19 May 2009

War Stories

Early in my time here I took a trip to Huambo. It was my first visit to a part of the country that witnessed much of the fighting during the country’s 27 year-long civil war. It was also my first introduction to the kind of war stories that many people in Angola carry with them. The story of Africa has proven that natural resources are as much a curse as they are a blessing, and Angola was cursed twice, with wealth in both oil and diamonds. Angola’s civil war lasted so long in part because one rival faction (the MPLA) controlled the oil wealth while another (UNITA) controlled the diamond wealth, the fortunes of each side roughly following the relative value of oil versus diamonds. As the buffer zone between the diamond area and the oil area, the central provinces (like Huambo and Bié) suffered.

The story was emphasized recently when a driver working for my NGO was recounting his life story. Wilson was from Huambo, and was a young boy when the fighting broke out anew in 1992 after UNITA disputed results of an election that handed victory to the MPLA. His parents were active politically, and he recalls being forced to watch as his grandmother was handcuffed and forced to jump off of a dam to her death. He told me how after that incident he fled with his mom and siblings on foot towards the relative safety of Benguela. “On foot” in his case meant barefoot, and he told me the trip took two weeks. He was young and his family didn’t have many ways to support themselves, and tears came to his eyes as he talked about working as a car wash boy before earning enough money to get a driver’s license. Car wash boys are everywhere, and washing cars is one of the principal ways unskilled young men can make some money. Shining shoes is another way (the dusty environment make this a necessary service – the same could be said for washing cars), followed by selling snacks on the side of the road as people sit in traffic. Wilson must have been a great car washer, and a diligent saver, because those kids don’t make much. He worked his way up to become a driver (a good one, at that), and has dreams of returning to Huambo someday. He’s married, has a child, and loves music. He’s 26 years old. I didn’t know what to do when he started crying in the car while recounting this story, but I offered what seemed like an insufficient “I’m sorry” and didn’t say anything else.

After a moment Wilson continued by recalling memories of semi-trailers full of mangled bodies being driven around town – who can say whether to intimidate people or to simply dispose of victims of the violence. Wilson was of the opinion that Savimbi (the UNITA leader) was so ruthless because he felt it that dos Santos (the leader of the MPLA to this day) was a kind of imposter. As I understood his reasoning, the controversy was due to the claim that dos Santos wasn’t Angolan, with the rumor being that his family was from São Tomé. Since he wasn’t Angolan, so went the argument, he shouldn’t be president. Hardly a reason to murder of course, but so goes the logic. In many people’s minds there is still a dos Santos credibility question – perhaps most telling in the mind of the president himself, since he has still not set a date yet for a presidential election (the first since 1992) due this year. That is not exactly the action of a man confident of his legitimacy, but what do I know…

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