A short journey back in time
Maybe I should start by saying that I was born in Maputo. Well… language can be tricky and with lots of hidden socio-political meanings. I was born while Portugal was in the midst of its colonial war, and at that time the city had a different name — Lourenço Marques (named after the 1500s Portuguese navigator and explorer) — and was still colonised by the Portuguese. Some of my ancestors had been in Africa since the 1780s. I was a baby when Mozambique became independent. My parents left Africa and moved our family to Lisbon. I grew up in a Portugal recently liberated from the dictatorial Estado Novo regime that ruled the country from 1932 to 1974. There was a sense of hope. I also grew up at a time when Portugal, and Europe more broadly, were reflecting on their colonial past.
A big part of my family history and memories were different from those of most people around me, and had very little resonance with my everyday life. Everything was very different in Portugal, but the colonial past was always present. At home, I could see my family's history in a handful of photographs from various places in Mozambique displayed around the house — some of the furniture I used every day in Lisbon appeared in these photographs. I could also hear the past in the music played at my grandparents' house, in particular the sounds of the timbila, a percussive instrument from Zavala, a region situated roughly 400km from Maputo. The past also came to life through stories — my family's oral history and in particular my grandfather's passionate research of the locations he lived in: Its music, plants, languages, and cultural heritage.
From an early age I accepted my European identity. Maybe I was happy to be considered European because of the friction between the context I was growing up in, and the strangeness of my family's colonial memories. My mixed identity was, nevertheless, uncomfortable — I did not seem to belong anywhere in particular. I never felt completely at ease with my choice. If someone asked me where I was from, I always said I was born in Maputo, even though I had not been in Maputo since my family left Africa. This was shocking to some of the older generation in my family — by referring to the city's new name, I was rejecting their memories, their history, and my history. I do not remember the city or the country, but inevitably, I have some embodied knowledge. After all, it is impossible to escape nearly two hundred years of family history, the music, the stories, and the memories of a remote geography and culture.
When talking to people about Mozambique's history and culture, I can point out locations on the map, where some of the music emerged from, or even where some of the native languages are from. Still, what does this exactly mean? I still do not know them. They are names, locations, and memories of cultures I have not truly experienced — I do not know how these locations sound, smell, or feel. All I have are ghosts, memories from my family's experiences. I know more about Belfast, the place I have been living for the past five and a half years.
This is not the first time I have been back. I did make a return visit to Maputo seventeen years ago to see family. But this is an altogether different trip.
Some notes on Mozambique and its history
Maputo is located in the south of Mozambique, bathed by the Indian Ocean. It is the country's capital and its biggest city. The city's history is marked by its growth as a port during the Portuguese colonial regime, from the 1500's to 1975, when Mozambique claimed its independence. After nearly thirteen years of conflict, Samora Machel (1973-1986) led FRELIMO, the Mozambique Liberation Front, in the independence movement, and oversaw its later rise as the country's main political party. He was the first elected president of a free Mozambique. In 1976, Maputo was released from its former name, Lourenço Marques, and was renamed after the river which flows through it. The city is also known as the City of Acácias. (The acácia trees can be found everywhere even though they are not a native species. In several places, their roots break free from the concrete pavement that once tamed the streets.)
Once independent, the first step in the transformation of Mozambique's basic economic and social relations was to address the various problems associated with underdevelopment, such as lack of skilled workers and a devastatingly high percentage of ”illiteracy”. After the independence, Samora Machel continued to promote a different kind of fight, not a physical one, but one against illiteracy and poverty, which continues today.
Since independence in 1975, the country has invested greatly to make its rich cultural traditions more visible. Mozambicans have reinvented their identity in an uninhibited way, for example, through music and dance. Identity in Mozambique is an organic concept that continues to push boundaries of what is traditional and genuine
I travelled to Maputo in April 2017 with my research colleague Iñigo Sanchez. We tried to get a feel for the city by walking. We walked between five and eight kilometres every day as a way of understanding the city's rhythms, and how it is physically changing. April marks the beginning of the winter season in Mozambique, but the warm temperatures still made it a challenging process.
We were accommodated close to one of Maputo's main avenues, Mao Tse Tung. The apartment was located beside one of the most iconic Portuguese architectonic projects, the housing block Leão que Ri (Laughing lion) by the Portuguese modernist architect Pancho Guedes. I knew his work from an early age as the backdrop of some of my family photos, and learned more later as I developed an interested in architecture. My parents' old house was two streets from here. I could have walked past and tried to recognise the house from my memory of the old photographs, but simply knowing that it was around here somewhere seemed enough.
I did not immediately recognise the Leão que Ri — today it is surrounded by lush trees and the façade is marked by the patina of time. Nevertheless, traces at street level announce a possible modernist heritage, hidden away. This was modernism of a particular type, not quite the same as modernist Europe, as Guedes absorbed some of the local Mozambican aesthetics to create a new architectural language. The Leão que Ri is on an intersection facing the city's military command headquarters. The sound of the trumpet echoing from the military headquarters coordinates the rhythm of this small neighbourhood ecosystem: in the daytime it is a friendly, relaxed neighbourhood in a relatively privileged part of the city; at night, the street is popularly known as Colombia — the place to go if you are interested in buying arms and drugs. I woke up nearly every day to the — at times clumsy — sound signal of the trumpet. It was too warm to sleep and I could already feel the rhythm of the city waking up.
An incomplete tale of Maputo's street sounds
Maputo is a visibly poor city, divided and full of contrasts — on foot, one can clearly experience this. Traces of an unbalanced economy and a colonial past are etched into its geography. The crickets and cicadas seem unaware of such social frictions. They sing day and night, everywhere, linking the city in a thread of sound.
When looking from above at the flat map perspective, Maputo is defined by a relatively clear grid structure intersected by large avenues. We could feel this clarity of structure as we walked around. It is a fairly easy city to navigate. And although busy and big in scale, the sound of the traffic is not overwhelming like it is in many large cities. It is possible to maintain a conversation at a soft volume at most times. The street pavements, often broken by the roots of acácia trees, present one the biggest challenges when walking the city.
Even in our relatively superficial encounter with the city over twelve days, we found endless ghosts of the colonial past. Portuguese is still the official language of the country linking Mozambicans from north to south and bridging at least 22 other official languages. While walking the streets, we mostly hear people speaking a language or languages that we cannot understand. They could be speaking Tsonga or Chope for example, but to me, it made little difference. Tsonga or Chope are languages I know exist, but I do not know how they sound. However, the occasional mixed thread of conversation in Portuguese sheds a light into snippets of the everyday life.
In Maputo, two of the old districts still bear names that reflect a divided past: Polana Cimento (concrete) and Polana Caniço (reed). This classification emerged in early colonial times when the city began to grow as a port. It defined the areas where colonial Europeans lived (Polana Cimento), and the segregated area where everyone else was allowed to live (Polana Caniço) — first in houses made of reed, and later, after a fire burned down the neighbourhood, in constructions of corrugated iron imported from South Africa.
The streets of Maputo are lively but their sound is not overwhelming, as the large scale of the streets scatters the sounds. When walking the streets I heard the rumbling traffic, the occasional complaining car horn, the voices of street vendors, the loud and distinctive engines of tuc-tuc rickshaws, and exotic bird calls.
Portuguese products — butter, olive oil and coffee — populate supermarkets, restaurants, and cafes, so that sometimes we forget where we are. Street vendors bring their improvised selling stalls into the city from the outskirts every day. They take shade under the acácia trees and sell everything from fruit, shoes, arts and crafts, to phone credit and phone chargers. These are the shops of the ordinary citizen. These activities contribute greatly to the city's rhythm and its sonic environment.
A fluid usage of the street space makes Maputo a dynamic city that changes greatly from day to night. One such example is the transformation of the area close to the municipal market. By nighttime, this street is nearly deserted, but during the day, a market livens up the street with a variety of activities. The street vendors occupy the sidewalk space or negotiate it with the pedestrians. On one side, sellers chat to each other while they transform capulanas into shirts, dresses and other pieces of clothing, using their old but efficient sewing machines. On the other side, people mainly sell fruit and vegetables. The sound of the sewing machines reminds us of soft machine gun shots as we walk down the street. This rich and colourful sound environment transported us to a friendly war scenario — as if such a scenario could exist.
Due to the city's scale and its poor transport system, the chapas, an informal transport system common in many places in Africa, are the only affordable means of transport for most of the population of Maputo. Chapas drive with as many people as will fit inside — usually more than you would expect — around the city's downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods. Chapas compete only with cars. Pedestrians are practically invisible: cars — at any time of the day — simply will not stop to allow people to cross the road.
When the night comes, commerce stops and the chapas take the street vendors to the outskirts, leaving the streets empty. The lively conversations around the vendor's stalls, and the calls that lure the chapa passengers will stop. In most parts of the city, night is time for the sound of crickets, the droning sounds of refrigeration from the air conditioning systems, the gentle flow of traffic, and the occasional car roaring past, or, depending on where you are in the city, the water pumps of the swimming pools. By night, the mood along the marginal, the coastal road, is however quite different. The street is consumed by a sonic flow. Cars park along the avenue and line up. The sound of the ocean forms the background for emerging local music styles blasting from car stereos, as people cluster around each group of cars to chat, dance and have a drink.
There is one more sound that kept bringing me back to Belfast, where I have been living for the past five years: the constant sound of crows. The call of the crow is an important element of Belfast's sound environment. My main sonic memory from the last trip I made to Maputo, almost twenty years ago, is of the street vendors and the lively gatherings around the chapas. The sound of crows is not present in what I recalled of the city then. Perhaps it is because at the time I was driven around the city, rather than walking its streets. Walking, I got a detailed, physical experience of Maputo — a more nuanced perspective than what can be glanced from a moving car, or what we can see when watching from above.
I was in Maputo for twelve days in April 2017 to undertake initial field work for the Queen's University Belfast research project, Understanding the Role of Sound and Music in Conflict Transformation: The Mozambique case study (for which I was one of the research fellows). This sonic reflection resulted from my personal encounter with the city.