In Mozambique, a Glorious Inn Becomes a Slum

Beira's once-elegant Grande Hotel has become the world's largest squatter village.

Grand_Hotel_02 (1)-615.jpgVlad Sokhin

Over the course of any given day, people move constantly through Mozambique's Grande Hotel, retracing the steps of guests who used to climb staircases curved like seashells, and ate meals with a view of the Indian Ocean. Once billed as the "Pride of Africa," the hotel still throbs with the activity of a place where thousands eat and sleep -- but no one here is a guest or employee. Instead, the building stands ransacked and crumbling. Its walls are etched with mildew, and its residents are squatters: a veritable city of roughly 6,000 people who've transformed the space into the biggest squatter community in the world.

At the start of each day, several dozen people set up shop throughout the hotel, swatting flies from tables piled with items like cookies and bananas, as well as condoms and bootleg gin, which they sell to other residents. Some people take bucket baths in their rooms, or behind makeshift curtains in hallways and courtyards, and a few make their way into the city of Beira to work coveted jobs as maids and truckers. For many others, a day becomes an exercise in burning time.

"All we want is to work so we can go back to our homes, but there are no jobs," says Arlindo Wafero, who's lived in the hotel for over 30 years. Wafero passes the time teaching himself French, a broken pair of women's reading glasses on his nose.

Ramah McKay is an anthropologist who works in Mozambique; she says that this lack of opportunity illustrates growing pains that are still being felt two decades after the end of a civil war.

"In many ways, post war recovery has been really successful; violence ended in a dramatic way, the economy is growing," says McKay. "But that growth has been unequal, and one of the effects is that some people have changed their lives dramatically, but other people are stuck in limbo."

Limbo could be the motto of the Grande Hotel. When it opened in 1954, the modernist building was meant to be the most opulent tourist destination on the continent. Situated on a major port not far from booming South Africa, Beira's graceful architecture and Mediterranean climate made Portuguese developers believe it would be the perfect spot for a hotel, as well as a magnificent casino to lure even more visitors.

But the Catholic Church pressured them not to build the casino, the wave of guests never arrived, and the cost of maintenance proved too high. After less than a decade, the Grande Hotel was shuttered in 1963. Subsequent plans to revive it as a resort were then shelved as the country tumbled into war in the early 1970s -- first a war for independence from Portugal, then a civil war that lasted until 1991. The hotel was appropriated by the military, which used the basement for holding political prisoners, while officers lodged their families in the guest rooms. Meanwhile, the relative security that troops provided the city attracted thousands of refugees. As the military vacated the hotel, those refugees moved in; current residents estimate that by that point there were several thousand people living inside.

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Annie Murphy is a writer and radio journalist. She is a regular contributor to National Public Radio, an editor at Radio Ambulante, and a lecturer at UC Berkeley's journalism school.

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