Interview with Joaquim Chissano. All photos in this post courtesy of Hannah Kelley

Joachim Chissano, second president of the Republic of Mozambique, entered the conference room of the Chissano Foundation in Maputo to the nervous voices of twelve students from Wayne State University singing “happy birthday to you, Mr. President.” I felt an extraordinary sense of pride in what we had accomplished since I had visited the former president less than a year ago in his study one flight of stairs down. Here we were with the “John Adams” of Mozambique. He is also the first African recognized for his commitment to democracy by a panel of international statesmen including Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, among others. I felt it a personal honor to be in his presence a second time.

I had actually been with him and Mrs. Chissano the night before at a special mass in the Catholic Cathedral of Maputo in honor of his seventieth birthday. Following our planning meeting, my staff members and I had been invited by Dr. Leonardo Simao, Executive Director of the Chissano Foundation and former cabinet member under Chissano, and the former president’s advisor and personal assistant, Tomas Mabuiangue. We arrived at the Cathedral to find one of the most exciting services I have ever experienced. Looking almost regal, Chissano was seated with his wife just below and to the right of the altar. We were shown to special seats, but quickly left them to ascend a small staircase to obtain a better vantage point for pictures and videos.

For the next two hours, the place rocked with what can only be described as a unique treatment of the Roman Catholic mass. The singing and dancing were followed by processions around the church with the Chissanos participating every step of the way. Then came the most dazzling moment of the evening: a delegation, apparently from Chissano’s tribe, performed for him on the opposite side of the Cathedral. The Chissanos could not resist the tribal dance and rushed over, pausing only to genuflect before the altar. This man of seventy and his bride got right in rhythm with the group, much to the delight of the entire congregation. After another hour or so we left with the clear feeling that this would be no ordinary Catholic service in form, content, or duration. It must have gone on until midnight.

Joaquim Alberto Chissano was born 22 October 1939. He served as the second president of Mozambique for nineteen years from 6 November 1986 until 2 February 2005. He was raised in the remote village of Malehice, Chibuto district, Gaza Province in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique (then called Portuguese East Africa). After leaving secondary school, he studied medicine at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Because of Chissano’s political activism, his studies there came to an abrupt end, and he fled to Tanzania via France.

Chissano represented Frelimo, the Mozambique independence movement, in Paris during the 1960s. He was known there as a soft-spoken diplomat who worked to reconcile radical and moderate Marxist factions of the Frelimo party. He went on to fight in the Mozambican War of Independence against the Portuguese colonial government and its authoritarian Estado Novo regime, which was engaged in a multi-front colonial war. By the time Mozambique finally achieved its independence in 1975 as a result of the liberation struggle and the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Chissano had risen to the rank of major-general.

The new president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, appointed him foreign minister, a position he held for the next eleven years. In 1974, Chissano participated in the Lusaka talks that paved the way for the independence of Mozambique, and subsequently became prime minister of the transitional government.

Joaquim Chissano became president in 1986 when Samora Machel’s presidential aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain in South Africa. In 1999, he defeated the former rebel leader, Afonso Dhlakama, by 52.3% to 47.7%. Chissano served as Chairperson of the African Union from July 2003 to July 2004. He chose not to run for a third term in the 2004 presidential election, although the constitution allowed him to do so. Frelimo instead selected as its candidate Armando Guebuza, who defeated Dhlakama by an even bigger margin of votes. Since stepping down as president, Chissano has become an elder statesman and is called upon by international bodies, such as the United Nations, to be an envoy or negotiator. He currently chairs the Joaquim Chissano Foundation and the Forum of Former African Heads of State and Government.

At a ceremony in London on 22 October 2007, Chissano’s sixty-eighth birthday, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that he had been awarded the inaugural five million dollar Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. This award is given annually by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to a former African leader who has shown good governance. The five million dollars are distributed over the course of ten years, plus $200,000 per annum subsequently.

Several of the participating students at a pre-trip potluck

Several of the participating students at a pre-trip potluck

Our twelve Wayne State students are an extraordinarily diverse group comprising three students born in other countries (Korea, Liberia, and Pakistan), three African American females, one student who is part Japanese and whose American-born Japanese grandmother was interned during World War II, another part Native American, one white male, and three white females. They had previously traveled to more than 31 countries. Yet the group includes two students who had not previously traveled outside of the U.S. at all. To me, these students represent America in so many ways, but none as much as its diversity.