Travel Guide: Maputo's History Lives In Its Rich Architecture
Maputo City Hall. Photo by Ciku Kimeria.

In this photo essay, writer Ciku Kimeria explores the fascinating history of Mozambique's capital city.

Many things will grab the attention of a first-time visitor in Maputo, but the city's architecture will undoubtedly rank high. Wide avenues, larger than life monuments, buildings that hark back to another time and place—to walk through downtown Maputo, "Baixa" is to encounter history and the stories that this stunning city hopes to share with the curious visitor.

Statue of Samora MachelPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

It makes most sense to begin with the two identical statues of the country's first President Samora Machel. Mozambique was among one of the last African countries to attain independence, as the Portuguese tightly held on to their colonies even after other colonial powers had given in to defeat. Colonial architecture in Maputo reveals this truth: this was a home away from home that Portuguese never planned to leave. How a minuscule country, the size of Pennsylvania was holding on to African territories, 22 times larger than their entire country until around the 1980s, is a story of foolhardy tenacity that would see bloody liberation movements move across most of Lusophone Africa, finally freeing Africa's last colonies. While the British were sipping tea back home and the French were gloomily munching on their croissants, thinking about how they had to officially relinquish their colonies on the continent, the Portuguese were hoping to pita kati kati yao and remain at the helm of power in their few colonies, isolated by oceans (Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe) as much as by language and also borders from their independent African counterparts.

The two identical Samora Machel statues, one significantly larger than the other, are only a few streets apart. The first was built at independence and the second to commemorate the 25 years since his untimely death, when his presidential aircraft crashed near the Mozambique-South Africa border. Machel did not get to enjoy the fruits of independence as only two years after the 1975 independence, the country was plunged into a civil war from 1977-1992 with him dying in a plane crash in 1986. It has been speculated that the apartheid South African government played a role in his death, because they were uneasy with his and fiery, socialist, anti-colonialism, and anti-apartheid message that threatened to stir their own oppressed black population. The pose held by Machel, with one finger in the air, is one he could hold for hours as he spoke.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception EntrancePhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Not far from the larger Samora Machel monument, is a stunning cathedral that harbors various fascinating stories. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, built in the shape of a cross, was completed in 1944. Inside, it includes the obligatory images of a saintly missionary on a boat leaving Portugal to bring a message of redemption and a dash of civilization to those in what they referred to as "the dark continent." It depicts natives, brutally murdering him for trying to change them from their ways. Only a cauldron is missing from this terrifying painting. Images also depict him baptizing some of them, which means that, hopefully, some still made it into heaven. Inside the cathedral, there is an homage to Pope John Paul II whose 1988 visit to the country during civil war is credited with sowing some of the seeds for the Rome peace process, which was a core part of the peace agreement ending civil war in Mozambique.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate ConceptionPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate ConceptionPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate ConceptionPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

As you exit the cathedral, you'll be treated to a golden monument of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. The statue was originally thought to have been made of bronze, but when it was discovered to be made of pure gold, it was moved behind gates. It resembles no other image of the baptism of Jesus, as its sculptor took some artistic liberties: replacing the river Jordan with a bowl, having John the Baptist on a pedestal etc. Catholicism has a stronghold in Mozambique with 30% of the population being Catholic. This explaining why Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius were recently visited by Pope Francis.

Worker's SquarePhoto by Ciku Kimeria

WW1 MonumentPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

The civil war was a time of great loss and destruction with more than a million people killed before a ceasefire in 1992. All the large colonial era monuments were torn down by the populace, saving them from the #rhodesmustfall, post-colonial reckoning taking place in other African cities. All except one, that is. It is of a female warlike figure with fallen soldiers at her feet in Praca dos Trabalhadores (worker's square). The statue is actually a monument to fallen Portuguese and Mozambican soldiers killed in the first world war. It's a stark reminder of the fact that nearly 2 million Africans were pulled into the first world war and their contribution and plight quickly forgotten once the war ended. This particular statue might also have been saved thanks to local folklore that credits the woman in the sculpture with saving her people. As the story goes, there was once a terrible snake that would kill people by falling on their heads and biting them. Having lost her husband to a similar fate, this particular heroine took to walking around with a pot of hot porridge on her head. The snake fell in, died and the rest is history.

WW1 MonumentPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Train Station EntrancePhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Train StationPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Close to the statue is the eye-catching Central Railway Station linking South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Its construction was completed in 1916. It has appeared in various top ten rankings for "world's most beautiful railway stations" by global publications. It's the same train station where scenes of the 2006 film Blood Diamond were shot. Its existence plays a critical role in the Mozambican migrant worker story in South African mines, as it facilitated the movement of people in the region.

Train StationPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Having started with Samora Machel, the father of post-colonial Mozambique, a great place to end the tour is in the fort that has the remains of King Gungunhana, the last emperor of the Gaza empire in Mozambique. In 1895, King Gungunhana, also known as the Lion of Gaza, and his seven favourite wives were exiled—he alone in isolation in the island of Azores in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and they in Lisbon. Exile in Azores was Gungunhana's punishment for having rebelled against Portuguese rule. As he passed through Mindelo, Sao Vicente in Cape Verde, he inspired an interesting carnival tradition that endures till today. He would die in Azores, 11 years after he got there—alone, desolate, defeated and heartbroken. His bones wouldn't be returned to Mozambique until 1985.

Capture of King GungunhanaPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

The groundbreaking 2018 report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy calls for the restitution of Africa's looted assets—including human remains that are still on display in European museums. Perhaps the recent funding of repatriation efforts to the tune of $15 million by George Soros' Open Society will mean that European museums will finally give back artifacts and human remains, allowing communities to properly bury their dead.

Other attractions not to be missed as you walk through downtown Maputo include: stopping by Casa de Ferro, a house designed by French engineer Gustave Eiffel. Yes the same Eiffel of Eiffel tower. It was built in Belgium in 1892 and the cast iron and sheets were shipped to Maputo in parts and assembled with bolts on concrete foundations. It was ideally meant to serve as the residence of the former Portuguese Governor General, but given the climate, it would have better served as a torture chamber as it retained heat in the Mozambican climate. It has undergone several transformations and is now living its new life as a tourist office of sorts.

Casa de FerroPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Various amazing gardens and green spaces in Maputo make walking through the city a pleasure. Top among them is Tunduru Botanical Gardens. The city hall that was constructed in 1947 is impossible to miss. It's also worth paying a visit to the Franco-Mozambican cultural center that hosts various artists. Its garden features works by the incredibly talented Mozambican sculptorGonçalo Mabunda, who makes his sculptures using weaponry recycled from the civil war. In Baloji's iconic Bleue de nuit video, he includes two of his chairs made from AK47s, landmines and bullets—the real iron throne.

Whichever street in Baixa that you choose to walk down, will reveal its secrets and stories to you—if you are listening.

Photo by Ciku Kimeria

Tunduru Botanical GardensPhoto by Ciku Kimeria

Tunduru Botanical GardensPhoto by Ciku Kimeria