Welcome to our Maputo

Mozambicans sit on the promenade at the riviera in Maputo. (Adrien Barbier/AFP)

Mozambicans sit on the promenade at the riviera in Maputo. (Adrien Barbier/AFP)

The blazing heat and high humidity stick like a couple of lovestruck pups the moment I hit Maputo at dusk. Air-cons and fans work overtime at accommodation establishments and elsewhere here.

The threat of malaria makes mosquito nets a must and camping an iffy. The arrival of winter offers no respite for air-cons and fans. Mercury hits the upper 20s as early as 8am on some days here. Nights are usually warm, with temperatures routinely hovering in the mid teens.

Easily accessible from South Africa, the lush city of acacia and jacaranda trees is just a three-hour drive from Mpumalanga’s Mbombela and Manzini in central Swaziland. Motorists from KwaZulu-Natal use the scenic N2 route of rolling hills and sea views. It’s N4 for visitors from Gauteng and fellow inlanders. Regular flights link Maputo with South Africa.

The city-province of Maputo has a population of almost two million people (making it the country’s biggest) and is stashed in the southeast corner that stares at the Indian Ocean.

Mozambique, boasting gems such as Vilankulo and Bazaruto up north, is a hit with South African holidaymakers.

A stroll in Maputo unveils a skyline of spanking new high-rises and peeling skyscrapers that haven’t been painted for decades. The capital is scruffy and refined at once. Sandton-type eateries and quaint cafés co-habit with open-air markets in the city centre. Half-built houses on the city’s outskirts are dwarfed by $1 000 a month beachfront apartments.

Such contrasts replay themselves in many other spheres. The horizon features cranes, a factor that backs the Africa-rising narrative. Rising for whom, though? The jury is out. World Bank types and politicians are suddenly coy. The question is triggered by overwhelming evidence that many remain stuck below the breadline in this city and across the natural gas-rich country. Media reports about mineral wealth and opposition Renamo’s return to the bush elicit frowns and smiles, of a sarcastic kind.

Pavements feature a mix of pinstripe, funky wear and African print shirts (and suits). Bright-coloured multipurpose capulanas, used as wraparounds and slings to carry babies, abound. Like fish and craftwork, palm wine is also on sale in town. Roads sport a mix of cars from toy-looking ones like Daihatsu Sirions to BMW X5s and other fuel-guzzlers. Old and new buses and cars crawl up and down Eduardo Mondlane and Julius Nyerere avenues at spasm rush hour, ferrying denizens to and fro.

Chapas, the ubiquitous minibus taxis, compete for the elusive meticais not only with the buses or cabs but also with tuk-tuks (or tsopelas), vans and motorbike taxis.

As in South Africa, chapas conductors holler, wooing commuters: “Baixa Xipamanine” and “Xiquelene” (two markets in Maputo), some shout as their kamikaze vehicles knit the city’s roads bearing dates of historic events and names of the globe’s left-leaning statesmen (some slain) and freedom fighters including Salvador Allende, Amílcar Cabral, Albert Luthuli, Samora Machel, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Olof Palme. Near the bay and overlooking the CFM Railway Museum, is a road that immortalises exiled 19th century Ngungunhane, emperor of the Empire of Gaza and scion of Dlamini and Soshangane.

Beyond a history steeped in anti-imperialism battles or the bustle typical of cities, Maputo is easygoing. Its pulse is mimicked by cruising fishermen on the beach of faint waves at Costa do Sol, home to the busy Mercado de Peixe (fish market). Open-air restaurants can cook your fish while you wait, shisanyama-style. On weekends, when the city swells the beach, it’s a popular spot and beautiful vibes soar. Beach-goers play football, stroll about, swim or just sit back.

Artisan fishers ensure steady supply of fresh fish for retailers, eateries and households here and beyond city limits. Crabs, snails, mussels and other sorts of sea catches – some sold live – are a favourite. Seafood is the nation’s staple diet and Laurentina and 2M (or McMahon & McMahon) seemingly its preferred beers.

With the sun long gone – well after activities such as sightseeing that might take them to galleries, botanic gardens, markets, galleries and so on – tourists gravitate to nightclubs. Dressed to the nines, locals and visitors throng the likes of Africa Bar, Mundos and Coconuts.

The nightlife is memorable. The good ambiance is unmissable, groove thick and mood easy. Black Coffee’s We Dance Again, with the awfully talented Nakhane Touré’s singing away, couldn’t have come at the right time. Clubbers dance on. Amorous couples routinely redefine the dance-floor with suggestive moves when sensual slow-paced kizomba tunes come on.

Much as Maputo is sleepless, its pace is much more relaxed than that of South African cities next door. Jozi, seven hours’ drive from here, is hectic.

If this city-province were a music genre, it would probably be a cross between jazz, samba and, for attitude, reggae. It was here that I was introduced to the music of Edmásia, a kizomba artist with a cool yet powerful voice. Her track, O Tal, gets stuck on the auto-repeat mode in my head.

Elvis Pool Bar, another popular spot, was one evening hosting Sunday kizomba, a feature that brings together karaoke types for a dose of raw real-life entertainment (and tone-deaf singers). The TV set at street level beamed music videos with little singing (and clothing) and lots of gyration and images of la vida loca (the crazy life). Patrons at this beautifully-decorated club on Avenida Vladimir Lenine pay no attention to a football match on the small box at the pool room, a storey lower, where a game of pool costs up to R50 an hour. Sex on the beach cocktail costs R90 a glass versus roughly R20 for a glass of juice. The menu is not short on seafood. A plate of prawns, for one, ranges from R70 to R230.

To the southwest and across Maputo Bay is Catembe, a semi-detached strip of land linked to the city by ferry. This area’s pace is a gear or two lower than what you would experience across the bay. Its vibe is as delectable. Eateries such as Diogo and O Farol, on the beach, sell good food and are favoured sundowner locations but the breeze fails to keep the afternoon-evening heat in check.

Boasting admirably prepared dishes, which predictably include fish, establishments on the beach come highly recommended. Presentation whets appetite. An added bonus is prices this side of the bay are relatively lower. Walks on the beach are priceless. Eyes relish the city skyline and moored and gliding sea traffic. From restaurants to lodges at Catembe, patrons feast on the city’s flickering lights and the moon that reflects on the ocean ever so gently is simple yet alluring.

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