|Hanging out in Huambo 3|
Antara Dev Sen
The day the phones came back, Maria got the news. Her daughter had died in Luanda. She had been sent there for safety. She was four. Nobody quite knew what she died of in the cramped, rudimentary tents of the IDP colony. She had a fever and she was malnourished, but thatís pretty common among IDPs, the Internally Displaced Persons. Internally Displaced. Internally Destroyed? Maria waits in absolute silence for the airport to open. Our mother feedeth thus our little life/ That we in turn may feed her with our death. It had taken ten days for the phones to come back, the flights would take longer. Her childís funeral would be over. Till late last night, as Hans and I chatted with her in exaggerated gestures and atrocious Portuguese, she was in fine spirits, though she knew her child was sick. In Angola, you learn not to worry about things you cannot control. Tonight theyíve built a bonfire in her garden. Burning, burning, burning, burning... Hans brings some beer and whiskey for the assembled neighbours and relatives. Itís very chilly tonight. Back home, I join others watching Titanic on a video run by a generator run on fuel bought in the black market. The panic, the fierce emergency, the clawing for survival seem oddly familiar.
Fetisho. Death by magic. The kuimbanda can kill, even from far away. Beware of the kuimbanda, amiga. They can cure, make sick, kill, find husbands, bring riches. But all for a price. If you want to be rich, they can make you so. But a year after the wish is granted, someone in your family dies. Thatís the price of magic money brought by the snake. You know why last December the government army couldnít capture Bailundo, the rebel stronghold? You remember what a major offensive the army launched? So why did it fail? Because the Unita had several kuimbandas working for them. They cast all kinds of magic spells. So as the army approached, the rebels would turn into a tree or an animal and vanish! Itís very powerful, this magic. Both the government and the rebels use it. Some provinces have stronger magic than others. Like Benguela, Cabinda or Kuito. And you tell your men friends to stay away from the women of Huila province, they could be in big trouble for messing around with those women. Oh, and careful of the sobas too, you know, the village heads. Some of them are kuimbandas. If they donít like you, they can kill you merely by shaking your hand! All this fighting, itís all on the strength of this magic. In í94, when the government took back Huambo, their kuimbanda was stronger. The rebels themselves admit that they couldnít shoot because of magic-water blocking their sight. Or animals. And when they fired blindly, the rounds just dissolved into the magic-water! It was an unfair fight, and the government claimed Huambo back. But then the rebels didnít have good kuimbandas. You know why? Promise not to tell. Come closer now. You promised, ok? Obrigada. Because long time ago, in Jamba, the Unita capital, Savimbi once got several kuimbandas to grant his secret wish. And when the wish came true, Savimbi got all these kuimbandas killed. He thought his secret died with them. But then he didnít have good kuimbandas for a long, long time. By the Holy Child! I canít possibly tell you what the wish was!
Grateful children hobbling around on plastic legs. Itís polypropylene, very durable, lasts almost a year. Excellent quality, many agencies come together to gift these false legs to those crippled by the war. Angola has the largest number of landmines. And spontaneous amputees. But now, thanks to humanitarian agencies, they can have a normal life. Walking on Handicap Internationalís feet and Red Cross ankles and knees, aided by Unicefís helping hand on government land in a dying country. The only problem is the robbery by the police and army, of course. They wrench new shoes off the rubber feet of the disabled whenever they get a chance. They snatch the monthís salary from terrified workers on payday. And crops from famished farmers. In an out-of-control land ruled by hunger, power flows from the barrel of the gun.
Wounded. Dying. Waiting. The day Zito died in front of his house, another child was killed in his garden as he drew water from the well. Another shell. A woman inside the house had her legs blown off. Legs have a habit of being blown off in this curious country. Sometimes it helps. Like when the woman in Calomanda stepped on a landmine. The villagers knew the land beyond the torn, rusty barbed wire was out of bounds. Theirs not to reason why. But this foolish woman cast her greedy eye on it. There was so much land unused and so little food. Maybe she could grow some sweet potatoes on a wee bit of those inviting brown-green forbidden fields. She had her legs ripped off. The land was de-mined soon after. But new seeds of death are planted in the precious soil every day.
I got delayed on my way to Caala. Lucky again. The bus that did go on that single track dusty road before me that morning was ripped apart by an antitank mine in its underbelly.
Fall asleep to the sound of shelling, wake up to gunfire. Keep away from windows, they say. My bedís next to a window, and thereís no room to move it. So pretend itís Diwali or Guy Fawkeís and tumble safely into sleep. The loony rooster next door insists on crowing at all hours. Ripping the mid-afternoon calm into little shreds of cock-shriek. Shattering the silence of midnight dreams with his monstrous wailing. Nudging the excitable dog next door into serenading his mate. Beware of the bark of a dog or crow of a cock at night, for they signify death. A midnight orchestra of dog howls and cock wails. Only a muquixi can save you now. No, we hear no shells, we see no crisis, we wait for a plane to take us away. But there wonít be a plane for a few days more. Then a military plane will re-inaugurate the airport. Civilian travel is still days away. We buy the last available meat and beer for six times the normal price. The locals canít afford it anyway.
Turning up the volume of music to drown out the noise of gunfire. Young Angolan girls in bright red nylon dresses swaying to songs in a language they donít understand. Straightened out, lacquered hair, forced 40-proof extra-strong smiles challenging the future ó the son of a bitch that seduces and moves away, the bastard of a future you canít touch or see. You can feel its breath, hot as the late afternoon sun, dry as the dust that layers your cheap black high-heels bought at three times the regular price. You can feel the wink, the promise of passion, the breath on your face now like a wet sea breeze, the dream of a smooth, full life as soft as the flesh of a ripe avocado. The eyes momentarily as secure as red-tiled bungalows with white wrought-iron fences and banana palms in the courtyard. You can smell freshly cut grass, mangoes and papayas in the corner of your garden, rose bushes splashing red and yellow on your porch. The green giant leaves of all the decorative plants you never quite learnt the names of. The delicious smell of potatoes and goat meat cooking over a slow kitchen fire. Bright new painted walls, smooth as silk, safe as your motherís bosom. No gunfire to break the silence of your dreams. No blood on the streets. No darting looks through half-shuttered eyes that lash out to sting fresh money like a snakeís tongue ó for a free dinner, maybe a couple of drinks.
But before you can put on your bridal face, the bastard is gone. Vanished into the maze of crumbling, pock-marked houses and bombed-out homes in the breathless heat of a dry, famished land. Betrayed every time, seduced yet again, focusing your energies on the next hour, the next meal, the next smile.
Nervous fingers clasp and reclasp the beer bottles, fluttering teak-brown unmanicured fingers tipped with peeling pink nailpolish. Maybe you can get a few extra nights with the whities who talk funny and eat whatever they want, maybe you can get new arrivals who donít have Kwanzas and always get confused with their dollars. Maybe you can stuff your dreams into a tote bag and bribe the military with the standardised $80 to crawl into the belly of their cargo plane when it leaves Huambo, apparently empty, having puked out the arms and ammunition and supplies it carried into the city. Maybe you can get a place for yourself among all the other desperados packed into the plane, crouched in expectation, squatting in relief, doubled-up in agony as their starved stomachs spiral up sharply into the clouds, carried away by their last $80 for a one-way ride into the unknown. But maybe you will live.
Waiting. For the war to stop, for the airport to open. For Maria to visit the grave of her child. The excitement is over. Playing the same games over and over again till their skin rubs off. Thereís a zoo. The animals are gone, I believe, and refugees from nearby villages have moved into the lionsí cages. But we could go anyway. A lot of locals continue to go there. There isnít anything much to do. People watching people living in animal cages. Recreation for the benumbed. People waiting.
Finally, the airport opens. The faces on the road. Waiting faces. The heart of fear calcified, disguised. Yet ready to burst into a thousand legs and run like the wind when danger is in the air. Empty faces too scared to wish, too scarred to hope again. Nunca mais. Never again. Thinkers who dare not think. Pensatore. Simbolo da Angola.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. In her last assignment
in mainstream media, she was Senior Editor of The Hindustan Times