Listen, and you will realize
that we are made not of cells or atoms.
We are made of stories.
– Mia Couto
Overlanding in Africa is not for the faint of heart! Nine months into my grand adventure, most land borders remain closed. After weeks of travel detective work about border closure, visa, and Covid requirements, I decide to cross into Mozambique through the Mulanje border in Southern Malawi instead of retracing my steps to Lilongwe, overnighting in Addis 1600km away, and then flying down south again to Maputo (how climate-unfriendly!) when Mozambique is merely 6km away, if they let me in…
On April’s Fools day, a week after alarming news of beheading by terrorists in Northern Mozambique, I walk towards the Malawi Moçambique fronteira like a fool, without a visa on hand. To record this historic moment, I snap a quick shot of the border sign, but the police is quicker still to ask me to delete it! But that does not prevent me from trying again…
I am counting my first meticals, exchanged at some ridiculous rate, in no man’s land when a customs officer, on the Malawian side that I have just officially left, shouted at me.
“Open your bags!” she says.
You don’t need any overlanding experience to guess what she is going after. Not contraband or human trafficking, just some “cassava money.” I play dumb, not yielding, fully knowing this would be a long day. Finally, she let me go when she realizes she is not going to make any kwacha on a backpacker. Who said leaving a place – or a person – is ever that simple!
Bom dia! a Mozambican health officer promptly checks my Covid test certificate and temperature. 27C! At least I am not running a fever. My heart is pounding as I walk into the immigration office. Will he give me a visa on arrival?? Por favore… is the only word that came out of my mouth. Nothing prepares me for the sudden shift from Chichewa to Portuguese at seven in the morning!
The stern-looking border agent speaks no more than a total of nine words that morning. I run through all my Plan B, C, and D again, should he decide to play tough. I could head back to Blantyre, dress up, and try the notoriously difficult consulate. Or, I could always fly to Maputo, enjoying some injeras in Addis en route, with a USD500 hole in our bank account, but the idea seems so ludicrous now that I am already on Mozambican soil. I also have a few handy small US bills, as a last resort…
Hotel reservation! the officer finally says after an hour.
Good sign! I walk across the street where a smart young entrepreneur has strategically opened a photocopy shop to make a copy and snap another – better – border shot. At 9am, he summons me to enter a room. My monkey mind has gone on overdrive. I imagine some officer scrutinizing my passport stamps from Lebanon, Pakistan, and Bangladesh microscopically. What is your profession? Do you have ties with… ? Can I see your return ticket? (Well, I have none!) Never have I been as happy to have my fingers printed before hearing the loud thud of the visa stamp! OBRIGADA/thank you! Thirty days, time to rejoice!
Almost all backpacking adventures in Mozambique start with “my love” – local pickup trucks so packed that you literally hug each other, pandemic notwithstanding! It takes several of those and twelve hours to reach Nampula up North. After Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Malawi, Ruby’s Backpacker feels like being transported to Southern Europe – Portugal more precisely. I sleep for three days to recuperate from the crossing.
From Nampula, Mozambique Island is only a sweaty chapa/shared van away. I spend a blissful week doing a free DIY photography course, playing endlessly with light, colour, and local photogenic models. Helas, anywhere further North – Pemba, Ibo – is off limit due to ongoing Islamist insurgency. A 20h bus ride down south to Vilanculos sounds daunting even to a hardcore traveller like me, so I take a LAM flight to Maputo, 2000k away. The remaining of my stay is just beach, snorkelling, seafood, beach again, boating, some more snorkelling, and more seafood, first in magnificent Tofo, then Vilanculos and Bazaruto islands. To say goodbye to the sea, I enjoy an enjoyable day trip to Ponta do Ouro, stopping short of crossing into South Africa where a new Covid variant looms… There must be a reason why it’s not easy to get a visa to Mozambique. Who wants to leave paradise?
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Ilha Mozambique alone is worth the trip to this gorgeous country. The former capital of colonial Portuguese East Africa until 1898 is only 3km long and half a kilometre wide, but dense with history. A boat-building centre and trading settlement by the 15th and 16th century, then a major slave-trading station where hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans were sold and sent to the Americas by 1800, it’s a fascinating melange of Arab, African, Portuguese, Swahili, and European flavours. The North is marked by an impressive 16th century fort with an expansive view of the Indian Ocean. The South is linked to the mainland by a long bridge through which you step into the enchanting island, never wanting to leave again. One could walk the length of Ilha in an hour, zigzagging across picturesque streets, passing through colourful neighbourhoods, enjoying fresh seafood and the constant sea breeze, soaking it all in…
Few places beat Mozambique Island for photography. For a week, I feel like a child, filled with utter joy and amazement, roaming around in search of light and the perfect moment. Pastel-coloured buildings, big faded walls, all seemingly straight out of a design/photography book. So picture perfect!
For such a timeless place, black and white photography feels befitting, whether it is a street corner, an old theatre, an impromptu local model, or random daily scenes… I feel like in heaven!
At different times of the day, I patiently wait for locals to stroll nicely into my viewfinder. In end-of-afternoon light, this is a particularly rewarding exercise. What an irresistible combination of Ilha light, colour, and life! I couldn’t stop myself…
But nothing beats spending time with easy-going, photogenic locals who generously share a stolen moment of their life. History has it that the island is neatly divided into half, the Portuguese North – Stone Town – and the local South – Makuti – where the stones excavated to build the North leaves a permanent depression in which village dwellings are built. What more powerful symbol of colonization and exploitation! Visibly poor but teeming with life, Makuti is a world within a world. One can spend hours in its narrow alleys, following the scent of freshly baked bread, watching children play or locals catching a cat nap…
Then the sea is always nearby where all island life congregates: enjoying a dip and the warm sand, doing laundry or fishing net repairs, finding a bargain in the fish market… Something is always going on, at all hours, especially when the sun sets… One and only Ilha Mozambique!
As if the bounty is not big enough, Ilha is also famous for turquoise water and rich coral life. I enjoy a day of leisurely dhow sailing, visiting idyllic Goa Island, Sete Paus, and Coral lodge, snorkelling and stocking up on vitamin D that I have been deficient for the past 20 years living in Canada!
Helas, the terrorists are still up North, so the Quirimba islands – supposedly the most beautiful spot in all of Mozambique – are off limit. A perfect excuse to return! The only way then is to head south. Chapa-ing 1400km from Nampula to Vilanculos is out of the question. Even a 20h direct bus sounds life-shortening. I take an indirect flight to Maputo, via Tete, and spend two days figuring Covid logistics, again. My friend said this private hospital charged only $25… Deja vu!
After Lilongwe, Maputo feels like a metropole. Large plazas, grand boulevards, busy cafes, sophisticated cuisines, and astonishing art… A stroll through old Maputo is a step back in time, through colonial-era hotels, Art-deco buildings, city-hall turned mercado centrale where women spend afternoons peeling prawns that Mozambique’s famous for. Again, the sea is never too far, and the Baixa/waterfront, though run down, is always bustling…
Still having two weeks left and wanting to see a bit of the rest of this sprawling country, especially the famous surfing/diving hotspots, I take a 10-hour bus to Tofo. No superlatives could even begin to describe this gorgeous, laid back coastal town known for its never-ending beach, stunning coral reefs, and marine life so rich that you wish you were a divemaster.
Dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, and migratory humpback whales swim off the coast, in the vast Indian Ocean. For a week, I settle into the ultimate backpacker, the Pariango, still owned by the government but run by an unusual pair of two single German fathers – one running a horse farm and the other a former African music producer – who make you realize some people really lead creative, unconventional lives! Two weeks before my arrival, the President declared all beaches off limit as a Covid measure. Locals must have wondered what I am there for! Oh well, just to look at the Tofo blue! This place is so stunning that I find myself asking again: How much does it cost to rent a studio? Oh, no more than what you’d pay for condo fees back home. I’m coming back…!
Well, this being a diving hotspot, it would be a pity to leave without getting into the water. Savvy operators manage to run diving tours again, but I’m too chicken to dive. An ocean safari would not be a consolation. Oh, my, what a world out there in the deep blue. I have a five-star team: Dusty, grand divemaster and Bas, divemaster in waiting, and Sammy, the skipper with eagle eyes that could detect any moving thing in that vast territory.
Are you ready? Slide, slide, slide… Swim, follow Bas, here he is, right there, coming towards us…! Skipper issues commando-like instructions when he spots the first whale shark.
Being terrestrial creatures, we’re so unused to intimate encounters with aquarian wonders. The juvenile whale shark – biggest fish in the world – is only 7m long, almost the length of our zodiac. An adult one could measure 18m, Dusty says. Two zodiacs…! The whale shark is feeding and we are able to spot him thrice, close up. What luck! Imagine this is your job… Here’s my office!
It is hard to leave Tofo, but the best is yet to come: the magnificent Bazaruto Archipelago, an exclusive UNESCO protected marine national park frequented by royalty, presidents, and celebrities! To celebrate THE END of teaching, I spend a week in Vilanculos and the islands, doing what I enjoy the most: walking, talking to locals, and taking their portraits. The LONG beach is famous for its shallow water where everything happens: fishing, sailing, net repairs… I catch Ray, a Covid-idle kite-surfing instructor practising with awesome flips and turns, in action.
The beaches of Vilanculos are also known for a highly photogenic fishnet-pulling “dance” ritual in which fishermen tie their paddles to the rope and walk backwards. In the morning, fisherfolks would take an hour to row their boats out to about 2km at sea, drop their nets, arriving back at shore an hour later, and immediately start pulling the nets for the next two hours. It is hard work under the blazing sun for a modest catch that would be divided between ten to fifteen families, averaging a few kilos of fishes apiece, with the boat owner having the largest share. If he dares to abuse his power, the fishermen would simply not show up the next morning! No one is allowed to sell the catch directly at the market in order to create jobs for middlemen, but you can make a dollar or two if you sell your share to the locals, for half a day of work…
Of course, I am in Vilanculos to visit the Bazaruto Archipelago, a jewel along Africa’s coastline on the Indian Ocean, famous for dugongs, dolphins, sea turtles, whales, sharks, and over 2,000 fish species. Except that it’s not that easy to go! For three days, I walk around town trying to find an operator to take me to Paraiso, the most beautiful and inaccessible island.
Paradise is very far! they all say.
I know that!
You can’t go to Paradise unless if you are ready to pay a high price!
I’ve been told that all my life!
Paraiso is so cut off that wealthy Mozambican families once sheltered there during the civil war in a hotel that still stands in ruins today. Park regulations are that you can’t overnight in any of the five islands unless you stay in one of the exclusive lodges (USD500-5000/night, equivalent to 1-10 years of local salary!). In non-Covid times, one could easily sign up for a relatively affordable day tour, but now there are few clients and a private tour cost five hundred dollars…
Near my backpacker, I meet Alphonso, an English-major college student on a holiday break who proposes that I take a local boat, stay in his family’s cabana on Bazaruto, then find a dhow to sail to Paraiso! Excited to have found a backdoor to Paradise, I head to Africa Parks to pay the entrance fees (paradise is never free!), only to be told não!
This is my only chance to see Paradise! I tell the Park staff who connects me with a paradise agent, but even he could not pull it off. Consolation: a gorgeous day to Paradise’ nearby shores in Bazaruto, Benguerra, and two-mile reef, snorkelling in turquoise water, swimming with sea turtles, walking in the dunes, and enjoying a fabulous seafood spread in the joyous company of Chinese Mozambican captain, Nelson Seuwah Ham Pak Hoi whose grandpa sailed from Hong Kong… Life’s endless surprising connections!
To say goodbye to the sea, I take one last chapa for a day trip to Ponta do Ouro, famous for its long, gorgeous beach stretching into South Africa. Another mecca for surfing, diving, paddle-boarding, and fishing. Ah, Mozambique: not easy to enter, harder still to leave!
Oh, I have not even mentioned the food yet which alone should entice you to book your next flight! Cheap, fresh, mouth-watering seafood is abundant throughout the country. In Ilha, street vendors serve entire seafood platter including crabs (!) that make you salivate. Many women subsist on selling freshly prepared fish, served with taro or rice. In Tofo, I find a little well-hidden joint where chef Cadir nourishes me with his daily specials of fish stew and curry beef from his Dad’s hand-me-down recipes, and on lucky days, grilled lobsters served with a finger-licking piri-piri lemon garlic sauce. What bliss! Street snacks of all kinds from fish samosa to green onion beignets, grilled or boiled corn etc., all costing no more than 10 cents a piece, are handy especially during long, sweaty chapa rides. And you may not know that Mozambique is a major world producer of cashew nuts that they freshly grill and sell for peanuts. Forget about overpriced and sodium-saturated Planters cashews in a jar! In 1995, the World Bank (again!) demanded the government lift the export ban and cut taxes on raw cashew nuts export as a condition for a US $400 million loan. The measure, supposedly stimulating world market demand and price of the raw nuts, sent cashew processing plants packing instead; removing the hard outer shell of the nut had been one of Mozambiques niches. The Mozambican Cashew Industry Association sought reparation, to no avail, of course. Nutty politics!
Sadly, despite such stunning beauty and rich natural resources (natural gas, electricity, coal, aluminium, titanium, ruby…), Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The medium salary is about USD50/month and half of its population – a total of 30 million – live under poverty, with only a quarter having access to electricity. Primary school completion rate is less than 50% and child malnutrition visible. This is one of the biggest informal economies I have ever seen in all my travels; vendors – especially children – swarm each chapa and bus stop with their rich array of offers that make Amazon prime delivery pale in comparison…
I’m no expert on Mozambican history or politics, but I have been traveling in Africa for nine months now and continue to be disturbed by massive underdevelopment. Despite my training in this field, I find myself wanting more answers country after country: Tunisia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, and now Mozambique. Income disparity, especially the urban-rural divide, is so apparent in Mozambique that you don’t have to be a political economist to suspect something…
The corruption ranking of Mozambique actually increased from 146 in 2019 to 149 out of 195 countries in 2020, according to Transparency International. Two expatriate residents describe Mozambique’s political system as “feudal” and “tribal.” Joseph Hanlon’s detailed chronicles of politics Moz style read like a thriller that makes Sicilian mafia drama amateur: assassinations and high-level corruption and protection, prison escapes, mysterious fires that wiped out office records, ballot stuffing and parallel counting, bulging Swiss bank accounts, fishy deals – a staggering $2bn in fraudulent loans from international investment banks to develop a tuna fleet of 24 boats that still sit rotting in Maputo’s harbour – 160 donor visits per year, one every working day, that consume bureaucrats in protocol prep rather than cleaning up the acts, multinational giants, land dispossession and “blood ruby” up North in the poorest province of Cabo Delgado that led to radicalization and terrorism… And the world wakes up to Mozambique in the headlines and wonders where the beheadings come from… Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose… the deadly cocktail of a dexia andar/”don’t bother, let it go” politics of the ruling elite and “development” fiasco. The word resilience never meant more than what I saw during my brief month-long stay in this magnificent country.
The official histories
of our countries and societies are
– Mia Couto
On Board My Love: Mozambique
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.