Saturday, January 07, 2012

Excerpt: Thunder Above: Thunder Below

Two days later and we have gone back in time the ten hours necessary for our body clocks to adjust to African as opposed to Australian time. We are up at five to get to the airport for the nine-thirty flight, having been warned that long queues and slow check-ins make it necessary to allow two if not three hours grace. The terminal is a crush of people and bags and the Luanda check-in has the longest queue I have ever seen. It does not seem possible that so many people and bags could fit on one plane. But, as in India, there are some things it is best not to ponder for long. I can only hope the African equivalent of puja is at work and there will be enough prayers and marigolds to keep overloaded planes flying safely.
The flight takes some three hours and is longer than it should be because the war has made most of Angolan air space dangerous. We come in from the south, out of Namibia, tracking down the coast and well away from rebel-held areas and any threat of missiles. Even so most landings are done as a spiral descent in order to make it harder for missiles to find their mark.
In that first glimpse Angola whispers of home, with  its dry red earth and a scratch of trees spreading  lazily toward far horizons. It is not long before Luanda lifts her weary head from the waste of powdered sand, looking like some dusty spread of stone and wreckage, cast carelessly along an erratic coast.  Through the aircraft window it has the grainy look of an old and tattered photograph or a barely focused magazine image of yet another dirt-shrouded African city. 
It also reminds me of Bombay, with the same sprawl of thin-shouldered shanties huddling miserably around the swollen belly of the city. Poverty looks much the same anywhere but a closer look reveals that at least here the poor are able to  build in cement rather than cardboard.  
Luanda takes its name from an island that today forms part of the city area, Loanda, meaning ‘flat land.’ The island had no mountains and was originally comprised only of sand that shifted with the tides and the flow of the nearby Kwanza river.  It is this red sand , the musseques, that crumbles into unstable gullies when the rains come.  In that respect it is good that the rains do not come often, although when they do they are merciless, tearing through the talc-like soil with fierce, liquid teeth.     Not only homes but lives are sucked into that turbulent drench.
 The airport is noisy and crowded, a roiling mass of  exuberant greetings and raised voices. Again I am reminded of India, with the same damp-mould tang to the air and dishevelled appearance of the arrivals hall. But here there are less people. There are always less people than India, no matter how big the city and Luanda is not particularly big. A few million people, that is all, although numbers ebb and flow because of the refugees from  the war that still rages in the interior and the land-mine littered earth  which once they farmed,  but which now brings only a harvest of death.
Angola, one of Africa’s largest countries,  was once a ‘bread basket’ for this continent; a rich and productive land that was the envy of many.  But the war has put paid to that. Now most of the food is flown in, at two or three times the price, of course, for that is the way of war  and of supply and demand in desperate times.
We queue for slow, hot minutes that threaten to turn into slower, hotter, draining  hours. Water drips down from ancient air conditioners and the air is heavy with sweat and humidity.  The toilet door stands ajar and through it can be seen the grime of unwashed walls and pools of dusty water.   The voices are raised high, the queue through customs is long and the wait seems endless. Luckily, after only ten minutes,  someone comes to meet us and we are taken through almost immediately.
With bags collected we follow the creaking, overloaded trolleys through the door and then push our way through the clamour of the waiting crowd which crushes in noisy confusion against metal barriers. If I am struck by anything it is that at first sight the people look healthy. Once more I am making comparisons with India, where disease and malnutrition wreak ageless havoc. One thing I do notice though,  is that there are quite a few men, young and old, missing limbs; the legacy of  war. But I can see no beggars. Just looking at the faces I have a sense that these people are proud. There are many things that they would do before they would beg.
 Are they proud because they know how to survive? These are people who have only recently been able to believe in peace after enduring one of the world’s worst wars. They are also the same people who survived what was perhaps the worst war of all … slavery!  For it was from here that so very many of the slaves came, part of the human river that flowed  in that time of shame from Africa to the Americas.  This was the departure point of the Kwata! Kwata! … the wars waged to capture slaves. It was also the assembly and loading point for slave ships bound for the plantations of the New World.
But the Europeans did not invent slavery in Africa, they merely drew upon an ancient tradition which recognised a value in humans as a commodity. Whether captured in war, bartered for money or handed over as compensation, the slave was a resource for Africans long before the first Europeans arrived and no more so than in Angola. Sadly, in some parts of Africa, slavery still exists, but here it is only a memory, albeit one that is mixed with the still-raw wounds of colonisation and civil war.  
These are people who have been enslaved, conquered and devoured by civil war.  It has been this way beyond memory and now, for the first time since the Portugese arrived in 1575, and perhaps even before, there is a chance of peace. How much people believe in it I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that it is difficult to believe in anything that we have not experienced, let alone imagine that it may be possible.
There is little in the way of written history in Africa and Angola is no exception. Much of what does exist,  was written by the Portugese,  but then history has always been written by the victors. They came, those first pale people from the north, in a fleet of seven ships carrying a hundred families of colonists and four hundred soldiers. For those on the shore watching the rock and sigh of those alien ships, there could have been no way of knowing what would grow from such  a small, and seemingly insignificant  beginning. 


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