What is the Hotel Universo?

It’s a shuttered hotel in Maputo. I liked the sign.

(The building in the header image above, by the way, is not a hotel. It’s the headquarters of Mozambique’s electric utility.)

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Permanent detention

"Mozambique is not Portugal. Mozambique is not Portugal. Mozambique is not Portugal."

António de Oliveira Salazar, the former Portuguese dictator, is not someone who I expected to come across in downtown Maputo. Following independence, most surviving monuments from the colonial period were stashed away at the old fort. But my friend John Marrone found Salazar in the courtyard of Mozambique’s national library, a few blocks away. I’m pretty sure the statue used to stand at the entrance of what was once called the Liceu Salazar, Mozambique’s first high school, built in the 1940s, and that’s probably why the sculptor opted to clothe the one-time law professor in his academic garb. Someone had the wit to put him in the dunce’s corner.

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Samora Machel’s exercise bike

This year Mozambique commemorates the 25th anniversary of the death of its first president, Samora Machel, who was killed, along with 34 others, in a plane crash that many Mozambicans believe was a South African act of sabotage. A giant statue of Machel in his characteristic pose–commanding with his finger pointed rigidly upwards–was unveiled in October at Maputo’s Praça da Independência, and smaller versions are being mounted in all of Mozambique’s provincial capitals. The crowd at the Maputo unveiling was smallish and lifeless and I was disappointed, or maybe I just felt a chill at the presence of Robert Mugabe among the VIPs. In any case, not all the celebrating of Samora has been pomp. A couple of months ago, in a hidden-away gallery space downtown, my friends and I came across a Machel exhibit that put objects from his less-public moments on display. Like this one. I guess he used it a lot, or not at all.

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In the vaults of the Voortrekker Monument

Cold Storage: Icons of the Afrikaner past, including portraits and busts of a half-century of apartheid leaders, are warehoused on the grounds of the Voortrekker Monument, in Pretoria. More images of this inner sanctum after the jump.

A couple of years ago, in Maputo, I interviewed Gert Opperman, a retired South African general major who until recently headed the Voortrekker Monument and Nature Reserve, in Pretoria. The Voortrekker Monument is a memorial to an epic moment in Afrikaner history: the migration in the 1830s and 1840s of thousands of white Dutch-speaking farmers into the southern African hinterland. That, at least, is one version of what the monument represents. More than a decade in the making, it opened its doors in 1949, a year after the coming to power of the Afrikaner-led National Party, the party of apartheid, and for almost five decades the apartheid regime used the monument as a symbol of Afrikaner dominance. Many South Africans see it as a relic of dark times. And if you live in Pretoria you can’t help but see it. The granite monument commands a hill above the southern route into the city, a stern redoubt. Continue reading

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Wall by Makwakwa

Detail of one of Lourinho Makwakwa's cement wall reliefs, sculpted for his nephew's living room, Chamanculo. A more complete image of the relief is after the jump.

There are a lot more flat surfaces in Maputo’s bairros than there used to be. Houses and fences were once made exclusively from bundled reeds and corrugated zinc and oil drums split open and beaten into panels. Today, though, well into the Age of Concrete, there are now countless vertical acres of suitable canvass. Most concrete-block walls, at least outside walls, remain gray and blank, except for where kids use chalk or charcoal to solve math problems or to spell out their names. Graffiti is rare. Against the general chromatic sameness of the Chamanculo streetscape, Lourinho Makwakwa’s vibrant wall reliefs are like sunflowers in dirt. Continue reading

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A ceremony in Matola

Graça surveys her home site with Mestre Daniel, the construction crew chief, Matola, May 2011.

The pace of my research accelerated in May and, not coincidentally, you haven’t heard from me since then. Mostly I’ve been in Chamanculo; for several weeks I was living with Castigo Guambe’s family at the house I wrote about in the previous post. One of the highlights of recent months was the day my friend Graça invited me out to Matola. Like thousands of other Maputenses, Graça is building her dream house out there, about 20 miles from Maputo’s city center, on land the government recently parceled out for development. Graça, who lives at her mother’s house in Chamanculo, makes a living selling clothing and meat, and after years of saving up, Graça acquired a plot and bought enough bags of cement to get started on her own house. We went out to Matola on that sunny Saturday because her work crew was about to lay the concrete foundations.

The laying of the foundations is perhaps the most important stage of the home-building process, at least for the builders. It’s when the client must perform a ceremony for the ancestors. At considerable expense the client cooks up the head of a cow and provides whiskey and beer, most of which will be consumed by the work crew. If there’s no cow head, if no alcohol is poured out in the ancestors’ honor, the project is all but doomed. Cracks, warn the builders, will likely appear in the foundation. Some builders inform their clients that they must also perform a ceremony when the roof is completed, or else cracks will appear in the roof, too. For the homeowner-to-be, all of this is in addition to the ceremony that’s performed when the plot is purchased, before the builders even show up. If you’re not careful with your ceremony expenses, you’ll run out of cash for cement. Continue reading

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Rainy-day vengeance

The house that Jochua Guambe built, Chamanculo, 2011.

In the squatter settlements of many South American cities, building a house with a flat roof is a mark of distinction. It indicates that someday, somehow, you plan on building a second floor. The steel reinforcing bars sprouting from the tops of concrete columns look messy and give homes an unfinished look, but that’s the point. These are families that aspire for more—they’re just not there quite yet. In the African cities I know, you generally don’t see this phenomenon, and in Chamanculo, the Maputo neighborhood I know best, I’ve come across exactly two homes of more than one story—both of them built by Portuguese during the colonial era. One of the buildings, a small apartment block roofed in clay tiles, stands out so much among the crowd, that people call the area of the neighborhood where it’s located Primeiro Andar—“First Floor.” (Keep in mind that in much of the world, the “first floor” is the first above ground level–what Americans would call the second floor.) Continue reading

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Frederico’s family album

In the previous post, I wrote about Ana Laura Cumba and her late father, Frederico da Almeida Cumba, who as régulo in the decades before independence was the most powerful African man in Chamanculo. After the jump (and thanks to Ana Laura’s generosity) you’ll find a selection of photos from the family album, most of them undated and uncaptioned. They range from the 1950s to the 1980s, though they seem to be concentrated in the 1960s and early 1970s. Some time ago, when I first published photos of Chamanculo from the 1960s, I said that images of that time and that place were rare. Once you start asking around, you find they’re not so rare–but they’re precious nonetheless. Continue reading

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