“Nairobi? Fuck that shit. You should go to Mozambique. Mozambique’s where it’s at.”
So said a friend of mine when I apprised him of the first tentative itinerary for our East African adventure, and after a bit of research, I decided he might have a point. So instead of heading from Tanzania to the capital of Kenya, a city that goes by the rather disconcerting nickname Nai-Robbery, I decide instead to keep heading south and hole up in Maputo for a few days.
The idea sounds great — Mozambique’s Portuguese heritage means it has a distinctly different atmosphere to the rest of Africa’s east coast, making it more like a weird trans-Atlantic transplant of a lost slice of Brazil than a part of Africa. I head to the city expecting to find beach parties and awesome music and Africa’s answer to Copacabana.
The reality, it turns out, is rather different — less exciting, perhaps, but in some ways all the more fascinating.
It seems that my run of bumbling into unexpected hotel room-gobbling international conferences (see also Addis Ababa) has continued, because again, it proves unfeasibly difficult to find a room in Maputo. In desperation, I end up booking a room at a swanky hotel in Catembe, a quiet — and I mean really quiet — beachfront enclave on the other side of the bay on which Maputo is set. It’s a rather pretty hotel — the fact that its restaurant is on an elevated platform that hovers above the Indian Ocean is a pretty great selling point, although the fact that the wifi craps out for days on end and I don’t have hot water for three days running is rather less appealing. But still, such are the pleasures of traveling in Africa.
The thing with staying in Catembe is that you need to get a ferry to get into the city proper. This is all fine during the day, although it’s something of an adventure when you first arrive — I’m met on the other side by a guy who insists his name is “Apology”, grasps my hand tightly for the whole journey, and feels the need to reassure me constantly that he is indeed going to take me to the hotel and not rob me and leave me on the side of the road. Every reassurance makes me less and less sure that he’s not going to do precisely that, but finally we arrive at the hotel and he lets me out of the car. The next morning, he appears not to remember me, introduces himself as Paolo, and offers to drive me back down to the port. I thank him politely and jump into the car with another driver. The city awaits.
There are plenty of adjectives that can be used to describe African cities, but “quiet” isn’t generally one of them. So it’s actually rather disconcerting to look out the window of our car in from the airport and see… not a whole lot, to be honest. After the barely controlled but endearing chaos of Dar Es Salaam, Maputo is the complete opposite, a beachfront city of wide empty boulevards and, well, emptiness in general.
In contrast to pretty much every other African city your correspondent has visited, there’s no one at all on the streets. In fact, the place is so deserted that it’s a wee bit spooky. After an hour or so of wandering through the city center, my only interaction with anyone is with a bug-eyed guy who insists that he was the immigration officer who signed my visa — he isn’t — and asks for $20 because his car’s run out of petrol. The whole thing starts to feel like I’ve wandered into The Stand or something.
The mystery is partially solved by remembering that Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony and that the siesta is a pretty entrenched tradition here, but even once 3pm has rolled by and the shops have reopened, the place is awfully quiet. Eventually, it becomes clear that this just isn’t like other African cities. It’s spacious and well-laid out, for a start — a legacy, perhaps, of its roots as a Portuguese colony.
It feels more like a European city where everyone’s gone on holiday than it does an African metropolis. The city’s colonial heritage also reflects in some impressive architecture — the Natural History Museum, in particular, is a beautiful old building, although like everything else, it’s closed when I visit. By the end of four days here, I’m starting to wonder if there’s a party happening on the other side of town, and that everyone else got the invitation except me. I never quite get to the bottom of the whole thing. It’s all really rather strange.
Of course, that isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to do. After a couple of hours wandering the city, I come across a fascinating place called the Núcleo de Arte on Rua da Argelia, a quiet back street a couple of blocks from Maputo’s only shopping center. The place has quite a reputation — it’s a kind of co-operative for local artists, and has apparently been located in the same building since 1921. The building encompasses a series of studios and a gallery space, along with a bar and café and live music venue. The place is being refurbished at the moment, which means that all the action is going on in a sort of back shed type arrangement out behind the bar.
There are six or seven artists working on the day I visit, and the place feels more like a big share house than any sort of formal institution — people stop by and hang out for a bit, and the artists themselves are happy to have a chat and show us their works in progress. The most striking works on display in the gallery space are a series of sculptures made from guns — both abstract works and utilitarian objects like chairs and tables fashioned from rifles and pistols. It turns out that they’re part of a series called Arms into Art, which was created to mark the anniversary of the end of Mozambique’s ghastly civil war.
The sense of just how close to the present history feels in Africa has been a constant theme of this trip, and it’s reinforced here — the civil war in question ended barely 20 years ago, a short enough time to mean that plenty of people would remember it. On reflection, its legacy gives Maputo’s emptiness a slightly eerie air. A million people died in this country over the course of the 15-year conflict, and five million more were displaced, although apparently the city itself was never touched.
It turns out that the Núcleo de Arte also doubles as a live music venue, and that a local band called Tlangano are playing the next night — we’re assured by all and sundry that they’re great, and that we should stop by to see them. We decide that this sounds like an excellent idea and make a note in our diary to do exactly this.
The band are due to start at 7:30pm, but the continuing dearth of interesting things to do in Maputo mean that we’re at the bar by mid-afternoon, hanging out and generally just watching the world go by. As the afternoon begins its slow decline into a balmy evening, the Núcleo begins to fill up with a pretty fascinating mixture of people. Word’s clearly got around, as by 7pm or so the place is more packed than anywhere we’ve seen in Maputo with the exception of the last ferry to Catembe. There are Rastafarians, backpackers, cashed-up South African tourists, cheerful locals, and a small boy who’s fascinated by the band’s soundcheck routine and keeps trying to get up on stage with them.
As the sun goes down, a lady comes and sets up a barbecue and starts cranking out hot dogs for the swelling crowd (let it be said at this point that Mozambican hot dogs are the bomb). The band’s soundcheck stretches to over an hour and involves a degree of perfectionism that’d make Prince blanch, but when they finally start, they’re pretty great. They’re playing marrabenta music, which sounds like a cross between South African mbqanga and Brazilian jazz and is apparently a quintessentially Maputan sound. Its name stems from local Portuguese slang for the verb “to break,” because of the fact that musicians would play until their instruments broke.
Tlangano are clearly popular enough to afford instruments that don’t break, but they certainly give them a good workout — in addition to their epic soundcheck, they play for a good two-and-a-half-hours, stopping every so often to head out the back to smoke cigarettes and drink beers and then coming back to play some more. In between sets, a DJ breaks out selections from what’s a pretty impressive vinyl collection (he has a white-label remix of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” I’ve never heard before, although sadly my Portuguese isn’t up to asking him what it is and where he got it.) They’re still playing when I have to slip away and jump a taxi to the port to get the last ferry across the bay to Catembe. I file “marrabenta” in my mental list of genres to investigate further, and pray that it’s not Apology who’s picking me up tonight.
My African odyssey comes to an end in South Africa next time around — I’m visiting Cape Town, home to some of Africa’s finest wineries and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Check back in tomorrow to find out what I get up to!