As the sun sets, a cacophony erupts. Men shout as they throw ropes ashore, their voices accompanied by the sounds of squealing rubber and creaking metal. A dozen engines ignite as the smell of petroleum fills the air. The rusty ferryboat’s metal ramp is lowered with a clang, immediately followed by the rumbling of the first pickup truck, already barreling down the length of the dock. Passengers clamber over railings and file into the narrow spaces alongside the exiting vehicles. Some women deftly balance large bundles of produce on top of their heads, occasionally checking their loads with a light touch. It’s only a few minutes before the last minivan has disembarked, then it is time for us to hand over our tickets and wedge onto a stiff bench. The boat won’t be leaving for another half hour, but there’s a long walk ahead and the chance to sit down is a welcome reprieve.
Such is the most colorful part of our two hour commute home from the Cidade Cimento, or Cement City, as Maputo’s central business district is called. Within the Cidade Cimento are 35-story apartment buildings, shopping malls, government ministries, and the University of Eduardo Mondlane (one of our MATI partners). In our first week, we have ventured over the Bay of Maputo almost every day for meetings, notarization of our travel documents, and grocery shopping. The Cidade Cimento is abuzz with city life, a familiar setting for a group of urban planners.
Meanwhile, life in KaTembe is a bit slower. The boat ride is only ten minutes, but the district is worlds apart. The most immediate indication that you have left the Cidade Cimento is the roads – in KaTembe, they are unpaved and riddled with ruts and holes. A couple of times this week, we managed to arrange a ride in a pickup truck. Those were slow and bumpy affairs, to say the least.
But usually we walk. And walk. And walk. It’s two miles from the ferry terminal to the backpacker’s hostel that we call home. That’s about the same distance that I travel from my Somerville apartment to MIT, but I almost always ride a bicycle or take a bus to campus. That’s not an option here. In the morning, the forty minute walk is a great way to start the day; I rather enjoy the exercise and time for contemplation. If we’re lucky, the lines for the daytime barquinhos are short, and we can get to the other side of the bay in about an hour. It’s another half hour walk to the university.
It’s the return journey that is particularly taxing. The barquinhos stop running at dusk and the large ferryboat only departs once an hour – we have come to expect long waits. Loaded up with as many groceries as we can handle, our footsteps are notably heavier. And then there’s the matter of walking in the dark. It’s winter in Mozambique and sunset occurs before 6pm. Part of the road home is lit by streetlights, but there are long stretches in the dark. We are in good spirits, but the journey is physically and mentally exhausting.
Four hours of the day have been spent on the commute alone; on our busiest days, we spend an equivalent amount of time in meetings and appointments, and are completely sapped of energy upon returning home. It is a humbling lesson. What about the people who commute to full time jobs? Additionally, while there is a market and a few stores in KaTembe, most services are located within the Cidade Cimento, and it is difficult to imagine that anyone could live in KaTembe without making the exhausting journey on a regular basis. Although anyone can glance at a map and observe the physical separation formed by the Bay of Maputo, the experience of traveling between one side and the other has given us a personal appreciation for what it means in human terms.
Although our life in KaTembe is far from typical – we have indoor plumbing, reliable electricity, and waterfront views – even a cushy living arrangement has not been particularly easy, and we have the blisters and stubbed toes to prove it. Living in this underserved district has given us a deeper understanding for what it means to have access, and hopefully this experience will enable us to be more effective as researchers and advocates for water and sanitation services. I have not yet tried to lift a 25-liter jerry can filled with water, but surely it is heavier than a messenger bag filled with groceries.
Reposted from the MIT Public Service Center Blog