Above the Waterline

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Except for Maria Mutola, who won her country's first ever Olympic gold medal in the women's 800-m race in Sydney, the world's best-known Mozambicans are probably Sofia Chivuri and her daughter Rosita, who was born eight months ago in the branches of a tree. The three, Maria, Sofia and Rosita, symbolize not just achievement. They stand for the very survival of an East African state that has come through colonial neglect, violent political change, rebel warfare and the worst flood disaster in living memory. The dramatic helicopter rescue of Sofia and Rosita from the torrents that swept through the country earlier this year highlighted the struggle of Mozambique to keep its head above a tide of cruel fortune.

For almost 20 years after independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique's development was paralyzed by Marxist maladministration and civil war. But in recent years the country had begun to improve and even prosper.

In the 1990s Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano began to liberalize his government, drawing up a new, democratic constitution that opened the way for a formal peace accord with the rebel faction in 1992 and multiparty elections in 1994. With the end of the apartheid regime in the same year, Mozambique formed close ties with South Africa, setting up economic development deals to reopen road, rail and harbor links for South African trade. South Africa-Mozambique solidarity was further strengthed by the marriage of Nelson Mandela to Graça Machel, the widow of Chissano's predecessor.

The Maputo Corridor project, centered on a $330 million toll road from the industrial town of Witbank, east of Johannesburg, to Maputo, was launched in 1996. Development plans along the corridor included $85 million in improvements to Maputo harbor and a $1.3 billion aluminum smelter at Matola, outside the capital. Other development corridors were under way or being planned for the central area of the country, from the Zimbabwe border to the port of Beira, and in the north to the border with Malawi. On Mozambique's beautiful Indian Ocean coastline, local and South African entrepreneurs began to build fishing and holiday lodges.

For two fateful months this year however, the rains came with vengeful power, halting Mozambique's brave march to recovery. The priority was to rescue millions of people from floods that swept entire villages down the raging Limpopo, Save and other rivers. The Limpopo Valley, a rich agricultural area, became an inland sea. More than 700 people died and half a million were displaced. At the height of the disaster the U.N.'s World Food Program was feeding 650,000 people a month. At a donor conference in Rome in May, President Chissano obtained pledges for a $450 million international aid package to help his country to get back on its feet. The promised funds are only trickling in. Firm agreements have brought Mozambique no more than $75 million in aid. The flood relief operations of the wfp, which for the next six months will be assisting almost 175,000 people who are still facing severe food shortages, will cost at least $42 million. The rainy season, which usually begins in December, could bring more flooding.

Amid the gloom, however, is the good news that Mozambique's biggest direct investment project, the aluminum smelter at Matola, opened six months ahead of schedule and below budget. South Africa's synthetic oil producer, SASOL, last week announced plans for development of gas fields north of Maputo. The Mozambique government has also signed a deal with a group led by the British Mersey Docks and Harbour Co., which will invest $57 million in the rehabilitation and development of Maputo harbor. The near-completion of the Maputo Corridor highway,that will put South Africa's most populous region within a few easy hours drive of the capital, has already resulted in the building of several large new hotels.

Still, most of the country of 17 million remains poor. Sofia and Rosita Chivuri will one day have to return to their home in Chibutu, in Gaza province, where the people live on an income of less than 20˘ a day. "Mozambique is a virtual success, not a real success," says publisher Carlos Cardoso. "It may have reached Maputo but it hasn't reached the people yet." Maybe so, but after the neglect, the isolation and the natural disasters of the past, Mozambicans know how to survive. And, like Maria Mutola, they are at last on the move.