Week 11: Mozambique and some very organized gay activists
We made it to Maputo Mozambique! Getting here was some of the more frustrating travel I have done. Maputo is a 9 hour bus ride from Joburg and just looking at it, it seems simple enough. Our reality was far different.
Our first challenge was to decide how we were going to get our visa for the country. Many African countries bordering South Africa raised prices for the World Cup and Mozambique was no exception. The cost of a visa went from around $25 to around $75. You can obtain a visa at the border, but the lineups are long and the bus may just leave you at the border. To get a visa in South Africa, you must spend the day going to the Mozambique Consulate, the bank and back again, a whole day's work.
We seriously considered traveling from Joburg to Swaziland where a visa for Mozambique was still $15 and seeing some of Swaziland at the same time. And the border crossing between Swaziland and Mozambique was not very busy. No chance of being left behind.
And then there were the "protests" about food and electricity prices in Maputo last week where the police shot and killed around 8 protesters and 100's were injured. The buses even stopped going to Mozambique. We were on one the first buses on Tuesday to make the trip.
We decided to take the bus directly from Joburg to Maputo and went to Checkers (a grocery store) and got tickets. The next morning, when we presented our tickets and passports to get on the bus, we were told we couldn't go. No visas. We explained we were willing to be left at the border if "things" were too slow. We were allowed on the bus.
On the way we met a fellow passenger Alberto who was living in SA but was from Mozambique. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to him as he was the one that walked us through the border lineups, first SA immigration (they only had 2 people working for incoming and outgoing travelers) and then Mozambique customs and the visa process.
Mozambique is one of the poorer countries in the world and the physical infrastructure is in ruins. Sidewalks have holes in them as big as small wells. Most buildings are in a"slum looking" condition. And a government like this decides to have one of the most advanced biometric visa programs in the world?
The Border and getting a visa
We arrived in the lineup for the visa. Thankfully there were only 4 people in the line up, 2 Americans and 2 Germans (who were in another bus) ahead of us. When it was time for the last German to get his picture taken and his fingerprints scanned in to the computer&the scanner quit. After 4 reboots of the laptop computer, pulling and pushing USB connections, the system got up and running. All this time the "bus" is impatiently waiting. Well, after nearly an hour, our hearts beating with anticipation, we got the visas and ran to the bus. You could feel the energy on the bus, "they are finally here&let's go".
Our Accomodation in Maputo - The Base Backpackers
We arrived in Maputo after seeing some incredible scenery leaving Nelspruit in South We took a taxi to our accommodation at The Base Backpackers. We checked in and found ourselves in a little room in the basement. We went to have a shower. Not only was the water unheated, we had to try 3 different showers in two rooms to find one with enough water to work. Hardly a good feeling. Guess we had been so truly spoiled traveling in Mpumalanga with Sharon.
It gets darks here even earlier, about 5:30 (we are much farther east) so when we finally walked out the door to go up to the main street, map in hand, to look for a place for dinner it was very dark. After Johannesburg you find yourself so wary of walking around an unknown city after dark, but the people at the Base Backpackers had said it was "quite" safe. We got money at the ATM and spent an hour wandering up and down one of the main "uptown" streets looking for a place to eat. Considering Mozambique is such a poor country, we were amazed that a fairly simple "dinner" or even pizza, could easily cost us $10 to $15 each. We ended up at Mimmo's. It was great. Very mixed clientel and moderate prices.
Getting our own local phone number
On our first morning, my priority was to get a Mozambique sim card for my phone and a local phone number. There are some advantages to a country like Mozambique to the US or Canada. You just walk a couple of blocks to a street side vendor who sells vegetables, fruit, long life milk and sim cards. My Mozambique (Vodacom) sim card cost me about $2 US and the guys at the stand helped me install it in my Blackberry. After I was sure it registered my phone on the network, I bought some prepaid cell time from the guys punched in the code off the card and we were up and running with our new Mozambique phone number.
Gay Activists in Mozambique
First thing on Wednesday morning, I called Danilo De Silva who runs Lambda (and was one of the founders) here in Maputo. We set a time to meet him at 4 that afternoon at their office. Getting to the "office" from the Base, proved to be an event. We found a tuk tuk (three wheeled covered motorcycle) and showed the driver the address and where it was on the map. A slightly older guy, with a seemingly wonderful disposition, we took off and he picked up another passenger.
Well our driver really didn't know where we were going. We were lost. He kept pulling over and asking directions. To do this he had to avoid huge potholes and unpaved areas the streets where we were. I decided to call Danilo and have him give directions to the driver. Even this did not seem to connect. Finally we arrived and it was time to pay the driver. We had agreed on 100 Mt, now he wanted 400, and I refused. Anyway, after he had a big confrontation with some of the staff at Lambda, we paid him 200 Mt to leave.
An amazing office and organization
The offices of Lambda are in a house in residential area of Maputo. Except for seeing a number of "gay boys" hanging around in the yard area, you would not notice that it was any different than a regular house. Then you walk in the door and see the orderly desks, computer monitors and all the people working away. It felt almost "corporate" in efficiency. We were greeted at the door and asked to wait for Danilo who was still in a meeting. Everyone continued with their work.
Danilo greeted us and gave us a tour and introduced us to the people in the office. There was the "main office" with 8 people working, an outside area with table and swing and a building in the back that served as a social area. About 8 guys were chatting away when we arrived.
We sat down with Danilo to learn more about Lambda and being LGBT in Mozambique. The Lonely Planet Guide says "Mozambique tends to be more tolerant than some of its neighbours, although gay sexual relationships are for the most part taboo. The country's small gay scene, centered in Maputo, has traditionally been quite discrete, but things are starting to open up. From an official viewpoint male homosexuality is illegal in Mozambique, although this statute is rarely enforced and gay travelers should anticipate no particular difficulties."
Our conversation with Danilo seemed to reinforce what Lonely Planet was saying. Lambda was founded in 2006 as an advocacy group for LGBT people in Mozambique. They have never been raided (like LGBT organizations in many other African countries), but then again, they have never been allowed to register as a legal entity in Mozambique. Danilo told us that they felt it best to not force things and they were making progress, both with their education for HIV/AIDS, counseling for LGBT people and making their presence known in government policy making. Danilo, as a representative of Lambda, has travelled quite extensively, including Washington DC and recently to the World AIDS Conference last month in Vienna, Austria.
Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony and the language and somewhat the culture, reflect this. As the former "government administration" the Portuguese government does little to pressure the Mozambique government about "Gay" rights. Danilo told us one of the biggest changes regarding being gay, was from the soap operas from Brazil that are shown on Mozambique television.
I asked Danilo what he would like to say to LGBT people living in the United States. This is a condensed version of our conversation:
"I would like to congratulate you on the election of Mr. Obama and his promoting of LGBT rights in the world. We would like to also thank Hillary Clinton and the administration, which now has openly "gay" people serving in it. Please keep pushing for equality, as this has a huge affect on us in Mozambique as well as the rest of the world."
I asked Danilo what was possible and what he would like to see happen over the next few years in Mozambique. "In one year, I would like to see Lambda be registered. It has been pending for 3 years. In 2 years, we can be an established, powerful and key front face in the community. We have been successful in using our model to start groups in the other provinces. In five years I would like to be discussing civil unions and have our 1st Gay Pride."
Louis asked Danilo if he ever thought about moving to some other part of the world where he could live, being openly gay and not have to do all this hard work and often have sleepless nights. He looked at Louis and said that he loved living in Mozambique, it was his home and he has never thought about leaving.
We ending our conversation, chatting about getting together with him and his partner of 2 years and explore some of the "gay friendly" venues in Maputo. There are no "gay clubs" as such but below is a list of the ones in which the local LGBT community hang out.
We left with a feeling of great admiration for this former IT Administrator, his character, his organizational ability and his huge dedication to LGBT people in Mozambique.
Africa Bar (Tues)
Tindzaxa (Ronil) - a new bar, quite small with a live band. Amy, Louis and I had a wonderful time here. Not sure anyone was gay, but the guys would come over and drag me on the dance floor and "teach" me to dance "African style". So very, very friendly. Most anyone would love to chat.
Coconuts/Lounge - a large, cutting edge nightclub, most likely better and larger than any in Seattle or Vancouver, BC. Seemed more "Vegas" like. We were there for a special televised band night and the African style jazz was incredible to listen and dance to. Again hard to sort out if someone might really be gay as it is no problem for men and women to dance together&and most are probably straight.
On Thursday, Louis and I spent the day wandering around Maputo, taking great care not to stumble on the missing concrete on the sidewalks or fall into one of the holes that are so prominent everywhere. I can best describe the look as a cross between African, Havana and a smaller, more rural city in Argentina. It's comfortable to walk around, but in crowded areas you can feel the pickpockets (often younger cute boys) unbuttoning the pockets on your pants and you must be constantly vigilant. The people, like most every where we travel are very friendly and helpful.
We took a ferry ride across the harbour to Catembe (fare about 15 cents US) to get a good view of the city. Last night we went out for drinks and conversation with Alexandra, a friend of our friend Joyce in Johannesburg. She works for Earnst and Young, one of the larger accounting companies in the world. I had just taken a picture of their offices earlier in the day, with the remark "obviously there is money to be counted somewhere even if you don't see it in the infrastructure or the people." We also got to include our new friend Amy from New York who just got an apartment today, so she can stay and research "African Artists who work with recycled material".
Today is the day the SGN website goes up&.from the Lambda office in Maputo, Mozambique. Tonight we are off to a big "Art Gathering" with Amy to meet and see the artists in Mozambique.
On Sunday we are heading north to the incredible beaches of Mozambique at Tofo and enjoy the crystal clear green-blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
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