A Reflection on Maputo

I found myself more reflective as we docked alongside Maputo, the capital of Moçambique, leaving behind the relative safety of South Africa – although safety is perhaps a misnomer, because there is nowhere on the accessible African circuit more dangerous than South Africa. In Durban, for example, as we were walking along the sidewalk, downtown, we encountered what is locally known as a Tstotsi sharpening his shank on the concrete sidewalk, in his case a length of bicycle spoke that typically will be slipped between your ribs as your earthly valuable are lifted.

But it is safe insofar as it is identifiable as a city in the western sense of the word. Maputo, on the other hand, is something quite different. It is an African city more in the typical sense of the word.

Mozambique endured a civil war stretching more or less from 1960s thru to 1992, over thirty years of conflict, with the latter ten years or so seeing the government more or less besieged in the major cities, and a Khmer Rouge style of insurgency slowly depleting the viability of the countryside until the cities became mass villages on a gargantuan scale, with neither sanitation, running water nor electricity.

Maputo is a high-rise city. In the 1970s it was an extraordinarily progressive center, known as Lourenço Marques, or LM, it was a vibrant second home for the swinging set of Johannesburg, an artistic retreat, and a center of Lusitone culture and architecture that really set it apart from just about anywhere else in the region.

And then came the 80s/90s phase of the war, and those high rise apartment blocks degenerated into multi-level slums as the rural population sought refuge in the cities. Services and infrastructure collapsed completely as effluent began to collect in the streets many meters high, rotting in the tropical heat and emitting that old familiar odor that mingled with the ever present haze of charcoal smoke, and a mélange of competing smells, very few of which can be described as pleasant, that could be smelt twenty miles before arriving in the center of the downtown.

I can recall driving into the city in 1993, a year after the war had ended, as a Swedish sponsored cleanup program was just beginning, and watching a bulldozer, marked as a Gift of Sweden, digging into a pile of indescribable substance piled upon a once elegant boulevard, and hauling it out, revealing decades of accumulated waste, human, animal and vegetable, releasing a smell that would defy my very best vocabulary, and which I swear stripped the paint of the side of my truck.

Again I am reminded of one particular evening, around about the same time, and more than a little drunk, when I, perhaps unwisely, accepted an invitation to return to the high-rise home of a club musician, to smoke a bit of skunk and party. He led me up ten or twelve flights of stairs in an apartment building with the remnants of art deco murals, and cavernous holes where old style cage elevators once trailed between the marble clad floors. By then each apartment housed multiple families, the stairwells had become open sewers and the elevator shafts trash dumps, rising up several stories, infested with rats and steaming quietly, fermenting what diseases one can hardly imagine.

His apartment, of course, where he was effectively squatting, was a little refuge away from the worst of this, but still it was illuminated only by candlelight, the coffee warmed under a charcoal burner and the human effluent collected in buckets and hurled daily down the elevator shafts. That was life in downtown Maputo in the early 90s.

Then, thru the 90s and early 2000s, I visited this city often, and watched it change, although never losing the essential feeling of life and vivacity that it had been born with, and which it is still infused with through that wonderful Afro/Latino vibe that no other city that I have ever been to quite replicates.

However, it is cleaning up a little every year, and reclaiming a little bit of that sophistication that it once had, albeit with its revolutionary veneer, displayed through street names like Avienda Kim Ill Sung, or Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Patrice Lumumba. Nonetheless, that rotting carcasses of the old city remains like a beautiful nightmare. It will never quite disappear, I am quite sure, but also it will also never quite be rehabilitated.

I took a walk through Maputo today, leaving behind the pampered world of the Seabourn Sojourn, and entering the guts of the real world. It amused me somewhat to a couple from the boat returning after their own attempted walk, sweating in the stifling heat, and clearly on the verge of vomiting, and no doubt unnerved by the immediate swamp of black life that overwhelms one as one steps out onto those streets.

“you won’t be out there for long!” He commented to me as we passed one another in opposite directions, and I smiled to myself. Really? Where do you think my home is?

And thus a hot and compacted several hours were spent walking those changing streets – the 19th century rotting quietly in isolated corners, the 20th century dying by degrees while the 21st century is rising out of the ashes with a sickly Chinese flavor, of cheap plate glass, poorly sculpted lions and spiked pagodas that spoke to me then of a new era for Mozambique, one that would never quite replicate the old days of LM, and indeed, even threatens to destroy them completely.

Maybe I am a sentimentalist, maybe I am just a fool for the grubby corners of the world, or maybe, as I prefer to think, that I am a traveler and not a tourist, but either way I love this side of life, and I will always search for it when it is there to be found. However, I do confess, there seemed to be no crime in stepping back on board ship, sliding under the air conditioning, then plunging into the pool to wash of the heat and the sweat, emerging a moment later to the sculpted smile of a Brazilian hostess, apparently immune to the heat, handing me a carefully iced tequila sunrise just to welcome me back into the fantasy.