A bridge joins the Ilha de Mozambique to the mainland. There’s only room for one vehicle in either direction so we are waiting our turn. As we wait, I find myself crossing into the past and to thoughts of my mother, Ruth First.
In June 1982 Ruth was working at the university in Maputo, having been exiled from South Africa for her activism against apartheid. While travelling in the north of Mozambique to research the cotton industry, she took a few days off to visit the Ilha with her friend Moira Forjaz, a photographer. It was Ruth’s last holiday in Mozambique. She came soon after to visit my sisters and me in London and her descriptions of this magic island lodged images in my mind that were reinforced by a series of black-and-white photographs that Moira took. Two months later Ruth was killed by a letter bomb sent to her by the South African police.
Now, nearly four decades after her death, I am sitting beside Moira, waiting to get to the Ilha which Moira has made her home. A lorry passes and heads into the mainland. It’s our turn. Deep breath. We trundle across the bridge.
As small as it is – only 3km long and 500 metres wide – the Ilha has two distinct halves. We get to the first, Macuti Town, as soon as we cross the bridge. Its name comes from the palm fronds that were once used everywhere as roofing for the mud houses, though these days increasingly mud is replaced by brick and palm by tin sheets topped with rusting satellite dishes. We pass a thick banyan tree with low-hanging brown fronds; a small girl, about to use the fronds as a swing, catches my eye and jumps away. The adults are trying to stop them, Moira tells me, to save the tree. As we drive slowly I can see the helter-skelter of low dwellings, one leaning against the other, each row divided by dusty paths strung across with washing.
Our driver wants to show off his precious island. We pass the central market where you can buy biros and exercise books, dried mango, coconuts, pumpkins, chillies and musiro, a fat white tuber which many women use to decorate their faces after drying it in the sun.
The island appears much as it was when Ruth visited 37 years ago. In South Africa Ruth had repeatedly been held in solitary detention without trial under the notorious 90-Day Act; she was released, but banned from pursuing her career as a journalist. After Ruth and my father, Joe Slovo, were forced to leave South Africa in 1964 we settled in London. But Ruth yearned to return to Africa. When the newly independent Mozambique offered her a job, she went. In Mozambique’s ambitions to build a more equal society she saw hope for South Africa too.
“Stone Town,” Moira says, and I pull myself into the present. Stone Town is in the Ilha’s northern half, which is where people with money live and where the boutique hotels are – it is marketed as an island paradise. The faded buildings of stone and lime were constructed after explorer Vasco da Gama chased away the sultans of Zanzibar and claimed the island for Portugal in 1507. With the help of kidnapped pilots and Swahili boats da Gama succeeded in sailing to India, establishing Portugal’s maritime dominance and laying the base for an empire that lasted almost 500 years. Today da Gama’s monumental, blackened statue (he looks like a man who expects the world to obey him) still stands by the island’s museum looking out to sea.
The Ilha gets its name from a previous Arab ruler, Mussa Bin Bique – or Mussa, son of Bique – a name later annexed by the Portuguese to include the mainland. It was the seat of Portugal’s colonial government until 1898. Stone Town’s grand buildings housed the island’s new masters. The stone to make them was taken from Macuti, leaving a great hole into which the non-Portuguese population settled to service the new rulers. The Ilha became a flourishing slave port: a memorial garden now stands where slaves were once washed in a huge, water-filled stone sink before being transported to the Americas and West Indies.
When I visited the island 15 years ago I found a town devastated by Mozambique’s post-independence civil war. Refugees from the mainland had used wooden beams and floors from the old houses as cooking fuel or props for makeshift dwellings. Where once the Portuguese had dug the ground from one side of the island to construct the walls on the other, a new generation of Mozambicans had eviscerated the guts of the imperial residences. Many structures collapsed, turning Stone Town into a giant ruin; the dusty roads exacerbated the air of debilitation. It fitted my mood then: I had lost my mother in this country, and this island seemed to have lost its soul.
Now I was back. Before arriving I was worried that my earlier disappointment would be reinforced. I had planned the trip before March, when Cyclone Idai destroyed the city of Beira and its surrounds, 1,000km to the south (Cyclone Kenneth, the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit Mozambique, would make landfall just a month later). The dead are still being counted. With the present so pressing, it felt wrong to be thinking of a journey into my past.
Moira met me in Nampula and together we drove east for three hours. The destruction of the cyclone seemed increasingly distant as jagged, granite outcrops gave way to the lush greens of the semi-tropical bush, teeming with mango and cashew trees. There were towns with low-slung brick buildings, and mud-and-palm houses in family clusters. From out of an apparently empty countryside groups of children in starched school uniforms and women in bright cloth capulanas, a form of sarong, would emerge. Many walked barefoot over the scorching ground with sacks and basins on their heads. We bought cashews from young men whose fingers were blackened by the fire they used to cleave the seeds from their shells and passed others holding live chickens by their feet and waving them like flags. In rural Mozambique the land is so fertile that people do not starve, but there is little employment. I thought about my mother’s work, trying to train students so that they could reduce their country’s economic dependence on neighbouring South Africa. The civil war, which increased in ferocity after her death, leached away much of that hope.
Not, however, on the Ilha. The island was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, and with that came an injection of cash and care. Stone Town’s roads are newly cobbled. Some previous elegance has been restored: buildings have freshly plastered façades and ornate wooden doors. But many are crumbling inside; a combination of lime and sand seeps through the fresh plaster, one earth colour bleeding into the next. Neem trees with their spiky leaves and bulbous bark grow crooked from pavements that are in better shape than the mess of Maputo’s fractured sidewalks. Yet the calm that my mother spoke of is here, in a night-time stroll where falling stars streak through the southern sky.
I sit on the deck of my hotel looking out to sea. To one side the mangroves are almost overwhelmed by salt water at high tide, blurring land and sea. Fishermen in wooden canoes and dhows pass by with billowing sails of beige and cream. I take a dhow to some nearby islands to snorkel in the turquoise-and-green waters of the Indian Ocean. I eat a barbecue lunch on the beach and then walk through the mangrove of Cabaceira island past ancient lime kilns. Back on the Ilha I sit with Moira at the end of the pontão, where once my mother had also sat, and watch the sun dip, listening to the sea breeze and creaking of sails. Today a vast underwater archaeology project, partly funded by the Smithsonian, is unearthing treasure from sunken galleons. At low tide, women pick through the shoreline looking for gold and old beads that the sea may throw up.
But I am thinking of a different journey – that of Mozambique. Portugal ruled Mozambique until 1975 when soldiers from the Portuguese army began to defect to the Mozambican side. When Mozambique gained its independence, the Frelimo party, which had been fighting a long guerrilla war, came to power. Samora Machel, its leader, became independent Mozambique’s first president until he died in a plane crash in 1986 – the cause has never been explained.
Machel’s Mozambique is the one my mother loved. She hoped that this would be a model for a new Africa. On a trip to visit her in the early 1980s, I laughed when the waiters at Maputo’s elegant Polana Hotel demanded that we call them camarada (comrade). But I admired the idealism and optimism of a nation whose watchwords were equality and peace.
Almost 45 years after independence – and following the end of the 15-year civil war in 1992 – the Frelimo party is still in power: its fluttering red flags line the road that leads to the Ilha. Though the slogans and rhetoric remain, reality has changed. I see this in the way children in Macuti point to the colour of my skin: in the old days it would have been anathema to draw attention to race, but now picking out brancos is a normal childhood game. Rapid economic growth has slowed and corruption is widespread, including in government. The benefits of vast natural gas reserves farther north have not been felt widely. Poverty is everywhere. In the words of Ali Mussage, an Ilha resident who is 89: “Samora said: let’s end slavery, let’s learn to read and write. Today, slavery has ended, there are lots of opportunities to study, but I live in misery.”
Iwalk through the island in the sub-tropical heat (when the temperature drops below 32°C women reach for shawls) and think about how disappointed my mother would have been to see such limited progress. And yet, and yet. I sit outside a café, next to my mother’s dear friend, both of us eating pizza fresh from wood-fired ovens, as bats with giant wings swoop through the gathering dark. Our talk turns to the floods in Beira, not just the tragedy but the courage of ordinary Mozambicans – like those who paddled makeshift canoes to rescue their fellows, and workers in a crocodile farm who, instead of running from the cyclone, stayed to stop the walls breaching and to prevent the release of thousands of crocodiles into the surrounding area. Heroism in adversity. That, too, is Mozambique.
A power outage switches off the lights. As we use the stars to pick our way to my hotel, small shadows slip out from the houses. They are children, and they have come to do what they always do when the lights go out: they have come to sing. And sing they do, driving out the darkness.•