From Angolan Dawn (1994)
Available at Amazon (as e-book and paperback)
We moved on southwards. In the back of the Landrover with me were Roderigo from Luengue and Josef from Cangamba. They knew this area well and they too mere shattered by the scenes we were witnessing. No one said a word as we passed through the gorge of Tundavala.
It started raining and it got a bit cooler. So I was pleased about the relief. The rainy season had started to fill up the salt pans. On the plain I saw the animals coming to the salt pans to drink. They too must have been very pleased that the rainy season had arrived. Although it was still sweltering hot, at least there was water there. As we passed the saltpans, I saw many animals drinking there: elephant, giraffe, impala, gemsbok,
antelope, zebras, hyenas and the large wildebeest. There were many others, but I can’t remember them all now. It was quite a long time ago you know.
We stopped at the edge of a salt pan. It might have been near Lake Ngami, but I don’t really know for sure. I was glad of the break after what we had seen earlier. Those scenes I will never ever forget, as long as I live. It was so peaceful and quiet at the edge of the pan.
Josef pointed out the hippo trail to me. He knew all about those kind of things. I only saw it when I looked closely. All the animals had trekked here. Even a great variety of birds: kingfishers, heron, hawks, plovers and so many others, I don’t know all the names of them. There was a fence in the distance. It must have been to hold back the animals. It was so nice to be there in the wide open spaces seeing the animals drinking without a care in the world. But it was only for a short time, while we had a drink.
I have been very fortunate to see the variety of wildlife in my country. As a young boy, I always enjoyed watching the animals out in the plain. Amidst all the tragedy and senselessness of war there was a certain beauty and tranquility about the country. And then we were on our way again…
It was nearly dusk when we arrived in Chidembo. It had been a long day travelling with the hot and powerful wind blowing into our faces. The flat-topped acacia scrub stood out in the bone-hard earth. It was a quaint enough town with many little houses with their adobe walls and corrugated iron roofs. At least it was peaceful with no signs of death and destruction about. But that was why we only stayed overnight. At least there was food to be bought, unlike the other villages we had seen, where there was nothing at all left…including the people. We bought provisions there – tinned foods like beans and pilchards (I like my fish ), corn and evaporated milk. All this would last us a while, then we spent the rest of the evening relaxing and playing cards. It was on the road again early the following morning and back to work…
The following day the desert breeze was still blowing. We were
somewhere in the South-Eastern part of the country, near Caiunda where I had been born. We were in the area of the Cuito river. This was where the fighting was worst; so we headed straight for Cuito, where we were to set up our base. I was very excited to be seeing the girl Theresa once more. She had been posted to Cuito some months before and I missed her greatly. So I was very fortunate.
As we got closer to Cuito, I saw car after car travelling in the opposite direction to us. A constant steam of old cars puttering along belching clouds of smoke. You should have seen them all. They were piled so high with everything you can imagine: furniture, pots and pans, bedding, kettles, dishes, hoes, spades. I even saw pigs and goats! The drone of aircraft overhead shattered the silence of the plain. An Alouette helicopter flew right over us making a huge noise. I nearly leapt out of my uniform with fright. I should have been used to them; because they were often landing at the medical centres to bring back badly wounded soldiers, as well as some ordinary people. I had seen many of these great birds.
And then the dirt road seemed to end. In the distance we saw the buildings. Not very high, but as we got closer we could see they weren’t buildings any more but ruins.
The work was exhausting with so many injured. All of the injuries were very bad, even though I had become hardened to the gruesome sights by then. Every day brought in victims of land-mine explosions. They looked the worst of all, although I don’t know much about fixing up people like those clever doctors do. The amount of blood! The suffering of the children especially made my heart bleed.
We also travelled to Baixa a Longa (or Baixo Longa, as we found it is also called). I’ll call it Baixo for short. Baixo was not too far away also on the Cuito river.
After about a year travelling around and staying in various camps, I was due for some leave and I returned to Oncocoa to visit my mother. It was before she moved back to Caiundo. I had heard she had recovered well, so I did not worry about her. To be perfectly honest, I was so busy in my work, that I just didn’t think of her much in the meantime.
She had recovered well and was still working on ‘baas ‘Steyn’s farm as a washerwoman. But he was now getting a bit old and told my mother that he was going to sell the farm. There were too many worries with the war so bad now. So mama said she was returning in a few weeks with her friend, Fransina to go back to her people back in Caiundo. I was pleased for her. Especially now she was so much better.
I saw her back in Caiundo a few more times. It was fortunate that I didn’t have far to travel to see my mother, as I had been based in Cuito for a while and I would still be there for a few months longer. I was very pleased at the chance to have a break and go to see my mother. It was good to get away from the scenes of savagery and utter despair in Cuito. The first time I hitched a lift to Caiundo and it wasn’t long before I was picked up by a nice old man. It helped not being in uniform, probably! I remember that particular journey well, travelling through the high scrub to Caiunda, although it was not very far. I had been on that road once or twice before.
It was November, the rainy season. There was such a storm that day I could hardly see anything out of the window as the rain pelted down. I was very lucky that I got a lift so quickly, otherwise I would have been drenched in a minute. Yet I felt perfectly safe with the old man driving. The rain poured into those massive trunks of the great baobab trees. And the thunder was quite frightening…even for me, a child of Africa. It sounded like the Gods were beating the drums of Africa to give some kind of warning. And the lightening. What a storm! I will remember it for a long, long time! And all of a sudden it stopped…the driving rain, the thunder and the lightening. Within an hour the landscape was totally dry with such a freshness in the air. The cream coloured flowers of Motsaudi had appeared once more, speckled amid a carpet of bright yellow sunflowers …and then I was back home with my dear mother.
I remember another trip as clearly as if it was yesterday…
This time it was not the downpour of the storm, but the unbearable heat of the day. I was driving through the tall scrub with my friend Julius. The white heat beat down from on high, flies humming in the air above me. A vulture flew overhead hovering; perhaps, it had seen something. Those vultures were always looking to feed on the scraps of any unfortunate animal, I thought. With the lions about they had to be quick, otherwise all that would be left was a skeleton. And these were picked spotlessly clean by the lions. The acacia trees were squeezing life out of the hot, dry earth. I was now in a thickening woodland, which soon changed to the open plain with some gentle round-topped brown hills in the distance. Perhaps it was a mirage, I thought. The sparse woodlands were changing to some foliage – not very green and not very plentiful, but still foliage. It attracted the animals, no doubt looking for shelter, as the thought went around in my head. Then I saw a few herds of antelope, as well as some zebra and giraffe in the distance. I stopped to rest for a minute under the shade of a large mongongo tree, the one with the large nuts. Were those brown hills in the distance or was it a mirage I was seeing? But as I got closer, I saw that they were real. It would have been better if I had travelled at night – when you could see the large eyes of the startled spring hares in the car’s headlights… momentarily frozen to the spot awaiting their fate, before suddenly gathering their senses and scampering off into the blackness of the night. It was so much cooler travelling at night; but it was hard to follow the sandy track… and I missed seeing the countryside. So we didn’t often travel after sunset. We were so tired by then, anyway.
We stopped in a clearing. The shade under the mongongo tree was a great relief and Julius and I gulped from my flask of ice-cold water. Julius was a fellow medical orderly, who came from Ninda. He too was a quiet man, although we had some great talks about life and our country. Very interesting! He was a good friend and we got on well. Julius wandered off into the distance and I was left in my solitude. It was so still the only sound I could hear were the insects above me in the mongongo tree. That is the one thing I always think of first about my country – the absolute silence of Angola. But I suppose it’s different in the big cities like Luanda, although I’ve never been there. I began to think back over my life. In the years I had been away from home I had really grown into a man. Strong and independant. And I had learnt so much about modern life, away from the tribal village. I could even drive a car now and I was rather proud of himself being able to go wherever I wanted. Not bad for a poor village boy, who as a baby had been deserted by his father. Mother would be very impressed when I told her. It was good that she was back in the village of Caiundo with her people and she seemed so happy when I saw her the last time. I wonder what it’s like to have a father. All my friends had fathers, who helped their sons: Willem, Pieter, Sam, Phillip and all the others. When they had problems or got into trouble, their fathers helped them. Not only with money, you know. And fathers could teach their sons so many things, like learning a trade or helping getting a job…because they knew so much – it’s the wisdom of age, perhaps. Growing up, I would have loved to be on the land with my father …but we were too poor, ‘mama’ said. Perhaps one day if I have a son, I could do that for him. But then, with the war I’m sure a lot of boys now are without their fathers. So you just have to get by. In the end you have to live your own life.
I suddenly thought of my father, Marcelino. It must have been for the first time in many years. I couldn’t remember much of him; but it was very bad the way he left ‘mama’…although she never spoke of it. I wonder what has happened to him after all these years. What could he be doing with himself? Is he still alive, I wonder? I am sure he is very rich with probably a number of wives. The tribesmen here in Angola say that all the people who go to ‘Egoli’ make a lot of money, but they never go back home. The big city somehow changes them and they forget about their wives and families. They say it is a bad life there – with lots of drinking and prostitutes. When I find a wife for myself one day, I will never ever let her down like my father has done. I wonder if it will be Theresa? Sometimes I think I hate him for what he has done; but I can’t really remember much of him. It is difficult to hate a person and it’s not good at all to have those feelings. All these thoughts made me quite somber and it was fortunate that they stopped, as Julius returned from his wander to stretch his legs.
Time to get going again and we drove on in silence, as the forest gave way to desert. It must be like the desert of the great Kalahari, I suppose! When I was working in Tsumeb in Namibia, the people often spoke of that vast desolate expanse of yellow sand. A thin grey mist was now descending; but I could still see the herd of zebras, together with some eland and buffalo further away. They were probably on their way to the water-hole, so precious to them in this dry wilderness. There were more zebra than the other animals. Perhaps they were thirstier than the rest, lured by the waters of the Cubango or Cuito rivers. I’m not sure which one it was I saw earlier in the day in the distance. You see I wasn’t too good with places and rivers at school. It does not help you get a job, does it? I think these rivers joined up with the mighty Okavango river many kilometres further on – that is on the border with Botswana. They say that in the rainy season the waters of the Okavango were really wild. I also heard that the rushing river eventually lies still in Botswana, in pools of stagnant water in the vast area of the Okavango delta. But I’ve never been there. Perhaps one day I’ll go there with a nice pretty young girl. I hope it’s Theresa. There we can look at the stars and see the animals… and get away from the war…
Through the thickening mist I saw a few mongongo trees and a solitary baobab tree – the oldest and grandest of Africa’s inhabitants with its massive trunk filled with water.
Then the mist came down thicker and the sky turned dark. The day was turning into twilight and the bats were coming out for their nocturnal frolicking. And I couldn’t see the animals any more.
It must have been a year or two later that I did get to the Okavango swamps. And it was with someone special: the girl I had met in Melanje who came from Longa. The one who I had joined in Cuito. The one who made me so very happy. Yes, Theresa was very pretty. She had long dark hair and unusual almond-shaped eyes that sparkled when she laughed, which was often. Although she was rather quiet (like me, as you have most probably gathered by now), Theresa had a good sense of humour; but she was also very caring and compassionate. However, she was not nearly as quiet as me…and far more vivacious! Theresa was a nurse that I met at the medical centre in Melanje. Her family lived in Longa up north and she had a sister who lived in Moxico.
It was love at first sight. I had always been a bit nervous with girls; so I got a bit jealous of the handsome doctors looking at Theresa. The other men at the hospital treated women badly and used them and I felt somehow different. Perhaps I’m a bit too quiet and sensitive. I didn’t like drinking and bragging about my conquests like they did. Anyway, I didn’t have many at all to brag about. I really cared for Theresa and by the time I got to Cuito we were inseparable. So I did not realise how much I missed her in our months apart and how much she meant to me.
We had been working very hard for about a year in Cuito without a real break and we were both exhausted. The doctors said we should have a week off work, because it would do us both a lot of good. I suggested we drive down to the Okavango Delta. Doctor Leon Perreira very kindly said that I could take a four-wheel drive vehicle that wasn’t being used. He must have trusted my driving, because all he said was ‘be careful’. I liked that man Leon very much and he was an excellent doctor.
It felt wonderful to get away from the medical centre, as we drove to Okavango. We immediately forgot about our work: all the pain and suffering of those poor people that we tried so hard to help. Although I couldn’t help them heal. That was for the clever doctors like Doctor Perreira and the kind nurses like Theresa… but I did what I could.
We camped out in our little tent under the starry sky. It was pitch dark with not a sound. We were totally alone and it was a wonderful experience being in the heart of our great continent.
When we awoke at day-break, we cooked our food on the open fire. Theresa enjoyed looking after me and it was very pleasant having her entirely to myself. We talked and talked about our lives, but I did not mention my father. When she asked about him, I just said that he had died. Perhaps that is true!
And we got even closer with each passing hour. I wondered where our friendship would go, hoping desperately that we could be together for a long, long time. I thought of my mother getting old alone without a man and I felt very sad for her. But then that is life… isn’t it?
There was such a variety of bird-life about: storks, heron, white pelicans, avocets, teals, plovers, jacanas. There must have been a thousand species of birds flying or lazing around in the humid air of the great delta. All those birds in flight… I don’t know half of their names. Even though as a young boy my San friend, Jan taught me quite a bit about the birds on the farm near Oncocoa, when we tried to shoot them down with our catapaults.
In the noon-day heat I saw a chameleon in a motsaudi plant fending off the uninvited attentions of a dragon fly. In the vast area of swampland were many lion and wildcats too – thankful for the expanse of water, which kept them cool. I love the majesty and power of the king of beasts, the lion. It was absolutely still, other than the gentle roar of a lion in the distance, no doubt awakened after his nap. Streaks of a soft pink and gray illuminated the day sky…just as if the sun was rising at noon.
One night we would hear the great roar of a pride of lions. It sounded like a pack of them close by. Theresa thought they were right outside our tent and nearly jumped out of her sleeping bag from fright. I’m only joking, of course. Aroused from her deep sleep, she woke up, petrified. She sat upright, clinging tightly to me. This made me feel rather protective and very manly; but she need not have worried. I had kept the camp fire going all night, so I knew that the lions would never get too close to us. To be perfectly honest, I was quite glad that Theresa was so frightened; because it made her have so much trust in me.
The following day we drove all around looking at the animals. I had a gun with me, not that I knew how to fire it. I don’t like those things; but Doctor Leon told me to take it, just in case. Thank goodness I’m not a soldier. It was a wonderful day. It felt so good to be with Theresa and we both laughed about her fear during the night.
We lit the fire just before sunset on the grassy banks of the river. There we lay on the soft grass drinking beer and talking about our lives, savouring the smell of ‘mealie-pap’ (corn porridge), a favourite meal of my people and bean stew, as they simmered in a pot over the open fire. Theresa began to like this type of cooking more and more, unaccustomed to it as she was. She said she had always wanted to be a nurse. From a young age she had liked the idea of helping others and had cherished the thought of working with people from different tribes and cultures.
The brightness of the day was changing, slowly ebbing. The sun started setting and we were captivated by the colours. Theresa said that she had never before seen such a beautiful sunset. I remember it clearly. The sky was a brilliant mixture of gold and scarlet, the colours blending into each other so naturally, so beautifully that only our great God could have created it. I think we were both a little overcome with emotion in our solitude, at the awesomeness of being in the stillness of the great wilds, as we gazed into each others eyes… the setting sun a perfect backdrop to the end of a beautiful day.
… and we talked and talked, for hour after hour. Then we were one. I’ll never, ever forget that day in my life.
… Yes, the two of us were both so very happy there. I’ll never forget that week in the Okavango Delta. We drove all over the huge area and we saw so much. The only thing, it was far too short. Then it was time to head back to work at Cuito, to reality, to another world. We knew the situation was desperate there, with so much work and so few resources. But at least we were well rested and ready for work… because there was so much to do.
It was a long drive back to Cuito through the parched plains. We were continually reminded of the bleakness of Africa. The countryside had something about it that is very hard to describe: a flatness, remoteness and especially an emptiness. It was if our country had fallen denuded. We were both quite silent, as we gazed at the nothingness of Africa. And there were many quiet moments between us in the vehicle, broken only by the humming of the engine. Something had changed between us. It was like the spark from the heavens when the sky is lit up… and the flash that sets the dry grass alight. A spark had always been burning in my heart for Theresa. Now something had changed in her, as the embers deep within her had ignited, then flared into a brightly burning and joined flame. Somehow, we now both knew things between us would be very different after our trip. Our relationship had changed for the better, into something very special…forever perhaps and I was so happy.
END OF PART TWO
That was just as my clever doctor friend, Salu Garcia told me – exactly how it all happened. I remember his words so clearly. Salu and I had shared our feelings and high hopes about the country so many times…but they were always dashed. We got on very well, even though he was a very clever doctor and I was only a simple farm boy. But that man really understood me. Thank goodness I went to work at the hospital, so I had the privilege of knowing doctor Salu and Celia. I think in some ways we were very similar, deep down there.
It reminds me of the time I spent at Okavango with Theresa, when we first really got to know each other. That brilliant sunset in the Okavango delta was a perfect backdrop to the two of us in all our solitude…when I shared my deepest feelings with Theresa in the gathering gloom. That magical evening when we had talked and talked under the darkening heavens, all the time holding each other ever so tightly.
I suppose I’m a romantic and I’m a bit embarrassed to say our souls touched in that special moment. I’ll never ever forget it…that special moment that Theresa looked into my face and gently touched it with a soft smile on her face. I think we were both a little overcome with emotion in our solitude as we gazed into each other’s eyes, holding each other ever so tightly in our arms. We talked and talked, two souls out there in the wilderness of darkest Africa. Then we looked up into the heavens. Theresa was smiling and I wondered why. I hoped that Theresa was experiencing the same intense emotions as me. That was another world from the horrific images I had seen everywhere in the past five years. Or was it longer? I have no idea how long it has gone on for now. All because of the dreadful war, which has torn our beautiful country apart.
I can still remember vividly the thoughts going through my head on that wonderful day, or rather night…when our souls touched. As if it was yesterday…But then it changed my whole life.
Then the twilight turned to dark – a pitch blackness. And I thought to myself, just like night turns to day and day turns to night, the stars would soon be out to shine their bright light in the black sky. Perhaps the stars overhead illuminating the dark night sky were symbols : stars of hope in this beautiful land. Just like the sun-set marked the onset of night, I hoped a new beginning for our beloved country was just around the corner – with the onset of a new day. Well…everything had to have a beginning…as well as an end…and one day things would change for the better…
and they did. Because now we are truly one: Salu, Celia, Theresa… and I.
but that’s enough of my intimate thoughts…
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