I had never tasted a mango until I met Armando Flor Mabutana. Well, certainly none quite as tasty as those we greedily devoured that hot December day.
The 72-year old mango king of Macaneta sat us sun-kissed travellers down on a couch of two boxes and a wooden plank. A bowl filled with the fleshy fruit quickly appeared before us. Yellow juices dribbled down our chins as Armando's mango supply went into steady decline. After the long dusty walk in the midday sun, we relaxed in the warm hospitality and took in the rural simplicity surrounding us.
Recent heavy rains had transformed the coastal lowland into a lush green oasis. Pear trees hung heavy with fruit. Pigs snuffled noisily in the dust at our feet. Scrawny chickens scavenged for mango skins. And Armando's many grandchildren cautiously advanced to examine the strange white visitors. 'So this is the real Mozambique, the Mozambique of old,' I thought to myself. A time long before the invasion of civil war and scuba tanks. A time when man lived off the land and the sea and worried about nothing. A time long gone. Except for Macaneta.
Armando is one of those peaceful simple souls. Apart from four years in the 40's when he worked as a painter in South Africa, all his life he has toiled and lived and loved on Ponta de Macaneta. 'I was born here, this is my home,' he said proudly, showing us the thatched huts he shares with his wife, three daughters and 12 grandchildren. 'I know everyone who lives here, I know everything about Macaneta.' Armando's toothy smile broadened into a grin as we admired his home-made catapult. 'This 'fesga' I made myself two years ago. I use it to shoot 'pomba' and 'rolla' which we cook on the fire. The big birds always taste good,' he beamed in his best broken English.
In October 1992, Mozambique's chequered past took a turn for the better with the declaration of a ceasefire that ended 17 years of bloody civil war. United Nations troops monitored the transition to democracy resulting in 1994's multiparty elections where Joaquim Alberto Chissano of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) was elected president. Since then, the country, once rated among the poorest nations in the world, has slowly begun to heal. Foreign investment has poured in and a five year financial programme has been instituted. The results being that inflation has plummeted from 70% in 1994 to its current level of just 5%.
Another bright light on the economic horizon is a potentially lucrative tourism industry. With a subtropical climate and 2470 kilometres of reef-fringed coastline, Mozambique has reestablished itself as a holiday haven for South African sunseekers and diving enthusiasts.
Mozambique is on the mend. But judging by the third world decay much evident in Maputo, one wouldn't think so. Apart from several modern-day landmarks, much of Mozambique's capital is taken up by high rise slums and run down buildings. A South American waiter at a well known seafood restaurant on Maputo's beachfront, told us of his experiences during the war years.
'They were terrible times for everyone living here. We were basically prisoners in Maputo because of all the killing going on in the countryside. A few hundred metres down the beachfront, a roadblock was permanently set up and no-one could drive further without authorization. We used to sit on the beach at night and, like fireworks, watch all the explosions and rockets light up the sky.'
It was 8.47am when we hit the back of the seven kilometre queue. We were going nowhere. Christmas weekend and it seemed like the whole of Mozambique was returning home for the festive season. Plus scores of South Africans, their diving goggles firmly fixed on Inhaca and other exotic scuba sites along the coast. The line of patient cars blocking the Komatipoort border told a vastly different story to the sorry civil war days when an estimated 1,7 million Mozambicans, marooned in a sea of blood and strife, fled their country in terror.
Portable radios blasted out melodies into the rapidly warming day. 'Orange juice .. Castle Lager ..Coca Cola,' yelled the vendors doing a roaring roadside trade. Visions of a leisurely six hour drive from Johannesburg to Maputo quickly evaporated in the early morning haze. A relaxed-looking official suddenly appeared on his motorbike. 'You're not getting through today,' he said matter-of-factly, 'but you should be in Maputo by tomorrow night.' So we settled back to enjoy African time with our new found friends.
With a night on the road staring us in the face, we felt poised on the threshold of a major adventure. But then five hours later, the same relaxed-looking official came along and changed our plans. 'I was just thinking, why don't some of you take a detour via Swaziland? It's a bit further but you'll probably save yourselves a full day.' Enough said.
In pouring rain, we drove along the north eastern tip of Swaziland and through the Lomahasha border post. Passing the rural run-down towns of Namaacha and Boane, we cruised in to Maputo without further incident. Except for the aggressive policewoman who demanded R2000 on the spot for driving through a non-existent stop sign. She settled for two packs of Stuyvesant.
After an enforced night of luxury at the Polana, we headed north out of town along Julius Nyerere Avenue. In an eerie overcast light, Maputo's city sprawl quickly gave way to the earthy sensation of being in Africa. Rural street markets throbbed with silhouetted figures peddling their wares. Fish, fruit, vegetables and an assortment of African handicrafts. We continued along rutted roads. Ravaged buildings and rusty skeletons of rotting cars a grim reminder to Mozambique's 17 years of hell.
Around a bend and, like a mystical scene from Jim Morrison's life, we came across the after effects of a head-on collision. Dazed survivors still wandered round the wrecks waiting for tow trucks and ambulance to arrive. No hurry in Africa. No hurry at all.
After 37 kilometres we arrived in Marracuene. With cracked windows and brick walls pock-marked by gunfire of the past, it's a ghost town. Still desperately trying to recapture its spirit after being beaten into submission by years of fierce fighting between the government's Frelimo forces and rebel Renamo. Old black eyes stared at us. Macaneta-bound 4x4's and shy smiling children the only real signs of life. 'Sweet..sweet,' they clamoured, with outstretched hands. 'Meticai, meticai, se faz favor,' pleaded one youth, drawing '1 000M' in the sand. In Mozambique, nearly everyone's a millionaire.
After the five-minute ferry across the Nkomati River and a further 10 kilometres of sand road, we arrived at 'Complexo Turistico Or Macaneta.' A glorified title for the informal restaurant and rustic thatch roof bungalows we would soon call home. The owner, Americo Dalpate Ambaramo stood by to welcome us. 'You will have a good time here. Everything you want, we have. Bottled water, fresh seafood, or maybe we go for a four wheel drive. Enjoy, enjoy,' enthused Mister Americo.
The locals had already begun to appreciate the financial advantages of sharing their living space with the tourists. 'Crabs, you want crabs? Very good, very cheap,' muttered one rather hung-over individual, shuffling over to show us his wares.
So we relaxed into paradise. A short walk down the deserted beach and the Macaneta magic gently unfolded. A village of bamboo huts, home to the area's large fishing community, emerged from the wooded peninsula behind the sand dunes. Smiling faces peeped out from huts festooned with fish drying in the afternoon sun. A dried up expanse of a clay-like marsh and sparse fields of mealies and sweet melons dominated the landscape. In the distance, young women rushed after squawking chickens and guided goats down a path.
It seemed like we had stepped back in time. Back centuries to when the land was first inhabited by Chinese immigrants who cultivated the rice paddies on the banks of the Nkomati River. But the Chinese were more than just admirable farmers. They were skilled boat builders and passed down their legacy to the locals who set sail every morning in their 'jangada'.
Like olden day windsurfers, the two-metre long bamboo platforms, lashed together by reeds, with a sail and collapsible mast, leave at sunrise to troll for fish. Ernest Hemingway style. A replica of times gone by.
Meanwhile up at the 'ristorante', Mister Americo and his chef were hard at work. Every night, our meals were gastronomic celebrations. We feasted on crayfish, barracuda steaks, 'camarao' (prawns), 'lulas' (calamari), 'garopinha grelhada' (grilled grouper) and the Portuguese favourite, 'frango a Macaneta piri piri', (piri piri chicken). Plus the chef's specialities - 'caril de Galinha', a mouth-watering chicken curry, and 'vermelhao grelhada molho espanhol', a wonderful concoction of onions, green peppers and tomatoes spread over a Cajun-style red fish done to perfection. All washed down with litres of bottled water and Heineken beer.
One evening, we struck up a conversation with Graca, a young Mozambican who fled his home in 1981. 'The whole country was very depressed. You couldn't drive along the roads anywhere because soldiers used to shoot at you. We couldn't live here happily so I moved to Swaziland. They were years we don't like to remember,' he whispered. Like all Mozambicans who loved their country, Graca longed to return.
'As soon as the war was finished, I came back. These days, we're a lot more positive, a lot more confident in our future. It's holiday time and tomorrow we drive along the beach to Bilene, past the five lakes, fishing. Life is starting to be good again.'
The next morning, I woke before dawn. The dark sky lightened slowly to a softer shade of grey as the sun's first faint stirrings transformed the horizon into layers of orange, purple and pink. The early morning rays cast a warm glow over the dawn fishermen. On the river, muscles bulged as wooden oars powered through the Nkomati's still waters. A sleeping form basked on board in the still morning air.
The beach was already brilliantly lit. Teams of seafarers, striking silhouettes against the silvery sky, relentlessly hauled in their nighttime nets. Hand over hand in unison, they inched their way up the beach. But it hadn't been a good night for the dawn patrol. The nets were empty. Except for a solitary sardine and an unappetising jelly fish. Some of the men stared solemnly at their rubbery victim, frustration etched on their weather-beaten faces. Others gazed out to sea. A few walked away.
Later on the lazy afternoon, Mister Americo ambled over to inquire if we would like to join him for a four-wheel drive down the beach. 'It's ten kilometres to the river mouth and on the way we pass the wreck of the Chaimete that got blown onto the beach 12 years ago. It's low tide so the sand banks at the mouth will be exposed and you can walk far out in ankle-deep water,' he smiled boyishly.
Time evaporated in the salty sea air. We cruised down the deserted beach, sailing over small sand dunes with the freedom of windswept hair. Mangrove crabs, thousands of them covering the sand, scurried for the safety of the sea. At the mouth, perfectly formed pansy shells dotted the tidal flats' surreal seascape. Overhead, a hawk glided effortlessly.
Our last evening in Macaneta. Mr Americo, it seemed, wanted to give us a grand send off. As we ambled over to the 'ristorante', the sun slowly sinking over the Nkomati and the clouds beginning to bank up for a late night thunderstorm, a deejay imported especially from Maputo was busy inside setting up equipment almost good enough for a Rolling Stones concert.
Although it seemed a little out of place in the wilderness, we accepted our noisy fate and went off to dress up for the disco in the dunes. We returned to find the place rocking and the floor filled with little black bodies. Bopping totally in tune to the music. For the local fisherkids, it was a night to remember. And no snotty staff member was going to stand in their way.
Suddenly, the disco seemed almost natural. The Heineken's flowed and we bought them Cokes. We lifted them high on our shoulders. No party pretence here. Just the untamed joy of youth exalting in the African night. We danced together until we dripped with sweat. Even some of the mama's joined in the fun. The generator stayed on an extra hour that night.
The next morning, we took a little longer than usual walking to breakfast. But not just from the Heineken hangover. A touch of nostalgia had set in as we stopped to gaze down our beach of beauty and wonder when next we would fall under Macaneta's spell. As a large plate of fruit was set before us, my thoughts turned to Armando and his mangos.
Copyright © 2002 Jeremy Jowell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.