I believe I have passed the stage of a tourist who wants to see the flashy landmarks, do fancy activities and visit extravagant eating places. Yes, you could blame this on my ever-stringent travel budget or on my inquisitive instinct on other people’s cultures and way of life everywhere I go.
In many instances when traversing the streets of Tofo, Inhambane, a tourist hub of Mozambique I had to explain to vendors who sold souvenirs that, ‘I am your sister from Botswana. I am not an American tourist. I don’t have lots of money so give me a better price for an African.’ Believe me, it worked and coupled with a loud laughter and altered English to cater for the entirely Portuguese speaking vendors, it helped a lot. The ten-day road trip hopping between four SADC countries saw my travel mates, Katso Morapedi, Victor Baatweng, Thapelo Manale and I traverse the filthy streets of Johannesburg, Wanderers taxi station catching a ride to Mbabane, Swaziland, finding our way around the ever foggy mountains of Swaziland’s Manzini to catch a taxi to Maputo, Mozambique on the quest to reach the paradise of Tofo, in Inhambane district of Mozambique along the Indian Ocean.
As budget tourists, we have become full backpackers. We carry backpacks that have everything we might need anywhere even if we were to be abandoned for days in a bush. I carry inside my bag pack a tent, inflatable mattress, a yoga mat, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, Campass, a multipurpose knife pack, canned food and a lighter in case we need to make a fire. Often with the size and weight on our backpacks, we got strange stares from locals. I supposed they were even surprised to see me as the only woman with a bunch of men carrying my own load too. In Mbabane and Manzini, we often were mistaken for American Peace Corps, our taxi driver who is shocked to learn that we sleep in tents everywhere we go explains that he had never seen anyone from Africa do such a thing except ‘American volunteers.’ We ask a lot about the local culture and the royal family but Gaza seems to be freer talking about himself and his family than the royal family because “you must be careful talking about the King and his family.”
Our travel from Swaziland to Mozambique was another eye opener of how different we are in law enforcement. At the Mlhumeni Swaziland/Mozambique border post we get off the mini bus to do the normal border passport checking procedures. A man gets out of the bus with two live chickens he has carried from Manzini, covered in a sack with only the head out to breathe. I watch him carefully as I expect the border post guards to question him on carrying live chicken across borders. All appears normal as he carries his animals under his arm, an open bottle of beer on the other hand as he keeps sipping on it while the chickens crow. The cops stamp his passport in between peaceful chats. As he finishes the beer bottle, he drops it right by his feet and this is at a border post in full view of border guards and police in uniform.
This is something we had to adapt to very fast in our few days in Maputo, the Mozambique capital. We spot a group of men and ask them for a taxi to a backpackers lodge. To our surprise (turned out to be pleasant) we are directed to an open Toyota Hilux van. Without much hesitation even though we expected a Corolla, we quickly board the ‘pick up’ vehicle as the owner called it. The first thing you notice as you enter Maputo is the hot and humid weather with occasional rainfall that makes the streets a nightmare to walk on. The filth in that city is beyond words to explain; drains burst in every corner and the streets get so flooded that the people have to fold pants and take off their shoes to cross a street just to go buy a loaf of bread. In every waste receptacle we pass across on the street, it’s common to spot a person emerging from the overflowing trash looking as though their last bath was over a year ago. The strong stench from the heavy trash that overflows onto the road seems less of a concern to them as they always emerge with a piece of cloth to wear or somewhat a spoilt fruit to munch.
The children happily swim in trench water that leaves me shivering a bit thinking of bilharzias and malaria that could attack these little fragile bodies. The buildings that accommodate the over two million people of this city look so dilapidated they could collapse any minute. These struggles I learnt are attributed to the nation trying to reconstruct itself and its infrastructure after the civil war in the 1980s. As the war subsided and the colonial settlers departed, the city that was once the tourist hub of the country was left with serious struggles. People here speak only Portuguese and getting around becomes a challenge as we ask for directions in English that we try to mix with basic sign language and this yields us very minimal help if any at all. Our first day in town we ask a couple of people on the streets, where a supermarket is as we need to refill our groceries. A group of three security guards sitting in front of one government building seemed the safest to ask for directions. “Where is a supermarket? Spar, Shoprite?” we try simplified English. One guard answered in Portuguese before the other said “straight,” giving us hope that he understood English. We want to have an idea of the distance and ask, “Is it far, do we need taxi?” he responds, “Yeah far,” we say, can we walk there, is it close by, he responds, “Yeah, close.’ Now it gets more confusing as he says “straight” but his hand signals a turn to the left. “We walk straight from here?” he replies, “straight” or are you saying we turn left? He says, “Yeah left.” The next day on the minibus full of tourists to Tofo, eight hours drive from Maputo we were packed like potatoes in a sack. A seat that takes four people is made to take six and this seems to be the only bus for the day and no one wants to be stuck in Maputo while fun goes on in Tofo. Just a few kilometres after leaving Maputo, the bus stops to pick more people much to my displeasure.
Three kids looking below seven years all jump in, the youngest must have been two years old. The bus conductor throws the baby on one Swedish woman’s lap. I had thought he would plead with the woman to carry the child, but it appears things don’t work like that here. The Swedish tourist appears shocked at first but eventually embraces the baby all through the eight-hour drive. As the other European tourists giggled behind her, taking quick glances at the child and the bus conductor who sat on a 20litre paint bucket, I said in my heart, “Welcome to Africa!” We finally arrive in the tourist district of Inhambane, the Tofo beaches which display so much contrast from the capital city. This town seems to be well cared after, the beach area is clean, people here drink and throw empty bottles and paper in dustbins not on the ground. There is high spirit of entrepreneurship here. Children as young as seven years old go to the beach during school holidays to sell nuts, fabrics, jewellery and fish.
Despite the hardship evident throughout the country, the people have independent mindsets when it comes to survival. I have never met a single person begging on the streets or asking for some kind of donation as I have seen it happen in Botswana and South Africa. Mozambicans appear to have strong survival skills entrenched in them that the entire time I was there I did not hear anyone complain about government not doing this or that for them, although it appeared to me the government is doing very little if anything for the people. Drainage systems are the worse visible challenge especially during rainy season.
In Tofo I meet Alberto he speaks relatively good English as he says he is taking English class in high school. The 16 year-old boy tells me that he has just completed building himself a room with ‘proper bricks and a nice door.’ He makes bracelets by the beach side and uses the money for groceries and to complete his own house so that he can move from the crowded family shack. He offers to teach me the skill of making bracelets for a fee and suggests I start the same business at home. Amazing young mind! Prior to meeting Alberto I had met a street vendor who impressed me with a full English sentence. He sold us airtime and I noticed he was reading English for Beginners book. I asked to peruse through the book as he continued with other customers. The book, as he said was his gateway to life. He saved enough to buy it.
He sold sweets and airtime to pay for an English class and in between attending to his customers he sits silently struggling to read and pronounce the English words. But he is adamant that when he finally gets to write English words he would save more and go to college. I imagine the government scholarships I enjoyed with the monthly allowance and he was shocked to learn that in Botswana you “get paid to go to school” as he put it.