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.
About a decade ago, ownership was transferred from private hands to the city of Beira. Yet even municipal employees admit little has been done for the
building or the people inside. Residents say that from time to time, there was talk from the government about selling it to international investors, or
from the residents themselves, who thought a NGO should take it over. None of that happened.
Walking through the building today, it's hard to imagine the hum of guests waiting in the lobby, or bellhops whisking luggage into elevators -- or a lobby
or elevators at all. After the end of the civil war, the furniture was carried off, and the parquet was gradually pulled up. Eventually, as people got more
desperate, doors even were pried from their hinges, plaster torn from walls, glass knocked from windows, and plumbing and wiring ripped out to hawk. Even
the elevators have been taken away, leaving gaping shafts that claim a few lives each year. The place has been stripped to bare concrete, often echoing
with idle shouting.
Once, some semblance of order and self-government held sway in the form of a residents' association; about a dozen members elected to do things like
coordinate space, security, and access to water. But things changed in recent years, according to João Gonçalves, the association's current leader. "We had
meetings, we picked up trash together; we made decisions," he told me, as we crouched over my flashlight in the windowless basement chamber he shares with
a dozen family members. After a few decades, he says, residents have finally gotten burned out. Crime is on the rise, and organization is non-existent.
"Now when I try to speak up or organize people, my own neighbors insult me."