Sunday, April 27, 2014

Getting back from Mozambique

I’ve been back in Nairobi for a few days now, staying in the very nice neighbourhood of Lavington, and catching up on emails with coffee in Java House. It feels worlds apart from what I saw in Mozambique and its hard to remember you’re in Africa when you see people buying hand exfoliating crème in the mall or driving flash cars into multi-storey car parks. Mozambique on the other hand was “Africa” in the extreme.
Its funny to say this considering I spent most of the time on an ultra-exclusive private island where guests pay $1000 a night for the ultimate beach and tropical paradise experience. Vamizi was just that. An unbelievably beautiful white beach sloped into perfect turquoise waters, at all states of tides and time of day. The island is mostly uninhabited and covered in jungle and surrounded by some of the best coral reefs I have ever seen. However, this is not the true Mozambique, which is much uglier and more worrying, but rarely encountered on the island.
The poverty in the areas on the mainland I saw was more extreme than most parts of Kenya. When our bus pulled into towns en route (oh yes I took the bus again), people would run and jostle to get there first. Small children would fight to hold up a handful of mangy green tomatoes or plastic bags at the window, while the women would argue as they tried to make sales. I saw more than one person slump in complete despair when the bus revved to move off and they hadn’t made a sale.
In Pemba, the town where I stayed for 2 days to get a flight back to Nairobi, women scrapped mosquito nets in the shallow water to catch unappetising little shrimps and sprat, while children hacked at rocky outcrops with spoons and butter knives to get any crabs, snails or small bivalves they could. The town centre there hung a lull of inertia that poverty creates, when one has nothing to do, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with.
Now consider that this is in a country, which has recently been discovered to be sitting on potentially one of the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. Exploration is happening in a massive way, and tons of investment, construction and foreigners are flooding into this area, where only 5 years ago there was no electricity or mobile phone signal.
Official propaganda, if of course, that this is a great thing, and Anadarko is making a good show of how good this all is for Mozambique. Before I lambast the oil company too much, I would like to add that they are doing some good projects and I even met a couple of people working for them involved in trying to make their operations more locally appropriate and inclusive. However, I simply fail to see how a population with the level of poverty that I saw and all the ills that go with it, poor health, nutrition and education, can possibly ride this tidal wave of change and come out better in the end.
In Kenya the poorest, remain poor and the all benefits and wealth are snapped up by the few and the foreign. Incomers from other areas and other countries create tensions as precious jobs, land and resources are ‘stolen’, wealth disparity leads to crime and a deep crippling sense of despair; all of which I could see among some of the people in this area already. I am very doubtful that the government is any more responsible or less greedy than other countries and the higher levels of poverty and lack of education probably makes it easier for them to be unjust.
Maybe I’m too cynical by what I have seen in other places, but everywhere I looked I was struck by the extremes and worried for the future of the place. Even being on the island I didn’t feel particularly at ease, knowing that the place is the creation of vanishingly few rich and powerful, that can absolve themselves from the reality on the mainland.
What little I saw of the country was stunningly beautiful. Untouched coastline, forested mountains, picturesque thatched villages with lush vegetable gardens, all poised on the edge of the worst ravages 21st century capitalism has to offer. I would really love to go back and take more time to drive around this area, take in the sights, and understand more about places such as this and what their ultimate fate will be. For the moment, there are some rocky years ahead.
I am poignantly aware this might actually be now the last post on this blog. In many ways Mozambique was an extreme microcosm of my whole experience in Kenya. Amazed by the beauty, shocked by the extremes, and more than once frustrated and insanity of it all. I think the main thing I have learnt over the past few years is that it is a big bad world out there, where you really can’t take anything for granted. Enjoy where you are in the moment, value the things that matter to you, and try not to give up hope of a better tomorrow. Africans do this better than any other people. Despite the frustration I saw in the people of Mozambique, I also saw the unchanging African optimism and warmth. As I drove to the airport in Pemba someone had written on a shop, “Onde ha vida, ha esperanca”- ‘Where there is life, there is hope’. Nothing could better encapsulate the African outlook. Let’s hope its true.

p.s. here's a few photos from Vamizi and also check out the reef on youtube with the video I made. 

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