Museu Makes Sense

The president of the Republic of Mozambique has peacocks, a whole muster of them, and I live a block from his house. His avian pets wander through the neighborhood, screaming out twice a day in the gray hours as they frantically flap to their roosts in the trees above the street. Last week I watched a particularly aggressive peacock instigate a fight with its own reflection in the metallic sheen of the door of a small blue car. It ducked and danced its head, flitting from side to side like Mohammed Ali before jabbing forward in a powerful strike that dented the vehicle. Mostly, however, I find the peacocks congregated in the pile of refuse surrounding the dumpsters up the street, picking out this or that bite of food, jockeying for space with the two male beggars who also inhabit the dumpster zone.

The street itself stretches along the edge of the “Zona Alta” of Maputo, the highlands of the city, following the top the of ridgeline above the bay and the “Zona Baixa,” the lowlands near the water. I live in the middle floor of a three-story apartment building – two bedrooms, one bathroom, wooden arches separating the living room and dining room, a kitchen with granite countertops, refrigerator, gas stove, and a patio with a washing machine. Right now the sun sets across the bay, sinking behind the Catembe peninsula, silhouetting the pylons of the massive suspension bridge currently in construction across the thin stretch of saltwater. Middle class Mozambican and Portuguese families occupy the other flats in my building, along with most of the buildings in this area. I can hear the peacocks screaming outside.

Most days, I walk three blocks inland to Museu to eat chicken, beef, goat, or grilled fish for lunch. Museu is a compact collection of sheet metal held aloft by wooden posts and crumbling concrete walls tucked between the natural history museum, the geology museum, and the high rises of the city center. Aside from cheap, local food, it is known for cheap, not-so-local liquor, generally smuggled in from South Africa and sold at an affordable rate. “Museu makes sense to me,” I wrote after my first incursion into the shadows of the market. It is a messy, organic maze of food stalls whose outer walls smell like beer or piss or both and whose ambience instantly comforted the anxiety that the enormous buildings and fast cars of the city prompted in my initial weeks here. I had found the Mozambique I know, the friendly, panandi panandi culture that I learned in two years in the rural north.

The corollary to the previous paragraph: Maputo confused me. Niassa to Maputo is like Montana or Alaska to New York City or Washington D.C. I felt overwhelmed. Looking into the shopfronts along the boulevards – hair salons, supermarkets, banks, veterinary offices – I was certain that I had entered an entirely new world (people care for pets here, for god’s sake). However, locations like Museu or the Mercado do Povo or the sprawling mess of vendors in the streets behind the central market in Baixa show me that Maputo is not a different world, it is the conjunction of two worlds. It is fast-paced progress!democracy!materialism!go! meets Africa, to whom independence came too late, Western political structures came unsolicited, and modernization came too swiftly. Maputo, like so many African cities, is the physical manifestation of the modern world imposing itself upon a country with no time to prepare and little choice in the exchange. As a result, the house of the president of the republic lies within sight of an outdoor, illegal alcohol market. Massive high rises block out the view of the ocean while mães in capulanas and flip flops sit at the base selling vegetables. Outdated, rusting mini vans carry men and women in suits to work. And I pay one thousand dollars a month for an apartment with an ocean view, metal security gates on the front and back doors with two padlocks each, and a guard downstairs

Maputo may be the capital of Mozambique, but I am certain that it is not her heart (in the same way that I am certain New York City is not the heart of the United States). If anything, it is probably her brain, lost in a post-colonial identity crisis and more susceptible to caprice (or greed) than reason would like to believe. Meanwhile, Museu and other similar locations function like the brainstem, connecting Maputo to the spinal cord and the rest of the country, little pockets of local life that exist in spite of global capitalism and statehood. Sprinkled throughout the large office and apartment buildings are reminders of the village life that characterizes most of the country, with the markets being the centers of vibrancy and public interactions in most towns. And without the brainstem, the heart cannot beat and the lungs cannot breathe.  My landlord told me that the government once tried to relocate Museu, to excise the eyesore from the wealthy area of town, but the people simply refused and nothing came of it. If they forcibly dismantle Museu, my landlord posited, it would anger a lot of people, and those people might start paying more attention to their government, and that attention might uncover an unhealthy amount of corruption, so in the end nobody changes anything, and that is just politics my friend.

It is either ironic or prescient that the market nearest me bears the name Museum, indicating a space designed to preserve culturally significant articles from the past, as if the market itself were a relic amidst the modern, cosmopolitan Maputo. The Mercado do Povo – “The People’s Market”; slightly larger, similar vibe – lies directly behind the Maputo Municipal Legislature, a large stone building in European enlightenment fashion with a bronze statue of the country’s first president in front. The market is filled with people at almost all times of the day; the only Mozambicans I have ever seen linger in statue’s plaza are the two gardeners tending the flowers around the bronze politician. Similarly, the old fish market that existed during my first year of Peace Corps service felt a lot like Museu or the Mercado do Povo – poorly lit, narrow passageways, colorful walls, people and food all over. It is abandoned now. The new fish market, a donation from the Japanese government, sits further down the boardwalk near a shopping center. Footsteps echo in the high ceiling over neat rows of tables and sinks. The stench of fish hardly permeates the air. It is not a place where you would see the president’s peacocks, who prefer the waste of middle or upper class residents that overflows the dumpsters southeast of Museu.


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