Homecoming – Exploring Slavery and My Heritage in Maputo, Mozambique

I squinted as I looked up into the bright blue sky. The solar system’s only star illuminated the entire city of Maputo this warm winter’s day. A gentle breeze blew in the wind; a bird, large and black, hovered around 100 feet up above us, seemingly staring at me.

Calisto pointed to the tremendous Catholic Cathedral in front of us before speaking. It sat on top of a small hill overlooking one of the main streets of Maputo, named R. da Radio. Just beyond it was a statue I’d seen before on YouTube – that of Samora Machel, the founder of modern Mozambique.

This is the “Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception,” he said. “It was finished in 1944, built for the Catholic Church. Are you Catholic?”

I looked at him, a little confused. “No.” I didn’t know if saying yes would’ve led to a sermon from him, or his disappointment if I went into it and told him I was Agnostic.

But he continued, pointing his slender arm up and down the length of the bright white building. “So this Cathedral took almost 10 years to build. It was designed by a director of our railways, Marcial Simões de Freitas e Costa. He designed it for free. It was built for free, too.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked at me. “It was built on forced labor.”

I was shocked. “Forced labor?! You mean, like prisoners?”

“No. I mean the people were forced to build it, on threat of punishment.”

“You mean…like slavery?!”

“Yes….like that, yes.”

I started tearing up. He added, “And after the Africans were finished, they were kicked out and not allowed even to go in there. The Cathedral back then was built for the white Portuguese only.”

I got worse. Tears started to spill out of my eyes, welling up at the base of my lenses. I’m glad I had sunglasses on! I felt slightly embarrassed. Calisto didn’t give my reaction a second glance. Maybe he couldn’t see my eyes. Or had he seen this before? But I never expected to feel like this. Why hadn’t I? I just didn’t get it.

I had arrived in Maputo, Mozambique just a few days before to visit my old friend Cathy. She had been living in Mozambique for almost ten years, and she had been in Africa even longer. Originally from my hometown of New York, we were co-workers once at an outdoor store and became fast friends. Her love affair with the continent started in the late 90s when she went backpacking through it by herself for several months. After she came back, she wanted to make a life for herself there. And she did. By now she had a husband from Europe and two small children and was involved in NGO work there. We had always stayed in contact over the years and I always wanted to visit her but just never got the time – nor the courage.

Africa seemed like a daunting prospect.

Up until that point I’d bounced around. Australia, the South Pacific, Scandinavia, Europe, etc. I started backpacking as soon as I left the Army and I just didn’t stop. My travels eventually led me to settle down in Australia, where I’ve been for over ten years now. But Africa? The continent where one of my favorite books of all time, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is based? When I thought of Africa, I remembered the song “We Are The World” …the famine in Ethiopia, disease, riots, America’s involvement in Somalia, Apartheid systems in the colonies, the raping and pillaging of natural resources…and of course, slavery.

 

Had I been brainwashed?! Why the HELL was I so afraid to visit this place?!

 

When I told my mom over the phone that I was going to East Africa, she groaned like she’d just relieved herself and said, “Well…just be careful.” When I told my dad, a stoic man who at one time was full into the Black Power movements of the early 70s, he gave me a hesitant, “Hmm….so, you be careful out there, son.” What? My dad had NEVER said such things to me on ANY of my travels.

Why was he nervous? Why was I?

Without really thinking about it, I knew why. It was because of all the negativity that Africa gets in the Western media.

 

All the chaotic, messy unchecked crime. The corruption, disease, and victimization. I remember watching infomercials as an adolescent in America. I’d always see the pleading eyes of African babies, begging for help. Flies crawling on them, their mothers in agony pleading silently for someone staring at that screen to dial the 1-800 number and donate a Dollar to help feed them. These starving children ate what looked like oatmeal which dribbled out of their mouths, while sad music played in the background. A deep, gravelly voiced forgotten D-list actor spoke over the music directing us to do humanity a favor and help.

 

And I would be frustrated because I just wanted the commercial to end so I could get back to watching my monster movies while stuffing my face full of Twinkies. I never gave it a second thought.

How could I be so indifferent to human suffering?

Cathy had walking tours lined up for me to take when I arrived, and Maputo A Pe was the best the city had to offer. It was awesome. Several different tours, all explaining the rich history and culture of not only Maputo, but Mozambique itself. This particular one was the “Top Ten” sights of Maputo, with the Cathedral being one of them. I was excited about doing the tour, but utterly clueless as to how emotional I’d be.

 

So here I was. In Africa for the first time, the only one in my immediate and extended family standing on the soil where my ancestors came from – in chains mind you, and from the other side of the Continent (West Africa).

It’s uncanny; I felt connected to the continent the minute I landed, like I had never left.

The cacophony of noise didn’t bother me, the gritty urban sprawl of Maputo didn’t bother me – and the people? They looked just like me too! I could walk down the streets of Maputo and no one gave me a second glance. That is, until I opened my mouth – I didn’t speak any Portuguese. But I just didn’t feel out of place here at all.

 

Photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash

 

And I didn’t have to worry about someone feeling uneasy around me either. Like when I became consciously aware that American society considered me a threat due to my youth and race.

Nor being stopped and absolutely humiliated by police like what happened to me in 1999. That’s when 7 officers in 5 cars swooped in on me and a friend one evening walking home from a bar on the Upper West Side. And despite my pleading with them that I was a military veteran, despite telling them thatI knew they were doing their jobs but the rationale behind this was wrong… they continued on, laughing at us standing there while they overturned our bags on the ground, “looking for weapons.”

 

The leader of the squad got his jollies abusing me with things like (verbatim): “Now who do we have here… African American, blue jeans, white shirt – WE GOT HIM, THIS is the guy!!”

 

And another whispering in my ear, “You are going to be in big trouble.”

 

And another yelling at the top of her lungs in my friend’s face, “I don’t give a F*CK about you being in the military!!” I wondered if that last comment would happen in the post 9/11 era. I doubt it. I have dozens of other incidents over my lifetime whose foundations were based solely on pure ignorance and stupidity.

These things truly affected me, like the millions of other people of color that speak about it day in and day out in America.

None of it was funny, and it was all hurtful to experience. It’s like a stain that never washes away. A tattoo that never fades. It all stays there, indelible, never forgotten, and always in the background following your every step. You become sensitive to it and when others tell you to “get over it,” you are offended because you actually know how lucky they are never to have heard such comments, nor faced such humiliation.

 

So I was silently crying while Calisto brought me into the Cathedral. I was looking at the place – built of cement, painted white, triptychs on the walls and beautiful stained glass windows all around.

This was supposed to represent a place of peace and tolerance, but it was built on intolerance. How ironic was that?

“You see this painting here,” he pointed at a tryptic on the wall. “So when the Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama first came to what’s now known as Mozambique, he saw that the people here had a well-developed society but weren’t that “religious” in the Western sense. So what he and the Church did was try to convert them to Catholicism. Some actually did convert at that time, but most didn’t.”

 

He looked at me. “Do you know who the first real traders in Mozambique were?”

 

I shrugged my shoulders. “I dunno. Africans?”

 

“North Africans,” he said. “The Africans were also mining here too and had been trading with North African traders. Diamonds, jewels, and other goods. When the Portuguese saw THAT, they eventually forced their way in and took the mines from them.”

 

“You mean by going to war?”

 

“Yes. The Portuguese enslaved the population with the help of some smaller tribes who wanted wealth. Many Africans were forced to work in the mines. And they were especially mad at the Church because they were considered less than human and allowed horrible atrocities to occur. For example, if the slaves didn’t work hard enough to meet their quotas, they were mutilated.” The tears started flowing even harder. “Examples were made of them by the Portuguese. Some were whipped on posts while everyone else was forced to watch, too.”

 

I was completely oblivious to this part of the world’s history. I was trying not to sob as it was all catching me off guard!

 

He continued, “A majority of people were tired of this. So the tribes began to single out priests and kill them.”

 

That’s what I was looking at in this tryptic. The first image was of a noble-looking priest arriving on the shores what was then called Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). The far right image was of this priest converting a small group of Africans to Catholicism. And the middle image? It was of a horrified priest getting choked to death by an African. My tears were replaced by anger. I began to seethe.

 

This walking tour was the most emotional I’d ever been on. Calisto went onto explain that although slavery has existed since the dawn of time, and in some cases was used as a form of economic trade all over the world – the Western Europeans turned it into a huge, churning industry that steamrolled its way through this part of East Africa. Portugal became the biggest slave trading country in the world. Almost 6 MILLION slaves were exported to what is now known as Brazil over the course of 100+ years. I was gobsmacked. I had NO clue.

 

Photo by Martin Bekerman on UnsplashPhoto by Martin Bekerman on Unsplash

 

The Portuguese teamed up with The British to exploit their mines too. Railways were constructed to help move the natural resources between both countries of Mozambique and South Africa. Physical walls were built to keep Africans out of Maputo who didn’t comply to their wishes. And to destroy the fabric of the African societies, a similar system of South Africa’s Apartheid appeared. This system stymied any type of advancement an African could do, especially in education, turning them into a cheap labor force.

 

It continued in various forms until the Portuguese were overthrown by the leader of modern Mozambique, Samora Machel, in 1975.

 

The Portuguese invested  the bare minimum in infrastructure as a whole over the course of their rule. So when they did leave, that combined with a missing educated population caused what little infrastructure available to implode. It’s the reason why there are old, uncompleted buildings in Maputo. These buildings look like monolithic fossils from a bygone era. Though they left some 40 years ago, the recovery has been slow but steady. Maputo is recovering with an ebb and flow that is purely African, and from what Calisto said, it may one day encompass all of Mozambique.

We moved on to City Hall.

It too was designed by the Portuguese, built on forced labor, and is now used by the Mozambique government. It was built in the Neoclassical style and designed by a Brazilian/Portuguese architect named Carlos Cesar dos Santos. It was finished in 1947. The interior on the ground floor housed a few large fiberglass dioramas. One was of the town of Lourenço Marques when the Portuguese ruled and slavery was their King.

 

“You see the wall?” Calisto said. He was pointing to a wall within the diorama which encircled the town. “No one was allowed inside the town. The Africans were kept out. See that small house?” He was pointing to a smallish house approximately a few miles from the town. He explained that a white Portuguese woman who lived there became an activist for the Africans that were being exploited. She was so sickened by their treatment that she went to live with them and they protected her. He also brought me to another diorama which showed a portion of the railway system of Lourenço Marques in the 19th Century. It had a combination of freight trains and passenger trains within it carrying what looked like minerals, coal and white people.

 

My tears were drying. Calisto took me to see the Statue of Samora Machel – the founder of modern Mozambique. We crossed the busy roundabout approaching his statue as anyone else would in Africa – by just walking into the oncoming traffic! A completely insane idea for a Westerner like me, but when in Rome. I followed his lead, and the cars and scooters slid deftly around us. I never even felt the swish of air as the vehicles drove past!

“So this is our hero,” he said as we stood in front of the towering statue. “Samora Machel.”

“He was Mozambique’s first President in 1975, who mysteriously died in a plane crash in 1986. His statue replaced the European one that once sat here. That was of a Calvary officer named Joaquim Augusto Mouzinho de Albuquerque, the man who captured the last rebelling King in Mozambique, Gungunhana.”

 

I’d never heard of either man. Calisto quickly explained that Gungunhana was the face of the resistance to the European occupation of Mozambique and he was a constant thorn in their side. The cavalry officer that caught him apparently did it without firing a shot. It was a big deal when he was finally captured, and Portugal erected a statue in his honor right at this very spot. “So what happened when he was captured?”

 

“Gungunhana and several of his wives were banished to Portugal, where he eventually died. When Samora Machel’s statue was donated by North Korea – “

 

“NORTH KOREA?!” I laughed. That sounded outrageous!

 

Calisto smirked. “Yes, North Korea. In 2011 it replaced that one of the man I just mentioned and it went to the ruins of a fortress not too far away. We’ll go there in a little while. When he became the first African leader of Mozambique, Machel asked for the remains of Gungunhana back from Portugal and they complied. We’ll see his remains at the end of the tour as well.”

 

As I thought more about North Korea donating the statue, it all made sense.

Somewhat familiar with the modern military history of Africa, I knew that much of the continent was caught up in the proxy wars fought by the United States and The Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s. Machel belonged to FRELIMO, The Mozambique Liberation Front.

 

When FRELIMO first approached the United States for aid to fight Portugal, they were immediately rejected. So they turned towards the Soviet Union and their allies for help – and they were happy to comply.

 

FRELIMO, unfortunately, had to embrace Communism to get the help and they did – until years after independence when a free economy was adopted. But the aid continued well after the end of the civil war and into the second one, where FRELIMO fought with RENAMO, The Mozambiquan National Resistance for control of the country. That civil war ended in the early 1990s. And in modern Maputo, there are streets named after Mao Tse Tung and even Kim Jong Il too!

 

Chinese investment is everywhere. So much so that the skyline of Maputo is changing because of the massive Maputo – Catembe suspension bridge. It’s taking over the skyline connecting Maputo to Catembe, a town on the border of South Africa.

The Iron House

Afterwards, Calisto took me to a grayish building which was made out of stamped metal. “This is the Casa Del Ferro,” he said. “Or, as the English would say, The Iron House. It housed the Governor General when Portugal was in control of us.”

 

Created by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower, the building was constructed entirely of the metal back in the late 19th Century. Oddly enough, no one seemed to think that a structure such as this would absolutely incinerate whoever was living in it during an East African summer. In no time this was found out and the Governor General vacated!

 

This emotional, delightful tour went on for a few hours. There was a lot to see – and taste. Calisto showed me Maputo’s very busy Central Market, built back in 1900. It’s where the local population bought fresh produce. There I tried something called Ata – a fruit originally from South America, but popularly found all over the world. In Australia, it’s called Custard Apple, and it tastes just like a Mars bar.

 

Fruits, fish, and meat were all on display there, the emulsion of pungent aromas filling my nostrils. People haggled back and forth for all kinds of items, and I immersed myself quietly listening, winking at a few people that smiled at me.

 

The tour continued through the Red Light District of Maputo and on to its Central Railway Station.

 

It had seen better days, but the architecture of the station harked back to the colonial days where the Europeans eager to be reminded of home, constructed buildings in the Neoclassical Beaux Arts style. The railway station is Heritage Listed and commuters used it daily. It was quiet inside when we were there as it was midday. And there was even a trendy bar within it frequented by Western expats who live in Maputo, but it was closed for renovations.

 

Outside was a major bus station hub. Well, it was a hub of sorts and definitely not quiet! The only reason why I knew it was a hub was because of all the beat up buses jamming their way into the narrow roundabout with throngs of people trying to hail them. People spilled out of the buses that stopped, while others patiently waited to jump on. Businessmen and other civilians all mixed together bunching around the coaches in massive clusters of humanity while Calisto and I threaded our way through everyone.

 

I was fascinated by the scene. When the buses pulled away they were absolutely overcrowded, belching black smoke from their tailpipes, the people all quietly enduring it. Tut-tuts (small mopeds with enough space for 1 or two passengers) picked up those who couldn’t get on a bus. They would quickly stop and speed off, dodging and weaving through people and traffic at high speed to escape the chaos in front of the Station. I found it all quite exciting!

After several more sights, the final stop was yet another emotional place.

We worked our way through some schoolchildren listening to their teachers speak about Maputo Fort as we approached it. It was where Gungunhana’s remains were. The fort, built in the late 18th Century had decayed and was just a shell of what it used to be. But I could easily imagine what it looked like; bristling with cannons, standing tall, a huge brown bricked monolith watching over Maputo Bay protecting what the Portuguese believed was their God-given right to have.

But what I believed was WRONG was inside.

A bronze relief of Gungunhana being captured by the Portuguese sat prominently on one of the walls. Combined with the removed statue of Mr. Albuquerque standing not far from it, these were displayed in Maputo to remind the people of Mozambique who was in charge.

 

The relief was massive, a few meters in diameter in width and height. It must’ve weighed tons. Examining the facial features of the characters in it, Gungunhana was easy to spot; a built man wearing a thin round crown, his eyes sullen and his face in an ever so slight frown, conceding defeat. Behind him were a few of his wives, distressed yet following him. Meanwhile the Portuguese in the relief are in their military garb, thick mustaches, and sun hats, holding weapons. They’re all staring at him intently, egging him on to follow.

 

I began to seethe again… and then I got sad.

My mind did cartwheels while the children came into the fort, their laughter surrounding me. Tsunamis of thoughts collided into my conscious mind, overflowing and flooding it with emotions that just wouldn’t drain. I questioned, right there under that bright Mozambique sun in the middle of this modern African city, who exactly am I?

I am American. But I come from an exploited people. An exploited continent.

I thought about that word. And it reminded me of my own history in America. Though our African American heritage has never been forgotten, I wondered to myself why I was so distant from my heritage on this continent. Was it because of the passage of time? The distance between those that arrived in chains five generations ago before me? Or was I meant to not even think about this? A brainwashing of sorts by my Western upbringing, to forget who I was and where I originally came from? Perhaps.

 

I felt like I had rediscovered my own sense of self on this very walking tour. Weird. I never thought I’d feel like this. These things had never even crossed my mind!

Calisto led me to Gungunhana’s remains.

They sat in a small room off to one side of the fort. He pointed to a small brown wooden coffin. Gungunhana was a diminutive man. He must’ve stood around 5 feet. Around the coffin were carved images of life in Mozambique when he was King of the Gaza clan, which was the biggest in the area when the Portuguese initially arrived.

 

From what I’d been told Gungunhana himself was a conqueror. He conglomerated several different clans into his own and destroyed a few others who didn’t comply. But he met his match when the Europeans arrived. They had firearms and he had only spears. The Gaza couldn’t compete, and the Europeans beat back all the opposing clans with his being the very last. When he was vanquished, they finally had control of the entire country.

 

“Gungunhana had around 200 wives, can you believe that?” Calisto said.

 

“Must’ve been a popular man,” I added with a chuckle. “He must’ve had a lot of children. Are his descendants here in Maputo?”

 

“Yes, a few of them are.” He said. “They come around for important family gatherings here to pay their respects.”

 

Around the room were drawings and a few photos of life in Mozambique when Gungunhana was alive. I could only imagine how harsh life would’ve been for the native Africans under the suppression of the Europeans.

 

“I’m surprised the Portuguese just didn’t kill him outright. I would guess they captured him to kinda show him off to the population as a trophy of sorts?”

 

“Yes. Initially, Gungunhana was taken to Lisbon and held there. Eventually, he was moved to the island of Terceira in the Azores where he spent the rest of his days. When his remains arrived in Mozambique, he was given a huge State funeral.” I understood why completely now.

 

Calisto then announced that this was the end of the tour. I felt sad that it was over! I wanted more. At least I could get a hold of myself now and get steady before meeting Cathy for lunch!

 

“Calisto,” I said…

“Believe it or not this has been the best walking tour I’ve ever taken. Being of African descent, being here in Mozambique and hearing the struggles of your people genuinely touched me. I can absolutely identify with it. And I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it.”

He gave me a slight smile. Did he see me cry? If so he wasn’t telling.

 

“But hey,” I added, “have you met other African Americans who’ve taken your tour?”

 

“Yes, a few do come through,” he said, pausing before adding, “and their reactions are just like yours.”

 

Wow. So I wasn’t alone in this!

 

I said goodbye to Calisto and took a photo of us. I saw my pre-paid taxi parked in the nearby lot waiting for me. I gave him a quick dap and watched him walk off, being swallowed up by all the activity in the streets just outside of the fort.

 

As I walked to my ride, my mind swirled with thoughts.

The minute my feet touched African soil I felt as if I became part of it. From that point on it was like I had been absorbed by osmosis, connecting me to everything about this continent.

I tried to rationalize it with what other people say when they return to their own heritage’s homelands, sometimes generations removed.

Screw all the fear-mongering I’d read over the years in Western media. Yes, the continent has problems that colonialism brought upon it. But the African people STILL survive and thrive.

The emotions erupting from me were so overwhelming I teared up again just thinking about it. I NEVER expected any of this at all. How ignorant of me NOT to think this would happen – and during what I now say is the BEST walking tour I’ve ever taken out of all my travels, period!

 

As I flung open the door, my driver Paulo turned to me with a bright toothy smile on his face.

 

“Did you like the tour?” He said in broken English. “You enjoy it?”

 

“Yeah I did,” I replied.

 

“The power of this Continent is like a magnet to me,” I said. “I want to see it all now.”

 

Enjoy this 4 minute highlight reel of Maurice’s trip through Mozambique and South Africa: