To visit Mozambique Island, the epicentre of culture and history, has always been a dream of mine. I remember being woken by the unexpectedly humid sun and venturing into the town’s market in search of airtime when the little child crossed my path.

It dawned on me that this child, though native as she may have been, was just as foreign as I.

After all, Mozambique Island is a UNESCO Heritage site, and it makes me uncomfortable to witness the preservation of a heritage that is not my own.

The Pillars Of This Earth

 Mozambique Island , or Island of Mozambique, was the country’s first declared capital. Prior to 1898, the Island served as the centre of the Portuguese East Africa occupation. And even before that (and this is where Mozambican history gets interesting), the Island served as an important space for the positioning of Arab influence in East Africa. The very name of the country, Mozambique, derives from then Sultan of the Island, Ali Musa Mbiki. The heterogeneic constitution of the Island is, in part, due to the extensive centralization of East Africa’s Slave Trade industry.

The intertwined narratives that constitute the history of Mozambique are vividly translated in the quotidian of those who live in the Island.

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I was somewhat fascinated, and honestly quite shocked, to see the prevalence of Islam as an established religion of dominance. With an overwhelming narrative of Islam as an “outside” or “unafrican” religious belief system, it brought me comfort to see that Mozambicans have successfully appropriated the doctrine and managed to extract its desired value. Such values remain a stronghold of northern Mozambican understanding of spirituality, and the positioning of the individual in a community. To understand the north, its taboos and dynamics, it’s important to invest some time in investigating how, when and where Islam finds itself today.

Political Estrangement

An equally surprising observation came in a friendly conversation with a fellow who generously took me on a dive into the political psyche of the Island’s people:

Here, we are not afraid”, he begins, “because we live in an island you know. Think about it”, he gets closer, “to start a war here would be very hard — they would have to cross the bridge!”.

This conversation came as a result of my initial confusion. The north holds a connotation for unapologetic political discourse. While the south of the country has, for the most part, remained aligned with liberation movements (as with the rest of Southern Africa), the centre-north of Mozambique has never hesitated to demonstrate its alternative political ideas. The headquarters of both major parties can be found, almost side by side, in the Island, with an extra wandering flag of the third party in informal markets.

Such openness to demonstrate one’s political affiliation can be traced to the Island’s independence of the rest of the country; the famous continent-island dichotomy, where, though smaller in size and population, Islands are often more autonomous in action and opinion, due to their natural estrangement from the continent’s views.

Mozambique Island’s non-conformist collective conscious expands beyond political affiliations.

Nostalgic Architecture?

Deep within its stone streets and informal settlements, exists an alternative outlook on the country’s history of colonization.

Upon suggestions, and for my own personal enrichment, I was met by Jaime, a knowledgeable man, with an impeccable taste for the English language, who lead me through the old governor’s palace and the portuguese fort.

I couldn’t — and still can’t — reconcile what the biggest tragedy is:

The fact that the palace and all its furniture stands intact, or the fact that this is the highest concentration of luxury, and perhaps the most celebrated architecture, that we can find in Mozambique today.

How do you feel about the buildings here”, I asked, as we waited for other tourists — you know, the real tourists –, to stop taking unnecessary pictures.

Well, it’s good. It brings in tourists I guess”.

Yes, true. But you as a Mozambican from here, don’t you feel like building something new? Changing the landscape a bit.

Yes, we do. We do want to grow and have other things in the city. But you know, this is a UNESCO site. We can’t change the way it looks.”

This immediately got me spiralling down a labyrinth of suppositions and what-if-nots. The establishment of UNESCO as a platform for cultural preservation is surely an idea worth discussing. Speaking of culture, and considering all its intricacies and assumptions, who decides what sites or aspects of humanity are of “universal value”?  Value, as a measurement, or an achievement, is simply relative. 

The (Supposed) Imposition Of A Heritage

I had to constantly resist my affairs with antagonism; I had to soften my inquiries and enjoy the somewhat fascinating colonial architecture that renders our Island the site of the oldest European building in the Southern Hemisphere, a Chapel — a former Mosque(!). Caught in between the, “should we celebrate this heritage as ours?” and the “how does this space reflect the current generations?“.

Yes, because to neglect the relationship between a people and the space they occupy is to blatantly deny them their legitimacy.

What more, or what better, other than space, legitimizes the existence of a generation?

To expect a 21st Century nation to recycle their experiences through past alleyways is a dishonest way to preserve culture. At the end of the day there remains an unanswered question, whose heritage are we truly preserving?

To what extent can we measure the authenticity of Mozambique Island as a heritage site if its preservation centres around political occupation? Is it worth celebrating the oldest European building in an African country when we could be giving space to indigenous techniques of architecture?

Spaces, Symbols and Sentimentalisms

It would, however, be incredibly sneaky of me to paint a picture of the Island’s people as unsatisfied with their conditions and ready for revenge. I must here note that I, as much as the others, was merely a tourist in a foreign ground. I am born and raised in the south, and though I would initially reject any north-south dichotomies, I must acknowledge my bias.

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Down here, the discourse around colonisation is that absolutely everything must go. The call for ‘decolonisation’ intensifies. Decolonisation of education,  language, knowledge, spaces… Only the absence of certain symbols would absolve southerners of the unspoken burdens of colonisation — be them as they may: social and economic privileges, differentiated access to opportunities, etc.

When Mozambique started its liberation struggle, with the famous  24/20 order  — giving all Portuguese 24 hours to emigrate with an allowance of 20kgs, the movement was more than ‘getting rid of colonisation’.

The subsequent destruction of spaces previously symbolic of occupation, such as churches, schools, hospitals and houses, is still felt through Maputo’s decaying ruins — now shelter to the homeless.

In times of strife, people turn to ‘destroying property’, because, above human life, property is the thing that holds most value in preserving history. If not through property, history becomes impotent.

So when I walked the Island, and stood in awe — granted –, of its romantic ruins, I couldn’t help but sigh and ask myself whose heritage is getting preservation at the cost of another. I ask myself if the only reason why I visited the Island in the first place, was so that I could witness the remains of Portuguese history in the convenience of the African continent.

Read more:

  1. Unesco impotence takes shine off world heritage status, The Guardian
  2. Is Unesco damaging the world’s treasures?, The Independent
  3. Set in stone? The architecture of colonialism, Open Democracy