Mozambique's Daughter

Present-day Africa no longer matches Teresa Heinz Kerry's memories of her childhood there.

February 24, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAPUTO, Mozambique - On sweaty summer nights in this tropical East African port, people searching for relief can go to A Fofoca Pub. A sticky sea breeze staggers through the open windows, and the pub's prized satellite television offers patrons news of places much cooler - such as Wisconsin, the site of last week's Democratic presidential primary.

When a customer shouted that he saw U.S. Sen. John Kerry on the screen, heads turned to focus on a CNN report about the Democratic front-runner's wooing Midwestern voters. People looked not so much to see the lanky senator as to get a glimpse of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the woman they affectionately call "Mozambique's daughter."

It's a title Mozambicans bestow proudly, perhaps because it's how Heinz Kerry sees herself, too.

On the campaign trail, Heinz Kerry has many ways to introduce herself: She is a senator's wife, an heir to the Heinz family fortune, a celebrated philanthropist, an environmentalist, a feminist and now a possible first lady. But Heinz Kerry, 65 and never one to conform to anyone's expectations, surprises audiences by introducing herself as someone much simpler - a girl born and raised far away in the African savannah, a land she calls "her earliest classroom."

Growing up in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, she learned if you swam at dawn or dusk you could get eaten by crocodiles or sharks, as she recently told a group of high school students in New Hampshire. Speaking to a largely African-American congregation at a Baptist church in Detroit, she said she saw first-hand the horrors of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa, and as a college student there marched against the white-minority government. To health-care workers, she fondly recalled being inspired by her father, a Portuguese doctor, waking up before dawn at their weekend country cottage to help him treat poor black villagers suffering from disease and lacking the most basic health care.

"I learned that [even] if I had to be in a little rondavel" - a hut - "in Africa with a cement floor and a thatched roof and I was caring for people, I would be supremely happy," she told a group of nurses last month in Concord, N.H.

Maybe she would have indeed been happy in those circumstances, but Mozambique's daughter has strayed far - physically if not emotionally - from her African roots.

She left Mozambique more than four decades ago, first for South Africa, where as an energetic, church-going teen-ager she attended boarding school, then for Geneva to study languages at a translation school, before coming to America in the 1960s to marry Pennsylvania millionaire and future U.S. Sen. John Heinz III. (He died in a plane crash in 1991; she married Kerry in 1995.)

Instead of a thatch-roof hut, she can choose to sleep in any one of her numerous homes, including a ski lodge in Idaho and an estate in Pittsburgh. She owns her own jet, manages a fortune equal to nearly a quarter of Mozambique's annual Gross Domestic Product and moves in a pampered world of high-society dinners and fund-raisers. In this world, Africa is a faraway place to which the wealthy send checks to battle AIDS or hunger.

It's hard to imagine what she has in common with people in one of the poorest nations on Earth. Even her memories would strike residents here as hopelessly out of touch with the country's hardships.

In her speeches and writings, Heinz Kerry recalls an idealized world - her hanging upside down from guava trees in her back yard, chasing snakes and bugs, contemplating the balance between nature and human beings while sitting under the starry night skies. The scenes seem torn from The Lion King or Out of Africa.

Which is not to say she didn't witness hardships here. Her family lived in under a dictatorship in which free speech was not allowed. Following her father as he made rounds, she glimpsed the dismal world of black Mozambicans living under the thumb of Portuguese colonialists.

But to many Mozambicans, Heinz Kerry's Africa is not theirs.

After she left, Mozambique slid into three decades of armed struggle - first against Portuguese colonial rule, and then, after independence, in a murderous civil war stoked by South African apartheid forces. More than a million people perished during the fighting.

Thousands of white colonialists - including Heinz Kerry's parents - fled the country's Marxist revolution, losing cars, homes and life savings. The nation's economy collapsed, and more than a decade after embracing capitalism and democracy, the country is still struggling to get back on its feet.

Like many former white residents of Mozambique, Heinz Kerry has never returned here. She has no friends or relatives here, nor any desire to visit. "I have basically not wanted to go back home since, because I just didn't want to see all the kind of changes," she says.

Which makes Heinz Kerry's desire to speak about her African upbringing publicly all the more puzzling for Mozambicans.

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