Monday 17 December 2018

Ibo - Ghosts Of The Past And Hope For The Future

Ibo is a small island of about 4,000 inhabitants. The largest of the Quirimba group it is accessible by air and sea. Visitors come to scuba dive, to see the many different species of wildlife and also to use the place as a base from which to visit other islands. I came for different reasons, to meet the  people and to see the streets abandoned by the Portuguese in the 1970's, many of which have fallen into a serious state of disrepair.

Ibo airport
I arrived as the only passenger in a four seater light aircraft that took just 25 minutes from Pemba. The short flight offers spectacular views of other islands and the Indian Ocean's many shades of green and blue. Arrival on Ibo was also quite something as children playing football beside the runway interrupted their game to waive hello and a small group of women crossed the landing area carrying baskets on their heads.

The people of Ibo are friendly, interested in visitors and gave an enthusiastic response to my attempts to wish them good morning or good afternoon in Portuguese. The children are especially curious about foreigners. On several occasions during my few days on the island, I was followed by groups of school age (and younger) children who called out hola repeatedly. A few of them would try out a little more English, asking me where I was from, where is my wife and what football team do I like. They were singularly unimpressed when I told them I am not keen on football.

Flor de Ibo
Avenida Maria Pia
Abandoned building in the administrative area
Kiosk selling provisions
The island is small and I was soon walking amongst the abandoned villas and shops that I had read about and seen pictures of. Some of them are in particularly bad shape, with collapsed roofs and nature is beginning to reclaim them but others have fared better.

Ibo was once a thriving commercial centre with Portuguese, Indian and Chinese owned businesses as well as local merchants. Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975 and the new government gave Portuguese residents a choice. They could either adopt Mozambican nationality or leave within 24 hours taking just 20 kilos of possessions with them. The vast majority chose the latter and over 300,000 people left the country in just two weeks. One of the islanders told me that he remembered seeing the Portuguese depart. They packed their things, closed the door behind them and left. We miss them. Many Indians and Chinese also left, leaving behind locked homes and businesses, most of which remain empty today.

On Avenida Maria Pia, there is a particularly poignant reminder of the old days. Flor de Ibo was once a thriving grocery story. It is now slowly decaying, its green paint peeling away and vegetation growing on the roof. The owner was one Mahmoodu Haji Jacob who sold spices, fresh fruit, vegetables and other food items. Something drew me back to this spot several times during my stay. The shop retains a little of its former grandeur due to its size and the stylish pediment over the entrance, but there is something unbearably sad about it too. A terrible sense of loss. Sitting opposite the old store in the late afternoon I could almost smell those spices and see the ghosts of the former residents going in and out of the shop.

As well as a significant number of Indian residents there was also a small Chinese community on Ibo. Over many years, Chinese merchants visited from Macau, another former Portuguese colony now reclaimed by China. They came here in search of sea cucumbers and one of them, Hong Jan Irmao established a very successful export business from the island before he too left in the great exodus of the 1970's.

Following the dancers
But of course, there is still life here and during my stay I was to see Avenida Maria Pia street come briefly and gloriously back to life.  My stay coincided with a cultural programme arranged in honour of a visit from the Italian Ambassador. This included music, dance and craft exhibitions at the beautifully restored Fortaleza de Sao Jean-Baptista during the day. In the evening an open air concert was staged near the main street and several stalls opened up to sell food and drink. I spent a little time there and enjoyed the music but the highlight of the day for me was an impromptu performance by some of the drummers and dancers over from Nampula. They walked from the fort to one of the jetties where they performed a dance surrounded by at least 100 children who had followed them all the way from the fort, traversing the Avenida on the way.

Folk dancers from Nampula
Joao Baptista, Ibo's oldest inhabitant
I was able to meet several interesting people during my time on the island. Joao Baptista is said to be the oldest resident. A youthful 91, his birthday is celebrated on 23rd June every year as part of the Ibo Island Festival. His father was an official in the colonial administration and due to this Joao was the only African child allowed to attend Ibo's Portuguese school. I asked him how his friends reacted to this and how he was received by the teachers and other pupils. He told me that his friends were happy for him to go to school and that he was made welcome by the other children. As an adult Joao initially worked for the Portuguese but later became involved in the independence movement which resulted in him being imprisoned for a time in the island's fort - the name of which, ironically, he shares. Today he likes to sit on his favourite Goan chair on the veranda of his house and to talk to passers-by, telling them about the old days and answering their questions about his beloved island.

Bashiri Yusufa, silversmith
Sheena gets to work on another customer
Joanna, Moishes and Jacob
There are a number of craftsmen working on the island including silversmiths and wood carvers. Bashiri Yusufa told me he is 46 years old although he appeared to be older. He has a small workshop where he makes silver rings, necklaces and other items of jewellery, sharing the space with two young men who work in copper, producing similar items. I bought a few pieces from him and he was happy to pose for a photograph. He called out bom dia to me when I walked past his workshop again the next day.

If I am traveling for more than a few days I like to visit a local barber shop, to get tidied up and to see how this noble profession operates in other countries. Ibo has two barbers and after finding the more central one closed on a couple of occasions, a young couple helped me to find Sheena's in the village. Sheena is a serious chap and took a moment to understand my joke when I pointed to one of the somewhat bouffant styles advertised on the wall of his salon. Friends know I am what you might term challenged in the follicle department and the chances of me leaving his shop with anything other than a zero cut were negligible. He eventually saw the funny side of my request and I came away a satisfied customer.

One of my other must-dos when traveling is to try the local coffee. Ibo coffee is of the robusta variety and has a very strong taste which is perfect for me and I bought some to bring home. It can be sampled at the few cafes dotted around the island.  In addition to the cultivated coffee there are a few abandoned plantations. The islander who spoke to me about the departure of the Portuguese showed me one such place and it was here that we met a young woman carrying a baby who stood in the doorway of her home observing us. She smiled, laughing when I asked for a picture and was quickly joined by a second, older child when he realised that there were visitors. She told me her name is Joanna and the children are Moishes and Jacob. It was only later that my guide told me that the plantation and the house had once belonged to his family.

Much work is being done to revitalise life on the island. I stayed at Ibo Island Lodge, a beautifully restored heritage building facing the sea where a superb range of activities are on offer. The Lodge also runs several projects aimed at improving opportunities for local people including a Montessori English School, a silversmith's programme and a number of other community enterprise schemes. Several international organisations are supporting work to protect biodiversity whilst a small number of the crumbling buildings have been restored, one of them as an hotel. There are often complex legal issues relating to abandoned buildings that make it difficult to rescue them. This is a world wide problem but is especially acute here where much of the built heritage is at risk and where there are many conflicting priorities for investment. Who knows what the future will bring.

A few more memories of Ibo...

Woman wearing Mussiro - a natural cosmetic that protect the skin from the sun
Is he taking our picture?

I stayed at Ibo Island Lodge, a beautifully restored heritage building facing the sea. 

You can see more pictures from Mozambique here.

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