Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. During his academic career he focused his work on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region. After taking a fiction writing course from his friend, the late Fred Pfeil, he embarked on a different way to write about the world. For more information, go to:
Setting a thriller in Mozambique is a bit risky. I mean, who’s even heard of the country? Why not pick a location that readers recognize? I thought of that, but decided against it. For one, Mozambique is a fascinating country. Second, verisimilitude. The story I tell in the novel is based on real developments, why not set in a place where it’s actually happening? Third, the people are very nice. To help readers become familiar with the country, here’re the FAQs.
Where is it? Mozambique is in southeastern Africa, right across from Madagascar. It has a population of almost 29 million people and a per capita income of $1,265 per year. The country is about twice the size of California and has some 1,535 miles of coastline, much of it sandy beaches. It has a tropical climate with wet seasons from October to March and a dry season for the rest of the year.
What’s with the funny shape? You can thank Europe for that. During the late 19th century scramble for Africa, European countries were jockeying for colonial possessions. Portugal had been present in Mozambique since 1500. But the 1884-85 Berlin conference decreed that any claim to land had to be backed up by actual presence there. In the words of historian Malyn Newitt, it was a bit like musical chairs, when the music stopped, that’s where the lines were drawn.
Did anything happen before that? Sure. The area was populated about sixteen to eighteen hundred years ago as part of the migration of Bantu-speaking people from central Africa to the southern tip. About a thousand years ago, the entire eastern coast of the African continent was part of a wide-ranging trading network that linked it to the Arab peninsula, India, China and Africa. Arab and Persian traders were frequent visitors. Mozambique’s location on the ocean helped make it an important gateway to the interior of southern Africa. Kingdoms, like the Great Zimbabwe kingdom, exported gold, ivory and slaves in exchange for textiles, porcelain and other goods.
How long has the country been independent? Since 1975. But it took over a decade of struggle to get there. During the conflict, the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO, Mozambican Liberation Front) with about 7,000 fighters faced some 60,000 Portuguese soldiers. The struggle ended when a left-wing military coup in Lisbon overthrew the dictatorship. The 250,000 Portuguese settlers there were none too happy. Their lifestyle was coming to an end. Mia Couto, the Mozambican novelist, described their reaction like this: “These traitors [the soldiers in Lisbon, MN] are selling us off to the blacks.” A year later, the country became independent.
It’s been smooth sailing ever since, right? Uh, no. White-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were alarmed to have a majority ruled country on their borders, especially one that gave sanctuary to resistance groups from both countries. Right after independence, the Rhodesian secret service began funding and arming the opposition group Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO, Mozambican National Resistance). The ensuing civil war lasted until 1992. The toll was horrific and it set back the economy dramatically. Only in 1994 were the first democratic elections held and have been repeated at regular intervals ever since.
Why are the people so poor? Hmm. Difficult question. I know everybody is tired of hearing about colonialism. But bear with me. Portuguese rule was ruthless and created an exploitative and coercive economy. To make the colony pay for itself, local farmers were forced to produce crops for export to Portugal, these included cotton, cashew nuts, tea and rice. In addition, the colonial government allowed South Africa to recruit workers for its diamond and gold mines, earning a good commission for each person. So the country was structured as an extractive economy. There was little investment in manufacturing. Today, the top exports are aluminum, electricity, liquified gas and tobacco. Not a whole lot different. I know it’s been a long time, but remember institutional structures persist long past the time when they were useful. Economist Douglas North got a Nobel prize in economics for that insight.
Add to that poor economic policies during the 1980s, often inspired by Soviet models that had zero insight into tropical agriculture and you get the idea. It also hasn’t helped that some public officials have been corrupt. But let me say this, corruption exists in all countries, the rich countries simply have better ways of dressing it up. In other words, if Mozambique’s economy hadn’t been structured the way it was, the corruption would’ve been called “constituent service.” Current growth projections range from 5% to 7% annually, but much of that still comes from exporting natural gas, discovered in 2012. Also, see the previous question.
What about the culture? Mozambique has a thriving music scene. Marrabenta is by far the most popular dance music. Check out Mabulu performing live in Lisbon. Other styles include Timbila and, the latest, Pandza. Artists in the genre include Lizha James ,who won the MTV Africa award in the Lusophone category, and Rosalia Mboa.
There are a few writers of note in Mozambique. Most have not been translated. Paulina Chiziane was the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel. Mia Couto, mentioned above, is a novelist and non-fiction writer and probably best known outside the country. I should add that Henning Mankell, world famous author of the Wallander series, used to live in Mozambique starting in 1986 on a part-time basis. He was the artistic director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo.
Map-Public Domain Wikipedia
Island of Mozambique – Steve Evans – Creative Commons
Portuguese Troops – Joaquim Coelho – Free Use
Land Mine Victim – Ton Rulkens – Creative Commons
Maputo – Andrew Moir – Creative Commons