Ilha da Moçambique
Night was falling and the rickety van that should have gone all the way to Ilha da Moçambique inexplicably unloaded all its passengers 30 miles short. I paid for the full trip, all the way to Ilha, I told the driver in my Brazilian-accented Portuguese. “Verdade, verdade,” he told me, true, true. I would get no argument there. And not a mile more. A kid traveling alone in the van told me he too was heading to Ilha, home for a few days from his boarding school in Maputo. Sergio. We must have taken the same plane as well. He too must have fought off the touts and tricksters at the bus station who wanted so much to help me with my bags, liberate me of them entirely. I did as I was advised and paid the extra van fare to keep my bags inside with me.
Sergio and I hacked as the dust kicked up by the van's tires billowed around us. It sped off for the return trip to Nampula. We smacked mosquitos from our necks as he walked from car to car, truck to truck asking for a ride to Ilha. A kindly man in a rusted pick-up obliged. He would take us just so far and let us off by the road where a passenger truck should come along eventually. Sergio insisted on climbing into the open back while offering me the passenger seat in the cab. A fidgety rooster pecked at my pant cuffs as we conversed. Where was I from? Berlin. Well, not always, living there, actually from New York. Why Portuguese? Lived in Brazil, too, once. He shook his head. You move a lot.
The next ride wasn't showing. Would we have to sleep here? I looked around at ragged shacks and a concrete bus stop crumbling back to earth. Not so comfortable. 20, 30, 40 minutes, then came another pick-up, its open back chock full of people taking the cheapest transport home to Ilha. Laborers, women with bundles and kids wrapped in billowing fabric. A man and goat jumped off so I could get on and secure myself against the top of the cab, holding on, rocking back and forth, hard bouncing down the pocked road. I thought of the breakfast conversation that morning with a colleague at the conference I was attending. Are you heading right back, he asked. No, a week up north on an island that was once the key colonial trading port. Photographing. Meeting someone? On my own. Which is best for photography. Then he discovered I had no hotel reserved, just planned to show up, and no arranged transportation from the airport, 125 miles from Ilha. With the goat nestling my luggage and the pick-up careening dangerously from side to side on rigid shock absorbers, I smiled. If he could see me now.
The coral Ilha da Moçambique was once capitol of Portuguese East Africa, a handy port in quiet waters from which to extract the riches of the land and ship them off to Lisbon or serve as a stop on the routes to India and Asia. As in so much of coastal Africa, a wide variety of peoples mixed for centuries, eking out territory and lives. In prehistory hunter-gatherers were first, then settled farmers and iron workers from around 1000 CE. On the fertile coast, trade came early and often, with Arabic and Persians foremost, trading for centuries before the arrival of Vasco de Gama and Portuguese settlers in 1498. Within decades the Portuguese were taking over many Arabic trading settlements, eventually establishing full control.
First they built up the port, then a base, then a fort. They had to. For such a key port on principal trade routes raids were frequent from ships often manned by slave armies (African tribal chiefs, Arabs, the Portuguese, the French all traded in slaves). Yet Ilha prospered despite the centuries of challenges. Inland, however, the resistance was greater and the land never managed a consistent administration by any government. Instead, power was given over in private land grants and to commercial companies whose practices fostered ever greater resentment. But as new and better trade routes were discovered, Ilha entered a long, irreversible period of decline, once that was accelerated in more recent times by the opening of the Suez Canal.
Ilha remained the capitol until 1898 and time froze when it moved. The buildings' bright colors paled in the sun, plaster cracked and many houses crumbled. Trees pushed their way up through the floors and split open new skylights.
By 1964 a simmering independence movement became a full-scale guerrilla war. Independence finally came with a Marxist government eleven years later. The Portuguese were expelled. A civil war ensued, fueled, in part, by the old colonial power, neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa and extensive covert support by the United States. By 1986 a new government instituted reforms, left Marxism behind and succeeded in ending the civil war by 1992.
Ilha da Moçambique is, today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its history and remarkable consistency and balance in architecture since the same building techniques were used from the 16th century onwards. The island's chapel, built in 1522, is the oldest in the southern hemisphere. When I visited, back in 2009, the population is hardly topped 14,000 people, most, nearly all, terribly poor. They live on a narrow slip of land under 2 miles long and only 200 to 500 yards at its widest. The people are friendly, open. The streets are calm. Almost no cars. Only a few lights at night. There is safety even on the darkest streets. During the day, adults nod and kids spring out from all sides demanding to be photographed, jumping, jostling, vying for front position.
I'd walk for hours each morning, camera in hand, have lunch, go back to the posada to read, and then go out again when the light turned golden in the late afternoon. I often walked to the shoreline to watch the fisherman mend their nets – a daily task – and continue the traditions of boat building begun centuries before. The boats are made from scrap and driftwood, cobbled together with hundreds of pieces planed and pounded and hammered into ramshackle shape. They are sided by wood salved from other boats and abandoned buildings and then painted in bright, garish colors. Dhows, they are mostly, with sails stitched in likewise fashion – from any and every piece of cloth, sack and material at hand.
So much resonates as I look back. Above all an indelible memory: One day a young child turned a corner and came walking down the street, a bunch of spring onions draped over his shoulder. May I take your photograph? Portrait? Claro, sure. Through the lens I framed perhaps the most beautiful child I had ever seen. I showed the photo to him. The instant gratification of digital. He smiled broadly. When I saw the photo back home, I could see how loved he must be. That torn t-shirt, riddled with holes, was immaculately clean and cared for. As he must have been.
I long to return and intend to. Soon.
Sources: Wikipedia, UNESCO World Heritage website.
© 2013 by Gerald Seligman