By Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vintage , April 17, 2001, 978-0375726293
Yet another great book by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Not only does Kapuscinski write well, he also speaks his mind. This book is about Angola, which has been in a state of war for 350 years, thanks to the Portuguese. It’s a great way to get slaves: tribe enslaving tribe. However, it’s an awful legacy to get out from under.
He also speaks about the lack of ambition of the blacks in Angola. The way he writes threatens my morals, yet is quite fair-minded about it. He’s not a bigot, and most importantly, he was there. If your country is warring constantly, why bother to work?
The scene of this book extends from serveral months before independence (November, 1975) through the initial fighting. The white Portuguese are leaving.
[p9] For me, nine o’clock was the high point of the day-a big event repeated each evening. I wrote daily. I wrote out of the most egocentric of motives: I overcame my inertia and depression in order to produce even the briefest dispatch and so maintain contact with Warsaw, because it rescued me from loneliness and the feeling of abandonment. If there was time, I settled down at the telex long before nine. When the light came on I felt like a wanderer in the desert who catches sight of a spring. I tried every trick I could think of to drag out the length of those seances. I described the details of every battle. I asked what the weather was like at home and complained that I had nothing to eat. But in the end came the moment when Warsaw signed off:
[p10] GOOD RECEPTION CONTACT TOMORROW 20 HRS GMT TKS BY BY
and the light went out and I was left alone again.
Luanda was not dying the way our Polish cities died in the last war. There were no air raids, there was no “pacification,” no destruction of district after district. There were no cemeteries in the streets and squares. I don’t remember a single fire. The city was dying the wayan oasis dies when the well runs dry: it became empty, fell into inanition, passed into oblivion. But that agony would come later; for the moment there was feverish movement everywhere. Everybody was in a hurry, everybody was clearing out. Everyone was trying to catch the next plane to Europe, to America, to anywhere. Portuguese from all over Angola converged on Luanda. Caravans of automobiles loaded down with people and baggage arrived from the most distant comers of the country. The men were unshaven, the woman tousled and rumpled, the children dirty and sleepy. On the way the refugees linked up in long columns and crossed the country that way, since the bigger the group, the safer it was. At first they checked into the Luanda hotels but later, when there were no vacancies, they drove straight to the airport. A nomad city without streets or houses sprang up around the airport. People lived in the open, perpetually soaked because it was always raining. They were living worse now than the blacks in the African quarter that abutted the airport, but they took it apathetically, with dismal resignation, not knowing whom to curse for their fate. Salazar was dead, Caetano had escaped to Brazil, and the [p11] government in Lisbon kept changing. The revolution was to blame for everything, they said, because before that it had been peaceful. Now the government had promised the blacks freedom and the blacks had come to blows among themselves, burning and murdering. They aren’t capable of governing. Let me tell you what a black is like, they would say: he gets drunk and sleeps all day. If he can hang some beads on himself he walks around happy. Work? Nobody works here. They live like a hundred years ago. A hundred? A thousand! I’ve seen ones like that, living like a thousand years ago. You ask me who knows what it was like a thousand years ago? Oh, you can tell for sure. Everybody knows what it was like. This country won’t last long. Mobutu will take a hunk of it, the ones to the south will take their cut, and that’s the end of it. If only I could get out this minute. And never lay eyes on it again. I put in forty years of work here. The sweat of my damn brow. Who will give it back to me now? Do you think anybody can start life all over again?
People are sitting on bundles covered with plastic because it’s drizZling. They are meditating, pondering everything. In this abandoned crowd that has been vegetating here for weeks, the spark of revolt sometimes flashes. Women beat up the soldiers designated to maintain order, and men try to hijack a plane to let the world know what despair they’ve been driven to. Nobody knows when they will fly out or in what direction. A cosmic mess prevails. Organization comes hard to the Portuguese, avowed individualists who by nature cannot live in narrow bounds, in community. Pregnant women have priority. Why them? Am I worse because I gave birth six months ago? All right, pregnant women and those with infants have priority. Why them? Am I worse because my son just turned three? Okay, women with children [p12] have priority. Huh? And me? Just because I’m a man, am I to be left here to die? So the strongest board the plane and the women with children throw themselves on the tarmac, under the wheels, so the pilot can’t taxi. The army arrives, throws the men off, orders the women aboard, and the women walk up the steps in triumph, like a victorious unit entering a newly conquered city.
Let’s say we fly out the ones whose nerves have been shattered. Beautiful, look no further, because if it hadn’t been for the war, I’d have been in the lunatic asylum long ago. And us in Carmona, we were raided by a band of wild men who took everything, beat us, wanted to shoot us. I’ve been nothing but shakes ever since. I’ll go nuts if I don’t fly out of here at once. My dear fellow, I’ll say no more than this: I’ve lost the fruits of a life’s work. Besides, where we lived in Lumbala two UNITA soldiers grabbed me by the hair and a third poked a gun barrel right in my eye. I consider that sufficient reason to take leave of my senses.
No criterion won general approbation. The despondent crowd swarmed around each plane, and hours passed before they could work out who finally got a seat. They have to carry half a million refugees across an air bridge to the other side of the world.
Everybody knows why they want to leave. They know they’ll survive September, but October will be very bad and nobody will live through November. How do they know? How can you ask such a question? says one. I’ve lived here for twenty-eight years and I can tell you something about this country. Do you know what I had to show for it in the end? An old taxi that I left sitting in the street.
Do you believe it? I ask Arturo. Arturo doesn’t believe it, but he still wants to leave. And you, Dona Cartagina, do you [p13] believe it? Yes, Dona Cartagina is convinced. If we stay till November, that’ll be the end of us. The old lady energetically draws a finger across her throat, on which her fingernail leaves a red mark.
People escaped as if from an infectious disease, as if from pestilential air that can’t be seen but still inflicts death. Afterward the wind blows and the sand drifts over the traces of the last survivor.
Various things happened before that, before the city was closed and sentenced to death. As a sick person suddenly revives and recovers his strength for a moment in the midst of his agony, so, at the end of September, life in Luanda took on a certain vigor and tempo. The sidewalks were crowded and traffic jams clogged the streets. People ran around nervously, in a hurry, wrapping up thousands of matters. Clear out as quickly as possible, escape in time, before the first wave of deadly air intrudes upon the city.
They didn’t want Angola. They had had enough of the country, which was supposed to be the promised land but had brought them disenchantment and abasement. They said farewell to their African homes with mixed despair and rage, sorrow and impotence, with the feeling of leaVing forever. All they wanted was to get out with their lives and to take their possessions with them.
Everybody was busy bUilding crates. Mountains of boards and plywood were brought in. The price of hammers and nails soared. Crates were the main topic of conversation-how to build them, what was the best thing to reinforce them with. Self-proclaimed experts, crate specialists, homegrown architects of cratery, masters of crate styles, [p14] crate schools, and crate fashions appeared. Inside the Luanda of concrete and bricks a new wooden city began to rise. The streets I walked through resembled a great building site. I stumbled over discarded planks; nails sticking out of beams ripped my shirt. Some crates were as big as vacation cottages, because a hierarchy of crate status had suddenly come into being. The richer the people, the bigger the crates they erected. Crates belonging to millionaires were impressive: beamed and lined with sailcloth, they had solid, elegant walls made of the most expensive grades of tropical wood, with the rings and knots cut and polished like antiques. Into these crates went whole salons and bedrooms, sofas, tables, wardrobes, kitchens and refrigerators, commodes and armchairs, pictures, carpets, chandeliers, porcelain, bedclothes and linen, clothing, tapestries and vases, even artificial flowers (I saw them with my own eyes), all the monstrous and inexhaustible junk that clutters every middle-class home. Into them went figurines, seashells, glass balls, flower bowls, stuffed lizards, a metal miniature of the cathedral of Milan brought back from Italy, letters!-letters and photographs, wedding pictures in gilt frames (Why don’t we leave that? the husband asks, and the enraged wife cries, You ought to be ashamed!)-all the pictures of the children, and here’s the first time he sat up, and here’s the first time he said Give, Give, and here he is with a lollipop, and here with his grandma-everything, and I mean everything, because this case of wine, this supply of macaroni that I laid in as soon as the shooting started, and then the fishing rod, the crochet needles-my yam!-my rifle, Tutu’s colored blocks, birds, peanuts, the vacuum and the nutcracker have to be squeezed in, too, that’s all there is to it, they have to be, and they are, so that all we leave behind are the bare floors, the naked walls, en deshabille.
[p40] You have to learn how to live with the checkpoints and to respect their customs, if you want to travel without hindrance and reach your destination alive. It must be borne in mind that the fate of our expedition and even our lives are in the hands of the sentries. These are people of diverse professions and ages. Rear-guard soldiers, homegrown militia, boys caught up in the passion of war, and often simply children. The most varied armament: submachine guns, old carbines, machetes, knives, and clubs. Optional dress, because uniforms are hard to come by. Sometimes a military blouse, but usually a resplendent shirt; sometimes a helmet, but often a woman’s hat; sometimes massive boots, but as a rule sneakers or bare feet. This is an indigent war, attired in cheap calico.
Every encounter with a checkpoint consists of: (a) the explanatory section, (b) bargaining, (c) friendly conversation. You have to drive up to the checkpoint slowly and stop at a decent remove. Any violent braking or squealing of tires constitutes a bad opening; the sentries don’t appreciate such stunts. Next we get out of the car and approach the barriers, gasoline drums, heaps of stones, tree trunks, or wardrobe. If this is a zone near the front, our legs buckle with fear and our heart is in our mouth, because we can’t tell whose checkpoint it is-the MPLA’s, FNLA’s, or UNITA’s. The sun is shining and it’s hot. Air heated to whiteness vibrates above the road, as if a snowdrift were billowing across the pavement. But it’s quiet, and an unmoving world, holding its breath, surrounds us. We too, involuntarily, hold our breath.