It was a home renovation job that brought me to the outskirts of the city a few years ago. The work involved restoring more than renovating and the team decided that terrazzo flooring would appropriately match the existing design. Such things are hard to come by in Mozambique today, where the market has “modernized” and promptly forgotten all that once literally made up the urban landscape and was one of the main touristic drawcards.
I was then surprised to find that there was still a factory in an area almost entirely devoured by African-style suburban sprawl that still produced terrazzo tiles. Terrazzo flooring which is probably a natural extension of terrazzo tiling was quite popular in the early 20th century. Terrazzo tiles, especially of the hidraulico type were popularized by the Portuguese across their colonies and Mozambique is no exception. You will still see both varieties in older buildings around the city and it seems like there is a resurgence of interest in terazzo flooring due to its more visually organic nature around the world. ‘Organic’ is the in thing of our age.
Unfortunately for us after several months of planning and testing, the project did not pan out. The tiles produced at the factory, had too great a variation in quality and were not accepted by the execution team. The old men who still ran the ramshackle factory, while comically enthused at the idea of our wanting these tiles conceded they could no longer produced the goods at the same quality as they once did many years ago.
The New & The Old
Mozambique is a land of contrasts. Even a leisurely walk in the capital city (now Maputo) is material evidence of a once arguably prosperous country, hard on the heels of building a modern metropolis. Brand new buildings designed in Europe sitting next to art-deco ruins from the previous century. One could say today the air and charm of a newer Havana is definitely omnipresent.
And more often than not, when one encounters such contrasts; accentuated differences between the present and the past; where the past is personified in the skeletal remains of old buildings, cobbled roads, churches and peeling paint one is thrown headlong into a search for existential answers.
As we walked into the barren office that one must have been staffed by half dozen or so people taking orders, providing manufacturing support and coordinating deliveries we were met with a wall of various types terrazzo that the factory once produced. I say it once produced because as we were explained, over the last forty years during the which factory lurched in and out off production the casting units used to set the tiles had been lost. Today the bulk of the factory’s operation down to two people involved mostly corrective work.
Joseph Hanlon who I often cite for his very candid retelling of the history of Mozambique explains that the withdrawal of the Portuguese was a messy affair:
The flight created dramatic economic problems…Most dramatic was the abandoning of businesses built up over several years. Suddenly, one day the owner would be gone, leaving behind a workforce without a clue as to how to manage the business. For example, waiters who have never been allowed to handle money or place wholesale orders found themselves running restaurants.
Without the necessary management in place, funds for operations and even demand for its products many industrial units such as this one simply became unsustainable and never saw the light of day again.
The Government of Samora Machel did introduce band-aid measures to reign in controls, prevent theft and keep them functioning but the writing was on the wall. Eventually, the state introduced a holding company (IGEPE) and took over the many abandoned businesses and their assets although assuming control did not mean getting back into production.
What we have here then is a shell of a company, hobbling along and raking in just enough to have few people fed and clothed. There is no talk of reviving the old machines which are considered unproductive by today’s standards; there is no prospect of upskilling workers who are now post retirement and therefore it is unlikely be a part of the country’s industrialization.
All over Mozambique, across the various provinces one can find desolate industrial complexes. The deindustrialization is so acute that some commodities such as cotton and tea once grown and harvested are more viable for export. There is very little emphasis on local processing, distribution and consumption. It is hoped that some day, whether compelled by climate change or some other concern processing, domestic production and consumption will once again return.