I met a Cuban who fought at Cuito Cuanavale when I was in the attacking army. We spoke no common language but connected in a way only old soldiers can. We held each other like long lost brothers. Another scar felt healed. I met ex-PLAN soldiers and felt humbled by the adversity they had faced and the courage it took for them to take to the bush to fight for what they believed in. They reached out to me, who once wore the uniform of their hated enemy, with a magnanimity that shone light into a previously dark place in my soul. I conversed, often without a common language, with farmers and teachers, engineers and herd-boys, and was reminded of how warm and hospitable people can be to strangers and how sharing is most meaningful when it is simply an honest sharing of oneself.
I travelled nearly 1500 kilometres on my bicycle and exchanged a greeting with nearly everyone walking next to that long road. Bon dia, boa tarde. They would smile or stare or laugh at the unusual sight of a man on a loaded bicycle, so many interactions and connections that would not have been possible had I roared through Angola and part of Namibia with the aid of a motor. My bicycle, a conversation piece.
Cuito Cuanavale, an almost mythological place in my war, a place on a map, never seen as I sat not so far away in a foxhole in the Angolan sand. The place I’d chosen to begin my bike journey. I felt surprisingly strong emotions in the few days I spent there. From Cuito Cuanavale to Menongue, the so-called “Road of Death”, strewn with the wreckage of war: tanks, APC’s, logistics vehicles, hit by air attacks, or rockets or UNITA ambushes. It was a depressing reminder of the utter waste caused by 30 years of war.
My slow progress from those battlefields was mirrored by my slow internal processing and meaning-making; my responses to returning to Angola. Evidence of war decreased with every kilometre beyond Menongue and my thoughts turned slowly from the past and its grim rusting reminders, to the beauty of the bush and the openness of the people I met. I became absorbed in my immediate task of journeying, feeding myself, finding a place to sleep and with every meeting along the way. The war receded both in its manifestation in the landscape, and in my mind. The further I travelled from Cuito, the less I thought about war.
Now I’m home again. My journey continues by other means. But whereas once I felt the constant pull to return to Angola, to put some ghosts to rest, now I need never return there again. And if I do, it will be for other reasons.
The word Angola will no longer only mean war to me, but a deeper, richer, more positive tapestry.