Kaninmambo, Mozambique!

One girl's misadventures studying abroad in Maputo, Mozambique.

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A Trip To Macaneta Beach

One of the first things someone said to me upon my arrival in Maputo was:

“Maputo’s nice but you absolutely HAVE to get out whenever you can.”

Perhaps not the most encouraging advice. But, it’s absolutely spot on when one considers how utterly estranged Maputo is to the rest of the country.

It would be fair to describe Mozambique as a funnel, and not just because of the shape of the country on the map. In Moz, money has always flowed South, to South Africa and to Maputo, which in many ways resembles an enclave of Mozambique’s prosperous, southern neighbour.

‘Getting out of Maputo’ is therefore absolutely obligatory if one wants to gain any insight or understanding of how the other 99.9% of the country lives.

Macaneta is perhaps the closest one can be to Maputo whilst still ‘getting out’. We drove for a mere 20 minutes out of Maputo as the sun set and passed groups of school children and women crossing the central reservation on their ways home to the small villages which lined the motorway.

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A sight for sore eyes.

Despite Macaneta’s proximity to Maputo, it still feels charmingly isolated from the capital thanks to the short river crossing you have to make in order to access the village. (A bridge is being built as I write which will no doubt completely change the character of the place.) There is a long way round but for convenience and safety’s sake we opted for the boat.

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The boat was really more of a glorified metal raft onto which 5 or 6 cars and 50 people squeezed themselves. We chugged across watching the bats swooping about in the half-light. The tide had risen by the time we reached the opposite bank and we had to take off our shoes and wade to dry land which caused much hilarity amongst the passengers.

As we waited for the cars to disembark, a woman dressed in a capulana with a baby on her back in a sling asked if I would sell her my hair. (This has become pretty commonplace for me: so far 4 women on separate occasions have asked to buy my hair, and even more have been known to absentmindedly grab it and play with it… All the manhandling makes me feel a bit like a new puppy at Christmas: “It’s so soooft!!”)

She then hit me with a stonker of a question:

“Do you want to be black?”

That question was so simple and yet so powerful and of course my natural reaction was to say, “Well, why not…?”. But then I was hit by a sense of my own hypocrisy. Institutional racism, lack of opportunities, prejudice: these are all issues which cause great suffering for people of colour in British society. I guess it’s easy for someone to say they would prefer to change the colour of their skin when they haven’t experienced any of these things.

Moreover, her question laid bare a tragic reality: by saying that she hated her hair and wanted to be white she demonstrated how even here, white ideals of beauty of imported from abroad and imposed upon black women. And I was suddenly hit by a sense of just how profoundly divided and unjust our world is.

And this whole encounter was made more surreal by the setting: standing in the shallows of a river, in the dark, watching 4x4s struggle down the very steep ferry ramp.

I’m very aware of what a sensitive issue this is so I hope you forgive the clumsiness of my responses to it. It had a pretty big impact on me at the time and I guess I’m still trying to work out what I think.


There followed a very bouncy  15 minutes on a dust road interrupted by  a herd of beautiful Mozambican cows chilling out on the road.

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Coos on the road!

We then had a very chilled out two days in deserted idyll, the most exciting moment being the discovery of a poisonous frog on the back of a garden chair and a sighting of a yellow sac spider in our kitchen….! If you don’t know what a Y.S.S. is, it actually features on GoAfrica’s list of Africa’s most dangerous and scary spiders……….




Sapo venenoso!

I had been unnecessarily nervous before departure.

The thought of leaving Maputo for the first time and being in a more remote area was exciting but also slightly intimidating, but Macaneta was as peaceful a place as one could imagine, comprising a sleepy village of small, single-storied houses made of breeze blocks with corrugated iron roofs where old men sat around in chairs watched the comings and goings of chickens, goats, and pigs, and children playing toys made from bits of rubbish and women carrying beautiful rush baskets on their heads.

And, as Ika explained, “No one would break into the house because everyone knows it is Miguel’s (the caretaker’s) house which he looks after.”

The village is positioned in a system of dunes next to a marsh through which the road from the ferry runs. We drove past bundles of rushes stacked up to dry and hundreds of black crabs sitting at the side of the road. We even saw a MONKEY in the dunes on the way back from the beach!

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Spot the tiny, leaping monkey!

On our way back to Maputo, waiting for the ferry, a guy came over to the car and began talking to us.

He then interrupted the conversation and said, referring to the rest of the Mozambicans waiting for the ferry, “They’re afraid to talk to you because you’re white.”

And so the race question loomed again and cast a sad shadow over the end of what was otherwise a blissful weekend.


Fisherman pulling in the day’s catch. What looked like half the village came through the dunes to watch them. Taken at a distance because people here believe that cameras steal part of your soul.

5 First Impressions from my First Week

So I tried and failed to come up with a coherent strategy of describing my first week here – there was so much going on, so many different experiences and emotions flying around, that it seemed reductive to try and unify all of it into one descriptive post.

First impressions of a place are never particularly coherent. But hopefully, anyone who reads this blog (DOES anyone read this blog?!) will get some sense of what my first week here was like. Enjoy!

1. Maputo smells like Marzipan

This sounds cheesy. And it is. But it is also true thanks to the many frangipan trees planted all around the city. Mia Couto makes reference to this tree in his novel A Varanda do Frangipani  (Under the Frangipan: http://www.amazon.com/Under-Frangipani-Mia-Couto/dp/1846686768) which I HIGHLY recommend you  all read.

Frangipan trees look a bit like they might have come out of a 3D printer, thanks to their weird plasticky flowers.


How are these not stuck on?!

One of the most pleasant things about being in this city is being able to sit on my balcony at dusk, feeling the warm breeze blowing off the Indian ocean and breathing in the smell of these DIVINE  flowers. And this isn’t even poetic exaggeration, this is genuinely how what my life is like now *smug smile*….

…unless of course it’s raining. Maputo smells like wet-dog in the rain.



Hmmm… Perhaps not so pleasant after all.

2. Maputo is completely heterogeneous.

It is easy to get stuck in the white/black, Portuguese/Mozambican, Western/African mind-set. But that is a simplification. I don’t think I have ever been to a place that is as diverse as Maputo, and I’m not just talking ethnically, although there is ethnic diversity… Black Mozambicans, Mulatto Mozambicans, White Mozambicans, Mozambicans of South Asian origin, Portuguese, African, Chinese, Indian, European, Chope, Tsonga, Macua, Makonde….. etc etc etc. (You get the picture)

You also have people from all possible economic backgrounds, from the disgustingly wealthy to the utterly destitute. You have rural Mozambicans who have come to Maputo to make a living and who bring with them their traditional beliefs like witchcraft and ancestor worship, but you also have totally westernized, wealthy Mozambicans and expats from the USA and Europe driving around in huge Range Rovers. You have people who only buy food from the hugely over priced supermarkets and those who go to people selling just one thing i.e. crabs, mango, or mandioca, in the street.

It seems like a deeply polarized society and in many ways it is. But it is also a fluid and syncretistic society. People never seem comfortable to define themselves as one thing, despite the highly stratified, often segregated nature of the place.

3. Maputo is an architectural treasure trove!


A treasure trove, godammit!

But seriously, Maputo is a very cool place architecturally speaking. Over the years a lot has been demolished, whilst even more has been left to crumble into a state of charming dilapidation with the result that the city today is a hotchpotch of buildings from different eras, and walking through it is like walking through all of the extraordinary political changes the country has undergone in the past century.

The above photo, taken from my balcony, is nothing particularly special, but it still gives a rough idea of what I’m talking about:

The oldest buildings are the tiny white houses with red roofs – they are super Portuguese in style and could have been airlifted from any street in Lisbon: this is basically Portugal saying, “This country is mine now. ALL MIIIIINE!”



On the corner of the street on the left is a classic example of Maputo’s Art Deco architecture. Most of downtown, a Baixa, was built in this style. And most of these buildings are in desperate need of a lick of paint but for me, such decrepitude only adds character. N.B. Works by Gustav Eiffel can be found throughout Maputo, including the famous Casa de Ferro.

In the back ground you can see a modernist tower block: like Art Deco, Modernism was and is a big thing in Maputo and the city has some really interesting examples of work by Pancho Guedes and others. Check out the link for more pics: http://whatsonafrica.org/maputomodernism/

Finally, on the far left you can see a new building being thrown up. There are huge construction projects going on here at the moment thanks to a successful economic  climate. However, when you see how so much money being poured into such big projects (nearly always in the wealthiest areas of Maputo), you do wonder if it wouldn’t be better used else where…

4. Maputo is GREEN!

Hallelujah! After living in Santiago for 6 months which soul-crushingly urban, it is a relief to finally see some foliage…


Look! Real trees!

Maputo is bursting at the seams not just with greenery but with wild-life too!

The old pavements are full of potholes and enormous lumps and bumps where the huge acacia trees’ roots are slowly pushing the paving stones out of the way. The air is filled with butterflies and moths and it is common to see gala-galas (lizards) basking in the sunshine. The streets are lined with the most beautiful trees – jacaranda, acacia and frangipan, often with trunks wide enough to fit a small car through. Trees are sacred here and have a special role in communicating with the ancestors and spirits. Perhaps this is why no matter how large a tree gets or how destructive an effect it has on the buildings around it, the council won’t chop it down…

Most exotic of all, however, are the fruit bats!

Greater short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus sphinx)

So creepy, so adorable.

You see them at dusk swooping around the tops of buildings and I occasionally hear them too, squeaking and snarling as they hunt for supper.

N.B. If you go down to the botanical garden you will find a tree where about 30 nest. You can work out where they are by the half eaten plums and excrement littering the floor. Nice.

5. Bob Dylan obviously never came here…

…because if he had he would have written a song about frango piripiri and terrible, heat-stroke hangovers. Forget all that tosh about dancing on a moonlit beach. It’s a serious party town which means serious hangovers.

“I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek
It’s very nice to stay a week or two
And fall in love just me and you….” 

Er yeah… or not, Bob.

I marked the end of my first week in Maputo with an appalling hangover made so much worse by the unrelentingly hot weather. I had gone out the night before with all the right intentions of having only one or two cervejinhas at the Asociação de Musicos Moçambicanos *RECOMMENDED* before getting an early night. But things escalated pretty rapidly and before I knew it, the sun had been up for two hours and I was finally arriving home, limping from blisters sustained by hours of dancing marrabenta and clutching an avocado picked from one of trees under which all this debauchery had been taking place.

I know, I know… it’s a hard life.





Arrival: For Hope

This is the first, and perhaps the most difficult post I will make on this blog. Not just because ‘the first step is always the hardest’, and not just because it is nearly impossible to describe arrival in a new city without resorting to cliche (see above).

No, it is difficult because my arrival here in Maputo coincided with the departure of someone worth more to me than I think I will ever be able to comprehend. A mere blog post is not worthy of her. But it is difficult to talk about my arrival without thinking of her, as she has become irrevocably intertwined with the memories of my first few nights alone here.

She was a great and intrepid traveler in her time and even in her last year, despite the damage dementia had wreaked upon her brain, she was able to offer astute advice. I remember one afternoon before I reluctantly left for Chile, we were sitting on her old sofa,  holding hands which had become our habit ever since she had become unwell, knowing that every parting could be our last and letting that gesture say everything we weren’t able to put into words. And she said, “Just think who your new best friend will be.” Such optimism has been and will continue to be a great comfort to me as I navigate all the loneliness and uncertainty which comes with living abroad alone.

My arrival here was as intimidating, chaotic and rewarding as expected. But those first snapshots I have of the city, of women wrapped in colourful capulanas walking along the side of the rode from the airport, of bustling streets lined with acacia trees, of the warm smell of the sea breeze scented with frangipan, and my own anxiety as I listened to the noise of an unfamiliar city at night, unable to get to sleep for the heat – those first snapshots are also tainted by grief and profound regret. I miss her and think of her everyday. And will be so pleased if my experiences here in Mozambique bestow upon me even a fraction of the wisdom and intelligence she possessed.



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