Ibo – officially Ilha Do Ibo, by the Portuguese who colonized it – is one of a string of 32 islands that make up the Quirimbas archipelago, separated from the Mozambique coast by just a shallow channel. Barely two miles long and two miles wide a fringe of reefs surrounds it; at low tide you can walk to the next island. On its main, slightly derelict beach fishermen hammer at boats turned on their sides and a pair of skinny boys walk the mangrove shallows with a net between them, trolling for baitfish. Just offshore cruise elegant-if-paint-flaked wooden dhows; their triangular white cloth sails making them look more windsurfer than sailboat. Ironically their masters can only fish when it’s windy, since most have no motors.
A grassy square of abandoned colonial houses in ice-cream pastels anchors the island’s main town (there are just three). Their grand size and wrought iron terraces and lampposts suggest prosperity. But the ironwork is rusted; the walls pitted with black mold and fig trees grow through the roofs. After the church, the grandest building on the square is the Customs House, pink-painted with ornate iron lattice along its roof. Inside, in a vague attempt at tourism, it has been turned into a tourist office. The unmanned display consists of an elephant skull, an old dining chair with a label reading “cadeira usada pelos portugueses” – chair used by the Portuguese – and a table laid out with a few coffee beans.
Ibo’s heyday was during the late 1800s, based on slaves and ivory. When slavery was abolished in the early 1900s and modern ships no longer needed to stop off so often for water and supplies, it faded. The island’s graves tell how, over the centuries, it attracted the Chinese, Arabs, British and Portuguese. Today it feels as if time has stopped since the Portuguese left abruptly in 1974, its population having fallen from 37,000 to fewer than 6,000. There are no cars, no banks, no postal service, no television or Internet and virtually no electricity … except at its lone and elegantly restored hotel, the Ibo Island Lodge (www.iboisland.com).
One thing that sets Ibo apart from much of the rest of the Africa today – a continent on the verge of continent-wide drought – is an abundance of fresh water. For an hour I watch young boys come and go from a pair of wells in the center of town, pumping fresh, clear water into yellow plastic bottles with red screw tops. It comes from not far beneath the sand and according to locals seems bottomless. (For a good read on how the rest of Africa is dealing with serious drought, read my friend Andy Revkin’s recent. dotEarth report.)
“All day long it will come,” says my guide for the day, Ali, of the clear fresh water pouring from the rudimentary pump. “People even come from mainland Mozambique to get Ibo’s water. Maybe we can turn it into a business. What do you think?” I assure him that if he can figure out a way to export the island’s water, while preserving enough for local needs, he may have found his own path to riches, Ibo-style.
Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.