The enterprising Greeks of Mozambique

Nick Dallas writes from Mozambique where an energetic Greek community still resides

The evolution of the Greek Diaspora constitutes an integral part of Modern Greek history. One cannot appreciate the development of the Modern Greek State without understanding the consequences and impact of migration.

There are very few corners of the globe where Greek migrants have not set foot.

The developed regions of North America, Europe and Australia have attracted the majority of Greek migrants in recent times. Relatively few have sought their fortunes in less developed parts of the world, the so-called ‘Third World’.

Even fewer to Sub-Saharan Africa or Black Africa as it is known in the popular imagination.

The migration of Greeks, although only a trickle, to Sub-Saharan Africa has its origins in the late 19th century, overlapping with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ by the various colonial empires of the era.

As Greeks, they did not have any strong affinity in their relations with the colonial powers of the time so they were dispersed, not only in the more numerous British and French colonies but also to the Belgian Congo, German-controlled Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania), Italian-occupied Eritrea, Portuguese-ruled Mozambique and many others.

In most of these colonies there was a strict division of labour and locals were barred from participating in certain sectors of the economy, while the ruling foreign elites also avoided engaging in some of these sectors.

This opened opportunities for third parties. Greeks, Lebanese, Indians and many others filled ‘middleman’ roles and were instrumental in stimulating local trade and the retail sector.

Although many Greeks were traders and shopkeepers, others took to agriculture and light industry, while many were employed as railway construction workers. What attracted Greeks to these African states at a time when even your average European would have been poorly informed about such African destinations?

The biggest push factor was Greece’s war-ravaged and unstable economy.

The pull factors were numerous but often involved relatives or villagers already residing in these destinations that were prepared to guarantee employment. The ability to easily enter and obtain residence in these countries with minimum bureaucratic obstacles was an added incentive.

The history of these Greek communities in Sub-Saharan Africa has been poorly documented, with the exception of South Africa where the diminishing community still remains sizeable. Very few of these communities are thriving today, many are near extinction, and they have all seen better days.

Their histories and fortunes are often intertwined with the vicissitudes of the political landscape of their host countries. I was fortunate enough to recently visit one of these communities.

The Greek community in the Mozambican capital of Maputo may have passed its zenith decades ago but it still comprises determined individuals that are striving to make an impact while cultivating their cultural identity. Mozambique is a country that has gone by unnoticed by much of the rest of the world.

It is a large country (three times the size of the Great Britain) traversed by several major river systems and an extensive coastline bordering the Indian Ocean.

It often takes calamities associated with natural disasters for it to make the news such as the floods and cyclone of February 2000 where tragic images were beamed to television sets all over the globe.

For the most part of the final quarter of the twentieth century, since its abrupt independence in 1975, Mozambique had to endure the wrath of destabilisation efforts by South Africa’s gruesome apartheid regime. A civil war of unparalleled savagery that was fomented lasted 17 years and left the country in tatters.

The country is still reeling from the massive loss of life, devastation of livelihoods and the destruction of infrastructure during this period. Mozambique, however, is a country with tremendous economic potential.

There is no shortage of arable land, water resources and woodlands for its mainly rural population of 22 million citizens. The country has immense underexploited mineral reserves and modern ports linked to important railway corridors and landlocked countries like Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

The path to recovery has been a slow and painful one, for underlying all these hopes of a traumatised populace are some sobering statistics: a gross domestic product of $AUD450 per capita, double digit HIV positive infection rates of its adult population, extremely high levels of illiteracy and infant mortality.

During my second day in Maputo, I took a taxi ride to the outskirts of the city to visit the renowned waterfront restaurant, Costa do Sol, that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Owned by Emmanuel Petrakakis, this is not only one of Maputo’s but also Africa’s oldest restaurants.

It has been in the family for more than 70 years. During the immediate years after independence when Mozambique had a centrally-planned economy, it was one of the few restaurants that were allowed to remain open; although its fare was limited as it was dependent on food rations it was allocated.

“My father, who was from Rethymno (Crete), was invited to Mozambique by my uncle in 1938.

The restaurant first started off as a 24-hour snack pavilion and mainly catered for customers frequenting the casino down the road. My father use to reminisce about all the Spanish dancing girls who had fled Franco’s Spain that were his customers,” Emmanuel informed me.

“Mozambique is my home, this is where I was born and grew up. Despite its uncertainties and frailties, and as a ‘white’ your tenure is always insecure, this is Africa after all, this is where I feel at ease.

I’m a foreigner in Greece when I go back,” Emmanuel continued. Emmanuel is testament to the adage ‘όπου Έλληνας και εστιατόριο’. I couldn’t believe my luck in Maputo as 100 metres from my place of residence was the Greek consulate. The consulate is run by a dynamic and enterprising individual, Gerasimos (Gerry) Marketos.

He is from the Ionian Island of Kefalonia, Captain Corelli’s island, and has been consul since 2002. All over Maputo I had noticed large black water tanks made from hardened plastic.

These were made by Gerasimos’s company. He has ended up in Mozambique through his Beira-born wife, Maria. His father-in-law who also hails form Kefalonia, came to Beira in the 1930s. Beira is the capital of the central Mozambican province of Sofala and the nation’s second largest city.

It is a strategic port city because its harbour is the terminus of the ‘Beira Corridor’, which consists of a 300 km-long railway line and a parallel road and oil pipeline. For landlocked countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia, this corridor is an economic lifeline.

In the early years of Greek migration, most Greeks descended upon Beira, not the capital Maputo which was then known by its pre-independence name of Lourenco Marques.

In the 1930s there were around 300 Greeks in Beira and had around four million hectares of agricultural land under cultivation with a variety of crops. Gerasimos began to give me a quick overview of Mozambique’s state of affairs and its Greek community.

“Mozambique is a country of immense opportunity but it is still suffering from the after effects of war and other growing pains associated with development. Foreign aid makes up 50 percent of the national budget.

Despite agriculture being the mainstay of the majority of its population and having super fertile soil, the country has a reliance on food imports. Although we’ve had some years of stability and relative peace, the situation remains fragile. In September there were street riots with numerous serious fatalities.

They were triggered by the government’s decision to increase food and utility prices when its local currency, the metical, suffered a sharp drop against the South African rand. I do however remain optimistic about Mozambique’s long-term prospects.

We are very proud of the school and church that caters for the needs of Maputo’s one hundred or so Greek residents. With the economic crisis in Greece last year we had to fight tooth and nail to retain the services of an appointed teacher from the Education Ministry,” said Gerasimos.

He added that the Greeks in Mozambique enjoyed excellent relations with the local population.

Even after independence in 1975, Greeks didn’t abandon Mozambique in large numbers like the Portuguese. The turning point came in 1977, with the move towards a centrally-planned economy by its socialist-oriented

government. This limited the prospects of Greeks as many were self-employed and involved with trade and retail. Before I left Mozambique I had time to visit its Greek school and sit in on an evening class of three high school students run by Lambrini Kolaiti.

The standard was impressive compared to similarly aged students in Australian Greek schools. Lambrini, an intrepid traveller, has had previous teaching stints in Alexandria (Egypt) and Florida. She has around 20 students spread over several classes depending on their level.

Most are of Greek background but not all. Once a student reaches a certain level they are encouraged to sit proficiency exams at SAHETI, the Greek Orthodox South African Hellenic Educational and Technical Institute in Johannesburg.

SAHETI was established in 1974 by a group of founders under the leadership of George Bizos, Nelson Mandela’s former lawyer. I could only admire the efforts of dedicated individuals like Lambrini.

When Greek taxpayer funds are spent funding such teachers, the return on investment is immeasurable.

The Greek community of Mozambique has never been sizeable, compared to its neighbouring South African counterpart, but its impact on its host society has always been disproportionate.

Today a much reduced community has planted its roots in Mozambique and is playing a key role in reconstruction efforts while embracing a very proactive stance in retaining its cultural identity.

Nick Dallas is the author of the book, ‘How to do Business in China’, various travel essays and he is an editor for publisher McGraw-Hill Australia.