In a previous life I worked for a consultancy company that managed donor-funded overseas development aid programmes in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Essentially, they were projects funded by the EU, the World Bank and various national aid agencies and aimed at assisting economic development and recovery. My job was to identify upcoming projects, assess their viability for the company, express interest and put together a team of experts and a technical proposal if we were lucky enough to get shortlisted to make a pitch for the project. The job involved a lot of travel for marketing purposes, fact finding, identifying local partners and experts and, in the case of existing contracts I was managing, to ensure that projects were on target and the beneficiary was happy with progress. Typical projects involved fielding a team of experts for a couple of years to help develop and implement a foreign direct investment strategy with a relevant government department or agency, or a tourism development plan, or a private enterprise development scheme.
Anyway, my very first trip overseas for this company was in October 2000, to Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. Another aspect of my job was the occasional delivery of short-term consultancy inputs on specific projects. The contract we’d won in Mozambique was for the development and implementation of a cost-sharing grant scheme to help small and medium enterprises build up their business and create employment and my job was to develop a management information system for the scheme during the two weeks I would be there.
After a 24-hour trip, via London, Paris and Johannesburg, which included a hair-raising flight from Johannesburg through the middle of a fierce storm to Maputo, I arrived mid-afternoon and was picked up by our local partner and delivered to the project office. I was introduced to the team. In his office, the Team Leader was busy fiddling with the remote for the air conditioning unit attached above the office’s window (later that week, he would break the remote, leaving the aircon blasting out hot air and turning the office into a veritable sauna). I was to share an office with Sean Fergus, a train the trainer expert; I was set up with a desk and PC and given a run through on what was what. Another of the team was from Brazil, a quiet-spoken, modest man with whom I ended up having a conversation about family and kids (a few months later, this man would die, along with the pilot of their light aircraft, on a flight to the north of the country).
At five, it was back to the guesthouse where I’d be staying with the international experts. It was run by a South African couple and luxuriously appointed, situated as it was in the embassy belt. I noted the armed guards at the entrance and at all the entrances to the buildings we had passed to get to our residence. Sean, who did all the driving when I was there (in a Volkswagen minibus supplied by our local partner for the duration of the project), told me that the security industry was the fastest growing sector in Maputo; crime was rife throughout the city (during my second week there, our SME expert, Eugene Reilly, would be mugged and have his mobile phone taken, luckily escaping with his life; apparently, there was a genuine 50/50 chance he could have had a bullet put in him).
A quick shower and change of clothes and we were out again for dinner. We all, six or seven of us, piled into the minibus, Sean driving, me sitting up front with him, and headed for an Italian restaurant that came highly recommended.
Maputo is a large, sprawling city, dominated by skyscraper apartment and office buildings and luxury hotels. The massive influx of development aid to the country had brought a level of prosperity to the city through the money injected into the local economy by the high number of consultants and aid workers staying there. But a closer look at the buildings revealed the ravages of the civil war that had raged throughout the country for 15 years after the Portuguese had left in 1975. And repeated flooding of the city had left the roads in a terrible state. Gigantic potholes were usually filled in with sand, which quickly disappeared to expose the craters again; on the way to our restaurant, I was treated to the spectacle of open-backed trucks, jammed with people, belting along the roads and skidding about the potholes with gusto. It was standing room only on these trucks, people splaying over the sides like sheaves of wheat swaying vigorously in the wind; it was a miracle nobody was catapulted from the vehicles.
We passed a building distinctly different from the tall apartment complexes. It was a single story blockhouse, crumbling and dilapidated-looking, bars on the few windows with no hint of light issuing from them. Sean told me its name, Kim Il-sung Prison (the previous government, a communist regime, had renamed everything, all the streets and buildings, after famous communist leaders and personalities – the new government, elected by a very narrow and controversial margin, was in the process of changing them all back again), which didn’t surprise me; it looked like something out of Papillon. Apparently, the prison didn’t feed its inmates; that was the job of their families, who had to travel from wherever they lived on a daily basis to bring whatever meagre offerings they could in order to keep their beloved alive. If that somewhere they lived happened to be hundreds of miles away, members of the prisoner’s family had no alternative but to camp out in Maputo for the duration of the sentence and find ways to scrounge up food (leading to prostitution and robbery and exacerbating the whole vicious cycle of crime).
At our restaurant, we took a table by the open windows and ordered from the menu. A consequence of the spending by aid workers and consultants in the city was the increased cost of accommodation and food and drink; inflation had taken hold and was making it very difficult for the locals to get by. Throngs of people crowded the sidewalk outside the restaurant hawking their wares: beautiful wooden statuettes carved from ebony; small coffee tables tops that rested on collapsible legs; vividly coloured batik wall hangings. Sean warned me not to accidentally catch their eye: ‘You’ll be hounded to buy something from them.’ I asked if they lived in the city and was informed they came into the city from the surrounding countryside every day. I fretted that in the very attempt to help this country, I was somehow contributing to a raft of consequential problems.
After our meal, we strolled back to the minibus; a few coins of the local currency, meticais, dropped in the hand of a young boy had ensured its safety. Backing out of our spot, Sean pointed the minibus down a slipway that would deliver us onto the main highway out of the city centre. As we approached the main road, several police officers jumped out from behind a couple of wide-trunked trees and waved us down with their machine guns.
‘What the-,’ Sean exclaimed. He pulled over and one of the police officers rapped on the driver’s side window with the barrel of his gun. Rolling down the window, we were informed in broken English that we had made an illegal turn.
Alarm bells went off for everyone in the minibus; why were there so many policed officers? Carrying guns and hiding behinds trees. A quick reconnaissance confirmed that they all had their name badges blacked out.
The supposed leader of the group proceeded to lambast us in no uncertain terms as to the severity of the crime we had committed. I had visions of us being hauled off to Kim Il-sung Prison and me calling my wife, Susan, to ask if she wouldn’t mind hopping on a plane from Ireland with some food for me.
We were, of course, eventually assured that we would be free to go if we were prepared to pay an on-the-spot fine. But they weren’t interested in meticais; they wanted South African rand or US dollars (no new local currency had been printed in a decade or more; besides the fact that meticais notes were manky dirty, you needed a breeze block’s worth of them to buy a loaf of bread).
We were being ripped off; our Team Leader began to protest loudly, throwing in phrases like ‘World Bank’ and ‘ Ministry of Industry and Commerce’ in an attempt to get across the message that we there to help the country build their economy.
The lead police officer’s eyes lit up, no doubt more interested in his personal economy and that of his immediate circle of acquaintances; two of the other officers disappeared, to return a couple of minutes later with reinforcements. These guys knew they were onto a good thing; they were going to hit the jackpot tonight.
When we continued to resist in forking over cash, the lead officer turned to our Team Leader in the back of the minibus and demanded to see his passport. Reaching over Sean’s shoulder with it, the Team Leader displayed it for inspection. The police officer took hold of the passport and pulled on it. The Team Leader wouldn’t let go and a tug-of-war ensued. Back and forth the passport went through the window, with Sean having to shove over a bit to give the two contestants room to battle it out.
Eventually, the lead police officer gave up, letting go of the passport and sending the Team Leader crashing back into his team mates in the back seat of the minibus.
By this stage, the police officer was fuming; the other officers were getting a little jumpy, readying themselves for a potential escalation of hostilities. He turned his attention back to Sean.
‘Get out of the van,’ the police officer demanded.
Sean made to do as he was instructed. I put a hand on his arm and said, ‘No. Don’t fucking move.’ I had visions of Sean huddled on the ground as the assembled constabulary kicked the living daylights out of him.
I briefly glanced back over my shoulder to include the others. ‘If you get out, we all get out.’ I didn’t relish the possibility of getting kicked about the place or coshed or whatever, but I felt we were all better off sticking together no matter what.
Sean stayed where he was and tried to remain calm in the face of the gesticulating police officer. Continued demands for money were met with a stoic refusal to do business. Even though we were still petrified, the newly understood imperative that we all stick together acted as a galvanising force that glued us to our seats.
For the first time, in what felt like an eternity to me, a note of doubt crept into the lead police officer’s eyes. And after a few final half-hearted attempts to extract funds, he glanced at his fellow officers and his tone softened to a more gentle admonishment of our error. By now we were all very familiar with every pore of this guy’s face and perhaps the possibility of us following this incident up with the relevant authorities was dawning on him.
He almost wagged his finger at us as he took a step back from the minibus and cracked a smile. A wave of his gun indicated we should be on our way. Sean tried not to put the foot down in getting us the hell out of there, attempted to retain a modicum of measured nonchalance as he slowly pushed the minibus out onto the highway and drove us home. Nervous glances in the rear view mirror assured us that the minibus was not going to become a cheese grater of bullet holes.
Back at the guesthouse, a bottle of whiskey was produced and we all knocked back a double measure in intense relief. Amongst the jittery laughter and jokes, I was assured by Sean that this kind of thing mercifully didn’t happen all the time. As I finally made my way to bed on my first night in Maputo, I was thankful for that; I really didn’t think my heart, or bowels, would be able for the excitement.