All along the northern coast, and especially on Mozambique Island, you’ll frequently see women with their faces painted white. The paste is known as musiro (also n’siro or msiro); it's used as a facial mask to beautify the skin, sometimes as a sunscreen by women working in the fields or as a medicinal treatment (though the medicinal paste usually has a yellowish tinge). Musiro was also traditionally applied in ways that conveyed messages (for example, whether the wearer was married or whether her husband was away), although most of the meanings have been lost.
Musiro is made by grinding a branch of the Olax dissitiflora tree (known locally as ximbuti or msiro) against a stone with a bit of water. Local women usually leave the mask on for the day, and sometimes overnight. If you go walking in villages early in the morning and see women with white paste on their hands, chances are that they are in the midst of preparing musiro.
Although remote geographically and otherwise from Maputo, Cabo Delgado province has played a disproportionately important role in recent Mozambican history. It’s known in particular as the birthplace of the independence struggle, which began here, supported from bases in nearby Tanzania. Cabo Delgado is also where some of the most protracted fighting took place during the 1980s. At the height of the war, it could take up to a month to travel – convoy style and moving only at night – between Pemba and Moçimboa da Praia, which makes the seven-hour bus ride today seem like a stroll in the park. A legacy of the war years is that most district capitals in the north have airstrips, including some large enough to accommodate jets.
Major ethnic groups include the Makonde, the Makua and, along the coast, the Mwani.
The province is currently at the forefront of Mozambique's fastest-growing industry: natural gas. Large reserves were discovered offshore in 2010 and the cities of Pemba, Moçimboa da Praia and Palma are experiencing a significant influx of speculators, engineers and businesspeople.
If you hear drumming in the late afternoon while travelling around Cabo Delgado, it’s likely mapiko, the famed masked dancing of the Makonde.
The dancer (always a man) wears a special wooden lipiko (mask; plural: mapiko), decorated with exaggerated features, hair (often real) and facial etchings. After being carved, the masks are kept in the bush in a special place known as the mpolo, which only men are permitted to enter. Traditionally, the masks cannot be viewed by women or by uncircumcised boys unless they are being worn by a dancer.
Before mapiko begins, the dancer’s body is completely covered with large pieces of cloth wrapped around the legs, arms and body so that nothing can be seen other than the fingers and toes. All evidence that there is a person inside is supposed to remain hidden. The idea is that the dancer represents the spirit of a dead person who has come to do harm to the women and children and from whom only the men of the village can protect them. While boys learn the secret of the dance during their initiation rites, women are never supposed to discover it and remain in fear of the mapiko. (Mapiko supposedly grew out of male attempts to limit the power of women in matrilineal Makonde society.)
Once the dancer is ready, distinctive rhythms are beaten on special mapiko drums. The dance is usually performed on weekend afternoons and must be finished by sunset. The best places to see mapiko dancing are in and around Mueda and in Macomia.