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Category: n’gola

takeoffs and landings

Tomorrow marks 10 years since peace returned to Angola. From 1961 to 1975, the war of independence. Then, nearly three decades of cold, cold civil war. But stretched out before either were hundreds of years of Portuguese occupation, colonization, slavery. A successful ceasefire agreement between former nationalist-guerilla-groups-turned-civil-war-rivals on April 4, 2002 changed all of that. This is the simplified version of events, in any case.

It’s been a very long road.

If you know me, you know how badly I wish I could be in Angola right now. My family’s history is tied to that place, tied to those wars. But for lack of finances, and at least a few unlucky missed opportunities, my time to visit has not yet come. In the meantime I read things like Judith Matloff‘s “Fragments of a Forgotten War,” a warm, beautifully written memoir of Angola’s false peace ten years earlier, in 1992. It took months (and at least two unscrupulous eBay sellers) to track down a copy, but it was well worth the effort. Matloff, a former Lisbon correspondant now based in Apartheid-era South Africa, arrives in post-ceasefire Luanda. Roads, railways and buildings had been obliterated during the wars, vast swaths of the country were littered with slumbering landmines, but offshore oil infrastructure remained intact. The ceasefire brought with it a frenzy of activity, new hopes, old demons, opportunism, and an uneasy chaos that I’m well familiar with in my own corner of the world:

Suddenly, small shops were opening and people were plastering over the bullet holes and painting their houses. Foreigners were coming in, looking for good business deals. Suddenly, too, there was a proliferation of cars–and traffic jams.

Bars were opening everywhere. The favoured one at the time was the Bar Aberto, or Open Bar, which was on a rooftop and played the latest techno-rap music from New York. I never ceased to marvel at where all these trendy people in tight black outfits appeared from; you never saw such hip well-dressed characters on the streets during the day.

The optimism that followed the Biçesse accords led to talk of physical reconstruction. Consultants and experts flew in to calculate how much it would cost to repair the shattered country. The World Bank estimated it would take a decade to fully rebuild the roads, bridges and other infrastructure. One of the more ambitious projects was reviving the Benguela Railroad (estimate: $340 million). Portuguese citizens visited factories and farms that had been nationalised with a view to buying them back.

Another negative side of peace, for the MPLA at any rate, was that it could no longer blame the ills of urban life on the enemy. Earlier it was UNITA which had thrown the city into a waterless dark by sabotaging electricity pylons and water tanks. But now that the rebels were in Luanda the MPLA had to assume responsibility for the deficiencies of city life.

These deficiencies were myriad. The MPLA as administrators embodied the worst of Portuguese bureaucracy, African lack of training and Marxist-Leninist inefficiency. Luanda had become a monster of a city.

For most of the population — and one-fifth lived in Luanda — there was no proper health care or education. Public services had all but broken down. I saw this most clearly at the city morgue, which I visited by accident. I was suffering from symptoms of malaria and a friend took me to the military hospital to be tested. I was advised to take my own clean needle to avoid the possibility of contracting Aids from the used ones they had at the hospital. When one entered the clinic one became keenly aware of one’s mortality: it was right next to the morgue. The building emitted a terrible stench. As the Cuban doctor pricked my finger for blood I heard what sounded like a small explosion.

“What’s that?” I asked. Another noise followed.

“Oh, it’s probably a body at the morgue,” the doctor said nonchalantly. “When the electricity goes off the refrigerators go warm. Then the bodies swell up and pop.”


Mines ahead, behind, to the left, to the right. Mines inside us. Mines in our sleepy, exhausted eyes, trembling and worried, trying to stay awake. Seeking out objects of death whose characteristic is that of never being seen—they wait their entire life and are born only for a second to die with you.

Move by day. Move by night. Eat cornmeal or eat nothing. Save the last can. Boil tea gathered from bushes. Cook in black pots in the earth plowed by tires. Eat the last can. Eat with your hands from flaking enamel plates. Fantasize about fresh water. Salivate salt. Shiver from the cold an hour after the moon rises. Suffocate from the heat an hour after the sun rises.Dream about a bed.Wake up with rats.Go to sleep with fear.

Disdain tears.

Avoid dogs.

Defecate in front of others. Bathe in the river, swim during the crocodiles’ siesta, keep away from snakes, dry your body with your hands, extract the shudders from your bones, cover your skin with filthy clothes. Vomit your own smell. Sleep in the open air, sleep on the alert, in transit, in abandoned houses, on mattresses of straw and lice, on blankets with holes and mange. Listen to the wind beneath the divan. Listen to the sound of leaves laughing as they scrape the cement on the ground.

DANGER MINES. Do not touch anything, tread on existing tracks, walk backward retracing your steps, the same steps, exactly, or —

On short breaks in the True North, I eat books. While in this imaginary world I slip in and out of others, good ones and bad ones, slogging through the dull and lapping up the delicious. I met the author of this one before I knew the words were his. Read them in our native Portuguese first, Baía dos Tigres, conversed in our adopted French, but reading an excellent English translation has brought it to life anew. It, as in death taste, death smell, mortality, but sinewy and vivid and locomotive. This is non-fiction.

“The problem is basically a political one… You say you’re on a journey, but there are various kinds of journeys, as you know. Is it to gather information?”

“No. It’s to meet people.”

“But you’re a journalist. People give information. A journalist investigates. You’re on an investigation.”

“No, I’m on a trip. That’s different. Working on my own. People tell stories. I’ve already said I’m not here for my newspaper. I’m not even interested in the peace process.”

“But later you’re going to write about this and make good money; it’s always like that with foreigners.”

I’m still so inspired and grateful, friend. I had to share.