Natural Stories Museum

It’s 2018 and I’m at my publisher’s office. He’s a friend and he’s just returned from Mozambique, where he visited the National History Museum. He tells me about the collection’s unique and coveted specimens, including elephant fetuses in several development stages. My publisher friend mentions the museum’s simplicity, its discrete and naïve existence. We discuss the state of the African countries influenced by the Portuguese. I’ve never been to Mozambique, only to Angola, but some family members spent some time there. Grandparents lived there, aunts were born there, my mother spent there her summer holidays. I don’t believe I tell him a great-grandfather of mine was the governor-general of that former colony. It’s useless to go over a past I don’t know very well. But today, a month later, thanks to my mother, I stumble across a biographical note of that ancestor of mine, born in the 19th century, in Lamego (a city where I would spend several summer holidays in the 20th century, because my step-father’s maternal side still had a family home there). I find out that in 1933 my great-grandfather set up Mozambique’s National History Museum, which had a different name back then, in its current building. At the time, perhaps they already had in the collection a precious celacanto (Latin: latimeria), an animal believed to be extinct but that was found again in South Africa, in 1938. Just like elephant fetuses, preserved in formaldehyde, it will forever be swimming without moving.

A cousin of my great-grandfather, Augusto Cabral, also had a governing post in a Mozambican province. It seems that that family member of mine had a son, also Augusto Cabral, who became a biologist, sculptor, painter, and director of Mozambique’s National History Museum from 1977 and 2006, the year of his death. In the museum gardens there are murals by the famous painter Malangatana. He was a ball boy at Lourenço Marques Tennis Club, where my biologist relative used to go. One day, the young man asked him if he could have a pair of tennis shoes he was no longer wearing, and Augusto Cabral told him to come by his house to get them. There, Malangatana saw him painting and was mesmerized. Along with the shoes, he got paint, brushes, and a few plywood sheets.

“Platex”. I’ve heard that word many times as a child. These are the plywood sheets you don’t see around anymore (platex, lusalite, asbestos, the building materials of the future are a thing of the past) but over which my father used to paint. He began painting after the Colonial War, where he was placed in Mozambique’s Niassa region, not too far from Vila Cabral, in honor of his future wife’s grandfather, still a child and stranger to him at the time. It was his first wife, now long deceased, who taught him how to paint. And his second wife would learn from him. My father would go on painting for the rest of his life, selling to people in chance encounters. One of them was Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a great friend of Malangatana’s son, who paid him more than the asking price, when he met him in Cascais. (The writing becomes convoluted when the verb tenses mix this way, but I speak the truth, dear reader.)

That painter and biologist relative of mine directed the museum, studied snakes, serpents, lizards, turtles, toads, and frogs, and was in charge of the bird, mammals, and insect collections, worked on radio programs for children, propagating knowledge about animals, and published a book called Mozambique’s Butterflies (when a butterfly flaps its wings in Mozambique), filled with his watercolors, and with a preface by the biologist and writer Mia Couto. Now, with my friend the publisher, I try to write children’s books about ducks and turtles, with him in charge of the illustrations, me a daughter of a painter, he the son of a writer. I shan’t forget to tell him about “Celacanto”, a surrealist short story by Mário de Carvalho a friend showed me once and that now comes to mind.

We always believe history is extinct, until it shows up on the shore once again. We make that same mistake over and over. Like the celacanto, we swim without going anywhere.

Rita Canas Mendes translates fiction and nonfiction, and has published several books: an essay, two reference works, and a children's book, illustrated by João Fazenda. She's currently working on other children's literature projects and on a short story collection. This is an excerpt of a novel that will be called Teoria das Catástrofes Elementares (Elementary Catastrophes Theory), also in preparation.

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