The neighborhood of Munhuana, in Maputo, was not always called Munhuana. It received that more appropriate name in the 1960s. It was first known as the Bairro Indígena—the “native neighborhood”—built by colonial authorities beginning in the 1940s as a kind of public housing project for Africans who worked as laborers for the railroad or for the city. For a long time it was sharply distinct from almost everything around it. The tiny, cube-like semi-detached units were built of concrete blocks at a time when building in permanent materials was the exclusive right of citizens—and only a fraction of one percent of Mozambicans were considered Portuguese citizens. The Bairro Indígena was an island of solidity among thatched-roof huts. Given a choice, though, some of the residents of the Bairro Indígena would have preferred to live in the huts.
A number of residents told me that, for much of the colonial era, you didn’t have a choice in whether you lived in the Bairro Indígena or not. Not if you wanted to keep your job. One of the conceits of the project was that by living in these cramped quarters residents would begin to learn the graces of civilized living, by compulsion if necessary. As L. Lloys Frates points out in her 2002 dissertation on late colonial Lourenço Marques, the Bairro Indígena was laid out in a radial plan to improve the sightlines for surveillance. A turreted police post was placed at its center. If that didn’t make things sufficiently uncomfortable, the annual flooding and the lack of running water certainly did.
Munhuana is an important part of my research. At the same time I’m working with a few residents who are also local historians to put together an oral history of the neighborhood. Last (northern) summer we kicked off the project when I interviewed these local historians. I also dropped in on Rosa Candla, who I first met in 2008, and who is likely the oldest resident of Munhuana. She is in her eighties, and she lives alone in a small unit near the police post. Her neighbors came over to translate from Shangaan into Portuguese.
Dona Rosa is from Inhambane province, about 200 miles to the north. She was orphaned while still young, and when she was in her early teens her older sister brought her to a white couple in Inhambane city. The couple drove the girl to Lourenço Marques, but their goodwill had its limits. Dona Rosa was dropped off at the entrance to a downtown movie theater. The couple drove off.
As the movie ended and the audience spilled into the street, a young man invited Dona Rosa for a drink. She went home with him. He raised her like a daughter, she told me. Some years later they were married, and they would have two children. Until he died, four years ago, Dona Rosa and her husband lived together in the unit by the police post for more than sixty years, even if you don’t count the few years when the whole neighborhood was abandoned due to flooding.
Dona Rosa had some difficulty recalling the past, but there was one aspect of living in Munhuana that she remembered with some clarity. She told me about an everyday nuisance of the colonial era, one that other women later told me they experienced as well. Whenever Dona Rosa returned home after shopping at nearby Xipamanine market, and walked through the center of her neighborhood, an officer on duty at the police post would invariably order her to remove the groceries from her head—judged an uncivilized practice—and to hold them at her sides. With her groceries gripped in her hands she would then walk the remaining 100 yards to her door.