Mozambique, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean
Beyond the Atlantic, so familiar for those of us who came from the Americas or Europe, is the vast and complex African continent. What is often referred simply as “Africa” out of naiveté or ignorance is, in contrast, a colossus of peoples and cultures. The countries created through political treaties signed by white hands do not always represent local black peoples and nations.
Of the 54 continental and insular countries in Africa, Mozambique stands out for the large area it covers in Southeast Africa. It is bathed by the Indian Ocean and shares borders with South Africa, Eswatini (ex-Swaziland), Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. Lying between latitudes 10ºS and 28ºS (something like from Sergipe to Santa Catarina in Brazil), Mozambique reports contrasting seasons, with winter temperatures down to 8ºC in the south and above 45ºC in the northern provinces.
Mozambique’s history is characterized by invasions and incursions from other civilizations (Arabs, Indians and Chinese). Most recently, it was a colony of Portugal until 1975, when it conquered its independence following a civil war that lasted until 1992. This alternation of invasions and explorers over the centuries has brought, in addition to the suffering that all exploration brings, a cultural diversity comparable to the one observed in Brazil.
Maybe this is true of the entire African continent, but the Mozambican people delight visitors with their warm smile and courteous nature. Tourists or new residents are treated very well and carry fond memories for the rest of their life. In Mozambique, “good morning” is answered and followed by “thank you”. Thanks are due for simply wishing others a good day.
Arrival is usually via major hubs such as Johannesburg (South Africa) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), or by direct flights from Lisbon. The country is well served by airports as well as national and international airlines. For those who need a visa for entry (Brazilians do), there are two alternatives, to apply for a visa at the Mozambican embassy in their country of origin, or to pay USD 50 on arrival at the international airport of Maputo and other provinces for a 2-entry visa.
Hotels, guesthouses and AirBNBs can accommodate tourists with different budgets, ranging from the luxurious Hotel Polana to the cozy Joli Guesthouse, which lends guests bicycles to ride around the city.
Maputo (formerly “Lourenço Marques”, when the country was under Portuguese rule) is the name of the southernmost province, and also the name of the country's capital.
The city of Maputo looks very similar to several Brazilian cities. When I arrived here in 2018, it reminded me of Fortaleza in the 80's, spread along the white-sand coastline, proud of its progress in the form of modern residential skyscrapers and vendors in the streets offering the latest cell phone model. The city boasts a large number of stores and shopping malls (even bookstores, as a dear friend likes to point out!), so travel souvenirs are guaranteed.
FEIMA (the largest Mozambican craft fair, located in the heart of Maputo) is where you will find jewelry, woven baskets, bags, mats, utensils and home decor. It’s also where you will find the most representative fabrics and patterns: CAPULANA and BATIK. The first is a mass-produced cotton fabric with several unique patterns and of great versatility. If folded, it becomes a skirt or “neneca” (a kangaroo-like baby carrier women use on their backs). You can also take it to a street seamster who can turn it into a shirt or dress in no time. Batik, on the other hand, involves using wax to block out selected areas of the cloth before immersing it in dye. The process can be repeated as many times as needed to achieve the desired colors and designs.
The cultural life of Maputo is quite intense, mixing local and universal art forms. While the song of mosques and church steeples invite to prayer, jazz shares the stage with Marrabenta, Heineken meets Mafalala and the Portuguese language embraces slang in English (yah! Brada!) and expressions in Changana and Ronga.
At the Association of Mozambican Musicians you can watch - or even participate in - a really open jam session: write down your name and just wait your turn to go up and make music. Soirees and poetry battles take place at Gil Vicente, a café next to the extinct theater of the same name. Vernissages happen at Kulungwana, a gallery inside the beautiful CFM Central Station.
The movie “Blood Diamond” was shot in several locations in Maputo, despite the plot taking place in Sierra Leone. It is worth watching to recognize the locations (SPOILER: the hotel where Leonardo DiCaprio's character stays in is actually the Central Station!).
Whether at the beach or in the city, there’s no shortage of delicious culinary adventures to be had. There is plenty of seafood in Mozambican, Portuguese, Thai and Indian cuisines, among others.
Chicken is a matter of national pride (and I have to admit that I had never tasted such simple and tasty chicken dishes). The bird is marinated in spices such as garlic, lemon and salt, but the real issue is whether to have it “with or without PIRIPÍRI”. Piripíri, or chili, is the omnipresent spice in local cuisine. My favorite is the dish called CHICKEN ZAMBEZIANA (in honor of the province of Zambézia, in central Mozambique), which is spicy roasted chicken served with a coconut milk sauce. The restaurant O Coqueiro (in Baixa) and Mamma Mia (Italian, in Feima) execute the dish to perfection.
Photo: Sabrina Correa
Another local delicacy, MATAPA is very reminiscent of the Amazonian tucupi. It’s a dish that uses manioc leaves crushed with garlic and peanuts, then cooked with coconut milk, shrimp or crabs, and served with white rice. With piripíri and a beer, you can’t go wrong!
In fact, the local beer production deserves to be mentioned. Two national brands share the spotlight, having survived through colonial rule and civil war: Laurentina beer (premium or black, my favorite) and 2M, which is pronounced “dôj-êm” in true Mozambican style.
The most popular street food is BADJIA, a fried bean-based dumpling, seasoned with the likes of coriander and onion. Does that sound familiar? Unlike its Brazilian counterpart, Badjia is not fried in dendê (red palm oil), but it could be the equivalent of the Bahian acarajé. It is served inside a bun, like a hot dog, in up to 4 units, and that will be plenty to keep you satisfied until your next meal.
Coming to Maputo is to be able to wander its streets and cross its borders. It’s about visiting the capulana stores in Baixa, taking a stroll in the shade in Tunduru Botanical Garden, bargaining for peanuts and cashews at the Central Market (and seeing the wonderful hairstyles of customers who get their braids done during the entire afternoon). You can also delve into a cultural tour of Mafalala, the neighborhood from which important Mozambican characters of the past come from, such as the poet João Craveirinha and the footballer Eusébio.
The country's coastline is meandered by small bays. There’s plenty of lodging options on the coast, so, if you can, set aside a day or two to dive into the cold waters of the Indian Ocean (although the capital is on the coast, swimming in the city area is not recommended). Sticking to a 2-hour-drive radius from Maputo, the best options are the beaches at Pontas Macaneta, Mamoli and Malongane to the north, and Ponta do Ouro to the south (more tourist-prone, due to its proximity to South Africa). To get to Ponta do Ouro, you must cross the Maputo Elephant Reserve, where you can see the elephants that give the park its name, as well as giraffes, impalas, zebras, wildebeests and several exotic birds. And, depending on the time of year, it is possible to spot humpback whales on their annual crossing or groups of dolphins cornering schools of fish and jumping into the waves.
Here and there
If you got your visa at the airport, you are entitled to two entries into the country. Tourism infrastructure in the country is still not at par to more sought-after destinations, so local authorities allow visitors to enter Mozambique through the airport (1st entry), travel to neighboring countries, and then return (2nd entry).
It is, therefore, not uncommon to opt for a 3-hour trip into the kingdom of Eswatini. The country boasts quite an active festive calendar, so you may get to witness the royal party to choose a new wife for the king (a local tradition) or participate in the BushFire music event. BushFire could be compared to Coachella or Burning Man, but don’t be surprised when you find parents bringing their children to camp with them and take part in the festivities.
In neighboring South Africa, the main attraction for visitors to Mozambique is Kruger National Park, only a 2-hour drive away. As large as New Jersey or Israel, the park has several access gates. You can find lodging close by or even inside the park. There are safe camping sites or comfortable lodging close to crossing spots for elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos and even the sought-after leopards and cheetahs.
At the park, you can drive your own car or take a tour with an authorized guide. Both are spectacular, but, for the novice visitor, it’s best to opt for the guided tour. Tour guides have a communication network to alert them of nearby animal sightings. It’s a true marvel!
Before you finish packing your FEIMA capulanas and sandalwood dolls, go on a last visit to the Fernando Leite Couto Foundation. Eat a good meal and, if you are lucky, you might even come across the friendly but shy Mia Couto, the award winning author of Terra Sonâmbula e Antes de Nascer o Mundo.
*This text was written with a lot of optimism, containing information about the good side of Mozambique before Covid19. Border restrictions change as the pandemic progresses.
ZI XILI: “Good morning”, in changana,
MANINGUE “NICE” (nice as in english): really cool!
TXUNADO: prepped, ready (derived from “tuned up”)
ATÉ LOGUINHO: See you soon (Portugal)
KANIMAMBO: Thank you (changana)
Photos: Sabrina Correa and personal archive.