Milky Way, African crickets love to scream their lungs out.” It’s descriptive, evocative, and downright funny; a sure sign that the rest of the sentences, paragraphs, and pages will be equally so; and they are! Bijsterveld explains in detail the unusual story of an estranged love affair that ultimately ends in possible murder occurring at a specific junction. The author then links this story with that of a family traveling in a car with a sweaty young boy stuck in the back crossing this junction, with little knowledge of the history that has occurred there. It is indicative of the places people live and the places they go that are steeped in stories and histories of the past. What makes Before the Chachacha so interesting and enjoyable is that these tales take place in countries and places that don’t usually get written about and read as much by the western world, making them both fascinating and very entertaining. Bijsterveld was born in Sri Lanka and spent a large part of his life living in Africa, and the stories in this book take the reader all over the world, from Kenya, Mozambique, and Botswana to Australia to Sri Lanka to the Netherlands. These are stories of the incredible life Bijsterveld has had, but also the lives of his family who have spread across the globe. Learn of sharpshooters who join the French Foreign Legion for a time, what it was like getting in-demand car parts in Zimbabwe, the story of one of the world’s most venemous snakes, a gliding adventure, or the story of piri-piri or bird’s eye chili. Before the Chachacha has twenty stories in all, most of them short and easy to read in one sitting, whether one is at home, on public transportation, or traveling to another country. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed in any situation and Bijsterveld does a great job of immersing the reader in the world he’s describing and taking them to these far-off places, just as all good books should do.



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A teaser from the book, entitled:


The surprise


In the 1970s, the marshalling yard, forever echoing with the clangs and bangs of colliding wagons, had a most unlikely surprise.

To get to it, the surprise that is, one had to cross the Forbes border post nestled deep in Rhodesia's Eastern Highlands and then head towards Machipanda, the first town across the border in Mozambique.The journey from the border post was quick, which was just as well because we couldn’t wait!

Centuries before, in 1498, Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama discovered an island off the coast of southern Africa and named it after the local Arab sheikh - Mussa Bin Bique. It wasn't long before Vasco’s fellow countrymen came flooding into the mainland opposite, by now also known as Mozambique. The Portuguese soon supplanted the Arab traders and became the new colonial masters of all they surveyed - until the locals gained independence in 1975.

In the early-1830s, my great-great-grandfather also came to Mozambique from Portugal. His name was João Albasini and he came with his father Antonio when both were working for the Lourenço Marques and Inhambane Trading Company. Whereas Antonio returned four years later, and, it is said, succumbed in a sea storm on the way home, João stayed in southern Africa for the rest of his life.

The company set João the task of establishing trade routes between the capital, Lourenço Marques, and the African interior, a journey that brought him as far as northern South Africa by the mid-1840s. Eventually, he became a legend as one of few white men to have ever led a local tribe – in this case the fragmented Shangaan tribe, because he had armed them and helped them in their battles with other tribes. His trade routes passed through their territory, so their loyalty was absolutely necessary.

Perhaps I inherited the travel bug too, because as far as I’m concerned, if the surroundings, atmosphere, and language are entirely different, then one only truly gets away. Indeed, Rhodesians with similar thoughts would head to Mozambique in droves, just like my parents who spent their honeymoon at the Grand Hotel in Beira. Others would go to the local bullfights, get drunk and then upset the bulls in the ring to antagonise the Portuguese.

My earliest holiday there took place as a ten-year-old in 1971, followed by another two years later. The first involved an overnight train trip from Umtali to Beira, and just after daybreak, my brother, sister and I all craned our heads out the windows to be able to spot the sea first. The second took place two years later when we went by car. Somewhere near Beira where the road opened up, I remember a Land Rover full of Portuguese soldiers overtake a truck bearing sugarcane. The Land Rover slowed down to let all the soldiers nick a few sticks.

We stayed at the large Estoril Hotel in Beira where my siblings and I spent the day swimming in the sea or playing on the beach. It was a true getaway, with the sound of waves crashing on the beach and palm trees swaying in the breeze. Afterwards, in the early evening, we would walk along the promenade and stop at a terraced cafe. While their kids drank 7-Ups that were unavailable back home, my parents would sip either cerveja or Dão wine that had presumably been imported from the mother country.

The Portuguese also introduced the Malagueta pepper to Mozambique, where it subsequently flourished. This chilli is generally known as the bird's eye chilli, and it is hot. Africans acknowledge this fact by typically stressing the hotness twice – so, the birds-eye chilli become piri-piri (red devil, red devil) in Swahili.

A long time ago, a Mozambican combined these chillies with chicken in a certain way. He began by basting chicken pieces with crushed garlic, lemon juice and ground bird’s eye chillies infused in olive oil. Then, he allowed it to marinate and cool overnight in his cellar before placing the lot in a piping hot oven. Soon afterwards, he noticed a tantalising transformation beginning to take place. The bubbling fat oozing out the chicken combined with the chilli oil, which then dripped through the grill onto the base plate. The resultant combination of fats and solids became his piri-piri sauce.

Word of this dish spread like wildfire, and soon many in the Portuguese empire were eating frango piri-piri, known in English as chicken piri-piri . It is an absolute legend in the countries of Southern Africa, notably Mozambique, Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe. And this is why all those years ago, whenever holidaying in Umtali, we would cross over to Mozambique and head for Machipanda and its marshalling yard.

As we got close to the nondescript restaurant, we could always smell its warm and welcome embrace. Moments later while sitting at our table, we’d order the famous frango piri-piri, then spend the next 20 minutes sipping our drinks while anticipating its arrival. When it eventually came with the chicken on a bed of rice, we’d pour the sauce over both and – as they say - dig in.

That wasn't all. There was something else the Portuguese were well known for in Mozambique. This was custard caramel, prepared in ramekins that were inverted on our plates, leaving a gleaming, cup-shaped pudding with a thick layer of hardened caramel on top. It was the perfect end to a perfect evening. When the time came to leave, we'd get in the car, cross the sea of tracks in the drab town and head back to the Forbes border post. Shortly afterwards, we'd return to our holiday base in the picturesque city of Umtali.

Once, while slumped on a seat after returning from a trip to Machipanda, my thoughts began to drift. Through the haze, I saw a caravel. It has just weighed anchor and has set course for the high seas. Its mast is flying the flag of Portugal and its bow is just beginning to split the waves. The captain's wife is left standing on the dock, waving a sad farewell to her dear husband with tears rolling down her cheeks. She is singing the fado, the lament of a sailor's lonely wife.

The captain is carrying chillies from Brazil and has been ordered to plant them in the home colonies in Africa. He's worried because he's not sure how to grow them or if they'll grow well. But, as he's pondering all this, another thought suddenly makes its entrance.

He begins to smile, then chuckle and finally roar with laughter while tugging at his hair. He hits the deck and rolls onto his back, kicking vigorously at thin air. Then, clenching his two fists, he shouts Yes! in triumph.

Looking on, his men nod knowingly because they understand what’s just occurred to him.

He won’t see his wife for a full two years.




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