Mozambique, a Nation in Need

October, 1985 – Vol.1 – No.1

Mozambique is one of many African nations struggling to break into the twentieth century after five hundred years of forced subjugation under colonial rule. From the time of its first encounter with Portuguese explorers in 1487 until its independence in 1975, its only significance to the western world was found in the import/export column of a government ledger in Lisbon, Portugal. A land with many natural resources, it was such a profitable colony even with minimal development that Portugal was quite willing to expend great sums of money to keep it long after other European powers had given up their foreign possessions. By 1975, fully 40% of the total Portuguese budget was devoted to maintaining the war being fought in the various colonies, but because of the revenue they produced this was not considered unprofitable. It was not the loss of money, but the loss of lives that finally persuaded Lisbon to end the war it had been waging for ten years in Mozambique.

Considering the great worth of Mozambique prior to independence in 1975, it might seem surprising to find that now, after only ten years, it has become the most impoverished country in the world. Economic upheaval compounded by natural disasters compounded by ongoing civil war have brought the Mozambicans face to face with realities Americans experience only through their television sets. What is the story behind this tragic land? What were the events leading up to the present circumstance? And what is God’s purpose in bringing such things to pass? Hopefully, this and subsequent articles will shed light on the answer to these questions.

Geography and Climate

The country of Mozambique is a Y-shaped territory on the southeast coastline of Africa, facing out toward the large island of Madagascar. Its unusual shape defies description, except to say that laid on its side it resembles an old fashioned lady’s button-down high top shoe. Its most striking geographical feature is its long coastline, a characteristic that also figures prominently in its history and in its plans for the future.

Mozambique has a land area twice the size of California, quite sufficient for its 14 million inhabitants. Maputo, its capital city, is in the southern-most part and enjoys a climate similar to Miami’s, being the same distance from the equator but in the opposite direction. As you move north into the tropics the temperature does not change much because of the simultaneous rise in elevation that also happens to occur. Truly mountainous terrain is not encountered, however, except near the northern borders.


When people think of Africa they always think of lions, zebras and elephants, and according to the Encyclopedia Britanica Mozambique is well supplied, though I cannot say I encountered many roaming the streets of the two cities I recently visited. Besides the above species, the cheata, hyena, jackal, rhino, antelope, buffalo, and giraffe are said to be common. The 50 rivers which traverse the country en route to the sea are plentiful with crocodiles and snakes, and veteran missionary Gordon Legg tells a hair-raising story about a little boy literally snatched from the jaws of one such crocodile.

People and Religion

The people of Mozambique are made up of ten ethnic groups, seven representing different African tribes and the remaining three being Indians, mestizos (mixed races), and Portuguese. Of the latter, only a few thousand remain of the 250,000 Portuguese once living in that country.

Five different religions are found in Mozambique. Many Africans are still animists, serving capricious spirits supposedly belonging to their departed ancestors. Staying on the good side of these hostile spirits is a wearisome and often self destructive task. Islam was introduced in certain parts of Mozambique by ancient Arab traders, though most present day Muslims are far from purist, incorporating many African practices never dreamed of by Mohammed. Hinduism is common among the Indian population, and approximately 20 percent of the people have adopted the Roman Catholicism introduced by the Portuguese. Only 2 percent of the population is Protestant, according to some authorities.

Natural Resources

The Portuguese exploited three main resources in making Mozambique such a profitable colony. They were agriculture, its long coastline, and cheap labor. Despite having the highest death rate from starvation in the world last year, Mozambique was self supporting in food as recently as 1978, and some people have said that with proper development Mozambique could easily feed not only itself, but the rest of Africa as well.

Because of its disproportionate length, Mozambique controls much of the African coastline. It boasts one of the best natural harbors in the world, and in the past collected large sums of money through the use of its ports by land-locked neighbors to the west.

The Portuguese exploited Mozambique’s human resources by rounding up “unprofitable” natives and shipping them to the gold mines of South Africa. The money paid to Mozambique for this service was used in part to make Maputo, the capital, one of the most beautiful cities in Africa.

In addition to all this, before independence Mozambique also began developing a healthy tourist industry as foreigners discovered the appeal of its beautiful sandy beaches and big game hunters looked forward to safaris through its wildlife preserves. Its fishing waters also boast some of the best prawns in Africa, and the land is thought to contain significant coal deposits.

Early History

Those have not been the only assets attracting men to Mozambique, however. Long before the Portuguese came, seventh century Arab traders sailing down the African coastline made frequent stops on Mozambican shores to barter for gold, ivory, rhinoceros horns, and slaves. In exchange for these sought-after treasures they gave the Africans china, cloth, glass, beads, axes, and daggers. It was not long before the coastline was dotted with numerous trading cities, luxuriously administered by Arab traders.

The first contact with the western world did not come until some eight centuries later. In 1487, and again under Vasco da Gama in 1498, Portuguese explorers looking for a sea route to India sailed into the Mozambique harbors for a respite after the difficult voyage around the cape of Africa. They were impressed by the sophisticated trading society and opulent cities they found, as well as the exotic wares that could be obtained at the trade fairs. The potential for gain was not lost on the king of Portugal and in 1505 an expedition was sent to take control of these trading centers by force. The expedition was successful, and within five years Portugal controlled every major port from southern Mozambique north to the equator.

It was not until the 1600’s that Portugal began advancing into the interior of Mozambique. This came about as the ruling African dynasty began to weaken and insubordinate chieftains began breaking away from their leader. Portuguese opportunists supplied the African ruler with men and arms to fight his battles, but demanded land in exchange for their help. Although the crown was not desirous of devoting its own time or money to such conquests, it was quite willing to strengthen the claims of its subjects to the land so obtained by pronouncing it part of the colonial empire. In this manner, many portions of the country became fiefdoms under the control not so much of Portugal as of rapacious and enterprising individuals.

Wanting the advantages of an empire with none of its burdens, Portugal was a willing accomplice as these men and their “chartered companies” carried out their designs on Mozambique. Preferring to let others conquer the interior, it nevertheless hoped to reap some of the profits while absorbing none of the cost. However, as the chartered companies became strong enough to fulfill this objective, they also became too strong to be controlled by Portugal. Operating more or less independently, they became a law unto themselves. Policies that promoted maximum company wealth not surprisingly promoted maximum African subjugation as well. It was a time in Mozambique’s history that parallels the book of Judges, where every man did what was right in his own eyes, to the extent that he could get away with it.

This situation did not change until the 1900’s when Portugal finally became secure enough to oust the private companies and establish its own jurisdiction. Though even modern Mozambicans often allude to “500 years of Portuguese rule,” it actually was not until 1918 that Portugal finally wrested control from the last African and European holdouts. At this time Portugal began encouraging its native citizens to emigrate to the new land in an effort to maintain its grip on the territory. By 1930 there were still only 15,000 Portuguese attempting to hold down a nation twice the size of California. By 1950 there were 50,000. As the frontier was tamed, Mozambique became a desirable place to live because of its temperate climate and potential for wealth, and thus the population doubled in the following ten years. Finally, at the time of independence in 1975, 250,000 Portuguese were calling Mozambique their home.

The African, however, noted little change as rule by “prazero” or private company was replaced by rule by Portugal. He was still considered one of the natural resources that came with the land, to be exploited to whatever extent was convenient. While it was in fact possible for an African to become a citizen of his own country, the process was a difficult one few could negotiate. Africans were not encouraged to read or write, or even to learn Portuguese, thus even today over 90% of the population remains illiterate and unable to speak the national language. Apparently, to maintain their subjugated condition, Africans who did not attain to citizenship had a host of regulations they had to observe. They could not live in permanent dwellings, for example, but had to remain in traditional cane or mud huts, even if they had the money and initiative to build brick houses. While the typical African was only concerned about food crops, he was nevertheless required to grow cash crops such as cotton, sisal, cashews, etc. which the government then bought for a pittance and exported at great profit. Beginning in their teens, males were required to have documentation that they were gainfully employed at least six months of the year or they could be compelled to work on the local plantations or contracted to work in the South African gold mines. Portugal had a formal agreement with South Africa by which 60% of the African’s earnings were paid to Mozambique which took a substantial portion before “transferring” it to the worker. In a country with few formal jobs, it was the exception rather than the rule for an African to be “gainfully employed,” thus the government always had a plentiful supply of laborers to use as it pleased.

For the African who was highly motivated, the system had fixed limits beyond which he could not go. And while there is always the danger of developing a wrong perspective from uniformly biased reports, one certainly cannot call it unreasonable to conclude from such rules and regulations that the underlying philosophy in Mozambique was to keep the natives in a perpetual state of underdevelopment. Perhaps it came from a sincere belief that Africans were unable to assume certain responsibilities. Or perhaps it was to delay as long as possible the day when Africans might seize control of the system and drive it into the ditch. Or perhaps it was purely to facilitate their exploitation. In any event, the policy contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. The day inevitably came when an African slipped through the system and attained a position of power and learning commensurate with that of any other individual.

That man was Eduardo Mondlane, a Mozambican who left the country to become educated in South Africa, Portugal, and finally the United States. He taught anthropology at Syracuse University for a time, then in the 1950’s became a functionary of the United Nations. In 1961 he returned to his native land and became the key individual in what rapidly developed into a war for independence.

That struggle, culminating finally in “liberation” for Mozambique, along with the radical changes that followed soon after, will be the subject of the next issue of the Mozambique Evangel.

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