Mozambique: Traveling a Dangerous Road

A fishing dhow returns to shore as the sun rises, Vilanculos. photos by Pip Strickland.
A fishing dhow returns to shore as the sun rises, Vilanculos. photos by Pip Strickland.

Mozambique: ‘Armed Convoys and Archipelagos’ en Route to Paradise

By Pip Strickland

It was hard to believe. Standing here on the beach, with the sun peeking out over the horizon, my feet sinking ever deeper into the sand as the Indian Ocean ebbed and flowed around them, the villagers of Vilanculos, Mozambique, waking from their slumber, that such terror existed just up the road.

As fishermen laden down with nets, women burdened with buckets and babies, up the road from this serene Mozambican domesticity RENAMO rebels were hidden in the thorny scrub, poised to pounce on vehicles traversing the country’s main north-south road.

Riding a train in Mozambique.
Riding a train in Mozambique.

With buses set alight and both passengers and drivers shot at during the last month I was questioning whether to continue north through the country by road with the police armed convoy that was escorting vehicles the 100km between Save River and Muxungue, or backtrack to Maputo and fly north to reach Ilha de Moçambique, a Unesco World Heritage listed island.

Remote and rebel-free. I had just returned from two idyllic days in the Bazaruto Archipelago, a cluster of ivory beach islands, absorbing reef life, and imposing, wind carved sand dunes imprinted with animal adventures. “Tourists come here and they think we live in paradise,” Saidi, a local fisherman, indicated towards the beach – the palm trees, the sedate flow of village existence. “But life here is hard…you don’t see that.”A local boy imitates the rebels and other forces that play important roles in Mozambique.A local boy imitates the rebels and other forces that play important roles in Mozambique.Bullets and Landmines

Two years after Mozambique claimed its independence from Portugal in 1975 the country descended into chaos when RENAMO, a South African and Rhodesian backed guerrilla army, was formed to ensure white minority interests were met against the socialist one party state being formed by the new FRELIMO government.

For 16 years mass abductions, child soldiers, re-education camps and land mines tortured the country, leaving 1 million dead, 5 million displaced and a country dilapidated. Arriving in Maputo from the South African border two weeks earlier the stark contrast between the two countries was evident.

Crumbling sidewalks, derelict buildings, and a noticeably large number of amputees – the victims of landmines which had riddled the country. When the peace deal was signed in 1992 the economy was in tatters, and poverty widespread.

On South Africa’s Doorstep

I had travelled twice in Africa before, to both Francophone and Anglophone countries, but never to a former Portuguese colony. Despite its decaying infrastructure, the Afro-latin atmosphere in Mozambique was infectious. Marrabenta and samba pumped from shop doorways, cashew nuts brought over from Brazil were peddled on the beaches, and coriander, paprika and sweet peppers animated the sea breezes.South African holiday-makers flooded over the border to the beach resorts of Tofo and Ponta da Ouro where many of the businesses had been bought up by their compatriots. Within a days drive from Johannesburg you could surf, dive and party all tinged with a slightly exotic African flavour. A little further north in Vilanculos, the 4×4 resort camps of the south gave way to the mellow undulations of Mozambican village life.

Fishermen and fishmongers - early morning on Vilanculos beachFishermen and fishmongers – early morning on Vilanculos beachWith the tide low Saidi and I ventured out onto the mud flat where small groups of elderly women and excitable children rummaged for cockels and crabs. “You see how expensive our supermarkets are, how much it costs to go in a chapas (minibus). For most people this is not even an option.” Saidi explained. With the GDP per capita one tenth that of South Africa, whilst transport expenses and supermarket groceries were on par with it’s western neighbor, it was a challenge to make ends meet.

Shopping at local markets, together with a semi-subsistence lifestyle was the only way to survive for many, and unnecessary travel beyond a question. I asked Saidi about the road north. “I haven’t been. But it doesn’t sound good. If RENAMO takes control of this road everybody has to go through Zimbabwe to get to the north. But from what I hear FRELIMO is putting on one hell of a show up there.”

‘The Badlands’

A vegetable seller in Makuti town. Three days later I sat in the back of a 4X4 on the southern side of the Save River bridge with a machine gun, mounted on the roof of an armed tank, aimed at my vehicle. A rapid fire exchange in Portuguese between my driver and soldier ensued.

My driver, a business man from Maputo, had offered to take me as far as Nampula but was now trying desperately to explain that his camera had been photographing the graffiti on a building across the road and not in any direction involving police activity.

I discretely hid all my photographic equipment. As the tank pulled away, tensions subdued. People spilled onto the roadside, waiting for an indication the convoy was to begin, deliberating over the situation. Smoking. Killing time. Those here for the first time apprehensive, others arrogantly relaxed. Soldiers clad in bandanas and armed with machine guns allocated themselves without invitation to the back of vehicles.Tensions heightened as realities sunk in. A siren wailed in the distance, indicating the show was to begin. “Vamos, vamos!” came the shouts as loiterers jumped into their vehicles and engines revved. Burning down the right hand side came the army tank – lights flashing, siren screaming, a steel-helmeted soldier poised with assurance at the gun.

Cars jostled in behind it on the two-laned road. Accelerating, overtaking, swerving, dodging potholes. Trying to elude the firing line of bush bandits. Burnt out vehicles lay in waste on the side of the road. FRELIMO soldiers dozed with boredom under trees in the shade, no longer enthused by the incessant back and Stone townforth of this theatre on wheels. As we entered the town of Muzungue the tank pulled over into a police compound and we were on our own. The protection from rebels ended here. I felt charged by this dose of real adventure adrenalin, but also felt the skepticism of many that this was just party propaganda. Elections were on the horizon.

Ports and Forts

The sun had just dropped below the horizon as we crossed the three-km bridge that separated Mozambique Island from the mainland. Darkness quickly embraced the humid night air, heavy with the balm of fried fish, roasted maize, and matata – a heady Mozambican stew of seafood and peanuts.

Bundling out onto the street in the dim light I could feel the neglect. The broken pavements, the buildings adorned with crumbling edges and flaked paint. In the chaos of war this island in the north, the former capital of Portuguese East Africa, and far from Maputo, had been forgotten.

A former Arab port and boat building town it burgeoned with the trade of slaves, spices and gold until the opening of the Suez Canal led to its demise at the end of the 19th century. Apart from one offer of help to escort me to my hostel, and friendly acceptance when I declined, I walked through the deserted streets of Stone Town, unhassled and at ease as the island settled in for the night.

The lifeline of the country is the train.Stone Town is the island’s colonial heart and Fort São Sebastião holds a commanding position on its northern edge. It was built in the 16th century and survives as the oldest complete fort in sub-saharan Africa. In a sheltered bay to the west I swam with multi-coloured fishing dhows bobbing in the transparent waters, and children playing with big yellow water containers in the shallows.

A pier stretched out into the ocean where a few men sat staring out to sea, fishing lines dangling at their feet. The maroon spire of the Capela de Misericordia, dominated the skyline behind me, its slick paint job conspicuous. In the open square at its base men congregated around domino boards, boys squeezed around a table football game and women gossiped behind tables lined with fruit, vegetables and peanuts. A young boy asked if I wanted to go on his father’s dhow to sail the surrounding islands and returned happily to play in the water when I declined.

A boy on a train from Nampula to Cuamba, Mozambique.In the south of the island the imposing colonial architecture and sedate pace of Stone Town is replaced with the hum and hustle of market life in the shanty town of Makuti.

The main thoroughfare cuts through its heart and I descended concrete stairs into a maze of reed houses, people and animals, all competing for space in this cramped, sunken cosmos.

Smiling Shopkeep

Produce, clothes, electronics and beauty items were hawked with fervor and the day’s catch seeped through the surroundings. I asked a shopkeeper in a taqiyah skullcap if I could take his photo. He smiled and posed proudly infront of his wares. A tap on my shoulder came with a request to take another man’s photo, and another, and another.

A clothing auction had exploded on the edge of the main market, men knee deep in second hand clothes spread out atop elevated cement blocks to a sea of wide eyed shoppers below. The clothes had mostly likely been sent as aid. Children smiled sheepishly at me, a man tried to sell me a hat, a woman a papaya, but nobody stopped to hassle me, follow me -– everybody was too busy getting on with their own lives.

A streetside tailor in Maputo.A streetside tailor in Maputo.I sat, surrounded by fishing dhows and half mended nets, watching sunset outside a bright olive mosque on the western edge of Makuti Town. Men descended from evening prayer onto the beach, collecting their nets, organizing their boats for the morning catch.

The intriguing beauty of Mozambique Island was not only its exotic history and its architectural legacy, but its present ambiance. The languid pace of Stone Town, the energy of Makuti, and the serene disposition of it’s people.

With 3 days left before my visa expired I reluctantly returned to the commercial hub of Nampula, just under 200km to the west, to join snaking queues of baby-bearing women and briefcase-toting business men.

At the end of the line a man, absorbed in his mobile phone, nonchalantly issued tickets on the Nampula to Cuamba train, a thrice weekly adventure taking passengers from the Mozambican coast to the Malawian border.

Traveling the Rails

Although not my first appearance as a sardine on public transport in Mozambique, the space constraints in the 3rd class cabin were amplified by excess cloth-wrapped bundles, children nursing children nursing babies, and poultry insistent on not remaining stationary in woven bags squashed between feet.

A girls on Isle de Mozambique waits for her fisherman father to return.A girls on Isle de Mozambique waits for her fisherman father to return.
The wail of babies competed with the

perpetual screams of metal on track, while the aged scent of pre-fried cassava encased in newspaper mixed with sweat-infused cotton in a stifling concoction. But amiable company on long distance travel can balance out these equations.

At each stop, some established platforms, others just a cluster of huts in the landscape’s expanse, throngs of people appeared laden down with tomatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, onions and fried chicken.

Vendors paraded the length of the train, hawking their wares, grappling for eye contact, before purchasers were found, sales haggled over, and money exchanged, all with the urgency that comes with not knowing when your customer might just roll away down the line.

Sitting across from me a cordial man in a suit and tie was buying enormous bags of tomatoes and green beans. “I am going to Cuamba for business. But I can buy these for cheap and sell them at the market and make a good profit,” he explained. “It covers my ticket cost.

Some people only catch the train to buy produce to resell in the bigger towns.” The tracks provided a lifeline for the economy of these remote villages.

It was a vibrant scene, tinged with desperation, as small children jostled with bigger boys to sell their wares, young women ran alongside the train to ca The Isle de Mozambique is located midway up the coast of Mozambique.tch  money still owed on interrupted transactions, an unwanted bag of tomatoes being returned from the train window plunging to a red, splattered end on the platform – the energy and effort of their production gone to waste.

A small girl hesitated, before chasing a used can discarded from the carriage window. With some imagination, one mans rubbish is another childs toy.

The hotels in Cuamba were all full. Full of passengers from the train I had been on and full of passengers waiting to return to Nampula the next morning. I set up camp in the courtyard of a hotel next to a cluster of discarded shipping containers, adopted as homes by some resourceful families.

On the edge of the main plaza a woman sat on a sarong, pots and upturned plates laid out around her. Surprised at my business she carefully rinsed a plate and dolloped fried fish, rice and salad on it before presenting it to me shyly.

A boy selling cold drinks nearby stood up and offered me his plastic chair to sit on and joined his friends watching me eat. It was my last night in Mozambique and I was sad to leave.I felt the war that had locked this country away from tourists had left it with a unique edge. So often in Africa the huge disparity between Western visitors and locals prevented the formation of friendships built on anything but money. Destinations and the activities suitable for tourists to enjoy were predetermined for me and any deviation was heavily warned against for ‘safety’ issues.

While the decision to travel north by road through the country’s troubled centre was a risk, it had given me an insight into this country – what it had been through and where it was potentially headed – that no tourist attraction could replicate. But while the wealth disparity existed here, I felt a freedom in Mozambique that I hadn’t elsewhere and formed relationships based on mutual intrigue, rather than the tourist dollar clouding intentions.

There was no inflated cost in US dollars to do a safari or see a waterfall. I was free to just observe, interact and direct my money where I wanted it to go. Perhaps in a country that has long experienced the tumult of war and sits on the brink of unrest, investing in the tourism industry is a treacherous road to wander and with a government currently pre-occupied in other areas it is yet to be exploited for its tourism potential.

Pip Strickland

Pip Strickland has a degree in Natural Environment and Wilderness Studies and ten years independent travel experience throughout more than 80 countries with an interest in the environmental and social conditions affecting peoples lives in the countries she visits.’
Examples of her work can be viewed at

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