I’m back in one of my favourite countries this week – Mozambique. I’ve been here many times, just not recently. It was in Mozambique that I first saw the depredations and suffering of a war firsthand and how there is no one or no thing that isn’t set-back and harmed.

In 1993, just a year after the peace accords ended a brutal civil war where a million people were killed and five million were displaced, I took a mini-break in Maputo. I was working in the private sector in Johannesburg back then and couldn’t resist a holiday by the sea. In an effort to lure back tourists to this once fashionable destination called Lourenço Marques under the Portuguese, the newly refurbished iconic Polana Hotel was offering discounted all-inclusive weekend getaways. This was pre-Internet and since it was a last minute decision I didn’t have time to research where I was going.  All I had was a glossy brochure.

A UN plane was taking off as the South African Airways 737 landed at Maputo International Airport. The only other aircraft were broken down Russian-made planes and helicopters left to rust on the verge. The humidity was so intense that steam rose from the potholes on the runway.  The power was down in the dilapidated airport terminal.

The Polana’s manicured grounds, the grand dame of colonial era hotels overlooking the Indian Ocean, wouldn’t have been out of place on the Algarve or Hawaii. Oversized floral bouquets decorated the wood paneled reception, formally dressed waiters served drinks by the Olympic-sized swimming pool while the rooms were fashionably decorated in forest green. The restaurant offered up famous LM piri-piri prawns and champagne. Sumptuous buffets rivaled any five-star hotel.

However, life outside the Polana oasis was a parallel reality.

There was no mistaking that once the grandest of African colonial cities, Maputo, was now the capital of a critically wounded country and that Mozambique was bankrupt. Everything had been nationalised, including the corner barbershop.  Although the civil war between Frelimo and Renamo forces was fought in the countryside and Maputo was neutral territory, it needed pruning, weeding, sweeping, painting and repairing. Piles of rubbish two stories high were commonplace. Derelict motorcars littered the badly potholed streets. Traffic congestion was an aspect of the future.  Out of respect I took very few photographs, less than a role of film.

Today you can do ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus tours of Maputo, but back then the only tourist bus lacked a door and windows but was a bargain at $2.  There were ten of us in total. We drove through Maputo’s wide boulevards lined with red acacia trees and colonial era buildings like the city hall and the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral.

We stopped at a beach but swimming wasn’t an option because of the raw sewage in the bay. We posed for photos at a lookout. You could have been in any tropical paradise from up on that hill.  What looks like a smart apartment block in the distance; was a cement shell. Our final stop was the now vibrant Central Food Market.  Back then the stalls were largely bare.  There wasn’t much on offer other than a few vegetables and some fish.  Agricultural supply chains had been destroyed, landmines and cluster bombs randomly laced huge tracks of farmland and much of the population lived on food aid.

One of cruelest aspects of war – amputees – were an all-too-common sight.  Some were ex-combatants, while most were peasant farmers and children, victims of landmines. Many hobbled with rough-hewn crutches or scooted along on the ground on a piece of wood on wheels.  Proud people had been reduced to begging.  It was heartbreaking and I remember feeling helpless.  None of this was mentioned in the brochure.

Portuguese was the lingua franca and not many people spoke English. Everyone tried hard to please despite the language barrier.  They desperately wanted tourists to return and for the international community to help rebuild their country.  A waitress at the Polana said to me,  “life is very hard for everything, but at least we have peace.  Without peace we have nothing.”

In my subsequent travels across Africa and the work that I do for Lifeline Energy, I’ve spent time in post-conflict Rwanda, Niger, Liberia and South Sudan and women say the same thing – without peace we have nothing.

Although my tropical weekend getaway wasn’t quite like I had expected, it opened my eyes and heart to many painful realities excluded in travel adverts.

I’ve returned to Maputo many times and never again stayed at the Polana Hotel, which was once white and is now a cream colour .  I’m speaking at a conference  – Critical Reflections on Community Radios in Africa – in traffic jammed, pulsing Maputo with its corporate highrises and expensive beachfront properties. I arrived at the shiny new Chinese-built Maputo International Airport on a direct flight from Cape Town.  It takes more than a generation to recover from a debilitating civil war that wrecked everything.  Half its population still live in poverty. Today Mozambique is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and incredible economic and social progress has been made.  It looks much more like that brochure I saw 20 years ago.

by Kristine Pearson