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Abeja Dispatch

Poor, But Rich in Spirit in Mozambique


"I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek
It's very nice to stay a week or two."
-- Bob Dylan, "Mozambique," 1976

As the combi minibus carries Shawn and I from Swaziland into Mozambique, we watch and hear the changes. Suddenly, everyone is speaking Portuguese, which is so similar to Spanish that we pick up words and phrases easily. The land gets greener as we come down from the high plain that covers most of Southeastern Africa onto the coastal plain. Along the side of the road, among the banana and papaya trees, the huts are square, not round, and made of thick reeds instead of mud or grass.

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One of the cool old buildings in Maputo, Mozambique
Three hours after leaving Manzini, Swaziland, we round a corner to see a city looming across a large bay off the Indian Ocean. First we pass through reed huts on the outskirts of town, and soon we're bumping down the pot-holed streets of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. The former grandeur of this city is apparent from the crumbling buildings that line the streets. They say that before the 17-year "civil" war that gripped this country until 1992, Maputo was a beautiful seaside resort city, popular with South Africans and Zimbabweans on holiday.

Throughout its history, Mozambique has been exploited and abused by foreigners and by fate, leaving it to be considered the second poorest country in the world. The first non-African settlements were formed around 1000 A.D. by Arabic traders looking for gold, ivory, and slaves. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 17th century, Mozambique was ravaged for these same commodities. It is estimated that up to one million people were "exported" as slaves from Mozambique by the Portuguese.

The Portuguese did not even pretend to invest in Mozambique for development or for humanitarian aid to the natives. By the early 20th century, they began "renting" out the land and resources to multi-national companies for their further exploitation. This included sending men to work in the mines in South Africa and in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), leaving very few men in Mozambique itself to work.

When the Fascist regime of Salazar came to power in Portugal in the 1920's, all men over the age of 15 in Mozambique were forced to work on government plantations for half of every year. They were made to plant cotton and other "cash crops" (crops to be sold for money) instead of food crops for eating, leading to horrible famines in the 1940's and 1950's.

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pro-revolution mural
This is about the time that the Cold War began to escalate. In 1966, a charismatic Mozambican named Eduardo Mondlane, influenced by Marxist-Leninist communist theory, started an armed revolutionary group known as Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front). They were successful in liberating Northern Mozambique, and had strong support from the rural peasants. This led the Portuguese to use a "scorched earth" policy of destroying farms and relocating villages, similar to that used against the peasants in Guatemala during their civil war. (Check out our Team dispatch from Guatemala: "Torture and Bloodshed: Truths of the Guatemalan Civil War.")

Portugal got it together to overthrow their Fascist dictator Salazar in 1974, and the new liberal government gave Mozambique independence under Frelimo's rule in 1975. All the Portuguese pulled out, taking all the educated elite and sabotaging what development they had done.

So Mozambique sat with no money, no infrastructure, and no professionals such as doctors and engineers. To the West sat white-ruled Rhodesia (remember that this is the old name of Zimbabwe) and to the south sat South Africa, both of which feared communism and native rule. South Africa kicked out tens of thousands of Mozambican mine workers, raising unemployment and robbing the country of much-needed foreign money. Later, South Africa even funded and trained "Renamo," a military group started by the Rhodesian government to terrorize Mozambique and try to destabilize its black African-led government.

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for larger view
I am on Karl Marx Avenue
Nonetheless, the idealistic government began to build up an infrastructure. Maputo is evidence to this, as many of the buildings have a distinctive 1970's flare, like an old Brady Bunch set, and all the streets are named after famous communists such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Salvador Allende, and Mao Tse Tung. They banned private land ownership, started agricultural collectives, and instituted widespread literacy and immunization programs. "Barefoot doctors" in the Maoist tradition went around the country immunizing the population and teaching hygiene and sanitation.

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Check out this old-style building!
"Advisors" came from the USSR and East Germany to help, but seemed to do more harm than good. Their advice involved horrible and environmentally damaging over-exploitation of resources such as timber and fish. The government also started "re-education camps" where common criminals as well as Frelimo's political opponents were imprisoned and grave human rights abuses occurred. These camps became the first source of recruitment for RENAMO, (that Rhodesian- and South African-backed military force I mentioned earlier).

While Frelimo was educating and immunizing people and building roads, bridges, and schools, Renamo was destroying roads, bridges, villages and schools, and killing anyone with skills, such as teachers and doctors. It was really ugly time in human history, don't you think?

By 1983, Mozambique found itself bankrupt and in a state of horrible war. On top of all that, there had been a drought in the country for three years, and people were beginning to starve to death. I remember seeing this on the evening news when I was 11 years old. Thousands of people were dying of hunger. Relief food was being sent from all over the world. And the South African sponsored Renamo was systematically attacking and destroying the convoys bringing the food. The history just seems to be getting uglier, doesn't it?

Frelimo tried to present a friendlier face to western countries (South Africa, Europe and the US) in an effort to get help. In 1984, they signed an agreement with South Africa that they would open their markets to South African goods (since they were under worldwide sanctions against the Apartheid regime at that time) and kick the African National Congress out of their country. In exchange, South Africa would stop supporting Renamo. Well, Mozambique held up its end of the deal, but Renamo continued to terrorize the country, and, years later, it was discovered that South Africa was still funding and training them.

In 1990, Frelimo gave up its Marxist policy, privatized the state-run enterprises, and called for free, multi-party elections. Renamo had no platform to stand on after that, and the end of Apartheid government in South Africa was also imminent, ending its support. A cease-fire was arranged and, in 1992, the peace accords were signed. The first elections were held in 1994-the same year as in South Africa-and Frelimo won.

Today, here in Maputo, evidence of the war can still be seen, but there is also lots of repair and construction. The countryside still hides an estimated one million unexploded land mines, waiting to be "discovered" by unsuspecting children or hikers. Side by side we see reconstruction and old, dilapidated buildings that once were beautiful. Poverty still plagues this debt-ridden country, and we saw people living on the streets and in the mortuaries of the overgrown cemetery I passed. But hope is strong, and the people seem resilient and kind. Tune in next time to learn more about our adventures!


Kavitha - Serious Answers to Serious Questions: A youth group dealing with AIDS
Shawn - Five Star Hotels and the Needy Neighbors in Mozambique
Team - Rhodesia Speaks: What Life Was Really Like Under White Rule
Team - Mao Donald's and Mc Eggrolls? What IF China Ruled the World?
Making a Difference - Paint a Perfect Picture

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