As the baobabs made way for the palm again, we reached the mesmerizing Ilha de Moçambique (pronounced ilea de musa’biki), the country’s original island capital and World Heritage Site since 1991. This is the unpolished gem of the African east coast: grand colonial architecture stands monument to a past, from the entrance to the old dockyard to the urban residencies in the cidade de pedra (Stone Town) and the once impenetrable Fort of Sāo Sebastiāo. The name Mozambique is derived from Muss Mbiki, the Sultan of the Ilha when the Portuguese arrived there in the 15th century. The Ilha is linked to the mainland by a 3,5 km causeway. The southern end of the island is the poorer neighborhood called cidade de makuti (palm frond town). The huts are where the locals actually live and contrast sharply with the faded architecture of the rest of the former hub to the entire sea route between Portugal and the far East. The Makuti slum was built in the quarries that had provided the stone for the 400 colonial buildings; a parede social (wall) separates the two residential areas.
On the northern end of the Ilha, narrow streets wind between the double-storeyed coral stone buildings of the old Stone Town. This was the aristocrats’ territory, an eclectic mix of Portuguese and East African architecture. Few houses have been restored, due to conflicting ownership and governmental stammer. Many are only shells, held together by roots and vines of wild fid trees. Some streetscape:
The paint peels off facades in layers of it-will-never-the-same-again
But life goes on
When Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, Ilha de Moçambique was already a well established trading port, linked to Zanzibar, Madagascar, Oman and Persia. It is the island that gave the nation of Mozambique its name, not the other way around. By the 16th century it had become a permanent Portuguese station for their ships and crews sailing to the eastern bases in Macau and Goa. Various early 20th century events (discovery of gold in the Transvaal, the Suez Canal inauguration, the rise of the port of Maputo) led to the decay of the island’s economy. Population shrunk, buildings collapsed and sadly many irreplaceable carvings, shutters and furniture had been used as firewood by civil war refugees.
In the small fishing harbor of Santo Antonio families gathered on the praia (beach) to sort the day’s catch and chillax. Check out the traditional boats, called dhow.
Not even these Muslim fishermen were daring enough to demand being photographed, but once one would be so cheeky to ask us, a photo frenzy would ensue.
Look at the fabulous catch! Mollusks, sea urchin, octopus and all sort of exotic species, hunted with spears and small fishing nets. Must be sold to fancy restaurants?
Chatty locals kids have captivating bright eyes
Mina and some play buddies
Me and my play buddies
Me and my pal, Saidi
We wanted to sleep on the island, and we were too shy to squat on the beach. But the dorms were too expensive, so we were looking at another night in the cassava bush. Only in the morning we would realize how risky had been our pick. Too tired and unable to navigate in the dark, we had pitched our camp right between a village road and a neighborhood path.
A little after 5 a.m. we had already made acquaintance with Amina, Anija, Ajira and Antonio. Sweet people (even the Portuguese had called this place Terra da Boa Gente – ‘Country of the Good People’). They were genuinely happy to see us, and we printed some photos for them. Ajira was quite elegant with her basket. Amina was the only one who mentioned briefly a money gift and her nephew inquired if we could employ him. That is another reminder of DRC: frequently foreigners who build the roads squat in tents and say they are ‘in transit’, so it makes sense that when there’s word of white people sleeping nearby, villagers would gather and look for temporary jobs. That became a hassle in DRC, when it proves eagerness to work.