Thursday 22 November 2018

Ilha de Moçambique - The People In The Street

It's quite a journey from London to Ilha de Mocambique. It takes almost 20 hours from check-in at Heathrow to arrival but after two flights, a long wait in Johannesburg and a couple of hours drive, a first look around makes it all worthwhile. Joined to the mainland by a new three kilometres long bridge, the island is a visual treat - full of colour, history, surprising architecture and friendly, welcoming people.

For almost four hundred years the town was the capital of Mozambique and the most important Indian Ocean port south of Mombasa. It boasts numerous mosques, three churches and even a Hindu temple (although there are no Hindus living here now).  There is also a huge 16th century fort which contains a small church, Capela da Nossa Senhora do Baluarte which dates from 1522 and is the oldest remaining European building in the Southern Hemisphere. These riches contributed to the island being declared Mozambique's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Most of the main sites are within ten minutes walk of each other but for me, as ever, it is the people and the narrow streets of the old city that I find most interesting. The island has two distinct parts, Stone Town in the northeast and Macuti Town in the southwest. Most of the landmarks are situated in Stone Town but both areas are rich in atmosphere and the chance to engage with local people.

I had read that it can be difficult to photograph people in Mozambique. Numerous internet articles talk about cultural and religious issues and the need to tread carefully. Others emphasise the likelihood of being asked for money in return for a picture.  However, I spent three days on the island and although there were some incidences of people requesting refreshco i.e. payment in return for a picture, it was generally for tiny amounts and not once did anyone refuse point blank to be photographed. This was in no small part due to my engaging a local guide to walk with me as I have about ten words of Portuguese and many older people do not speak English. I also found that those ten words were helpful in making a connection. Just being able to say good morning, thank you and please made a difference. I found most people I met to be friendly and even seemingly grumpy roadside vendors would give a big smile in response to an unexpected boa tarde.

Blue doors in Macuti town
More than 90% of the inhabitants of Ilha de Mozambique are Muslim. Many of the women wear the hijab or some other kind of head covering but this did not seem to impact on their attitude to photography. Walking through Macuti Town I came across two hijab wearing women and a small boy sitting outside their home. The scene was a riot of colour. The house had blue and white doors with bright yellow steps and exterior walls. One of the women wore an ochre hijab whilst the other wore a striking animal patterned headscarf and bright purple lipstick. I wished them bom dia and when they responded I lifted my camera to indicate that I would like to photogrpah them. They nodded agreement and after taking the group photo above, asked me to photograph them individually - something that was to occur several times during my stay here. Later that day when reviewing my day's work I noticed that I had also captured two children peeping at me through the doors. I was able to shoot several group scenes on the island, some of which are pictured below.

Family and friends, Macuti Town 
Sitting in the shade, Macuti Town
Everywhere I went in northern Mozambique I saw women wearing a white face mask called Mussiro. Originally a symbol of virginity, the mask would no longer be worn when a young woman married. Today it is used primarily as a cosmetic and has properties that prevent acne, provide protection from the sun and keep the skin smooth. It has even been worn by models at the Mozambique Fashion Week. Pipinia was chatting with a group of women when I noticed her. She was wearing Mussiro and very quickly agreed to be photographed. She had clearly done this before, humorously assuming a series of poses and expressions in the style of a modelling shoot. Still on the subject of modelling, a few minutes after leaving Pipinia I came across two young men sheltering from the hot sun in the doorway of a house. I liked their almost hipster style and they too would not be out of place in the fashion pages. 

Pipinia wearing Mussiro
Youth and style
Hey, I want to be in the picture too!
During the day the streets of Ilha de Mozambique were full of small children. Often they would call out hola, what is your name and where are you from. Sometimes they would also call out photo, photo and begin posing and making gestures that they can only have seen on cable TV. One group of small boys began calling to me as I walked along the main street. They were a jolly band with adult family nearby and so I began to photograph them. I soon noticed one boy from the adjoining house, leaning over the wall, desperate to be in the picture. At each click he leaned further across until he eventually solved the problem by climbing over the wall and joining the group. I only wish it was possible to encounter that level of enthusiasm everywhere in the world!

Colours in Stone Town
There are a number of artists and traditional craftsmen working on the island. I visited a silversmith's workshop where I found a beautiful pair of earrings for my daughter. Three artisans were working there, in a simple blue painted room, their work displayed in a beautiful antique wood and glass cabinet. The simplicity of the scene and the beautiful blue backdrop were great examples of what makes this place such a visual delight.

A little later I met Hamis Hussein, a tailor. He works from his two room home where he both repairs clothing and takes orders for new garments. I asked him if this was a skill he had learned from his father. He said not and that his father had been a prominent official in the local administration during the Portuguese period. Hamis had learned tailoring at a practical school and established his own business. He is not sure of his age. He may be 72 but he has no documentation to confirm this. I was very taken by his calm attitude and kind face. I would like to be able to talk to him again some day. 

Hamis was not the only tailor I met on the island. When walking alone early one evening I noticed two men sitting in an alleyway at the side of a house. One sat by the door to the alley whilst the other worked at a sewing machine. The man by the door waved, smiled and called out hola as I passed by. Never one to miss the opportunity for a chat, however brief, I went back and learned that they were brothers and that both of them are tailors. Even in this alley, there was colour as one of them worked on a bright new garment.

Hamis Hussein, tailor
Brothers and tailors, Stone Town
Back on the mainland, there is a small but busy market at the entrance to the bridge. People come here to buy and sell fish, fruit, vegetables, electrical goods, second hand clothes, shoes and other items. It was a great place to photograph people, some of whom were very enthusiastic about having their picture taken. One elderly woman saw my camera and began shouting and gesticulating. At first I thought she might be objecting to my taking pictures. On the contrary, she was demanding that I photograph her saying take my picture, I am still beautiful. So I did. I took a couple of shots of her before moving in for a close-up portrait. I loved the result - a slight smile and her face half in shadow half in sunlight, every line telling a story.

Four friends
It was also here that I stumbled upon a group of three older men sitting on the steps of a shop, enjoying the afternoon sun. I secured their agreement for a picture and just as I was about to begin shooting, a fourth elderly man rushed forward to join them. They shuffled up a bit to let him in and then began a short conference with each other after which they asked me to take individual portraits of them as well as a group picture! I was very happy to oblige despite the fact that they would only be able to see their pictures on the camera screen. By this time a group of spectators had began to form which swelled to perhaps 20 or 25 people alternately laughing and cheering. A good natured crowd, they wanted to see the results too and I spent some time there holding the camera for them to see.

Later I noticed an elderly man laying back and supporting himself on his elbows. There was something very stylish about him with his colour matched trousers and hat, loose black overshirt and red slogan bearing tee. He asked me why I wanted to take his picture and expressed surprise when I said he looked interesting. His posture, outfit, yellow bag and contrasting yellow backdrop make this one of my favourite pictures from Mozambique. He seemed happy with the result and even waved at me as I passed by a little later on the back of a motorcycle!

Take my picture, I am still beautiful 
Man with style
Children of Lumbo

The motorcycle was my mode of transport for visiting Lumbo, a small town just a few kilometres away from the bridge but difficult to access by other means. It is a strange place. One side of the town has a lively market, a residential area and access to the sea enabling work in the fishing industry. The other side is a ghost town of homes and other buildings abandoned by the Portuguese during their mass exodus from Mozambique following independence in 1975. The town developed due to its being served by a branch of the national railway system that linked it to the much larger city of Nacala to the north. Trains no longer come here and the town feels cut off. The empty villas are beginning to collapse due to four decades of neglect and the effects of the climate. However, some of the larger, former administrative buildings are being used for educational purposes and the impressive Catholic Church is still in use.

Abandoned villa, Lumbo
Barber shop, Lumbo
Cine Teatro Nina, Stone Town

Former Chinese restaurant, Stone Town

Lumbo is not the only place in this area where there buildings have stood empty for years. Back on the island, the former Cine Teatro Nina closed a long time ago and although it seems to be structurally sound the effects of neglect are beginning to show. It stands beside a series of buildings constructed by the Portuguese including a former sports club and a Chinese restaurant. The interior of the restaurant is now exposed to the elements and the elegant tiles used to decorate the old counter can be seen from the street. With the exception of the cinema, this once impressive parade of buildings is likely to be lost forever if something isn't done soon. On the other hand, a number of buildings have been very well looked after and others are undergoing restoration. In Stone Town I made two great finds - a building with a beautiful wooden Art Deco influenced door and another with a stunning lobby complete with black and white tiled floor and original wooden bannister. These chance findings are the things that can make travel such an enriching experience.

I also had another chance encounter on Ilha de Mozambique. I wanted to see an exhibition of photographer Moira Forjaz's work at one of the island's galleries. Unfortunately when I got there the exhibition was closed. I stood looking through the windows when a small boy approached me and said there was another place to see the pictures. A little doubtful, I let him lead me to a house a couple of streets away where he knocked on the door and who should answer it but the photographer herself! She invited me in and I had a delightful half hour with her looking at photographs and hearing about her life. She was born in Zimbabwe but has lived in Mozambique since independence in 1974. An amazing woman, the book relating to her exhibition - pictures and stories of people on the island - will be available very soon. I have already placed an order.

Art Deco doors, Stone Town
Secret staircase
Retired fishermen, Stone Town
Fisherman in a red hat
I cannot finish without some reference to the fishing industry which remains important here. There is a small fish market adjacent to the beach and the catch can be seen being brought in all around the island. I photographed the little group of retired fishermen sitting in the street early one morning. The man in the red hat is also a fisherman. He was sitting on the beach with a group of his friends. I was struck by his style and poise.

I had just three nights on the island. Whilst it was enough time to see the sites and even to visit a couple of places on the mainland, it is the kind of place that draws you in and demands more time. I would have liked to meet more people, to hear more stories and find out more about the island's past. Maybe next year.

You might also like Mumbai Stories 2 - The Lives of Others

You can see more pictures of Mozambique here

I stayed in Villa Sands, a beautifully designed, extremely comfortable and centrally located hotel. My dietary requirements were very sensitively taken care off and the hotel also put me in touch with a superb local guide who helped me to capture the images used in this post.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful pictures and an engaging story. Thank you very much for sharing your Mozambique travel experience. Living in a Portugese colony where we still have the architecture and decor intact, some of the pictures brought a nostalgic sense of familiarity. The meeting with the photographer and the boy who lead you to her remains unforgettable. A wonderful read, looking forward for more.