It is telling that Ilha de Moçambique (Island of Mozambique), commonly referred to simply as 'Ilha', is the island that gave the nation of Mozambique its name, not the other way around: though somewhat anomalous, the history of Ilha highlights, in many ways, the rises and falls of the fortunes of the entire country.
Originally inhabited by a Bantu tribe, the Island of Mozambique rose to prominence in the 7th century as an important trading post for Arab merchants expanding their reach along the coast of East Africa. Ilha was subsequently occupied around AD 900 by Arab forces, under whose rule the Island thrived as a major regional port and shipbuilding center.
Several centuries later, in 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, in search of a maritime route to India, reached the Island and realized that its harbors and natural resources would be essential to developing Portuguese trade interests in Asia. On his second voyage to India in 1502, Vasco da Gama invaded the territory of present-day Mozambique and returned to Lisbon laden with silk and gold. Resisting Dutch ambitions to gain a foothold in the region–the imposing Fort of São Sebastião still stands as a testament to the strategic importance of the Island–Ilha grew into one of Portugal's principal ports on the sea route to India, enjoying strong economic expansion over the next several centuries fueled by trade of gold, silk, spices, and slaves.
Ilha's fortunes began to wane with the opening of the Suez Canal, which eliminated the need for merchant ships sailing from Europe to Asia to navigate around Africa, reducing commercial traffic on the Island and demand for its ports. The transfer of the seat of the colonial government to Lourenço Marques (Maputo) in 1898 further sealed the fate of the Island, whose harbor was gradually supplanted by ports on the mainland, and Ilha continued to decline throughout the 20th century, scarred by the impact of the Mozambican War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.
Recently, however, interest in the Island is being revived, as historians, architects, government officials, and tourists alike recognize the global importance of Ilha as a linchpin in the expansion of European trade interests. Reflecting this historical significance, the Island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The UNESCO description reads:
The Island of Mozambique bears important witness to the establishment and development of the Portuguese maritime routes between western Europe and the Indian subcontinent and thence all of Asia. The town and the fortifications on the island, and on the smaller island of St. Laurent, are an outstanding example of an architecture in which local traditions, Portuguese influences, and to a somewhat lesser extent Indian and Arab influences, are all interwoven.Indeed, the Island holds several architectural gems, including the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte (1522), considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.
Recognizing the Island's potential as an international tourist destination, TechnoServe, in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism, has launched an ambitious development project to improve Ilha's infrastructure, restore colonial-era structures that have fallen into disrepair, and, ultimately, attract foreign investment, with the mission of revitalizing the former capital of Mozambique while creating sustainable entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for the local community. As we explored the Island and discovered its charm, we had the chance to speak with several TechnoServe consultants about the future of the project.
But first, here's the photo dump:
|Fortaleza de São Sebastião|
|View from the café where Angela bought spicy bean bread|
|Outside the Palácio dos Capitães-Generais|
|Vasco da Gama|
A foreseeable yet unexpected challenge of our tour was finding lunch. Locals were fasting in observation of Ramadan–Islam is the dominant religion in Ilha and other coastal regions due to traditional Arab influences–and thus most restaurants and cafes were closed. The resulting effect was an eerie quiet throughout Ilha, even at the center of the town.
|Two Portugas, a Pole, three Americans, and two Mozambicans–Digam X!|
Fortunately, we were able to find a seafood restaurant catering to foreign tourists, where I had a delicious tuna steak with lentil soup. We found out later that the building housing the restaurant used to serve as accommodations for slave traders visiting the Island, a sobering reminder of the human costs of colonialism and its enduring legacy.
|"First mosque in our country"|
After lunch, we walked to the colonial hospital complex, built around the beautiful neoclassical central hospital building, which stood for centuries as the largest hospital south of the Sahara.
|Grounds of the colonial hospital (with the ubiquitous laço vermelho–more on this later)|
The central hospital is the building that TechnoServe is seeking to restore and convert into the centerpiece of its tourism project, a luxury hotel drawing tourists from Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East. To this end, TechnoServe has been working closely over the past year with a French architect and his team, who have finalized designs for the hospital/hotel and will also be renovating several other nearby properties, including cafes and private vacation homes.
On the other side of the dirt road in front of the central hospital, however, lies a completely different world:
Our guide explained that Ilha is divided into two distinct sections: the cidade de pedra (stone city), which comprises the approximately 400 colonial structures that remain on the Island, and the cidade de makuti (palm frond city), a slum named after the traditional thatched roofs of the Island.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the cidade de makuti is its depressed elevation–the entire slum, which houses three-quarters of the 18,000 inhabitants of Ilha, is built several meters below sea level and the rest of the Island. To our disbelief, we learned that the cidade de makuti was built in abandoned quarries that had once provided the beautiful stone for the colonial buildings now towering over the slum. Separating the two areas of the Island and highlighting the stark contrast between them is a plain gray barrier aptly called a parede social.
|The social wall|
|Cidade de makuti|
Gazing over the dilapidated rooftops, I couldn't help but feel a pang of first world guilt-tinged sadness exacerbated by the oppressively blatant symbolism of the slum being located in a pit literally in the shadow of the cidade de pedra, not to mention the fact that many of its inhabitants are descended from slaves forced to haul stones from the quarry for the benefit of their colonial masters.
We followed our guide down into the cidade de makuti, which, based on the portion that we saw, appeared to be a cramped and sun-deprived neighborhood of ramshackle dwellings organized along exposed sewers. Part of me wanted to take more pictures, but it also seemed inappropriately intrusive to snap such close-up photos, especially with children peeking out from doorways to stare at the conspicuous foreigners passing by.
It is in this most unlikely setting that we came across the most delicious cake I have ever tasted in my life. Our guide noticed a woman pulling freshly baked macate out of the oven and remarked that the combination of rice, coconut, and beans is an Ilha specialty. After a brief inner struggle between my gustatory curiosity and well-meaning warnings against eating unfamiliar street foods, I gave in and handed over 5 meticais (rationalizing that fully baked goods hot out of the oven should be relatively safe). And oh! The rich, nutty flavors melted on my tongue, leaving behind the aftertaste of coconut and a desire for more. 15 meticais later, I was only more addicted and ready to hand over my weekly budget, which I very well may have done had it not been for the ominous mutterings of my relatively level-headed companions about how my digestive system would have hell to pay later...
|Macate, a.k.a. crackate|
We then headed back up to the surface, where our driver and Sinezia were waiting for us.
As we drove back to the mainland, we discussed everything we had seen as well as the enormous potential of TechnoServe's tourism development project on the Island and the positive impact it could have on the lives of local residents. Who knows–perhaps Ilha will boast first-rate tourism infrastructure and develop into a major destination by my next visit, se Deus quiser.
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