Columns

Vanished Shore

Stephen Henighan

To build a city on land flooded by the tides isn’t just a mistake—it’s utopic

In Portuguese, the word beira means a rim, a shore or an edge. The city of Beira, on the coast of Mozambique, has fulfilled all of these roles. Founded in the late nineteenth century by Portuguese colonizers, Beira—even more than most cities in former European possessions—was shaped by the colonialism. Though Mozambique’s fourth-largest population centre, Beira is traditionally its second city in terms of cultural influence, as it defines the central region of the country. A railway line, and parallel highway, ran from the landlocked British colony of Southern Rhodesia to meet the Indian Ocean at Beira. The British colony’s commerce depended on the muddy port in the neighbouring colony, which, prior to Mozambican independence in 1975, was known as Portuguese East Africa. A friend of mine, who was born in Southern Rhodesia in the 1970s, during the last decade of white minority rule, and grew up in Rhodesia’s successor state, independent Zimbabwe, tells me that her businessman father spoke good Portuguese. Like many business people in colonial Rhodesia and independent Zimbabwe, his business depended on getting his goods to market via Beira.

Rhodesian influence made Beira a more conservative, racially divided city than the capital of Portuguese East Africa, Lourenço Marques, which after independence was renamed Maputo. In a paradox, though, even if the races were said to fraternize less than in the capital, Beira became known for its significant population of mestiços: people of mixed European and African origins. White Rhodesians regarded a trip to Beira much as their cousins in England contemplated a Mediterranean getaway.

The writer Doris Lessing, who grew up in Southern Rhodesia, honeymooned with her first husband in Beira in 1939. Lessing recalled Beira’s “streets of sand edged with flame trees, and one-storeyed houses and shops, most of them Indian shops.” The young bride, who would become the woman who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, was surprised to discover “food I did not know existed,” and impulsive Latin customs among the Portuguese settlers. She recalled swimming “in a warm muddy sea.” One of Beira’s most remarked-on traits was that on this shore, the land and the water mingled. Beira was built on a low, flat pan of silt where two large rivers, the Buzi and the Pungwe, flow into the Mozambique Channel at different angles. The cross-currents between these rivers draw intersecting arcs of sedimented sandbanks in the estuary. In residential neighbourhoods of the city, water and land mingle with disconcerting promiscuity, a street yielding without warning to a pool, a creek forging its course in the absence of any evident source or outlet.

Independent Mozambique’s most significant writer, Mia Couto, was born in Beira in 1955. One of the dominant themes of Couto’s fiction is the instability of the post-colonial nation, often expressed through highly poetic descriptions of how the land—understood as both earth and nation—slips away inexorably into water. In 2003 Couto published a short autobiographical essay about growing up in Beira entitled “Waters of My Beginning.” After reading it I was convinced that his imagery of precarious lands, which acquired artistic resonance in Couto’s novels, such as Sleepwalking Land (1992) and The Last Flight of the Flamingo (2000), stemmed from his upbringing in Beira.

“Beira,” Couto writes, “is a place that was stolen from the waters of an estuary, lined with mud and mangroves. A liquid city, on a ground that flows. So much so that when speaking of it, I call it my native water.” When I arrived in Beira, in 2006, I had interviewed Couto in Maputo a couple of weeks earlier. (I would later edit English translations of some of his books. In 2013, I accompanied Couto and his wife, Patrícia Silva, on their first Canadian tour.) My first reaction to Beira was shock: the socialist apartment blocks built by the Marxist government between 1975 and 1989 were in decay, as were the whitewashed Portuguese colonial buildings. Beira resembled a tropical East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took me a day to learn to see past the dilapidated façades to the lively conviviality on the streets: the fresh fruit and Portuguese baked goods for sale everywhere, the Muslim men who ran the downtown shops, dressed in long robes, speaking in loud Portuguese and drinking coffee while their Bantu neighbours preferred soft drinks or beer, the welcoming coolness that waited beneath the trees that lined Avenida Eduardo Mondlane, the tentative renovations being carried out on crumbling colonial mansions. The beachfront was abandoned but for homeless people sleeping on the sandbanks that stretched out into the estuary in an inverted image of the marshes and miniature creeks that interrupted the flow of streets in the Maquanino district where Mia Couto had grown up. I saw little activity along the waterfront. In the disastrous final two decades of Robert Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe sent few goods down the railway line to Beira to be loaded onto ships.

The cyclone that struck Beira on March 14, 2019, damaged or destroyed ninety percent of the city’s buildings. On April 9 CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed listed the damage in Mozambique as “1.85 million people in need, 3,161 cholera cases, 239,682 houses destroyed.” In “Waters of My Beginning,” Mia Couto wrote: “To create a city on land flooded by the tides isn’t just a mistake in urban planning—it’s utopic, a million-to-one bet.” For over a hundred years, Beira won its bet with nature. No one imagined its location would lead to such a disastrous outcome—least of all Mia Couto himself, who was finishing a book about his native city when he received the news that most of it had been destroyed. “It’s as though I’d been writing the story of a friend who, in the meantime, had died,” Couto wrote to his publisher in Lisbon. If, as some commentators claimed, the destruction of Beira was the worst ecological disaster in the southern hemisphere, it was also a warning that urban life, like rural, depends on a natural balance, and that the advancing era of climate upheaval is one in which we no longer have the luxury of pushing our place in nature to the edges of the possible.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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