At the end of a war

Cazombo sprawls along both sides of the single street that runs from the airstrip, past an echoing school and hospital building, to the oldest part of town where tile-roofed colonial villas are screened by the tortured shapes and thick scent of frangipani trees. Beyond lay a small open field of dry grass with a water tower and a vast satellite dish. Across the road from the dish was the palácio, where the administrator spent much of his time in front of the television noting down the scores coming in from the football World Cup in Japan and Korea.

As in Cuemba, it was at the administrator’s house that we stayed. But this palácio was better appointed than the one in Cuemba, newly plastered and painted, with glass in the windows. A squat man with a built-in sneer on his lips, the administrator had the only electricity in town, which fed his television, his lights and a single street lamp outside his house. The private diesel generator was situated sufficiently far away for someone else to be troubled by its noise. During meals, a servant would stand silently beside the table, while the administrator yelled “Bread!” or “Coffee!”

The administrator was a native of this area, of this geometrical protuberance of Angola so far from the Atlantic that Cazombo is only a short distance from the upper reaches of the Zambezi river. The sudsy water from the stream below the town that served as a public bath made its way east, over the Victoria Falls and eventually to the Indian Ocean. The administrator had joined the MPLA in Cazombo, before serving his time in Luanda. He bore no mandate from the people of Cazombo; Angola’s administrators are all appointed from Luanda, just as the colonial officials of old were appointed from Lisbon. This post, this outpost, was his reward: a post where it was in his power to make the solitary street light shine, where nothing and no one could restrain him from humiliating an illiterate serving maid when she passed the sugar instead of the salt.

Beyond the palácio were the barn-like shells that had been shops or warehouses before independence, and where Angola’s more recent history was now painted on the walls. One bore Unita slogans from the last occupation, which had ended only in 2000. Across the road, a roofless, burnt-out concrete box filled with rubble and garbage carried the blue-painted logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a relic of the optimism that had come with the peace of 1991, when the UN came to ease the return of refugees from Zambia.

The UN had not yet returned, but the refugees had started arriving a month ago. Every afternoon, two or three army trucks would materialise out of a distant dust-cloud, and growl to a halt outside another of the warehouses, where the cargo of people would jump down. Behind the line of buildings on the single street, paths led to mud-brick houses, and beyond that to a field where the refugees had started building shelters.

In one of the huts—it had four walls and a door, but as yet no roof—lived Beston and Tobias. Both were in their 20s, both recently arrived from Zambia. They spoke no Portuguese; only the local Luvala language and the idiosyncratic English in which Beston described his situation:

“We are happy, we are enjoying so far. We are in our country, we have got to enjoy and utilise our resources in this place—we don’t regret anything—we are happy about it and are here to do what we can because we have done a lot of things also in Zambia and as repatriates in this country we are going to do something better in this place.”

He and Tobias were living in one of the grass huts, “waiting for well-wishers from other places to come and help us and then see how we can live in our place”.

Beston showed me two books: a Bible and an anti-Catholic paperback called The Sunday Law, published by the Seventh Day Adventists. The cover showed a map of the United States, with the Vatican flag skewered into Washington DC.

Tobias had left Angola for Zambia with his parents in 1983, when he was seven years old. The family had spent some time in Kabwe in the heart of Zambia, nearly 1 000km from the Angolan border. Tobias said his father had worked as a lecturer; the family had clearly been well-established. “I was a security officer, I have been a driver and a mechanic. But looking at the job situation there is no job security, and we are mostly underpaid in Zambia. We thought that having a lot of resources in Angola we may do something big.”

Looking around the field of flimsy grass shelters it was hard to imagine that Angola held the kind of promise that Tobias spoke of. Hardly anyone in the refugee quarter spoke Portuguese, not even the youth in the bright yellow shirt and patterned tie who introduced himself as Pedro, but who was called Peter most of the time: “Just a few words—bom dia—ha ha.” Tobias and Benson translated for me from Luvala to English as I tried to hear the stories of the rest of the people in the encampment: the ones who did not have the young men’s English skills and confidence; the ones who had come from the Mahewa refugee camp across the border and now survived by gathering sticks, selling them to the townsfolk of Cazombo, and then buying sweet potatoes the size of my thumb.

“We came from Mahewa with nothing,” said an ancient woman, wrapped in a few faded print cloths. “We have been here since March—the government provided only two kilograms of food for each person. From that day until now we received nothing from the government—we are surviving like this,we have no hoes to cultivate. I went to Zambia in 1999. We left Mahewa to come here because there was no food. We thought, let’s go back to our country which could be better.”

The dream of post-war prosperity over the border was what had drawn most people back to Angola. Crispé Gasepi had been in Zambia since 1983. He had returned to Angola with his pregnant wife and a child, “because Angola is our motherland where we get wealth, where we could survive, we thought maybe things could be better”. Now he spent most of the day sitting alone in the dust. “When we arrived here, we were hungry, we thought it was better to go and look for food. While we were trying to cross the river, they fell into the water and now they are dead—my wife and child.”

As we walked through the bairro between the refugee camp and the town, we passed a group of people sitting in the sun outside a house. A woman smiled and greeted me. It took a moment to recognise her; the cringing servant from the administrator’s house had, here among her own, turned into someone who was able to acknowledge me as a fellow human and not just as yet another guest of the master.

This is an extract from An Outbreak of Peace: Angola’s Situation of Confusion (David Philip)

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