Lara Pawson, author of In the Name of the People, selects five essential reads to initiate the uninitiated into the politics, culture and history of Angola.
Since I first went to work in Angola in 1998, I have become accustomed to people looking at me blankly when I mention the country. They might have heard a bit about the wars from 1961 to 2002, they might raise an eyebrow when I mention its vast oil resource, and they might even dredge something about Portugal out of their memory – but it rarely goes further than that. As someone obsessed with the place, I find this frustrating. But it also makes an irresistible challenge – to persuade people who know nothing about Angola that it’s worth finding out more.
Whilst pondering which books might entice the uninitiated to go deeper, I sent a message to various Angolan and ‘Angolanist’ friends to ask them for their top five books. One man, a seasoned Angolan journalist, told me to forget the books and focus on Facebook. For it is there that thousands of Angolans exchange information, opinion, photographs and gossip about their country day after day. Of course, this isn’t much good to non-Portuguese speakers or people without Angolan Facebook friends. Other suggestions were largely confined to many excellent books, but which are regrettably only available in Portuguese. So, I have chosen the following five books, all of which are in English. In different ways, they have each taught me a great deal about the country, encouraging me to write my own In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.
Portugal and Africa by David Birmingham (Ohio University, 1999)
The author of this fabulous collection of essays is a British historian who began writing about Africa and Portugal over 60 years ago. Beginning in 1488 when the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias sailed all the way to the Cape of Good Hope, Birmingham takes us through the following five centuries with his customary wit and intelligence. From the early colonial encounters in Angola, to the Atlantic slave trade and the establishment of the church and the coffee and cocoa plantations, to Portugal’s stand-off with Cecil Rhodes in 1890, all the way through to the establishment of the New State under Portugal’s fascist leader, António de Oliveira Salazar, and finally to Angolan independence. The last chapter ‘Black and White in Angolan Fiction’ provides a vivid insight into the work of two important novelists: António de Assis Junior (1887-1960), one of the country’s few published black writers, and the brilliant Pepetela (1941- ), a white Angolan whose novels seem only to get better and better and better.
Creole by José Eduardo Agualusa (Arcadia Books, 2002)
Translated by Daniel Hahn
In the final pages of this beautifully written novel, one of the two narrators, a black Angolan woman called Ana Olímpia, recalls that, in her language, the word for ‘the sea’ is also the word for ‘death’. Thus, she explains, for slaves shipped across the Atlantic from Angola to Brazil, ‘the journey was a passage across death’. If they made it to the other side alive, they experienced ‘Rebirth’. This twist of optimism is the provocative end to a book that explores the life and mind of the Portuguese aristocrat Fradique Mendes as he travels between Western Europe, Angola and Brazil during the decline of the Portuguese Empire. While witnessing the demise of the slave trade, he falls in love with a former slave, the beautiful and clever Ana Olímpia. Born in 1960, Agualusa is one of Angola’s most successful novelists and, alongside the older Pepetela, probably its best-known internationally, thanks partly to Daniel Hahn’s excellent translations.
Good Morning Comrades by Ondjaki (Biblioasis, 2008)
Translated by Stephen Henighan
This novella is a child’s account of everyday life in Luanda during the Cold War. Set in the 1980s, it mirrors Ondjaki’s early life. The narrator is a boy called Ndalu: the author’s real name is Ndalu de Almeida. We follow Ndalu around his home, listening in on his conversations with the elderly cook, Comrade António. We accompany him to school, where his Cuban teachers talk up revolution while he and his friends worry about war. Bubbling up beneath the often whimsical text are deeply unsettling matters – what the author has called Angola’s ‘deepest wounds’ – that expose a cruel and unyielding political dictatorship. Ondjaki pokes fun at the absurdities of the highly censored state-owned media and at the president, too, who we encounter in an armed convoy speeding along streets that have been given a quick layer of tarmac for his excellency’s pleasure. Born in 1977, Ondjaki is less burdened by ideology and party loyalty than several older Angolan writers. He also has an ear for the banter, the gossip and chit-chat that beats at the heart of Luandan life.
Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 145 to Recent Times by Marissa J. Moorman (Ohio University Press, 2008)
If you’re a reluctant reader, do yourself a favour: buy a copy of this elegantly written and engaging book and listen to the fantastic CD included in the plastic sleeve at the back! Once you’ve swayed and shimmied to some of the greats, including Urbano de Castro, N’Gola Ritmos and Paulo Flores, you will be dying to know more. Moorman doesn’t simply provide translations – often in two languages – of her chosen tracks, she shares her meticulous research to tell the story of how Angolans in Luanda’s shanty towns used music to talk back to the colonisers. Her book is packed with information drawn from national radio archives and many extensive interviews with some of the country’s foremost musicians. An academic historian, Moorman is a clean writer who has produced a very compelling piece of work. I refer to Intonations as ‘my bible’.
Angola From Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism by Tony Hodges (James Currey, and Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001, in association with The Fridtjof Nansen Institute & The International African Institute)
Although this book is a bit dated, it nevertheless provides a thorough, clear and concise introduction for anyone wanting to get a handle on Angola’s economy since the 1970s. Hodges is particularly adept in explaining how, in the early 1990s, the ruling party abandoned nearly 20 years of state socialism for unbridled capitalism and how a tiny elite has amassed huge fortunes from diamond and oil resources. Published over a decade ago, it has nothing about the crucial role that China now plays in Angola’s economy, nor the role that Angola has played in propping up Portugal’s. For the latter, you might try Os Donos Angolanos de Portugal, which was published in Portugal earlier this year and is currently only available in Portuguese. Once you’ve got Hodges’ book under your belt, I would strongly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, due to be published later this year. I am reliably informed that he has not left a single stone unturned. Then, I would recommend you learn Portuguese! ■