My friend and I stand at a gas station at the busy intersection of Avenida Marien N’guabi and Rua da Goa in Maputo, right on the border to the township named Mafalala. It is 9 am on an overcast Tuesday morning and we are waiting for our tour guide. It is rush hour and the streets are bustling with pedestrians, street peddlers, cars, and crowded vans. We are the only white people in sight.
After 10 minutes of waiting, I call the main office of our tour company and learn that our guide’s home has been flooded from the heavy rains the night before. Some streets in Mafalala are impassable. We reschedule for Thursday.
On Thursday, we arrive at the same place and are promptly greeted by Ana, our new tour guide. As all of the other guides, Ana is from Mafalala. Before we enter the township, Ana explains to us that Mafalala was once located on the racial border separating the white colonial Portuguese “cidade de cimento” (city of concrete) from the indigenous sector “cidade de caniço” (city of reeds). Similar to neighboring South Africa during apartheid, non-whites were not allowed into the white section of town, unless to work. A strict curfew was enforced and all non-whites were required to carry an indigenous identity card when transiting into the colonial city, which was named Lourenço Marques under the Portuguese before it became Maputo.
Having been on an architecture tour earlier that week that focused on the prolific work of Pancho Guedes and his contemporaries, this information suddenly cast the buildings we had admired only a few days ago in a very different light. They were built strictly for the white colonial oppressors; they were never intended for blacks.
As I digested this piece of information, Ana led us down the dirt road and we entered the “city of reeds” on the Rua da Goa. It is called this because of the prevalence of settlements made of reeds and corrugated iron; the Portuguese forbade the use of brick or concrete in this section of the city because the flimsier building materials would be easier to remove, should the concrete city wish to expand its territory. Thus, many of the 21,000 inhabitants of Mafalala still live in these structures that were initially built as temporary residences. A few main dirt roads crisscross the township; otherwise houses are separated by unmarked, narrow alleys that wind throughout Mafalala. I ask Ana if she ever gets lost here; she laughs softly and says, no, she was born and raised here and knows every path by heart.
Winding through the alleys, there is no escaping this reality: Mafalala is a place of poverty. Trash and broken glass line the streets, many reed houses don’t have doors or windows, groups of barefoot children play football with a mango pit in the middle of the street. I find myself wondering how damaging heavy rainfall must be to these structures and how unbearable the heat must feel during midday.
We stop to buy bhajias from two children at a street corner before turning toward a large mural honoring the poet Noémia de Sousa. Adjacent to this mural is a run-down building that used to be a bar named Chat Noir. This is the first hint that there is more to Mafalala than its reed and iron façade.
We slowly learn that while Mafalala lacks in physical infrastructure, it possesses a richness of cultural heritage and history. One house that Ana points out to us was used as an underground meeting point for anti-colonial Marxist resistance fighters (FRELIMO) that paved the way toward independence. Two past presidents of liberated Mozambique hail from Mafalala: Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano, both of whom fought in the resistance and are now venerated as national heroes.
As we continue down a side street, Ana points out the Mesquita Baraza, an historic mosque that was built by Muslim migrant laborers from other places across Africa. Due to stringent colonial rules, mosques were banned under the Portuguese; Christian inhabitants of Mafalala would stand guard while their Muslim neighbors worshipped inside the mosque.
We come to an open dirt square which we learn is a football field, where Mozambique’s most famous athlete, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, learned to play. We cross the field and I see small children staring at us, wide-eyed. When I mention this to Ana, she says that it isn’t every day you see whites walking through Mafalala. I ask whether the inhabitants are bothered by us; she says at first, when the tour company had just begun, they were nervous that the whites were there to take their land. Once they learned that they were only tourists, the people of Mafalala became more comfortable with the idea of whites walking through their streets. Nevertheless, I am admonished by an elderly lady as I take a picture of a mural with my phone. Ana calls after her that I was just interested in the art and the lady swats her hand at us as if we were pesky flies. I quickly tuck my phone away in my pocket and hurry along, feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
We make a quick stop at a school, but since it is not in session, we continue our tour. The sun is climbing in the sky and it is beginning to get hot. We take a break at the Iverca headquarters and then head to our final stop: a dance performance by the Tufo de Mafalala. Clad in matching bright orange capulana skirts and headscarves, the women take their time painting their faces with a white substance that I am later told is a beauty product that keeps their skin looking radiant and young. They lounge around in a circle, sitting cross-legged and speaking in low voices, avoiding eye contact with us. Slowly, they begin to climb to their feet; we observe three men with instruments assembling on the periphery. Aside from them, there are only women present. Suddenly, the leader breaks into song and the other women begin swaying their bodies to the rhythm of the music. Each breaks into a huge grin. Children burst through the wooden gate of the high fence at the sound of the music and remain there for the entirety of the performance, staring at these beautiful women as they chant, dance, jump rope (!) and invite us to join them. It is a joyful, moving experience; afterwards, the leader sits down with us and chats before she returns to the group.
Ana returns us to the place where we began. We slowly walk back to my car, my head spinning with the echoes of history that have come to shape this place. Mafalala is a complex place that resists simple explanations—its reed settlements are physical reminders of Maputo’s colonial past, the colorful murals remind us of its vibrant intellectual past, and dilapidated buildings are haunted by the legends of the underground resistance fighters. Here, the pulse of the city beats, loudly and clearly.
Mafalala tours are organized by Iverca, an association led by young Mozambicans dedicated to promoting tourism and culture in Maputo.
If you’d like to learn more about Mafalala and its history, here are a few other useful links in English:
And this great video report by Deutsche Welle: