I’m looking at the legs of a slim young woman wearing a pale pink nylon nightdress with a hem of neoteny pink ribbon at her knees. Strapped to her back like a baby, a crate of bottles of beer with red and white paper labels only just identifiable as not Coca Cola. Balancing on her head, another large crate. All around are rushing people supporting large objects and weighted down with goods bundled in colourful sheets. A substantial woman with thick buttocks and solid stomach stands with her arms around a long slim brown object wrapped in plastic sheeting and taller than even she, with her heavy red and green headdress of waxed cotton. A man behind a desk is talking about my passport in a weave of English and Portuguese. But I’m gazing at the brown thing the woman hugs, slowly identifying the object as a plastic plant with a thick brown plastic trunk twisted into a figure of eight and several thick green flaps that are leaves. A plastic cheese plant for Angola. The man stamps my passport; I walk out into the sharp light and my eyes sting with tears. All around, gates and wire fences and rolls and rolls of rasor-wire and men slapping long black canes to their thighs. Three young men are walking slowly, leaning forward so far they might collapse to the ground but for broad hands pushing against the handlebars of thick bicycle frames. Wedged between the crossbar and the peddle bar are two large brown bags full of cement from China. Balanced on each seat, another two bags. Great power from the bodies of resilient men. A cream queen-size mattress floats by, a sting-ray, with sides gently ballooning up and down in rhythm with the two legs beneath that are moving swiftly towards large black gates and barbed wire. A teenage girl with soft skin is heading for Angola flaunting armfulls of large crimson roses with plastic drops of water glued and glistening from cotton petals. A pair of slim women totter on several inches of plastic and metal, dragging huge suitcases on small wheels. A young man in a three-wheeler chair rotates a pair of peddles with punching fists that power a bicycle chain above his knees. His vast shoulders bulge from sparrow hips. On top of flattened thighs and shoved into all remaining space in his chair are many packets of green plastic coat hangers. Three separate wheelchairs peddle past: more deformed legs folded gently and neatly into faded canvas seats or hang from the side like empty cotton stockings tossed over a cupboard door.
‘This is nothing,’ the man boasts, ‘sometimes it’s medieval.’
The discourse of the white man when he leaves his over-industrialised land and heads for that which is dubbed developing. He is keen to show that his experience is extra ordinary, that he is particularly brave, particularly adaptable, and that he is in touch with his wild side which he tells himself is savage, and that is why he – unlike all the other foreigners he meets – is able to cope.
To cope… Medieval…
Does an Angolan whisper in this way when he is showing his Nigerian friend how to negotiate London’s King’s Cross train station? Does he say, ‘This is nothing: normally it’s cowboys and indians’? Does he also ignore his own alcoholism and nicotine addiction, insisting that it is a sign of his liberty, his freedom, his alternative take on the world. Does he, too, explain away his serial love affairs with local women in their teens and early twenties as a reflection of his neverending youthfulness?
(But the argument does not happen.)
A man in blue uniform marches up and down the border fence with a three foot bendy whip of rubber. Wherever he goes, waves of people with goods stacked on their heads canter away, a human current moved by the moon of force. A woman and her son try to escape, to run through a hole in the fence a little further up. A dash for the space in the barbed wire. Someone shouts: ‘WOAHA!’ The man in blue turns and starts running, his hand high up behind his back, his whip trailing, its tail springing at his heels. The mother screams, still running, her son ducks and gets through the hole, the whip comes down but too late, she is frantically bending and twitching for a space to duck through. She vanishes into the ground, out of sight. I only see the border guard turn and walk back, dragging his whip now limp across the dusty ground. Boys come to the car window and from beneath their arms, uncover several large bottles of mineral water. Their eyes shift side to side as if it is a crime to sell someone water. In a mirror, I see a tall uniformed man with dark sunglasses, marching towards the car. The water boys leap into a sprint and vanish as quick as they came, but the guard still strides forward waving a white metal cane with something loose and dangly hanging from one end. An electric cattle prodder. The men in blue once those boys herding their cattle by the side of the road.