Mozambique: A Lodge, and a Lesson in Strength

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Finding my limit’s end –The Story of a Woman Running a Lodge in Mozambique

By Juanita Pienaar

“You’ve been traveling and working all over the world, why would you accept this job in Mozambique?!’ A friend asked me after I accepted a position to manage a dive center and lodge in an ‘Off-the-beaten-track-area’ in Mozambique.

Boys doing laundry beneath a tree in Mozambique.
Boys doing laundry beneath a tree in Mozambique.

Word around the dive community in South Africa is that once you go to work in Mozambique it is very difficult to move on to a different destination – not least of all because the pay is not wonderful.

At this point, I had recently returned to South Africa after working in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Zanzibar.

I had the experience, I was connected in the industry and had slowly grown my skills repertoire to make me stand out from the flocks of dive instructors with every new job that I accepted.

I replied: ‘My dream is to have my own resort one day and this is the perfect opportunity for me to gain unique experience in running a place as if it is my own.’

The owner of the lodge resided in South Africa – about a 12-hour drive from Zavora, Mozambique where the lodge was situated. While liaising with him daily I had the opportunity (and a lot of free reigns) to run this beautiful lodge in his absence.

Expectations VS Reality

There is always, always this… After working in the industry for four years I was no longer naïve about the industry and working in hospitality. But boy, was I surprised with this job! Before I arrived I expected a running lodge with a dive concession with staff to do the diving and launch/retrieved the boats.

I expected a lodge with experienced staff and processes and procedures – a fairly smooth running operation. And then the universe chuckled and yelled ‘Surprise’ upon my arrival under the dark of night.

A wedding on the beach in Zavora, Mozambique.
A wedding on the beach in Zavora, Mozambique.
A wedding on a beach in Mozambique.
A wedding on a beach in Mozambique.

The lodge itself was very beautiful – the word ‘rustic’ could even be thrown a bit willy-nilly to describe it… and it has. It is a nature lodge, built with preserving as much as the natural environment as possible.

The rooms were basic but clean with warm water- albeit the warm water was obtained from a ‘Donkey’ (basically an old-school geyser where a fire is made under a metal drum holding the water which is then connected to the plumbing system of the lodge).

The lodge was exactly what I would have loved on a holiday to Mozambique.

Putting up signs along the 'main road.'
Putting up signs along the ‘main road.’

The surprise came when, instead of managing only the dive center as I had thought, I found no one running the lodge.

I gradually drifted into doing both roles – with a freshly qualified instructor joining the dive center eventually.

Since I was the only person with a driver’s license I had to launch the boat and bring it back from the beach after each day of diving. That sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Let’s get a bit more into it though, shall we? For the majority of my dive career, I worked in areas where the sea tended to have a mirror-flat surface.

A local boat full of fish returns to the beach.
A local boat full of fish returns to the beach.

So I found myself face to face with a considerably rougher Southern African Indian ocean breaking on the shore with little more than having observed my boss launching the boat a hand full of times, and instructions to ‘Watch out for the shore dump, and avoid launching or beaching an hour before and/or after high tide’.

Beach launches in Southern Africa happens by pushing the boat – still happily sitting on its trailer- into the water.

The art here is to get the boat in far enough so that it starts to float and slips off into the water – without getting the trailer (or horror of horrors your vehicle!) stuck in the soft sea sand.

Well, someone had to do it – and that someone was me. Every time I had to launch the boat my heart was pounding.

With fierce concentration I pushed the boat to the water’s edge – and past, watching and waiting for my local captain’s signal to stop, watching and waiting until the level of the water nearly covered the trailer’s wheels, at which point I would stop, put the car in reverse and pull car and trailer back up the beach, all in one go, as if each action flowed into the next.

A Mozambique sunrise over the ocean.
A Mozambique sunrise over the ocean.

Sometimes I managed to do that. Sometimes I stalled the car. Sometimes the boat landed on the sand more than in the water. Once I braked so hard my captain took a bit of a tumble on the boat – all arms and legs and flip-flopped feet in the air. Luckily he was fine – but a big learning moment for both of us.

It is the Romans  

Chefs at work: They assured the author that this all would be delicious! GoNOMAD Travel
Chefs at work: They assured the author that this all would be delicious!

Is this a saying? It should be, because it is the people of any destination you visit or reside in that make the place, and your experience, what it is.

While working in Mozambique I had the opportunity to meet a number of wonderful people. The hospitality and friendliness shown by Mozambican people is humbling. They are warm and caring and accepting with a sense of humor that sometimes caught me by surprise and smiles playing readily on their lips.

Mozambique is very much a patriarchal country. Respect is a central point in how Mozambicans conduct their lives.

The same goes for business. At times it seemed that the mere fact that you are a man conducted more respect right off the bat.

The staff had been running the lodge without management for about 9 months before I arrived and had settled into doing things a certain way – their way. So imagine everyone’s surprise when all of a sudden a lady was appointed above five Mozambican men and a cleaning lady.

Heads were bumped many times while everyone was trying to adjust. Slowly though, inch by inch, moment by moment I started to gain the respect of my staff and the consulted who seemed to be able to do magic when it came to all kinds of legislative and government-related things.

It is extremely tough running a business in Mozambique as a woman alone.

Through growing mutual respect I have gained friends for life, though who I love to see whenever I visit the area – now for holidays.

A fishing boat at low tide along the beach.
A fishing boat at low tide along the beach.

The thing I remember the most about Mozambique when I think about it is the smiles. Everyone from the kids at the side of the dirt roads to my awesome cleaning staff, to farmers in their fields, and even Government officials like town administrators (Mayors) are just always happy to greet you with a huge smile.

You don’t know how strong you are 

Like I mentioned before I didn’t realize exactly what I was walking into when I accepted this job. I had to learn so much about boats and cars and engines (had my hands in the engine of a TD5 Landy numerous times).

I had to deal with Government officials who seemed to find pleasure in leading you down a maze before giving you accurate information on anything. I had to deal with the legislation in a country where I do not speak the language.

The coast of Mozambique.
The coast of Mozambique.

Accounting, marketing, logistics, shopping, overseeing maintenance, menu planning and costing’s, entertaining and guest relations. I wore many, many hats.

It almost felt like this one job was a combination of all the jobs that I had done in the past 5 years and then some!

I lasted a year. I pushed and pushed and pushed and loved every moment of it. I lived in every moment, I grew in every moment. At times I had no idea what the heck I was doing but I perseverated, paddling hard to keep my head above the water.

But with every stroke, every action I became stronger – until I no longer recognized the women I was when I first arrived under the dark of night. This is the biggest gift that Mozambique gave to me. It gave me the opportunity to delve into myself, take out all my guts and my strength and lay it out on the table.

Here is the funny thing though, it also made me realize that your inner strength the place where you think your limits lay – isn’t even really there at all.

Mozambique: A Lodge, and a Lesson in Strength 1
Juanita Pienaar

Juanita Pienaar is a citizen of the world, originally from South Africa, she travels and lives all over. She has a passionate love affair with the ocean and loves to share that passion by teaching scuba diving. She is a yogi in disguise, savoring a smoke and a glass of wine as much as she does meditation and yoga practice. Juanita loses herself in the written and spoken word and is currently working on her first autobiographical novel, telling tales from the perspective of an expat-local.