It was by chance that I found Ryszard Kapuśiński when looking through Amazon. With football’s African Cup of Nations (CAN) being in Angola, I was intrigued to find out more about the history of the country, especially in light of the Togolese football team being ambushed – my only previous interaction with anything Angolan was a Beyoncé wannabe, rapping in Portugese, on Nigerian TV being broadcast in Uganda.
I’ll spare you all of the details of the conflict itself, but understand that it was set against the backdrop of the cold war with three different rebel groups, the MPLA, the FNLA and UNITA, all vying to capture the capital, Luanda, by the time the Portugese officially withdrew on midnight of November 11th 1975.
Kapuśiński starts this short text from his hotel in Luanda and it is his focus on how everyday life is affected by the conflict that makes the text endearing. He describes how, in the absence of TV or radio, he uses the ships moored in the bay to tell him the likelihood of an FNLA attack as “when the bay emptied, [he] began preparing for the worst. [He] listened, trying to hear if the sound of artillery barrages were approaching”.
Again, instead of focussing on the war as a whole, he plays the role of a truer foreign correspondent, one with a heart, unlike the parodies seen in BBC’s Taking the Flak. In addition, the conflict and the fighting at the front, and the characters it involves, absorb him – one such example being Carlotta “who came with an automatic on her shoulder”. Carlotta, he goes on to say, “seemed beautiful. Why? Because that was the kind of mood we were in, because we needed it”.
The narrative was not what I expected. I was assuming that it would just be a collection of his reports from the front that he had sent back to
the offices of the Polish Press Agency; this is not the case. The text actually reads more like a very personal diary – travel writing with grit – that concentrates its energy on the humans caught up in war, rather than those making the war.
Not only is the text a useful narrative to hear from within the grander narrative of the Angolan conflict, with its Cubans, South Africans, Americans, CIA, Soviets and Portuguese, it is an essential guide to people’s lives, normal people’s lives, caught up in a struggle for daily existence.
By the end of his harrowing, and hungry, excursion to Angola, Kapuśiński simply says goodbye, brushes off his “mildewed suit” and puts on a tie, bound for Europe. A truly great text.