FEATURE-Soap operas give Brazil the edge in Mozambique rush

ILHA DE MOCAMBIQUE, Mozambique, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Cackles,

moans and gasps stream from the only police station on Ilha de

Moçambique, 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" (slang for "awesome"), the

Brazilian television soap opera that has taken the southern

African nation by storm, and the officers are so engrossed they

barely notice their chief of police behind them.

"Turn that off and get back to work," he barks.

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."

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 $1.9 billion developing the Moatize

coal mine in the northern province of Tete, and has plans to

spend another $6.4 billion upgrading a 900-km (600-mile) rail

line linking Moatize to the coast.

COMPETITION

Not that the Brazilians have the run of the place.

Even though the United States - along with apartheid South

Africa - supported Renamo rebels against the communist-backed

Frelimo party now in government, U.S. firms face few

consequences nowadays and U.S. energy firm Anadarko rivals Vale

in the sums it has poured into off-shore gas exploration.

In November, the firm sponsored a U.S. 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 nationals to Mozambique.

A Confucius Centre offering Chinese language classes

subsidised 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

$30-a-month courses in its first month the centre 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

Reuters.

South Korea, another Asian economy waking up to the

potential of Africa, is planning to open an embassy in

Mozambique next year.

As with Tanzania and Kenya to the north, Mozambique is also

home to a large Muslim Indian community that has retained its

strong ties - cultural, family and commercial - with the

sub-continent.

SOAP SUCCESS

Yet Brazil remains the front-runner in the race to win

Mozambique's heart, thanks to intangible cultural connections

like the popularity of its soap operas.

"When Brazilian investors arrive here, no one can say they

don't know who they are," said Selma Inocencia of Miramar

Mozambique, the local arm of the Brazilian channel that makes

"Balacobaco".

"They are present in the music we listen to, in the films we

watch."

Miramar came to Mozambique in 1999, long before the resource

boom that has attracted 4,000 Brazilians. With its grammatically

simple Brazilian Portuguese and easy-to-relate-to plots, its

soap operas have become an instant hit with Mozambique's 23

million people.

The story of "Balacobaco" revolves around Isabel, an

architect, whose dreams of building a house dissolve when her

husband gambles their savings away.

"I can identify with a character in every novela," said

Daisy Mogne, a 24-year-old communications student. "They make me

feel understood and help me see that there are people all over

the world with the same problems and joys as me."

Miramar now supplements its output with local content,

modeled on a Brazilian template.

"Some people criticized us. They said that we wanted to

"Brazilify" the Mozambican. But at the end of the day it is a

question of identifying with the market," Inocencia said.

A country with deep African roots, celebrated for lifting

itself out of poverty, Brazil's appeal is that of a successful

older sibling.

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva emphasized Brazil

and Mozambique's shared struggles with Portuguese colonialism

when he spoke of Brazil's "sacred" relationship with Africa at a

conference in Maputo last month.

"We look to Africa as a partner, not with pity," he said,

urging greater ties between the world's emerging economies. "The

Chinese may be here, but they don't have a third of our charm."

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