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Mozambique: Superstar slum

A tangle of back alleys it may be, but the Mafalala has an uncanny knack of producing poets, politicians and the occasional world-famous footballer

Mozambique: Superstar slum

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“Do you feel at all threatened?” asks Ivan for the umpteenth time.

I wish he’d stop asking, ’cos the answer is, again, no I don’t. I’m on a walking tour of Mafalala, Maputo’s oldest slum and people are simply going about their business. Punters holding beer cans emerge from liquor shops that are housed in corrugated iron structures. Full-bosomed women pass by nonchalantly balancing bulky sacks on their heads. Kids twerk their spindly little bodies to local Marrabenta music. But no, no one, not even the mangy dogs that follow me — keeping a distance longer than a stone’s throw — have been remotely hostile.

Ivan is pleased. For three years this enterprising 30-year-old has been promoting tours of Mafalala, not to parade the misery of its denizens but to celebrate its unique place in the country’s history and culture. This is the cradle of Mozambican poetry, spawning the talents of Noémia de Sousa and José Craveirinha, and the liberation struggle’s hottest spot, in whose streets walked two future presidents — Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano — as well as prime minister Pascoal Mocumbi. I walk past their houses pig-ignorant, their names meaning nothing to me, but I leave fascinated and uplifted, as Ivan recounts their lives and their battles.

How come? How did this tangle of back alleys that surely looks like a big doodle from the sky become so prolific?

Ivan enlightens me with the patience of a schoolmaster who’s repeated the same story hundreds of times. The curving Avenida Marien Ngouabi, one of Maputo’s main arteries, marks the periphery of the old, colonial, whites-only Lourenço Marques. As Africans could only outside its boundary, the black intelligentsia working downtown had to settle across the avenue, in Mafalala, for a closer commute. These intellectuals built national awareness within their communities and influenced later generations who organised the civil rights and liberation movements.

The smells, sights and sounds of Mafalala are those of a traditional African village. Everything is lived in the open: old men pull loaded carts, kids coax tyres along with sticks; carpenters chisel, sand and saw; women under umbrellas sell stews from smoking pots heated by LPG cylinders. Superstitions are still alive. Ivan points at a strangler fig tree whose exposed roots hang vertically like a threadbare cape. “Notice anything different?” Ivan asks me. I look carefully: on top of the tree hangs a rare public electric light. “It’s to protect the house from ghosts,” he explains. “People believe that the roots turn into live snakes at night.”

Some of the profits from the tours are ploughed back into the community through a cultural festival as well as sponsored street art. Ivan introduces me to Francisco Vilanculos, an artist working on a mural that depicts the Dança Das Macuas, a traditional female dance from the Ilha de Moçambique kept alive in Mafalala by a local women’s group. It underscores the melting-pot character of the bairro, whose settlers have come from all over Mozambique as well as the Comoros.

My personal highlight comes last. This large empty space before me is the football pitch where Eusébio, Mozambique’s most famous son, was discovered. He used to skip school to play here barefoot (he found it difficult to adapt to boots after he turned professional). In the 1960s, the Portuguese tried to hold on to their empire by rebranding their colonies as ‘overseas departments’ and gave everyone Portuguese nationality. That’s how Eusébio ended up playing for Portugal in the 1966 World Cup, the first black player to appear for a European national squad. A pilgrimage to his home takes us through a souk-like labyrinth, with houses partitioned so narrowly that I have to stoop to dodge protruding rusty nails. We eventually stop in front of a teetering shack that looks like it would collapse if we exhaled in unison. And yet, I tell myself, this is where a world legend was born.

My reverence must be telepathic, for curious building workers opposite stop work and watch me as I stand there in contemplation. Ivan notices them and gets all worked up again.

“You don’t feel threatened, do you?” he asks again and beams when I reply in the negative.