A certain amount of artistic licence (exaggeration and bullshit in polite circles) has been used in this piece. I would ask that the people who have been to Angola or are here now gloss over anything that possibly is not exact, but on the whole it is factually correct. Mostly I write it for myself, but if you get something out of it then so much the better.
The first time that I flew into the city of Luanda and saw the row upon row of ramshackle houses I was overfilling with excitement and anticipation. The second I was confident and happy to be returning to new found friends and eager to resume work. The third was met with a resignation of what was to come. The fourth time I had not been away long and it did not feel like I was returning. The last time was met with a despair and hatred for the chaos sprawling on the ground beneath me. There was nothing to look forward to this time.
I had been away for five weeks; I knew my work had been piling up with no one capable of doing it, many of my best friends had left shortly before my much needed holiday and I knew that nothing had changed, nothing would be any better. The police and upper echelons would still be corrupt, the roads terrible, the heat oppressive, the piles of rubbish and pools of sewage would be bigger and the process of travel assuredly endlessly frustrating. The marvel that is the usual view from a descending aircraft is replaced with despondency. The endless corrugated tin roofs, which should be a multi coloured kaleidoscope of rust and flaking paint are all the same reddish brown colour that only a couple of inches of dirt can give. The pools, I am told, grow to such a size in the wet season that a stepping-stone navigational route is no longer possible. For those on foot you have no choice and must wade through the filth to get to your house. I have heard of enterprising strong young men offering piggy-back rides, for a fee of course; this is Luanda.
To say that I did not want to return was an understatement. I was done with Angola and more particularly Angolans. In fact I think my attitude towards this country has probably spread to the rest of Africa; sod this bloody continent and all who continue to piss into the wind. I’m just not interested anymore. Maybe I can make it better for this day, or hopefully this week. But next week people will still be drinking out of puddles, they will still be walking miles carrying things on their head; they will still chance their arm asking every “whitey” for 10 kwanzas (@15p). They will still have no drive too make their lives better by trying harder…and yet. And yet…They will still smile and laugh and clap and dance at the slightest provocation. They will still be content with an old tin can filed with sand as a toy, or a bunch of rags tied together for a football. They will still be proud and excited by uttering a few words of English or from receiving the briefest of recognitions from the ochindele (big white man). They will still allow the world to drift by as the shade of the mango tree shields them from the madness and squalor. They will still swagger down the street with the arrogance worthy of any European, confident in the knowledge that what there is to be had will be all theirs for the taking should they want it.
Raised on a diet of order and function, it is a relief and a delight to soak in the innocence and endeavour and invention that floods a country such as this. It can be as simple as an act of utmost stupidity that can wash away the petty irritations of the day. We can see it coming, we know what will happen, and we have the luxury of forethought and logical thinking. We know that carrying burning cardboard to light a fire 100 meters away will most likely result in burnt fingers and failure to those involved. And when you hear the howls and see them leaping like they have been bitten, perhaps you feel a little guilt at not having the heart, or the energy and with possibly a little mischief thrown in, to have not told them that it wouldn’t work.
Working along side these people can be exasperating, but you must remind yourself that blame should not be laid at their feet but on the shoulders of the bureaucrats and thieves that deceive themselves and their people and send the country further into ruin keeping the population firmly behind the rest of the world whilst lining their own nests with the best on offer. It becomes all too easy to denigrate the vast majority of the masses who live as their ancestors have always done; only now they are seduced by television and a Western way of life intent of robbing them of their natural resources. Slavery has never stopped; it just evolved into more subtle forms.
The other day I saw one of the wrecks of a society struggling to reconstruct itself; a man, probably an ex-soldier. Creeping through the bush with his arms in position as if he was holding a machine gun, his eyes darting from side to side, ready for the enemy to leap out and attack. Ever vigilant, ever faithful, ever terrified, and ever cursed by a civil war that never promised to, and certainly never did, make his life better. The day before there was a lady wandering in the road, traffic streaming past her on either side, she was screaming at the world and the spirits above. Crying for forgiveness or maybe for lost ones or perhaps just crying because there is always something worth crying about. In Luanda you try to ignore the people who take up residence at traffic lights, waiting for red so they can shuffle out on their buckled legs to hold out a hand in blind hope.
What do you do about these people in a country such as this? There is nowhere to lock them away, out of sight and out of mind. No-one to drip feed them chemicals to keep their demons at bay. No one to pat them on the head, speak to them as if they weren’t there whilst rolling their eyes with muted hatred. With any luck it is not something that anyone here has ever considered. You are what you is. An albino with two gammy legs from polio, dressed in rags and selling plastic bags will be a part of life here just as much as the healthy, wealthy and, I hesitate to use this word, wise.
Earlier today Myself and a colleague were hassled by a man with a club foot, or rather a foot so badly in need of medical attention his ankle had swollen up to the size of my upper thigh. Amputation is probably now the inevitable course of action, another amputee among thousands not from a landmine but from a condition that could have been cured by a course of antibiotics.
Of course there are still landmines that kill and maim almost every week. And yes they are for most an avoidable factor in this country’s recovery, or in some parts, progression. It is a sad fact that landmines and AK-47’s are the most sophisticated technology and engineering that a village may possess, the burnt out tank the only mechanised transport to ever grace the community. Every resident is instantly qualified and expert in the use of a landmine, a skill which requires no schooling and no exam. If you can move under your own volition, then congratulations, you are instantly entered into the lucky dip. Except there are no winners; you are guaranteed to lose, a hand, an arm, but most likely your leg. If you are fortunate then maybe only some fingers, or your sight. You could lose a lot of blood and then your life. For user-friendly apparatus, you need look no further than the humble anti-personnel blast mine. There is no “Landmines for Dummies” handbook. Politically correct and undeniably wrong at the same time.
When I visit minefields often my thoughts drift from the task of clearance to the what-ifs. What if I stood on one? I am big and strong and brush aside bruises and cuts; I injure myself all the time at work. A landmine surely would be minor, I would walk away rubbing dust from my eyes and cursing before going back to work….But that’s not what happens; you have no option. You can’t train to resist the blast from a mine. It doesn’t register your build, your upbringing, your insurance policy. It isn’t concerned about how many sit-ups you can do, or whether you were paying attention or not. It feels no sympathy for your family and shows no compassion. It is what it is.
It is not like a knife slicing a leg off; the shock wave liquefies your bone and rips through your flesh, leaving nothing solid holding it all together. The blast will tear chunks from your body leaving gaping wounds for infection and insect larvae to settle in. A child, with softer bones and major organs and head closer to the blast, probably would not live to watch the scar tissue develop, perhaps not even live long enough to scream for help. I have heard villagers try to describe a victim’s pleas; they do not have the words. And could you blame your family and friends for hesitating, if there’s one there could be more. The beast that doesn’t bark has just bitten; maybe the rest of the pack is on the hunt as well.
We do what we can. What the country and its limitations will allow. I recently attended a forum on Mechanical demining to discuss aspects and methods of ridding this country of mines in a more economical and efficient way. The majority of nationals in attendance were not too concerned about the how-to and the why, but more with the salary of a deminer. The presence of a demining agency is seen as a source of long term employment rather than an aid in the rebuilding of a war torn country. Of course a worker must be paid a reasonable wage, but the presence of mines negates the advantages of a few extra dollars. What good is a $10 note if it is scorched and splattered with your blood? We don’t want to be here. We are not looking to be here for the long haul, and yet unfortunately we will be. There are countless towns encircled by minefields, the amount of mines outnumbering the population by maybe 20 to 1. I have spoken to people who aren’t concerned that they live in a minefield, and by midday are too drunk to care or even crawl closer to heed your warning.
In many cases you have driven for hours to where there is nothing worth starting demining operations for, nothing except people and their simple lives. Kilometre upon kilometre of bush, punctuated by a collection of mud and stick houses every 50km or so. The landmarks are most likely to be a rusted tank or an ambushed convoy. Ten, twelve or more vehicles mined, bombed, burnt or shot to shit. An eerie feeling pervades around these sights, you can be certain that people died here. Curiosity compels you to investigate these alien features. To look for tell tale pointers as to what happened, bullet holes, twisted chassis, steel ripped apart from an explosion. Your training tells you to stay well away; maybe only one mine was set off, maybe this truck was carrying munitions, maybe a particularly malicious soldier booby-trapped the wreck to catch the unwitting bounty-hunter and scavengers. In the end I lost count of the number of craters and vehicle carcasses, one rusting skeleton blurs to another, just another obstacle in the endless road.
This is Africa. I should not have to write about these things. I should be writing about wild animals, except there aren’t any, all of them eaten or fled long ago. I have been here for eighteen months and I have only lately seen my first truly wild four legged animal: a rabbit, grey fur, floppy ears and a fluffy tail, only worth writing about due to its scarcity.
But this is Africa and as much as I see and feel and despair at being here, I cannot deny the pleasures and delights and marvels that I chance upon every day. It is not all doom and gloom, perhaps if I did not have this type of job to do then maybe the tone of this piece would be lighter and have more of these positive experiences, perhaps I would savour them more and be more inclined to share them with you. There is still time, I am in no hurry to leave.
1st October 2005
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