Friday, February 25, 2011
A friend of mine recently posted the trailer for the documentary Grande Hotel. After watching it in the morning, it followed me around like a shadow. I spent the rest of the day thinking about it. I only vaguely remember reading about it before I went to Mozambique, but I don´t remember hearing anything about it while living there. But I also didn´t spend very much time in Beira.
I do remember having conflicting feelings about the nostalgia one can feel when looking at old, decaying buildings. I often tried to imagine what a certain street or house might have looked like when it was originally built. I would look at chipped azulejo covering a fountain that no longer spouted water and wonder why someone once cared so much about it, and why no one cared about it anymore.
I came across some of the strangest relics of Portuguese presence, from tombs, cannon balls and bullets on Ilha de Moçampbique to a mini-golf course with fading Disney murals in Mocimboa da Praia. Before independence in 1975, Mozambique and Angola were considered part of Portugal. For the Portuguese that were born there, raised their children there, it was their entire world. Beira was absolutely a beautiful, coastal city. And it is painful to look at old pictures of it, and to know what it looks like now. But then, I feel a second, very guilty pain.
The Grande Hotel may have been the biggest hotel in Southern Africa, but it was not built for Africans. Beira was a European city and all its beauty was meant only for Europeans. Beira´s construction would not have been possible without the exploitation of Mozambicans. Grande Hotel was meant to profit from the wealth of a colony that did not benefit the native people. In fact, as with most wealth, it was dependent on the poverty of others. So how sad should we really feel, looking at the shell of this enormous construction? What is the worth of beauty, when it is built on a foundation of racism?
Recently, there have been several photo spreads of rotting buildings in Detroit. They are fascinating to me. Images of the elegant train station and opulent symphony hall sitting like ruins of an ancient civilization - and they were only built in the last century! Natives of Detroit will probably disagree with me and possibly even take offense, but Detroit is rotting because it was built on the automobile industry, and this industry is ruinous. These great and beautiful public buildings were constructed on a foundation that was not meant to last. Ford himself invented planned obsolescence - intentionally designing cars to outdate themselves quickly to force us to buy them more often.
Beira was also founded on something that could not last. The strangest aspect of Portuguese architecture in Africa is how they kept building, right up to the very end. The Portuguese had been in Africa for 500 years and there is evidence that no one believed it would ever really end until it was already over. When independence wars broke out in Angola and Mozambique in the early 1960´s, the Portuguese populations actually increased in these countries. Today you see plenty of homes and office buildings of an ugly 1970´s style, built just a few years, a few months before independence was granted. Even with fighting going on, they continued to invest and build.
And then there are those buildings left unfinished; rumors of spiteful sabotage by fleeing owners when they finally did lose. Here is an example in Maputo. After seeing ancient ruins in Italy and Mexico, it is strange to see a house sitting in ruins that was only built 40 years ago.
The exploitative policies of colonial Portugal have direct links to the reasons the current residents of the hotel live in such abject poverty. It´s not just that they never would have been allowed as guests in a luxury hotel. Its that the wealth the hotel represented was taken from their labor, land and resources. People like to remember that Beira was once as modern as any European city in its day - and they like to forget that the reason it is not that way anymore is because colonial policies intentionally barred Mozambicans from being a part of colonial society. Not to mention Portuguese involvement in perpetuating the civil war that sealed the fate of all those buildings, once so loved. You have to admit that the tragedy is not what the hotel has become, but that it was ever built at all.