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Ibo – a living museum

The Bard had it right when he asked “what’s in a name?” Nothing? Perhaps. Everything? Maybe. And although roses do indeed smell as sweet if we do not know what they are, there are just some names, some words which carry tremendous power and promise and which evoke in us something almost mystical.

For me, “Ibo” is one of them. I had seen pictures of it years before I set foot on this tiny island off the northern coast of  Mozambique. Amazing images of a seeming ghost town, a crumbling monument to colonialism and a dark remnant of the slave trade.

Those photographs were in my mind’s eye as the boat from Matemo Island approached Ibo, with its dazzling white fort dating back to 1500 AD making an indelible statement. This was a place where history lived and breathed. And which time had seemingly forgotten.

As we disembarked, the atmosphere of this island, with its few thousand inhabitants, rose up to greet us. It’s an atmosphere thick with memory and bursting with stories to tell, if only I could decipher their meaning.

For the next three and a half hours I walked the streets of Ibo, absorbing as much as I could from the ancient, crumbling walls of medieval fortifications, and marveling at the incredible beauty of the ruins of colonial rule which line every route.

Houses of traders, merchants, the well-to-do who made the sweltering heat of this region their home, far from their birthplaces in Portugal, India, China and Holland. And the more recent additions, derelict since independence and civil war.

Ibo’s fort dates back to 1500 AD.

Ibo is a living museum, and it’s easy to understand why Unesco is seriously considering it for World Heritage status. Encapsulated on this dot on the map is a melting pot of culture and world history which stretches back virtually to the days of Christ and the Omani Arab traders who settled Ibo, using its tiny port as a base from which to buy and sell people. Slaves.

Ibo was a slave post for centuries before the Portuguese charted these waters, and when Da Gama opened the route to the Spice Islands of the East Indies, and the French established sugar plantations in the Seychelles and on Mauritius and Reunion, the trade in human beings exploded exponentially.

Throughout the era of the Dutch East India Company and its British counterpart, the ongoing wars between the English navy and the merchantmen of Europe to control the valuable cargoes of spice, which in its day was more valuable than gold, Ibo was a strategically and economically important port.

A supermarket – Ibo style.

And when Portugal withdrew from Mozambique, it was on Ibo that hundreds of local people, labelled dissidents and rebels, were put to death in the fort built by the Arabs, and modernised by the wealthy landlords from Portugal.

Their records remain behind, piled high in a tiny, dank room, on sagging shelves and over-burdened cabinets. Strewn across the floor lies the evidence of life on Ibo, and life in Cabo Delgado province, whose capital, Pemba, lies but a short distance away.

You can hear the voices of Ibo speak across the centuries as you wind your way through its decaying streets. And you can imagine how incredible this place must have been in its heydey, if its beauty still persists in spite of decades of neglect.

The streets of Ibo are incredible.

I chose to photograph the island in tones of sepia and black and white. Somehow it did it more justice.

Slowly, the 21st century is catching up with Ibo, and its popularity as a tourism destination is growing steadily, bringing with it much needed capital investment.

Luxury lodges, guest houses and hotels are springing up and crumbling edifices can be bought for a relative song, provided you have the hard cash to renovate and restore them to their former glory.

There is no electricity on the island, in spite of the street lights which have been without power for years. What infrastructure there was is either derelict or broken beyond repair. But tourism holds the promise of new life for the mostly Muslim population.

With no electricity, there is little call for electrical appliances!

I left Ibo marveling at the human spirit and that even in this modern day of technological wonder, places like this still exist, off the map, off the beaten track and way below the radar of humanity.

I hope that World Heritage status is soon bestowed upon Ibo, because we need constant reminders like this of where we have come from, and what makes Africa so incredibly unique and special to our collective history.

To all Africa Freaks, I say this: pack up your backpacks, rucksacks and suitcases and experience Ibo as she is now, before mainstream tourism turns her into a global destination. You will not regret it.

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