On an Island Forgotten by History, the Melange of Mozambique

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I’m on an overcrowded, stripped down minibus heading to Ilha de Mozambique – the tiny island in the country’s north that gave this sprawling African nation its name — when I get my first small taste of the country’s unique flavor. Crammed into the tiny space, which is ripe with tropical heat and the heavy odor of sweating human bodies, are a dozen or more women, clad in identical church black, in identical orange headscarves; and as we roll down the long two-lane highway towards the coast, they begin to fill the coach with singing.

Their voices form a kind of otherworldly chorus, ululating, rising and then falling off, others joining in to take their place. In the back seat, their faces beaded with sweat, three men with hand drums — little more than wooden boxes stretched with animal hides — set rhythms beneath the voices, and the whole coach is suddenly transformed into a rolling African choir. We pull into a dusty off-road through a village, and as we pass beneath the shady mango trees, hung with heavy fruit, barefoot children run from the daub-and-wattle huts; as the song pours through the minibus windows, the kids spontaneously begin to dance.

This, as they say, is Africa. But though tribal rhythms are the beginning of the story of Mozambique, they’re also far from being the end. Independence in 1975 from longtime colonial masters Portugal quickly brought a bloody 15-year civil war that ended only in 1992 (trivia: the AK-47 on the Mozambican flag makes it the only national flag to feature a modern weapon). With the end of the conflict came stability, and with it thousands of vacationing South Africans, who have flocked to hip southern party beaches like Tofo, just a day’s drive from Johannesburg, ever since.

The coastal north of Mozambique, however – where for more than five hundred years Portuguese colonists, Arab Muslim traders and fragments of the Indian diaspora have transited, settled and intermingled – harbors a cultural mélange as unique as any on Earth, its matchless physical history preserved by distance and bad roads, and mostly untouched by tourism. It’s a place that, with its effortless subtropical beauty, rich cultural heritage, and utter absence of crowds practically cries out for “next big thing” destination status. Yet suspended as it is in a vast geographical gulf two or more days’ hard drive from anywhere, Mozambique’s north may as well be a place suspended in time, as the destination of my musical minibus is to illustrate.

Dusk is gathering in Ilha (“eel-hya”) de Mozambique’s UNESCO-listed Stone Town as I arrive and, seeking my guesthouse amongst the narrow alleyways, I quickly find myself lost. In the twilight, the maze of twisting streets and crumbling edifices gives little sign of belonging to this or any other recent century. I try in vain to get my bearings, turning one blind corner after another as I tread deeper into the labyrinth. I pass the ancient mosque, the crumbling Hindu temple, the ruins of autumnal facades flickering with the light of squatters’ cooking fires; yet lost as I am, the magic of the deserted city is not lost on me. There is no sense here in the gloom of Stone Town of the wider world, no signal of modernity to separate me from Ilha de Mozambique’s uncanny and palpable sense of living history. As my footsteps echo off the dusty cobbles, I find myself slipping back in time, imagining an age half a millennium ago when this tiny island, barely 500 meters wide, was one of the most important colonial outposts in the world, a prominent naval base and merchant port forming the heart of Portuguese East Africa at the height of that empire’s power.

Vasco de Gama first landed here in 1498, and by the mid-16th century, what had once been merely an Arab trading port for dhows transiting the Swahili Coast had been fully transformed into one of the first truly global crossroads of the Renaissance age, the nexus of a vast pollination between the Islamic, Christian, Indian and African worlds. When I eventually emerge onto the deserted, wind-whipped quays on Stone Town’s western side, the mechanism of that vast engine of change is rendered clear: In the moonlight, the gentle waves washing against the weathered quays conjure up ghosts of the Arab dhows and tall-masted Portuguese carracks that would once have anchored here, plying the trade routes between Europe, Africa, India and the Far East.

In my mind, I can hear the clink and clack of African gold, pearls and ivory as they are loaded onto the ships of the Portuguese India armada to be exchanged in distant Goa and Kochi for holds full of precious spices. I can smell the perfume of cinnamon, cardamom and clove on their way back to Lisbon from Ceylon and the Spice Islands; and I wince at the crack of the whip as Africans captured by their enemies as far away as present-day Malawi and Zimbabwe are sold into slavery and driven into the hold for their long voyage back to the Arabian Peninsula.

I wander north to the ancient, looming walls of the Fort of São Sebastião and its still more ancient Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest surviving European building in the southern hemisphere, where sailors months from the nearest safe harbor would have bowed before the crashing waves and prayed to be delivered from pirates, storms and scurvy. Eventually as I stand there, soaking in the changeless atmosphere, a security guard finds me and, much more than merely forgiving my trespass, leads me back at last through the lanes to the lamplit doorway of my guesthouse, the beautifully-restored colonial Casa de Ruby.

There on the broad roof terrace, blissfully relieved of my heavy pack and sipping a cold Laurentina lager, owner Uwe Reichelt breaks down the physical history of the island for me. “The whole of Mozambique Island, every part, was founded in the encounter of different cultures,” he begins as we sit overlooking the rooftops of Stone Town. “As a result, everything here has become a mix.” He gestures at the buildings below us: “If you look at the architecture, we have the lime construction using thick walls, which comes from the Algarve in the south of Portugal. The flat roofs to catch rainwater, though, are from the cities of the Indian Ocean. And the style of the doors, the beautiful woodwork and ornamentation — different again. It’s Swahili, which is itself a mixture of African and Arabian.”

“And it isn’t just architecture,” he continues, “it’s the people themselves. They’ve got the physical features of three different continents, and practice three different world religions — Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — all on this little island.”

Naturally, though, there’s a more pressing question on my mind: “What about the food?”

He laughs. “Head down to the market stalls, and ask for Dona Sara’s.”

Cuisine, of course, is one of the primary windows into culture, and all the better when you’re hungry. In Dona Sara’s, tucked away in the market square beside the grand, half-abandoned hospital, I dip my toes into the culinary waters with a serving of savory chamusas, the Mozambican take on the classic Indian samosa. I nosh on fresh local prawns in an eye-watering peri-peri sauce (made of the bird’s-eye chili brought from the New World by the Portuguese and subsequently spread via Africa to Asia and the Indian subcontinent). I sop up the fiery peri-peri with paõ, a wonderfully crusty Portuguese-style bread roll, but it’s the flavorful and unique matapa de siri-siri, a stew made of the siri-siri creeper from the island’s beaches combined with cashew-nut, coconut milk, onion and spices, that wins the award for my local favorite — a classic African dish mixed with tangy island flavors.

That night, returning with a full belly through the deep darkness of the town after dinner, I spot what seems like a ghost amongst the ruined buildings, a single pale face moving in the shadows. As I draw nearer, I realize it’s a young African woman, her face painted with the white plant paste known as muciro, which local women use not only as a beauty aid, but to signal their availability for marriage. It’s a moment that brings me full circle, back to Mozambique as Africa, a culture wearing its influences and tribulations like adornments, rather than as chains.

Here, she could be Christian or Muslim, I think, her ancestry mixed with long-ago travellers from Muscat or Goa or the Iberian Peninsula. Yet at this moment the distinctions, the endless branching ways that have brought her to this moment in the ruins of this once-great and now forgotten place, seem not to matter. She is Mozambican, and in all that means, she is beautiful. She smiles shyly as I walk past and I move off alone, smiling myself, into the quiet richness of the island night.

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