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Articles Blog

Maputo, Mozambique

Karyn Planett

“South Africans and Southern Rhodesians troop to Mozambique on holiday. ‘Of course, it wouldn’t seem much to you,’ they often said, ‘but for us it seems marvelously continental.’ They used the word ‘continental’ in just the same way as the English do, meaning Latin, warm, spicy, relaxed and erotic. Laurenco Marques is the only town I have been to in Africa that really seems like Europe.”

           Richard West, The White Tribes of Africa, 1965.

Well, how could the former Laurenco Marques, now Maputo, not have the veneer, the soul, the facade of Europe coursing through its veins? It was, after all, the Portuguese who planted their flag here while Vasco da Gama sailed past in 1498. His country colonized the region with an eye toward the promise of gold. It remained a slave-trading center until the mid-1800s. For the record, the name Laurenco Marques was given at its founding in the late 18th Century for a Portuguese trader who was believed to be the first European to explore this area in 1544.

Today’s population reflects the indigenous peoples who called this nation home long before the Europeans. They represent 99% of the population and hail from 16 major ethnic groups among them the Makua, Makonde, Sena, Chowke, Manyika and Shangaan. In fact, the name Maputo is said to reflect the importance of a fiery tribal leader named Maputa who once ruled over this area. The Bantu and Portuguese cultures form an alliance that dominates the spirit of the country with a taste of Arab, Chinese and East Indian, as well. You’ll hear a cacophony of their dialects especially in the marketplaces, however Portuguese is the official language. Their faiths include Animism, Roman Catholic and Muslim.

Maputo serves as the nation’s capital, standing with its face toward the Indian Ocean. As Mozambique’s only natural harbor, measuring 20 by 50 miles, it was the logical terminus for rail shipments coming from and going to the interior bringing commodities like sisal, copra, hardwood, coal, cotton and sugar. The rail traffic that began in 1895 between the gold fields, Pretoria, and Maputo caused the city’s population to swell. Prior to the railway, this treacherous journey was made by oxcart.

A Darker Day Loomed

The people of Mozambique became locked in a nasty war with Portuguese colonial forces finally culminating in the nation’s independence in 1975. The Portuguese pulled out in massive numbers triggering a brain drain that turned the nation upside down. A Marxist faction, Frelimo, took the reins of power challenged by a South African-backed guerilla movement, Renamo. The resulting civil war and a disastrous famine were responsible for the deaths of close to one million people. A statue of Frelimo’s founder, Eduardo Mondlane, stands in a street bearing his name. His remains, along with Machel and other national heroes, are respectfully enshrined in the Praca dos Herois. The adjacent mural depicts the nation’s centuries-long struggles.

With their infrastructure in turmoil, the nation languished. Today, however, is a new day with tourism on the rise, agriculture making a comeback, and manufacturing of everything from shoes to furniture providing much-needed jobs.

Here’s a bit of history trivia. Sir Winston Churchill fled to Laurenco Marques following his capture by the Boer forces while serving as a British journalist covering the Boer War. He took refuge in Maputo’s British High Commission.

Boulevards and Bougainvillea

Despite the tragic human tale this nation has endured, the city of Maputo was spared damage throughout both the colonial and civil wars as all parties respected it as neutral ground. Some architectural gems have survived to remind everyone of earlier times. Determined efforts are in place to restore Maputo to this former splendor. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Polana Hotel. Once the playground for society swells and dedicated wanna-be’s, today it features fine harbor views, a tea garden, and a flourish of days gone by. The architect was Sir Herbert Baker, the same South African who designed Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel. It was Frenchman Gustav Eiffel (of “Tower” fame) who designed the Central Railway Station on Praca dos Travalhadores, a site worthy of a detour.

Maputo is laid out in a grid pattern with broad boulevards, mature leafy trees including jacarandas, and some groomed parks. An important landmark is Fort of Nossa Senhora da Conceiao (Our Lady Of Conception). So, too, the Praca de Independencia, the city’s centerpiece. This square is bordered by the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the French-Mozambican Cultural Center, and a statue of Samora Machel, the nation’s first president. Nearby are the Botanical Gardens, the Jardim Tunduru. Though small, they still offer a retreat from the midday sun. Fortaleza, the former Portuguese fort, houses the remains of a Gaza ruler whose attempts to defeat the Portuguese failed.

Helping The Economy

Mozambique’s people continue to struggle. A souvenir or two of your visit will help them on their path to economic recovery. Consider traditional wax print and woven fabrics, woodcarvings and Batik cloth. Enjoy homegrown cashews and pressed sugarcane juice while you wander and celebrate your visit to the African outpost of Maputo.