Gilberto Nelumba

Portrait photo of Gilberto Nelumba
© Goethe-Institut Angola

As a child, 60 year old Gilberto Nelumba served in the guerrilla warfare against Portuguese colonial rule that led to the declaration of Angola's independence in 1975. The Nelumba were among the more privileged families during the colonial period, but played a central role in the liberation movement.

By Raimundo Salvador and Arno Holl

At the time of colonial rule, Gilberto's father was one of the first black people to attend school at the Mission Pinda Soyo in today’s province of Zaire in northern Angola. Afterwards he worked for the postal service and was transferred to the enclave of Cabinda. There he met the father of the Van-Dúnem, a family who would be of major importance to the history of Angola, both musically and politically. Back in Luanda, Gilberto's father was trained as a pharmacist, together with the future guerrilla commander, Lourenço Ferreira Diandengue.

Afterwards he started to work for the Angolan diamond mining company, Diamang. At that time, this company represented a power that was practically independent of the colonial government and lived off the exploitation of diamonds as well as of the local population: "The part of the country that is now called Lunda Norte belonged to the Angolan Diamond Company at that time. It was a state within the state."
There he met Gilberto's mother, a cousin of the famous singer Belita Palma. It was also during his time at Diamang that his decision to join the anti-colonial guerrillas was reinforced, after the first armed clashes with the Portuguese regime in 1961.
His contact with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) changed the family's life greatly. In 1962, when Gilberto was just two years old, his parents had to flee with their six children to the northern neighbouring country, at that time Kongo-Léopoldville. His father's convictions, however, made it easier for the family to understand this drastic step: "My father was someone who always communicated with his wife and children. And my father explained to us, especially to the three eldest ones, what we were doing there."

Little Gilberto had no difficulties adjusting to the new circumstances. However, it wasn't long before the MPLA was expelled from Belgian Congo. Conflicts also arose with rival liberation movements, such as the FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola), which even split families: "Angolans in Kinshasa had to either be a member of the FNLA or were forced to hide. I had a cousin who was one of the big commanders of the FNLA. My father still tried to convince him to move sides, but he refused - because of the tribalism of the Kikongo."

The family emigrated again, this time to former Congo Brazzaville. Gilberto's father, however, stayed in Léopoldville to continue supporting the movement from the underground. On his return from a visit to his family, he was captured. "My father was arrested in Kinshasa in 1966 and one year later they killed him. But we only learned that in 1968. The movement's leadership already knew about everything. But they did not inform the family to avoid compromising their loyalty. At this specific time my mother lost her husband and cousin. Afterwards she became thinner and thinner..."
Despite all of this, Gilberto's mother recovered from the blow and continued her husband's fight. She was co-founder and leader of the OMA, the Organisation of Angolan Women, in the so-called Second Region, the enclave Cabinda. Three of Gilberto's brothers - Eduardo, Sanjar and Adelino - now also joined the guerrilla and worked their way up to important positions. Other relatives, too, played an important role in the movement.

Life as a guerrilla fighter was not easy: "All of us were trained fighters and had to be prepared for any eventuality. Because you never know when the enemy is going to attack, or when there's going to be a bombardment, you always have to be ready to run, to climb into the trenches and know where to hide."
Gilberto now also became increasingly aware of the conflicts within the movement. Some of them were triggered by external factors, such as a hunger crisis after several countries withdrew their support from the MPLA. Other struggles were of internal nature, like tribalism and racial prejudice: "I met many Angolans there whose fathers had been killed by the Portuguese when they were very young. They were not fond of white people at all, even if they were really serious about the cause - it's a scar that never heals."
On November 8th 1974, 14-year old Gilberto experienced what he refers to as the happiest moment of his life: he was part of the MPLA delegation that proclaimed independence in Luanda."It was an immense joy. There were masses of people at the airport - it was completely crowded. There was no space left. I was small and to make our way through the crowd the late Commander Valódia had to carry me all the way to the other side. It was an incredible feeling."
To this day he is proud of what he and his family helped to achieve: "When I travel to another country, no matter where in the world, I first look for my embassy. When I then see my nation's flag waving in the wind in some part of the world, I feel even more Angolan and I feel that what I participated in was not in vain."
Yet he does not deny social injustices. He claims he got this critical spirit from his mother who died in 2003: "My mother was always one of the people who do not say much. Yet she always criticised." Gilberto explains that he was not pleased with the way the country developed since independence, including affairs within the party. "The MPLA has suffered a silent coup d'état. I cannot identify with it any longer. This is not my MPLA anymore. Free-riders and other people have used the MPLA to get rich. They are no MPLA fighters and I wonder: where have they been back then?"He further complains that people who committed serious crimes during times of conflicts between the different liberation movements have gone unpunished. He confirms that his mother has taken her grief over these matters to the grave.
Currently Gilberto Nelumba is collecting family memories for a book about the liberation war from the Nelumba’s perspective.