Tuesday, December 10, 2013

INHACA, the Mozambican Fantasy Island

The tourists come to sunbathe, swim and snorkel midmorning, and, in the afternoon, dine and wine in the splendour of a 'fantasy’ hotel while the 'natives' spend the whole day eking a living out of fishing… and ferrying stranded visitors on their backs to the often submerged jetties

The aircraft finally taxied to a stop. As usual, the air hostesses formed a guard of honour and beamed artificial smiles as they bade everybody goodbye. Some of the passengers were in no mood, though, to return artificiality for artificiality. They hurriedly went down the gangway to land on a long stretch of macadamised platform that looked like a disused tarmac. In twos and threes, they plodded their weary legs to the terminal building and meandered their way to the kiosk that passed as arrival hall where stern-looking immigration officers and customs men and women were lying in wait. Welcome to Maputo International Airport, Mozambique.

For the itinerant journalists among the passengers, it was another opportunity to know more about Africa, their continent. One of them was particularly ecstatic. He had longed to visit the country since he missed a golden chance to do so in 1986 when he was a member of the media team that accompanied the then foreign affairs minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, on a whirlwind tour of the frontline states. The itinerary had included visits to Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and a stopover in the then Congo (Brazaville) on their way back home. Somehow, they managed to visit all the countries except Mozambique for what they later gathered to be security reasons. The country was engaged in a civil war and flying on the periphery of the South African airspace (then under the grip of the apartheid warlords) to reach Maputo could compromise the safety of the entire entourage. After failing to secure a safe passage to Mozambique, Lagos (then Nigeria’s seat of power) ordered a detour. A few months later, the Mozambican president, Samora Machel, was to die in a mysterious plane crash along the same route while on his way back to Maputo from a neighbouring country.

Today, apartheid is officially dead in South Africa. The civil war in Mozambique has ended. The Mozambican people are out of the trenches, salivating their freedom on the major avenida (avenues) of Maputo and the lanes in the ghettos. Tourists and mercantile opportunists are hovering around what remains of the poor country after the Portuguese settlers had run away with the capital and skills that could make the crippled nation stand upright again. While the market-driven economy is still being propped up by donor nations, the country, itself, is taking advantage of its tourism potential.

Mozambique, like some African countries on the fringes of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, is blessed with natural, beautiful beaches that spread over 2,515 kilometres on the Indian seaboard. The beaches, coupled with an array of magnificent mountains and ‘fantasy islands’, constitute a magnetic pull of sorts that draws tourists to the country with a force which Isaac Newton, the discoverer of the Law of Gravitation, may even find difficult to explain.

It is this unexplainable force that probably drew the Nigerian journalists invited to witness the 2006 CNN/Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Award ceremony in Maputo to undergo a sea trip to Inhaca, one of the much-advertised ‘fantasy islands’. The promo was too inviting to ignore: “(Tourists) depart from the Maputo Mariner or Catembe Jetty (tide dependent) at 0800 hours. On arrival at the island, you can visit the beach or swim and snorkel in the lagoon or enjoy a walk to the east side of the island to see the pelicans and flamingos…”

They all jumped at the offer, oblivious of the ominous warning that the “tour may be cut short due to weather conditions”. Even if they were aware, there was no stopping this bunch of crazy, adventurous, bubbling journalists. Would they have cared a hoot about the unfolding re-enactment of the age of discovery which their journey to Inhaca symbolised? The euphoria was too much and off they went to brave the waves to seek a new world which is just a mere dot on the mighty Indian Ocean! They wanted to see the legendary birds that feed on fishes and swallow snakes, the coral reefs that look like pre-Cambrian sedimentary rock formation on the beach, and the ever-changing coastline subject to the whims and caprices of the tidal currents that sometimes kiss the shoreline in a dazing, even idyllic, romance or, if in a foul mood, hold it in a ‘tsunamic’ death grip.

They saw hell!

Yes, hell they saw. Ocean waves hit their boat at speedy intervals with a force strong enough to torpedo their dreams but, like the early explorers who set sail to discover Africa and the new world, they persevered and pursued their once-in-a-lifetime chance to sail out of Africa to ‘discover’ their own ‘new world’. They saw the massiveness of God’s creative imagination in the ocean waters that spread endlessly to seemingly nowhere. The more they looked, the more they saw. Water, water everywhere but none to drink. These latter-day mariners were teased to no end. What a paradox! The salty ocean waters could not quench their thirsty minds. That was even the least of their worries. Marooned in the middle of ‘giant’ waves and predatory sharks cruising somewhere in the deeps, they began to understand the full meaning of life. It takes only the brave, the courageous and the daring to embark on kamikaze trips to conquer new heights. The history books and the famous Guinness Book of Records are full of examples of brave men and women who defied the deeps, the heights and even the force of gravity to rediscover the essence of man in the universe. Great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco da Gama, Mungo Park, David Livingstone, John and Richard Lander and a host of others once dared the consequences to expand the frontiers of their immediate environment by plunging into unknown waters and territories. They dared, like the modern-day scientists who have put men in space, on the moon, and now in a floating station thousands of kilometres away in outer space. The trend continues even on a personal level. For instance, a woman has sailed round the world in a solo effort. Multimillionaire Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines) has attempted to fly round the world in a hot air balloon. It is all in the quest “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” like Ulysses, Alfred Tennyson’s poetic character. For the advancement of learning, men of ideas will continue to experiment and raise the stakes for the rest of mankind.

The journalists, many of whom are admirers of late Tai Solarin, the renowned educationist and writer, took a cue from the old master and model who once said that if man had to be looking and looking all the time before leaping, many a man would remain transfixed while the rest of mankind would have leapt and conquered new territories. They damned the consequence by setting sail across the Indian Ocean in an open boat with rain coats as lifejackets! And, like the old explorers, they endured the turbulence of the waves to ‘discover’ an island where opulence and poverty compete for attention. The tourists come to sunbathe, swim and snorkel midmorning, and, in the afternoon, dine and wine in the splendour of a ‘fantasy’ hotel while the ‘natives’ spend the whole day eking a living out of fishing, selling coconuts and ferrying stranded visitors on their backs to the often submerged jetties.

The story of Inhaca is like the story of Africa, of which it is a part. For centuries, the continent remained unknown, unexplored and unexploited by the outside world. Then came the age of 'discovery', Vasco da Gama and company came calling and the continent’s destiny changed, culminating in the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884/1885 and the partitioning of the continent into British, French, German, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Mozambique, as a Portuguese colony, was fully exploited and drained to the dregs until 1975 when the ‘natives’, under the political aegis of FRELIMO, finally secured their flag independence after waging a guerilla war for 11 years.

But it is not easy to shake off 500 years of political, economic and, even, mental colonisation. The Portuguese hold on post-independence Mozambique is all-encompassing. Once listed as the world’s poorest country in terms of per capita income, Mozambique is a country whose economy is still being largely controlled by the Portuguese, the Arabs and, lately, the Asians who own most of the big companies and control the support services.

With the death of Marxism, the country has opened its doors to foreign investors, a euphemism for capitalists, though the avenues (avenida), lined with red acacias and lilac jacaranda, still bear telltale signs of the past experiment championed by the late Samora Machel. Most of them are named after Marxist-Socialist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere (of the Ujamaa socialism fame) and the father of the nation himself, Machel. The usual Marxist slogan — “The Fatherland or Death” — is no longer etched on public walls and billboards. What remain standing are the statues and mosaic murals of the much adored Machel.

Today, reality has crept in through liberalisation of the economy, thereby “opening sesame” for international wheelers and dealers. And once again, the brave, daring but, of course, rapacious entrepreneurs who had once fled to safety in Portugal and South Africa during the war of liberation are back to “strive, seek and find” new opportunities in Mozambique. For latter-day adventurers like these entrepreneurs and the never-say-die journalists who braved the odds to seek new frontiers, Inhaca Island will always remain a metaphor for courage.

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