When we see the statistics about one of the poorest countries on earth we are horrified, yet somehow it does not feel quite real. It is akin to seeing the results of an earthquake on television. We sympathise, but we haven’t stood next to the dead bodies in the rubble and two minutes later we are thinking about our evening meal.
I thought that I knew what to expect when I travelled to Mozambique with three Australian friends in 2007. I was aware that a massive 54% of the entire population was living below the poverty line. Being confronted with the reality, however, was an entirely different thing from reading the alarming statistics in the comfort of my own home in Melbourne.
Not a single traffic light in the capital, Maputo, was in working order. There were deep potholes everywhere. We saw a man wearing only underpants, which were so moth-eaten that his genitals were exposed, picking through discarded rubbish in a skip for something to eat. With so many destitute and desperate people competing for edible scraps, I didn’t fancy his chances of success. I soon realised that there were different levels of poverty amongst those fitting into the catch-all category of ‘below the poverty line.’
The two or three multi-storey buildings that were under construction in the city stood abandoned like concrete skeletons. The finance had apparently dried up along the way. The only post box that we encountered was a relic from the Portuguese colonial era and it had long been an empty shell.
None of the shabby old buildings had seen a coat of paint for decades. I noticed that there was no graffiti anywhere in the city. In Maputo young people cannot afford spray paint. They are focused on more immediate things, such as finding ways to stave off the daily hunger.
Desperately poor people will do almost anything for money in order to avoid starvation, like the girl we noticed one night standing on a street corner by herself under a street lamp as we were walking to a restaurant at the beach. She was only around twelve years old, thin, with her bony knees exposed under a skimpy, threadbare dress that was fluttering in the evening breeze. A mere child, touting for business and at the mercy of predatory, violent men in a city that was unsafe even during daytime and where the rate of HIV/AIDS infection amongst young females was 20%. Who would save the children in a place like Maputo, I asked myself? In my heart I knew the bitter truth. It would continue to be a chimera.
My mind involuntarily jumped back to Melbourne, to the area where I live, where girls of her age would be walking to school in their neat blue St Helena Primary School uniforms on that same day, animatedly discussing the latest twist in the plot of the TV soapie “Home and Away”.