When a traveller writes of his new surroundings and novel experiences, one of the most worn-out of all clichés is that of the ‘country of contrasts’. I have used it myself several times, misguidedly glowing with satisfaction at my perceived creative use of language. In a summary of a church visit to Transylvania in 2002 the phrase ‘Romania is a country of contrasts’ formed the very first line of my talk. Likewise, my newsletter as a BMS volunteer in Kampala focused on contrasting environments within Uganda. Now I’m writing from Mozambique my experience has not deviated from this pattern. Upon arrival the contrasts were conspicuous. Contrasts between rural and urban, educated and illiterate, the able and the dependent, between wealth and poverty. Such contrasts are also represented by physical structures. For example, an immaculate bank building situated close to a dilapidated apartment block. Yet in Beira one icon of inequality stands out above all others – the Grande Hotel.
Built in 1954 as a luxury hotel, the Grande started life as the resort of choice for government ministers, businessmen and wealthy tourists from Africa and Portugal. Yet due to the unprofitable extravagance of its design, the hotel closed even before the war of independence started in the 1960s. During the subsequent wars the hotel fell into disrepair before becoming a haven for refugees. Today each of the 116 hotel rooms is home to one or more large families. It has a reputation for lawlessness and disease and its inhabitants are largely excluded from the socio-economic life of Beira. However, it is also shelter, a home for those who would otherwise be on the street. The transformation of the Grande Hotel Beira demonstrates the innovative ability of Mozambicans to create new life, phoenix- like, from the ashes of the past. However, the existing vertical slum constitutes a very different kind of phoenix. It is a gutted Art Deco monolith, its extravagant shell populated by those very people it initially sought to exclude. A monument to wealth occupied by the poor.
Such stark contrasts and their symbols make for an illustrative subject matter. Yet the longer I stay in Mozambique the more I notice the subtleties of local life. The experience is like that of completing a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. At first you spot the most obvious contrasts. You separate edge parts from centre pieces, segregate pieces of different colours. But ultimately you identify variations of tone within each colour and the intricacies that help to complete an understanding of the final image. I welcome the piecemeal revelation of all things Mozambican but for now… I guess I’ll continue to indulge the cliché and write about the clear contrasts around me.