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Teresa Heinz Kerry grew up in Mozambique
Teresa Heinz Kerry grew up in Mozambique
Present-day Africa no longer matches Teresa Heinz Kerry's memories of her childhood there.
By John Murphy
Sun Foreign Staff
Originally published February 24, 2004
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.
"We are proud she is a daughter of the land," says Neo Simbine, 75, a retired black nurse who worked with Heinz Kerry's father. "But you have to live what you say. If she really loves Mozambique and has lots of money, why doesn't she build us a hospital?"
Through the Heinz Family Foundation, Heinz Kerry has done some giving in Mozambique, including a contribution to a Save the Children program there to help children deal with the trauma of war. Heinz Kerry would give more, a spokeswoman for the foundation says, if she were more confident the money would be managed properly.
Says Calane Da Silva, a Mozambican writer who is a descendant of African, Portuguese and Indian Mozambicans: "She is the daughter of this land. Nobody can deny that. A daughter can run away from her parents and she is still a daughter. But if she truly loves this country, she should prove it."
A changed world
If she were to return to Mozambique, Heinz Kerry would experience a world unlike the one she once knew.
Once a spotless colonial capital, Maputo, then known as Lourenco Marques, is a crumbling city of once-grand but now weather-beaten buildings with porticos, ornate pillars and leafy courtyards, set next to dozens of grim, towering concrete apartment dwellings festooned with clotheslines.
In many neighborhoods, the sidewalks have disintegrated into dusty paths. Garbage piles burn in the city parks. Beggars muscle for coins at intersections and pineapple hawkers steer their carts through a crush of traffic on potholed roads. In the government office, the photos on the wall and the statues are of black Mozambican leaders.
During Heinz Kerry's childhood, such conditions in the capital were unimaginable. The Portuguese had inhabited settlements along the east coast of Africa for more than 400 years, and the thought of relinquishing power to black leaders was a future no one imagined.
In the early 20th century, the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, in Lisbon, instituted a system of forced labor in the colonies, sending blacks here to work on large plantations and handing out huge tracts of land to Portuguese immigrants to farm and develop.
Although the Portuguese government promoted the myth that opportunities were available to all races under its colonial system, nearly all blacks remained illiterate, unemployed and hopelessly poor.
Heinz Kerry's father, Dr. Jose Simoes Ferreira Jr., was a tropical-disease specialist from Portugual who fell in love with Mozambique during a visit there and, after finishing his studies, decided it was the place to set up his medical practice. Her mother, Irene Thierstein, was the youngest daughter of one of the colony's wealthiest British families.
They married in 1933 and had three children. Heinz Kerry was born Oct. 5, 1938, as Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes Ferreira. The family lived in an old colonial home in the capital overlooking the sea, experiencing all the privileges of a colonial life.
Heinz Kerry's father ran a cancer clinic and private practice. Her mother stayed at home, gardening and playing the piano. Servants managed the household. "My mother used to tour her gardens with the African groundskeeper every morning," Heinz Kerry reminisced in a Town & Country article. "I'd walk behind them and pinch pretty flowers until my mother caught me."
Heinz Kerry took dance lessons and practiced the piano, but she also ran free in the outdoors.
"She was a crazy girl," recalled Klaus G. Dieckmann, a boyfriend when they were in their teens and who still lives here. Heinz Kerry was allowed to accompany Dieckmann alone to see the latest shows at Maputo's cinema. "Compared to other Portuguese girls, she was very outgoing. Her parents were open-minded."
It was in Africa where Heinz Kerry learned that there was a design to life.
"I learned about the order and respect, the understanding and generosity that come from living in harmony with the natural world," she said last year when she received the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal for Humanitarianism at the Johns Hopkins University. "... It was there in the kindness of the people, and in the dreamy lilac hues of the jacarandas that ambled down the avenues like bridesmaids to the altar. It was a profound sense of connection, a sense of all life being knitted together in ways that gave purpose to every individual, every animal and every plant."
Part of that design was the pecking order of the Portuguese colonial life. To be a Portuguese-born citizen was to have access to all the privileges of colonial life. To be black was to struggle for education, health care and money.
While thousands of immigrants poured into Mozambique from Portugal - more than 200,000 by 1974 - about 99 percent of the blacks were poor and uneducated. In the countryside, they battled malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy and bilharzia. One third of all black children died in infancy.
On weekends when her family would travel to a cottage by the ocean, Heinz Kerry witnessed the other side of colonial life.
"There were no doctors there, only missions and priests, and it took my father two years to get people to come and see him on weekends. Finally, they began to bring sick children. And I used to help him - 5 o'clock in the morning, under the pergola there would be a sea of mothers and children, no one crying. And my father would do his one bit of cooking, which was to boil water, put Nescafe in it and think he cooked himself breakfast; and we would go down and start taking care of children," she recalled in a 1995 speech.
Heinz Kerry is quick to remind American voters that her family lived in a dictatorship, where no one was allowed to vote and speaking out against the regime could prove fatal. Like all Portuguese citizens born in the colonies, she was classified as a second-class citizen. "All in all, a good and instructive childhood," she said in a 1994 talk at the University of Pittsburgh. "From it, I learned the value of freedom. I learned to cherish human rights and civil rights. I learned the importance of the environment and the equal importance of finding man's place in it."
Witness to apartheid
These lessons were put to the test when she attended the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa's premier and most liberal college campus.
She majored in Romance languages, studying French, Portuguese and Italian. But in her recounting of these years, she received the greater education outside the classroom, by witnessing the apartheid regime put the finishing touches on its grand vision of segregating blacks from whites.
By the time Heinz Kerry arrived in Johannesburg, the apartheid government had forbidden blacks and whites from marrying, living in the same neighborhoods, sitting on the same buses, swimming in the same pools, eating in the same restaurants. Then the government banned black students from white university campuses, against the outcry of many Witwatersrand students.
One of Heinz Kerry's classmates, Resa Selsick, remembers Heinz Kerry as a "very nice, very bright, very outgoing" student who would attend Mass at the campus chapel on many mornings. "She would rush in to breakfast after Mass while we were all staggering out of bed. We thought it was a bit strange," Selsick said
Heinz Kerry often recollects her years marching against apartheid to the dismay of her mother. "That remembrance propels me to stand tall for those who cannot stand," she told the American Jewish Committtee.
Classmates don't remember the church-going student as a political leader on campus. Protests against the ban on black students became campus-wide events but, by the standard of events to come, were tame affairs, tolerated by the apartheid government of the time. Adminstrators, faculty members and students marched hand in hand. On several occasions classes were canceled to allow students and staff members time to join the protests.
Heinz Kerry left Africa in 1960, after graduation, to attend the Interpreters School of the University of Geneva, where she met a young John Heinz, heir to the Heinz food fortune and a future senator. They were married in 1966. As a new world opened up to Heinz Kerry in America, the world she knew in Africa was drawing to a close.
By 1960, the world's colonial powers were granting independence to their colonies in Africa, but Portugal stubbornly resisted the trend. Growing resentment of Portuguese colonialism sparked the rise of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which launched an armed campaign against Portuguese rule in 1964.
The war dragged on for a decade. Then, in 1974, the Portuguese military, weary of fighting unpopular wars against independence movements in its African colonies, overthrew the Portuguese government, bringing an end to the fighting in Mozambique and setting the stage for independence in 1975.
Heinz Kerry's parents stayed in Maputo. Her father continued his work at the cancer clinic. For many Portuguese and black Mozambicans alike, there was a feeling of optimism after the fall of the dictatorship. But the celebrations were short-lived.
War broke out again between the FRELIMO government and South African- and Rhodesian-backed insurgents. The government launched a series of disastrous socialist reforms, nationalizing businesses and forcing once-privileged Portuguese families out of their homes. The economy crumbled. "I have friends who lost everything," says Heinz Kerry.
Her mother and father fled the country. Some of the Portuguese who left, bitter about the demise of their fortunes, preferred to burn their property, sabotage factories and set their cars on fire instead of seeing them fall into the hands of the new government. Others walked away quietly, handing titles to their luxurious homes to maids or gardeners, handing the keys to their cars to servants and fleeing with little more than a suitcase.
Raema Sikanda, a nurse who worked at the cancer clinic with Heinz Kerry's father, says she remembers him leaving without any notice. "One day he was not at work. He did not say goodbye," she says.
Heinz Kerry's parents eventually settled in Portugal, where her father reopened his medical practice. He died in 1989. Her mother died in 1997 at Heinz Kerry's home in Pennsylvania.
The cancer clinic that Heinz Kerry's father founded in Maputo is still open today. The manicured lawns are overgrown with weeds, the radiology equipment is long broken, leaving the patients with no treatment choice other than chemotherapy.
Last week, a toddler with a facial tumor the size of a baseball was wandering the hallways. He is one of 16 children at the clinic suffering from cancer who lack adequate treatment, said Laura Velouro, 53, a nurse who also once worked with Heinz Kerry's father.
Her family's childhood home is also still standing overlooking the Indian Ocean, next to the Ministry of Defense. It is used for office space.
Heinz Kerry's decision to not return despite clearly having the means to do so is not unusual among many former residents of Mozambique. "They have idealized memory of history," says Marta Vilar Rosales, 34, an anthropologist from the University of Lisbon studying the personal histories of Portuguese colonialists. "These people don't want to lose the idealist view of what happened to the country. They wouldn't be happy to come here."
Most of the Portuguese who lived through the revolution in Mozambique remain angry with the government that took over, says Dieckmann, Heinz Kerry's childhood friend. "Her mother and father lost everything and didn't receive any compensation. Of course, she is pissed off," he said.
Still, some Mozambicans don't understand how Heinz Kerry can speak publicly about her love for Africa and yet refuse to visit.
"There are changes I'm not content with either," says Neo Simbine, the retired nurse who worked at the clinic. "I don't like to see garbage in the street. As a nurse, I studied cholera, but never saw it. Now it's here. What's bad is bad.
"There are people who can come back and take it. They make peace with the changes. Others cannot."
If Heinz Kerry's relationship with Africa remains confusing to Mozambicans today, it may not be much clearer to many Americans
Officially, she is an American citizen. "But my roots are African," she told a reporter in 1995. "The birds I remember, the fruits I ate, the trees I climbed, they're African."
Other times, she straddles the divide, calling herself "African American," as she did in 1993, touching off a storm of criticism. Her spokesman defended the reference, saying she used the term without a hyphen. "African-hyphen-American belongs to blacks," the spokesman said.
Whatever she chooses to call herself, she would be the second foreign-born first lady if John Kerry is elected president. The first was Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, who was born in London to an English mother and American father. Political enemies sometimes called her English.
Heinz Kerry would likely not take offense if the Republicans sometimes called her Mozambican.
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