Chronicle Charles Dickens in Maputo

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago. He truly belongs to the world literature and his books are read everywhere. His stories also exist as movies, TV series and theatre shows. Everyone is familiar with Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

But Charles Dickens’ books are not historical remnants that have stayed alive due to some strange accidence. His books are alive because they still have something to tell us, about the world we live in. Recently I asked a friend in Mozambique to read Oliver Twist. He had never read it before. Afterwards he thought it strange that the novel had been written about 150 years ago. To him, it was a description of the condition of his own country, Mozambique, today. In the year 2012.

He pointed out that the famous scene when Oliver Twist walks with his empty food bowl to ask for some more food must be one of the most revolutionary moments ever depicted in art. I agreed. It was as if Oliver Twist stood there as a spokesperson for all those starving in the world, both young and old.

Thus, Dickens is highly contemporary. When I was in Maputo a couple of weeks ago that thought crossed my mind everyday. On my way to the theatre where I work I passed a vacant lot where trucks were dumping enormous pieces of concrete from a building site in the centre of the city. Among those pieces of concrete Dickens was visible once again.

In what way?

Among the giant pieces of concrete, five and four-year-old boys were struggling with hammers that were almost to heavy for them to lift. They were trying to get their hands on the reinforcement bars within the concrete that they could sell for the swindling prize of € 1 cent per kilo to a scrap dealer who was waiting by his car.

Not only children worked in that misery. Also women, many of them old, tried to work the concrete so that they could sell the bars. From early morning until late in the evening they kept on working in the burning sun. There was an ongoing stream of trucks dumping concrete on the lot. And the hammers kept at it.

Do I have to tell you that it was absolutely awful? Upsetting? That this was something a Dickens of today could have written about. In the same way as Dickens depicted the misery of the poor in London and other British industrial cities.

Both in his early years as a journalist and later on in his sequels and novels Dickens frequently wrote about child labour. Perhaps child labour can no longer be found in London, but it has only moved geographically. We all know what goes on Asian sweatshops and – in Maputo – among pieces of concrete in a distant vacant lot.

One day I stopped my car and got out. I talked to the scrap dealer who stood by his truck, yawning.  He told me what he paid for the reinforcement bars and how much money he made from selling them. To compare the amount in meticais and Swedish kronor will no do us any good. But the profit that the scrap dealer made was 500 % of what he paid the children and the old women. I asked if he knew that child labour was forbidden. Then he looked at me with a mixture of content and surprise.

– Sure, I can send them home, he said. There are ten others waiting for each one I lay off. Can you answer me what those I lay off should eat?

Then he stepped into his truck and locked the door. I knew he was right. But also that he was wrong. The only thing I could do was to call a friend who is a journalist and ask him to go to this hell and see if he could write something about it.

The image of poverty is always the same. The poorest of the poor are those who have no options. And this is exactly what the fight against poverty is about; to create these options.

When I left I noticed that right next to the lot there was a school. Those children who go to that school do not have to fight the concrete to get hold of the reinforcement bars.

The school children look at those struggling among the concrete with relief.

I understand them.

Henning Mankell

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