“When you go from one African city to another you just find an urban sprawl. What’s the point of being there?” Paul Theroux is an accomplished travel writer and one of my favourite authors but on this point he and I disagree. I live in Beira, a city characterised by remnants of art-deco architecture, the monumental husk of the grand hotel, a dhow-dotted beach overlooked by the red and white column of Macuti lighthouse and multi-funnelled fleets filing in and out of Mozambique’s busiest port. When I traveled to the capital city of Maputo for AMAC’s annual general meeting last week, I realised it was quite something else. Fleeing the airport by taxi, I immediately encountered a large mural-adorned wall portraying a history of the struggles and victories of Mozambique. This was the work of Malangatana, an artist whose phantasmagoric figures are imitated by the countless carvings and paintings available in the city’s craft markets. Our taxi progressed along broad avenues lined with acacias, their pods and prickles punctuated by the occasional purple-hued jacaranda tree. These shady streets have earned Maputo the moniker “city of acacias”. Surrounding them, faded Portuguese-era buildings endure next to angular socialist-style tower blocks. The city’s distinct character was evident before I had even uttered one word to anyone from Maputo.
When I did begin talking with people I was impressed by their friendly and direct demeanour, although at times I was left disorientated. Early on I was caught out at the craft market at the Parque dos Continuadores. Having lingered too long in front of a colourful batique showing two guinea fowl against a sunset I was then pursued by a crowd of vendors, their arms overflowing with guinea fowl related art. White spots on black surrounded me. Fabric birds thrust back and forth and I quickly purchased a batique to escape this textile rendered Hitchcockian nightmare.
Further conversations revealed that a great many of those living in Maputo have migrated from other parts of Mozambique, and I spoke to several who hailed from Beira and its surrounds. By the time I was due to leave Maputo, my feeling was one of having spied the surface level of a city with much greater depth and complexity. My interest was piqued, and I look forward to returning to Maputo again in the near future. I will therefore end with with a riposte to the aforementioned travel writer. The point of being in African cities, Mr Theroux, is to remain long enough to recognize their inherent diversity and distinct identity, you might then discover your life has become a little richer for the stay.