Someday Hollywood will read the history of Mozambique and make a blockbuster movie out of it. Consider this story line. A prince from Zimbabwe did a “salt march” a few hundred years before Mahatma Gandhi. Prince Mutota’s (that’s his name) quest was to locate a new source of salt for his kingdom and so he traveled east and came to Mozambique. Here he ends up setting a new kingdom that grew with time to become known as the Mutapa Empire, heralding the start of a flourishing civilization. For several centuries, this trading empire enabled people across a large territory to live in peace and security under a stable government and succession of rulers. The Mutapa Empire provides an example of indigenous working system of government in Africa that is today largely (and wrongly) assumed to be absent before the advent of Europeans. In contrast it is the arrival of Europeans that signalled the start of long period of decline, subjugation and suffering that is only now showing signs of recovering.
It all began at the end of 15th century when Vasco da Gama discovered Mozambique ( a name thought to have come from the name Musa al Big a Arab Sheik who lived in North Mozambique) sailing en route to India. Early Portuguese explorers used a method to drum up support and recruit colonist in their country that will remind you of George Bush and how he went about invading Iraq.
President George Bush used the fear of a non-existent nuclear bomb to invade Iraq. Portuguese explorers would spread stories in Portugal of existence of legendary gold mines (referred to as Ophir in the Bible) in Mozambique to recruit early colonist! Mutapa kingdom was rich in arts and craft but had little gold to offer. And so it was that for the next 400 or so years, under ruthless colonial rule, the country, then known as Portuguese East Africa, was basically raped of all the gold, ivory, land and its people sold as slaves. In later years, Portuguese government had a policy of egalitarian assimilation into Portuguese culture. If a “local” learned to be “Portuguese” then he would be given the same status as a Portuguese citizen. Needless to say, not many “locals” managed to convince the powers that be that they were equal and as such were forced to work for the Europeans. This kind of unjust treatment and the fact that other African nations were gaining their independence led to a growing feeling of nationalism. In 1962, several anti-colonial groups came together to create FRELIMO and launched a bitter armed campaign. After 10 years of bitter warfare, FRELIMO took control and finally Mozambique became independent in 1975.
With independence, you would expect things to get better for Mozambique, but that was hardly the case. When Portuguese left the country they took their knowledge, equipment, and capital with them. This left Mozambique with unskilled people who were never given the education or know how to run their own country. For example, there were only 15 engineers left in the whole country then! We Indians sometimes complain of the British rule we had, thank the Lord, we did not have the Portuguese ruling us instead!
Things just kept getting worse. After liberation, instead of focusing on the onerous task of rebuilding a devastated state, the government had something else to worry about – RENAMO the rebel group. FRELIMO had tied up with Soviet communists, so the West funded a nationalist rebel movement, launching guerrilla warfare against FRELIMO, descending the country into yet another devastating civil war. A war so terrible, that this country of less than 20 million population then had over 1 million killed and another 3 million displaced. Truce finally took place in 1992, and a new democratic constitution was adopted, and the country was finally at peace.
Very few countries have suffered so much for so long. Imagine watching all this in a movie theater, I bet you will have tears in your eyes by now. However this is the moment to wipe of the tears – and start getting astonished. Like the story of Cinderella, the time for a suffering house maid to begin a journey to become a princess. It’s as if Mozambique has been sliced out of this world and placed in a surreal dream world. A world that is immune to economic down turn and recession that the rest of world was facing, maintaining an amazing double digital growth figure during the first few years and now consistently averaging around 7.5% for the last 15 years. And all this from its traditional Agro export and aluminium and not even from what is causing all buzz of excitement around this country nowadays.
One place to find this source of excitement is by visiting Tete, a town in north western Mozambique. It’s an example of the dramatic changes taking place in this country. Tete was nothing more than a dusty, stopover for truckers on high way till a few years ago. Today it is a boom town, with hotels booked months in advance and traffic clogging its narrow roads. The reason is coal – since coal deposits in Tete region, is reported to be the most significant coal deposit the world has discovered in last 50 years! Few Indian companies have been given concessions in addition to playing a role in building a railway network.
While coal will give a big boost to economy, the real game- changer is expected to be Natural Gas. With current reserves of 150tcf, it is among the top countries with gas reserves in the world. First gas is not expected before 2018, but its impact is expected to transform the economy. It is good to see Indian companies also playing a part in it. For example, recently Video con Hydrocarbon announced significant natural gas discovery in Mozambique. Together coal and gas have the potential to eventually transform Mozambique into a surplus economy like the ones we see in the Middle East.
And so it is that if you visit Mozambique today and drive out of Maputo airport, you see all the constructions taking place and slick modern structures replacing the old world charm of colonial structures that Maputo has been famous for. There is a new energy in town that is best described in a recent article as follows” There is a skip in the step of Maputo, a smile on its face, a frivolous wave in its palm tree. Once warn torn and struggling to survive, today its one of southern Africa’s hippest, most happening cities.”
In the fairy tale Cinderella is very beautiful and so is Mozambique. Chains of deserted islands and sandbank beaches make up Mozambique’s coastline that stretches more than a 1000 km! Exotic places like Bazarutto archipelago and Quirmbas Archipelago’s offer idyllic holiday destination with its warm turquoise ocean and rich marine life. Inland Mozambique offers typical African delights with its national parks, elephant parks, Zambezi River and much more. Mozambique is not just an energy hotspot of today but a tourist hotspot as well.
The Bible mentions Ophir as a land of fabulous wealth. King Solomon received shiploads of gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, etc. from this magical land. Milton in his “Paradise Lost” mentions that Ophir is located in Sofala (a region in Mozambique). Perhaps coming years will show that Milton was right. Just that this time, all that wealth will be for the benefit of Mozambican’s themselves all those who work hard for it instead of a few Portuguese colonists!