Saturday, October 24, 2009

Slum that used to be one of Africa's most opulent hotels

Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power he abdicates the status of man and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence by his own choice. - Ayn Rand

The candidates' faces are plastered along the formerly impressive facade of the Grande Hotel, their smiles competing with a backdrop of graffiti, mould and peeling paint.

At this towering Art Deco structure in Mozambique's second largest city, Beira, the political parties have covered the walls with campaign slogans of progress, prosperity and change.

But the politicians' promises have not done much to improve life at the Grande Hotel, where 3,500 people live in destitute squalor in the shell of what was once one of Africa's most opulent hotels.

"This was very sophisticated," said Joao Goncalves, the building's ad hoc mayor, as he led a tour through the winding corridors of the hotel.

But now, he added, "it's practically a ruin."

As Goncalves walked through hallways overflowing with the signs of his community's misery - rotting trash filling the courtyards, a drunk man collapsed on the floor, a woman urinating off the balcony - he told the story of the building's transformation from luxury hotel to slum.

It's a story that encapsulates the history of Mozambique itself.

The Grande Hotel was built in the 1950s, when the country was still a Portuguese colony.

With its elegant decor, Olympic-size pool and sweeping views of the Indian ocean, the hotel was to be a decadent escape for colonial Africa's elite.

But that dream crashed headlong into Mozambicans' own vision for their country, as the Left-leaning Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) began a war for independence in 1964.

As the winds of change began to stir, the Grande Hotel's owners abandoned the property. The Portuguese dictatorship fell in 1974, and Mozambique gained independence the following year.

But by 1977 the country was again embroiled in violent conflict. Frelimo's Marxist government was drawn into a bloody civil war by the anti-Communist Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo), a rebel movement sponsored by white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa.

The war drove more than a million Mozambicans from their homes. Many sought refuge in Beira, where thousands took shelter in the abandoned hotel.

As the 16-year civil war sent Mozambique deeper into poverty, the hotel's new residents stripped it bare.

The parquet floors, the chandeliers, the elevators, the decorations - all were torn out and sold, burned or otherwise put to use.

Today the hotel is a slum with no electricity or running water.

Rats feast on the garbage that overflows the building's cavities. Residents do their laundry in the fetid water that remains in the pool. Trees grow through the balconies, their roots stretching into the air below.

It's a dangerous place to raise a family.

"We have to be very careful," said Elisa Domingos, a resident and young mother.

"Up on the roof there's an open elevator shaft. When a child falls down it, they die."

Four people have fallen to their deaths in the last decade, said Goncalves.

Yet the demand for rooms in the hotel is high as ever, he added.

The four-storey hotel is packed with people. Besides the rooms and suites, families live in the corridors, the old cold rooms in the basement, and the mechanical room beneath the former pool bar, which today serves as a mosque.

While Mozambique has grown rapidly since a 1992 peace accord - it experienced an average annual population growth of eight per cent over a decade - it remains one of the world's poorest countries.

The boom has done little to improve life at the bottom of the economy. For many the opportunity of free housing is too good to pass up, no matter the conditions.

"It's not that people want to live here. It's because they don't have money," said John Mulobuana, a resident at the hotel.

Conditions are unlikely to improve at the former hotel, with either renovating or razing the building prohibitively expensive options.

Licinio Azevedo, a filmmaker whose 2007 documentary Night Lodgers is set in the hotel, said evacuating the building is not realistic either.

"If you take those people out of there, put them somewhere in the neighborhood, other people are going to come and occupy it because the lack of housing here is very great," he said.

But Azevedo said he also sees hope in the hotel's story.

"I see beauty there from the human point of view," he said.

"Mozambicans are very resistant. They're an insistent, resistant people. So I think they're going to stay there until the end."

1 Opinion(s):

Exzanian said...

This is occuring in JHB right now. Dozens of abandoned buildings have become infested with low life kaffir scum. Many pay the price of crowding in like sardines when fire breaks out, as it sometimes does under these conditions.