ILHA DE MOCAMBIQUE, Mozambique, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Cackles,
moans and gasps stream from the only police station on Ilha de
Moçambique, a small island off the Mozambican coast, as five
officers cluster around a small, battered television, their eyes
glued to the figures arguing on the faded screen.
It is time for "Balacobaco" (slang for "awesome"), the
Brazilian television soap opera that has taken the southern
African nation by storm, and the officers are so engrossed they
barely notice their chief of police behind them.
"Turn that off and get back to work," he barks.
In fish markets, hospital waiting rooms and government
offices, Brazilian soap operas have become a Mozambican staple,
underpinning a cultural bridge across the South Atlantic that
Brazilian companies are rushing to exploit as memories of
Mozambique's brutal 17-year post-independence civil war fade.
With the former Portuguese colony thought to be home to some
of the world's biggest untapped coal reserves and enough natural
gas to power Western Europe for more than a decade, the pickings
"Mozambique is a natural partner. We speak the same
language, have the same origins," said Miguel Peres, the local
chief executive of construction firm Odebrecht, which has been
in Mozambique since 2006.
"The Portuguese colonized both countries, so we identify
with their problems, the same problems we have in Brazil. So we
feel comfortable doing business here and we see lots of
Mirroring the primacy of "Balacobaco", which regularly
attracts twice as many viewers as nightly news bulletins on
state television, Brazilian mining giant Vale lays claim to
being Mozambique's biggest foreign investor.
It has already spent $1.9 billion developing the Moatize
coal mine in the northern province of Tete, and has plans to
spend another $6.4 billion upgrading a 900-km (600-mile) rail
line linking Moatize to the coast.
Not that the Brazilians have the run of the place.
Even though the United States - along with apartheid South
Africa - supported Renamo rebels against the communist-backed
Frelimo party now in government, U.S. firms face few
consequences nowadays and U.S. energy firm Anadarko rivals Vale
in the sums it has poured into off-shore gas exploration.
In November, the firm sponsored a U.S. election day bash at
the American Cultural Center in the capital, Maputo, complete
with cheeseburgers, policy debates and a mock election.
Situated on the Indian Ocean, Mozambique is also well-placed
to service Asia's energy-hungry, fast-growing economies, most
notably China, and the attention foisted on Mozambique mirrors
the new 'Scramble for Africa' playing out across the continent.
Chinese companies have recently renovated the domestic
terminal at Maputo's airport and are building a ring-road for
the bustling capital, construction work that has helped attract
tens of thousands of Chinese nationals to Mozambique.
A Confucius Centre offering Chinese language classes
subsidised by Beijing opened in Maputo in October, with a
Mozambican choir singing the Chinese national anthem in fluent
So many Mozambicans have flocked to the institute's
$30-a-month courses in its first month the centre has had to
double the number of classes.
"More people want to learn Chinese. They think it is the
language of the future," institute director Xing Xianhong told
South Korea, another Asian economy waking up to the
potential of Africa, is planning to open an embassy in
Mozambique next year.
As with Tanzania and Kenya to the north, Mozambique is also
home to a large Muslim Indian community that has retained its
strong ties - cultural, family and commercial - with the
Yet Brazil remains the front-runner in the race to win
Mozambique's heart, thanks to intangible cultural connections
like the popularity of its soap operas.
"When Brazilian investors arrive here, no one can say they
don't know who they are," said Selma Inocencia of Miramar
Mozambique, the local arm of the Brazilian channel that makes
"They are present in the music we listen to, in the films we
Miramar came to Mozambique in 1999, long before the resource
boom that has attracted 4,000 Brazilians. With its grammatically
simple Brazilian Portuguese and easy-to-relate-to plots, its
soap operas have become an instant hit with Mozambique's 23
The story of "Balacobaco" revolves around Isabel, an
architect, whose dreams of building a house dissolve when her
husband gambles their savings away.
"I can identify with a character in every novela," said
Daisy Mogne, a 24-year-old communications student. "They make me
feel understood and help me see that there are people all over
the world with the same problems and joys as me."
Miramar now supplements its output with local content,
modeled on a Brazilian template.
"Some people criticized us. They said that we wanted to
"Brazilify" the Mozambican. But at the end of the day it is a
question of identifying with the market," Inocencia said.
A country with deep African roots, celebrated for lifting
itself out of poverty, Brazil's appeal is that of a successful
Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva emphasized Brazil
and Mozambique's shared struggles with Portuguese colonialism
when he spoke of Brazil's "sacred" relationship with Africa at a
conference in Maputo last month.
"We look to Africa as a partner, not with pity," he said,
urging greater ties between the world's emerging economies. "The
Chinese may be here, but they don't have a third of our charm."