Happy two thousand thirteen


2013 is a weird number to get used to, but before we know it, 2014 will be upon us, so no matter….

On 10 January I returned to work at Amnesty International after a year’s sabbatical in Mozambique.  Exactly one year later (as I just realised), on 10 January 2013, I resigned.  In three months from now I’ll be out.

It has taken time to extricate myself from this complex secular church of human rights activists on one side and reformist managers on the other.  I had expected to be out-posted to Mexico shortly after returning from Mozambique, but because of reduced budgets, strikes at head office and other obstacles, this was not to happen until late 2014 or even later…. so I decided not to wait.  Now freelance ahoy!

2012 was an eventful year for the family, particularly for Imran (24), who graduated in music from SOAS in June and married Mikaela in September.

SOAS graduation

SOAS graduation

Pru and Mikaela ponder life's mysteries after graduation ceremony

Pru and Mikaela ponder life’s mysteries after graduation ceremony

Pru with the newly weds

Couple with their best boys

Pru and Imo in wedding hats

Imran also passed his (car) driving test and set up home on a narrow boat on Regents Canal with Mikaela, which they now both navigate up and down the waterways.


New canal abode, approaching a lock

Omar (26) got a good job with a start up computer design company in Shoreditch (= silicon valley, London) and moved into a terrific shared house in Brixton (south London).

Omar's birthday in his new house

So both boys moved themselves and their stuff out of the ‘ancestral home’ during the year, and both are muttering of travel to exotic climes come mid-2013.  Does that mean some of the stuff will return then for temporary parking?

Typical scene in my kitchen

Another family wedding happened during the year.  Imogen’s younger daughter Josephine married Luke, her partner of many years, as witnessed by their son Ollie (now 11).  They lived for several years in our London flat until we came back from SE Asia in 2004.

Luke and Jo, with Imogen on left and son Ollie on right

A rare snap of siblings Pru, Imo and Simon together at Jo's wedding

My work travel took me to South America four times in 2012 (Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay) as well as to Portugal.

Succulent steak in Buenos Aires - jugoso

Boris bikes in Buenos Aires


Enjoying a pisco sour with a colleague in the bar where this drink was originally invented as an


With colleagues from the region in the Uruguay office

Shakeeb and I, who are on friendly terms, met up with les amis du Laos in France in July.  It’s always a fabulous rendezvous for nostalgia, reminiscing, eating & drinking and seeing the few grown up children for whom it’s not so uncool to show up!  Those mid to late 90s years in Laos were certainly special for us all. The Chinese are now pouring concrete all over Laos, and (relative) ‘mass’ tourism has marred the face of many small Lao towns.

Les amis du Laos in Champagne

Francis is our tour guide in medieval Troyes

I managed to take some leave while in Peru in July to make peace with the Andean town of Huancayo, where I was royally ripped off (passport, money, tickets, the lot) in 1974 or thereabouts when I was a traveller in the continent (we didn’t call ourselves ‘backpackers’ in those days).  That town itself was a disappointment, but I visited the area, then went on to Huancavelica, further up in the Andes, to find I was the only gringo around for a wonderful annual fiesta to celebrate the anniversary of the town’s founding by the Spanish 441 years ago.

Fiesta in Huancavelica


Fiesta in Huancavelica

Local leader

I met a lot of Peruvian visitors there, many of whom had hardly left Lima before but had decided to get to know their own country, in particular the poorest provinces.  I shared transport with them visiting lakes and small towns at 4,500 metres altitude….  it was gaspingly difficult to breath while walking up there.

Breathless at 4,500 metres

Now it’s old cold English January with much discussion of the weather at every bus stop. Even car driving is out some days, and I have to push my bike back home in the middle of the road as the snowflakes dance about, kids make snowmen on car roofs and ducks skate about on frozen water.



Missing Mozambique’s sights, sounds and smells!

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Mozambique in retrospect

Back from Mozambique a few weeks and already I’m taking for granted the luxuries that excited me on arrival: hot water in every tap, 24/7 electricity and water supply, central heating, fast internet, cheese, chocolate, brown bread, dustless sealed roads, flat pavements to walk on, stationery and tea/coffee supplies at the office….  cycling again!

Too many to choose from

I’ve felt so-called ‘reverse culture shock’ many times before…. especially obvious things like bewilderment in the supermarket at having to choose from a ridiculous number of varieties of butter, bread and loo paper, the outrageous price of apples and public transport, and the paralysing range of entertainment choices in London.

Everything packaged - I prefer the street market for fruit & veg

I observe other startling differences.  Here in London the absence of colleagues from work in January is explained by colds and flu, but the much more frequent absences in Moz are usually hospital visits for themselves or to see sick family members, or to attend funerals – almost all a result of HIV/AIDS.

HIV prevalence among the 15-49 age group currently ranges from 25% in southern Gaza province to 3.7% in northern Niassa province, with women having higher incidence than men.  Nationally in Mozambique, one in every 7 couples has one or both partners infected.  Mother-to-child infection rates are also high, but decreasing now that preventive medicines are better distributed.

HIV education nailed to a tree

That means pretty well everyone in the country is HIV affected even if not actually infected.  There are many child headed households, where both parents have died and grandparents (if still living) are too poor and/or infirm to support their grandchildren.

Murals on HIV abound

The NGO I worked with in Chimoio (Manica province) is one of many that try to support such people, often with only Christian spirituality, when all hope for the patient’s recovery has gone.  Otherwise tireless NGO volunteers provide moral and practical/material support for the families or in the orphanages, though the government’s policy is de-institutionalisation and support for foster care, as well as de-stigmatisation.  The latter remains a huge problem, despite the high prevalence.

The bad news is that institutional funding for these NGOs has dwindled since the 2008 recession and donors now seem to be turning their attention to apparently more trendy issues like climate change and recycling.

The first anniversary of the death of Mozambique’s most celebrated artist Malangatana Ngwenya (see my blog of 28 Jan 2011) happened on 5 Jan 2012.  He had exhibitions throughout the world and was honoured with countless awards and decorations.  None of this went to his head, and he continued promoting creativity through working with children and young people at his (as yet unfinished) cultural centre in his home area.

Ngwenya means crocodile

Malangatana once said he did not fear death, but only wished for his work to be preserved and live on as a testament to his country’s ravaged history of conflict. Sadly, this does not seem to be happening according to his family members….  I had actually noticed that his murals looked dirty and chipped and some paintings not well framed and protected.  I’d also seen the works of famous sculptors left exposed to the elements….

Damp is creeping up into this mural by Malangatana

Mould (lower left) on this sculpture by Alberto Chissano






So preserving the national heritage may be a luxury Mozambique claims it cannot afford when it comes to prioritising government spending.  But one observes no hesitation in awarding luxury 4WD vehicles to new parliamentarians who seldom leave the capital, when it’s known that at least one provincial health service does not own a single ambulance.  Same old, same old……


Malangatana statue – weeds and cracks abound

For me one of the thrills of returning to London was the public library.  I had heard that libraries were becoming irrelevant, with many flagged for closure because of the internet, so I expected my local library to have become a mere shell of its former being.

I can borrow piles of books!

Not a bit of it!  Reference library: full of people reading and studying (and I had a browse through all the latest magazines), all the computer terminals occupied.  Children’s library: full of kids and carers.  Lending library: full of people borrowing books (as well as CDs and DVDs)…. so what’s all the talk about?  I borrowed a pile of books.

On another upbeat note, one VSO colleague from London met the love of her life a few weeks after arrival in Moz, got married and is now expecting their first baby.  The Mozambican dad-to-be is getting a taste of real winter weather in Yorkshire!  After the birth they will go back and live in Maputo, after a big party in the north.

So I’m enjoying the UK creature comforts, but noticing the gloomy black or grey coats and jackets that most people wear (including me).  I’m missing the bright blue Moz sky and ocean, the colourful capolana cloth, the music and dance, the 2M beer, even the old-man’s- head rock formation in Chimoio.


The eternal old man sleeps in the Chimoio plain

It’s another era now.  The reality is London snow, not beaches and mangoes!

Westminster in the February snow

Not cycling weather

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Last impressions of Mozambique

Xmas party for street children

As I start to dispose of accumulated belongings before leaving Mozambique, I think of the colours and images that will spring to mind in future when I think of this country.  Less the long empty beaches, the historic buildings, the prawns and cold beer – more the (sometimes irritating) constants that are so continuously present you tend to ignore or take them in your stride.

Collecting molluscs

Public transport:  The local chapa (combi) bus is designed for a dozen bums but routinely carries twice that and more, including the odd chicken under someone’s feet with its wings tied, or with its head sticking out of a hole in the side of a plastic bag. It’s suffocating and hot.  Needless to say, the stuffing hangs out of the broken seats and the sliding door is held on by a bit of rope.  It’s the conductor’s job to collect fares and let those at the back out by shifting those sitting in front out first…. a hassly process.

The machibombo (my favourite word!) is the big bus you can stand up in – similarly packed with extra people sitting along the aisle on sacks of coconuts, rice or maize cobs.  Recently I rode a bus for over 18 hours with one driver the whole way from 02h00 to 20h00… 3 rapid loo stops in the bush, rap and pop ‘’music’ at top volume non-stop, relieved by a violent film, and food available only when vendors came to the windows at filling stations and crossroads.  I’ll never complain about the discomfort of any long haul flight ever again!

When the bus makes a bush loo stop, most people get off and you get to see who’s on board: usually a lot of babies and children who make not a sound.  A young girl of say 8 will be told to sit on a sack of rice and take care of a tiny baby, other kids will sit passively as the hours pass and they get hungrier. Obedience. No complaints.  No toys or books – there are no toys here, only what kids make from bits of wire and tin cans.

Kids make drums out of junk, it sounds great!

The instant party: This is when someone parks their car, puts on the CD player at top volume and opens all the doors.  A cold box with beer comes out, and people come and hang out there – usually at favourite spots like a beach or water front, or even outside your flat in the small hours!

Star fish bring good luck

Consideration for neighbours:  Not really a concept here… someone will play tinny loud music from their mobile phone in the chapa without earphones…. No complaints, everyone has to hear it.  Tolerance is what is expected.  Now I have absolutely no conscience about putting my iPod music on speakers LOUD with all my windows open.

Capolanas:  Colourful cloths drying on washing lines or spread out on the beach, wrapped around women or on their heads.  Politicians hand out capolanas with their portraits printed on… and you see historic ones being worn, especially on ‘revolution’ days commemorating Frelimo events.  Every woman carries a capolana in her bag – it’s used for wrapping up things, carrying, drying, wiping, sun shading, lying on, sitting on in the bus queue, etc. etc.

Courting:  Receiving flattering attention and declarations from men the age of my children… mostly these guys are poets, musicians, artists who like to express themselves extravagantly, though some may have ulterior motives.  White woman, rich, powerful, can help me, us.

Dhow sail boat sets sail

Sinks:  Flats with kitchens have aluminium sinks with draining boards.  Every one I have seen and used slopes the wrong way, so that water flows everywhere but where it should…. I had to give up getting annoyed by that one….

Epa!!  This word means oh! wow! mamma mia! or any expression of surprise, and you hear it all the time….

So with these few thoughts my Moz chapter is closing.  I’ve shared some elements on this blog.  Other aspects I did not (yet) manage to include were about HIV/AIDS, the church, art, architecture, the economy….  I will try to do this at my leisure at a later date, so I’m not closing this blog now….. just saying ciao to Mozambique for the moment.

Some sun before London in January

I met a lot of great people here, made friends, saw places (including Swaziland and Zimbabwe, albeit briefly), (re)learned Portuguese, heard amazing music, saw extraordinary dance, and managed to get to Tofo beach (Inhambane province) at year end – as a kind of buffer against my cold January 2012 return to London.

caio all


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Mozambique Island

The historic gateway to eastern Africa, Mozambique Island held an exotic attraction for me that I had to respond to before my time was up here.  Getting there from Chimoio involved a hot 15 hour bus ride (starting at 0300) followed by 4-5 hours on a packed minibus (chapa). 
The historically impregnable San Sebastian fort

The reward was crossing ethnic Makua country along mango tree lined roads at the right time of year:  trees laden low with succulent pink and yellow mangoes, kids rushing over to travelers with heavy bagfuls for a few coins, then crossing the blue expanse of Indian Ocean on a narrow bridge that now links the magical Ilha (as it’s called locally) to the mainland, and on into the quiet dusty streets, lined with vast ancient fig trees.

Bridge from the mainland
Ancient fig trees (and ladies)

Gold, ivory, cloth, slaves…. all trade goods moving from eastern Africa to Europe, India and beyond passed through tiny Mozambique Island (3 km long by 500 metres wide) from the 14th century until around 1898 when the Portuguese moved their colonial capital from the island to Lourenco Marques in the south (now Maputo). 

Memorial garden for the slave trade: tens of thousands were shipped from here

 A crossroads of African, Arab, Indian and European cultures, Mozambique island today is a UNESCO World Heritage ‘treasure’ whose indigenous inhabitants live off fishing much as they always have, while their erstwhile trading ‘masters’ are now variously engaged in urban restoration and architecture, historical research, tourism, the boutique hotel and restaurant business, as well as trendy development projects.

Example of fine restoration (with hawkers selling outside!)
A bit more work needed along this block!
People live in ruins like this…
… and this

I slept in a dormitory for the first time in decades, but this was not any old dorm: it was a pink 400 year old restored house, former home of Indian traders, with original paintings on the walls, high wood beamed ceilings and a glorious bougainvillea-strewn roof terrace. But still the cheapest place to sleep (less than  GBP 10)!

My bed in the historic dorm

The island seems to retain the original apartheid by which the ‘Stone town’ end of the island, with its lofty colonial style buildings of stone and lime, were constructed for the wealthy traders with the labour of the indigenous inhabitants of ‘Makuti town’ (means palm thatch in Makua language) at the other end. The Makua still mostly live in houses of mud, bamboo and thatch.

Typical Makua houses in Makuti town


Lots of mums and kids everywhere
Running a charcoal business

Many indigenous dwellers now live across the bridge on ‘the continent’ as they call it, having sold their homes at a handsome price to the historical literati and culturati.  The traffic across the bridge is brisk as people bring their mangoes, tomatoes, fish and seafood on to the island to sell to the restaurants and hotels.

This massive ray (fish) will fetch a few dollars!
Keeping the mangoes in the shade
Feisty girls

The children on Ilha have a charm and innocence that seems special to the place. The girls are sent out with a head load of mangoes to sell during the day.  They fit this chore in as they play and have fun with their friends on the streets and beach, as do the boys too, who leap about in the sea and roll in the sand.

Same games the world over
A bit scary looking!
All ages play together

Besides absorbing the faded ambience of history, one can also reach pristine outlying islands by dhow sailboat.  These are constructed today much as they have always been – from mangrove wood and no nails used.  It’s amazing how fast they can go with a good wind! But then they did cross continents historically. 

Time tested dhow sailboat technology

At low tide women collect limpets and edible rock shell creatures and this is their main family food, together with small fish that the men catch. People are always hungry, but they don’t ask for money for bread here.

Many edible morsels lurk here
Just brought in


Endless repairing of nets (bridge in the background)

Unesco status seems to be a mixed blessing.  Families will continue to live in the ruins of colonial mansions until they are restored (then where?)  Tourism brings in money and provides service work for people in hotels, restaurants, handicrafts, as well as to boatmen, tailors, even internet providers (I experienced the fastest connection ever in Mozambique!)  

 But I was alarmed to hear that Unesco restoration must be done in authentic original materials – that means stone and lime: no cement allowed.  Where does the lime come from? Traditionally from burning coral, and burn coral they continue to do, whatever the environmentalists may be saying.  So diving and snorkeling are not as one might expect…..

Fire ready to burn coral. Pile of prepared lime behind

 But the beaches are still gorgeous and untrodden.

Vast stretches of pristine beach


So much more to say about this place, but that will do for a flavour… 

I’m using a borrowed old grumpy laptop that will not let me manipulate photos or formatting…  I just have to go along with what it wants to do rather than what I want to do…. but grateful for small mercies.

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The office

HIV ribbon and candles: symbols of the work

Thank god for a more and more paperless world, because stationery – what we usually associate with a functional office – is a scant resource where I am.  There’s no stationery supply as such, but people find their own bits: 2008 desk diaries as notebooks and pink Chinese pencils at 2p in the market.  The finance office apparently once had five calculators, but none now… so finance staff come and borrow my tiny one that cost 3 quid about 8 years ago.  I carry it around for calculating currency exchange.

My NGO office has some impressive equipment provided at some point by institutional donor for project work.  This stuff is lovingly covered up by dust sheets every night, whether or not it’s in use. 

Equipment nicely draped in tie dye cloth

Draped plastic table piled with office stuff

There’s a huge photocopy/scanning machine, several computers with printers, a document binding contraption…  But on the odd occasion when I need to print or photocopy a sheet or two, there’s often no ink cartridges in any printer, no toner, no paper… etc. so I end up doing it in a copy shop in town off a usb stick.

Splendid looking equipment

An office phone on your desk?  Forget that…. There’s one boxed up fixed line phone that can only receive calls.  The history is that staff would not own up to personal usage, so the facility was cut.

The only fixed line phone - incoming calls only!

When the director gets an international call he has to come to the reception area and discuss business that anyone who happens to be hanging around can eavesdrop on.

My laptop lifeline to the outside world recently died, so because of the risk and expense of “repatriation” for repair under warranty, I decided to wait and colonise a little used desk top computer in the reception area.


My work station in reception

People seem happy with this, especially as I have installed updates so it works a bit faster now… plus skype which some people find totally weird (as they watch you sit there talking at your screen).

Parked there much of the time makes me witness to many a small office drama.  The other day there was a call to the fixed line phone saying someone wanted to send a fax. 

But the fax machine had no paper … the receptionist spotted a sheet of A4 in the one functioning printer in the finance dept. and stuck it in the fax machine.  The phone kept ringing, but despite the sheet of paper, a few mobile phone calls and a 15 minute huddle of 4-5 people around the fax machine, no fax arrived that day…  I wonder how many missed opportunities these events represent.

The vexed fax machine

At a recent all staff meeting the cleaner complained that “there was no money” to buy a bottle of toilet cleaner (price 60p), and now she’s worried someone will get sick and it will be her fault.  No one seems to know who around here is deciding what will or will not be resourced from petty cash.

Tea, coffee or even plain drinking water for staff available?  No way… but there’s an old electric kettle that works (when there’s power), so I brought in some jasmine tea.  This evoked great curiosity among colleagues who all wanted to try it.  They ask does it have medicinal properties, is it for slimming?  They say they like it.

There’s officially a lunch hour, but no one is ever seen eating lunch, though a furtive snack must go down, no one looks starved (on the contrary).  I bring my own sandwich.  The only time people eat “in public” is when there’s a “budgeted” workshop or meeting, when “lanch” (sic, e.g. fried egg in a bread roll) is served up at 12, then real lunch at about 4 pm.  Apparently if real lunch is served up at 12, no one comes back for the pm session.  But the admin people always order the polystyrene boxes of food too early, so it’s always cold and congealed chicken and rice by the time you get it.

Things were not always thus.  There was once oodles of money for programmes and salaries, there was lunch, tea, coffee, snacks, as well as paper, toner, etc.  But this is how the global economic downturn affects an NGO operating mainly through the good graces of institutional donors and volunteers, to mitigate the effects of the HIV/AIDS – still a pandemic in Mozambique.  Since 2008, many donor offices have had to close in this province and cut their support to NGOs, with the daily effects I’m seeing here.  Not to speak of the losses to the real beneficiaries: people infected by or affected by HIV/AIDS.

But people are patient and most are uncomplaining, with many continuing to work without salary for a year or more, such is their commitment to “their” HIV affected families.  But for some it may be a lack of initiative to get out and find an alternative paid job…

As for creature comforts at work, there’s nowhere nearby to go for lunch, the “tuck shop” opposite only has fizzy drinks, dry biscuits, and loud music.

“Tuck shop” opposite with fizzy drinks, dry biscuits and loud music

In the office you spend the day on a rock hard wooden chair or stuck to a double stack plastic chair (otherwise, unless you’re light as a fairy, the legs splay out and collapse)… so no ergonomic workstations around this place.  There are a couple of fans around – though who has fan rights remains a mystery to me.  I use my paper hand fan: good arm exercise, and it works during power cuts.

Double stacked plastic chairs for long sitting

Meetings (so most foreigners say) seem mostly quite haphazard in Moz.  Rarely is there an agenda or a clear purpose, and chairing is about being seen to be in charge and dominating the talk, rather than steering discussions and reaching conclusions and decisions.  But hey, this is another culture, we have to adapt and slow down.  My colleagues are delightful, all in different ways, and spend a lot of energy surviving with their pittance (or nothing) and alternately gossiping or joking about the board and office politics.

Lunch and coffee desert

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Samora Machel 1933 – 1986

This year (2011) was declared Samora Machel year in Mozambique. A modest, not overly educated but charismatic man, Samora led the independence struggle against Portugal and became the first president of independent Mozambique in 1975 (unelected).

On 19 October 1986 Samora, along with his close government entourage, was killed in a plane crash in the Mbuzini hills in South Africa.

The circumstances of this event have never been definitively established, and this year, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Samora´s death, his widow Graca Machel (now married to Nelson Mandela) appealed for clarity and closure of this affair within her own lifetime. 

However, the apparent mass killing by incineration of prominent political opposition figures shortly after independence has been allowed to fizzle out in the mists of time….

The people's president, Samora had an official budget for overseas study

All this year regular spots on Radio Mozambique have aired Samora´s speeches and reported on his life… the same on a state TV channel that has Samora´s cameo permanently in the corner.   A frequent on-air quiz has challenged young peoples´ knowledge of the minutiae of Samora´s public life. ”In 1979, on a visit to China, Samora Machel´s favourite food was a) sweet & sour noodles b) Peking duck c) pork ribs….” I jest, but you get the picture.

Usually the anniversary of Samora´s demise is celebrated, but this year, on 18 October, the government declared 19 October a public holiday so that “massive attendance” at commemorative public events could be assured.

When I asked colleagues what would happen in Chimoio, they told me to just go to Heroes´ Square around 8 am. Every town has a Heroes´ Square to commemorate the fallen in the independence and civil wars, and other national events. They all feature a horizontal concrete star in a flower bed, and a wreath laying plaque.

Strapline - "our inspiration, our challenges for the future"

People queued in the sun to lay single roses

On the eve of the big day, a Samora Machel colloquium took place in Maputo, recorded live for TV and radio. Many a long-winded speech was given by former comrades-in-arms, featuring Samora in military action, as well as a few amusing anecdotes that a couple of his children told about their dad. The final word came from then military comrade and now President Guebuza, who always speaks in predictable formulas (he needs a better speech writer).

The crowd at Chimoio´s Heroes´ Square consisted mainly of school kids in their navy and white, playing rhyming, skipping and clapping games as they waited around, as well as women of Samora´s generation wearing jazzy capolanas emblazoned with his portrait. They sang old Frelimo songs, and the kids and other generations joined in the refrain… “Samora Machel, Samora Machel….”

School kids mill about

A good opportunity for watching boys

The military stood to attention as flowers were placed on the plaque, then sat in rows on plastic chairs, sweating in their uniforms and hats, listening to the speeches. An exhibition of photocopied blow-ups of Samora with other erstwhile revolutionaries – Castro, Ceaucescu, Kaunda – attracted a few eager pupils with notebooks.

Faded copies of hero photos

Later, the evening TV news was replete with clips of identical homage ceremonies from each and every provincial capital. The whole was capped off by footage of the installation in Maputo´s Independence Square of a massive bronze statue of Samora, just up the road from the smaller statue of himself on Samora Machel Avenue. This new statue was labeled a gift from the people of North Korea, well known for their strong line in personality cult imagery in honour of “great” and “dear” leaders.

Samora in action - mural at Heroes´ Square, Chimoio

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Battle of the mobile phone giants

Looking around, it seems that all but the most deprived people in Mozambique have access to a mobile phone. A lady selling tomatoes and onions in the market will keep hers in her bra or tucked into her capolana waist knot. A man carting wood for charcoal or clay bricks will have a battered phone on a string round his neck. The cool and trendy carry a phone in their hand at all times, like an extension of their arm.

Lots of mobile phone shops

The phone's an extension of his left arm

But the trade describes only a 36% “population penetration” in this country, or 6.5 million subscribers.

A new no frills phone costs 1,000 meticais (around £20), and a second hand one goes for less than half that. Pre-paid credit, that most people use, starts at about 20p, and there are multifarious time limited packages for phones and computer dongles. Calls are quite pricey, but texts are cheap. Only long established businesses or offices have fixed line phone numbers, others use mobile.

There are two mobile phone giants in the country that are fighting it out for supremacy. A third is said to be on the horizon. Mcel, state owned, now with a 65% market share, started as a monopoly in 1997. That’s the yellow giant.

Get talking, baby

Yellow giant's pitch

More than ten years later South African Vodacom, that also has operations in Lesotho, Tanzania and DRC, joined the yellow giant in Mozambique, and now has 35% of the market share. This year it decided to change its image from blue to red, to match that of its UK “parent company” Vodafone. That’s the red giant.

The ubiquitous yellow and red giants seem flush with money, though Vodacom is said to have been operating at a loss. They sponsor TV and other media and cultural programmes, non-government organisations and good works, and fight it out in the mass media and streets for any kind of extra promotion and visibility.

Every street corner in every town has young guys, with or without yellow or red tabards, selling recharge cards day and night for a tiny commission – less than 1 metical (2p) for a 100 meticais (c. £2.20) recharge card.

Credit seller recharges my phone

These guys (no girls) join endless queues to get their supply of recharge cards from the always packed Mcel and Vodacom shops.

At some stage Mcel decided to offer people free pots of yellow paint (good quality) to paint their buildings, on condition its logo appeared on their walls.

Lots of yellow paint

Yellow giant stuff here

No problem, both householders and shops went for this freeby, so there are many dazzling bright yellow houses and shops dotted around in the most unlikely spots in town and countryside.

What's this yellow place got?

Not to be outdone, and to confirm its image move to red, it seems Vodacom offered even larger quantities of red paint for the same purpose, and Chimoio where I live is full of red buildings – shops, bars, kiosks, even private homes.

Not a phone shop, a guest house

Not a phone shop, a white goods shop

Pity the upstairs of this colonial building was not renovated (it's a Chinese plastic goods shop)

 However, for Vodacom it looks like there’s some competition with Coca Cola… which also uses large amounts of red in its publicity….

The drinks company gets a little upstaged here

A little logo confusion among the reds here too

Mcel and Vodacom are probably the names that only a rare Mozambican will not have heard of. Subliminal advertising, part of the landscape everywhere you go. I’m shocked at the tastelessness and shamelessness of some of it. For example, a wall in Beira several km long that separates the ocean road from the beach, is covered with Vodacom’s crude red… I wonder who got paid for that one?

Beira beach front: don't look at the ocean, look at the red giant!

In some cases the warfare is blatant, though Vodacom’s red seems to have the upper hand in Chimoio for now. But sometimes there is no brand loyalty, and the re-sellers have both kinds of recharge cards in their wallets.

The yellow giant planted its post between the red giant bar (R) and kiosk (L)

Hmm, no brand loyalty here!

When the Mcel service dropped for a couple of days recently, there were grovelling apologies on national TV and Radio Mozambique, and interviews with stressed people who said they´d had to put their lives on hold for the duration.  Others immediately went and bought the rival Vodacom sim card so life could continue uninterrupted.  Still others (like me) just shrugged and put it in the same category as the power cuts, internet suspension and other shortages that are part of daily life here.

I’m wondering what the mobile giants’ next tactic will be when a third rival enters the fray to attempt further “population penetration”. There may be a shortage of walls and buildings to paint another colour in Chimoio, but in Maputo there must be a few more blocks of flats that could do with a fresh lick of advertising paint on one or both sides….

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