ILHA DE MOCAMBIQUE, Mozambique (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.
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 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 $30-a-month courses in its first month 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 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.
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.”
Editing by Ed Cropley and Sonya Hepinstall