Quelimane: One Square Mile of Mozambique

By Leo Johnson
Presenter, One Square Mile

media captionWATCH: Quelimane, the town in northern Mozambique where the mayor is trying to return it to its former glory.

Quelimane, the carnival capital of Africa, with its giant tiger prawns, and Bauhaus-meets-Art-Deco architecture, all in the Mozambican jungle, has lapsed into ruin.

The supermarket for this city of 230,000 lies abandoned. The railway stock has been sold for scrap.

The colonial cathedral, built in 1776, is home to a group of street kids. The bell tower, bell long gone, is now their toilet. The altar is their bed. Ten of them sleep on it at nights, like sacrificial offerings to development.

Manuel de Araujo, a former Amnesty International campaigner who is now the town's mayor, is sitting beside me in the 400-seat Cine-Teatro Aguia.

There is no roof or projector. The auditorium is flooded. Our seats are unmatched tractor tyres.

Dead ahead, blocking the screen that on opening night in 1958 showed James Dean in "East of Eden", a four-foot but luxuriant tree is sprouting.

"There will be cinema here again," says Mr Araujo. It's an ambitious vision.

But it's one he has been elected to make happen.

Empty coffers

image captionLeo Johnson and Quelimane mayor Manuel de Arajuo survey the city's derelict cinema

Mr Araujo, son of a local rice farmer, stood for mayor in December 2011. He had one clear promise: to end corruption and make government work for the people. When he won, with 63% of the vote, Quelimane ground to a halt in celebration.

Then he took office. The first thing he says he discovered was that the city's coffers weren't just empty, he faced a debt from his predecessor of $148,000 (£98,000).

Not just that but he had nowhere to turn. Big business pays taxes to the central government not the city. And as a mayor from a breakaway opposition party he wasn't likely to be getting any hand-outs from central government.

By the time he has paid the 800 staff he has got on the books, he has got nothing left. So how do you turn a city around, and do it without a budget?

"There is only one hope," says Mr Araujo. "If more people believe in what we are doing, they'll start paying tax. That will be our budget. Then we can start to rebuild."

So it comes down to this - can he persuade more of the traders in this agricultural town, 1,200 miles by road to the north of the capital Maputo, to pay him the five meticais daily tax?

Pothole politics

Can he persuade them he is in it for them, that government is there to work for the people, not the other way around?

On the trunk road that leads from the fields to the central market we hit a pothole. It was your classic, traffic-stopping pothole - butterscotch orange, and 20 foot (six meters) wide.

Mr Araujo stopped the car. "This is how we are going to do it."

Across the road, there was a small team in cobalt blue jackets. They were rebuilding the road.

And here's the thing. They weren't on a $20m (£13.2m) public tender. They weren't using imported asphalt. They weren't a parachuted-in Chinese construction team, leaving no budget or local skills behind for maintenance.

They were one of Mr Araujo's teams, on a shoestring budget, laying out local cement paving stones, fired from the region's quarries. The road costs just over half a tarmac road to build and close to nothing to maintain.

A different Quelimane

image captionOne of the mayor's road building teams working to improve the city.

Half a mile away the central market has been redone. At the waterfront, the swimming pool, empty for a decade has reopened after a paint and drain job, and a restaurant is doing a booming trade. Its speciality is lulas e camaroes grelhados con arroz, the local grilled squid and prawns, with rice and a lime sauce.

The contours of a different Quelimane have started to emerge from the ruins.

Fix the pool and you get more diners. More diners mean more demand for shrimp. Workable roads mean farmers and fishermen can deliver the fresh shrimp, limes and rice to the restaurant manager.

And not just get paid, but have five meticais in their pockets to pay to the city to fund the next infrastructure project.

What does this all mean for the city? It's not a democratic revolution but it's a project, born out of necessity, to rebuild a city from the bottom up, harnessing the skills, resources and intent of its individuals.

In the last year the central market has been rebuilt, traffic lights put in, and 80% of the potholes fixed. In the same period the tax take from the local community has doubled from 12 to 24 million meticais ($400-800,000).

Racing driver

The people of Quelimane, a site of sustained disempowerment, have started collectively to build the place they want to live in.

In November's local elections, Quelimane will have the chance to decide if they want to re-elect Mr Araujo for a full-term as mayor. If elected, will he remain true to his vision?

At a flooded village, a family with not much left prepared him an enamel bowl of maize and small shrimp.

"Is there a risk," I asked him, "of a cult of personality?"

"I will stamp on it," he replied.

At the river front, later that evening, in front of the re-opened pool, two 15-year-old orphaned street kids were killing time. I asked them what their dreams were.

"Racing car driver," said one. The other replied, "I want to be Araujo."