Filed under: *Travel Diary
at first glance Paulo seemed meek, timid and small. suspicious of the world. he constantly made a face that drove jim nuts – it would contract as if hit by some foul smell and with his rumpled nose he’d look up at the world with his chin slightly tucked in as if peering out from under a hoodie. his nickname was “pelo branco” – white hair. he wore pressed jeans, a new suit coat with the tag still dangling from the button hole and a red mesh new york city tennis cap that could zip open to turn it into a visor. it was only later that i would see him open up and bloom, come into his own and command space. while often people seemed either to disregard him or simply be unaware of his existence, at certain moments this mousy man became bold and forceful and quite beautiful. he was only 49, but often looked 60. he has eleven children and lives in bella vista, an enormous vibrant musseque on a bluff overlooking lobito. and before we were already on the train to cubal, i had no idea that he would be joining us for the trip.
when we were originally planning the trip through the high plains, people suggested we go with a guide. someone who could speak umbundu and navigate the protocol for dealing with local authorities. i spoke with a professor from dickenson college, jeremy ball, who had traveled through this area researching forced labour practices under the portuguese during the 20th century. he put me in touch with manuel domingues – a man from lobito who traveled with him as a guide and translator and eventually became a dear friend of his. when we were in benguela, i got in touch with manuel and he said he couldn’t join us because he was preparing his niece’s wedding but his cousin could do it. the day before we were set to leave, i get a call that his cousin’s wife just gave birth and he actually couldn’t make the trip. they didn’t have anyone else for us, but another relative, a local business woman named teresa would meet us at the train and ride with us to someplace near cubal where she had to meet a guy about a thing. she’d just keep an eye on us and make sure that we didn’t get ripped off or run into trouble.
Teresa found us on the train in the first car where paying passengers sat (between this car and the locomotive were cargo cars – chock full of families spread out on top of materials and merchandise being shipped into the interior from the coast). by chance, we happened to sit right behind a german television crew from ARTE doing a film about the benguela railway (! -more about this in another post. just suffice it to say that they had some seriously phat equipment: big camera, lunar-landing tripods and furry muppet-like wind sleeves to go over their truly awesome boom microphones. it would have put me and jim to shame if either one of us had any shame and if we didn’t value pure bravado and indiana jones adventure over well oiled and well financed film operations – an assertion of the poor and underfunded, i know…anyhoo). There on the bench next to Teresa was Paulo - another cousin of Manuel’s who she informed would join us as our translator and guide. I was a bit disappointed actually, because i had gotten used to the idea of hoofing it alone, but he turned out to be not only invaluable in ganda and the tiny village of candumbo, but a truly fascinating character in his own right.
paulo mendes grew up in the town of balombo – halfway between lobito and kuito, due north of ganda. he left during the war and headed to the relative safety of lobito and established his family, surviving with odd jobs from car repair to carpentry to whatever else came along. and he raised eleven kids.
he had never returned to balombo in all this time. hadn’t seen many of his relatives or friends or reconnected with the one place he really knew and where he felt at home. when we arrived to ganda, he kept pointing up the road to balombo – “right up there” he’d say.
he knew that when we arrived to ganda that the first thing we needed to do was go talk with the administrator – basically the unelected mayor of the town. we went to his office – the one renovated building anywhere around – and went through a whole ridiculous series of petitions to gain access to his highness. i mean, NOTHING, was going on in town, but protocol was protocol. and we had to go through the gate keepers. we spoke with about five secretaries, three indeterminate officials of some kind, and a couple of guys just hanging out in the courtyard. we showed our press passes, explained our business in town and were eventually let into the room where the administrator, droopy eyed and on the telephone, sat behind an enormous table covered with small stacks of papers and photos of his family thoroughly ignoring us. he eventually motioned limply us to sit on the plush couches and after a few minutes walked out from behind his desk to hear what we had to say. he turned to paulo first who proceeded to mumble incoherently. at which point jim and i, panicking slightly, quickly took over and started to explain where we are from and what we are doing there. jim kept repeating “journalista internacional” and pointing at his press pass with a goofy self satisfied smile on his face. i sort of thought that between paulo’s mumbles and jim’s overzealous protestations that we were fucked, so i tried to calmly explain our case and interest in the benguela railway, it’s reconstruction and the glorious future of angola. this seemed to work and the administrator eventually called the chief of police (who paulo later told me he was really from the secret service). he made sure to photocopy our documents and keep an eye on us for the rest of our stay – offering to drive us anywhere we wanted to go.
but the thing that struck me was that after the administrator placed me and jim, accepting our story, he then took a particular interest in paulo, asking who he was and what work he did, where he was from and how he ended up with us. it was clear that a whole class thing was going on. paulo was a normal guy. from a regular neighborhood with no privileges in this world. he came from the provinces, was internally displaced, lived in the musseque just across the street from the local super market. the administrator was a party functionary of the mpla, dressed impecably with two cell phones and skin a little lighter than paulo’s. he probably didn’t speak umbundu and clearly relished in displays of the power of his office. over the next few days, we’d see the administrator just tooling lackadaisically around town in his enormous white land cruiser.
it’s important to note that ganda is a virtual ghost town, albeit populated by quite vibrant ghosts. lots of people on crutches or wheeling themselves around in these hand cranked wheel chairs. kids dressed in white smocks going to school, new police recruits getting training, and chinese workers reconstructing the railway and roads and telephone wires. the train only runs up to cubal. from cubal to ganda, there is only the transport of materials needed in chinese construction operations. otherwise, the place is totally lost. the administrator seemed to be suffering from the all-dressed-up-with-no-where-to-go syndrome. and for some reason he decided to cast the weight of his judgmental eye on paulo. who promptly withered beneath it.
i mention this scene because of how different it was to when we went and met the soba des sobas – the regedor. this was a totally different story from the administrators office and it became clear what world paulo comes from and belongs to. the soba’s are traditional leaders and basically hold sway with the people. i’m still not totally sure how they are chosen for their posts, but they are a big deal and are important intermediaries between the national government and the smaller towns in the province. the regedor is the top soba of this area and the other sobas answer to him. he actually has an office in the administration building – humble and spartan but full of people who come to him for council or to solve issues. there were a stack of case files on his desk and people who would obsequiously kneel at his side whenever he spoke and rush off to do his bidding. and while he carried out official business there in this little room, it became clear to me that his real domain was his home, which is where he asked us to meet him later in the afternoon. when we arrived, it was an old school, new orleans like, talk to the elders thing. and this is where paulo came into his own and opened up.
In the soba’s home, paulo’s mumbling was a form of deference which simultaneously showed ease and sense of purpose. he advocated for me in umbundo. the soba spoke portuguese, of course, but it was clear that umbundo was his languange and was the language of court. and over the next hour and a half, as we spoke, people young and old would ask permission to enter and the soba would decide if they should sit and join us or come back later or wait in the back room. this was the true seat of power in the neighborhood and paulo was at home. by the end of the conversation, the soba then asked who we were and where we came from. paulo revealed that he was from balombo and that his father had been the soba up there. the regedor couldn’t believe it. he jumped up and gave him a huge hug and introduced him to everyone around. paulo positively beamed. he was a totally different man.
throughout the trip until that point and then again later on, he often seemed like a man lost in his own country. set out in a smelly sea of potential danger which made him rumple his nose and tuck his chin. when we later on ended up in candumbo – a small village between huambo and kuito which turned out to be particularly significant for the ovimbundo empire and their armed resistance against the portuguese during the colonial period (candumbo will be it’s own post) – paulo came into his own again. even hitting on a local girl and constantly getting in the shot to answer the questions i posed to the old guys.
today is october 6th. I’m in vienna trying to write down as much as i can remember before i lose it all. i just called manuel to check on paulo to make sure that he’s ok. you see, after we did the interviews in candumbo, i got up early the next morning and took him to place where busses leave huambo for lobito. we found a nice brand new bus, i gave him a hug and said goodbye. the following day teresa called to ask where he was. he never showed up. two days later manuel called. he still hadn’t shown up. i told them i had no idea. i was worried. maybe something terrible happened to him. i mean, it’s clearly his country and he grew up there and survived the war and knows his way around, but there was always something fragile about him. we always felt a bit like we had to take care of pappy and now pappy was gone. well i just spoke with manuel and it turns out that he got out of the bus in balombo, and he went home for the first time since the 1970s.
he’s back in lobito. the world is ok.
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