Mozambique’s long history and rich mix of tribal cultures provides a unique experience for visitors new to Africa and its amazing traditions. Social strata here depends on comparative wealth rather than ethnicity, and few Westerners are left within the country. Historically, poverty has always been a problem, but the increasingly rapid development of the tourism industry is a hopeful solution.
The first tribes to settle in the region known as Mozambique were the ancient San hunter-gatherer Bushmen who roamed the area for millennia during the Stone Age. Between the first and fifth centuries AD, cattle-herding and farming Bantu-speaking tribes arrived via the Zambezi River Valley bringing with them the technology of iron smelting and weapons-making, subduing the San peoples.
Settlement continued during the medieval period, although little remains of the ancient, mud-walled towns and trading ports. By the early Middle Ages, Arab trading posts were established along the Indian Ocean and on offshore islands, and Islam arrived, with local sultans controlling the what went in and out.
The Portuguese mariner-explorer, Vasco da Gama, arrived in 1498 and, by 1500, traders were well established, serving the sea lanes to the Far East and protected by great forts such as Sao Sebastiao on Ilha de Mozambique, the site of the Portuguese colonial capital for 400 years. The political situation at the time prevented them from paying much attention to its new acquisition, and the coastal trading posts soon fell into disrepair for lack of investment.
With Portugal concentrating on direct Far Eastern and Indian trade and the colonization of Brazil, the system deteriorated into tribal-cultivated agricultural estates owned by absentee European landlords. By the 19th century, sharecropping and punitive taxes reduced the population to a state of serfdom. Direct influence from Portugal had all but ceased and a surreptitious Arab and Ottoman-focused slave trade between Mozambique and Madagascar had been established, lasting until 1877.
In 1891, the administration of Mozambique was passed to the private Mozambique Company, a Beira-based front for British entrepreneurs supplying cheap, forced labor to inland plantations and gold mines of South Africa and other colonies. Policies benefitted white settlers and Portugal, and the native population was either ignored or used. The Cotton Concessionary system was imposed, with low fixed prices for African growers and unfair laws imposed on the tribals resulting in extreme poverty and rampant starvation.
Even after the end of WWII, Portugal refused to give up Mozambique possessions, renaming them Portuguese overseas provinces and encouraging migration to the colony from the motherland. Within a few years, the call for independence had grown into the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique which, in 1964, inaugurated an armed resistance campaign. After ten years of conflict, freedom became a reality in 1974, although by then the country was in ruins.
Civil war between communist and anti-communist factions broke out immediately and continued until 1990, when a new constitution was declared, leading to a form of democracy by 1995. Since then, the endless battles have been confined to politics as the country slowly recovers from its former state of despair. Infrastructure is a priority, and tourism is seen as a potentially essential part of Mozambique’s future economy.
Derived from the region’s Bantu, Swahili, Arab, and Portuguese rulers, Mozambique’s culture has been free to develop since its independence in 1975. The country holds seven main tribal ethnicities along with a number of smaller groups, with each having its own customs, celebrations and cultural icons. Tribal music is all-important, both for traditional ceremonies and religious occasions, with the instruments handmade and largely unchanged over the centuries.
Notable for their excellence in music and dance are the Chopi tribe, also famed for their animal-skin costumed battle dances, while the Makonde are known for their wood-carving, especially in the elaborate masks used during ritual dances. Roman Catholicism is the major Portuguese influence and agriculture is still the economic mainstay, which helps to preserve ancient rituals based on the seasons and crop culture.