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African impressions

Bay of Tigers: An African Odyssey, Pedro Rosa Mendes, Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers, Harcourt: 322 pp., $25

May 25, 2003|Paul Hare | Paul Hare is the author of "Angola's Last Best Chance for Peace." He was a career foreign service officer specializing in Africa and the Middle East and was U.S. ambassador to Zambia and U.S. special envoy for the Angolan peace process.

The key to this astounding book is contained in the author's prefatory note. In June 1997, Pedro Rosa Mendes landed in Luanda, Angola, with the objective of traveling overland to Mozambique. "My purpose," he writes, "was the most noble of all -- that is, I had no purpose in particular. These pages are the atlas with which to read my trek: the emotional map of a route whose locales bear peoples' faces and where space and time are the coordinates that lie the most."

The narrative deliberately zigzags across time and place, moving seemingly at random from Angola, to Mozambique, Zambia and even Cambodia. Although Mendes is a journalist and has a keen eye for detail and fact, the style is impressionistic -- catching a moment, a landscape or a face -- with the past constantly intruding upon the present.

Despite his disclaimer, Mendes had a purpose in undertaking this odyssey. In part, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of earlier explorers, notably Pedro Joao Baptista and Anastacio Francisco, two semiliterate slaves of a Portuguese trader, who kept a colorful diary of their passage on foot from Angola to Mozambique from 1802 to 1814. Mendes ironically notes that their journey predated the "first" crossing of the continent by David Livingstone half a century later.

Another purpose of Mendes' odyssey was to traverse the dangerous terrain of the Lands at the End of the World, then under the control of the military forces of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Traveling in antiquated vehicles that frequently broke down across mine-infested roads and rivers, he was more often than not treated as a virtual prisoner by his UNITA hosts. He was warned not to travel into this zone and was told that if he tried he would either return in three days or be dead. (The journey took place when the government of Angola and the rebel movement were supposedly fulfilling the terms of a peace agreement under U.N. supervision. It was an uneasy peace, and the agreement eventually fell apart the following year.)

Yet beyond the actual traveling, which seems incidental at times, this is a book of tales about a strange and fascinating assortment of people. Some are Portuguese, like Daniel Libermann, a rancher whose cattle were stolen by a gang of thieves acting on behalf of local authorities and some local military officials. He dedicated two years to recovering his beloved animals but only rescued a few despite entreaties to the highest levels of government. Then there is Francisco Norton Silva, who, though illegitimate and a bigamist, suffers from the "moral pain" of his fourth wife's desertion. A man of prodigious sexual appetite, Norton fathered 54 children, to the best of his knowledge. And there is Joao Miranda, who fled to South Africa, where he was transformed into John Van Der Merwe, South African war hero and commander of a battalion of Angolan Bushmen, the Black Arrows, who invaded Angola in 1975. There is the tragic tale of the doctors Miete Marcelino and David Bernardino, who, fiercely committed to the city they loved, were killed in Huambo by UNITA in late 1992.

There are also African voices: Justino, a founder of FRELIMO, the Mozambique liberation movement, who was first imprisoned by the Portuguese and then by his own party after independence; Joaquim Augusto Junqueira, the prophet, who created his own universal language for all people and is an unpublished author of books of prophecy and discourse on the origins of the world; a Congolese professor with the unlikely name of Cite du Bois, who wore an orange robe full of holes and wrote literary works such as "My First Ride in an Airplane" for his university class in the provincial town of Lubango.

One of my favorite passages describes, in the form of a movie script, the author's encounter with Mwata Kazembe, the tribal chief of the Lundas in Zambia and beyond. I too visited the Mwata during the kingdom's annual ceremony, during which he and others performed sword dances in tribal dress. Following the ceremony, I met the Mwata to extend my greetings and offer a gift. Mendes describes the Mwata as wearing black jeans and white T-shirt, smiling broadly and extending a warm welcome. That is how I remember him, though with the added embellishment of a chesterfield.

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