We will never know the true consequences of war until the people who are most of the time left to die in the defense of an ideal – be it a good one or a bad one – cease to only be numbers on a report at the end of the war; numbers we proudly call “casualties of war”. Men and women, and in some cases children too, are called on by men drunk with power to defend “the pride of their land,” and are later called heroes for fighting in wars that most of them know nothing about. It is rare that men who are called to arms are done so for the right reasons but in the rare occasions that they are, it is even rarer for any of those men to want to relive those moments, in any way or form, post war. One man who was brave enough to pen down, in the form of an epic novel about the Angolan struggle, was Arthur Pestana dos Santos – better known by his pen-name Pepetela.
Born in Angola in in 1941, Arthur joined the MPLA guerrilla fighters in the Cabinda province in the late 1960. He served on the central front during the second liberation war and, in 1976 after Independence, was made Deputy Minister of Education. He later wrote Mayombe while he was serving in the MPLA in 1971. The book’s original Portuguese version was published 1980 under the wish of Angola’s first President, Agostinho Neto, because it is believed that he felt an open debate on the topics which the book deals with – the dangers of tribalism and racism – was one that needed to be “pursued in the wider context of independent Africa.” The book was first published in African Writers Series in 1983 and was translate from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers.
Mayombe is a forest of Angola’s enclave province of Cabinda and it is set as the background, with an almost character presence, of the story. Mayombe (the book) tells the story of a group of guerrilla fighters for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the 1970’s, their time in the Mayombe forest, their rear-base and school at Dolisie in the neighboring Congo Republic, and the problems they had had to overcome both as a group and as individuals. The story begins with a scene in the Mayombe forest where thirteen guerrilla members were on a mission. We are first introduced to Theory – a mixed race teacher and political instructor at the base who is in constant fear because of his white ancestry. The Gabela born son of a Black mother and Portuguese father, Theory had always has felt that his white ancestry made it hard for him to identify with the struggles of black people and this has compelled him to make very rash and life threatening decisions. Racism had always been part of his life and his volunteering to join MPLA – and while there volunteer to do dangerous tasks – was a way for him to feel as though he belonged – and was no longer the maybe in a world of yes and no.
We are then introduced to Miracle – “The Bazooka-Man.” Born in Quibaxe – a Kimbundu area – Miracle is a man driven by tribalism. He believes that the Kimbundu tribe, which he, the Commissar and Operations Officer are part of, and because of their history as the most affected and “bravest” tribe in Angola, is the only tribe fit enough to lead the war against the colonialist. He believes that all men are equal, and should have the same rights, but that “all men are not at the same level; some are more advanced than others,” and that those who are more advanced [the Kimbundu tribe] should rule the others because “they are the ones with knowledge.” He believes that having witnessed his father’s head being taken off by a tractor qualifies him to become a leader in the rebellion and is disgruntled that instead of that happening he is subjected to “seeing persons who did not suffer” ordering them around.
The story then moves to a base set up by the guerrillas in Mayombe where “the men, dressed in green, turned green like the leaves and chestnut like colossal trunks.” It is here that we are introduced to another guerilla named New World. A highly politicized and theoretic comrade, New World chooses not to partake in the tribally influenced divisions that are strife in the camp. He looks at everything from a theoretical point of view and believes that the tribalism that has taken over the mindset of most of the guerillas is nothing but a waste of time. We also get introduced to Muatianvua who, like New World, does not wish to partake in tribally influenced divisions in the camp; even though his reasons for doing so are different from New World’s. As a well-travelled sailor in the African continent, Muatianvua doesn’t see himself as a member of a single tribe. He says; “from what tribe? I ask. From what tribe, if I am from all tribes, not only of Angola, but of Africa too? Do I not speak Swahili, did I not learn Hausa like a Nigerian? What is my language, I, who do not say a sentence without using words from different languages? And now, what do I use to talk to the comrades, to be understood by them? Portuguese? To what Angolan tribe do Portuguese belong?” (page 87). But even though divisions in the camp are visible and confrontations do come up, there are men at the camp who re dedicated to each member irrespective of what tribe they belong. One such man is the Commissar who, when sent to Dolisie on a mission to get more food for the base, gave up time with his fiancé while he was there because he wanted to make sure that his comrades didn’t go hungry.
The story then takes the reader to Dolisie where he is introduced to Ondine; Commissar’s fiancé. Taken by her desire for other men, she sleeps with Andre who is the leader of the Movement in Dolisie. Word of this reaches the camp and Commissar and the Commander make their way to Dolisie: Commissar to confront his fiancé and the Commander to take charge while Andre is taken to Brazzaille to face trail. The Commissar and Ondine end their engagement and the Commissar heads back to the camp to take leadership while the Commander remains at Dolisie. Ondine ends up falling in love with the Commander after spending many nights together with him. Later word arrives at Dolisie that the camp has been invaded and in acts of bravery many men from Dolisie put aside their differences and volunteered to go on a rescue mission to save their fellow countrymen. It was later established that there was a huge misunderstanding of events by VW (who was the young comrade who brought the news of the attack of the bade to Dolisie), and that, in-fact, the shots he heard were from Theory shooting a snake that seemed like it was attacking him. Nevertheless, this inspired a lot of confidence in the guerrillas and they set mission to capture a base that the enemy had set up that was very close to their base. We are also introduced to Stores Chief. A man who sternly believes in the revolution, Stores Chief is troubled by the tribalism that is crippling the movement and led to Ungrateful escaping from prison through the help of some of the guards.
An attack on the enemy base was set up and executed. We are here introduced to Struggle. As the only Cabinda born guerrilla in the MPLA, he is concerned that his people are not participating in the war that is meant to free them. He is aware of the suspicion in which his fellow fighters look at him but is thankful to have a Commander such as Fearless who sees beyond tribal lines. He and the Commander unfortunately meet their demise during the attack but their courage and self-sacrifice for their fellow fighters inspired a new attitude in the guerrillas. They both sacrificed their lives for members of the Movement and did so without taking heed to which tribe they belonged.
The story touches on issues like tribalism; religion; racism; and relationships between men and women, the leaders and the peasants, the movement and its members. It is an epic story filled with scenes of love, hate, fear, war, confusion and many other elements one never associates with war. The writer succeeded in turning men fighting in a war to save their country, men who one never sees them beyond just people carrying weapons, into men that we can all associate with. He turned them into more than just men carrying guns and thirsty for war. He turned them into men facing problems that each of us face in our daily lives and showed how they overcame them; giving them a live beyond just being numbers on paper. It is a story worth reading for anyone who is interested in seeing the other side of war: the human side.