Sousa Jamba, “Patriots” (1990) – As John Dolan (from whom I learned about this book) has observed, the messier a war is, the more productive it typically is in literary terms. World War I was pointless and inconclusive compared to World War II, but writings from the former is definitive to modern literature and writing from the latter isn’t. The Vietnam War was better for literature than the Persian Gulf War, and so on.
The Angolan Civil War from 1975 to 1990 (and with subsidiary fighting lasting until 2002) was profoundly messy. Three major factions, spillovers into neighboring countries, foreign boots on the ground, funding and support from actors ranging from the US to China to Israel to Mobutu’s regime in Zaire, tribal politics, somewhere around a million dead and the country littered with landmines… Alas, Angolan writers have fewer connections with the rich-country publishing world than those involved in America’s sticky wars.
So we’re lucky to have Sousa Jamba, who got out of Angola and told his story. Like some of the best books to come out of internecine wars — I’m thinking of Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” and Babel’s “Red Cavalry” — much of it consists of stories people tell that the narrator collects. Wars — especially the sort of wars that rove widely across a country and generate refugee flows — pick people up and move them around, and when they stop for a minute, many want to tell what happened to them. Hosi, the narrator, is a good straight man for these various taletellers. He had been in a refugee camp in Zambia for much of the war, and came back to Angola to fight for UNITA (the US-backed side) both with considerable resources his peers lack (mainly education) and a lot of misapprehensions about Angolan reality. So many of the people he meets traveling to the UNITA camp, or those in it, relish in telling him about Angolan reality, and he’s not shy about giving his own opinions, equal parts blinkered and perceptive, back.
It’d be too much to even give an overview of the stories exchanged. Jamba has a superb ear for them. Often they’re fascinating mixes of the dreams the post-independence moment have birth to and the harsh realities of division, poverty, and war that Angolans faced. Angolans are always people, first and foremost, in “Patriots.” They’re not objects for pity or scorn. Maybe that’s why Jamba isn’t as well known as should be…
Non-Africans often reduce civil wars in African countries to tribal conflicts. Tribe is very important in many of these wars but it’s possible to overstate. There was certainly a tribal dimension to the Angolan civil war. One of the three major factions, FNLA, was more-or-less the tribal army of the Bakongo (who used to have an important kingdom before the coming of the Portuguese). UNITA got a lot of its backing from the Ovimbundu, many of whom thought the Marxist MPLA (the eventual winner) was a force for the Kimbundu and worse still, mixed-race, deracinated urban dwellers to lord it over them. But one thing Jamba drives home is that for all the vociferousness of tribal conflict, those who fought the war thought of themselves as Angolans, and want to define a future for Angola as a whole. That makes it all the sadder that all of these patriots tear the country apart, allow foreign interventions (especially UNITA’s devil’s bargain with apartheid South Africa), sow their country with landmines, etc.
Hosi considers what to make of a country in many respects defined by civil war as he takes in the perspectives of his comrades on the matter. He quickly grows alienated from UNITA, where worship of the leader (referred to only as The Elder- MPLA leader Agostinho Neto gets namechecked by Savimbi was still alive and vengeful when this was being written), support from the US and South Africa, and indulgence in customs like witch-burning compound the irrationality that comes with any war. Hosi is a familiar type from this sort of literature- clever, feckless, wanting what most young men want — adventure, glory, attention — but increasingly disengaged from what would allow him to get it, mainly unswerving support for the party line and willingness to suffer and make others suffer.
Nearly everyone Hosi talks to has a heroic vision of Angola. This typically involves a heroic version of themselves. But in the end, people have to deal with the reality, both of Angola and themselves, and the normal, unheroic nature of life. This is especially a problem for UNITA, which Jamba depicts as more or less an extension of Jonas Savimbi’s power fantasies, with a little bit of Ovimbundu particularism to back it up. The MPLA, whatever its weaknesses, can at least present a somewhat more realistic and appealing vision of a free Angola.
In the end, this leads Hosi away from his own heroic fantasies — where he is minister of culture or tourism in some future UNITA government — and towards something more prosaic: escape. In the end, what both Hosi and his opposite number (his half-brother Osvaldo, an MPLA fighter who takes over the viewpoint role for some chapters at the end) want is to get out of Angola. In 1990, with the war still going, that must have seemed like the only solution to someone like Jamba who wanted to write freely and live well. Jamba managed to do so- apparently he lives in Jacksonville today. Among the many tragedies of the Angolan Civil War and other legacies of colonialism and the Cold War were the many people, proud of their countries and cultures, turned into exiles (or worse) because of the struggles to define what their societies would be. *****