Mozambique’s capital is emerging as a cosmopolitan destination of choice in Africa. It has rejuvenated itself with a strengthening economy, infectious friendliness, delicious food – and by design. Frequent visitor Adam Levin hangs out with some of Maputo’
When I first began visiting Maputo in the mid-90s, it was a remote and elusive place with a slight sci-fi feel to it. The skeletal apartment blocks left unfinished after the Portuguese colonists’ hurried exodus in 1973 still seemed haunted by the ghosts of a gruelling civil war.
At night, the strobe-like flicker of constant power outages did little to faze the lively bustle of pedestrians promenading along the broad avenues named for Mao Zedong and Karl Marx. I remember the Art Deco apartment blocks, peeling pastel in the humid air, as though shipwrecked along the potholed pavements. Time-warped yet resilient, Maputo seemed many worlds away from Johannesburg.
The Maputo I returned from last week is, if anything, a shimmer of its former shadow. Socialism has segued quickly into visible prosperity and long-awaited consumerism, with property prices soaring as high as the coconut palms.
I have visited frequently over the past two decades, escaping at whim to its summery winters, warm creative subculture and rich sourcing ground for the kind of handcrafted objets d’art I trade in.
Perhaps I mislead you. Perhaps the mountains of garlic-drizzled camaraoes (shrimp) in peri-peri sauce washed down with a frosted bottle of Dos Equis with lime has equal allure.
This place still seems worlds away from Johannesburg and yet strangely reminiscent of a balmy Mediterranean afternoon or a busy morning in Sao Paulo. And yet, this giant cultural leap is merely a 45-minute flight (with no visa formalities), or if you’re a bargain hound like myself, a comfortable R250 overnight bus ride from Jozi.
I have nurtured some special friendships among Maputo’s infectiously friendly creative set. It is, after all, a city where people gesture in the traffic that they’ll phone you later (and later may well be midnight). For a decade, change seemed slow and tedious in Mozambique, but in the past few years, that pace has accelerated most buoyantly.
Two years ago, I was sitting at a pavement café near the legendary Polana Serena Hotel with my good friend Louiggi Luciano Junior on a rare break from his busy shooting schedule, sourcing wardrobe for the country’s unlikely but growing indie film industry. Midway through a mouthful of heavenly Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese custard tarts), I realised that Maputo had turned a corner.
“It’s all happening here man!” Louiggi exclaimed– or more accurately, sang. “We have found natural gas and oil in the north, and with new places opening every day, everyone wants a piece of Maputo, but us Mozambicans, we ain’t going nowhere.” He slapped me a high-five.
Five. You could get five meticais for a rand the year before, but so quickly it was down to three. Indeed in 2012, the Mozambican currency was the world’s best-performing against the US dollar, economic growth was at 13% and memories of war were making way for a sense of optimistic pragmatism. The sound of jackhammers and the swinging of cranes were waking the city from decades of frightened paralysis.
Ironically, its former conquistadores were enjoying a less abundant season back in Europe and 400 000 Mozambican work visas were issued to foreign job hunters in 2013.
South African chain stores cropped up on the periphery, although Woolworths didn’t meet expectations and the aisles set aside for prepared meals have been invaded by chunks of Chorizo, Bachalao and imported soft drinks. Wherever you go, Maputo feels increasingly up to date and cosmopolitan.
You will find many of these travellers eating salmon lasagna at my friend Mirella Irsce’s ristorante at the French Cultural Centre, the city’s unofficial information hub. Twenty years ago, Mirella moved from Milano to Maputo and into a modernist apartment perched 13 floors above the Polana and the breath taking bay. She came because it was the least likely place one would go and she stayed in spite of its reunion with the 21st century. Her love affair with Mozambique has endured.
Her new housemate, Bongiwe Dlamini, a Swazi performer with effortless grace, revives vanishing indigenous music and infuses Maputo’s nightlife with her lullabies. She came here two years ago with hopes of joining an African dub collective and was so enthusiastically received by the promoters that she’s still here.
“There is so much happening here,” she says. “There are these parties on the rooftop of an old theatre or at the Fortaleza [Maputo’s 17th Century fort]. There are also music, film and dance festivals providing collaborative opportunities.”
For a remote and relatively small city, the creative density and diversity here is remarkable.
Many young artists hang around the well-known Núcleo de Arte gallery, which initiated a career that has become one of Maputo’s most illustrious. Gonçalo Mabunda has shot up the world art ranks recently with his compelling masks, thrones, armoires and metal furniture forged from the massive surplus of still hazardous ammunition salvaged since the civil war ended.
The sculptures remind us how recent and how hideous the country’s 20-year civil war really was. Mabunda’s talents are truly an expressive, even whimsical, take on the macabre subject matter. It is probably what has recently made him a rising star on the international art circuit.
We visit Mabunda in his downtown studio, where a clutter of scavenged heavy metal is being rapidly reinvented into an array of baroque, colonial and curiously animated pieces that could be yours for between R10 000 and R500 000.
The body of random scrap that fills his yard tells a quintessentially Mozambican tale of heavy militarisation; pragmatism despite scarce resources; healing through creativity; and the forgettable and tacky trinkets of rapid globalisation.
Later we visit Astrid Sulger a Swiss designer in her Costa Do Sol workshop. She specialises in jewellery made from ani- mal horn. After living in Maputo for 20 years she was ready to close shop two years ago, but then experienced a sudden boom in business. The tide has turned.
While the city has not been spared ugly new malls, China marts and a casino, Maputo’s charismatic architecture, although largely unrestored, harbours colonial Art Deco and tropical modernist gems. The latter have a particular resonance in the Latin world: an embrace of modernity often absent in our urban landscapes. The fanciful forms of legendary local architect Pancho Guedes and murals (like those at Zambi Restaurant) as well as the particular dank aroma of precast concrete dreams are as magical here as in Brasilia or Barcelona.
Sadly, the vinyl and wood-panelled travel agencies I used to spot downtown in arch 60s and 70s splendour have been replaced by Flight Centre chic.
However, gradually, if one looks across a variety of disciplines, there is a new wave of strongly Latin design that is helping Maputo forge a new visual identity.
Pop into Rodizio for a traditional Brazilian Churrascaria (barbecue) and you could be in the Clube Privê of some 70s James Bond flick.
At times it is hard to tell the vintage from the brand new.
The charms of other archaisms are not lost in Maputo. To swim without membership, you would need to con the bowtied waiters of the Clube Navale, and white table cloths, no matter how worn, will still be laid traditionally for your seafood meal.
Piratas do Pau (Pirates of Wood) is an eager new collective that salvages timber from shipwrecks and upcycles it as furniture. The strong modernist shapes somehow seem appropriate to the city’s design vernacular. The collective also presented at Cape Town’s Design Indaba this year.
The Portuguese ship-building skills have produced generations of fine carpentry in Mozambique. For many years, I have been coming to buy wooden artefacts from Carlos Mont lane, who works with Aid to Artisans to create a series of vessels to stunning effect. The hand-lathed ebony vessels have funded Carlos’ trips to Spain and Portugal, where he has secured an impressive export market.
Mariana Clemente also exploits the local carpentry expertise, along with a rainbow of bold geometrically patterned cotton Capulanas, or local sarongs, to make a sexy range of wing-back chairs for her brand, Capudeira. Downtown, near the bustling central market, you can explore the shelves of the famed textiles store Casa Elefante.
The ambitious projects of renovation can not only be seen downtown, but across the scattered horizon of Maputo.
The recent R370 million upgrade to the Southern Sun Maputo, where we are staying, is the biggest hotel investment in Africa since the 2010 soccer World Cup.
Quality property prices, in both buying and renting, are exorbitant. Ever more restaurants open around the city, catering to the country’s new middle class, although some believe this speculative bubble will burst in a couple of years, bringing prices to more realistic levels.
For decades before the civil war, Lourenzo Marques, as Maputo was still known, was the ultimate weekend getaway for South Africans for its mix of sun, surf and sin. A weekend in Maputo today may be less illicit, but the great climate and variety of cultures and traditions to explore will leave you on a high. However, it is not just the exoticism so close to home that is refreshing; it is the sense of newness and optimism so tangible in a country that has, for the most part, healed its horrible war wounds and is discovering a whole new creative and economic possibility. Like Brazil in the 50s, Maputo is discovering a new rhythm, feeling its way to a magical brand-new beat, or better put, its Bossa Nova.
LIFE AND CULTURE A beach view of the newly renovated Southern Sun Maputo. INSETS: (left to right) The famous Roma
olic cathedral; Jeweller Astrid Sulger; singer Bongiwe Dlamini; sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda; a tasty Pastel de Nata