José Mendonça Independence Square
Pope Francis meets with Angolan President João Lourenco, left, on the occasion of their private audience, at the Vatican, Nov. 12, 2019 | Photo (detail): Alberto Lingria © picture alliance / AP Photo
By José Luís MendonçaPlay the short story as audio: read by David Mayonga
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Forty years to the day Zé Mateus decided to practice sexual abstinence in remembrance of his vanished bride, who had disappeared on 27 May 1977, he dreamed he was walking naked through the streets of Luanda. From the steps of the afterlife, a glowing metallic spirit descended and stopped in front of him. The following message blazed from the mouth of the spirit: “Zé Mateus, I am Dikumbi, the spirit of time. For the constancy with which you have honoured your dearly beloved wife, I will recompense you with forty years more than man’s given span on earth. You shall live in full health and clear mind until you are one hundred and ten years old.” Thereupon Zé Mateus fell into an even deeper sleep and dreamed that the announced time would come when he stood by the sea and had his eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Zé Mateus awoke and looked at the clock. It showed six on the morning of 30 May 2017. He opened the bedroom window and saw how slowly, rosily and chameleon-like the sun was rising. He stretched his arms and took the photo of his eternal bride from the wall; she was smiling at him. “Rest in peace, my dear Joana. To this day the government has not told us what was done to you, where your body is; so I have been faithful to you for forty years. Wherever you are, may you rest in peace forever, my love.” Two tears ran down his cheeks.
Mateus had never stopped believing in God, only in the Church. “How can it be that God rested on the seventh day? When God rests, the world is turned upside down.” This metaphysical certainty he had learned in the course of life itself. Immediately after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974, Mateus had gathered together the neighbourhood youth in his street in the Cruzeiro district into an action group, which he had given the name of the “Amílcar Cabral Committee”. They formed committees for the people’s defence, distributed leaflets against the colonists’ response to the revolt in the capital. Mateus’s father, who had come to Angola by ship in the distant 1930s, supported these activities in the outlying districts of the city. The youth groups provided protection against the armed attacks of colonists on the musseques, the slums of Luanda.
In the first months of 1975, the year of independence, the three liberation movements entered the capital. They came armed and in uniform. The civil war, the worst of it all, had begun and was to last twenty-seven years. Zé Mateus’s mother, Dona Juliana, an elementary school teacher, died one Friday when she was leaving the school, hit by a stray bullet. Mateus had never before seen a white man cry like a child, as his father, Building Inspector Sesinando Mateus, had cried. He died of malaria twenty years later and was buried in the same grave as his mother. When Mateus inspected the large, worn leather suitcase that his father had brought from Portugal, he came across a notebook with a red ballpoint pen. It was a long poem in rhymed quatrains, beginning with the following verses: “Angola! Strong, never-failing spring! / Since today bunglers are your masters, / they are fast transforming your earth into a Holocaust, / and so they live, the great exploiters.” Each page was signed with his father’s literary pseudonym: Chico da Beira. Zé Mateus never finished reading the notebook. It was so painful to read that it brought tears to his eyes.
Zé Mateus had lived like a monk for forty years. “Why bring children into this cruel world?” The company of his dog and the singing of birds in the city were enough for him. The birds’ free voices sounded in his ears like the Kimbundu of Mãe Zabele, the woman who had almost become his mother-in-law. She loved to say things to him in this language, now almost obsolete in Luanda, when she chewed cola nuts and ginger early in the morning. She stopped doing this the day her cousin, an officer in the security services, came to her house to arrest her daughter, his niece. The young woman’s only fault was that she had gone dancing three times with Major Nito Alves, the man responsible for the attempted coup d’état of 27 May 1977. The State Security Officer was relentless. He wanted to show results to the party in power and carried out a thoroughgoing raid in the street. Twenty-five young people, all members of the party youth group, had been taken away and never seen again. Nobody buried their bodies. Mateus was the only young man in the street who had not been arrested. First, he had never joined the party youth group, the JMPLA. Second, he worked in the German Embassy as a translator. And third, when the popular uprising broke out on 27 May, he was being held in the São Paulo prison, since all the opposition, including those who had defended Luanda and so paved the way for the MPLA’s military victory in the city, had been hunted down. By order of the Minister of the Interior, the very Nito Alves himself, members of the Amilcar Cabral Committee were arrested. That was the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat. Mãe Zabele now wept before her daughter’s photograph because she could never weep before her body. Zé Mateus vowed not to touch another woman for the biblical span of forty years, the period that the children of Israel had spent in the wilderness.
The last August wind heralded the end of the dry season. It was Sunday, and the morning smelled of fresh leaves. As Zé Mateus dressed, he was overcome by a cascade of memories of his father’s face, with its full moustache and bright gaze. He sat down on the porch of his house. The sun, the colour of a ripe orange, warmed his shoulders with its warm rays. In the company of Kapuete, his old black dog and best friend, he had breakfast. “Today, boy, we’re going for a walk.”
The dog stopped eating, looked up from his yellow enamel bowl and gazed at him with a joyful flash in his eyes. The two sat lazily on the porch for a while, listening to the twittering of birds in the tender fingers of the palm tree. The walk on Sunday morning was a fixed routine in Zé Mateus’s weekly schedule and sacred to him. As always, he went with Kapuete to Independence Square, the Largo da Independência. A newsboy stopped in front of him with a pile of daily papers and shouted: “Buy a newspaper, pai grande; the MPLA won the election. João Lourenço will be the third president of Angola.”
Mateus had only a small pension to live on, and newspapers were expensive. Nevertheless, he bought the Jornal de Angola and another newspaper. At ten o’clock the sun was a glassy glowing speck in the belly of fluffy clouds. As the traffic light turned green, Zé Mateus crossed the roundabout, sat down on a cement bench in front of the statue of the first Angolan President, Agostinho Neto, and opened the newspaper.
After finishing the Jornal de Angola, he opened his shoulder bag, took out a packet of biscuits, and put two at the same time in his mouth. He also gave the dog a biscuit. Then he set the Wi-Fi on his cell phone and downloaded music from YouTube. Without headphones, because Kapuete was also a music lover. The mysterious rhythm of Besoka on Salsa and the magical voice of Manu Dibango rose into the blue sky. The sun shyly unbuttoned the shirt of clouds covering it and showed its beaming chest. It burned down on Zé Mateus‘s hair.
He took two more biscuits. As he chewed, he looked over his shoulder at the statue of the founder of the nation and imperishable revolutionary leader who stood there, in the sun and in the rain, with a book of poetry eternally in his right hand, stretched to the sky. Zé Mateus wondered involuntarily where his insatiable appetite for biscuits came from. His subconscious gave him the answer. When he was five years old, he had lived in Marimba, a suburb of Salazar, a city named after the colonial Portuguese Prime Minister, which had, after independence, been renamed Ndalatando. There was a famine in the district. Although his father was white, his mother and the children were not allowed to live in the city with him. It was a scandal for a white man to live in the city with a black woman. On a Wednesday morning, the Sisters of Charity had pitched their camp with a huge box of biscuits, and one of them asked all children under five to form a circle. Little Zé Mateus was the youngest child at home. His aunt took him to the biscuits. Zé Mateus watched a Sister make the rounds, distributing the big, crispy rectangular delicacies. When she came to him, the woman with the boy beside him reached out and snatched the biscuits before Zé Mateus could get them. On the fourth time round, the woman tore the biscuits out of the Sister’s hand, saying: “The children of whites can buy their own biscuits”. Zé Mateus, sobbing in disappointment, returned home in his aunt’s arms.
He looked again at the newspaper headline: “The MPLA is the clear winner in the 2017 general election in Angola. After evaluating over 73 per cent of the votes cast, the preliminary final results announced today by the National Electoral Commission point to a ‘clear’ victory for MPLA and its presidential candidate João Lourenço ...”.
Before he could finish reading, a dirty, barefoot little boy appeared in front of him: “Pai grande, I’m hungry!” Zé Mateus looked up from the newspaper and looked at the boy. “What’s your name?” – “Jose.” – “Then your name is exactly like me. And where do you live?” – “My brother and I are from Lobito. We’re sleeping on the floor of the building over there.” Mateus felt a sharp pang in the pit of his stomach.
The boy was one of many beggars of various ages who besieged the city’s traffic hubs. Following the signing of the Luena Peace Accords, which ended the civil war in 2002, a group of youths had gathered at Independence Square, one of whom carried a small child in his arms. To protect the child from the merciless sun, a cloth had been wrapped around its head. Both boy and child reached out with their right hands to the windows of the braked cars. The faces of these children were emaciated. Besides them, women in shabby, dirty cloths and old men with dead eyes stopped also beside the cars. When Zé Mateus drove past and had to wait at the traffic light, the poor people would surround his car. The fat jeeps with suits behind the wheel ignored the poor, who came to him. One day he asked an old man who came clumsily up to his car when he had stopped at the traffic light: “There are two big sets of wheel up front, mais-velho. Why don’t you go to them?” – “Excuse me, boss, but I know they won’t give me anything. You’re a mulatto. You have the colour of luck.” This Sunday, too, the beggar boy hadn’t stopped at the first bench, where three old men sat and talked, but had come straight to him.
Mateus gave José almost the full packet of biscuits. José looked at the statue of the founder of the state on its monumental marble pedestal, in which the president-poet’s best-known poem was engraved. As if out of nowhere, José’s younger brother appeared, and both tucked into the biscuits. José asked: “What’s written there, pai grande?” – “How old are you, José?” – “I'm fifteen, pai.” – “Didn’t you learn to read in Lobito? Didn’t you go to school?” – “Yes, pai, up to the second grade. Then my father left my mother, and we moved to the village with my grandmother, and I didn’t go anymore.”
Zé Mateus felt another pang in the pit of his stomach. Then he read to the two boys: “WE SHALL RETURN // We must return to the houses, to the work behind the plough / to the coasts, to our fields // We must return to our earth / red with coffee / white with cotton / green with corn // We must return to our diamond mines / to our gold and copper mines, to our oil // We must return to our rivers, our lakes / to the mountains, to the forests / to the freshness of the fig tree / to our traditions / to rhythms and fire // We must return to the marimba, to the Quissange / to our Carnival // We must return to the beautiful fatherland Angola / our earth, our mother // We shall return / to an independent Angola / to a liberated Angola.”
José held the empty biscuit package in his hands. His little brother had snuggled up to him and the two had devoured the biscuits at lightning speed. Zé Mateus had to think back to the day he was five years old and he was brought for his biscuits in the village of Salazar. José looked up at him and asked: “Pai grande, what is the Angolan homeland?” – “The Angolan homeland, that’s all of us, my boy – me, you, your mother, your father who left you, your grandmother, the policeman who is standing there, anyone with an Angolan identity card. And the land, the houses, the cars, everything you see around us and also what you don’t see, what’s far away, in the other provinces – that’s all the Angolan homeland.”
“Aha. You said everyone who has an ID, but I don’t have one. So I’ not an Angolan, right?” The words cut Mateus to the quick. He put his right hand on the head of the boy who had the same name as his: “One day, you’ll also get an identity card, José.” Together with Kapuete and the two boys, Mateus left the square. At the corner of the old building overlooking the back of the Agostinho Neto monument, José and his brother stopped beside two folded cardboard boxes. “Thanks for the biscuits, pai. Here’s where we sleep.” Mateus set off on his way home. He was boiling with anger. With a look at his dog, he burst out: “These elections don’t bring anything new, Kapuete. No other people in the world who lived in such misery as do the Angolan people would ever vote for the party that has been ruling them for forty-two years! Do you really think the votes were counted honestly?”
At noon, Zé Mateus was back home. He ate a banana, drank a lemongrass tea, donned an African boubou, put on perfume, put his wallet in his left pocket, and left the house. He checked if there had been any messages on his cell phone. There was one: “Can you help me out with 15,000 kwanzas? I’m really in a bind”. The message came from his former colleague Milu, who worked in the archive department. Milu had separated from her husband. She was the mother of four children whom she provided for by herself even before the separation because her ex-husband had become unemployed. But the reason for the breakup wasn’t her husband’s failure to contribute to the household budget. He beat her. Zé Mateus replied: “Tomorrow I’ll see what I can do for you.” He started to get in the car when a woman with two small children approached him: “Excuse me, pai grande. I have two children and nothing to eat in the house, please give me some money!” In the course of the week Zé Mateus had already distributed one-tenth of his pension among several beggars. He always reserved that amount for the poor, but the sum was now exhausted. In a kind voice, he answered the woman: “Mãezinha, no offence. I know you’re hungry, but I’m not a government minister. I’m a pensioner. I can’t help you.”
Like Mateus, Mamã Zabele had never left the Cruzeiro district. Zabele had eaten no cola nuts or ginger since the distant year of 1977, when her cousin, the intelligence officer, had come to her house to arrest her daughter for having danced three times with Major Nito Alves. Twenty-five years later, Zabele stopped talking and hearing. Her voice was now an always handy notebook in which she would write. Her deaf-muteness began on the day when the whole family was sitting together in the courtyard, eating and drinking and talking. It was already ten o’clock in the evening. The second barrel of beer was in the fridge. The supply of innocuous topics of conversation, such as sport, women’s jealousy, speculation about the new phase of peace that the country was enjoying, had been exhausted.
The huge dinner party was devouring the food, which consisted of grilled meat, and at times the babble of voices was interrupted by the laughter of those who were already a little tipsy. In one corner, a nephew of the landlady, General Kambolo, was talking with his neighbour about an old and yet always new subject. “Now that Savimbi is dead and the war is over, it seems the government is at last solving the problem of the victims of 27 May”, said the Reserve General. “I’d like to know where the body of my brother Ndombele is.” – “That would be good indeed”, said the man to his right, a journalist with public television. “It’s been so many years, the weapons have fallen silent, it’s time to heal this open wound in the history of our country At least the death certificates of the missing persons ought to be issued.” – “You journalists think a lot, man. Sometimes you’re ahead of the news.”
To the left of the general sat a young man, wearing a T-shirt, his jeans torn open at the knees, his hair braided at the top of his head into plaits and shaved at the sides. He joined in the conversation. “I have my doubts about that. Mãe Zabele’s cousin will never publicly confess what he did to her daughter. Do you know what the guys from security often did with the women they arrested? One form of torture was forcing them to eat their own sanitary towel if they’d been caught during menstruation. That’s what my late brother told me.” The Reserve General, sitting in the middle, pinched the young man firmly on the arm, for behind them came Mãe Zabele with grilled cacussos. The old woman continued on her way and set the tray with the fish in the middle of the table. “Did the old woman hear that?” Kambolo asked. “I don’t know if she was behind us long enough”, the journalist said.
Old Zabele left the courtyard and went to her room. From that day on, she never spoke or heard another word. Her only communication was in writing. Zabele was obsessed with the many lives that lived in her. These lives had entered her soul, for Mãe Zabele had died three deaths during her earthly existence. The first time she died when her husband was murdered by the colonists’ militia, two days after the armed uprising of 15 March 1961 in northern Angola. The revenge of the colonists was merciless and was wreaked throughout the entire province of Malanje. The white men arrived in civilian clothes, armed with rifles, knocking the butts on the door, which the couple opened: “Are you Benvindo Lopes da Costa, the terrorist?” The leader of the group asked, reading the name off a list. “Yes, I’m Benvindo Lopes da Costa, but I’ve never been a terrorist.” – “Do you think we don’t know that you turn on the radio every Friday, you and two of your neighbours, Damião and Correia, better known as Kinino, to listen to the Angolan Combatente broadcast by the Kinshasa terrorists?” Benvindo trembled. He knew his hour had struck. A hail of bullets pierced his chest, and he fell into the open door as if he had been axed. The militia departed, and Mamã Zabele wept tears of despair over her husband’s corpse.
She died the second time in 1977 when her daughter was abducted forever. She lost her taste for kola nuts and ginger. In 1961, the colonists killed her husband, but they didn’t kill the women. Only the men. Now the liberation fighters, who had returned from the bush, the same ones her husband had given his life for, took her daughter. They should have at least killed her before her mother’s eyes; then Zabele could have buried the corpse and held the komba, the traditional funeral, and wept for her daughter at her grave.
Zabele died the third death when she heard, at the family reunion, that the women had been tortured with her own menstrual blood. This time she lost her voice and her hearing. She switched on the bedside lamp, opened her notebook and wrote: “I want to see my son-in-law, Mateus.”
Zabele’s granddaughter, a fifteen-year-old girl who took care of her, went next door to fetch Mateus. The sparrows were still singing in the old palm tree. Mateus had planted the tree forty-two years ago in memory of his mother, who had died by a stray bullet from the barrel of some liberation fighter’s gun. The shadow of the palm was the shadow of his mother. In prayer, when he had planted it, he had asked the gently blowing wind: “My mother did not die because of the colonists. She was killed by Angolans. Was that why we fought for independence?” His father, an old colonist who had become an Angolan by learning the Kimbundu language and the customs of the country, had cried his eyes out at the wake. When Mateus kissed the old woman on the cheek, she looked at him wide-eyed and suddenly found her voice again. “Thank you, my son, for your great love for my Joana.” After these words she embraced Mateus and closed her eyes forever. Zabele died for the fourth and last time.
A whole month long mourners crowded into the house of the deceased; they even came from Zabele’s hometown, Malanje. So that they all could sit, the pavement in front of the house was full of plastic chairs. The government provided logistical support, since Zabele’s first son had been a political commissar in the army in the 1980s. Eight women took turns in the kitchen, preparing beans in palm oil, fried and grilled fish, white rice, cooked manioc and sweet potatoes, and the unavoidable funje with beef stew. There was card-playing and talk deep into the night, until the most trivial and the most important political issues had been exhausted. Sometimes there was nothing to hear but the laughter at jokes that someone had told masterfully. A beer dispenser was installed in the garden, and guests went to the drinks counter to order whiskey, juice, brandy, and coffee. During the wake, the nuns from the Catholic Church sang psalms and hymns throughout the night. They sang in Kimbundu. Mãe Zabele was buried in the cemetery of Alto das Cruzes at the gravesite of her father, who had been a postman in colonial times.
The funeral, scheduled for ten o’clock, began at half past twelve. Angolans are never punctual, even in the hour of death. In his prayer the pastor of the Igreja do Carmo commended Zabele’s soul to God, and Mateus delivered the funeral oration for the deceased: “Today we bury she who in life was called Isabel da Conceição Lopes da Costa. She has left us at the age of seventy-eight, after a life of struggles, a life at the side of her husband, Benvindo Lopes da Costa. Her daughter Joana ought to be here today to pay her final respect to our dear Mãe Zabele. But unfortunately it can happen in life that children die before their parents. Peace be with their souls!”
Mateus was of the opinion that at a funeral the living should not be tormented with long-winded, bombastic speeches. The coffin was lowered deep into the grave. Mateus was the first to throw a handful of red earth on the lacquered wood, and after the grave was completely covered again, flowers were spread over it, and Zabele’s granddaughter, who had looked after her, laid a wreath bearing the name of the deceased.
When Mateus was back home – he lived near the cemetery – it seemed to him as if he were in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. In Africa, we look after the dead and bury the living, he thought. In recent years, hardly anyone had visited Mãe Zabele in her solitude. She had not even been given a bouquet of flowers during her lifetime. Now, after her death, her house was full of people. In the life of the Cruzeiro district, a cycle had reached its completion.
In September, the new president took office, and his predecessor, with a certain amount of restraint, vacated the chair he had been sitting in for thirty-eight years. He left the government, but was to take over the leadership of the governing party for another year, the party that always won the election by absolute or qualified majorities and brought all the laws it concocted to parliamentary vote. He left, and yet stayed anyway. This arrangement was provided for by the constitution of the republic, which he had himself proclaimed when the people were anaesthetized by the contest for the African football championship. In the opening game between Angola and Mali, the score was first 4-0. Sitting beside the President, the First Lady clapped her hands and smiled contentedly. But ten minutes before the end, Mali caught up for a tie. Had the game lasted another minute, Angola would have lost 5 to 4. Half of the football championship was over and all eyes were feverishly focused on the King of Sports when José Eduardo dos Santos enacted the new constitution on 5 January 2010.
The next day Zé Mateus went to the state printing house and bought the Basic Law. Much of it was the same as in almost every other country in the world. What struck him was the great change brought about by Article 109 on the election of the President: The party leader of the political party or coalition of parties elected by the national constituency shall be appointed President of the Republic and Head of Government who under Article 143 of this constitution has received the majority of votes cast in the parliamentary elections. 2. The party leader shall be made known to the voters on the ballot.
Mateus immediately called his friend and colleague, a former political prisoner and member of the MPLA Politburo, who intended to run in the 2012 presidential election: “Have you already seen the new constitution? Take a look at Article 109.” – “I already have, Mateus. José Eduardo dos Santos, our Zedu, must have read Machiavelli’s Prince from start to finish. The dream of democracy in Angola is over, brother. The opium of the people today is football.”
On September 26, 2017, in a majestic, rain-blessed ceremony on the balcony of the Agostinho-Neto mausoleum, the highest public servant of the land took office. Mateus watched the spectacle on television. In his speech, the new president praised all the heroes of the homeland: “Resistance to the colonial power lasted for centuries and spread to various parts of the territory of contemporary Angola. The legendary names of Ngola Kiluanji, Ginga Mbande, Ekuikui II, Mutu ya Kevela, Mandume, and many others symbolize this heroic struggle that inspired the liberation movements.” Almost at the conclusion of his speech, the President said: “The eradication of social inequalities requires greater commitment in the social field, especially through access to education and learning, basic social services for all, social security and support for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”
Mateus liked this part. He said to Kapuete, who was watching TV with him:
“Boy, it looks like we’re going to get a real president this time.” The dog turned its head to him and agreed with a low growl.