A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Maputo Musings

Maputo is a city built on revolutionaries and military men. Its socialist history is marked on its maps. Mau Tse Tung Avenue intersects with Kim Il Sung Avenue. Vladimir Lenine Avenida runs to Ho Chi Min Avenida. There is a Robert Mugabe roundabout. Mozambique’s own Samora Machel takes pride of place, as the avenue running to the port.

But there are ironies too. Between Karl Marx and Lenin Avenues, a huge church stands, carving out at bit of the Portuguese religious legacy. At weekends, Fredrick Engles Avenue becomes a capitalist’s catwalk, as BMWs and Mercedes swarm, drop-off high fashion 14 years olds to their dates at the gelateria. High-healed ladies walk their poodles and carry bouquets of freshly cut flowers.
Across the city, in the bit on my map which has no names, kids continue to sell just plastic bags, or just sunglasses. There, the pavement looks like the site of an earthquake. The further away from the wealthy part of the city you get, the less manholes covers there are, and the less pavements.

There are times in the city when you think you have stepped into Portugal. Little pavement cafes, wide tree-lined streets, pastry shops and bakeries. There is prosperity and wealth. Sitting in the cafes, it would be easy to forget that you are in one of the poorest countries in the world. Maputo, in that sense, seemed very distant from the rest of the country.

Being in Mozambique raised many questions for me; about change, about social entrepreneurship and about the political climate which must be in place for that change to take place. It is clear to me that an enabling environment, politically, must exist and encourage the change (one only has to look across the border to Zimbabwe to see what can happen in a politically curtailed hotspot). In Mozambique, I heard story after story of the endemic corruption and bureaucratic warrens which must be navigated to make anything happen. Those who manage to do business here with honesty and integrity are stalwarts. The system does not make honesty easy. Back in Ireland, I for one take the democratic process for granted. I take the political lobby and freedom of speech almost as a given. I assume, as default, that the police are a generally benevolent force. I trust that when I dial the emergency services someone will at least answer the phone. Not so here. As default, the government is viewed as corrupt and the police as law breakers. I never had to dial the emergency services, thankfully. The fact that there are only 800 doctors in the whole country, and 600 of them around the Maputo area (and this is a HUGE country, with some 801, 590 sq km)- I am very glad that I did not have to.

Leaving Mozambique, I am convinced that this a country with significant potential. However, I feel that the window to protect what is already there, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment, is already closing. Leaving the country, I do not know what all the solutions are, I do not know whether it is too late, but I do know that it is worth trying, and there are at least some people who are indeed trying.


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