Places are like people. You judge them at your peril and first impressions can be deceiving.
Arriving in Ibo – aside from the quaintness of the small brick building standing forlornly alongside the grass airstrip grandiosely declaring itself as ‘Ibo Airport’ – I was underwhelmed.
In the short seven minute put-putting tuk tuk drive from plane to pillow, I was struck by the emptiness of the town, the dilapidation of the buildings, their sorry neglected state and the apparent lack of pristine beaches. I had come to Ibo Island the cultural and historic centre of the Quirimbas Archipelago in Northern Mozambique, touted as the finest beach and marine destination in the world, the latest and hottest buzz words in African travel, and yet I was overwhelmed by a feeling of “Is this it?”
But there is nothing like time – and it did not take long – to shake off the fatigue of air travel and the misgivings of expectation and initial impressions.
The wind rattling the palm fronds, the evocatively jaunty angle of dhow sails, the nostalgic smell of sea air, the expanse of sand left behind by retreating tides were the first step in my rehabilitation and my falling in love with the quiet, delicate, easy-going charms of Ibo.
There is a curious, commonplace and saddening conformity of beach destinations around the world. They are disturbingly one dimensional with little or no geographical, historical or cultural perspective to give your stay any sense of value. Yes they are relaxing and a chance to unwind from the daily stress and rigmarole of our too time-pressured lives. But is it the best antidote to simply forget and turn off? Is that really the best way to recharge your joie de vivre? Is it not better to live and love again?
In that sense there can be few places more therapeutic than Ibo, where the pace of life is languid and the only coming and going is that of the tide. Yet the small island, xxx square kilometres, is steeped in history. The Portuguese first arrived here in the early sixteenth century and established a thriving trading port that was to reach its apogee in the nineteenth century with a population in excess of ten thousand, a tenth of whom would have been colonial Portuguese.
Today the Portuguese have gone leaving behind their buildings whose character speaks eloquently of former glories and prosperity. In spite of their decay and faded grandeur – one, with trees growing within it, reminded me of Ta Phrom, the Angkor temple reclaimed by the jungle – the buildings are romantic and charismatic. Dull ochre colours, blackened walls, delicate pillars, red tiled roofs, ivory patterns inlaid in doors delight me with a haunting sense of the past.
The main square is large, leafy and surrounded by buildings that once had importance: the customs building, the bank, the church and houses of officials. The church is fascinating. An elaborately carved wooden pulpit and stone plagues on the wall are indicative of an active congregation yet fruit bats in what remains of the roof and Catholic curios gathering dust in a forgotten recess bring you back to today. Despite, most probably because, the island’s three and half thousand residents are predominantly Muslim none of the curious icons have been disfigured or plundered.
In the north western corner of the island a small star shaped fort keeps silent sentinel over the seas. The whiteness of its imposing walls betrays a darker secret within, that its dungeons were once used to house slaves prior to their being shipped overseas. The heaviness of the atmosphere and walls is however uplifted by the beauty and delicacy of the oval windows in the chapel.
Within the gatehouse a community of silversmiths ply their age old trade. Methods and skills are handed down orally over the generations, practices little changed over the centuries. The jewellery is Arabic and Indian in influence, the designs intricate.
Working in the gloom of the dungeons is not kind on their sight. Yet what can they do? There is no hospital let alone optician on the island. We hand over a number of old glasses that we had been asked to bring out from the UK. A quiet nodding of heads in appreciation and then expectantly one of the older silversmiths tries on the glasses. In spite of the worrying thickness of the lenses he tries the first pair with a barely discernible shake of the head and they are carefully placed back on the table. The next pair are scrutinised and then carefully placed on his head. This time a quick nod of the head, a thumbs up and a beaming smile are given in thanks and approval.
In keeping with the charms of the island is Ibo Island Lodge which Kevin and Fiona Record have lovingly restored to create a peaceful haven. It is calming and restful. Its décor simple yet soothing; its staff friendly and patient. Lying on my four poster bed I gaze not at the high ceilings above me but rather out through the large wooden doors, curtains billowing idly in the wind, at the late afternoon sun shimmering on the sea. The triangular white of a dhow sail is the only sign of movement in the equatorial haze and torpor.
Kevin and Fiona first arrived here over ten years ago, just after the end of the civil war. They immediately fell in love with the island, its history but above all its people. The geography and history of the island give it substance but its people make it special. Walking around the village with our guide Dollar as he points out birds, plants and the “moss-key” (mosque) I am warmed by the quiet goings on of everyday life: a woman proudly sweeping her yard, girls plaiting each others hair, boys kicking around a homemade football, children carrying water from the well. The toothless watery-eyed grin of an old man, the sing song greetings of children, the shy nodded acknowledgement of young girls and the warm handshakes of the men all made me feel welcome.
Ibo’s people are a blend of races, its religion a fusion of Islam and island superstitions. The imam and the korandera (witch doctor) live cheek by jowl. The monotonous chanting of children reciting verses from the Koran at the medrasa is in noisy contrast to the lugubrious silence of the next door compound where the sick and unwell are waiting to visit the korandera. We walk past a dirt football field, a few chickens scurrying along eking out their scrawny existence out of the remnants of grass.
“I bet that’s the only fowl play that goes on here,” I quipped sadly.
“Not at all,” Dollar corrected me. “There is a league but the season is over so there are no games at the moment.”
“League? Who do they play against?”
“Well there are two sides here on Ibo – Fleur d’Ibo and Casa Branco – and then they play against the other islands.”
“How do they get around?”
“From Quirimbas, Ibo’s arch-rivals, they walk/wade over at low tide and then walk quickly back when the game is finished. No extra time and no drunken revelry afterwards or they get cut off by the incoming tide. The others get here by dhow. It’s great when there is a game they bring all their supporters in dhows.”
I smile, delighted by imagined scenes that are far more romantic than cheerless coach loads of tribal English football supporters. I have visions of the sea awash with an invasion of white dhow sails. Colourful images of animated supporters spilling out of their dhows with a piratical fanaticism for their team. Flowers not scarves are the badges of loyalty.
If only these were to be the only invaders of Ibo but soon there will be the inevitable influx of tourists to affect the status quo. The corruption of the tourist dollar could well denigrate and desecrate the appeal of this unprepossessing island. I hope not. I also think not. Ibo has been through much, whether the oppression of the colonial Portuguese, the cruelty of slavers or the horrors of the civil war and it has shown a resilience and irrepressible charm that is both disarming and beguiling. Ibo will change but it will still retain the power to change and captivate those who visit.
As our small aircraft taxied to take off on the grass airstrip, I peered out of the plane to find myself charmed right to the very end by Ibo. Framed by the empty window of the ‘terminal’ building were a group of young children, hands on chins, staring starry-eyed at the take off. Every time a plane flies in or out, they run to the airstrip and gaze in awe at the metallic flying bird. They are bewitched by the trappings of the western world yet I have been enchanted by the sleepy spell of Ibo.