Unfrying an egg

[This review of In the Name of the People has been written by an Angolan man I have never met, but with whom I have shared ideas via internet and other spaces, and who I count as a friend. For those of you who are wondering, he is linked to the MPLA, like so many Angolans, through his extended family.]

Lara Pawson’s humble contribution to demystifying one of the many taboos in Angolan society is remarkable. It is definitely a must-read for those of the younger generation of Angolans who incessantly seek nothing but the truth for their own personal enlightenment.

The book is not only Lara’s quest for quenching the untamable journalistic fire within her mind, it also appears to be a vehicle to allow her to reflect on her own political and ideological beliefs. For Angolans, in particular, she leaves (wittingly or unwittingly) certain clues along her narrative which, when tied together, uncover a deep-rooted malaise that plagues Angolan society to this day. To name a few: the issue of skin color and its perceived importance; the “blue blood complex” which makes certain prominent Angolan families foolishly believe they are superior to others; the perils of self-entitlement that certain individuals possess as a result of their involvement in the national liberation struggle and the civil war which followed (somehow, this links into the endemic corruption and kleptocracy for which Angola is now infamous); the elitism of the “la petite bourgeoisie” whose genesis in the post-independence era is arguably strongly related to the 27 de Maio itself; the blatant inequality that still prevails after 40 years of sovereignty and that keeps widening the gulf between the rich and the poor (the pés descalços).

Of course the book is not perfect. No book is. In her journey hunting for the truth from England to Portugal and finally to Angola, Lara relies heavily on accounts by people who were involved in some shape or form with the 27 de Maio. Some are victims — or survivors — or relatives of the dead. Conventional book reviewers may consider this a weakness — a lack of objectivity. But this is Angola, and to write anything decent and credible about the country is tantamount to unfrying an egg. It is harder for foreigners without access to the higher echelons of the ruling party. Unless you are going to write about how “well governed” Angola is and how extraordinary its much-vaunted double-digit GDP growth has been, all the doors will simply shut on you. There is a good reason why pieces about Angola in bona fide international media are as ubiquitous as the Holy Grail – pun intended.

The inconsistencies and contradictions that stem from the different arguments gathered by Lara are probably what kept her motivated during the years of research. They are probably what encouraged her to keep digging deeper. She cross examines her interviewees very effectively: it forces the reader to stop and think before jumping to any conclusions. This level of self-detachment is not evident in many other books about the 27 de Maio. In the end, it is what makes the book come alive.

Lara is arguably the first author to give voice to the people of Sambizanga. In a book about the 27 de Maio, ignoring their views on the subject is equivalent to writing about football in English culture without ever going to Anfield, Craven Cottage or St. James Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Lara’s witty humour – in typical British style – helps to soften what could otherwise be a very heavy-hearted read. On the other hand, her somewhat overly detailed descriptions of the people she meets, and the sights and sounds she sees and hears, might be tiresome for those who want a faster-paced book. To those expecting a step-by-step chronology of events before and after the 27 de Maio, it might read like a 250-page non sequitur. Simply put, the book is very easy to read if you already have a basic knowledge of the subject, but other readers may find it hard to connect all the dots. They may wish to refer to other works on the same topic as well, such as Purga em Angola (2007), Núvem Negra (2007) and Holocausto em Angola (2008).

When I finished the book, I wondered – just like Lara did – why it is, nearly 40 years on, that discussing this topic continues to be implicitly forbidden in Angola. After all, most of the perpetrators are probably dead anyway; some are living ordinary lives; others may never face trial. So the 27-million-dollar question is: if, collectively, we are still grappling with the self-inflicted wounds from an event as old as this one, then are we not foolish to believe that we have overcome much the other one that ended just 12 years ago? I’m talking, of course, about the civil war.

Plato once said that “only the dead see the end of war”. Developing that a bit, perhaps it is fitting to say that the 27 de Maio is bound to remain alive in the memories of those who did not die as a result of it. There is a strong belief across African cultures that the more people mourn with us, the easier it is to cope with the loss of a loved one. The pain is shared evenly. At some point in time, Angola will have to hold a national mourning for all the victims of the 27 de Maio, regardless of which side they were on. If not, we may never find closure.

For her relentless pursuit of the truth and for her courageous endeavors to finish and publish this book, I would like to thank Lara on behalf of all the Angolans who may find solace reading her book. To end, I will borrow from the Texan folklorist and writer, J Frank Dobie, who gave this tribute to fellow writer John W. Thomason: “In the name of the people who, because of what you created, are richer inside themselves and live more abundantly on the soil they belong to, we salute you”.