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In the mid-1950s, during the Portuguese colonization of Mozambique, the most luxurious hotel on the African continent at the time was built on Beira’s skyline, by the Indian Ocean. An Art-deco architectural colossus of pharaonic dimensions (21,000 m²) and exquisite facilities to provide luxury accommodation to socialites from the United Kingdom, Portugal and their respective colonies. The facilities included boutiques, restaurants, a post office, a bank, a screening room, and even an Olympic swimming pool.
However, this sumptuous and elitist project would not only make Grande Hotel a symbol of colonial pride, but also precipitate it into ruin. After tripling the initial construction budget, the high expenses of maintenance and personnel necessary for its operation added to a low occupancy forced it to cease its activity in 1963, merely eight years after its inauguration.
The anticipated wealthy guests did not arrive. The
whites who lived in South Africa could not afford such a level of luxury. In
addition, Beira failed to carve itself a niche among the preferred vacation
spots of the distinguished colonial elite.
Over the next decade, after its closure, Grande Hotel was used as an installation to host large events and ceremonies, although it was used only on two occasions. Its swimming pool, on the other hand, served as a training facility for the Olympic swimming team of Mozambique, since it was the only one with Olympic dimensions in the entire colony.
In 1975, after the war of Independence, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) took control of Grande Hotel, which became the office of the Revolutionary Committee; the organization responsible for establishing socialism in the city of Beira and in the province of Sofala. The use of the spaces of the hotel was adapted to the party needs and while the main room was the place of meetings and institutional events, the basement of the hotel was turned into a prison for the opponents of the new government.
Two years later, after Civil War broke out in Mozambique, Grande Hotel also became the military base of the Frelimo group. On the other side, the anti-communist group Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance), financed by Rhodesia and South Africa, opposed the ruling party with violence. From 1981, the inhabitants of the region fleeing the war were welcomed as refugees in Grande Hotel, which became the home of the displaced because of the conflict.
At the end of the war in 1992, after fifteen years occupying it, the military left the building. However, the refugees remained there and settled permanently inside Grande Hotel. In the fragile sociopolitical context caused by the military demobilization and the transition to democracy, the authorities allowed the refugees to remain in the place and new residents arrived during the following years, fleeing from poverty. From then on, the real decline of the building began, which continues today.
During the postwar period, the refugees used the hotel materials as a means of survival and as a result the building deteriorated progressively. The wood that embellished floors and stairs served as wood for cooking. The windows, metal, pipes, tiles, faucets, and marble were looted by their own inhabitants, who needed to sell them to get money to survive.
Currently, Grande Hotel is still a place of pilgrimage for those who have nowhere to go and has become home to around 3,000 inhabitants in a situation of social exclusion. Some of them are already the third generation of inhabitants; Many children born in the hotel today raise their children in this same place, trapped by poverty. The 116 luxurious rooms have been sectioned, divided inside with wooden panels, transformed into small rooms that host many families. In the old common spaces of the hotel, shacks, latrines, and stalls have been built, leaving no trace of the refinement with which they were designed.
There is no electricity or running water in Grande Hotel. The electrical supply and the maintenance of the sewage system were halted due to the risk of fire and collapse of the building. Some residents, however, have found a way to connect to the electrical grid clandestinely to have lighting inside their homes. The lack of sanitation is general and the accumulation of garbage and wastewater inside and around the hotel has turned the place into a focus of unhealthiness with the consequent risk of disease transmission.
To date, the municipal and government authorities, even
if they are not the legal owners of the building, still do not offer a
definitive solution to the dramatic situation of Grande Hotel. The building
structure continues to weaken as time goes by, and due to the current state of
deterioration its rehabilitation has already been ruled out. The demolition and
redevelopment of the space could be the final solution, but the lack
of investors and the difficult relocation of the families keeps the inhabitants
of Beira’s Grande Hotel in a shadow of uncertainty.