Sun queen;The Big Picture

30th April 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - ince Portuguese sailors landed on Mozambique Island - a slip of land off the coast of south-east Africa - in the 15th century, the country which eventually adopted its name has been colonised, destabilised by its neighbours and terrorised by war.

For hundreds of years, Mozambique was a stopping-off point for ships on their way to India, an occupied territory synonymous with the slave trade. Great swathes of its land were leased to European companies and it was ruled by the whim of their directors in London, Paris and Lisbon. In the 1970s, when it finally emerged from Portuguese rule and claimed independence, it was plunged into a 17-year civil war that cost a million lives.

Mozambique is today one of the world's poorest countries. Ninety per cent of the population survive on less than a dollar a day and its annual debt repayments outstrip spending on health and education combined. The average life expectancy is just 46 years.

Maybe beauty becomes a more precious commodity in such austere circumstances. This woman, from Mozambique Island, exudes all the grace and self possession you might expect from a people who have been occupied, fought over and left to survive. Her watery eyes gaze, steadily and inscrutably, at the photographer, wary perhaps of another invader.

She has covered her face in ground tree bark to protect it from the sun, a quiet and dignified ritual her ancestors must have performed for generations.

The man who took this picture, James L Stanfield, says she had "one of the most striking faces I have ever photographed. When I saw her, I was sure she was the human connection to a time past".

Harvey McGavin.

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