Tag Archives: Africa

Mare Nostrum?

Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea”) was a common Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. The term was always somewhat ambiguous: it both implied Roman dominance of the Mediterranean and the cultural diversity of the nations that have bordered it for well over two millennia. Since before the Roman times, the Mediterranean Sea always was a meeting ground for cultures that bordered it–sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.

The island of Sicily is not just the geographic center of the Mediterranean, it always was a place where the Orient and the Occident intersected, and it was located at the historically fluid boundary between Europe and Africa. In Antiquity, native peoples like the Elmynians shared the island with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans who all laid claim to all or part of Sicily at some point. Many of these cultures coexisted in Sicily over time, although many battles were fought as well.


Greek temple of the Doric order at Segesta, Sicily, built by the indigenous Elmynians around 420 BCE.

After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, a number of Mediterranean cultures dominated Sicily throughout the Middle Ages. Vandals, Goths and Byzantines ruled Sicily in quick succession, until the Arabs erected the Emirate of Sicily (827-1091). The Normans arrived in Sicily in 1061 and created and gradually expanded their own kingdom that lasted until the Norman dynasty died out in 1198. The Hohenstaufen dynasty from Southern Germany assumed the Sicilian crown, followed by the house of Anjou in 1266. By the early 14th century, Sicily had fallen under influence of the Spanish house of Aragon. The common thread in Sicilian history is that it was always ruled by foreign kings who brought in foreign cultural influences.

Today, the narrow lanes in the old towns of Palermo and Cefalù still show the Arabic layout. But it was the Normans who left a huge architectural imprint on Sicily with their ambitious construction program which was designed to re-establish Christianity on the island. The cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, both close to Palermo, and the Norman royal palace in Palermo with its stunning palace chapel demonstrate that Norman Palermo was perhaps the most important European cultural center in the 12th century–and an early hub of globalization.


Monreale Cathedral, built 1174-1182 in a Norman-Arab style, with its stunning Byzantine mosaics.

The Normans left a big imprint on Sicily from the time of their first arrival in 1061 until around 1250. They created a hybrid culture that is commonly referred to as Norman-Arab or Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture. This civilization resulted from the interaction between the Greek-speaking population, Arab settlers who had dominated the island before the arrival of the Normans, and of course the Romanesque Northern European culture imported by the Normans. As a result, Sicily became the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures under Norman rule, and a hybrid culture arose that integrated Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic elements. The Monreale Cathedral with its Byzantine mosaics and the adjacent cloister created by Arabic craftsmen is the crowning achievement of this culture.

Today, the concept of Mare Nostrum has taken on a different meaning. Following the tragic  2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck in which over 360 African refugees drowned, the Italian government implemented the Operation Mare Nostrum, a military and humanitarian operation designed to simultaneously rescue refugees who cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in unsafe, overloaded boats and to apprehend the traffickers. The initiative has since been scaled back for financial reasons.


Memorial to African refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean, made out of boat fragments (Cathedral of Noto). The inscription quotes Pope Francis “Chi piangerà per questi morti?” (Who will cry for these dead?)

In this contemporary usage, the term Mare Nostrum is intended to embrace the diversity of Mediterranean cultures and to enhance exchange and cooperation between them. But the opposite is happening in Sicily today. The unresolved refugee crisis that is focused on Sicily, primarily due to its proximity to the North African coast, highlights how Sicily’s role in a new era of globalization has changed. What once was the center of the Mediterranean world now has become an outpost of the European Union, the border between the wealthy industrialized nations and the Global South. Ironically, the globalization of the 21st century has created an impermeable border, a bulwark both physical and mental, on an island that was the meeting point of Mediterranean cultures and civilizations for over two millennia.

In Mozambique, China is Encroaching

The Chinese presence in Maputo is subtle, yet noticeable. For instance, the Chinese Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group (AFECG) just built a shiny new international terminal at Maputo airport, and the new domestic terminal should be open by now as well. When I was in Maputo in summer 2012, the small old domestic departure lounge felt positively crowded while the new international departure area was cavernous and empty. The only things missing now are flights and passengers–at this writing Maputo airport has only 19 daily departures. So thanks to the Chinese, there is ample room for growth. Evidently, the Chinese are planning ahead.


Terminal building at Maputo airport, built by the Chinese. (Photo: Ryan Kilpatrick, Flickr, 2012)

Chinese contractors have also been building many roads, government buildings, public facilities, such as the national parliament building and the national stadium, but also commercial buildings. About 30 Chinese construction companies have a base in Maputo. Many projects were built free of charge or financed with soft loans from the Export-Import Bank of China. Mozambique also is an important trade partner. The Chinese have mostly imported agricultural and fisheries products from Mozambique and exported manufactured goods and machinery to Mozambique in return. But in the last few years, they have become more aggressively engaged in logging and in the extractive industries–as is the case in other African countries.

China’s involvement with Mozambique has grown sharply, as Lora Horta summarizes: “As China surges into Mozambique with sophisticated business relations and friendly aid, the former Portuguese colony’s traditional Western patrons are humbled.” One example is the recent exploration for gold by the Chinese Sogecoa corporation in Sofala province. But Chinese imports of Mozambican agricultural products, fisheries, and wood are sharply rising as well. The extraction of natural gas will commence in the near future (and India wants a piece of that action as well). A week-long trip of President Guebuza to China in May 2013 to meet government and business leaders accentuates the centrality of relations with China for Mozambique.

So the expansion strategy China pursues in Mozambique is quite evident. For over a decade, China has been engaged in projects designed to generate soft power, such as erecting stadiums and government buildings. Infrastructure projects followed suit, like roads, airports, and sea ports. In 2009, about a third of all road construction in Mozambique was being carried out by Chinese companies. Recent road construction efforts have been to pave roads along major transportation corridors, like the Nacala Corridor in northern Mozambique that connects the Indian Ocean port of Nacala with Malawi and Zambia.


Highway N8 in the small town of Monapo (Nampula province); the N8 is part of the Nacala Corridor.

Creating a more reliable transportation infrastructure helps China usher in the next phase that has now begun: Chinese-controlled mining and agriculture projects designed to meet China’s massive needs for raw materials and food–although Brazil has emerged as a competitor in Mozambican agriculture and mining as well.

Perhaps the most visible Chinese project in Maputo, and also a part of a long-term strategy to expand economic ties, is the two-story Horizon Ivato supermarket and department store on Avenida Vladimir Lenine which is designed to give Chinese workers and business people a homey feel and give the local middle class access to a wider range of consumer goods, made in China of course.

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Chinese-built and operated Horizon Ivato Supermarket and Sogecoa Apart Hotel in Maputo (constructed in 2004).

The upper floors of this fourteen-story highrise are occupied by the Sogecoa Apart Hotel. Sogecoa is a branch of the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group (AFECG), a Chinese construction and mining company, established in 1992, which also built the airport and the stadium. The AFECG has set up branches in 22 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and in the South Pacific, with heavy emphasis on Africa. It has completed dozens of large and medium-sized projects, like this one, in more than thirty countries with aid from the Chinese government.

Corporations like AFECG often appear as state actors, and their corporate managers like to have their pictures taken with government officials. Photo-ops also arise when agreements are signed, for instance when a Chinese communist party delegation visited in 2011 to found a Confucius Institute in Maputo and to provide anti-malaria medications. Spreading goodwill and generating soft power in Mozambique is an ongoing effort. Soft loans or outright bribes to officials are common, as is extensive ajuda amigavel e gratuita (free and friendly aid) to benefit a broader segment of the population.

One such initiative to spread goodwill in Mozambique is the China-Mozambique “Journey of Brightness” launched in 2011–which is co-sponsored by the China Visual Impairment Prevention Office, the China Association for Promoting Democracy (I am not making this up–it even says so on the background in the image below), the omnipresent AFECG, and China Hainan Airlines. For six days, ophthalmologists from China performed cataract operations free of charge. Of course, frequent ceremonies and photo-ops are created to grease the Chinese PR-machinery.


“Journey of Brightness” ceremony (2011): pictures with Mozambican leaders are prized.

Efforts like this one serve as a glossy veneer to distract from hard-core business moves that take place in a darker and shadier place, one without cameras and without a presence on the internet. What we see here are parts of a well-coordinated strategy by the Chinese government and its dependent corporations to become a dominant force in the economy of Mozambique and to exert greater influence over its government.


The Second Life of Used Toys

Nampula is a market town and trade center of half a million people in northern Mozambique; it recently surpassed Beira as the second-largest city in Mozambique. It is the economic hub of Northern Mozambique with an airport and other transportation infrastructure.

View of Nampula, Mozambique, from the air

View of Nampula, Mozambique, from the air

While walking down a major street close to the center of the city, I noticed a group of perhaps fifteen male workers unload a large container that was sitting on a truck. They were unloading large transparent plastic bags filled with used toys and children’s clothes. There was not much else going on (other than a wrecked ambulance standing in a ditch across the street which was witnessed by the locals with great consternation), so I started to take pictures.

Workers unloading used toys and clothes

Workers unloading used toys and clothes in Nampula, Mozambique

Moments later, a man of about 40 approached me; he made it clear that he was the person in charge of this operation, and he wanted to know why I was taking pictures. He was relieved that my interest was strictly academic–he had been concerned that I was a competitor checking out his operation. So he freely told me the story of the merchandise that was unloaded in front of my eyes. The toys and clothes were donated to churches in Europe by individuals; they in turn sold the collected items wholesale to a dealer who shipped them to Africa in a container. The container was put on a truck at a nearby seaport and brought to Nampula where workers were unloading the bags in front of my eye and bringing them into the warehouse where the items were sorted out.

Large container truck parked in front of the warehouse

Large container truck parked in front of the warehouse in Nampula, Mozambique

As he was light-skinned and spoke very good English (which is not common in Lusophone Mozambique), I asked him where he was from. His response surprised me: Sierra Leone. Of course I wanted the know where he was really from. (I understand that people with a hyphenated origin hate this question–but I felt that this was a relevant part of the story.) It turns out that his family of merchants was from the Middle East but had settled in Sierra Leone a couple of generations ago.

So what happens with these toys? After the toys and clothes have been sorted out, they go to markets all over the region to be sold. But in recent years, some buyers in the villages and small towns have become more market-savvy. They are quickly learning what the fashionable items and brands are in Europe and the U.S. because they have seen them on TV. So the distributor now has to sort all items into three categories for resale–trendy, average, and less desirable–and the pricing structure will have to reflect that.

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Roadside market in Mamudo, Nampula province, Mozambique

In the village of Mamudo, seventy miles east of Nampula, used clothes and other items are sold to the local population at a typical small roadside market. Villagers are unloading the same kind of plastic bags from a small truck, containing used clothes and other items. The toys and clothes appear to have reached the last part of the journey, where their second lives can begin.

There are three interesting angles to this story. The first is that donors in Europe unlikely understand what is really happening to their donated children’s toys and clothes. Rather, donors in Europe happily are left with the thought that their charitable donations are distributed to poor children in Africa for free. While churches presumably use the proceeds from the sale of donated goods for charitable purposes, the goods themselves cross over into the for-profit sector of the economy again. The trade in used merchandise is big business in Africa.

The second point is this: as the market in many African countries is flooded by cheap imports of donated used clothing, it is very difficult for the domestic textile industry to compete. Ironically, these donated goods hinder the development of domestic production and thus make many more locals dependent on development aid. While these donations by Europeans are well-intended, they actually become an obstacle to sustained economic development.

Youths in the small town of Mamudo, Mozambique

Youths in the small town of Mamudo, Nampula province, Mozambique

The third point is less tangible but equally important. How do T-shirts with imprints of Western brands and cultural icons impact these young people? What does this young boy think of this Marylin-Monroe-like seductive blonde on this chest? What does it teach him about consumerism that is unattainable to him, about racial hierarchies, and about the felt cultural, economic and political dominance of the West?