Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Seen in Maputo #2: Vila Algarve Squatters
This is the Vila Algarve, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Maputo despite its current abandoned state. Incredible architecture and fabulously detailed blue and white tile murals aside, the Vila Algarve has an ugly past. Apparently, according to multiple local sources, it served as the headquarters of the Portuguese secret police during colonial times. This was where political dissidents were taken, questioned and allegedly tortured. When looking closely at the building's construction, one can see "windows" just above the ground level that provide fertile fodder for the imagination to run wild with such tales of the past.
Whatever the story of the Vila Algarve, the building was an anomaly as far as abandoned structures in Maputo go in that it was completely unoccupied - no squatting families, no streetchildren, no marginais...not a live soul in the area. Sure, the corrugated metal panels surrounding the perimeter helped keep people out, but they were nothing a motivated person looking for a roof over their head couldn't cope with. I always figured it was due to some collectively-perceived bad karma, that because of the supposed atrocities that took place within those walls, Mozambicans regarded it as off-limits.
One day a few months ago, there was an impressive wind storm that blew down several of the metal panels, facilitating the entrace of passerby. For a while thereafter, the overgrown gardens of the Vila Algarve became the preferred pissing ground - literally speaking - for many a Maputo pedestrian looking to relieve himself in as private a manner as possible in the middle of the city. But other than the public urinators, the property remained unused and unoccupied.
Over the past weeks, this has changed. For the first time since we moved here over three years ago, the Vila Algarve has been invaded by squatters. Ricardo and I have watched them occupy the old mansion - first intermittently, as a place to take shelter from the rain or rest for a few hours, then with more confidence, staking claim to the residence by improvising a clothesline from which to hang a shirt or a blanket to dry, putting a reed mat down for a baby to play on, and stacking a few yellow plastic bidões full of water on the terrace.
There are four or five people who seem to stay at the Vila Algarve on a regular basis. I've not yet worked out whether they are family or simply drifters aligned in the quest to call a place their own residence, for however impermanently that may be. I watch the new inhabitants of the Vila Algarve while I run on the treadmill that we've put on the verandah. I notice their daily routines, the care with which they clean and organize the living space despite their minimal resources. Occasionally they come to a glassless window or an open doorway and gaze across the street at me, the white girl with the bobbing head and pounding feet who appears for 30 minutes each day.
It is the sociological epitome of observation of the Other. I wonder who they are and what they are doing, where they came from, where they eventually will go next. I like to imagine that they are curious about me, too. Who I am, what I am doing running in place on a machine like a crazy woman, perhaps where I am from or what language I speak. One of the women has a baby who is clearly fascinated by my daily exercise. He sits on the terrace and points at me, curious, frequently laughing and tugging on his mother's capulana insisting that she, too, gaze at the funny girl in the building across the street. I imagine what kind of life he will have, where he will end up.
Supposedly the Vila Algarve now belongs to the Mozambican Lawyer's Association. They announced in a press release quite some time ago that they intend to renovate the building to serve as their headquarters within the next two years. I believe that time has nearly come and gone. Thus far, we've seen no sign of renovations; the only change has been the arrival of the squatters, although inevitably they are sure to cross paths with Maputo's finest lawyers at some point, prompting an encounter with the Other of a more definitive nature.