Vovo Monica died on New year’s Eve 2020 in the hospital in Metangula on the lakeshore of Lake Niassa/Malawi. She was turning 89 years old, and was the sister of Padre Mauricio who died earlier in 2020. She and Mauricio were one of the aunts and uncles of the present Bishop of Niassa, Vicente Msossa.
But to speak of Monica in solely her relationship to her extended family is to miss the term of communal respect which is in held in the term ‘vovó’. She was a grandmother to the Anglican church of northern Mozambique, established initially through the missionary work of the UMCA along the lakeshore and then carried by the laity through to the towns and cities of northern Mozambique. During the war for Independence (1964-75), the Portuguese ‘scorched earth’ violence to the lakeshore communities that had supported Frelimo led to many fleeing for safety and new opportunities in towns and Malawi. Bishop Paulino Manhique once told me that:
“it was the older MU women who guarded the churches of the lakeshore during this time.”
Those lakeshore communities planted new churches in Cuamba, Nampula, Pemba and Quelimane, laying the foundation for further church planting during successive violence in the war of destabilization (ending in 1991) and then in the years of peace and the return of displaced people.
Monica had spent some time in Malawi during this upheaval, and received training in church ministry that might have led towards ordination in another time. She put her skills to good use as diocesan secretary under the first bishop of Niassa, Paulo Litumbe. Monica, a strong, dignified, able and natural leader, was President of the Mother’s Union for 26 years (1970-96), an organization introduced during the 1950’s by missionaries, and becoming a women’s movement under local women’s leadership. Monica’s responsibilities meant she travelled to visit the entire lakeshore and the new urban churches, and was well respected. I remember with a smile the high regard that one church leader in Nampula held of Monica:
‘she made decisions like a man!’
Monica taught me of looking for the true community leaders when a community needed mobilizing. When the Archbishop made his first visit to the lakeshore, she was the one who visited me to hear the plans and then to gather the community to receive our visitor with generous lakeshore hospitality. For Monica, love was expressed in gifts of generosity.
With Monica as my mentor, I learnt two expressions: she was the one from whom I first heard
‘Deus é grande’,
a phrase that spoke of confidence in the hidden God, and yet also the frustration of powerlessness of those on the margins; and Monica showed me the resistance and soul-making that is voiced in communal dance. She led the women in dance when a visitor spoke of the reality of domestic violence, and she was at the front of the dance that celebrated the women’s ordination at my first parish church in Lichinga. She was in the midst of the dance at the MU conference we held in 2003 when the women heard the poetry of Mercy Amba Oduyoye:
‘Dream, woman, dream…be a woman and Africa will be strong’.
I acknowledge Vovó Monica and the generations of women before and after her in my book, ‘Dancing their Dreams: the Lakeshore Nyanja women of the Anglican Diocese of Niassa’, published through the University of Malawi (2005). I still agree with what I wrote then – that my life has been made immeasurably richer through Monica and the women of Niassa, and that I hope one day that their voices will be heard among the powerful of the world. They still dance, and I still pray for their tears and dreams to be realized, even in the lives of their grandchildren’s children.