Monday, August 31, 2009
Monsoon winds have been blowing traders from India to Ilha de Moçambique (Island of Mozambique) since the 10th century. In the early 1500s Vasco de Gama arrived in Ilha and built a Portuguese fort out of blocks of the coral reef surrounding the island, claiming the territory for his nation.
After nearly 500 years of Portuguese rule, Mozambique gained its independence in 1975. The fort was used as a military barracks during Mozambique’s bloody civil war and later as a school. As the population on Ilha surged during the civil war, the fort fell into disrepair. Poverty-stricken Ilha residents searching for firewood found the window casings and wooden support beams of the fortress to be a cheap source of fuel. While wandering the streets of Ilha this August, we came upon a man using an axe to chip away at a large beam that clearly had come from the fortress. He reminded me that when people are hungry today, they can’t worry about preserving cultural treasures for tomorrow.
Like its fort, Ilha itself is truly a unique place to visit. Although Ilha is less than three kilometers long, it has a population of over 14,000 people. Natural beauty and incomprehensible squalor coexist side-by-side on this tiny island.
Most of the population on the island live in shanties made of sticks, straw, and the occasional piece of corrugated iron. While water is now piped onto the island, it is not sufficient to provide sanitation facilities to the island’s residents. Cholera outbreaks are common, while the beautiful beaches are used as bathrooms.
Although the sanitation problem in the reed town prevents the island from being an ideal beach resort, there are many other reasons for exploring Ilha. At night the streets are pitch black, making star gazing from the middle of the road a fabulous experience (don't worry – there are very few cars on Ilha). Small museums offer a glimpse into the island’s colorful past. For example, the governor’s palace is furnished with beautiful carved furniture from Goa, India. Moreover, the natural beauty of the area is breathtaking. The teal and blues of the water are calm and inviting. You can hire a local boat to take you on a day of sailing around the coral reefs.
Despite the island’s poverty, there are several very comfortable guest houses and small hotels that have reasonable rates. You will find they are equipped with modern conveniences like hot water and comfortable beds equipped with mosquito nets.
Ilha’s many restaurants offer an interesting fusion of cuisine. Traditional Matapa (the green leaves of a staple tuber cooked with local cashew nuts), curries, fresh seafood, and Portuguese style dishes predominate. Pizza and French-inspired foods can be found as well,and fresh fruit is plentiful.
If you are looking to contribute to the local economy by shopping, there are a few shops which sell unique handmade crafts and jewelry. Most markets are set up for locals and with creativity can be a great source of gifts. The morning market by the water is bustling with people selling vegetables, freshly harvested sea salt, palm frond brooms, fabric, and—if you need something to store all these items in—plastic containers from China. There are also shops where you can buy African print clothing: men’s lounge pants and long sleeve shirts as well as women’s “skorts” and dresses.
While discovering Ilha, I learned that the government, realizing that the fort was an important part of Mozambique’s history, turned to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for help. In partnership with other United Nations organizations, UNESCO has been working with local authorities and contractors to restore the fort to its former state. This has been no small task - over the years, attempts to patch up problems resulted in faulty repairs that resulted in chunks of concrete breaking off of walls and ceilings. To ensure that local contractors are taught proper preservation techniques for this unique structure, UNESCO works almost exclusively with local contractors. UNESCO is also partnering with the United Nations Development program to ensure that preservation contributes to poverty reduction. Thus, the fort will not only be a tourist attraction, but will also be a venue for community gatherings as well as a source of clean drinking water for Ilha residents, thanks to the rehabilitation of the fort’s original 16th century rain water collection system.
An island rich in culture and history, Ilha de Mozambique is a truly unique place; a place of pizza and curries, vibrant markets and soiled beaches, medieval architecture and shanty towns. For those that enjoy diversity and getting off the beaten path, Ilha is fabulous place to find yourself.