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.)
When I ask people in Chamanculo why they don’t build upward and thus free up valuable space in their cramped yards, the universal answer is that second stories are not permitted. The reason, they say, is because most people have outside bathrooms. Those bathrooms often lack roofs. Building a second floor, therefore, would violate a neighbor’s privacy. Is there in fact a ban on second floors—on the books, I mean? I don’t know yet—I haven’t consulted officialdom. But whether the rule exists formally or informally, in Chamanculo everyone, everyone, offers the same rationale involving bathrooms and privacy. Though covering a neighbor’s bathroom would be relatively easy to do, and though a number of people have the means to build two stories of concrete blocks, and though being elevated further above the often sodden and garbage-strewn ground would have its obvious advantages (right now many houses are actually slightly below street level) it seems that some building traditions die hard. In Chamanculo, houses are always one story, roofs are always pitched. And it’s the pitch and profile of the roof, rather than its flatness, that demonstrates upward mobility.
This was also true in the past. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for most of Maputo’s history, before concrete was prevalent in Chamanculo and in other neighborhoods, African families aspired to build wood-framed houses paneled in zinc, many of which are still standing. The low-end models are simple metal sheds, and a questionable upgrade over what used to be the standard reed shack. The handsomest are those with multiple gables and very high ceilings (which help to vent the heat) and indoor kitchens and large verandas. These houses are still only one floor, but their relatively high-peaked roofs reach the height of treetops and give the neighborhood the barest hint of a skyline. Knocking on the doors of such houses is a good way to meet some of the oldest, most-established families in Maputo.
Castigo Guambe lives in one of the oldest houses on Rua da Matapa, a street charmingly named for a traditional dish made from cassava leaves (rather than for the Matapa empire). Castigo’s father, Jochua Guambe, built the house in the 1930s, and though it’s not the largest wood-and-zinc house in the neighborhood, it’s one of the best maintained. The zinc panels are painted a light green, it has three bedrooms, a canvass-shaded patio out back, and a covered veranda out front. Within the chicken-wire-topped walls of the property are three rental units, a yard where concrete blocks are made and sold, a small grocery, a dovecote, a pen for ducks, and a popular neighborhood bar with a pool table. A half century ago, the house was surrounded by pear and orange and mango trees. The only surviving tree (and it’s just barely surviving) is the mango tree beside the patio, where family rituals once took place. The horns of slaughtered goats used to be nailed to the trunk. The property used to be much larger, more like a soccer field, but following independence, all the rental properties the family owned at the time were nationalized. Those houses now sit outside the property’s perimeter wall, which was erected in the years since.
Talking to Castigo about his father induces a kind of temporal vertigo. Castigo is only sixty. Jochua was born in the early 1880s. He left his home in rural Inhambane around the turn of the century because he refused to pay the Portuguese hut tax and to escape forced labor. As a big game hunter, he managed to never spend a day in his life working for anyone but himself. He was usually either hunting in Inhambane, or in Durban, South Africa, where with two other Mozambicans he sold leopard skins and elephant tusks and lion claws. Lourenço Marques, located about halfway between supply and demand, was merely a convenient base. It was a home for his family, a place where he could eventually retire to. Jochua was in South Africa when his young wife, Castigo’s mother, died soon after giving birth to Castigo’s younger sister. The two children were raised by an older sister and by neighborhood women. The women called the boy Castigo because of the burden that Jochua’s absences placed on them. Castigo, in Portuguese, means “punishment.”
Jochua Guambe got most places by walking, but due to his legal status as a mere native, whenever he went up to Inhambane carrying his Winchester, he also had to carry his indígena pass, on the pages of which were the official stamps that sanctioned his movements. Yet the colonial-era legal regime that divided Africans into the so-called uncivilized (the many) and the civilized (the few), did not seem to hamper him much. In South Africa, remarkably, he needed no pass either to cross the border or to live in Durban—or maybe he just managed to avoid being caught without one. He would pack his animal skins into rolls, strap them to his back, and head off walking through the bush, across the frontier into Natal. In Chamanculo, in Lourenço Marques, he was able to become a substantial property owner because his eldest son, Júlio, was assimilado—a Portuguese citizen. Júlio vouched for his uncivilized father on all official documents, including title deeds.
Jochua died in 1963, in his early 80s. In the last years of his life, with his days of stalking game behind him, he’d stroll around Chamanculo, clasping his hands behind his back to help keep his posture upright. In his retirement, he relied on the income from the many properties he had amassed in the neighborhood. Some of the properties had houses on them, on some tenants built their own houses. On one property a tenant had built a house of wood and zinc, but he had stopped paying his rent on the land. The tenant was assimilado, Castigo says, and may have calculated that Jochua, as an indígena, couldn’t do anything about collecting on the debt. In fact, Jochua took the case to the local régulo, Frederico, with little result. The tenant simply ignored the régulo’s order to pay up. And so Jochua resorted to a measure that I learned was quite common in landlord-tenant disputes in neighborhoods where nearly all housing was officially illegal.
Jochua waited until a day that threatened rain, and then dispatched his carpenter to remove the zinc panels from the roof of the house in question. The rain destroyed the tenant’s furniture and the drop ceilings that he had installed. Now it was the tenant’s turn to take the case to the régulo. The tenant argued that Jochua had destroyed his house, to which Jochua replied, “Prove the house was yours!” Jochua won the case.