Cuamba: Economic growth despite years of neglect (Cuamba: Uma cidade que cresce no desamparo)
A report from the “frontier” – Original Article (in Portuguese)
Displaying all the typical features of a rural environment, the second largest city of the Niassa province – after the capital, Lichinga – seems more like an abandoned village than a town. But, for some reason, Cuamba is considered to be a city. Its inhabitants would like to see water gush from their taps and paving appear on their roads, but these developments have been continually postponed for more than 20 years.
When Ana Maria, aged 17, leaves her house to fetch water each morning, she must travel at least two kilometres before reaching the nearest source. Often, when this tap no longer provides any water, she is obliged to walk for another four kilometres to the side of the mountain. Here, there is always water but the problem is having to wait in line because the demand is greater. Ana Maria lives in the district of Maçaniqueira and, every day, she must cross the railway line in search of the precious liquid from the other side of the city of Cuamba, in the Niassa province. She makes the journey by bicycle.
Access to the district where she lives is almost impossible, as there is no level crossing. The inhabitants of this area are frequently said to be held hostage by the train tracks. “Living in Cuamba has never been easy, because there are serious problems with the water”, she says, arranging three 20 litre containers on her bike.
Ana Maria lives with her parents and her four brothers. The lack of water for household consumption has been the main headache for her family. They have led a life of suffering. But this problem is not experienced only by one family: it affects hundreds of thousands of Cuamba’s residents. Every morning, the scene is the same. Men, women and children move around the city’s highways carrying various containers. Some travel on foot, some by bicycle or motorbike, but they share a common goal – to obtain drinking water. A tribulation which begins in the early hours of the morning and which continues until sunset.
The problems experienced by Cuamba’s inhabitants are nothing new. They have been going on for years. The problem, replete with ‘white beard’, is known by local authorities but still no solution is in sight. The former mayor, Arnaldo Maloa, had established the issue of access to piped water as one of his main priorities, but very little was done about it. As yet, the only solution found by the poorest inhabitants is the river, to which hundreds of families turn to wash their clothes and to collect water for household consumption.
Access to drinking water is a serious problem in the majority of the city’s districts, directly affecting more than 43,000 households. And as if this situation was not bad enough, the precarious (or almost non-existent) supply system adds to the city’s problems. The citizens, a large number of whom recall the good old days when water flowed from their taps, live with the promise that the situation has to change. When? Nobody can tell. As long as the situation remains unresolved, men, women and children will continue to seek the precious liquid on a daily basis.
In the Cuamba district, only 0.6% of households – of a total of 43,290 – have running water in their houses. Around 9% have water outside their homes, while nearly 34% resort to open wells and 31% collect water from the rivers.
40 years of neglect
Located in the district which bears the same name, Cuamba was known as Nova Freixo until national independence. Today it is a city whose population is estimated at 56,801 residents. The district has more than 184,000 inhabitants, distributed between 43,290 households, and has a total surface area of 5,359 km2.
Promoted to the category of ‘city’ on September 30th 1971, Cuamba remains one of those Mozambican cities whose social and economic development has been endlessly delayed. For years, it has received no considerable investment and this is reflected in the state of the urban environment. The signs of neglect are worryingly ubiquitous. First of all, the access roads are not paved – they are all made from beaten earth, and are full of potholes.
The yellow sand lends colour to the delapidated buildings, which form the concrete part of the city, deforming the architectural lines of a town originally intended for no more than 10,000 inhabitants. The first impression which Cuamba gives is that nothing has been done for the last 36 years to improve the wellbeing of its residents, and this feeling is confirmed upon taking a walk around the impoverished town.
On the dusty roads of Cuamba, another problem becomes visible: the rubbish, fruit of a deficient waste collection system. The inefficiency of the Municipal Council of this small city with all the characteristics of a rural area or suburban district is evident wherever you look.
In the past 40 years, the population has grown rapidly and the city has failed to keep pace with this growth. On the contrary, it has stagnated. It is said that the city is shrinking in the face of the indifference displayed by the local authorities, and there are no plans for regeneration on the horizon. In spite of the establishment of a few small, modest infrastructures and the refurbishment of several district government buildings, Cuamba remains fixed in time, while its problems continue to grow drastically.
The vision of the city-dwellers
The state of neglect in which Cuamba finds itself leaves none of its inhabitant indifferent. Rebellion, sadness and unease mixed with shame at the degradation of the city are but a few of the sentiments visible on their faces, and in their words when prompted to speak about their city. In the streets and main gathering points of the city’s residents, the hot topic of conversation is the intercalary elections to be held on the following 7th December, although there is a great deal of scepticism regarding the possibility for change.
Paulo Farrane, 46 years old and a native of Cuamba, is one of the residents who regards his city with a mixture of sadness and rebellion. He reveals: “Forty years ago the roads were paved, today there’s just dust everywhere. Nobody is concerned with changing the image of this city which is an embarrassment for all its inhabitants”. And he adds: “I’m doubtful that the next mayor will change the situation, but it’s important that the town is governed by another party, as only then will we be able to see whether it is a question of poor leadership or simply of negligence.”
Seeing the city of Cuamba governed by a political party other than Frelimo is the desire of a number of its citizens. By way of example, Abibo Bacar, aged 41 and resident in Cuamba for 20 years, says “this is an opportunity to change the deplorable situation of this city, and this will only be possible if we vote for another party”. But he doesn’t believe that this will happen. “The residents want to see the city under new government, but this seems impossible given the powerful political machine of the governing party”, he says.
For the young, Cuamba is a no-go area for prosperity and social development. The majority have no reason to be proud of the city where they have lived for years. In the urgency of life, people move instead to the city of Nampula.
Alimo Bino, aged 26, is a student and is annoyed with the state of the city. He was born in Lichinga and grew up between Nampula and Cuamba, but it is in the latter that he spent the main part of his youth and as a resident he is familiar with the city’s problems, from the degradation of the roads and the deficient rubbish collection system to the difficulties of obtaining drinking water and the issues of leisure and entertainment faced by the younger inhabitants.
“It is quite difficult to be young here, because nothing ever happens”, says Bino. In the city, leisure opportunities for the young are practically non-existent. The only nightclub, the Golden Eagle, is the main meeting point at the weekend.
“There are no job opportunities and much less assistance for those who choose to opt for entrepreneurship. The problems are increasing and it seems like nobody is interested in resolving them. Cuamba doesn’t seem like a city”, he says, adding: “It’s shameful the state the city’s in”.
Antunes da Fonseca, 38 years old, who works between Mecanhelas and the city of Cuamba, holds the same opinion. He is more sceptical about the city, and doesn’t believe that change will be made. He sees the coming electoral campaign as a waste of time. According to him, there is no political will to “restore the city’s dignity”, saying “I’m ashamed to say that I live in Cuamba”.
Growth in Nampula’s wake
Cuamba is growing but it is doing so as a hostage of another city, or at least that is how its inhabitants view the situation. They note that the economic and social development of the city and of the district is being propelled by that of Nampula. And this growth is in turn propelled by the railway which links the two cities, the main means of transport used by the population. There are almost no “chapas” to guarantee the circulation of goods and people from one place to another. The access road is unpaved and in poor condition, and is considered to be a real nightmare to drive on. It is the freight lorries which make the journey which have largely been the solution for those who cannot take the train.
Alongside the formal market, the informal economic activity which employs the majority of Cuamba’s inhabitants is also growing. Hundreds of people prosper along the railway lines. From Tuesday to Sunday, when the train arrives at around 17.00 in the Corredor do Norte (CDN) station in Cuamba, the site becomes a centre for business opportunities, albeit informal, for many families. Tomatoes, onions, beans and cassava, among others, acquired along the journey are the most popular agricultural products.
Known as “flechistas”, dozens of people earn their living by buying food products during the journey in order to sell them later in the station. Albano Lourenço, aged 33, is an example of this practice. For the last six years he has been moving from Cuamba to Nampula and vice versa. In each journey, he invests at least 5000 meticals: the returns are immediate and his profits can reach 100%.
Inside the train’s carriages, Lourenço purchases all kinds of agricultural produce at a reasonable price and finds hundreds of customers in the main station. “I sell it all within an hour”, he says, not denying that his business is quite profitable. “I’ve never made a loss, that never happens in this business because there are always customers”, he confirms. It is through this activity that he guarantees the sustenance of the six members of his family. He has few expectations of the coming elections, but comments that the residents of Cuamba “need a mayor who will resolve the city’s problems”.
Unlike Lourenço, Justino Augusto travels to Nampula to acquire basic goods, cooking utensils and sarongs to sell on in Cuamba. Aged 28, Justino has spent the last three years working in this way, and is yet another example of an individual contributing to the growth of the local economy, albeit informally.
Economically speaking, Cuamba may be seen as a kind of satellite city of Nampula. It is towards the capital of the north that thousands of inhabitants of the former Nova Freixo travel to purchase goods and make a living, thus helping to revive the local economy.