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.
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).
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.
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
But the beaches are still gorgeous and untrodden.
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.