30 January, 2012Issue 18.2AfricaPhoto Essays

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Scenes from Mafalala: Into a Mozambican Suburb

Serena Stein


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Maputo, Mozambique: Mafalala Bairro is one of about 50 slum suburbs that radiate outward from the bustling concrete downtown of Mozambique’s capital city. Mafalala is Maputo’s oldest informal settlement. To meander along its narrow pathways is to trace the footsteps of numerous national heroes. An incubator of the struggle for independence that is often compared to South Africa’s Soweto, Mafalala consists of labyrinthine alleyways that once surged with anti-colonial resistance. Prior to the end of Portuguese rule, bold poets Noémia de Sousa and José Craveirinha met clandestinely in Mafalala’s haphazard zinc shelters. The neighborhood was also home to Mozambique’s first two presidents, revolutionary fighters Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano.

A century before Mozambique’s independence, migrants from northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands introduced rituals called nifalala—meaning “music and dance”—to Mafalala, and the neighborhood never again knew silence. Today, women swathed in capulana cloths and bearing white mussiro-painted faces rehearse Tufo-style routines; teenagers carefully study Azagaia’s socially conscious rap songs blaring from shop speakers; the soulful melodies of Bryan Adams and Phil Collins waft without irony from yards where women pin up laundry; and electric bass vibrates through the walls of Lima’s Bar, where men unwind after the day’s toils.

In Mafalala, the main thoroughfare bursts alive early each morning as women and men set off for ganho-ganho, or grinding itineraries of labor, in the ever-expanding informal economy. Lighthearted chatter in the marketplace and neighbourly drop-ins throughout the afternoon hardly betray the many daily challenges that wear heavily on cheery demeanours. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, where half of the population falls below the poverty line even in urban areas. The vast majority of Mafalala possesses little sanitation, basic electricity, and few social services. During the rainy season, flooding causes pit latrines to overflow, contaminating the streets as waste flows to open sewers.

Most pressingly, Maputo has the highest cost of living in the country. In September 2010, a price spike in bread was compounded with the elevated cost of fuel and public transport fares. Riots ignited in the avenues along Mafalala’s perimeter, leading to ten deaths and hundreds of injuries after police intervention. Very few of the neighborhood’s impoverished residents have access to land plots, therefore the majority of their income is spent on food purchases. Preparing street food and setting up bancas, or foodstands, have become common ways to supplement incomes. Yet, the rise in food price continues to compromise poor urban dwellers’ ability to purchase quality foods for healthy eating. Growing dependence on cheap alcohol, fried foods, and new processed snacks manufactured in Mozambique exacerbates malnutrition, which paradoxically manifests as both hunger and rising obesity.

While Mozambique remains a predominantly rural country, its urban centres are rapidly expanding, as is the case across Southern Africa. 70% of all urban residents in the region currently reside in informal housing, and Southern Africa will be nearly 75% urbanized by 2050. The ongoing urbanization of poverty necessitates increased attention to the vulnerabilities that urban life brings. Uncertainty regarding the day’s wages and obstacles to adequate nutrition characterize the everyday reality of Maputo’s urban poor.

Nonetheless, vibrant colours, ardent rhythms, and a profound sense of hope permeate the people who call this neighborhood home.

Poet José Craveirinha once wrote of Mafalala:
S√≥ tambor ecoando como a canç√£o da força e da vida

Só tambor noite e dia

dia e noite só tambor

até à consumaç√£o da grande festa do batuque!

Oh velho Deus dos homens

deixa-me ser tambor‚Ä®
só tambor!

Only drum echoing the song of strength and life
Only drum night and day
Day and night only drum
Until the consummation of the great dancing feast!
Oh old God of men
Let me be a drum
Only drum!

Serena Stein is an anthropologist and aspiring photographer. She is completing her MPhil in International Development at St Antony’s College, Oxford. In 2011, Serena spent several months living in Maputo, Mozambique where she joined a Tufo dance troupe in Mafalala while researching urban food consumption, prices, and vulnerability. Serena founded Oxford’s Food Security Forum in 2010.