In what was once an Olympic-sized pool, women wash their laundry in the questionable water, murky and still, as children chase each other around its length.
Inside the four-story Art Deco structure, families cram themselves into every available room and corridor, fighting off rats, centipedes, and sometimes each other. Trash spills from every available space, the smell of urine and sweat hangs in the air, and light switches and faucets produce nothing. 2,000-3,000 people live here together, doing their best to keep it as safe and clean as possible, but the challenges of open elevator shafts, desperation and overcrowding are daunting.
Welcome to the Grande Hotel of Beira, a luxurious getaway for the colonial elite, once thought to be the most splendid hotel on the continent of Africa.
Built in the 1950s during Portuguese rule, the Grande Hotel was a vision of opulence. Parquet floors gleamed, chandeliers lit up the art on the walls and ornate décor. Elevators delivered guests to their lavish rooms with balconies looking out at a stunning view of the Indian Ocean, and across the decadent pool area.
When the Liberation front of Mozambique rose up and civil war began to sweep across the country, the owners of the Grande Hotel fled, abandoning the property. It was used a refugee camp as the war raged on, but once it ended, the battered building was taken over by homeless citizens made destitute by the decades of unrest.
The once magnificent building, while still grand in stature, has made the complete journey from playground to slum. The parquet floors were ripped out long ago and burned for heat, everything that could be sold, burned or used has been stripped out of every inch of the property. The elevator shafts are empty, floors collapse, and trees grow up through balconies and terraces. Political posters hang tattered against graffiti-filled walls, smiling and promising something better.
The slum has a loose organizational structure, a mediator that helps work out disputes, a cleaning schedule that residents must adhere to, and two rules which everyone must try to follow to the best of their abilities: “Keep the Cleanliness and the Respect.” While somewhat dangerous, the hotel can be visited; residents sell produce and fish in the courtyard, and the government promotes classes for the children that live there. Talk of tearing it down or kicking the squatters out is met with resistance, especially when no alternative living space is being offered. Ironically, a room at the Grande Hotel of Beira is in higher demand than it ever was when it was in operation.