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The Squatters of Grande Hotel Beira

You might not know this, but Mozambique is one of the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. Its wild beauty and untamed nature has been drawing visitors since its pre-independence days. Back then, when Mozambique was still under Portuguese rule, the Mediterranean climate of the country’s coastal towns attracted many affluent tourists from Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), South Africa, Portugal and its colonies.

The city of Beira, by the Indian Ocean, although an important port city of the region and currently Mozambique’s third largest city, was never a prime destination. Visitors instead preferred the Bazaruto Archipelago, located nearby, which has beautiful beaches and coral reefs. Yet, Portuguese developers believed that if they could open a magnificent hotel in Beira overlooking the Indian Ocean and the mouth of the Buzi River, they could easily turn the city into an attractive tourist spot.

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

In 1953, the Portuguese company Companhia de Moçambique opened a luxurious hotel named Grande Hotel Beira in Beira. It was by far the largest and most exquisite hotel in the entire African continent with the country’s first Olympic pool, cinema, and a ballroom. The art deco building was clad in beautiful fittings and fixtures, had large panels of glass and a large spiraling staircase. But the wave of guests the operators hoped it would draw never arrived, and the cost of maintenance proved too high. Less than a decade later, the Grande Hotel was shuttered. In its eight years of operation, the hotel never made a profit.

From 1963, the year of closure, to 1975, the year Mozambique gained independence, the hotel remain disused. Soon after, the country was thrown into the horrors of civil war and the Grande Hotel became a military base. The the relative security that the presence of the military provided attracted thousands of refugees to Beira, and the city became a haven for refugees seeking safety and access to international aid entering through the sea port. Many refuges took up residence in the abandoned Grande Hotel.

The civil war ended more than twenty five years ago, but many of the refugees still haven’t moved out. The hotel has been stripped to bare concrete. The furniture fixtures and fittings have been sold off a long time ago. Even the cables and pipes from the walls have been pulled out and sold to scrap. Doors have been pried from their hinges, the wooden parquet flooring has been torn up and even the elevators have been taken away leaving gaping shafts. The Olympic swimming is now used for bathing, while the bar pool serves as a urinal.

More than three thousand squatters occupy the building today. The locals call them Watha muno, meaning ‘not from here’. Most of them are unemployed; others work as maids and truckers in the city. Some of the enterprising ones have set up shops within the hotel selling cookies and bananas, and condoms and illegal liquor.

Once, there was some semblance of order and self-government among the residents with an elected body of members who looked after things like security and access to water. But things have started to go south in the last few years. Now crime is on the rise, and the area is rife with garbage and disease.

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Robertcruiming/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Fellipe Abreu

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Photo credit: Lisa King

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Photo credit: Lisa King

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Photo credit: Lisa King

Sources: Wikipedia / the Atlantic

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