Walking through Maputo: a living museum
Mozambique’s struggle for independence is the theme of a commemorative walking tour
"My mom tells me they would queue for hours just to get a loaf of bread," says Edilson Manjate, talking of the Mozambican civil war, as we cross Maputo’s Avenue 24 de Julho on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s late winter but I’m in a summer dress. Such is the "cold season" in Maputo. Bougainvillea tumbles along fences that run in front of Art Deco buildings in need of some love, and cars and tuk-tuks weave around each other on the wide streets. I’m walking with the 22-year-old on his newly launched Liberation Tour.
By day he’s an electronics student but in his off time the charming and smart youngster is a rising star of the Mozambican tourism scene. After attending English classes and undergoing tourism training, he set about developing a tour that would highlight the names and places that punctuated his country’s fight for independence from the Portuguese.
"I spoke to everyone, from veterans of the struggle to grannies, to get a sense of what happened," he explains. Manjate’s walking tour is one of a handful of themed ones that you can undertake in the city. He works with the eccentric Mozambican tourism legend Jane Flood and her Maputo a Pé (Maputo on foot) team, which includes architecture aficionado Walter Thembe. This collective of 10 or so locals have more or less got the city’s streets, suburbs, arts and culture covered. (They can be found on Facebook.)
The thing, of course, about Mozambican history is that South Africans don’t necessarily know much about it — it’s barely touched on in our local school syllabus. And this despite us having so many crossovers and links that extend far beyond our shared neighbour status and common languages such as Shangaan / Xi Tsonga.
The touchpoints of our interwoven collective memory are evident throughout the city.
The government gave Portuguese citizens 24 hours to take 20kg of their possessions and leave the country if they did not wish to give up their passports and become Mozambican
In a quiet, palm-lined courtyard of the modernist gem, the Centre for African Studies, at the University of Eduardo Mondlane, is a tiny, rough-hewn stone memorial to exiled anti-apartheid activist Ruth First. It’s here on an August morning in 1982 that she was killed by a letter bomb sent to her office. In sharp contrast, there’s the sizeable Louis Trichardt memorial hemmed in by buildings and in shadow in the middle of the city. The Voortrekker leader and many of his party died of malaria in the city in the early 19th century. Just outside the city is the impressive SA-built memorial to the Matola raid and the 15 Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers killed there during an apartheid commando attack in 1981.
Maputo is also a living museum of Mozambique’s own story, on which, after two hours spent with Manjate, I have, for the first time in my life, a pretty solid handle.
The tour starts at the statue of Eduardo Mondlane, in the central island of the main artery also named for the founding father of the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo). Manjate talks of Mondlane’s years of studying abroad and the foundations of the movement against Portuguese rule as we navigate cracked pavements, skirting the edge of Mafalala, a suburb of Maputo.
Mondlane was killed in 1969 by a bomb in a book delivered to him at Frelimo’s headquarters in Tanzania.
For much of the 1960s, Frelimo was engaged in guerrilla warfare in central and northern Mozambique, eventually even controlling parts of these territories. While this conflict raged, a battle for the ideological soul of the party was under way too. A faction of its leadership, including Mondlane, Samora Machel and Marcelino dos Santos, embraced a totally Marxist ideology. And so, in the late 1960s, the party officially adopted that stance too.
The communist hangover is evident everywhere you turn in Maputo. There are roads named for Engels, Lenin and Mao. Even North Korea’s Kim II-sung gets a look-in, but then again it’s apparent that his country has left its stamp in Mozambique in a peculiar way. North Korea has donated an array of monolithic statues that include those of Mondlane and Machel.
The Machel sculpture is apparently not a very accurate portrayal.
If there’s another immediately evident throwback to the communist era, it’s that you’re still not allowed to take photos of most government buildings and key points. So we stand across the road from Mozambique’s parliamentary building and I try to make out how it used to be a theatre, and memorise the details. We walk by a large public school named in honour of Josina Machel, Samora’s beautiful first wife, who died at 26 but is remembered and loved for her involvement in the struggle, most notably for her work to establish childcare centres to mind little ones while their parents waged war.
When the Mozambicans gained independence from Portugal in 1975, Machel became the country’s president. The government nationalised businesses and buildings in the same year and gave Portuguese citizens 24 hours to take 20kg of their possessions and leave the country if they did not wish to give up their passports and become Mozambican. Thousands of people fled the country and became destitute. Many of them resettled in SA. Manjate points out an eerie, abandoned high-rise construction site near the botanical gardens. It was being built when the order was initiated all those years ago and its owner left the city with its blueprints.
The Mozambican civil war raged between Frelimo and The Mozambican National Resistance Movement (Renamo) from 1977 to 1992. This brutal conflict, a proxy for the Cold War, in which Renamo backers included the apartheid government, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, starving and injured. Maputo was not a hotspot of the conflict but Manjate talks of the dark scar it left on its people. Recently, fresh Renamo uprisings in the north of the country have been halted; but you can see it has unnerved Mozambicans. "It’s not something people wish to revisit," says the young guide.
The tour ends at the aforementioned giant statue of Machel. A young family is taking photos in front of the liberation leader as we wrap up. Behind the metal icon, in his combat fatigues, are the city hall — a neoclassical structure built by the Portuguese in 1947 — and the city’s Catholic cathedral, built in the 1930s. It’s a confluence of the city’s history and culture in one block. An apt parting shot of 130 years of a living, breathing museum.
• The writer was a guest of Southern Sun Maputo and SAA