The Mole Diaries: Maputo, Mozambique
Ellie is studying Spanish and Portuguese at King's College, London, and spent her year abroad in Maputo, Mozambique. She says, "I chose Maputo for many reasons - mainly my interest in lusophone African history and because I wanted to challenge myself and go somewhere a bit more unusual. Before I left, I saw that there wasn't much material on Mozambique, something I would like to change as it was a fantastic destination!" Here is her insider student survival guide to having an amazing time in the city.
1. First Impressions
Someone once said to me that the longer you stay in Maputo, the city of acacias, the more attractive it becomes. This was definitely true for me, as my first impressions of the city had left me a little on edge; the number of people everywhere, the chaotic traffic, the run down buildings, and, most of all, the lack of street lighting at night which plunges the whole city into darkness, had me, for the first few days at least, in a state of quiet panic.
It wasn't into well into my second or third week that I suddenly relaxed and realised just how beautiful the city was. The streets are busy but not threatening, ripe for people watching, and lined with huge, old acacia and Indian almond trees making the city far greener than I had expected. The buildings, though in need of a lick of paint, are a a perfect showcase of cool modernism and the city is dotted with architectural masterpieces by Pancho Guedes, Herbert Baker and Gustav Eiffel. However, the thing I came to love most was ironically the thing which had most intimidated me in the beginning: the lack of street lighting at night. Why? Because wherever you were in the city at after dark, you just needed to look up and you would see the blaze of the southern stars.
2. What to Pack
- Choose your clothes wisely because they are extremely expensive in Mozambique, unless you can be bothered to travel out to one of the huge markets like Xipamanine and are prepared to haggle. I was in Maputo for their winter and it was much chillier than I had expected and I kicked myself for not having brought more than one pair of jeans with me. Don't be fooled by the the tropical climate: Mozambicans dress far more conservatively than say, the Brazilians do. Wearing hot pants and a midriff showing top is not recommended.
- If you are going into any public institution, including (unbelievably) the university library, you MUST cover your shoulders.
- Do not forget your bikini and any other beach apparel. You will need it!
- Anti-malarial tablets: consult your doctor as to what type would be best for you. The only prophylaxis available there is the infamous mefloquin or lariam which is no longer routinely prescribed in the UK. In the end, I made the informed decision to come off my anti-malarials because of the side effects and because Maputo has a very low incidence of malaria. However, this was my personal decision: you must consult a doctor. It is vitally important that you take other preventative measures – take a bed net with you, mosquito repellent (20% Deet and above ONLY) and wear long-sleeved clothes at night as it only takes one mosquito bite for you to be infected. You may also consider taking a course of prevention for when you leave the city to areas where the rate of malaria is much, much higher. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL: if you ever get a temperature, vomiting or diarrhoea, you must get a malaria test straight away, even if you don't think it is malaria – and, if you do a rapid finger-prick test, ask to do three as they frequently give false results. An excellent clinic to do any kind of blood test in Maputo is the Ocean Path Lab, Clínica de Analise near to the Sommerschield Clinic. When going to more isolated areas, take a course of treatment with you: it is easier to buy this out there. Remember, this parasite is fatal when left untreated.
- It is recommended you also bring any electronics or essential medicines that you may need, as both can be extremely expensive, not to mention, hard to come by. Affluent Mozambicans do all their shopping in South Africa which offers retail opportunities more akin to Europe. Maputo is charmingly void of shops and malls – no H&M, no TopShop, no McDonalds, so if you're a die-hard consumerist, shop-a-holic, Maputo is probably not the best destination for you.
- Finally, don't forget your sense of adventure as Maputo is full of surprises!
3. Top Things to Do In Maputo
- A walking tour – particularly helpful when you're still feeling nervous in your first week, walking tours are run by locals and are great (and cheap) way to explore the city, learn about its history and admire the architecture.
- At sunset, enjoy a caipirinha de maracuja in Dhow Cafe which offers fantastic views over the bay, before dancing all night under the frangipangi trees at one of Maputo's many night spots.
- Spend Thursday afternoon and evening at Asociacao de Musicos Mocambicanos: the best place in the city to hear traditional and not-so-traditional music. It is a charmingly, simple venue – just a covered yard behind someone's house. Cheap beer (56p) and barbecued meat is served from a hut. There is something on every night of the week but Thursdays pull the biggest crowds.
- Visit Núcleo de Arte – an art collective and gallery by day, and outdoor music venue by night. On Sundays they have live bands which you can enjoy listening to with a beer, after having a look at some of the artist's works in progress. Big international names such a Goncalo Mabunda can often be spotted lurking under the avocado tree.
- Go craft shopping – batiks, jewellery, and traditional art work in the Parque dos Continuadores. For quality, good value capulanas try Casa das Elefantes or any of the shops on Guerra Popular
- If you fancy some culture, head to the Centro Cultural Fernando Leite Couto – the cultural foundation of Mozambique's poet laureate, Mia Couto. It has a great programme of exhibitions, performances and gigs – mostly held outside in the garden. It is a classy spot and another hang-out of the cultural elite.
- Try some local food at one of the markets: xima, goat curry, piri piri chicken, matapa, giant Maputo bay prawns.
- Make a weekend trip to the beaches at Tofo where you can snorkel with whales, dolphins, turtles and whale sharks.
- During the colonial era, Maputo had an unparalleled reputation for night life, something which it has firmly reclaimed in recent years since the end of the civil war. On my third night in Maputo, I was out until seven in the morning (a matter of course in this city) - you will never be without something to do during the evening.
Food in Maputo can be expensive. My advice is not to shop in the supermarkets which are a total rip off for what you get. For fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, pulses and other basic essential items, go to the markets. The Mercado do Museu is a great place in the centre of the city to buy things cheaply and it is nice to get to know and support the women who work there. They may even teach you some of the local language, shangana.
You will never be short of a restaurant either but for cheap, home cooking, again, go to the markets. Mercado Janeta has many little canteens where you can get a gigantic plate of food for less that two pounds. For more on Maputo's markets, check out my blog. If you're looking for something more high-end, there is plenty of choice in Polana and Sommerschield.
5. Finding Accommodation
I organised my accommodation through a contact at the university before I arrived. If you are studying, I recommend living in one of the university hall's of residence. Whilst they can be basic, it will offer you an invaluable opportunity to get to know Mozambicans of your age which can be difficult otherwise. The residences are also very cheap and their canteens offer a full three course meal for as little as 40p!
Private rents are harder to find and having a contact who can point out the good areas of town is helpful. Check out the classifieds at Olx.mz.
For the adventurous, couch surfing is also recommended for a temporary solution or you could stay in one of Maputo's two backpackers' hostels: Fatimas and Base, both are a bit of a rip off but not terrible.
I would recommend sorting your accommodation before you go however, as it will make your arrival in Maputo less stressful.
6. Getting Around
- Taxis – the most expensive option, but an inner city fare should never be more than £3.50. You must haggle as they don't have metres but the taxi drivers are normally pretty honest and don't tend to ask for stupidly large sums. I never had any problems with taxi drivers and I took a lot of taxis, but it is always good to be vigilant, especially if you're travelling on your own at night.
- Tchopela – or tuktuk: fares come in cheaper than taxi's. You can normally expect to pay £1.50 for an inner-city fare. Exhilarating but occasionally precarious in chaotic traffic.
- Chapa – this covers anything from the big buses which follow longer routes up the main avenues to the pick-up trucks which transport crowds of people from suburbs into the centre. These pick-ups are affectionately known as 'My Loves' as they are routinely so full that passengers have to stand nose to nose, so that, whenever the driver breaks, they are forced to throw their arms around the person in front of them to stop themselves toppling out. Chapas cost less than 2p! However, there are no official stops marked in the city, nor are the routes published, so the only thing you have to go by is the destination. Your best bet is to ask a local or the cobrador where it stops.
Taking public transport in Maputo is not for the faint-hearted – but definitely recommended. You will earn your stripes and experience life as a local.
The Portuguese from Mozambique is easy to understand, though it does boast a smattering of slang which can be helpful and fun to know and use.
- Babalaza – hangover (you will need this one)
- Maningue – muito/ a lot
- Há de – yes, that archaic expression from Portugal used to express hypothetical desire is used in the same way as ter de (have to) in Moz.
- Gajo/gaja – guy or girl, used mainly in the third person
It's telling that I almost forgot to include a section on personal safety: Maputo is generally a perfectly safe city. The most common crime is opportunistic – pick-pocketing, bag snatching etc which, like in any big city, can be avoided by using common sense. Don't walk alone at night after 10pm or so on unlit streets you don't know. Violent crime, robberies and break-ins, are uncommon but do happen from time to time, so take adequate precautions.
There are two no-go streets in the city centre: the twisting footpath which is known as the Snail and which connects Avenida Marginal to Federic Engeles. The Snail is a hotspot for muggings as it is in the middle of an area of bush and is completely isolated from the rest of the city. You have absolutely no reason to go there, unless you want to take a short cut. Don't: it is not worth it. The other street which should be avoided if you are alone is the Avenida Marginal which is a shame because it is right next to the sea, but again it is pretty isolated and there are normally not many people around.
As a rule of thumb, where there are people, you will be safe.
The biggest nuisance of all are the police who will target you for bribes and can be very threatening. They may ask for your passport and then refuse to give it back unless you pay them. This can be remedied by carrying around a notarised copy instead of the original. In all your dealings with the police, it is vital you remain calm, smile a lot and stand your ground. This can be difficult when you they are waving an AK-47 in your face but don't worry – for the most part they're not loaded (they can't afford the ammunition), and the police just want to intimidate you. Don't let them.
As a foreign woman, especially in bars and clubs, you will receive far more attention than you are used to. However nearly all of it will be perfectly innocent and just a bit of a nuisance. I was expecting a lot more aggression and grabbing before I went, as well as catcalling. But Mozambican men can actually be quite shy with foreign women they don't know. I hardly got catcalled, though I got a lot of stares, and it was really only in bars that they would become more persistent. They will mostly tell you that you are beautiful and that they want to be your boyfriend, which is quite sweet and definitely better than bellowing “Show us your chebs!” as their English counterparts are prone to do. Just don't take it seriously and if in doubt, get a near-by woman to help you out of a situation you don't feel comfortable with.
Which brings me to my next point, attitudes towards women in Mozambique can be pretty contradictory. It is very much a macho culture and attitudes can be pretty backward, not to mention traditional practises such a polygamy still going strong in parts of the south and the Muslim north. However, women are also successful in business and politics, and in more cosmopolitan areas, like Maputo, they go out drinking and partying just as the men do. You will see once you arrive what the cultural expectation of your behaviour as a woman will be, and you would be wise to adhere to it. That being said, your foreign-ness will allow you to get away with things Mozambican women perhaps wouldn't be able to.
Homosexuality was legalised in 2015, however I would say this law does not reflect societal attitudes as a whole. Even in Maputo which is relatively cosmopolitan, homosexuality is not publicly condoned and outside of the capital – forget it. Attitudes will be more hostile depending on how traditional the community is.
That being said there is an interesting underground gay scene in Maputo with secret parties and gatherings. Gays and lesbians use grindr and other apps, as they would back in the UK (though there are not many users). LAMBDA – an NGO dedicated to the protection of gay rights in Mozambique is a great starting point if you want to make contact with the community.
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