Exploring Moussa's Isle

Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique

Local fishermen on Ilha de Moçambique, with the Portuguese fort in the background
Some time before dawn I gave up on sleeping, packed and hurriedly fled my hotel, grabbing a coffee at a local cafe before walking to see Nampula's large cathedral as the city slowly awoke. With a local boy's help, I found the minibus station and, leaving the others behind for the time being, boarded one of the deathtraps en route to Monapo.

Meant to seat at most 12, soon the minibus was loaded with more than 23 people (plus their baggage) by my most conservative estimate. On our way out of Nampula, our driver presented the appropriate papers at several police roadblocks along the route, the 50 meticais note which he tucked into the documents no doubt smoothing our passage each time. We drove toward the coast and its famous off-shore island, the Ilha de Moçambique, which had been my ultimate destination during the last week's travels through the country's rugged north.

I switched vehicles in Monapo, a town right in the midst of the wide, marshy coastal plain decorated only by occasional coconut palms. Two hours later, the shrunken old man driving the pickup truck squinted through his coke-bottle glasses at the narrow roadway, peering over the dashboard full of cabbages, cassava roots, and corn. His eyes straining, he steered a wobbly course across the long one-lane bridge that connects the Ilha de Moçambique to the mainland.

The island's name, chosen by the early Portuguese navigators, is believed to be their adaptation of the name of the local Arab ruler, Moussa ben Mbeki, at the time of their arrival in the late 15th century. When the island became the East African seat of Portugal's global trading empire, the name was given to the surrounding region, and remains so today.

Two and a half kilometers long and never more than half a kilometer wide, Ilha is easy to scout out on foot. So after arriving in the early afternoon, I immediately set off to explore. The island, though densely populated, still contains numerous public spaces—leafy parks and wide avenues along the beach give the place a breezy sense of openness. Ilha is marked by carefully managed urban planning, still very uncharacteristic for the region, even though Mozambique's cities tend to be less chaotic than some of Tanzania's or other neighbors'. Its neat appearance and other elements which add to the island's charm exist largely thanks to UNESCO, which designated the island as a World Heritage Site in 1991. The beautiful mix of Portuguese colonial and Swahili styles evident in the island's architecture have thus been successfully preserved.

Although tourism continues to shape the island, many residents clearly still rely on the traditional means of income—fishing. The local children's constant hounding of any tourist in sight, however, makes one wonder if that simple lifestyle—or the island's tourism potential for that matter—will last even one more generation.

Before sundown, I watched the fishermen return to the beach with the day's catch. The Dutch and British pairs arrived that evening, and I ran into them as I walked back to my hostel along a small street in the old Stone Town. That night at Relíquais, a restaurant along the ocean, we all gorged ourselves on delicious seafood, having been inland for far too long.

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