Saturday, 25 February 2012

Agostinho under the tree

The struggles of Lusophone Africa have inspired me for a long time - don't ask me why, as I don't really speak Portuguese and have very limited contact to that part of the world. My favourite freedom fighter of all times has been Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde - the lucidity of his writing is amazing and many of the issues he raises are all but solved yet. A lot of his work has been translated into English, and my favourite text is an essay called "The Weapon of Theory". If one ever doubts the benefits of whatever third-rate university education one may have gathered, one should return to that text and feel ashamed.
Amilcar Cabral is more or less my imaginary friend. On my last holidays to Cape Verde, I was ecstatic to land at his airport and take pictures of his statue, in Espargos on the island of Sal. The airport art was magnificently communist: it portrayed the daily struggles of fishermen and their wives, and the encounters with sons and daughters returning from abroad. This must be the common Cape Verdean reality: happiness comes from abroad, through e-mails, Skype calls and Western Union sendings. The airport's contrast with the sterile all-inclusive hotel was too vast to give words to. In between, we mainly met streetwise businessmen from the mainland of Senegal and Gambia, who were much better trained in wooing the tourists than the locals. But even in the bastion of affluence, the Cape Verdian staff showed their souls: we never experienced servitude, the people were proud of their work, and didn't succumb to any bullshit.  
But now for the purposes of fiction, I have been reading the life story of another comrade, Augustiñho Neto (1922-1979), who was the first president of Angola (1974-1979) and admittedly the country's biggest national hero. He was also a poet, whose work was never published in fascist Portugal, but in
Italy and Soviet Union.
Neto spent much of the 50's and 60's in Portuguese prisons, in detention on remote colonial islands and in exile in different African countries, like Morocco and Congo. In the late 50's he was expelled to community service in the islands of Cape Verde - it was a prison without gates. He was ordered to practice his trade there for the benefit of the colonized. The records tell that he spent time on at least three islands: Sal, Boa Vista and Sao Vicence. He rode on a donkey from one village to another to see the patients.
Neto was married to a Portuguese woman, María Eugénia, who followed the husband with the small children to most destinations. His story is deeply entwined with the history of fascism - and his camaraderie with Portuguese communists was wide. Race was not the main issue in the common struggles - it looks like the Portuguese communist movement in the 50's and 60's was mature enough to overcome all racial boundaries.
Neto was a medical doctor, specialized in gynecology. Reading the biographies it seems that there were some months or years when he actually managed to practice his profession. Having a black doctor in Luanda in the 1950s was a novelty, but perhaps there were not enough black patients who trusted in Western medicine. The white Portuguese presence in Angola was huge before 1974, many profiting from cocoa, coffee and diamond trade. I do not know if the whites had the courage to consult a black communist doctor, but it looks like there are still remaining some white comrades in the country, who proudly remember his name. The number of Portuguese ex-colonists in the country is about 1 % of the population, and in addition, ca. 2% are mestizas.  
Angola is difficult to imagine, because the country has been isolated from the world because of brutal war for ca. 30 years. Illiteracy is still rampant, and people are managing their lives in the midst of landmines. The city of Luanda has become a metropol too expensive even for the European and American expatriates to live in. The music and art scene seems lively, the young people are finding their strength in fusion music like Kuduro (literally "hard ass"). I cannot imagine Angola without traveling there, as the literature is very limited to an Anglocentric ignoramus.
I have walked in the blocks of Lisbon, where the African revolutionaries used to hang out, without knowing the importance of those streets and corners. Alameda was the centre of "ultramarine" communist activities, they used to gather in the Tia Andreza's literary salon on 37, Rua Actor Valet. Nowadays the quarters are comfortable, quiet, polished, but still down-key. The resistance still prevails, one can feel it. Every street in Lisbon tells a story of furious political struggle.
There were also black women involved - although a minority, they were around and vocal. One should look into the biography of the poet and minister of culture of the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, Alda Espirito Santo, who was comrade to all the key guys. Alda is worshipped on those islands as the mother of the nation. Indeed, in Lisbon, freedom struggles were dominantly fought by people from small places. The Atlantic islands, Goa, Macao, East Timor...
Most of Neto's writing are unaccessible to me because of the language barrier. He has published several collections of poetry, translated especially in Eastern European languages. His face shines in many stamps from all over the Eastern Bloc. His warmest relations were with Cuba, which perhaps finally resulted in the invitation of Cuban soldiers to kill themselves in the bloody civil war of the 80s and 90s.
The latest controversy around the guy long gone has to do with paternity. Augustinho Neto died of cancer surgery in 1979 in a hospital in Moscow, and from there another era of war and destruction started. In the 2000s a  woman called Mihaela Marinova came to look for her roots in Angola. She was abandoned by her mother as a new born in a children's home in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1974. After the collapse of Communism, the young woman moved to work in the hotel industry in London. Mihaela claims to be Neto's daughter, and all the coordinates of the parents' rendez-vous have been recorded. DNA tests proved positive results. Neto's family denies the charges.  
Many pictures have been taken of Agostinho sitting under Portuguese trees, African trees. It must have been postcolonial resistance to avoid chairs. I wonder what Neto is thinking of - plotting, scheming, sketching, gathering his people...the struggle will continue!

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