How to describe Mozambique, this land of contrasts where the country’s flag depicts the image of a farmer’s hoe crossed with an AK-47? “We’ve got to do something about our flag,” my Mozambican friend, Marcia says smiling. “It’s an embarrassment.”
College graduate, daughter of an Anglican priest, wife of a U.S.-educated Ph.D economist, Marcia, like Mozambique, is a study in contrasts. She knows two vastly different cultures—the one she grew up in and that of the U.S. She embraces them both. Speaks both languages. Accepts the differences in their values and ways.
While an AK-47 might not be a fitting symbol for a national flag, when crossed with a hoe, symbol of agriculture, it is a fair representation of the country’s history and economy, this land of rich soil, sun and rain, where it’s easy to grow most anything except when revolutions and civil wars get in the way.
Contrast is everywhere—in the sights and sounds, textures and tastes, and in the feel of things. My first look at the place was a slow drive over pot-holed roads from the airport through crowds of pushing, shouting people and buses, vans and taxis belching black exhaust and vying for position on the crowded roadway.
Small stands built from sticks or concrete blocks, roofed over with rusty strips of corrugated iron of multi-colored pieces of plastic lined the rutted streets. Men and women, young and old were selling everything from peanuts to plastic toys, underwear to umbrellas. Shoppers, I learn, can usually make only small purchases: enough charcoal to cook a single meal, one cigarette, a single onion, or a small fish. This is the flourishing “informal economy,” the way many Mozambicans support themselves, one day at a time.
The scene changes as we approach Avenida Kenneth Kaunda, also known as embassy row. The street widens, the potholes disappear, wisteria and jacaranda trees grace the sides of the road with blooms of lavender and crimson. The sidewalk is broad here as we pass the embassies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil, Tanzania, Italy. None looks as imposing as the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy. Several guards, iron spikes in the driveway, metal poles and bars on the windows attest to paranoia, perhaps justified. I don’t know.
Avenida Kenneth Kuanda ends abruptly as the Indian Ocean comes into view just beyond a large Holiday Inn billboard encouraging newcomers to “Come to a Place You Know.” And I suspect western travelers, jet-lagged and visually overwhelmed by now, do just that.
Wildly out of place yet strangely comforting are the dozens of KFC signs on lampposts along the road. There were so blatant that I began to wonder if KFC was perhaps some official government acronym. How did KFC get permission to advertise on city lampposts? Probably, they paid. In any case, there was no avoiding the fact that the Colonel had arrived in Africa.
Avenida Julius Nyerere parallels the sea and there, on the ocean side of the avenue, you can see homes of the rich and famous; Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel and Mozambique’s presidential mansion, more embassies and the homes of the ambassadors, and homes of well-to-do ex-pat families.
On the inland side of the avenue, there’s a bustling village of stick shacks and small concrete block homes. Tiny stalls dot the neighborhood and offer food and other necessities for sale.
In any culture where the gap between haves and have-nots is wide, as it is in Mozambique, there are startling contrasts. People live side-by-side, on the same street and in two different worlds.