Marcio Charata greets people in the fish market in Maputo, Mozambique.… (Carlos Litulo/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
MAPUTO, Mozambique — When Marcio Charata lost his well-
paying job in southern Portugal two years ago, he fired off résumés to all his contacts. Determined to survive the economic woes strangling Europe, he secured 20 interviews — but no job. So he set his sights on a faraway and unlikely market: Mozambique, Portugal’s once war-torn former colony.
Today, Charata is a senior executive at a Mozambican media company, joining thousands of his fellow Portuguese who have arrived here in recent months seeking refuge from the euro crisis. “This is an oasis in the desert,” Charata, 33, said with a smile.
Faced with mounting unemployment, rising taxes and cuts to social welfare programs, many Portuguese are traveling to former colonies in search of work, to the very places their colonial ancestors were forced to leave — countries such as Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, which boast some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, fueled by vast deposits of oil, minerals and other raw materials.
Sub-Saharan Africa, to be sure, is no economic promised land. Much of the continent still struggles with high poverty, disease and unemployment, and businesses face major hurdles, including corruption and red tape.
But the Portuguese arrivals are an indication that the continent is on the move economically. The middle class is growing in many African countries, as are large infrastructure projects. Foreign investors are scouring the region for opportunities, while trade with China is expanding. The World Bank predicts that one-third of all African countries’ growth rates will top 6 percent this year, with many nations’ economies swelling more rapidly than the East Asian tiger economies.
From 2009 to 2011, the number of Portuguese who registered with their embassy in Maputo increased about 21 percent to nearly 19,000, and the embassy estimates that more than 23,000 Portuguese live in the Maputo and Beira regions. Many new arrivals are highly skilled professionals, including architects, engineers and doctors.
The number of Portuguese companies expressing interest in investing in this southern African country has more than doubled this year, from 10 visiting delegations last year to 22 this year, according to the Mozambique-Portugal Chamber of Commerce.
Across this capital city, restaurants and cafes are filled with recent Portuguese immigrants. Portugal’s national airline has increased flights to Maputo from once to three times a week.
“Everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, and Mozambique offers a lot of opportunities,” said Goncalo Teles Gomes, Portugal’s consul general in Maputo.
“People think this is El Dorado,” he added, referring to the legendary “lost city of gold” that has captivated explorers for centuries.
A new, growing wave
Portugal ruled Mozambique from the 16th century onward, breeding what would become a shameful colonial legacy, including the forcing into slavery of thousands of locals. In 1964, fighting erupted between liberation fighters and the colonial authority, eventually leading to Mozambique’s independence in 1975.
Subsequently, most Portuguese fled in fear or were expelled by the new government, leaving the country in economic disarray. A 15-year civil war followed, killing nearly a million people before a peace deal was signed in 1992.
The turbulent history between Mozambique and its former colonial master is not lost on many of the new Portuguese arrivals. “I’m not proud of what my ancestors did,” said Charata, who arrived here 11 months ago. “This is an ironic situation. We’re trying to make a second life in the very country that we were expelled from.”
Mozambique’s gross domestic product has grown at an average of 7.2 percent over the past decade, even though the country remains one of the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped. With new discoveries of coal and natural gas, the country could become a major exporter of minerals over the next decade. Many new Portuguese arrivals are heading to the coal-rich town of Tete in the northwest in search of work.
Giant yellow construction cranes soar into the sky in Maputo, where a building boom is underway to feed the appetite of its growing middle class.
That’s why construction worker Manuel Silva, 37, arrived here two months ago. In Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, building activity had come to a halt. So when a Portuguese company offered him a contract, first in Angola, then in Mozambique, he readily accepted. In Maputo, he earns 50 percent more than he made in Lisbon. And his salary gets paid in Portugal.
“My family needs money. We have four kids to feed,” Silva said.