I’m afraid it’s only in Portuguese at the moment (but will soon be available in English)… So for those of you who are interested, I’ve done a review of Purga em Angola by Dalila Cabrita Mateus e Álvaro Mateus. The book is about the 27th May 1977 uprising, a much contested and misunderstood day in Angola’s recent history, and a day which was followed by what Angolan politician and journalist, Joao Mello, has called the 28th May. And one could go on, with the 29th May, 30th May and so on and so on… for many days and weeks of violence and hatred followed the uprising, and many Angolans to this day struggle to come to terms with what happened to their families and friends. The 27th May was about identity, liberation, the Cold War, Cuba and the Soviet Union, and it was about money and power, race and class. Finally, during the last year or so, people have begun to publish their research and in some cases their personal experiences about this event – finally, an attempt to correct three decades of silence on the subject. Silence – and a monopoly on the truth. I wrote about the 27th May last year for Relações Internacionais here. Other recent works to appear include Holocausto em Angola by Américo Cardoso Botelho which is remarkably difficult to get hold of if you don’t live in Portugal. I was sent a copy by a kind friend in Lisbon, and have just started wading through what is a long account of the violence and suffering that followed independence in 1975 for those who criticised the politics of the MPLA under Agostinho Neto.
In front of a television in the Angolan capital, Luanda, linked via satellite to BBC World and SKY, I am sitting with a friend.
‘So, Lara, I don’t quite follow what they are saying about 42 days. Is this xenophobia?’
‘This is all about the so-called war on terror, which in part, I would agree, is about xenophobia. But the 42 days refers to the government’s desire to be able to detain a suspect for 42 days whilst the police build a case against that person.’
‘Oh… I see… But only for muslims, you mean?’
‘No. In principle, anyone could be detained for 42 days if the law is passed in the House of Lords, but even if they try to stop it, it might well be pushed through by parliament regardless.’
‘I see. So, you have a sort of dictatorship there… like here?’
‘It’s certainly becoming quite authoritarian.’
‘But Lara, authoritarian means dictatorship. Do you think British people understand that?’
‘Many don’t, I fear.’
We flick back to SKY. David Davies is shown with David Cameron in a London street I recognise.
‘Oh! Look! That’s my street in Hackney! That’s Powerscroft Road! That’s my flat! There! Look!’
‘So your politicians do the same as they do here: they visit the rundown neighbourhoods for propaganda? Like when our politicians go to the musseque. It’s the same! I’m beginning to understand your county too.’
I pass Mutamba, and climb the small hill home and when I am nearly at the top, panting gently, I notice an old man. An old man of slow motion. He is bending over several shopping bags. They are all black. Eight or nine or ten black shopping bags. Plastic bags full of things. I see blue plastic bottles sticking out of the top. He is bending over the bags, with great sadness. He is looking at them very mournfully, exhausted, as if they were a large group of children for whom he has to care, but no longer has the energy for. Should he abandon them to their fate on the street, or take them home? What will they do to him when they know he is weakening? Will they start to attack him, like dogs, when the old leader becomes ill, and the rest of the pack slowly start to turn and eventually, one day soon, bite him to death? As I approach, he is pushing the fingers of his left hand through the open handles of two of the bags. He is concentrating very hard. He is staring at the bags. Staring at his hand, alarmed by his own fingers – like thick brown worms that are weaving through the black bags. I slow as I pass him, wanting to stop, wanting to ask him how he went mad. Was it in the war, or is he just a mad man like the mad men we have in London? Someone asked me here, Are there mad men in your country too? And was so surprised when I said, Yes, we too have madmen. I pass him, and turn and watch. He is pulling his left hand away from the handle through which he had earlier pushed his fingers. He is looking at other bags now, a small group of three that I had not noticed before, and seems confused and upset that he has to be burdened by all these bags, that he has to take them everywhere, that they are so dependent on him. His eyes are wide and watery, his body drops a little lower with every breath and every thought. The bags are small and dependent and screaming with demands of him. He must not abandon them. And I remember, now, as I write, that I have seen this man before. And each time I have seen him, he has been standing at a junction, or near a kerb, surrounded by his bags, bending over his bags. They are all around him, hassling him, calling him, slowly suffocating him. He cannot escape his bags. Full of empty bottles of blue plastic that once were full of expensive mineral water. Whose lips have drunk from his bottles? Where are they now, in their plot on the island? He stands over his flock of black plastic bags, each waiting for him to put his hand through it and sweep it into the air but he cannot decide which to take up first. He must make that decision. He can’t remain here, by the Provincial Governor of Luanda’s beautiful pink buildings. He must move on. What is he thinking? I only want to sit down and talk to him. I like the mad people here. With them, I am sure, one can speak about normal things, to talk a little of feeling maddened by all the wealth, all the buildings, all the Hummers.
‘I am on the Left, that is why I will vote MPLA.’
‘But the MPLA is no longer Left. Is it.’
‘I know. I know. It is the most greedy of capitalisms we see here.’
‘So why not vote for a party that is on the Left?’
‘They are my family: I can’t vote for anyone else. And I don’t want to back a loser.’
Well, things have progressed since last year. The building of the hotel of sixteen floors is now well underway. The neighbour will soon be another great tower in Luanda’s increasingly unbeautiful baixa. And while we wait for the tower to grow, we continue to suffer. The problem is the ‘prazo’: the deadline. It must be finished by the end of 2009 in time for the African Cup of Nations. I have been told, The rooms have already been rented out, every single one! It has to be finished, it has to be finished.
Which is why the work continues every day and every night, around the clock. No one stops working. The banging, the hammering, the pouring of cement, the hooting of the crane – that never stops, that never stops – and the shouting and relaying and communicating of the builders on site. Up a bit! No, down a bit! No, up a bit! But usually we do not understand, for they are speaking Mandarin. They work every day, all day and all night. It never stops. And we never sleep. The banging, the hammering, the shouting, the hooting of the crane. Even ear plugs fail to block the noise. The vibrations penetrate. The mosquito net shivers.
Where are the Angolans? They were too slow, said someone. In fact, he said, We are too slow, the Chinese are faster, so the bosses said Chinese must be brought in to ensure the work is finished to deadline. So the Angolans were dismissed, or sent to another project. The Chinese are faster, he said, because they don’t have families here, and so they don’t have funerals, or sick children, or wives, or aunties to look after. They just have to work. And they all live together – so they can come in and go out and come in and go out in one minivan. The Angolans live in homes, so they take taxis to their particular homes. This costs more, and they Angolans find it hard to find transport late at night. That costs more. So the Chinese are brought into work instead.
And I heard someone shout about South Africa, I heard someone say If you aren’t careful, Angola will go the same way as South Africa! But no one understood because the shouting was not in Mandarin. But the tension is there. The dislike. The confusion. Between the Angolans and the Chinese. Whilst the people at the top – the socios - set deadlines and rub their hands together. Who are they?
Someone said, The Portuguese! Someone else said, The Angolans! It is both, said another. It is Edifer and Gema… Some of them are bizneiros, said someone, Some of them were, but all of them are making more and more and more money. Which is why the noise never stops – even on International Labour Day and International Child Day and even International Hypertension Day.