Sunday, September 04, 2005

Dorothy Guedes - you'll always be remembered.

The more studying you do, the larger the number of teachers/lecturers that you come into contact with. Most of them make no impression at all, let alone a lasting one, but there are a few who make an indelible impression that lasts a lifetime. Dorothy Guedes, who taught me in standard 4, was one of those.

Mrs Guedes taught me for a while at the English Primary School in Maputo in 1971. It was a small school, not much more than 80 pupils, most of them South African or British expats, the rest largely comprising Norwegians, Greeks, Germans, Italians and a few other nationalities. Many of the children and teachers didn’t stay long, moving on to another country when it was time for the family breadwinner to be transferred elsewhere. A very small minority of us had families who were permanently based in Mozambique. Mrs Guedes, like me, was not of Portuguese descent, but was also permanently based in the country. She was married to Amancio (Pancho) Guedes, probably Mozambique’s most famous architect.

Unlike a few of the other teachers at the school who were very popular with the children, there was a certain distance between Mrs Guedes and her pupils. She was respected, definitely not disliked but also not particularly liked by all of us. I'd met her several times before she taught my class - my family knew hers, particularly her mother, and I'd been to her house before, a house unlike anyone else’s I knew.  Not only were the spaces and levels unlike anything I had come across before but the house was full of Pancho’s sculptures and paintings, weird and fascinating creations. It wasn’t this link, however, that drew us together - it was her recognition of my interest in books and my now long-squandered academic abilities. In many ways, I think her gift was being squandered on teaching a class of such young children. Mrs Guedes was an intellectual with passion who wanted to infuse others with her enthusiasm for the arts.

Joan of Arc, 1948, with Ingrid Bergman I have very vivid memories of her taking my class to see Ingrid Bergman in the 1948 film of Joan of Arc at the Gil Vicente, a beautiful old cinema in Maputo, followed by snacks at her home. This was the era when Westerns, particularly the spaghetti Western, ruled the cinema – no ordinary teacher would take a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds off to see an old muddily-coloured film about a female heroine!

Mrs Guedes encouraged me to read beyond Enid Blyton, introducing me to children’s classics that I’d not come across before. At the time, I was already an avid reader but I like to think that she nurtured my love of literature, by teaching me to look for books that not everyone else was reading or even knew about.  On my behalf, but without having been requested to do so, she sent off for the entrance exams for Waterford school (now known as Waterford Kamhlaba UWCSA) in Swaziland and suggested that I write them. On the basis of my results, I won a scholarship to the school, a scholarship that I never took up owing to the colonial racism of my grandmother, my guardian, who sent me, instead, to a government boarding school just over the border in Barberton, South Africa.  Swaziland, a recently independent British protectorate was a ‘black country’, South Africa was a ‘white country’, ergo the standards had to be better at a South African school. So went the conventional wisdom of the times. Some of Waterford’s most famous alumni are Nelson Mandela’s daughters and Richard E Grant, people that would've been my contemporaries or near contemporaries. If it were not for the fact that my grandmother, in her misguided ignorance, thought she was doing what was best for me, I’d probably harbour some bitter thoughts about her to this day.

I left the English Primary School for Barberton in the middle of 1971. Mrs Guedes gave me a copy of the Oxford Concise Dictionary as a parting gift. Throughout high school, it was always in my briefcase. Not only did I go off to boarding school then, but I also hardly ever spent any time in Maputo after that as I would spend my school holidays with my grandmother in Maxixe, a small town 500 km north of Maputo. I was never to see Mrs Guedes again.

We killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana A year or two after moving to Cape Town in 1977 to go to university, while looking for books on Mozambique one day, I came across the English translation of Luis Bernardo Honwana’s book, ‘We killed Mangy-Dog’. Honwana had been in political exile during much of Frelimo’s war against the Portuguese colonial authorities and later became Minister of Culture in independent Mozambique. It was only when I got home later that day that I realised that Mrs Guedes had translated it and that Pancho had drawn the cover. Many years later, I discovered that Dorothy and Pancho Guedes were leading members of a group of artists and intellectuals centred in Maputo but whose members also included people living in Johannesburg, a place that was intellectually stifled by apartheid.

In the early nineties, I decided to try and contact Mrs Guedes as I hoped that she’d be able to tell me things about my father and his family. As he had died when I was so young, I was keen to understand him from an independent adult’s perspective. Since the Phillips (Mrs Guedes’s maiden name) family had been friendly with my father’s family, I thought that she’d be able to help. I learnt that after leaving Mozambique in the mid-seventies, the Guedes settled in Johannesburg for a few years where Pancho became Professor of Architecture at the University of Witwatersand but that they had since moved to Sintra, outside Lisbon in Portugal. Through their daughter in Johannesburg, I was able to get their address and I wrote to Mrs Guedes.

She was delighted to hear from me and we corresponded for a while. Unfortunately, she was unable to tell me anything new about my father but it was very good to have caught up after so many years. We lost contact after that. For some strange reason, unknown to me, I tried to contact her again recently. Although I still have the address I wrote to some 15 years ago, I decided to contact her via Pancho’s website in case they had moved. It was with great sadness that I heard via return of email, that she’d died a few months ago.

Mrs Guedes, I didn’t really know you but you'll always be remembered.


Anonymous Alta said...

i was also in the English Primary School : 1970 to 1975. the thing i remember best about mrs. guedes, was the personal message she wrote for me in my autograph book in beautiful italics.

"In Portuguese Alta means tall, but for our alta this is not all. Mr. Dictionary, if you don't mind, put tall plus sweet, gentle and kind"

11:59 am  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Hi Alta, how nice of you to find me and my bit about Mrs Guededs. My last year at the English Primary School was 1971, the year that I was head boy there - perhaps you remember me?

That really is a lovely thing for Mrs Guedes to have said - I was really sad to hear that she had died.

Where are you now?

12:04 pm  
Anonymous Debbie said...

I attended the English Primary School from 1961 - 1963. Amazing to hear about Mrs. Guededs after all this time (I believe she was there when I was there, although my memory is not very good). Do you know what happened to the school after independance?

3:10 am  
Anonymous Nicola Walker said...

Nicola said

I am writing a book about Moxambique and would very much like to hear more about the Reluctant Nomad's schooldays and memories of both Maputo and Maxixe. I am, however, new to the art of blogging. Is this the right way to contact you? And am I supposed to leave my email address here?

3:27 am  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

Hi Nicola. Some bloggers make their email address readily available although I don't. You could have left your email address here but, since you want to contact me, email me on

I'll be interested to hear more about your book and why you are writing it.

11:53 am  

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