Wednesday, October 31, 2012
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly
The sun hung low over the ridge as I free-wheeled down the hill to the river. People were scattered around the flood-plain, washing off a day of work in the cold water of the braided river-channels. Every now and again someone would call a greeting and I’d respond with a “Boa tarde!” and a wave. I stopped my bicycle where a man was standing next to the road. He was in conversation with some young women who were doing their laundry in the river below.
The man returned my greeting and looked me up and down with open curiosity. I wasn’t offended. A tourist on a fully-loaded bicycle is probably a sight unseen in this south-eastern corner of Angola. “Administrador por favor?” was as much Portuguese as I could muster. I know I’m supposed to report to the government administrator/mayor in any town I want to spend the night. The man in the new jeans and neat black polo shirt rattles something off and points up the road to where the village spreads to the left of the road. I catch the word escola, school. I ask for clarification and after a couple more attempts to give me what I assume are directions to the Administrador he gives up and beckons me to follow him. Outside a roadside tavern sit four young and similarly neatly dressed young men. There’s a conversation and another young man takes over as my guide and the first one walks back in the direction of the river. The young clothes-washing women are evidently more interesting than a middle-aged man on a bicycle.
I follow my new guide and his friends deeper into the collection of mud-brick huts. Some of the huts are round with roughly thatched roofs; others are rectangular with roofs of corrugated iron. I now have a growing number of children in train. I feel like a cycling pied-piper. By the time I reach the top of the village there must be over seventy children excitedly chattering and laughing and shoving each other playfully as they swarm around the bike.
I’ve been struggling to haul my heavy bike through the deep sand and I’m relieved when we finally halt outside a group of rectangular huts. I’m introduced to a man called Benjamin who turns out to be the local school teacher. There is no Administrador so he is the next best thing.
It was my first night of what would be a three week bicycle tour of Southern Angola. I’d driven to Cuito Cuanavale with friends and now I was on a solo journey back to the Namibian border. The village of Masseca is on what was known as “The Road of Death” during the civil war which lasted over thirty years. The reason is clear. The road-side is littered with rusting wrecks of military vehicles and the red and white squares periodically painted on the trees warn of the patient killers buried in the sand: land-mines. Nervously, I was feeling my way into this journey and was seeking the comfort of company.
I’m invited into the house, large by the standards of the village. Someone takes my bike and squeezes it through the front door. Another man barks at the large group of curious children. They shriek with laughter and move back a little before crowding in once more. I’m ushered into the front room and we’re joined by some of the teacher’s family, mostly young adults who I take to brothers and sisters. There’s a Formica table and some chairs. A portrait of Angola’s President Dos Santos is prominently displayed. My bike is leant against the wall and I am offered a chair. At the square glassless window the faces of older children, who are tall enough to reach, watch us while chattering excitedly.
Benjamin and I try to make conversation but without a common language this is difficult. More so because of the din made by the spectators. He tells them to go away. They back away for a few seconds but their curiosity gets the better of them and soon the window is again crammed with wide-eyed faces. Eventually my host gets up and closes the little wooden window-shutter. It’s suddenly quieter but also pitch-black as the little window provided the only light in the room. There’s no electricity. Our conversation consists of long pauses between stilted attempts at communication aided by my Portuguese/English dictionary. Eventually I get things moving by pulling out my camera and taking some photographs. I set my camera to automatic by the light of my head-torch. I aim hopefully into the darkness and manage to capture some photographs of the little group. They pass the camera around, delighted at their images on the camera’s screen.
I explain carefully that I have my own food and that I don’t want to be any further trouble to them. But although I can show them “vegetariano” in the dictionary, it becomes clear that the concept is meaningless in rural Angola. A couple of the young women appear with serving bowls. A bowl of warm water is passed around and Benjamin, two of the older boys and I wash our hands. A large enamel bowl contains pap, the smaller ones hold some dried fish, what looks like pork, and something else I can’t make out in the dim torchlight. I need to make a quick decision. I haven’t eaten any form of animal flesh in over fifteen years. As a total stranger I am now a guest in the home of a very generous family. It’s clear that I will be sleeping in their home tonight. It would be hard enough turning down this meal which has been specially rustled up for me had I been able to explain sensitively in fluent Portuguese. I decide that refusing this food in the blunt way that my limited Portuguese would allow would be very discourteous. My host expertly rolls some pap into a ball and dips it into one of the dishes. I make my decision and follow his example.
Whatever is in the bowl I choose is delicious. Rich in flavour and tender between my teeth, for a second I think I’m chewing a sundried tomato. Of course, it can’t be. But it is quite delicious. I’d hoped that the mystery dish would prove to be a vegetable of some kind. As I make my way through a third morsel of unknown I come to the conclusion that I am eating slivers of marinated goat.
The following morning, after a good night’s sleep on a thin mattress in the same room as President Dos Santos, Benjamin insists on pushing my bicycle through the soft sand and back to the road, a final gesture of hospitality before I start out on the road west again. There is something about the generosity of this family that both humbles and warms me. This is the first of many such encounters on my 1500km journey through Angola and northern Namibia and it reminds me of the goodness of ordinary people. This is more poignant for me given the tragic war that tore this country apart for so many years.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I’m running as fast as I can. I feel no pain, only a vague awareness that my lungs are burning with exertion. Adrenaline and terror drive me forward. High explosives rip the air apart, shrapnel shrieks around me. My legs are pumping yet I feel like I’m standing still. I throw down my rifle and webbing. The safety of the tree line hundreds of metres away gets no closer. White phosphorous rains burning chemical. Men are on fire, their screams drive me on.
It’s not me. It’s the man I couldn’t see.
Twenty-five years ago today I was sitting under a camo-net writing in my journal. I was recording my experience of the day before. My body deeply fatigued by endless hours of battle. I had survived one of the most ferocious battles of the war.
I never saw the enemy yet their counter-bombardment was accurate enough to straddle our vehicle several times, leading our buddies in the next vehicle to report that we were all dead through direct hits. Radio reports indicated that our white phosphorous bombs were setting men on fire in the flood-plain. I didn’t need to see this for the image to disturb me for the rest of my life.
I fought with one of the best units in the army. That knowledge does nothing to provide comfort. Except, perhaps, that it increased my chances of surviving.
The men in the floodplain died from bombs that had my fingerprints all over them. I didn’t see them then but now I’ve met some of their comrades. Men and women who would have burned in the floodplain that day or whose bombs would have landed in my Ratel had it not been for an angel’s breath.
Therein lies both the tragedy and the hope. If one sees the person, not the objectified enemy, then one could never go to war. The question for all of us in South Africa today is this: Who are you objectifying and to where could this lead?