Mozambique rarely appears in the worldview of people in Madagascar, despite straddling the same latitudes just across the water from each other. Yet the two countries have much in common, as I discovered on a recent road trip with Priya Rangan to gather botanical samples and stories about baobabs.
First, Mozambique’s landscape burns at least as much as Madagascar’s. Bushfire has been omnipresent on our journey, particularly in Sofala and Tete provinces. Every day, in every direction, smoke plumes rise to the sky, flames progress through the grasses and woodlands. Yet the landscape is much bushier, more like the dry woodlands of Menabe than the grasslands of Isalo.
Second, Madagascar isn’t alone in its hardwood logging crisis. Truckload after truckload of Dalbergia (rosewood, palissandre) and other hardwoods rumble down the highway to the ports at Beira and Nacala out of the country’s woodlands. Apparently, this rush is of recent origin, and mainly organized by ‘Chinese’ operators.
Third, big mining projects are driving major changes in certain areas. The town of Tete, an erstwhile much-maligned outpost on the civil-war era route from Zimbabwe to Malawi, is now a booming frontier town. Major coal deposits across the Zambezi River have brought a number of international companies (like Riversdale, CVRD from Brazil), and the town crawls with engineers, company pickup trucks, and even the lowliest lodgings can command rates approaching 100US per room.
Fourth, the landscapes of interior Zambezia and Nampula provinces hold many reminders of central and western Madagascar. It is as if a similar agrarian population were dropped into a similar landscape of red soils and granitic inselbergs, the only difference being the vegetation out of which the farms are carved – more grassland in Madagascar, more bushy woodland in Mozambique. The smallholder farming landscape contains a similar mix of plants – cassava, beans, pigeon peas, maize, rice, lantana, bamboo, guava, eucalyptus, mango, cashew, even taro. The houses are red abobe and brick houses with thatched roofs (though lower, single story structures lacking the carved balconies of some parts of Madagascar).
The major difference in these farmer landscapes is that while the larger valley bottoms in Mozambique are cultivated with rice in the rainy season, the irrigation systems and field edges look much less developed than Madagascar’s, and most smaller valleys are not developed for irrigation at all (despite sufficient population density). The more widespread cultivation of feijão (pigeon peas, ambrevade/ambarivatry) and cassava (manioc) give the landscape a fuzzier look in Mozambique than in Madagascar, given they both are tall plants.
The town of Gurué, in particular, would not feel unfamiliar to a Betsileo farmer, though he or she would rue the lack of terraced rice fields. It feels like a strange mishmash of bits of Ambalavao with the Sahambavy tea estates and Andringitra mountains. Gurué sits at perhaps 800m, at the base of a massif rising to 2400m (named Namuli, in a strange twist of fate pronounced just like Namoly, the village at the base of Andringitra mountains). It is surrounded by tea estates, with roads lined by Grevillea (silky oak) and jacaranda trees, and woodlots of eucalyptus. In the town, African tulip trees appear quite common as well, as well as peach, poinsettia and others. Inselbergs dot the landscape for hundreds of kilometres around.
Some other observations:
• The average Mozambican person speaks better Portuguese than your average Malagasy speaks French (perhaps because Portuguese serves as a lingua franca across different tribal language groups, while the Malagasy can make themselves understood across the island in their own language).
• In 3500km of driving, we were only stopped three times at a police road block, and were never asked for a little drink money (but corruption at higher levels is equally endemic)
• Mozambicans are friendly, chatty, laid back. People let you go about your own business without shouting ‘vazaha’ or ‘mzungu’.
• Few visible guns
• It is fairly expensive to travel in Mozambique. The population of the country is certainly at least as poor as in Madagascar, but there is a dual economy, and costs for accommodation, rental cars, and restaurants are quite high.
• Southern Mozambique gets South African tourism, northern Mozambique is more touched by European tourism dominated by Italians
Finally, as mentioned above, we came here to research the baobabs (Adansonia digitata) that grow in Mozambique. More on that in another blog entry later, but here is a picture taken in the village of Chigoza, about 100km south of Tete, where locals do a roaring trade in sacks full of pulp extracted from baobab fruit. Suffice it to say that Madagascar has no monopoly on the upside-down tree.