|Hanging out in Huambo|
Antara Dev Sen
In Angola, no man is complete without a crutch. They stand draped over the plastic or steel sticks, balanced on non-slip rubber ends, waiting. Or sit on the city pavement, or in village courtyards, nursing their crutches, waiting. Like limbless Pensatores. Waiting for the day to roll into night and drop soundlessly into morning. Waiting for work. Waiting for food. Waiting for the war to stop. Waiting for that elusive bit of non-slip rubber that will stop their battered lives from slip-sliding away.
Pensatore. He sits on his haunches, wooden eyes frozen in a blank stare, ebony elbows resting on knob-knees, straw-thin arms reaching up, fatigued hands clasping a head exhausted through the centuries. A skeleton of a man, each protruding rib crafted delicately on a back caving in, a stomach flatter than a dried leaf, folding into himself with the burden of existence. Pensatore. Simbolo da Angola. The Thinker. Angola carved in hardwood.
Long long ago, before the Portuguese arrived in this country, there was this big tribal chief from the north. He ruled over a flourishing land where everyone was happy and lived in peace. But then, some powerful people in the north told the chief that they were superior. They must divide the country and take away the lavish diamond fields and leave the rest of the country to fend for itself. The chief was tempted, but before he announced the split, he wanted to think over it. So he sat down to think. And thought and thought. He knew it was one country, one nation, so how could he divide it up? How could he allow his own people to starve to make some of them rich? But the people asking for the division were very strong and powerful. The chief couldnít make up his mind. And to this day, 500 years on, he still sits there, thinking.
I saw them first in Huambo. The second city of Angola, a little island of government control lodged precariously in the central highlands commanded by the Unita rebels. There are no land routes into it. The rail network was destroyed decades ago, the roads are mined and prone to deadly ambushes.
I am Ikarus. Soaring into the heavens. Away from the labyrinth of death. The eight-seater Beechcraft climbs higher and higher, and just when I feel the sun on the wings, it finds its comfort level at 30,000 feet. The Unita, originally a guerrilla movement nurtured for a quarter-century by the West, have anti-aircraft guns. They shoot down aeroplanes. They hold 70 per cent of the country. Never before had the carpet of clouds below seemed so welcome.
The plane comes straight up to the airport, tips itself onto one wing and drops like a stone in a slow, stomach-churning spiral. Welcome to Huambo. Once the pride of the Portuguese rulers. Later, the trophy of the rebels. Now back with the government. As my entry permit and ID are checked by uniformed men, I see my first Pensatore. Hunched under a billboard splashed lavishly with olive green, showing crudely painted soldiers charging disproportionately into war. It beckons me to join the Armed Forces of Angola. Uncle Sam needs YOU! Only this was a fight against Uncle Sam. The Marxist Angolan government, with some help from Cuba, had been struggling to fight the superpower for a quarter-century. The bored Angolan squats under it, staring vacantly into the distance.
I didnít recognise him, my first Pensatore. Nor the second, nor the third, nor the tenth. Charged with the lunatic passion of a journalist in a war zone I glanced away from the heart of reality and looked for facts as figures, fought long and hard with the authorities of this no-photos land for permission to click the blatantly obvious. And then one morning, I saw this group.
About 20 or 25 people, lined up, sitting on a low wall in the centre of Huambo city. They sat in their threadbare jackets and faded T-shirts, as still as leaves on a tree in the smothering afternoon heat, as silent as dust in the air. They did not chat, did not hum to themselves, did not laugh or smile, didnít even check out this strange foreign woman staring at them so rudely as she passed them one by one. Their eyes were fixed ó on the rooftops, on their limp hands on the wall, on a weatherbeaten dust-shrouded shoe on the macadam. Some stared back, a blank, empty stare that chilled to the bone. When you look into the void, the void also looks into you.
Later in the day, I saw the same faces, only this time they were in Cavonge Alto. They sat in a derelict bullock-cart in a sun-scorched village that had no cattle left. About eight or ten of them, squatting on the castaway cart, staring vacantly over the avocado trees and maize fields. A cluster of women lounged in the distance, legs spread out on the dust track, nursing babies, picking lice out of each otherís hair. "Bon dia!" they shout in unison as you pass. Walking through the uneven mud tracks of the village, passing homes with children spilling out of them, smiling back at friendly folk, picking my way through the maize fields led by villagers who know the landmine-free path. Unreal village. Under the brown fog of dry dust. No, itís not just the lack of animals. Not the absence of laughing, half-naked, curious children behind me. A giant, faceless absence lurking in the powdery heat.
Mugamba shifts his 80-year-old frame onto his crutch and helps me over the high mud threshold into the blinding darkness of his adobe hut. The hut blinks back at me, slowly coming into focus, offering itself hesitantly to my eyes. A bare room drenched in darkness. A few clothes slump in a corner. And a pitcher. Two decades ago Paolo had lost a leg to a landmine as he went to fetch water. "Yes, we knew there were mines near the source of water, near our fruit trees, in our farmlands. But can you live without water?" Through the low, open doorway a couple of shabby sheets are splayed across the floor in the tiny bedroom. The kitchen is outside, in a separate little hut, where a few dented dishes and cups, one cooking pot and a wooden stirrer lie scattered around a mud-and-tin oven. A small sack in the corner holds maize grains, enough for a couple of people for a couple of days. But Mugamba has a big family.
Home after home welcomes you into its dark, bare belly. Bedclothes amid dead feathers and ancient chickenshit. The chickens are gone, the coop is a new home for an old villager now. Extended families cramped into tiny huts with damp, sooty mud walls. Walking back through the maize fields, past the avocado trees, the mango trees and banana palms, past the mud hut with a rough-cut home-made cross planted in front. There are no worshippers in the church this afternoon. Past the little clusters of women sprawled on the ground. Boa tarde! Boa tarde, amiga! Past the bored men in the castaway cart. Unreal village.
No village life. No weavers, potters, wood-carvers, cobblers, smiths, no craftspeople at all. The homes are bare, the fields are bare, the people an embodiment of empty stomachs. Especially the men, the traditional bread-earners. They sit battered and limp in a void, making no effort to stamp their existence upon the inert space they occupy, no attempt to inscribe themselves upon the world, to define their humanity. They sit oozing nothingness from every pore, from the roots of their hair, the loose seams of their shabby shirts, from the wrinkles of their old, tired, soleless shoes that you feel the earth through ó feel every pebble, every bulge of heat, every dead bone through.
Back to the city. Past the same men on the same wall, with the same faces. Fewer now, about twelve or fifteen. The sun has moved across the sky. The men havenít. They sit there, secreting nothingness.
There are no jobs in Huambo except with the army, which pays occasionally. Sometimes with the NGOs and international agencies which try to keep the country from falling off the edge. No food either. Factories have closed down, industries have died in the shelling and gunfire. Except the state-owned oil industry, Sonangol. And Coke. Pretty red crates stashed with Coca Cola bottles stand amidst the famished, bombed out, bullet-riddled houses. Gamin-eyed little boys sell Coke by the mouthful in the street. One tiny measure poured into an empty bottle, mixed with an equal quantity of water and sold to thirsty, moneyed passersby. A few Kwanzas a gulp, depending on your purchasing power. There is hardly any education any more. Tired, hungry teachers sell handfuls of peanuts, or fuel in little tumblers, at street corners. Others just hang around, waiting.
They donít watch anymore. Theyíve seen all there is to see. Seen a civil war blazing through the country for almost three decades. Seen their parents and siblings ripped to shreds by bombs and bullets, seen friends slaughtered by enemy soldiers, seen their wives and sisters dragged away shrieking like the witches of the forest by men in uniform, seen their children cry incessantly for food till one day they went dreadfully quiet. They have scrambled out of the rubble as their homes came crashing down on them, run through gunfire clutching their babies and scattered into alien territory. They have watched the skies raining fire, watched their villages crumple up and die. They have seen it all. Each a little Tiresias, holding in their empty eyes and blank faces generations of suffering.
Paolo wants out. No loose, tired silences hanging in the air, no defeated faces with vacuous stares. He refuses to be drowned in the deluge of unchallenged inevitability. He is the sapling born into the war of independence, watered by violence that still reaches for the sky. His hands illustrate his words, his voice rises and falls, he carves out his own space in the brutal emptiness with gestures, sounds, memories and plans. Cogito. Through his thoughts and intentions he creates a personal world of order in the meaningless chaos that floods external life. Ergo sum. He has never seen peace. Or his father. The rebels took him away. His teenaged mother plucked out the passion in her heart, the throbbing hope in her veins and the dreams in her eyes and planted them in little Paolo. He would exhaust the limits of the possible.
One morning, as he was walking to school, he came across some soldiers. They forced him to enroll. So Paolo landed up in Luanda and went through the motions of being an infantryman. He was paid less than $10 a month. Then one day, he got talking with an older friend. "So what will you do when the war ends?" he asked. "Donít know," replied the friend. "I am 30 now, joined the army when I was 15, have no training or education ó all I can do is fight!" Shaken, Paolo sneaked out and fled. He came back home on borrowed money, got technical training and now has a well-paid job in an international agency. One day he will be an electrical engineer. Only he doesnít have the $300 a month for a university degree in Luanda. There are no universities in Huambo. Strangely enough, the only college in Huambo has just one faculty partly alive: law. In a lawless land where justice is as elusive as the momentary dreams in the wide, wide eyes. But Paolo will dodge the shelling and the bullets and fly into freedom. He will be a good engineer. And one day, he will help change the country. He holds his future in the palm of his hand. Paolo is condemned to be free.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. In her last assignment
in mainstream media, she was Senior Editor of The Hindustan Times