Isla de Mozambique – Part 1
In May 2004 I was visiting Zimbabwe. This is an edited version of a journal I wrote at the time for the ‘benefit’ of friends and relatives, who purported to have an interest in my activities.
On Saturday, I was having elevenses with, Hugo and Molly in Harare. While I was there, Molly got a call from Tomas a mutual friend who had various properties and businesses around Southern Africa, including a villa on Isla de Mozambique to which he was inviting them to visit. Molly told Tomas that Hugo would not be able to take the time off as he had too much work to do, and added rather unconvincingly, nor could she. However, after a nanosecond, she decided that perhaps she could and suggested that Igo instead of Hugo.(Geddit?) I leaped at the opportunity and so it was agreed that they would pick me up the next morning, Sunday, and we would drive to Charles Prince Airport, where Tomas would meet us.
Charles Prince is the second airport serving Harare and is mostly used by private and small commercial craft. Following the arrival at Harare International airport of a plane full of suspected mercenaries in March, the government has become decidedly paranoid about the prospects of a coup attempt in this country. Consequently it has arranged for the Army to position an armoured car and an anti-aircraft gun at each end of the runway. You can imagine that this is slightly disconcerting for inexperienced pilots who probably give more thought than most to the possibility of an aborted take off. How is the gunner likely to react if he sees an aircraft speeding straight towards him when it should be heading into the sky? With a nervous trigger finger, I suspect. But such considerations on the part of the government would be thinking too far ahead.
Incidentally, I learned recently that the leader of the “suspected” mercenaries is one Simon Mann, son of the English cricketer who was once renowned for being on the receiving end of a particularly ferocious bit of bowling from a South African player, also called Mann. It led John Arlott to comment that this was a prime example of “Mann’s inhumanity to Mann”. I suspect the son is receiving some pretty inhumane treatment in Cikurubi prison right now.
We arrived at CP where we commenced customs and immigration procedures. Being a non-resident, I had to pay a US$30 airport tax, which is somewhat exorbitant, as there are few facilities at the airport to justify the fee. (Residents only pay Z$24,000 (£2.40)). But that is not what grated most. I only had a $100 bill on me. Did the authorities have change? Of course not. They never do, unless it suits them. No amount of castigation has any effect. They are completely shameless. Luckily between us we were able to find the right denominations. One makes the effort, as much to deprive them of ill-gotten gains as to avoid one’s own pecuniary disadvantage.
I had only met Tomas once before at a birthday party of his about 4 years ago, but he knows my brothers fairly well. He owns a 6-seater twin prop Beechcraft Baron, which impressed me no end. As he had just that morning flown in from Kansas City via London, he elected to sit in the back and try and get some sleep. Being considerably heavier than Molly, I was lucky enough to get to sit in the front, which gave me an excellent view. It was a three-hour flight, heading north-east over the border into Mozambique. We stopped at Nampula to clear customs and refuel. Nampula no doubt exists for a reason, though I did not discover what that might be. Nothing much happens in Mozambique on a commercial or industrial basis to justify a settlement of more than a few shacks so presumably it is an administrative centre where those fortunate enough to have government jobs are able to misspend and embezzle the aid money provided by the West. From the air, the town is pretty scruffy and unappealing. However, the airport is impressive for two reasons. One, the landing strip is free of anti-aircraft guns, and two, it is surrounded by some very picturesque scenery. Extraordinarily shaped gigantic granite monoliths emerge from an otherwise flat landscape creating a spectacular silhouette.
Customs and immigration procedures passed relatively uneventfully and we continued the last half hour of our trip. As we approached the island, Tomas asked Mike, the pilot, to buzz the house on the off-chance that someone would be there to come and pick us up from the airport. He had been unable to get through on his phone. Not that we held much hope of success given that Tomas did not own a car and the three guests who were already at the house were out from the UK and unlikely to be in a position to organise something. Anyway, having landed, he set off for the main road where he managed to flag down an obliging lady in a pick-up truck who for a small fee was able to drive us to the house. I should explain that the island is separated from the main land by a causeway, stretching three kilometres.
Isla de Mozambique, designated a world heritage site by the UN, used to be the capital of the Portuguese colony until the late 19th century when under threat form the British imperialist expansionism by the likes of Cecil Rhodes, it was deemed prudent to relocate to Lourenco Marques, now Maputo. The island boasts the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest European building, being a small church erected in 1522. (That is of course if you accept the theory that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Shona people without the guidance of Portuguese stone masons.)
Next to the chapel is a massive fort, the building of which also began in the early 16th century. It is an impressive structure in that its design incorporates a notable method for collecting fresh water. Rainwater drains from rooftops and other surfaces into a network of channels and into an underground reservoir carved out of the rock. It is still used by the locals as one of the principal sources of potable water on the island. Around the perimeter of the fort there must be upwards of 50 massive cannons. Most of them bear a date of around 1808-1820. Needless to say, the fort is in a state of disrepair, though some maintenance work was being carried out. This consisted of several men rather languidly applying splashes of white-wash to arbitrary bits of wall. The project is being funded by the UN which has stipulated that entrance to the fort be free. The keys to the main gate are kept by an occasionally-present officer who would have won few prizes for his communication skills. The current incumbent’s predecessor was appointed after much deliberation by a team of UN and local officials. Coincidentally he happened to be the brother of the governor of the island. This noble gentleman took it upon himself to subsidise his personal income by charging a fee to any islander wishing to draw water from the reservoir. Naturally this met with some resistance by the locals. He was eventually replaced by ….. the governor’s nephew. So much for socialist ideals and UN impartiality.
Roughly 6,000 people live on the island which is about 2 km long by about 500m wide. Periodically various UN agencies try and relocate the peasants onto the mainland, but they soon return or are replaced by newcomers. The remnants of colonial civilisation offer too many attractions. When the Portuguese left the country in 1974, the Frelimo government nationalised most of the land. Consequently very few properties remain in private hands. However, there are a few and Tomas managed to acquire one of these a couple of years ago. In its heyday, the town must have been wonderful with brightly coloured Mediterranean villas, hotels and official buildings lining the waterfront and streets. Since the departure of the Portuguese, much of the place is in ruins. Almost no maintenance has been carried out on any of the buildings, though a few are still in habitable condition.
Tomas’s villa, which is still in the process of being rebuilt, is big and beautiful. It is right on the waterfront, the waves lapping against it at high tide. As it is on the west side of the island facing the main land it is sheltered from the ocean and there is little risk of tidal or storm damage. The sunsets are incredible. Adjoining the villa on the right there is a ruin, ready for redevelopment, while on the other is another villa that serves as a mosque, this being a largely Islamic community. The name of the country is derived from that of an Arab trader, (slave trader?) called Musa Al Big or Mossa Al Bique or Mussa Ben Mbiki. Apparently!
A feature of the island is that given the large number of inhabitants and the lack of modern urban infrastructure, there are very few sanitation facilities. I.e. people shit on the beach. And they do it with out any shame or embarrassment. As you walk along, you will see somebody suddenly lift her skirt or lower his trousers and have a squat. They will then shuffle off to the water’s edge to rinse off. After prayers at the mosque, it seems to be the accepted norm to stick your bum over the balcony and crap into the water. I kept expecting to hear Julie Andrews/Mary Poppins sing a warning:
“Heed the turds, Watch where you stand, The faeces of Isla, Cover the land”
But don’t let the scatological references put you off. The sea washes everything away and as Tomas pointed out the practice will keep mass tourism away. The trick is to take a boat to one of the nearby, uninhabited islands.