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Hacktreks in Maputo

When Wees ...
Peter Farrell-Vinay in Mozambique

'The roads are named either after dimly-important dates "Aveneida 25 Julho" or long-disgraced politicians: Avenida Kenneth Kaunda, Avenida Hastings Banda, Aveneida Kim Il Sung'.

She was a young NGO helping administer an aid scheme in Maputo, Mozambique .
"Oh we have a lot of them in the office. We call them ‘WhenWees’ because they’re always saying "When we were in Rhodesia …" She paused, dimly aware that I too had lived there. "When did you leave"?
"Oh ’67, I saw a war coming and got out: coward. I thought ‘No. This is a silly war and I want none of it.’"
"What did you do"?
"I took the train to the Cape and the boat to England. Started another life."
"But you want to go back".
"Of course. Ten years ago we had the money for the trip, we thought, and looked at the prices. It was ludicrous. Now it’s impossible"
She returned to the rest of her guests.

It had been on the way to work in Salisbury. Beyond Meyrick Park, I had seen a hole at the side of the road in line with two msasa trees. In the hole were traces of prawn shells. Whoever had dug up whatever had been in the hole, had come from the sea, several hundred miles away in Mozambique.
I thought: do I say something? No. It’s not your war. It’s theirs.

The Jesuit glanced over his coffee "There was an old man from the village. Came to the mission and said to the Priest ‘Father there is a man from the village with a gun. He is not one of us. He is threatening our people. What should I do?’ The Priest told him to go to the Police. He went. When he came back three days later he was bruised from the beatings the policemen had given him. No-one in the village said anything more to the police. The man with the gun left but others came".

My call-up papers arrived: 12 months in the Royal Rhodesian Air Force. "Oh you’ll get to learn all about computers and radar and things. Great fun" they said in the Office.
Neville the drunkard said: "Stay, you could be a big fish in a little pool".

So I took the train for the Cape, an ancient Union-Castle boat to Southampton and returned to Art School in Guildford to learn about Film and TV. Which was another baptism of fire in its way since I arrived in time for the evenements of May and we sat-in in the College for two months and were taken to the High Court in the Strand for our pains. We won a Pyrrhic victory and I never returned. A public enquiry condemned the Local Authority. The Principal and his cronies were later sacked, so some justice prevailed.

And so for 26 years I wondered if I’d ever go back. I still haven’t. Instead of making films I work in computers. And one day I was offered a part-time job flying out to Mozambique every so often to do some work for a few weeks.

Mozambique went through a civil war fomented by Rhodesia and, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, by South Africa. Mozambique was shredded. The Portuguese left, partly blocking the harbour with boats and leaving only buildings behind. The new Government compounded the mess with an attempt at Socialism which owed everything to dimly-understood political tracts and nothing to common sense. The country became a shambles. Mines and warfare blighted the lives and limbs of a generation. No African country had so vicious a transition from Empire.

But this catharsis had its end. Mozambique learned fast how much tribalism divides, how easy it is for foreigners to interfere. How fast an economy can be ruined. How corruption destroys.
It joined the Commonwealth. It drove on the left. It embraced capitalism. It started to raise revenue by taxes. It went to great lengths to eliminate tribalism. It kept as many of its social programmes as a blown economy could afford. Its GNP increase was 8% last year and it hopes to hit double-digits this year (not difficult when you are starting from so little). The IMF showered it with advisors and funds. It is being touted as a model for other African States by bodies which desperately need the world to believe that Africa isn’t a financial black hole.

You can see capitalism at work. There is a railway line from Zimbabwe to Beira in the north. There is another from South Africa to Maputo in the south. There is no railway between Beira and Maputo and there never was. The big railway station at Maputo is being redecorated but few passenger trains run. The roads cough with tiny Japanese buses.
There is a good road to Swaziland. It starts as a European-style motorway and then becomes a single road complete with cat’s eyes all the way to the Swazi border. There is an even better road to the South African border. There is a big new aluminium smelting plant in Matola. The roads in the city are pot-holed at the busier intersections. Nelson Mandela lives here with his new wife Graça Machel. The road outside their house is well-paved and policed.
The roads are named either after dimly-important dates "Aveneida 25 Julho" or long-disgraced politicians: Avenida Kenneth Kaunda, Avenida Hastings Banda, Aveneida Kim Il Sung. An entire generation of wars, struggles, bickering and failure is mapped: "they’re going to change them all to the names of flowers and plants soon" said Justino "no-one remembers who these people are and no-one cares".

The newspapers are politicised and witty: referring to visiting dignitaries as "members of the Gucci tribe", fiercely critical of the United States, but free to report on a trial involving the President’s son.Somewhere over the Tanzanian border in a plane heading for Dubai, a Libyan diplomat.
"I am told that Liberia is a failed state".
"So is most of west Africa".
"What is to be done".
"Recolonise it. Use commercial companies".

Over dinner, the former US Ambassador to a West African country said quietly: "The State Department are looking seriously at recolonisation". In the echoing old railway station sit two steam locomotives, each on a plinth to show 'How It Was Then'. A pupil of M. Eiffel had designed the station with delicate ironwork, solid mahogany doors and windows engraved with the logo of a long-dead colonial railway company: the Companhia Ferroviaria de Lourenço Marques. Few passenger trains move there. Half the platforms lack tracks. There is still a special office for (Portuguese) Immigrants. The waiting room is still indicated. To wait is also to hope in Portuguese. Esperar.

© Peter Farrell-Vinay October 2003

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