2011: A Visit to Maputo, Mozambique, provokes thoughts of Africa

Day One in Maputo: March 25

The small plane from Cape Town lands at Maputo airport just before noon. I wait the moving staircase to drop from the plane as the door is opened. As I descend one metal step at a time I realize just how excited I am feeling to be back. When I reach the bottom I stop. Blue hazy sky high above, hot tarmac below. A hint of a breeze. I take a deep, deep breath of the tropical, pungent, thick, humid Maputo air. It’s familiarity eases out of the recesses of my memory with a wave of nostalgia that catches up with the present. It is a smell like no other.

Not a scent, not an aroma, these words are too vague for the combination of trees and ripe fruit and wood fires and humanity and diesel that mingles into something pungent, something sweet, something rich. One sensation. Its elements no longer distinguishable. It is particular and peculiar to Africa. West. East. Almost South. Not Cape Town. It’s in my head before I know I have thought it. An involuntary response: “I am in Africa”.


Later I go for my first walk along the streets of Maputo from my friend Julie’s house which is in the middle of “cement” city on a busy main road, Avenida 24 de Julho. Julie is a doctor has made her home here since the mid-70’s where I invariable stay on my visits, the last one about four years ago. It is just before dark (no dusk here, its light then its dark) and it’s still hot and humid. Unusual heat wave for this time of the year, 35 degree (95 Fahrenheit). 

The sounds of the street are vibrant, cars and motorbikes and music and people talking and laughing, all give into a general roar of Maputo city sounds. It resonates with my memories of living here in the eighties and they flood back: times of hope, times of hardship, times of obsessive focus on the political minutiae of a particular day by cooperantes (those who came to work here because of political commitment) when we gather at weekend parties or get togethers, the grace and politeness of the Mozambicans who must have regarded the arrival of hundreds of foreign volunteers with some bemusement if not resentment.  I was a bit of an outsider because I came in and out to write about Mozambique, I didn't work here.  I used to listen to their involvment and envy their direct contribution to the building of a revolution.

Apartment building on Avenida Patrice Lumumba where I stayed in in the early 1980's

I pull back to my present surroundings and the rush, rush of people to catch minibuses home, the pace of cars (many more than my last visit) which often slow to a standstill, to people walking briskly to get where they are going at the end of the day on Julius Nyerere and Eduardo Mondlane and 24 de Julho.  I walk the familiar street and smile at the earnestness of their names, which reflect an earlier time:  24 de Julho (one of the few names unchanged after independence) crosses with Salvador Allende; Mao Tse Tung with Kim Il Sung; Patrice Lumumba with Vladimir Lenine, Karl Marx with Eduardo Mondlane, the first president of Frelimo who was assassinated in 1969.

Traffic outside of Julie's house - with a heavy dose of polution

I find bits of Portuguese coming back as I walk (though my language skills are pathetic), my feet aware the uneven, rubble-ly, stony and sandy, patched concrete sidewalks with edges broken so they merge into the cracks and crevices of the roads, past the street vendors peddling their wares, fruit, electronic goods and nuts, shoes, cloth. There are Mozambicans filling the street, young, old, sprinting to or waiting for the minibuses that will take them to their homes on the outskirts of the city, students in uniform from the nearby technical college that used to be the Josina Machel High School, lively youngsters, boys and girls, chatting and laughing and flirting as they walk by, street children, children in school uniform. The women in capulanas , the cloth tight-wound around the waist in colorful patterns, some with babies wound onto their backs, women in jeans and tight fitting t-shirts, the women in skirts and blouses and impossible shoes for the nature of the sidewalks.

I find a physical ease between people, anvopen affection, a physicality of the connection.

I can count the number of non-Africans I pass, a white woman my age-ish, a white man my age-ish, a younger woman. I am ready with a smile as I am for everyone I pass, but they don’t acknowledge. I surmise that to smile would be a tacit recognition that we are different, and they are not different, they are part of Maputo.

A young seller of airtime for cell phones

I head for Avenida Frederick Engels. Here the tempo abruptly changes. My pace slows to enjoy the quiet, the scenes of lovers, bodies close, faces smiling, dreamy eyed sitting on benches facing the sea. I am light footed and light hearted as I stop and look beyond the low wall at the edge of the cliff over the vast sea and the faraway horizon. It’s glorious. Maputo has its own beauty because of vistas like these. Not "of course" the beauty of Cape Town with its ever present mountain, its craggy, rock face rising up to the heavens from every vantage point so that you can’t escape it. Towering, protective, magnificent. Maputo with its vistas of the sea and the River Maputo that you must walk to find, cannot compete.  But it has other things to offer. Among them a vibrant city, with the addition of many side walk café’s and open air café’s in newly renovated parks - many that give views of the expanse of water that are creating a new culture of Maputo.  

Park overlooking the bay.  One of the newly renovated spaces with cafe's

Lovely places for coffee/lunch and meeting people and to work I feel happy and at one in a city that provides perhaps not the beauty, but something else. Africa? Well not exactly. When I wrote in an early blog from Pretoria: I head tomorrow for that “this-is-not-Africa” beautiful city of Cape Town - note the quotations marks. I was being facetious. Of course Cape Town is Africa, African.

It is at the very tip of Africa, purportedly its peninsula the meeting of Atlantic and the Indian Oceans (purportedly because that point is actually Cape Aghulas which a close look at the map of South Africa will reveal) how can it not be Africa. Just as Libya and Tunisia and Egypt are Africa, but at the northern end. I bristle when people say Cape Town is not Africa. I was born in Africa. I grew up in Africa. I feel African in the broadest sense of the word, not the racial categorization sense of the word. My city is Cape Town. Africa is far more diverse than Europe. Do we say that Greece is not Europe, but Britain is? That Portugal is not Europe but Switzerland is? So let us put to rest the notion that for some reason or other Cape Town is not Africa.

Cape Town has its own feel, its own expression of the continent, that once experienced is with you forever. However, it is a city that is still cleaved apart by race and class; By privilege and inability to access resources. Far far less than under apartheid. Now in the center, people of all races and ethnicities mingle and pass each other with a naturalness that could not be imagined during apartheid times. It is definitely Africa.

Walking down Cape Town’s main street, Adderly, which in my youth was almost solely white, colorless and pristine, where whites thought little about shopping in whites-only department stores (the few smaller stores who encouraged black customers did not go as far as allowing them to try on clothes) breaking their shopping sprees with tea in department store the restaurants.

One of my strongest childhood memories of walking down Adderly with my mother was stopping to listen to African boys, not yet teenagers, buskering kwela music on penny whistles. Fabulous. That the scene and the music that still echo in my mind speaks to how uncommon it was.  Now Adderly is alive with street vendors, selling all manner of goods - fruit and electrical and other miscellaneous wares and sunglasses and crafts, lining the street with stalls that take up half the wide pavements so that people jostle each other, people representing every part of Cape Town life. The informal sector found in varying ways in cities all over Africa . And in on every street in the center of Maputo.

An artisan in the newly constructed park for crafts with its pleasant cafes and greenery.  Before crafts were sold all over the city.  It is not clear if the craft sellers benefit from this new arrangement


So why, given that I feel this way, do I think to myself as I walk through the centre of Maputo “I am in Africa”, when in Cape Town I think, “I am in Cape Town”. In Maputo I do not feel the stomach tautening, the discomfort that often grips me when entering a restaurant in Cape Town, observing once again that the clientele are all white or almost. Here there are open air café’s and a life that does not obviously segregate.   (Segregation comes through economics and class - the bairros on the outskirts of the city where people live in increasingly dire poverty)

Mozambicans live their city. From filling the café’s for coffee during the day and beer in the evening, from mingling on the street to stop and chat, to the sellers of fruits and vegetables from a cloth spread on the pavement, from carts with large wheels, from stands rough-built for the purpose that people congregate around.

In Maputo people are tactile, holding hands, engaging, kissing on both sides, both hello and good bye (I have learnt to assume the greeting with whomever I am introduced to). Where Cape Town is organized, the pavements smooth, an ever present orderliness, in Maputo it is totally other. Chaos is probably a more appropriate word. Shabbines? I revel in it.

There are many new buildings in the city, and many more being built.

I confess: There have been glib moments when I have said without any sense that Cape Town is not Africa. How is that possible that I could forsake my city so? I mull it over and see that it is not about Cape Town but more about the Africa I have experienced since emigrating from Cape Town.

I retrace my own personal trajectory. From leaving apartheid South Africa in 1967 during a period of fierce repression for the US where I immersed myself anti-apartheid and pro-solidarity with the anti-Portuguese colonial struggle activity, to my travelling in 1973 with a back pack from Cairo to Dar es Salaam, to returning to Africa within a few month to march with PAIGC in the war zones of Guinea-Bissau, and again after independence in 1976, to visiting Mozambique throughout the 80’s and when not in Africa submerged in writing these experiences,  until the high point: watching on TV the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.

Cape Town has its unique geography and terrain. What I got used and what became far more familiar as Cape town receded into memory were to the open spaces, the endless veld, the boabab trees, the sounds of the veld, animals and birds calling, frogs, the hues of brown and gold and green over flat distances, the smells of fires and smoke, of undergrowth, of plants and bushes and trees and earth; the sounds of life in villages I stayed in, the different energies of the various cities, of the small towns, of the rural areas.  I have been incredibly fortunate that my writing took me places where I connected with much of the diversity of Africa.

So when I arrive in Maputo those many years of connection to Africa resonate in a way that arriving in Cape Town does not. My connection with Maputo is immediate. In contrast, my time in Cape Town has been one of unhurried relearning and reconnection, of falling in love once again. 

Whether I can call it home is another question for another time. Postscript


Day 10 April 3


The end of the Acacia tree blooms. When in full bloom they set the city alight in orange

A week later, and I am still in love with Maputo.But reality seeps in: ·

The preponderance of South African companies, from mining companies, to supermarkets,department stores, to high end and low end chain stores, to housing compounds... without, as far as I can gather, guarantees for worker conditions. The corruption – from the President and his amassing of wealth down to petty officials at the bottom of the bureaucracy; The falling apart of the health system and provision of care, which at the time of independence was a fundamental goal of the new government; To the falling apart of the education system, which at the time of independence...ditto.  The tight control of the Frelimo, the party, with little possibility of dissidence, challenge or real democracy. Etc.

Despite a sense of disillusionment, a longing for the Frelimo that was, I will miss Maputo, and my friend there, and feel the visit was too short.  I leave with determination to return for a longer time.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I return to Cape Town. I feel as if I am going back home.

4 April, 2011

Trees in abundance in Maputo beautify the city. Alas, so are street kids, here fast asleep on the sidewalk

And here, clowning around

The Acacia trees line the avenues in abundance: gnarled and imposing trunks, fern like leaves