How much does spelling really matter? If it is so very important, why then is Angola written Angola? Shouldn’t it be Ngola? Should Brazil be Brasil or Brazil? And should the Queen of Matamba be Njinga or Nzinga or Nzingha? Or Ginga? Should the Van Dunems be searching for their ‘roots’, along with the Vieira Dias and Do Nascimentos and Vieira Lopes and the Dos Santos? Should they be hunting through the Catholic church archives to find out their ‘real’ names? What’s a real name? If mine comes from Parson, as I’ve been told it does, should I not call myself Lara Parson instead of Lara Pawson? How authentic should language be, or leaders? How loyal to history? Why wear a Ralph Lauren suit when you could throw on a boubou? Why is it, in Luanda, that so many members of the elite are ashamed to speak autochtonous languages, that is, if they speak them at all? Should they perhaps be going for classes to learn them? I have never forgotten a breakfast meeting I had with the Unita General, Paulo Lukamba Gato, months after the Angolan war ended in 2002. He told me he had been warned to only speak European languages now that he was in Luanda, otherwise he would not be taken seriously. He was told this by fellow Angolans as advice for dealing with fellow Angolans – not Americans, or French, or Portuguese, or Brazilians. Who is the neocolonial here? Who is the oppressor here? I will never forget being told by an Angolan vice minister, ‘They are not like us, my dear; they must be treated like animals.’ By ‘us’ she meant me and her, two Europeans in her most humble opinion. ‘But you are a minister of an African country,’ I responded, ‘You are an African.’ She boiled with fury: ‘I’m like you. We are different.’ And so the gunshots rang out across the musseque where we stood, and the people ran for cover. She stood, stock still, in her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and shiny black court shoes.
I pondered all of this and more at the weekend when I went to see Xala, a film by the late Senegalese writer and film-maker, Ousmane Sembene. The film explodes the neo-colonialist process as the resplendent elite receive briefcases stuffed with banknotes from white businessmen in the chamber of commerce, and are ushered along a red carpet into Mercs after a speech about “the African path to socialism”. “You’re not a white man,” Kader’s future mother-in-law says when he refuses to participate in the ceremony to ensure the successful deflowering of the bride. “You are neither fish nor fowl.”
A few years, an Angolan friend explained his feelings after visiting Senegal: ‘I realised that Angola isn’t Africa at all: Luanda is totally Western. I’d like to go and live in Senegal to be truly African.’