Friday, September 23, 2011

Excerpt from Thunder Above: Thunder Below

In 1997 we went to live in Angola for four years. I wrote a book about my experiences there:

In that first glimpse Angola whispers of home, with  its dry red earth and a scratch of trees spreading  lazily toward far horizons. It is not long before Luanda lifts her weary head from the waste of powdered sand, looking like some dusty spread of stone and wreckage, cast carelessly along an erratic coast.  Through the aircraft window it has the grainy look of an old and tattered photograph or a barely focused magazine image of yet another dirt-shrouded African city. 
It also reminds me of Bombay, with the same sprawl of thin-shouldered shanties huddling miserably around the swollen belly of the city. Poverty looks much the same anywhere but a closer look reveals that at least here the poor are able to  build in cement rather than cardboard.  
Luanda takes its name from an island that today forms part of the city area, Loanda, meaning ‘flat land.’ The island had no mountains and was originally comprised only of sand that shifted with the tides and the flow of the nearby Kwanza river.  It is this red sand , the musseques, that crumbles into unstable gullies when the rains come.  In that respect it is good that the rains do not come often, although when they do they are merciless, tearing through the talc-like soil with fierce, liquid teeth.     Not only homes but lives are sucked into that turbulent drench.
 The airport is noisy and crowded, a roiling mass of  exuberant greetings and raised voices. Again I am reminded of India, with the same damp-mould tang to the air and dishevelled appearance of the arrivals hall. But here there are less people. There are always less people than India, no matter how big the city and Luanda is not particularly big. A few million people, that is all, although numbers ebb and flow because of the refugees from  the war that still rages in the interior and the land-mine littered earth  which once they farmed,  but which now brings only a harvest of death.
Angola, one of Africa’s largest countries,  was once a ‘bread basket’ for this continent; a rich and productive land that was the envy of many.  But the war has put paid to that. Now most of the food is flown in, at two or three times the price, of course, for that is the way of war  and of supply and demand in desperate times.
We queue for slow, hot minutes that threaten to turn into slower, hotter, draining  hours. Water drips down from ancient air conditioners and the air is heavy with sweat and humidity.  The toilet door stands ajar and through it can be seen the grime of unwashed walls and pools of dusty water.   The voices are raised high, the queue through customs is long and the wait seems endless. Luckily, after only ten minutes,  someone comes to meet us and we are taken through almost immediately.
With bags collected we follow the creaking, overloaded trolleys through the door and then push our way through the clamour of the waiting crowd which crushes in noisy confusion against metal barriers. If I am struck by anything it is that at first sight the people look healthy. Once more I am making comparisons with India, where disease and malnutrition wreak ageless havoc. One thing I do notice though,  is that there are quite a few men, young and old, missing limbs; the legacy of  war. But I can see no beggars. Just looking at the faces I have a sense that these people are proud. There are many things that they would do before they would beg.
 Are they proud because they know how to survive? These are people who have only recently been able to believe in peace after enduring one of the world’s worst wars. They are also the same people who survived what was perhaps the worst war of all … slavery!  For it was from here that so very many of the slaves came, part of the human river that flowed  in that time of shame from Africa to the Americas.  This was the departure point of the Kwata! Kwata! … the wars waged to capture slaves. It was also the assembly and loading point for slave ships bound for the plantations of the New World.
But the Europeans did not invent slavery in Africa, they merely drew upon an ancient tradition which recognised a value in humans as a commodity. Whether captured in war, bartered for money or handed over as compensation, the slave was a resource for Africans long before the first Europeans arrived and no more so than in Angola. Sadly, in some parts of Africa, slavery still exists, but here it is only a memory, albeit one that is mixed with the still-raw wounds of colonisation and civil war.  
These are people who have been enslaved, conquered and devoured by civil war.  It has been this way beyond memory and now, for the first time since the Portugese arrived in 1575, and perhaps even before, there is a chance of peace. How much people believe in it I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that it is difficult to believe in anything that we have not experienced, let alone imagine that it may be possible.
There is little in the way of written history in Africa and Angola is no exception. Much of what does exist,  was written by the Portugese,  but then history has always been written by the victors. They came, those first pale people from the north, in a fleet of seven ships carrying a hundred families of colonists and four hundred soldiers. For those on the shore watching the rock and sigh of those alien ships, there could have been no way of knowing what would grow from such  a small, and seemingly insignificant  beginning. 
 Up until that time the area had been home to no more than numerous scattered villages. They were called Libatas and  they  were ruled by a governor who was a subject of the King of Congo.  Even then the Angolans were not free, and it was probably little comfort that those who controlled them were neighbouring tribes.
The Portugese to that extent were no more than new conquerors with pale skin.  With plans to control the legendary silver mines of Cambambe the Portugese intended to stay and the settlements of Loanda and Sao Paulo grew quickly. It was the brisk trade in slaves however that brought more colonists and even faster growth.
By 1583 the Cathedral of Luanda had been completed, followed ten years later by the Jesuit Church and in 1604 the Monastery of Sao Jose. In 1605, the Governor Manuel Cerveira Pereira, conferred the status of city on the settlement of Sao Paulo, making Luanda the first city to be founded by Europeans on the West Coast of sub-Saharan Africa.  There are old men in Lisbon now who bemoan the loss of the ‘Paris of Africa.’
It is only much later when we walk around the city that we can understand the Parisian dream, seeing ephemeral glimpses of beauty in the now raddled face of Luanda. By the time that we left, some four years later, there was steady work on restoration of some of the most beautiful of the colonial buildings, and, since the end of the war in 2001 that work has continued at a satisfying pace. But such things are still in the future, both for us and for the city.
 Although held between 1641 and 1648 by the Dutch, at the end of the seventeenth century Luanda was a small African/Portugese town made up of an upper part, the Cidade Alta where colonial power, the Church and the bourgeoisie were based and a lower zone which began in the present-day district of Coqueiros, where a population of traders and often thugs,  made their living largely from the slave trade.
Luanda today is a heady mix of all that it has been. Nearly 220 years ago the two halves of the city were finally linked by paved roads. Before that the roads were of sand, that fine scarlet sand which both supports and dresses the city even now. It was slaves who carried the palanquins and frequently stopped in the middle of the road to rest. There would be no stopping in the middle of the road today for such a decision would prove lethal as we clearly see from the moment  that we drive through the airport gates and become locked into an erratic dance upon the stretch of bitumen that leads from the city, past the airport and out to the Brazilian compound, Gamek,  where we are to stay.
It is crowded and slow, a crush of trucks and cars,  many bearing deep and rusting scars. But there is also widening work going on along the road and plans, we are told,  for a bigger and better highway before the year is out.  This is a positive sign, as too are the few new cars seen along the way, generally unsullied, despite having  received the communal  christening  with  red  baptismal dust.
I see a woman walking by the side of the road, long neck arched, head erect,  balancing an assortment of parcels on her head. How I would love to be able to do that. She moves with grace, despite the load and despite the more than generous buttocks with which she has been blessed; a genetic inheritance that would have seen her ancestors survive the worst of droughts, and, in this troubled country, may still stand her in good stead today. They are certainly no cause for shame as they might be in the fat-obsessed West. African men still consider a certain generosity of body to be attractive in women.
 But she does not look completely African and this is not surprising for Angola has one of the most racially mixed societies in all of Africa. Even in the early days there was a mix of African and European, in churches, in marriages and in education, blending language and life into a rich mix of custom, culture, religion and race that is both unique and impressive. The Portugese as colonists may have been forced to leave after four hundred years but they left far more behind than could ever be taken, including a language that offers still an important bond between Angola and other Portugese speaking countries.
 Once through the gates of Vila Do Gamek, we enter an ordered although still dusty world. This is the compound built by Oderbrecht, a Brazilian company,  which has been working in Angola for many years. This is the sanctuary,  with a gate and guards at the entrance and barbed-wire fences all around,  where we will stay for the few days that we are here.
 It is not that it is so dangerous anymore, they say, just that it is sensible. It feels like a prison and I already know that I prefer the other Angola, the one outside the wire.  As the gate shuts solidly behind us it awakens old-new memories, of  days as a barely grown child and visits to the mental hospital to see my mother. It is her eyes I remember most clearly,  empty of everything including recognition, and always, the thud of a closing door and the turn of a key. But when I turn back for a final look through the back window of the car, it is not nurses in wide-shouldered white that I see, but guards in grey,  with dusty shoes.
 Our home for the next few days is one among the many that were built in this compound some twenty years ago. A monotonous pattern repeated in timber and fibro across the neat grid of streets. The only variation is  in the colour of the shutters and that is no more than a variation upon a theme of grey, green or blue. The shutters of our house are a dull, depressing grey and the white-painted walls are encrusted with scabs of peeling paint.  It is adequate but not particularly comfortable and furnishings are sparse to say the least.
 There is a television set and a  worn vinyl couch in the living room but little else. The bed boasts one of the hardest mattresses I have ever encountered in all my years of travel and two little pillows that could double as large pet rocks if one were in the mood.  The Brazilians clearly have a spartan view of all bed activities!
There is water in the fridge but no food.  No coffee, no tea, no milk and anyway, nothing in which I can  boil water. It is expected that we will eat at the Mess but that is open only at stipulated mealtimes.  Self-discipline is clearly one of the lessons on my list and I am pitifully grateful for the cheese, biscuits and chocolates that we have squirrelled away from the planes.
 We will be here for three days and I rarely watch television anyway but that seems to be the only activity on offer. The channels include CNN, which is mind-numbing after half an hour, two French channels … a challenge for my basic French and two Portugese, even more of a challenge since I have not one word of the language. I am glad that I have brought something to read.  Books have saved me from boredom,  and many other things, for all of my life.  At this point in time I am more grateful to them than I have ever been,  for it seems that in Brazilian culture wives count for little and there has been no attempt to provide me with any sort of company or activity for the time that I am here. I was brought here to ‘have a look’ so I suppose I shall do just that … look!  
The best place for this soon proves to be the verandah that runs like a narrow smile across the front of the house.   Here I can sit and ‘look’ to my heart’s content,  although there is little to see other than the odd car, some children playing and a parade of mangy cats.  Still, it is peaceful enough and rather less oppressive than the uneven,  sickly green of the walls inside the house.    There are no curtains  inside the house and the echo-empty décor is depressing.  No-one lives here  permanently and the air of abandonment makes me shudder.
 But there is more at work than that. The dull, insipid green of the walls reminds me of the home where I lived longest as a child, through the years of my mother’s madness and my father’s grief. Those walls were bare too. I don’t know if my parents preferred it that way or if they simply had no money to spend on such indulgences as decoration.  As a child I would fill an old jam jar with yellow sour-sobs,  a weed to the world but the only flower to be found in our garden. Anything to make a difference.  I wish that I could do that here but there are no flowers … weed or otherwise. 
And there are ghosts in this house. It was the home of Mat and Sue for the three months that they were in Angola.  We had all lived together in Antwerp, some years back and became good friends. Mat had been so excited  when he rang me in Brisbane to say that he and Sue and their daughter, Nadia, were about to head overseas again.
 Now he is in a Perth hospital seriously ill with stomach and lung cancer. He is barely forty. It had all happened so quickly, surprising everyone,  for Mat was one of those strong, vibrant, ‘larger than life’ people.  Now he has been forced to face a new and unexpected enemy and that is why we are here. A replacement is needed and Greg has been approached to take on the job.
It is not how one would wish things could be and now, as I walk around  the house I feel as if I am stepping on someone else’s dreams.  It is yet another reason why the verandah is my favourite place.
 Sitting outside, on a cheap plastic chair,  I can listen to the maids at work;  watch the gardeners as they scrape with flimsy brooms, sweeping red dust from paths and road;  and  listen to the seed pods rustling in the trees. There are two large trees in the front of the house, and five spindly hibiscus bushes but nothing else, just bare, raked earth. One of the trees has long, honey-coloured seed pods that dangle like hard, flat beans; dry-scraping against each other with every touch of the familiar wind. 
There were trees like this in Brisbane, and many others beside that could boast a chaotic fringing of abundant life in the season of the seeding. It is as if in the tropics life demands excess in all things.  The other large tree that grows in the front yard preens with plump red and green leaves and  it too looks familiar, similar to those I have seen in far northern Australia.
 In another world so far away I can see that we are more alike than we know.  But then in aeons past Africa and Australia were once joined as that fabled land, Gondwana!  Finding that which we share, rather than that which divides is what is important in such alien space.
One thing is certain,  when we come back to live here I will bring seeds and plant them. I want to turn this into a garden. The earth is rich, I can see that by the raw and brutal growth that flourishes beneath the drip of air conditioners.  Small, darting birds begin a brief but beautiful song against the rustle of the tree-kissed wind and dance with delight in the drip of water from the air conditioners. They know the truth of such places, that with water, with the coming of rains, there is always abundant life.
I walk around the side of the house and see two pink and black feet poking out from behind a large cement cupboard which holds the gas bottle for the kitchen. On one side is an aluminium bowl with a few grains of rice. I tiptoe away.  When I go inside I can see that my feet are just the opposite of his, pink on the top and now, dust-black on the soles.
There are men working in the street cleaning up and  I can only assume that one of them has taken time out for a rest.  The day is hot and steamy and I go inside to have a sleep myself. When I come back  the feet have  gone, and so too has the lush green beneath the air conditioners. He has woken refreshed and returned invigorated to the task. There are now only ripped and weeping stalks, where once there was lavish celebration. The wind whistles and a dog yaps.  The hours stretch on through what seems an endless day.


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