Mozambique has its smile back. It has been through a torrid time: 450 years of colonisation, a war against the Portuguese, independence in 1975 and then the cruellest of all wars-a savage 16-year civil war which left almost a million dead, five million displaced and two thirds of bridges, roads, railways, rural health centres and primary schools destroyed.
Since 1992 peace and economic growth-though extremely unequal-has helped Mozambique back off its knees. It has always seemed to me natural justice that the pleasure of being alive is strongest amongst those who struggle the hardest and this pleasure is among the strongest impressions I have of Mozambique.
The Mozambicans, like most Africans love to party and the simplest occasions are seized upon as an excuse. In a collective culture there are always others willing and able to get into rocking and rolling mode.
The warm water of the Indian Ocean laps the 1,500 miles of Mozambican coast from Tanzania to South Africa and there are hundreds of beautiful, often deserted, beaches. Most of the big towns have beaches nearby and people head to the sands when the mercury rises. Maputo beach on the outskirts of the capital city is one of them.
Many, without money for the local minibus, walk long distances to get there. They don’t go to swim, few can, or to suntan, few need to, but to play and socialize. They jump up and down in the water and do cartwheels at the edges. Groups of young boys and girls play football as they howl and scream. Anyone can join in. They shout “Come and play”. There are children scooping the sand for the tiny crabs, frolicking in the warm water, rolling about in the shallow water in dips in the sand at low tide.
Groups of teenagers, girls and boys, dance in ankle deep surf to the sound of their own singing or to the blare from a loudspeaker from an open car trunk.
Some come simply to do business: women and their children grill fish or chicken to serve with “Xima” which is a dish made from milled maize. The small fish, called Magumba, is fished in the bay and is both tasty and very bony. Cooked over charcoal and with a dollop of Xima you have your fill- eating with your fingers- for $1
Some sell oranges, peanuts or cashew nuts, some young men carry around the full panoply of nail varnishes and paint toenails and fingernails often with unusual and creative designs, there is a photographer or two strolling and hoping to sell a photo, some young men tote around a trampoline which kids can jump on for a few cents, a young man is jerking the strings of two wooden, gaudily coloured puppets as he has them shudder and jump in some obscene dance.
Its role also is as a huge “singles” meeting place. Few young people have the chance to go places where they might meet the opposite sex so the beach serves this purpose. They come to see and be seen, admire and maybe acquire. Some serious flirting is done by both sexes as girls stroll with their mobile phones in their hands.
Evangelical churches use the beaches for baptisms, prayer meetings and exorcisms. These are colourful occasions and especially noisy when a devil is being exorcised – with much pummelling, rolling in sand and energetic immersion in water.
The beach is the most democratic “institution” in Mozambique, nobody is refused permission. Dress code is informal: street clothes, swimwear, underclothes, collar and tie, religious robes… Girls squat down to urinate wherever there is a dip in the sand. There are no toilet facilities. After nightfall, strolling on the sand, you watch out for robbers and amorous couples.
I sometimes take a book and sit on the sand to read. I am seldom left alone for long. It surprises people to see someone, reading on the beach, or anywhere else for that matter. There is no reading culture in Mozambique: books are prohibitively expensive and few schools have them. Somebody will often come, sit down to ask what I’m doing and show off their minimal English. A girl may try to flutter her synthetic lashes to see if I am really concentrating on my book. Would she like to drink something? Of course she would. Would she like a lift back to town? Of course she would. There are few dull moments on Maputo beach.
Maputo Beach: sunshine, smiles, business, music, exorcisms, flirts and much more…
Extracted from Donal Conlon’s very excellent ibook My Africa, available from Amazon.