the sound of mortars

The sound of mortars

ANGOLAN ODYSSEY

ANGOLA IS HAUNTED by the melancholia of a past parenthesised between the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão’s landing at Cabo Negro in 1452 and the death of Jonas Savimbi in a hail of bullets as he crossed the Luvei River, Moxico Province, five-hundred years later. Shell-shocked, it sleep-walks through a present where the currency of slaves has been exchanged for oil and where the methods now employed to extract diamonds from the country’s north wouldn’t be considered out of place on a sixteenth-century sugar plantation.

Where the capital Luanda once saw slave caravans snaking from the interior on paths worn smooth by shackled feet, it now basks on the coast in the greasy light of MPLA oil wealth. Where South African Eland-90’s once pursued FAPLA battalions to the the edge of Lobito, Sonangol’s oil refineries rise from its yellow desert sands, and where UNITA once blew apart the bridges of the Benguela Railway, Chinese construction companies are putting them back together.

But there is another Angola that you won’t find among the skyscraper-skylines and Miami-style beach-palms lining Luanda’s waterfront where a hotel room is likely to cost the equivalent of month’s rent. The other Angola is found where the tar roads crumble, rut and decompose into sandy tracks and where bridges collapse across the boiling rivers that criss-cross the country’s interior. The other Angola stands on the side of the road on the outskirts of Menongue – one foot steady on the ground, the other blown off by a landmine and replaced by a makeshift crutch sawn from the branches of a mopane tree. The other Angola reaches east to where the Benguela Railway is being forged over the Kasai River into the DRC. And it stretches south to the drying pans of Cameia National Park and to where the Cubango and Cuito Rivers merge to become the Kavango which then spreads into the waterways of the Okavango Delta.

It takes a day to get our papers cleared at Santa Clara. Finally, by the light of a crimson sun settling on the rim of a darkening horizon, the Nissan Patrol and Sani begin a slow drunken ballet across the potholed road to Ongiva, forty kilometers inside Angola. From the opposite direction, the headlights of eighteen-wheeler articulated trucks sway towards us through the dust thrown up by our slow advance. The vehicles come to a standstill on the grounds of the Omupanda Catholic Mission outside Ongiva. The chapel is closed. A rosary haloed by a single electric bulb, hangs from the door and the sound of prayers emanates from a building nearby. Alberto, a student at the mission, informs us that Father Nazario will not be back until late, but yes, we are welcome to camp beside the chapel.

From Ongiva, deep sand and road wash-outs slow our progress to Caiundo where the waters of the Cubango River flow south strong and blue. These waters will never reach the sea. On the Namibian border they’ll merge with the Cuito before flowing into the Kalahari where they’ll fan into a silver lattice of distributaries to become the Okavango Delta. Before the year is out, over ninety percent of this water will evaporate into the skies over Botswana.

From here our journey takes us north to Menongue and then Kuito – towns whose names reverberate with the after-tremors of bloody battles. The road is good and we speed across a landscape where long after South Africa’s withdrawal in 1989, desperate armies propped up by Cold War rivals fought a civil war that raged, subsided and then flared once more in paroxysms of violence across the length and breadth of this vast country.

Ryszard Kapuściński described the Angolan war as ‘sloppy, dogged and cruel’. It remained that way for twenty-five years and the debris thrown up by the fighting is everywhere apparent. On the dirt road outside Kuito an empty AK47 magazine, its bullets discharged, lies in the rusting hulk of a Soviet tank. Sunlight streams through the roof where the turret has been blown off.

Between Kuito and Luena we follow what remains of the Benguela Railway that once linked Lobito on the coast to the copper mines of Zambia and the DRC. For kilometer upon kilometer heavy corrugations throw our vehicles into the air and slam them down in blizzards of sand. We pass abandoned stations whose water towers now stand idle, steam locomotives disemboweled by RPG-7 rockets and rolling stock corroded and contorted into vicious metallic memorials to war. To the north, miombo woodlands stretch toward an impossibly far horizon.

In Lumeje the administrator of the local immigration office sits us down in a darkened office with holes in the ceiling and doves in the rafters. “What is our objetiva?” “We have come to visit Cameia National Park … Parc du Kameia … we are ‘turiste’. “Do you have guns?” “No we have cameras.” “Are you sure?” Disbelief and suspicion are evident on the faces of all, but we are sent on our way with broad smiles and handshakes all around.

In the morning, a cold wind blows across the Cameia plains and a red Angolan moon touches the horizon of a land I have no memory of, but one that feels strangely familiar. During the day the sky is white near the sun and smoky steel-grey where it touches the slow-bending grasses of the plain. Beneath this sky the land is empty save for parties of fishermen pushing bicycles piled high with dried fish. We stop to talk with Tomé who will sell his fish in Lumeje. There is gentleness and resignation in his eyes, but he won’t allow me to capture it on camera – going rigid and staring intently into the lens when I point it at him.

Cameia once held herds of game that were thought to have migrated to and from the Luiwa plains of Zambia. Now all that remains are egrets, kingfishers and marabou stork hunting fish in the drying pans, steenbok flickering mirage-like through the grass and termite mounds whose occupants outnumber all other inhabitants in the park.

From Cameia we head still further east toward Luau – the last stop on the Benguela Railway before the DRC. It may as well have been the end of the world, but Luau has all the vitality of a town whose inhabitants are beginning to reclaim whatever hope and dignity they can salvage from their dislocated lives. In many ways it embodies the spirit of the Angolan town: the dilapidated façade of bullet-ridden neocolonial and art deco buildings enveloped by a thin film of dust and nostalgia, the haphazard assemblage of rustic wattle-and-daub huts on the periphery and a vibrant village life that daily negotiates the distance between these two worlds.

We set up camp in the police compound near the centre of town. Roméo, the Chokwe police official, has a broad and ready smile: “We can’t offer much,” he gestures to the standpipe for water and the pit latrine in the corner of the yard. “It was the war, you see … but things are better now”.

On a clear morning I sit among frangipanis and palms on a concrete bench in the old town square. A melancholic breeze blows from the Congolese border. The political ideologies that brought suffering even to this remote eastern outpost would have no meaning for the children that now play across the road in their crumbling playground. Those ideologies would in any event have become distant memories in the minds of victors and vanquished alike, replaced by the ideology of oil and the flow of capital.

On the slopes of Mount Moco, the highest mountain in Angola, we meet Mike Mills; a South African ornithologist with a passion for preserving some of the last remaining patches of Afromontane forest in the country. Thin slivers of forest rise against a sea of grass, ravines resound to the prattle of sunbirds, shadows are illuminated by the iridescent red primaries of Schalow’s Turaco and at night, Ruwenzori nightjars call from the deep valleys.

From Mount Moco we head south down Angola’s western seaboard – back toward Namibia. At Lobito yellow clay houses tumble chaotically into an azure ocean; Baia Farta is fantastically desolate and beautiful in a cloak of red sand blown on the afternoon wind from the desert interior. At Lucira we take off our shoes and wade ankle-deep into a cold green ocean.

Our last night close-by the Namibian border is spent amid the earthy embrace of giant baobabs. From a nearby village comes the thump-thump-thump of a dance-beat from worn-out speakers. It may not be the Angola I’d left twenty-two years ago holding an R4 assault rifle, or the Africa of the tourist brochures, but at least, I reflect – it’s not the sound of mortars.