Living in Nampula, Mozambique
Just Left of Paradise
Whenever I tell people I am living in Mozambique, they imagine paradise. The picture they have is of white sand beach, palm trees, beautiful warm blue seas and a diet of fresh seafood and ripe juicy fruit. I do allow friends to indulge their fantasy because, truth is, there are parts of Mozambique exactly like that—but not where I live.
Nampula is in the north, far north but not as far as Pemba. It is the third largest city in Mozambique and growing fast. It is also inland, about 150 miles to the nearest beach. This makes it a hot, humid, dusty industrial city. It has palm trees everywhere. I love the mango season, where gardens droop with fruit ready to drop. Most gardens have mango, giant avocado, banana, papaya and coconut trees, but many have been replaced with concrete. The sand is red and found everywhere: it settles on the floors, windows, computer screen, bedspread, and mingles with truck fumes and sunlight to form a yellow haze. But then, this isn’t some refurbished African city with stylized Afro-chic boutiques and fancy fruit cocktails; this is real and far more interesting. Even without the beach and sea and seafood, this place is great, all it takes is some getting used to.
I have made plenty of adjustments living here. Parts of my new Mozambican life are so normal to me now that memories of my initial struggle to understand seem distant and vague.
My first task was to learn the language. The official language in Mozambique is Portuguese. In the untouched North it is a challenge to find someone who speaks English. Add to that the local language, Mecua, and things start to get confusing. While I was trying to learn Portuguese, I was constantly thrown off track by listening to people speaking a mix of Portuguese and Mecua, not knowing which words were which in which language. But I love to walk around the streets listening to people discussing, laughing, and shouting. Every time I go out I find that I can understand more and more individual words and expressions from the buzz and babble that is a foreign language to my ears. I cling on to Colloquial expressions and practice until I can speak to people using whole sentences of clichéd expressions. I have come to realize that it is normal for people to use simple but strong expressions when talking with each other. My favorite two are particularly expressive of the African mind set. First, despite hardships we can’t imagine, everyone says “esta bom” –“it’s good”, and then there is an exchange and sharing of woes, each person taking turns to express deep empathy with “é pá!” “Ah shame!”
I am also learning to eat local. I no longer miss certain foods that may not be available. I have fun experimenting with new vegetables and can make something different everyday from what are here the staple ingredients of rice, beans, carrots, cabbage and tomato. The Mercado Municipale de Nampula is a favorite spot. It is dirty, and the boys offering to carry my bags for change are also trying to pickpocket me but whenever I walk through the gates I am awed by rows upon rows of fresh fruit and vegetables. Everything is sold according to its type, so tomatoes go with tomatoes, and potatoes have their own corner near the entrance. Each stall owner generally sells only one thing, but some sell a variety—such as the greens sellers, who sell lettuce, cassava, spinach, rape, coriander and salsa. From the top end of the market looking down I see stripes of red, orange, yellow and green, the colors of an African flag. I have learnt to deal with the community-driven Mozambican market custom of goods being sold for the exact same price no matter who you are buying from. There is no bargaining here, and essentially no point in trying to find the best deal. Prices are standardized. At first I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a kilogram of small, sad onions for the same price as the large healthy ones next door. It made no business sense. But I have finally figured it out. In this way, everyone has a chance to sell and everyone gets to eat for the same price. Instead of trying to haggle when the prices seem too high, I now know that if I buy my green beans from the same person each week he will soon give me a discount or throw in an extra bag free. I am no longer the “mekunya” or white person. I am a woman buying food for her family.
Siesta is my favorite custom and one thing I hope never to get unused to. Everyday, from 12 to 2 p.m. most of the city shuts down, people go home for lunch and a rest, and the dust has a chance to settle down with the mid-day heat. As the city grows and develops, this strict schedule has become more flexible. Government and municipal offices are now open during the siesta hours due to problems with officials not returning from lunch. But go into any government office and you’ll find everyone is sitting at their desk, eating lunch, and not available for work.
“We are busy now, come back later please.”
So there really is no point in fighting tradition. This is why, everyday between 12 and 2, I am at home, resting, in the same way as everyone else.
Home is a not-so-well-maintained old, Portuguese-style house. The bars on all the windows and gloomy darkness inside— due to trees planted as sentries all around—make me feel I have been cloistered away, hiding from the realities outside. Our house is pretty in a ramshackle way. There are many fruit trees competing for space, bamboo that creaks in the wind, and an outside thatch-roofed lounge, the "dependencia," which provides us an excuse to have summertime dinner parties outdoors, sheltered from the rainy season showers.
But such comfort doesn’t come cheap and rental prices in Nampula have been going up in relation to the constant new arrivals of aid workers and international company executives, whose bosses don’t mind paying because, after all, they don’t live here. Our landlord charges us US$1000, and we pay his rental income tax too.
This doesn’t seem so bad when there are others paying over US$400 a month for apartments with no running water, pigeons to feed, and cockroach infestations. But no matter what the condition, all maintenance of property is the responsibility of the tenant. In the end though, we all get exactly what we came here looking for. The aid workers get to feel like they are really living in Africa every time they have a bucket shower; expat business people are sure to have something to complain about at the next social gathering. As for me, I get to live in the romance of green leafy tropical disorder.
I have a list of favorite things about my home. In the morning, it’s the excited commotion and laughter of the checkers club as they clack click clack their bottle-top pieces all over their game boards outside my window, waking me up. Instead of complaining about it, I just smile. Next, the sellers who come to my gate with supplies of fresh prawns, crabs which are still alive, giant pineapples whose deliciously sweet smell overpowers the nastiest of street drains, and intriguing items such as sacks of tamarind, upside down chickens, and bright plastic bowls of groundnuts. At night as I go to bed, I count the number of geckos stalking my walls, feeling safe under their watch till first light shines.
Outside the city is an entire province of untouched wilderness to be explored and adventures to be discovered. Living here I am so lucky to be able to go “eeny meeny miney mo,” choose any road out of town and find myself discovering somewhere completely different and incredibly magnificent. The countryside all around is a tropical contrast of luminous shades of green and rich red earth. Just a couple of hours away the sea is every bit the picture of paradise so many people conjure up when they hear the name Mozambique. Ilha de Moçambique, a world heritage site and its neighbour Chocas Mar are two of the spots most frequented by the expats and locals of Nampula. Nacala, the deepest natural port in Africa, is an exquisite diving spot or, like so many of the places around here, perfect for just relaxing and enjoying life.
The actual city of Nampula may not be very pretty or romantic, but each day I am struck by one more mark of beauty—be it the bright capalana materials blowing in the windswept markets, or a young sweet-seller boy offering some of his earnings to the old beggar on the street.
It’s not quite paradise, but Nampula is my home now, and personally, I think it is beautiful.
For More Information
Nampula is in Nampula Province, 2100kms north of Maputo. It is 250km inland from the east coast.
Getting There and Around
By road: Road travel in Mozambique is long but perfect for the adventurous. The EN1 from Maputo goes straight to Nampula. This route has recently been tarred almost completely and the journey now takes 26 hours straight (not including stopovers etc). To cross the Zambezi you will need to arrive before 5 p.m. when the last ferry leaves.
By air: You can fly to Mozambique from South Africa, Tanzania or Kenya. Mozambique Airlines (LAM) is the principal carrier, from Pemba you can fly with either LAM or local national carrier, Air Corridor. You can catch a flight on LAM or Air Corridor to Nampula.
In Nampula you can catch a Chapa (pronounced " shuppa") taxi to get to just about anywhere in town. The name of the route will be displayed on the front windscreen and usually shuttle between two main roads. These cost about 4MTN per trip.
There are also sedan taxis which cost around 50 to 70 MTN to anywhere in the city. But be prepared for long discussions over price.
Most work in Nampula for foreigners involves working for an NGO or Aid Organisation. Some organisations based in Nampula are SNV, Care International, VSO, World Vision and Save the Children.
It is better to arrange a job before arriving in Nampula.
The currency in Mozambique is the Meticais Nova Familia (Mtn).
The exchange rate at the moment is 23.7 Meticais to US$1.
Rental costs can be quite high. Two bedroom flats are about US$350 to US$450. 3 bedroom houses start at 800 US$ and can go up to US$1,500.
Fresh produce from the markets is much cheaper than in the shops. Expect to pay around 30 to 40 MTN for a kilo of tomatoes, 25 MTN for a kilo of potatoes, 50 MTN per kilo of pumpkin, 15 MTN for a large pineapple, 20 MTN for a bunch of mangoes.
Beer costs 30MTN (watch out, in most places a small beer costs the same as a large one).
A meal at a restaurant will cost about 150 to 200 MTN.
Visas and Immigration
Visas are free for South Africans and are valid for 30 days but they can be renewed for up to 60 more days at the immigration office. But be prepared for misinformation.
Other nationalities may purchase a visa at the airport in Maputo, but this could take some time if you are on a transit flight. Two month to six month multiple entry visas are available but, be careful as often these visas stipulate that you leave the country every month or two to keep it valid.
Interacting with People
Mozambicans can be very friendly and will often greet you on the street. Sometimes this is to practice their English, or just a fascination with a foreign person, but it is a great opportunity to engage with the locals. Everything tends to be discussed in Mozambique, so if you are trying to get some information or sort out a problem remember to have patience while a solution determined. Arguing and aggressive behavior won’t get you anywhere. As soon as you start shouting, the locals shut down. If you want something, remember to be friendly and complimentary.