Marine Heritage in Northern Mozambique – return to the Ilha

Marine Heritage in Northern Mozambique – return to the Ilha

Wes Forsythe and Ana Margarida Sousa Santos

Rising from the Depths returned to Ilha de Mozambique in November to catch up with community members, share information arising from our activities and investigate new opportunities for improved outcomes for Maritime Cultural Heritage. The Northern Mozambique project had achieved a key target of completing a wide-ranging geophysical survey in the environs of the island in late 2019. However, the hiatus caused by the worldwide pandemic had resulted in missed field seasons and a regrettably long interval between survey activity and the pursuance of other objectives. This was particularly the case for the more community-focused elements of the project, which aimed to canvas community, business and institutional opinion on a range of topics relating to the Ilha’s rich maritime heritage, such as environment, livelihoods and accessibility.

Accordingly, as soon as Mozambique was removed from the UK’s ‘red list’ flights were booked and preparations made (a window of opportunity as it turned would close on the day of our return). Arriving in Nampula for the two -hour drive to the Ilha we reflected on the time that had passed and how the island had fared in our absence.  Ilha de Mozambique has been a World Heritage Site for 30 years, based almost exclusively on its colonial architecture. In contrast its maritime heritage has not received the recognition it deserves and has been compromised by the activities of salvage operators pillaging European shipwrecks for commercial purposes. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated heritage advocates the practise of licensing such companies was ended some years ago. The establishment of Centro de Arqueologia Investigação e Recursos da Ilha de Moçambique (CAIRIM) in 2018 served to put maritime heritage interests on a new footing, becoming a focus for training and research on the island. The centre are key partners in the Northern Mozambique project, along with Eduardo Mondlane University, Ulster University and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

CAIRIM were the generous hosts of a workshop conducted by the project team in order to re-establish contact with the community, summarize the key results of the geophysical survey and explore future directions for maritime heritage in the region. The workshop was attended by a range of institutions and local government representatives (the mayor, museum, tourism board, Lúrio University, GACIM – the conservation agency); businesses (tour operators, shop owners); citizens and students. Attendees appreciated our efforts to personally update them on the project and were tremendously helpful in identifying key stakeholders and their contacts for interview over the following weeks.

L-R Ana Sousa Santos (RftD), Chafim Braga (CAIRIM), Wes Forsythe (RftD) and Crimildo Chambe (CAIRIM).

A further highlight was meeting with a local youth group involved in recording elements of intangible heritage from the Ilha. They were engaged in collecting a broad collection of relevant material including rituals and beliefs, language, peoples, neighbourhoods and slavery. The work is coordinated by CAIRIM’s Chafim Braga and toward the end of our trip Chafim organised a further three-day workshop presenting the intangible heritage work as a series of story-mapping projects. The workshop brought together the youth activists, members of CAIRIM’s maritime archaeology research team, and heritage professionals from Ilha and elsewhere in Mozambique. While Marine Cultural Heritage is the main focus of CAIRIM, the presentations at the workshop often elided the sharp distinction between built heritage and marine heritage, allowing for a much more integrated understanding of Ilha’s heritage landscape. This has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to conservation efforts and the definition of spheres of responsibility blurring the arenas of intervention by different entities. Alongside the presentations and discussions there were visits to the Museum and a brief dive along the Fort showcasing the island’s diverse heritage landscape.

The time between the two workshops was spent in discussions with stakeholders, which provided context and a broader base from which to interpret on-going activities, threats, challenges, and opportunities in the Ilha. Combined with scheduled interviews were a series of serendipitous conversations with residents in Ilha as well as visitors, the Portuguese cooperation agency, and NGO workers involved in a series of local initiatives that were either directly or tangentially related to Marine Cultural Heritage, and whose perspectives and experiences were valuable. These conversations and observations helped understand the heritage environment in the Ilha as one of intense activity, with a wide diversity of projects. Activities undertaken at present address both natural and cultural environments and include the collection of plastics washed ashore, the revitalising of arts and crafts, work with school children to raise environmental concerns, and the collections of local histories and maritime traditions. While positive, these activities seldom see their efforts rewarded with continuity. Cultural Heritage in the Ilha is understood as beneficial in a province with socio-economic difficulties and low employment, however it remains remote to most of the population not working directly within the tourism or heritage sectors, suggesting the need to further awareness, and harness the local potential for development in ways that offer improved livelihoods. The project will now take these findings forward to propose a series of policy and protection recommendations aimed at regional and national agencies.

The Rising from the Depths workshop at CAIRIM

The project was pleased to return to the Ilha after a long absence and gratified by the response from the local community and all the support received by CAIRIM. Our work on long-term environmental change as a context for marine heritage continues to have resonance as a means to enhance the understanding of individual sites and climate change more broadly. While the challenges facing islanders are considerable there is reason for being optimistic that this most outstanding site for marine cultural heritage in Mozambique can offer a means to improve outcomes for communities in future.

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