Whenever Goncalo Mabunda looks at his sculptures, he wonders whether any of his materials killed his uncle, a government soldier who was fatally shot during Mozambique’s 15-year civil war. Mabunda’s works are made from the bullets and rifles that fueled the conflict.
“Portions of my family, my neighbors, they all died in the war,” said Mabunda, 37, glancing at a sculpture made out of a rusting AK-47 and a helmet that hangs on his wall. “How many people were killed with these weapons? This might be the one that killed some of my relatives.”
Mabunda is among dozens of artists in this southern African capital who are transforming weapons into sculptures, playing a role in preventing a resurrection of violence and instability in one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies. The sculptures have attracted international attention, with pieces shown in galleries in New York; Osaka, Japan; London; and other cities. The Clinton Foundation and the Vatican have bought some of Mabunda’s sculptures.
The project, launched in 1995 by the Christian Council of Mozambique, had two goals: to bring peace and reconciliation to the country’s divided population and to disarm the thousands of combatants who participated in the war, which left more than a million people dead. Now, two decades after a peace deal was signed, the project remains as relevant as ever. As the divide between rich and poor expands, and as businessmen and the politically connected scramble for the country’s mineral wealth, many Mozambicans fear that violence could be used to rectify inequalities and advance political ambitions.
“It has been 20 years of peace, but we’re still finding lots of guns. Guns are still a threat to our society,” said Nicolau Luis, assistant director of the project. “Our resources can become a curse. High unemployment can breed resentment. If we can cleanse our country of guns, it will be good for our future.”
Tensions also are growing between political factions. Last month, a former rebel leader, Afonso Dhlakama, returned to his forest hideout, along with 800 armed guerrillas. According to news reports, he has accused the government of not meeting his demands, which include integrating more of his former fighters into the nation’s military and sharing control of Mozambique’s newfound wealth.
“These days, any politician can say, ‘If you don’t give me what I want, I will go back to war.’ And there are people willing to join him,” said Boaventura Zita, the national coordinator for the project. “That’s why we have to keep a dialogue of peace and reconciliation going.”
Since its inception, the project has taken tens of thousands of weapons out of circulation. This year, it has gathered 600 weapons, mostly Kalashnikov rifles, Luis said. In exchange for the weapons, the council hands out bicycles, plows and other farming tools, and sewing machines.
The weapons are then brought to Maputo, the capital, and given to sculptors such as Mabunda, who turn them into artistic symbols of peace. They create their pieces in workshops or at home. Mabunda’s sculptures have been the most prominent.
His work is postmodern, even cubist, reminiscent of Picasso. He has created ghoulish, faceless masks that depict the horrors of war, as well as thrones made of weapons to symbolize how some African leaders manipulate politics and use violence to cling to power.
But Mabunda said the most important part of his work is its power to transform instruments of death into tools of peace.
“This is important not only for Mozambique but for the whole world,” he said. “You can use the same weapons to make something useful — and not to kill.”
The project, Luis said, will continue as long as there is funding. Today, a Japanese nongovernmental agency provides much of the financing, along with a few U.S. church groups.
“Nobody knows how many guns were imported into Mozambique during the war,” Luis said. “We know there’s still a lot to do. Our dream one day is to say there are zero weapons in Mozambique.”