Going back – rediscovering my city

A friend kindly provided us with his car and driver and on Monday we set out to discover the city of Maputo.


First stop was downtown. I looked at the streets’ names but of course they have all been changed; they were mostly named after Portuguese remarkable citizens, having been substituted by characters related to African and Mozambican history and politics. I found the correspondence with the old names on internet so I could recognize them and tell the boys what those I remembered the most were.


I had mixed feelings towards the city. On the one hand, most of the houses and buildings are still there – only they look old, unkempt. They have had no maintenance in the last forty five years. The sidewalks look pretty much the same, with holes and an uneven ground, making it difficult for us to walk. There is a lot of dirt on the streets, so all of this gave me a strange feeling: I was looking at the same city, but somehow it’s not the same. The colours used to be brighter, the streets seemed wider, the sidewalks now full of street sellers were clear, all seemed spotless… Was I also seeing the city through a different lens, that of my mature years instead of a child’s? No. This is a common feeling to all Mozambicans who left and have now returned. Lourenço Marques, as it was called then, was a very “European city” in Africa, now it is really an African city, but the soul – no doubt the soul is still there.


Colours,  scents and memories

We stopped by “Casa Elefante” (in English “The Elephant house”) famous for selling capulanas, the colourful cloths Mozambican women wear wrapped around them as a dress/ long skirt. They also use them to wrap their babies on their back when they walk or work. I bought quite a few for me and my friends and the boys bought some as well as they wanted to have some shirts made. Our driver, Jonas, said he’d take us to a tailor who would make them in two days.


Jonas is a true Mozambican, friendly and kind and with an incredible sense of humour. Casually dressed in a sporty yet elegant way, he looks quite youthful as many older Africans do, but his small white beard tells us he is a respectable gentleman of around fifty. From the capulanas shop he took us to the city market, an explosion of colours and scents, displaying everything from exotic fruits to vegetables; from dried fruits such as peanuts and cashew nuts to exquisitely woven baskets.


Mozambicans are great sellers and they will pursue you to exhaustion until you buy something. But you have to bargain, something we Europeans are not used to do, so thank God Jonas was with us.


He took us to the “must sees” of the city, and I went on remembering my days here: I entered the cathedral where Mom and Dad had their grand wedding and I was baptized and was quite moved by its beauty. In a corner I saw an image of Our Lady of Fátima and I knelt to thank Her for the grace of being here after so many years – a dream come true. As I went to joint Nuno and the boys at the entrance I found them in animated conversation with Jonas, who told me this was his first time in the cathedral, as he is a Muslim. We agreed that there is only one God and also that if we all respect each other’s beliefs this will certainly be a happier world.


History, food and shirts

We went on to see the city hall, the Iron House by Gustave Eiffel, the beautiful railway station, considered to be a jewel of colonial architecture, and then the Fort, whose primitive structure was built in the 18th century, where bronze panels depicting the victory of the Portuguese over the region’s native tribes can be seen. In fact – and I remember well that episode – there was a powerful African king of the Gaza region (the province north of Maputo) called Ngungunyane who opposed the Portuguese in the late nineteenth century. For centuries the Portuguese had not really colonized this region, but from mid 1800’s they began doing it in earnest and there was much opposition. Finally Mouzinho de Albuquerque, a Portuguese cavalry officer, vanquished Ngungunyane who was humiliatingly bought to Lourenço Marques (also called LM, now Maputo) and later sent into exile with his two wives to the Azores islands where he eventually died. In the city hall square there was a statue showing Ngungunyane at the feet of Mouzinho that was understandably taken down before the independence.


At the Fort I bought a book about the history and architecture of the city, with very interesting information, namely about the man after whom the city was named; a 16th century ivory trader called Lourenço Marques. Very soon after the arrival of the Portuguese to the region he began trading there with such success that soon everyone was calling the place “the bay of Lourenço Marques” and the name stuck.


We had a delicious lunch at Zambi, a restaurant that was already famous back in my time and continues to be very fashionable nowadays, eating the unavoidable Mozambican prawns and a delicious ice cream.


The afternoon saw us looking for a tailor, whom we found in an old house from colonial times, placidly sitting on his porch in front of an old Singer sewing machine. Jonas greeted him with familiarity – he really knows his way around town – showing him the capulanas the boys had chosen and asking him if he could make the shirts. And then the most amazing bargaining took place, with both of them earnestly arguing about what price the tailor would charge. Jonas shook his head several times and it looked as if he were leaving – one of the rules of bargaining – but then the tailor called him back or Jonas himself would turn back as if to give him another chance. In the end the price came to half of the initially asked and Jonas asked for our approval which we gladly gave him. Life is quite cheap in Maputo and the shirts cost an incredible low price by Portuguese standards!


All agreed, the tailor took the boys’ measures and we promised to come back at the same time the following day. But before leaving we still had to look for buttons, as he told Jonas he had none available.


Fortunately our resourceful driver knew a street market nearby, so we followed him into a maze of narrow streets where people again sold almost everything, even long tresses of hair, fake or natural, that Jonas told us are very appreciated by Mozambican women who are willing to pay a lot of money for them. We found a small stall that sold buttons and went back to give them to the tailor, who now had all the necessary items to make the boys some colourful Mozambican shirts.


Remembering a football icon

Being a fan of Benfica, a Portuguese football club, like the boys, Jonas asked them they would like to see the neighbourhood where Eusébio was born. Now Eusébio is the most famous Portuguese football player – only equalled by Ronaldo – who was born in 1942 in Mafalala, a very poor quarter of Maputo and one certainly not included in the city tours, but Jonas assured us we’d be quite safe with him. The boys of course said yes, being great fans of Eusébio, so there we went. It is not a nice sight – it is really one of Maputo’s slums, where poverty is at its worst and open air sewers are all around.

Young children play by the sewers – something you don’t see in Portugal. It was terrible to see the conditions these people live in. Poverty is always terrible but it is so much worse in Africa. Nobody should have to live like this, ever. Jonas stopped the car in front of a small earthen field where a handful of young boys were running after a ball, and he said “This is where Eusébio learned to play football “. My sons were in awe and followed him out of the car and took a photo in front of a wall with a memorial dedicated to Eusébio. They were very excited to be in this place but shocked at the appalling life conditions.


A unique church and Delagoa Bay

On our way to the hotel we passed the beautiful church of St Anthony of Polana, a modern structure designed by architect Nuno Craveiro Lopes (according to people he was inspired by Oscar Niemeyer), in the shape of a lemon squeezer, but unfortunately found it closed as it is undergoing some works. My brother was baptized there and I remember it as one of the city’s iconic buildings.


Back to the hotel I felt tired but happy. What an intense day it had been, looking for places I remembered, seeing others that I had long forgotten but now suddenly came to my mind…seeing the old dishevelled buildings side by side with the tall, new glittering ones… Again the feeling that things are so different, as I am different after all these years. But looking at the placid blue waters of the beautiful bay beyond the coconut trees I was happy to see that they, at least, have not changed. They are still the same as on that faraway day when I looked out of the window of the flat we lived in during the last six months in LM. It’s good to know they will be there forever, as they have been from the times when the English, probably finding the name Lourenço Marques too hard to pronounce, called this beautiful city Delagoa Bay – the city of the lagoon bay.




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