Culture shock two ways – in South Africa and again in Mozambique

A lodge in Morrungulo, Mozambique just down the beach from the property Sean, Marc and Oliver own.

A lodge in Morrungulo, Mozambique just down the beach from the property Sean, Marc and Oliver own.

My first two weeks in Cape Town – especially my first week – I felt almost paralyzed at times by culture shock.

Sure I had been to Cape Town before, but it was always as a tourist. On those trips I had friends to guide or advise me at just about every turn. This time around I am living here and have to navigate mundane chores by myself – things like grocery shopping or filling up the tank in my car.

Cape Town is a very well-developed city, but it’s still Africa. And for better or worse, Africa is most certainly not the United States or Western Europe.

Let me give you a few simple examples: In addition to navigating around some crazy drivers, I also have to make sure I don’t run over any hawkers at traffic lights. Stark economic gaps are regularly on display, such as the view from my house that includes both the mansion-lined bay and a low-income township on the hill above. As a result of that income inequality, petty crime is common and I have to be vigilant to avoid becoming a victim.

But after a few weeks I felt myself getting adjusted and not being quite so startled by these differences. Then I went ahead and gave myself another dose of culture shock in the form of a week in Mozambique.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Mozambique. I have now been there twice and am planning a third trip back in March. But traveling and staying in Moz requires a certain level of patience.

Anyone who drives through Mozambique will most like spend a lot of time on the N1, which is the only north-south thoroughfare through most of the country. That’s an impressive fact when you consider the country is roughly 1,500 miles from north to south.

We drove primarily along the N1 from the border to several towns about 7-9 hours north. The highway was vastly improved since I first visited in 2008, although it’s still a two-lane road for almost the entire trip and you have to slow down to about 35 mph when you pass through each town, which are frequent.

Mozambique is not a place where you want to ignore the speed limit. Cops were set up in every third or fourth town looking for speeders or maybe just a bribe. We stuck to speed limits religiously, but still got pulled over on the way up for allegedly going 72 kph in a 60 zone (we weren’t).

The officer wasn’t wearing his badge, which was a telltale sign that he was freelancing in search of bribes. We were advised to not interact with officers without badges, but that’s easier said than done when he’s standing at your window asking for a driver’s license.

He took Marc’s identification and asked us where we were going. After a brief exchange it was clear he wasn’t going to let us on our way with a friendly warning. We had a choice: ask for the ticket or see if we could pay a fine on the spot.

The fine was supposedly 2,000 metacais (about $65). Naturally we didn’t want to pay the fine since we weren’t speeding. After balking, the officer came back with an offer to pay 500 on the spot and be on our way. We paid, received no receipt, got the ID back and were on our way.

Ahh, the dirty but exhilarating feeling of paying a bribe.

I don’t like the idea of paying bribes. It encourages further corruption and hurts confidence in the country. At the same time, it’s not so easy to be high-minded when you’re face-to-face with a police officer and he has your driver’s license. You could argue and insist on a written fine, but you still can’t be sure you’ll ever get that ID back.

The government has a phone number you can call to report suspected corruption, but you still face the same problem of not wanting to escalate the situation. We knew it was wrong, but sometimes it’s just easier to pay the 500 metacais and be on your way. I don’t like it, but it’s still the reality of travel in the country.

I don’t mean to make Mozambique sound like a scary place, because overall people are quite warm and the scenery is beautiful and the food is delicious. I’ll get more into that and put up some photos in more posts coming soon. Still, I think it’s important to realize that petty corruption and logistical challenges are a big issue that the country must address before it can really take off.


One thought on “Culture shock two ways – in South Africa and again in Mozambique

  1. Pingback: Sexual harassment and laughs in a Mozambican municipal office | John Tierney

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