Antiquated electricity generator on island of Ibo, Mozambique

On a recent visit to the remote Ibo Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique, we were struck by the island’s stunning views and the soft white-sand beaches, the mangrove swamps and the wooden dhows that have plied in the Indian Ocean for decades. Beautiful though it is, the island is poor, and few people live there. The island has been abandoned many times throughout history, and cries out for more development and for businesses to come and turn the crumbling colonial-era buildings into boutique hotels, cafés and craft shops. Some are optimistic that recently discovered energy reserves will boost the island’s fortunes, but our timing was perfect to witness a smaller revolution: the arrival this spring of electricity.

We dropped by the spanking new Pasteleria Bela Horizonte on the main street to buy the fritters known locally as mandaze and find out how the arrival of electricity had affected the bakery’s business. Owner Assina Nmnuarkha surveyed the tidy seating area of plastic chairs and tables in her café with pride. She pointed to the refrigerator in the corner filled with soft drinks and then, pointing behind the counter, she broke into a wide smile: “Now we can watch television!”

“When the government came to make the announcement, we assumed it was the usual lies and promises,” said shopkeeper Abdel Ismail Musa, speaking in Portuguese through a translator. “But they put it in quickly, and we were so happy.” Leaning on the counter of his little shop, which stocks an array of speakers as well as skin creams, machine-washable diapers and hair ties, Musa said he had recently sold a large television set.

There is still the decrepit-looking generator that has sat in the main street of Ibo’s colonial, or “cement,” town for decades. According to the town elder and de facto local historian, João Baptista, the administrator governing the island had been given enough money from the government to buy a new one but instead kept half of it and bought a generator “from the colonial times” from another Cabo Delgado district. “It worked well only for three days, and then it malfunctioned,” he said.

Baptista, clad in sunglasses and a navy blue pajama top from British Airways’ first class (possibly donated by a passing visitor), sat on his porch one afternoon and told us a bit about the history of the island. He joked that in the Portuguese language, IBO stands for “Well Organized Island”. It was a port for the slave trade, and other trading, along the Indian Ocean coast and then run by the Nyassa Company during the days of colonialism.