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Spending Some Time in Maputo's Lovely Decay : Mozambique's capital is usually a fine barometer of the rising and falling fortunes. The city is on the upswing again. Will it spread to the rest of the country?


MAPUTO, Mozambique — Reminiscences of the old days, from a table in an aging restaurant on the beachfront five miles out of town:

"My father used to cart water out here in an old Chevy," says Emmanuel Petrakakis, who today manages the Costa do Sol. It's 50 years since his parents came from Greece and made famous their proprietary way of grilling the giant prawns that fishermen scoop up along the shore. "We didn't have water then. . . ."

He stops to contemplate the state of municipal services in the capital of a country with the world's lowest per capita income, $130 a year. "We didn't have water then, as we don't now." A wan smile. "It's a vicious circle."

Behind Petrakakis' chair, a bustling Western film crew sets up for a shot. They've spent the day shooting a feature film on the matchless beach fronting his restaurant, and before taking over the place for some interior shots they will sit down to a buffet of the restaurant's specialty.

Maputo is currently enjoying an upswing. One night not long ago, the Costa do Sol had a record crowd of more than 500. That went far to eradicate some of the grimmer memories of life in this city.

"We went through stages where we only had boiled cabbage and Angolan fish to serve," recalls Petrakakis. "Prawns were hard to get because prices were controlled. But we were packed, because we were allocated beer by the government wholesaler. For a couple of years--1979-80--we were one of the only two or three restaurants actually functioning."

One can read the swelling and ebbing fortunes of Mozambique over the last 15 years, as well as its astonishing potential, in the story of this breathtaking city built on a series of stepped terraces facing out toward Madagascar and the Indian Ocean beyond.

Known for its first 194 years as Lourenco Marques (after Vasco da Gama's navigator, who first sailed into its broad bay in 1544), Maputo was once a world-famous playground, a Mediterranean city painted in swimming-pool blue and blinding eggshell white. South Africans seeking escape from their own society's humorless puritanism flocked to the nightclubs and bordellos on the Rua Araujo. When the cabarets closed at midnight, they roared up the beach to the Costa do Sol "with their ladies," as Petrakakis puts it, for grilled prawns and beer.

There was a bullring in which the matadors worked from horseback, Portuguese style. (A genuine Portuguese troupe toured once a year.) Every hotel promoted its rooftop restaurant's views of the city and bay. It was said that if, as colonists, the Portuguese were shortsighted and contemptible, as builders of colonial cities they had no equal in Africa.

Then came 1975, and a Portuguese decolonization so abrupt it resembled air escaping from a punctured tire. The Mozambique Liberation Front, then as now known by its acronym Frelimo, had been hectoring the colonialists from the bush for 15 years, but in 1974 a coup overthrew the dictatorial Salazar regime in Lisbon.

Portugal's new leaders hastily withdrew from all its costly African possessions. In Lourenco Marques the Portuguese departure was characteristically petty and resentful. Just as upcountry farmers drove their tractors over cliffs rather than leave them to Frelimo, bureaucrats in the capital smashed their office light bulbs as they left, and threw the maps of the city sewer lines onto a bonfire.

After independence, life in Maputo was still inescapably governed by the conditions the Portuguese left behind. One was the sheer dearth of trained personnel. Carcasses of vehicles accumulated along the streets like flotsam because the colonialists, needing to support 250,000 immigrant Portuguese (many of them unskilled), had barred Africans from the mechanical trades.

In Africa's British colonies the settlers were mostly farmers; in French West Africa they were shopkeepers and civil servants. But in Mozambique the Portuguese occupied an employment spectrum reaching far down into menial trades.

Hearing a visitor wonder aloud why the colonialists made no effort to train doctors or administrators from among the African population, Sergio Vieira gives a snort of amusement.

"You're setting your sights too high, my friend," says the assembly deputy, chairman of the local university's Center of African Studies. "Doctors! In this country even the bus drivers were Portuguese--even the man who drove the garbage truck!"

In the confident habit of that era of independence, the city's new proprietors removed as many physical and spiritual reminders of the colonial period as they could, replacing them with symbols drawn from their own canon.

The city name was the first to go, as the prime reminder of the colonial era. Street names memorializing Portuguese notables were eradicated. Rua A. W. Bayly became Avenida Julius Nyerere, after the president of neighboring Tanzania. The Rua da Princesa Patricia, which ran past the central hospital, was renamed for Eduardo Mondlane, a Frelimo founder who died in the independence struggle.

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