Discovering Mozambique

After flying into Douala’s dark, and dank 25 year old airport too many times, I was happily surprised when we landed in Maputo, disembarking into a brand new sun lite modern building. Unlike Cameroon, there were no soldiers with guns or chaos at baggage as street boys grabbed luggage, promising for a fee to get you through customs and into their friend’s taxi. For me to be allowed into Cameroon , I had to have a letter of invitation , fill out a two page visa application, enclose two photos, send a money order for $145 for a three month visa and wait several weeks until it was returned to me in Seattle. This is definitely not a tourist destination.

Arriving in Maputo, within minutes we were through passport control, picked up our bags without being hassled and waited ten minutes in an actual line to get our entry visa. I had heard that the southern beaches in Mozambique had become a popular tourist destination especially for South Africans.  This explained the shiny new airport and visa available on arrival. I was so used to cabs with broken windshields, torn seats and windows that were permanently open or closed, it came as another refreshing surprise when I got in a taxi that was clean with moving parts. The driver was a large, well dressed guy who looked like an ex football player. Between his broken English and my attempt at Portuguese we had a reasonably conversation. As we left the airport, I noticed shanty towns hidden by trees off the main road. Entering Maputo, the Soviet style buildings in a tropical climate reminded me so much of Havana, almost as if I the two cities were interchangeable. Another similarity between Mozambique and Cuba was one had been colonized by the Portuguese and the other by the Spanish.

The place I was staying had originally been a private home, built by the Portuguese with typical Mediterranean style architecture. It had been converted into a guesthouse with 5 comfortable rooms, each with a private bath.. The price I was quoted was $65 with breakfast but I assumed this would be converted into Metical, the local currency. When I was ready to pay after a 3 day stay and pulled out the local currency, the exchange rate the hotel used to convert the quoted price was 15% higher than the bank rate. A penalty for paying with the local currency could only mean that the owner, an arrogant almost militant well dressed woman, was sending her money out of the country to foreign banks and wanted hard currency. I found out later that this was a very common practice in Mozambique.

The largest city in the country, Maputo was the capital and the main residence for most expats and NGO workers. Like most African cities, Maputo’s streets were filled with large SUVs, owned by the various world aid organizations. Rarely do foreigners walk on the city streets, instead they drive to a destination, and park as close as they can get to where they are going, like in front of the door. I walk the broken, crowded city streets, dodging everything moving and staring at my feet so I don’t fall down a hole.

Each time I am in Africa I keep wondering why there is so much poverty, sickness and misery with so many foreign NGOs trying to save the Africans. The simple answer is that an unknown percentage of donations of many of these non profits are used to pay the salaries, travel expenses and housing for their staff and then depending on who is supervising projects there is always the possibility of mismanagement of funds. One evening in Maputo toward the end of my trip, I passed two young foreigners on the street, and asked for the name of a good restaurant so I could chat them up. Both in their mid twenties, the guy worked for the *Aga Kahn foundation and the girl worked for * Plan International. Casually I asked if they were volunteering or salaried. Both salaried, the young guy told me without hesitation that his earned somewhere in the low 50’s, that’s $50,000 plus an $800 a month for his rent. What exactly were you doing for such a generous salary I asked. His answer was vague, working in education and health care but nothing specific. They had to rush off to a dinner engagement after giving me a few recommendations for dining.

I have never been very excited about dining out alone. Pretending to read a book and trying to eat at the same time is not very rewarding. It’s even worse in a crowded restaurant on your own. I always feel as if I have failed some popularity test and everyone is thinking ..poor girl… So I picked an empty Thai restaurant and ordered my favorite dish, phud thai. I was curious about salaries in these expensive places so I asked my young waiter how many hours he worked, his salary and if there were tips. Be aware that a plate of phud thai was $12 and that was the cheapest entrée on the menu. When he confided that he worked 40 hours a week and earned $75 a month and most of the time the owner, an Asian, kept the tips, I was furious. “Why don’t you demand a raise” I asked. His reply was the same I heard all over the third world. “ If I complain he will fire me.. there are hundreds of others who will take my job”. He brought me my phud thai and when I looked down at the plate I saw a bunch of noodles and scrambled eggs.  As I went to pay I suggested if they were going to charge $12 (350 metical) for phud thai they should learn how to make it . I took the left overs and gave them to a poor old man in the street . I am sure he had never tasted Thai food in his life.

*Aga Kahn foundation…… concentrates on selected issues in health, education, rural development, the environment and the strengthening of civil society.

*Plan International ….A children’s organisation working with communities in 48 developing countries to alleviate child poverty

there is an HIV rate of 30% and growing as well as a GDP the equivalent of $440 .. there is a developing market for highend tourism as high as $2000 a night.

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