Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ibo Island

Raining again, dramatically dark skies and heavy rolling thunder, but I don’t think you want to read about that again. Instead, let me tell you about my trip to Ibo last week. What have I told you about Ibo so far? It’s an extraordinary place, difficult to describe because it’s so atmospheric. Ibo is a small island, one of the Quirimbas Archipelago. Almost entirely surrounded by large mangrove forests, if you approach by sea the first hint of what it’s all about is a row of large whitewashed mansions lining the waterfront, with red tiled roofs and shady, pillared verandas. If you fly in, you get a good view of the small formal town centre, where the few restored red roofs contrast with the exposed wooden skeletons and crumbling walls of the far more numerous ruins, and the more expansive surrounding neighbourhoods of traditional thatched houses built of stone and lime.

Ibo’s history stretches further back into time than the formal records can tell us. Fragments of ancient Chinese porcelain suggest millennia of trade across the Indian Ocean, mostly in dhows identical to those that daily sail in and out of the port, and indeed there is a group of graves of Chinese sailors whose ship sank off Ibo sometime in the 17th century. Written and architectural records begin with the Portuguese invasion and settlement of the island in the 18th century, when, as part of their strategy to control trade along the East African coast and all the way to the Spice islands of Asia, the Portuguese recognised the strategic importance of Ibo Island. It’s right in the middle of the main trade route, with its deep water port, abundant fresh water for drinking, and close proximity to the mainland. First things first: a small but very secure star-shaped fortress was built, within which and over many years have been incarcerated slaves and political prisoners, the last of which were members of the Frelimo resistance movement captured during the war of independence in the 1970s.

Ibo became the headquarters of the Companhia do Niassa, which – very much like the British East India Company – ruled northern Mozambique for the Portuguese state in return for exploiting its valuable resources, agricultural, mineral, and human. No-one knows how many slaves passed through Ibo on their way to the sugar fields of the French Indian Ocean Islands, nor the quantities of gold, ivory, spices and precious fabrics which accompanied them, but it certainly made Ibo wealthy. Today, many of the once smart and luxurious houses of the Portuguese ruling classes and their mixed race descendants are little more than ruins. Climber figs pull apart the huge stone walls, wooden doors, shutters and beams slowly splinter and crumble under the combined effects of heat and humidity, tiles fall and smash, hinges rust, whitewash flakes off in uneven patches, revealing layers of different pastel colours: pink, yellow, blue, green. It’s extremely scenic, and equally surreal.

Ibo was all but abandoned in the 1920s when the Companhia do Niassa moved its headquarters, and the capital of the Northern Region, to Pemba (then Porto Amelia after the last, French-born, queen of Portugal), which is why it is so dilapidated, but now tourism is breathing new life into the ruins. Realistically, there are few other options for the island’s economy, currently dominated by small-scale (read small income) fishing. If well managed, and that’s where the Quirimbas National Park comes in, it can be a truly world-class destination. If not, the architecture, culture and atmosphere of the place will go to waste. I like to feel I’m doing my bit with my homestays: promoting local culture, partly restoring a few houses, and facilitating the formation of a brand-new community tourism association, which has just elected its board. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I can personally recommend the homestay houses: modest but comfy and clean, you get a taste of local life and also a taste of local foods, including the deliciously aromatic and unique Ibo coffee, home-roasted and served at breakfast. Well worth £5 a night!

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At 10:00 pm, Blogger Debbie Pappyn said...

do you still have a homestay in Ibo?


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