Cackles, moans and gasps stream from the only police station on Ilha de Mocambique, 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 (Portuguese slang for “awesome”), the Brazilian television soap opera that has taken the southern African nation by storm and the officers are so engrossed that they barely notice their chief of police behind them.
“Turn that off and get back to work,” he barked.
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 are rich.
“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 opportunities,” Peres added.
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 US$1.9 billion developing the Moatize coal mine in the northern province of Tete and has plans to spend another US$6.4 billion upgrading a 900km rail line linking Moatize to the coast.
Not that the Brazilians have the run of the place.
Even though the US — along with apartheid South Africa — supported Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) rebels against the communist-backed Liberation Front of Mozambique Party now in government, US firms face few consequences nowadays and US energy firm Anadarko rivals Vale in the sums it has poured into off-shore gas exploration.
Last month, the firm sponsored a US 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 to Mozambique.
A Confucius Center offering Chinese language classes subsidized by Beijing opened in Maputo in October, with a Mozambican choir singing the Chinese national anthem in fluent Mandarin.
So many Mozambicans have flocked to the institute’s US$30-a-month courses in its first month that the center 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 reporters.