Descent into Mozambique

Spring 1990 – Vol.6 – No.1

The South African Airways 737 touches down on the tarmac and coasts to a stop in front of a large, attractive concrete building that is the Maputo International Airport. Stepping through the door of the plane and down the jetway passengers are embraced by hot tropical air rushing up to greet them. By the time they have walked their carry-on bags to the terminal some 50 yards distant, moisture blown in from the Indian Ocean just a mile or so away has turned skin and hair into sticky fly paper that seems to trap every grain of sand and fleck of dirt wafting by.

Inside the building it is drier but still warm. Air conditioners hanging out many of the windows are like clouds without rain in a desert land. Only the metal cages are left. The inside parts have been removed.

Once through passport control and customs, a menagerie of battered cars wait to transport foreign guests to their destinations in the city nearby. The drivers are dressed to match their vehicles – in clothing old and worn. And these are the relatively well-to-do etrepreneurs of Maputo. After all, they own cars and earn real money from foreigners who pay in convertible currency.

My driver is friendly and helpful, like everyone I have met here. He loads the baggage and then secures the trunk lid with a piece of rope. The latch ceased functioning long ago, and like most things in Maputo, it cannot be replaced.

In the city the driver dodges his way down concrete streets, avoiding potholes while pedestrians avoid him. Like an old Mississippi riverboat pilot he knows exactly which side of every block is most navigable.

The scarred buildings to right and left are like the tree lined streets. Vestiges of colonial elegance are still discernible, but 15 years of crowding and hard use without the means of maintenance have converted them into dirty slums. Garbage service and trash cans are rare these days, so litter is everywhere.

Darkness settles on us as we make the rounds of hotels. Apparently none of them operate at full capacity due to the scarcity of linens, light bulbs, functioning sinks and toilets. In fact, there are so few rooms in the city that it is nearly two hours before we find a hotel with a bed to let, and Maputo is hardly a tourist center any more, though it once was. The desk wants ten dollars per night, paid in South African rand, in advance. The posted rates are closer to $4.50. But it’s easy to see they are desperate for real money, so I give him the rand and return to the taxi for my belongings.

The driver helps me haul the luggage through the narrow entrance way. It is crowded with people listening to African music coming from someone’s radio. Though they are friendly enough, I still feel distinctly out of place, being clean, white, and neatly dressed. Judging from the odor hanging in the air, it has been a long time since many of my fellow boarders have enjoyed the luxury of soap, daily baths, or clean clothes.

My room is on the fifth floor, so the driver and I begin the long climb up zig-zagging flights of stairs. Beyond the first landing I discover why so many of the guests were huddled down below. There are no more lights. Bulbs are too precious a commodity here to expend on halls and stairways.

On one landing I spy an elevator and ask the driver if he thinks it works. He laughs, but there is sadness in it.

Puffing and sweating in the darkness we count the flights and agree to rest on the fourth floor. Broken plumbing has converted a communal bathroom into an open sewer and I am glad to be moving on after exchanging loads with my friend.

On the fifth floor he leaves his bags on the landing and walks up to each door, his face only inches away, looking in the darkness for the one with my number. After finding it we manhandle the luggage the remaining few yards and I open the door, wondering if the inside will be any better than what I have seen on the outside.

I flip the light switch and a ten watt bulb comes on. It dangles over a bed. Like a neon sign, I can look directly at the orange filament without even squinting.

The walls are very dark. Either there are no windows, or they have been boarded over because of broken panes. More detailed information will have to wait till morning, when perhaps there will be enough light to see by.

The only furniture is the bed. There are linens on it, but the mattress sinks trough-like in the center. In view of this I wonder if I have found one of the better hotels. Certainly it has been much used.

I am almost surprised to see a private bathroom to my right. The door is gone, so I simply reach inside to turn on another light. In all my trips to Mozambique I have not seen a clean bathroom, but what I am looking at now is more than can be remedied by the sponge and Lysol carried in my bag. Something black is growing over the tub and toilet. For the first time I think of turning back.

Feeling hot and sticky like the people I left on the first floor, I try the faucets to check the water pressure. Nothing happens. Then I note the pail of water sitting in the tub and everything makes sense. How can these poor people clean the bathroom when there is no running water? For that matter, how will I clean it? Or clean myself?

My thoughts drift back to three hours earlier. I am seated comfortably aboard a modern, clean, air conditioned jetliner. A well groomed flight attendant serves complimentary snacks while passengers peruse the pages of the in-flight magazine. The luxuries of life in scenic South African resorts are carefully captured in photos and advertisements.

But now I am hot, sticky, and perspiring, standing in a dark, dirty room where I would likely spend the night without the prospect of either a bath or shower, or even flushing the toilet. The contrast is overwhelming, and only two hours into Mozambique I am wondering if that world left on the plane really exists, the world of comfort, air conditioning, elevators, cleanliness, and light.

For a moment I consider my options. Then slowly I turn off the switch, close the door, and pick up my bags. Behind me the driver does the same, reluctantly. But as we struggle down the steps, baggage in tow, the somber notes of an old hymn begin to echo in my mind. Slowly a question comes swirling out of the misty depths of those minor chords emerging into the light of consciousness.

Is this even close to what Christ experienced when He left the eternal throne in heaven to lie in a feed trough, to hang on a cross, to become sin for men that they might be made the righteousness of God in Him?

I’m thankful He didn’t consider His options.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly – minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

Rank on rank, the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.