Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I had no idea what to expect when going to Lourenço Marques, or modern-day Maputo. I knew it was the capital of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony where Portuguese remained the official language, but I didn’t think I would be so taken by the city. Everything about it, its beautiful setting by the ocean, its pleasant tree-lined streets, its unique architecture, its creative and artistic atmosphere, made me feel at home.
Maputo and Addis Abeba became the capital city of their respective countries at about the same time towards the end of the 19th century, but Lourenço Marques was created much earlier as a Portuguese outpost, while Addis Abeba was the new capital city of a country which would enter the 20th century as the only African State not to be colonised. In Maputo, the Portuguese imported their style of urban planning with wide tree-lined avenues and well designed houses. They also brought in their language, their culture, their food which has since been integrated into the Mozambican culture. Ethiopia also brought in foreign engineers and architects when it needed but its culture remained exclusively national.
In addition to their respective history, what is at the source of the contrast between the two cities in my view is their geographical position. Because of its location on a major sea trading route, Lourenço Marques was always a crossroad of cultures from East, North and West. It was closely linked to Goa in India and Malacca and Macau in the Far East, all cities under Portuguese ruling. As Maputo was looking towards the Indian Ocean, it embraced the many cultural influences and made them its own to create a unique cultural environment. Addis, located high in the middle of the Abyssinian high plateaux, remained more isolated from outside influences and continued to cultivate its own culture. That difference is still prominent today, and that is why as a foreigner I can immediately feel comfortable in Maputo but will never feel at home in Addis because I will never be able to really penetrate its culture.
A very cultural city
At the beginning of its life as the new capital of Mozambique, Lourenço Marques was an innovative, forward looking city which attracted some of the best architects of the time. Gustave Eiffel built an iron house there, which can still be seen next to the French-Mozambican Cultural Centre, known as Franco, in the centre of town. Further down the central district, the stunning Central train Station (CFM), which has kept all its original features including beautiful wooden French windows, is a standing testimony of the strong cultural heritage of the city. This rich heritage is entirely integrated in today’s living city which thrives on culture and the arts. The elegant design stores in the Franco Centre and in the train station sell high quality contemporary design objects and craft goods that wouldn’t be out of place in Milan, as well as books by contemporary Mozambican writer Mia Couto. The Franco Institute is in my view one of the most pleasant places to have lunch or a drink; I was going there almost every day to write and work. I also spent a couple of evenings in the Nucleo de Arte, an art centre and community of artists which became a springboard for some of the most famous 20th century Mozambican artists such as the sculptor Alberto Chissano. The centre, located in an old colonial house in the Polana district, has an art gallery where artists members can exhibit their work, as well as a working studio and a restaurant. I wasn’t really impressed by the art on display, but I enjoyed spending my evenings in the restaurant talking to local artists and designers, and getting a feel of the real Maputo.
I could continue to sing praise to Maputo, a city I only experienced for five days but where I went from one pleasant surprise to the next. Walking along Friedrich Engels avenue, I felt I could easily live in one of those well-built colonial houses with a stunning view of the Ocean below (Maputo is built on a hill). Wandering around the Old Baixa area, close to the port, I had no one calling me a foreigner every two steps I took. I regained the kind of freedom I have in Europe, and could peacefully admire the unusual buildings from the 1900s, the 1930s and even the 1960s, each with a strong architectural imprint of its time. The area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and will undergo a restauration programme.
In an ideal world, I would consider moving there except that the reality is always there to tell us otherwise. The city has a serious problem with its rubbish collection, the streets are dirty and lined with all sorts of garbage which seem to just stay there. It is one of the most expensive cities in Africa with rental prices going as high as 7,000 US$ per month, it is getting increasingly unsafe with armed robberies, assaults and so on. The day I left, a big march for peace and against kidnappings was organised in town. I was told that in the last few months the number of kidnappings (particularly of children) had increased to the point that many families needed to hire a bodyguard to protect themselves. In the weeks leading up to this march, clashes between the government and the opposition had multiplied in the Provinces. People are unhappy and frustrated with the current government. I hope a solution will be found soon as it would be detrimental to Mozambique and its current dynamic state of development if the situation deteriorated further.