It hit me a couple months into my time in Moz that what I would call “African” actually isn’t at all. Like wicker furniture and batik wall hangings. I should have realized in my time with my host family that wicker furniture, batiks, wooden carvings and masks, soapstone carvings, etc. all appeal to expats, but I don’t know any Mozambicans who own such things. Mozambicans buy high-backed velvet furniture and decorate with plastic roses, porcelain figurines, and doilies. That is African. We think it’s hideous. They think it’s beautiful. And this is why some expat friends and I use two meanings for the word “beautiful”. On occasion I’ve shown my roommate something I’ve bought, in all sincerity, from a Chinese shop, and she’s told me it’s “beautiful” in the gushy way we use for Mozambican “beautiful”. I think, “But actually, no, I like it.” But it is good to know how to gush this way when compliments are required in this culture.
In my living room, there are two items which ilicit many comments (or strange looks) from both expats and Mozambicans – a framed photograph that my boyfriend took of a matchbox on a brick and The Wall (see picture below). Typically expats walk into the living room, take a step back when they see The Wall, then ask what it is, either make some sarcastic comment about it’s beauty, or comment on how “interesting” it is. Mozambicans genuinely comment on its beauty and how romantic the lighting in it is. Once expats get over the shock of seeing The Wall, they notice the photo and typically say something like, “Wow, that’s cool. Who took that?” Mozambicans look at it and make little attempt to stop from rolling their eyes or laughing (probably my same response to their plastic gold framed free calendar photos of the Swiss Alps).
Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.