I’m in Maputo, Mozambique. It’s over thirty degrees, very humid and I’m travelling with a fleet of mini-buses containing ‘heads of department’ on a technical recce for a film. We’re not here because of the fabulous Portuguese architecture or the thick lush vegetation, but in the hope that this city’s desperate poverty will provide us with a suitable back-drop for our story. The air conditioned MPV pulls up and we disembark, pouring out like an oil spill spreading as far and as fast as it can. We try to move away from each other but as soon we have found some breathing space we must bunch up again. The party threads its way into a very poor apartment block, walking in single file up a narrow dark staircase then onto a veranda overlooking rooftops of crumbling dwellings. As we look around taking notes the old lady who lives on the veranda tidies up amongst us. She removes the washing, picks up children’s toys and then starts beating a carpet. A hen wanders between the legs of the crew who are oblivious to it and the old woman. A black toddler clutching a white doll looks at us curiously but we have eyes and ears only for the director. We walk from room to room and eventually into a bedroom where someone walks absent-mindedly over a mattress on the floor, which is actually someone’s bed. The recce swarm does the same thing, it’s a bit like follow my leader. This is only the start of a typical recce scout and after several days of it, even the most strong willed of us will be like automatons.
Back on the bus and going to our next location, I’m frustrated by not being able to look more closely at the huge variety of colonial architecture, which includes an amazing railway station and countless Art Deco buildings. We pile out of our buses again in a very poor area. The people who mill around watching us are no different from the smart occupants of pavement cafes in European cities, yet I know that many of them are unemployed and poor, and it’s obvious that some of them are also drunk. A small child in a luminous pink plastic baby walker tries to get some forward momentum but the wheels are stuck fast in the dusty earth and that seems to sum up the whole place. Colourful bars in densely packed shanty buildings – known in the media as ’informal structures’ – spill out over the pavement. I really want to explore the narrow alleys between the buildings but decide against. I have no time to go snooping and it would serve me right if I got mugged, so I stay out. A dusty quadrangle has a dead tree in the centre, decorated with empty plastic ‘Temptation’ bottles. I’m told that this is a cheaply brewed ethyl alcohol and advised against trying it by our local guide as it’s not very good for your longterm health!
After a night in our luxury hotel I get up early to do some exploring on my own. There’s a bus terminus nearby, busy with smartly dressed business folk trying to get to work. The bus shelter looks as if it’s been hit by a bomb but people queue there patiently, just like anywhere else. There are lots of food vendors cooking up delicious looking breakfast snacks on ancient gas rings set up on the dusty pavement. I slip my camera out for a photo but immediately get shouted at by one of the vendors so I apologise and move on quickly.
A hawker spots me and rushes across the road. He’s very animated and tells me that my friend promised that I’d buy six carved giraffes from him – he’s brought them in today specially! I puzzle about which of my friends might do such a thing… it’s very much out of character for me to by six of anything, even eggs, and most of my friends know this so it can’t be anyone I know. Or can it? Whilst I’m thinking about all this another guy joins us to confirm that I have a duty to buy the giraffes – and a whole bundle of paintings on silk.
“Also promised by my friend?” I ask.
’No’ he says, in a surprise change of tack, he’s just trying his luck.
My defence against all this free enterprise is not to ask for the name and ID of my imaginary friend but to put in a genuine plea that I can’t physically carry all the merchandise I’m supposed to be buying. And although I don’t get round to saying so, there really wouldn’t be room in the small private plane that was chartered specially to bring us to Maputo in the first place! Travelling by chartered plane makes us sound like pampered westerners – but it’s not as good as it sounds. I know of more film industry folk who have been killed in aviation accidents involving small private planes than in road accidents! Our small plane seems airworthy, but lacks air conditioning – which means that after spending three days at the airport in searing heat our return journey is going to be hot and humid, to put it mildly. As for the street vendors, they listen patiently to my excuses and politely accept my story – but ask if I can suggest that my friends go and see them later – they’ll be waiting outside our hotel for the remainder of the day.