Mafalala is the capital of Maputo — a story about city identity, cultural heritage and poverty alleviation

By Sara Candiracci

"Mafalala is the capital of Maputo," Ivan told me the first time we met in Mafalala, Maputo's oldest township.

Ivan is a young man who leads IVERCA, an association of students and young professionals created in 2009 with the objective of supporting the development of the neighborhood through the promotion of tourism and culture and respect for the environment.

As in many other informal settlements, the population of Mafalala (21,000 inhabitants) lives in severely disadvantaged conditions, with insufficient and inadequate basic services and infrastructure, inadequate houses and social services, acute security and health problems, and high unemployment levels. Mafalala is, however, also a place of national pride and collective identity, with a rich history infused with the struggle for independence, a landscape marked by colorful historic corrugated iron and wood houses, and a multicultural population that live together in mutual respect for each others' traditions.

Mafalala is located along the line that the Portuguese drew to mark the division between the white part of the city, known as the "concrete city" (cidade de cimento), and its outskirts, called "caniço city" (cidade de caniço), where the local black communities were ostracized before independence. As was the case during apartheid in South Africa, black people could not cross this line and access the "city for the white," unless otherwise stated on their indigenous identity card. In order to gain entry into the "exclusive club," they had to undergo an examination to test, among other things, their ability to speak Portuguese, to eat meals in the Portuguese way, to dress up as Europeans, to be Christian, and to be of "good character." People living in the "caniço" were not allowed to build permanent brick houses, but only temporary constructions made out of corrugated iron and wood. The Portuguese, in fact, wanted to be free to relocate these people easily, quickly, and cheaply in case they wanted to expand "their city."

During the colonial period, Mafalala served as the stage upon which some of the greatest actors from the Independence Movement played their important roles. The famous journalist José Craveirinha and the poet Noémia de Sousa were both born and raised here and both members of the Négritude Movement. They addressed with their writing issues such as racism, colonialism, and black heritage and identity, awakening the political consciousness of the repressed population and turning Mafalala into a hotspot for anti-colonial resistance. Here the former Presidents of Mozambique Samora Machel and Joaquim Chissano, as well as the former Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi — all considered national heroes for their role in the liberation fight — used to hold secret meetings against colonial repression.

Mafalala is also famous for the Marrabenta, a typical Mozambican style of music and dance, which was coined here and blends traditional Mozambican rhythms and Portuguese folk music with influences from Western popular music. A musical style that is synonymous with the multiculturalism that characterizes Mafalala, which has over the years welcomed and adopted people from all over the country (Ronga, Changana, Chopi, Macua) and abroad (Comoros Island, Pakistan, Greece, India, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and Goa among others). Last but not least, Mafalala is the birthplace of Eusébio de Silva Ferreira, considered one of the best footballers of all time.

Mafalala is, therefore, a place of tremendous contradictions, where grinding poverty and lack of basic social and physical infrastructure coexist alongside rich culture, history, and heritage. By recognizing the potential contained within this township, Ivan, Erica, and Carlos — the founders of the IVERCA — conceived a simple but inspirational initiative to help address the challenges of this area, redeem its identity, and reinforce daily life. Through the use of culture, tourism, and the creative support of the local community, their aim is to change Mafalala for the better.

IVERCA organizes historical and cultural tours in the area, through which tourists can learn about its history, visit the heritage landmarks, taste local food, and see the performances of local dancers and musicians. Once a year, the Association organizes the Mafalala Street Festival, a one-month event that celebrates its culture and diversity through its food, crafts, traditional dance, music, poetry, and street theater. IVERCA also tries to mobilize funds to improve the environmental conditions of the neighbourhood. For instance, with funds from the International American School of Maputo they improved the water and sanitation conditions of the local primary school. Here they also promote awareness in relation to Mozambican culture and art and encourage their production, as they recognize the potential that exists when investing in primary school education in lifting people out of poverty.

In 2003, the City Council improved the sewage system of Mafalala and is now refurbishing the local market. But much more needs to be done to improve the life quality of its population and optimize the basic infrastructure and services of the area. The City Council, with 80 percent of its population living in informal settlements, through the World Bank Funded Municipal Development Programme II (2010-2015) produced a "Strategy for Integrated Intervention in Informal Settlements." It is now being implemented in other areas of the city to improve their living conditions and develop physical and social infrastructure and services linked to income generation and secure tenure initiatives. However, themes such as culture, identity, and heritage preservation are not considered as priority areas in this strategy, despite their potential contribution to fight the poverty stigma.

In order to have informal areas socially more adequate, environmentally more sustainable, and physically re-qualified, one must take under consideration the necessity to alter the current paradigm of "productive action" to include another one, which defends the "right to culture" for all. The experience of IVERCA should serve as a start to provide inspiration. This community association is helping Mafalala to fast become an important reference point for cultural events and entertainment in the city, while creating job opportunities, supporting the local school, improving the environmental conditions of the neighbourhood, and promoting its identity. They are creating a new paradigm for the future development of this township, based on culture and creativity, which approach the community and its groups, the city and its places, the environment and its resources.

Sara Candiracci is an architect and urban planner with 10 years of international experience in the design, management and implementation of several urban development projects in various countries (Mexico, Angola, Brazil, Ecuador, Kenya, Nicaragua, Mozambique) and with different organizations, including UN-Habitat, the Inter-American Development Bank, and various NGOs. Her work has focused on poverty reduction programs as well as on urban upgrading and planning interventions, mobility and cultural heritage conservation. She is now working at the Municipality of Maputo, Mozambique, as Urban Planning Advisor for the World Bank Municipal Development Program. She is also conducting her PhD research focused on the development of a methodology to evaluate and value the cultural meaning and potential use of urban heritage in the Global South.

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