To Sembène Ousmane
Translated by Luisa Venturini and revised by Lara Pawson
It’s true, yes sir, I had already promised that I was never going to speak any more balderdash, slang or swear words, many use them but, yet, however, notwithstanding, although many do not like reading them, my wish then was to look into their eyes and call them hypocrites, frauds, fucking church wardens, but thinking it over perhaps there is a difference, words when spoken are carried on the wind, but when written down on paper, just so, black on white, that’s it, as commanded by law, they remain forever, able even to lead a man into misery, and that is why, in the past, whites took advantage of blacks, who didn’t know how to read or write, making them sign certain strange papers, It’s just for the record, Mr Kiteculo, you know how it is, one of us may die and, afterwards, no one knows what was agreed between us, they would say, the truth is that what was written on those papers would only bring us misfortune, Canivete himself told me many stories full of such misfortune, back then he was still black like me, I am not sure if I should say this, but Canivete also liked to use strong words, those really foolish ones, we were working back then as assistants to Mr Antero, a white truck driver who travelled from Benguela to Moxico, who (well, now that I’m started, I may as well tell it all) also used to talk a lot of nonsense, such that, once in a while, especially when we were caught in the middle of some nightmare, a flat tyre in the street, or some really time-consuming unloading, or an argument with some customer, our conversation would be like a symphony of nonsense, mockery and profanities, a strange word that, I don’t know why, insisted on inserting itself into this part of the text, then, in order not to lose the way, I can go on to say that, in fact, the three of us really enjoyed opening our mouths really nice and wide and pouring out as many profanities as we liked, against everything and everyone, starting with our good selves, but when the words had vanished on the wind, we would have a beer and continue on our way, Mr Antero driving, and me and Canivete in the back, of course, catching the sun, the rain and the wind, because in those days that’s how it was, these were the rules and full stop, if I knew how to use irony I would say, for example, that back then these protocols took precedence, the truth is I didn’t pay that much attention to it, my relative position within the physical structure of the truck, struck me as, so we say, a mere detail, to be honest I could not have cared less about travelling inside the cabin with Mr Antero due to another detail that I can now reveal at will, that is his extraordinary, radical and absolutely unavoidable foot odour, but Canivete, unlike me, was always complaining about this fact, he did not like to travel in the back nor did he like to catch the sun, the rain or the wind, but most of all he did not like knowing that Mr Antero travelled in the cabin all by himself, well-protected and sheltered, even from the profanities (look at that nice, polite word once more) that were being shouted out behind him, Who do these settlers think they are? One day this is going to have to end!, I can only give these two examples, unfortunately I cannot be as true to Canivete’s words because I don’t want you to call me ill-bred, I can’t stand that label anymore, also I have my own children to raise, although for a long time now I have not known their whereabouts, they are also lost like me, amid the vortex of events that have shaken our land, Canivete seemed like a fortune-teller, in those days he would say Angola must change!, today, when I remember those words, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry, Angola has changed, yes sir, but here I am sitting next to the most luxurious restaurant in the city, protected by the shade of the night, ragged, dirty and most of all starving, waiting for the left-overs from dinner, without anywhere to go after the last customer has left, thinking about Canivete’s words, Those settlers think that we are just dogs or what?, and I am going to speak my truth, with a profound nostalgia for the back of Mr Antero’s truck, of course I do not know if I should have written those preceding words like that, black on white, but, look, they are written, as I said before, for me to travel in the back or not was always, for me, a simple detail, while Canivete was complaining all the time about the sun, the rain and the wind, saying as much nonsense about Mr Antero as he possibly could, and when I mentioned to him the matter of cheesy feet, he replied, The guy has smelly feet, but he also has money!, it was mainly in these moments that he told me stories of the strange papers that would only lead to misfortune when suddenly the white guys would appear in the villages, saying This land is ours!, and completely surround them, using guards they would start to exploit them in a way that was completely different from that which the villagers had learned from their ancestors, the chiefs could do nothing, the spirits would not listen to the prayers of the men, who, ever weaker and more bewildered, were pushed further and further away, some of them were even forced to depart for remote and unknown regions where they learned new skills and engaged in new occupations, at least this was what Canivete used to say, I have never been an assistant truck driver!, I didn’t really understand these words very well, partly because I had never been an assistant truck driver, it’s true that I had never been a farmer either, for I was born in the city and the only other occupation I remember having had was as an errand boy in a shop, but when Canivete added, And I shall not be an assistant to a truck driver forever!, the solemn tone and drama that he impressed upon the sentence filled me with curiosity, but at the same time I couldn’t help a certain, albeit badly defined, fear from piercing my heart, I continued racking my brains, this guy, too, this guy, too, he knows nothing, like me, if he won’t be an assistant to a white man, he will do what then, this question does not have a question-mark for one supremely simple reason, I was only asking myself, I didn’t have the courage to put these words (or better, this thought) to Canivete face to face, because of the way he spoke the sentence, I won’t be an assistant to a truck driver forever!, I was afraid, yes, I was afraid of this sentence, but I was even more afraid, truly petrified, of the expression on his face when he uttered it, Canivete would grit his teeth, frown, look deeply into my eyes and then he would say the whole sentence: I am the son of a traditional chief, I have never been an assistant to a truck driver in my life and I shall not be one forever!, and when he finished, he would stare at Mr Antero, who wasn’t aware of anything at all because he was by himself in the cabin, protected from all threats, both physical and symbolic, to tell the truth I was more afraid of that than Mr Antero should have been, at least for believing in Canivete, The guy is alone in the cabin because he’s afraid, he knows that our time will come!, he said, so what could my argument be, when based only on a small and somehow ridiculous detail, against such an absolute and categorical statement, Foot odour, so what! responded Carnivete when, unwisely, I insisted on this detail. You’re afraid of whites, or what? Historically they are condemned…, at that I had no other alternative but to shut my mouth, the truth is that Canivete knew nothing, like me, he had had no education at all, but sometimes he seemed to have an indisputable wisdom, and that scared me, I was okay with the life I had, I enjoyed travelling in the back of Mr Antero’s truck, I already knew all the places between Benguela and Moxico, yet still I always had some surprise on every trip, Mr Antero was not such a bad white man, his biggest problem was that he used a lot of swear words, but keep calm, I am not going to reproduce any of them here, I have already promised that I shall speak no more drivel, profanities or, as some call them, obscenities, and will write them even less, black on white, without any respect for my morally correct readers, for all these reasons (or intuitions, how can I know?) I considered Canivete’s claims to be a little exaggerated, but, yet, however, nevertheless, there weren’t big disagreements to have with him, the truth is that I enjoyed continuing to hear the stories that he told me about misfortune, adversity and harm caused by the whites since they had arrived in our beloved land, us two lying down on top of all the goods, watching the changing landscape or looking at the sky, enjoying the clouds during the day or the stars at night, while Mr Antero’s truck rolled quietly along the roads, without the boss even considering the profanities that his assistant Canivete was saying from the rear, to him and to his whole race, my keeping silent, listening, at the same time sad for all the sufferings of the Angolans and delighted by Canivete’s stories, admiring each word, the wisdom and courage that was so clearly in all of them, but always with that unknown fear that pierced my heart when certain words were released from his mouth, the grit of his teeth, the red shadow in his eyes, the way he would suddenly be quiet and stare at the back of the neck of Mr Antero, who didn’t feel a thing, as if for him, Canivete, words were no longer enough, ah!, but I shall reveal to you all my truth, when those words weren’t there anymore, I missed them, very much indeed, and I felt lost, the landscape that I had come to know so well, after so many trips made over so many years, gradually lost its ability to surprise me, every day I saw the same clouds and the same stars, the same places, the same people, all the same, however the oddest thing to happen to me during those times was that I started looking at Mr Antero in a different light, the poor guy may have robbed and exploited many Angolans, let’s be honest, but he never caused me any harm, however, despite that, I started looking at him with disapproval, answering him slapdash, one day he even asked me, What the hell is up with you, boy?, I did not respond because the fact was that I, too, did not know what the matter was with me, the fact is that suddenly I became very angry with Mr Antero, for me he was to blame for Canivete’s disappearance, when I asked him he said no, he liked him very much, how could he be to blame for his disappearance, he had always respected Angolans, without any discrimination whatsoever, the fact was that he was merely a truck driver just trying to earn some money through his own work, this was, in brief, how Mr Antero responded to me, so, if it is impossible to know the truth, whether in life, whether in literature, all that remains are facts and these can be summarised likewise, Canivete disappeared one day without warning, in the middle of a journey between the former Silva Porto, Kuito today, and the former city of Luso, now Luena, Mr Antero had stopped at a gas station just after the border between Bié and Moxico, it was six o’clock in the evening, therefore he told us that we were going to sleep there for the night, in order to depart very early the next morning for Luso, I remember it well, as if it were yesterday, he was particularly friendly towards Canivete, Take care not to run off to join the terrorists…, he said to him, laughing, what is strange is that Canivete was also in a good mood and offered him an unexpected reply, Only if the boss comes with me!…, we laughed the three of us, Mr Antero gave us some money to buy a bottle of wine to accompany our funje, then he went for dinner with the owner of the gas station, an old friend of his, who always invited him to spend the night in his guest room while we slept, as always, in the back of the truck, that night, after eating our funje and emptying the bottle of wine, Canivete did not tell me any stories because he was very tired and wanted to go to sleep straight away, early the next morning, when I woke up, he had already disappeared, nobody knew where he’d gone, nobody had heard a sound, Mr Antero started arguing with everybody, swearing in every direction, in every language that he could, Portuguese, his own mother-tongue, but also Umbundu and Luvale, the languages that he had learned to speak with Angolans, Dreadful terrorist! Dreadful terrorist!, this is the only printable expression in all the swearing used freely by Mr Antero, since that day I am completely alone in the world, without Canivete’s stories, without his words that terrified me, but nevertheless, which pointed to a different future, Angola will change!, he used to say, yes, Angola has changed, soon after Canivete’s disappearance, the 25th April happened, the Portuguese army signed up for peace with the three liberation movements, a transitional government was created in Luanda, composed of the former terrorists as Mr Antero used to call them, independence was marked for the 11th November,1975, in the cities the war re-started between the three liberation movements, the Portuguese began to flee, loaded with boxes, taking everything they could by plane, by car, by boat, even by trawler, the FNLA brought the Zairians, the white South Africans entered, with their armoured vehicles vomiting fire out of their mouths and their yellow helicopters, Cubans came to help fight the South Africans and the Zairians, Agostinho Neto managed to declare independence on the 11th November, FAPLA and the Cubans drove out the Zairians and the South Africans, the MPLA adopted Marxism-Leninism as the ideology of the regime towards the end of 1976, in 1977 there was an attempted coup d’état in Luanda, the president of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, decided, in 1980, to transform UNITA into his principal instrument for overthrowing the MPLA government, in the 1980s Angola was practically divided into two states, 1989 saw the mutual departure from Angola of both the Cuban and South African forces, in 1990 the MPLA renounced the one-party system, abandoned schematic socialism and installed wild capitalism, in 1991 the Angolan government signed the Bicesse Peace Accords with UNITA, in 1992 the country’s first general elections took place, won by the MPLA and by president José Eduardo, to the despair of the former Portuguese president Mário Soares and his son João Soares, who can’t help grumbling even at the thought of it, UNITA rejected the electoral results and restarted the war, in 1994 another peace agreement was signed between the government and UNITA, the Lusaka Protocol, but the war continued until the 2nd February 2002, when the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in combat in green-and-white-striped knickers, when he was getting ready to listen to the radio commentary of the Sporting-Guimarães football match as part of the Portuguese championship, which led to the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding by the government army and UNITA troops on the 4th April the same year, definitively stamping peace on the country, until now, at least, there has been no more shooting, the real truth is that I didn’t know all the facts mentioned above, they are the author’s unique responsibility, I limit myself to living in the flesh through the unbelievable changes endured by Angola during the last few decades, I lost myself in the whirlwind of events that I saw and not just that, drifting around the country I was in the war, on both sides, randomly producing several children who I do not know, leaving them even more haphazardly, I fled, I was an artisanal diamond digger, then I ended up in a refugee camp in Namibia, now I am here in Luanda, I have no home, I have no family, I have absolutely no one, I live on the streets, I wander through the city, my latest spot is outside this restaurant, here I come every night at around eleven o’clock, waiting for the leftovers from dinner, as well as a few coins from some full stomach, like this one, for instance, who is arriving now in his huge jeep, I mean the model seems to be a Hummer, as this kid Tony is in the process of telling me, these young good-for-nothings know everything about cars and motorbikes and not just that, the driver of the jeep opens the door for the big-bellied being, who climbs out of the car with style, hanging on to a dark, skinny thing with blonde hair extensions that almost reach her buttocks and hide her own smattering of curly hair, a dress with a split to the thigh, shoes with heels almost half a metre high and stiletto toes, the sort that kill cockroaches, big belly held her close to him, he gave her a pat on her pert arse, perhaps to help her relax, as they walk swiftly towards the door of the restaurant, when the light shines on their faces, I feel like jumping up and shouting, Canivete, Canivete, I hesitate, it really is him, isn’t it? I have not seen him since he disappeared in the gas station on our way to Luso more than thirty years ago, but the truth is that I have not forgotten him, not for a single day, every day, along the paths in which I lost myself, I hoped to find him, yes, I know I mentioned this before, but the truth is never too much, when he disappeared I was left abandoned in the world, desperately missing the stories that he used to tell me, his words full of contradictions, uplifting and threatening, how could I ever forget Canivete, it is really him, he is different, he looks white, where has he been all these years, what has happened to him, what have they done to him to make him so different, I don’t know, but the author, once more, is obliged to know, come on man, tell us readers what happened to Canivete, well, nothing extraordinary, half a page will do, when Canivete disappeared on the road to Luso, at the gas station where Mr Antero always stopped to spend the night, he joined up with a group of MPLA guerrillas with whom he had maintained contact for some time already, he was with this group for just two days and then he was sent to a base located on the border with Zambia, where he arrived just in time to be incorporated in to a group of young people who were going to study in the Soviet Union, he stayed for ten years in that country, studied at the Patrice Lumumba University, considered by the reactionary forces (do they still exist?) of the world, I do not know why (I have already said that irony is not my strong point), to be a “university for blacks”, he returned to Angola in the 1980s with the title of commander, although he had never fired a gun in the guerrilla war, he was appointed director of a diamond company, in the early 1990s he gave an interview in which he swore that he had never been a Marxist-Leninist, he became provincial governor for a few years but was discharged under suspicion of having sold fuel to the rebels, now he is one of the best-known genuinely Angolan entrepreneurs, with businesses in every sector, import-export, commerce, industry and services, livestock farming, fisheries, consulting services, publicity and marketing, and is particularly appreciated by the press, both public and private, and for his support to culture and arts, because he is one of the major sponsors of the famous Brazilian singer Roberta Miranda during her regular visits to Angola, as you see, I had my reasons not to trust Canivete when he used to say that he would not be an assistant to a truck driver forever, I felt like swearing really badly, but I promised I would not do that again, Angolan literature, in the current phase of reconciliation that we are, fortunately, living through, must not only be politically correct, but also morally, this is my last thought before getting up and hugging Canivete, I shout Canivete! Canivete!, the guy really does seem to be white, but I am certain that he will recognize me, now, yes, my life is really going to change, too, the man has turned into a big belly, therefore he can help me change my life, to leave this wretchedness into which I sank after he had disappeared, I shout again, Canivete! Canivete!, the guy gives some order or other that I do not see, but I become scared when two private security guards, a policeman and the driver of the white guy, who looks like Canivete, grab me and start beating and punching me, preventing me from embracing him like in the good old days when he was a black like me, and the truth is that I got so confused in my mind that I even forgot the promise I had made to my dearest readers, I really couldn’t help it, I opened my mouth, which had been shut for such a long time, and I said, black on white, clearly pronouncing every syllable, Shit! Cock! Fuck you! Go back to the bitch who bore you, you white motherfucker!, I hope you can excuse my bad manners, but the truth, however, is that in this land of ours that is Angola, very strange things are occurring, completely improbable things, such that people are left with their mouths wide open, even people who fought in the struggle have forgotten the reasons why they did so, now they are acting like the colonialists did in times gone by, or even worse, now Canivete, for example, has become a white man, too, he who was as black as I, these extraordinary things that we never agreed upon, and with all this sadness that we have in our hearts, all we can do is loudly mock and loudly swear, as I have just done.
- Forças Armadas Popular para Libertação de Angola (Popular Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola) was formed out of the MPLA guerrilla forces in April 1974 and fully institutionalised in November 1975 as the national army of Angola.
- Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) developed as a largely urban and socialist movement in the 1950s. Agostinho Neto became leader of the Movement in 1962.
- União Nacional Para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) developed as a largely rural movement formerly established by Jonas Savimbi in 1966 in Moxico province, in eastern Angola.
born in 1955 in Luanda, Angola, is an author, journalist, communication consultant and professor. He is a founder of the Angolan Writer´s Association, and of the Angolan Academy of Literature and Social Sciences. He has also been a member of the Angolan Parliament, and Minister. Currently, he lives exclusively from writing, and splits his time between Luanda, Lisbon and Houston. His works include poetry, short stories, articles and essays and have been published in Angola, Portugal, Brazil, Italy and Cuba. He just finished his first novel, that will be launched in Portuguese by the middle of 2021. A number of his writings had been translated into English, French, German, Arabic, and Chinese. Some of his stories translated into English appeared in Words Without Borders, Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Olongo Africa. He was awarded the 2009 Angola Arts and Culture National Prize in literature category.