Thursday 2 July 2009

I like a man who is honest and clean. A man who can stare his enemy in the face and then put an ounce of lead in it...

Antonio is three month’s old. Just a guess given he was found dumped in a drain. Sister Elsa from Peru had to put something on his record card. After all, no-one in Angola is allowed to un-exist. Even his name is an invention, one of hundreds the good sister doles out every year to ensure her records are acceptable to the authorities and at least a little dignity accorded her charges. Without a name, despite the plaintive wails that are an infant’s primeval plea for love and sustenance, they do not exist and are not, therefore, entitled to a place on the ration roll. A handwritten entry in a cheap exercise book could mean the difference between life, or as in the case of little Antonio, likely death. 

Outside, I can hear the traffic on the new dual carriageway, fruit of high oil revenue and blessed peace, linking the affluent southern suburbs to the commercial centre of the city and the beachside bars and restaurants of the Ilha beyond. The coiffured elite of Angolan society hurrying through the squalor of Cazenga in air-conditioned and multi-cylinder powered isolation. 

I have a four-month old son, Alexander. He was born in the Sagrada Esperanca, the best clinic in town and separated by a palm fringed boulevard from Miami Beach, a restaurant with its own exclusive section of the beach where girls in miniscule bikinis are kept safe by a private security force paid to keep the original residents away and prevent the awful whiff of poverty spoiling the appetites of the Beau Monde. Where sundowners and a snack two nights ago worked out at over a hundred dollars per person. 

The hospital bill for the birth of Alexander and one night’s uncomplicated internment was $6,700. 

Antonio, officially three month’s old, is smaller than Alexander was at birth. At four month’s old, Alexander is massive in comparison and is already making his first, clumsy and occasionally heart stopping attempts to crawl. But then he has two doting parents, various cousins, aunts and uncles and a nine-year old brother to provide the sustenance and attention his enquiring and developing mind and body crave. 

Antonio, on the other hand, lies on his back, not even the energy to hold out a hand desperate for human contact. His eyes are impossibly large and devoid of any emotion other than, 'please'. Underneath a rib cage etched with a sculptor’s exageration and through translucent skin, I can see his heart beating. It seems strong, healthy even, but Sister Elsa tells me they are all that way before they die, the body concentrating all its depleted resources on a last ditch effort to survive. The infant should be in hospital, on a drip with trained and equipped nurses and a consultant paediatrician in attendance, but I have been here too long to question why Antonio is dying in his little cot in an under-funded orphanage cruelly situated right next to the state owned oil company’s well supported crèche. 

 No-one can blame the children of the affluent for enjoying the life all children have the right to, nor parents for providing the best for them, but it was heartbreaking to realise that while the kids next door were chauffeured to and from a beautifully restored complex and fed a square meal every day, hundreds of others on the other side of a high security fence were trying to survive on watered down, irregular supplies of out-of-date powdered milk. The luck of the draw? God’s will? 

The only gift from God Antonio will have is an exhausted Nun to pray by his side as he slips back into the arms of his creator. 

Sister Elsa has been looking after all the waifs and strays a city the size of Luanda can throw at her, the lucky ones, for over five years. I asked her if she had ever taken a holiday. She gave me the fleetest of glances, a flash of irritation, then returned to the litany of needs we had been discussing; more cots, the place needs painting, none of the kids have shoes, plastic flip flops will do; the slices of sponge they call mattresses, soiled by youngsters incontinent with trauma, all need replacing. Yes, she conceded, I had arranged loads of mattresses and shoes but that was over a year ago. Sister Elsa was gentle about it, but left me in no doubt that such things do not last forever. She doesn’t need give and forget, she needs constant support. And truckloads of it. 

That slight moment of eye contact had exposed me as crass, stupid, inconsiderate. With only twenty-three cots and over fifty infants to fill them at any one time and a couple of them dying every week, just in the creche, and another three hundred or so older orphans all desperately calling Pai! (Father) and clinging to the trousers of any visitor, begging for a hug, who could ever think of taking a holiday? 

But where do all these children come from? Sister Elsa was clinical. ‘Some are dumped, like Antonio. Some are traumatised by the war and their families cannot cope. Some are defective.’ 

Defective? I can imagine that little Carlita could be a handful. Incapable of accepting any form of human contact, she sits by herself oblivious of the saliva dribbling from her mouth and down her T-shirt, staring vacantly into some terrible vista only she can see. Tiny Paulo, he can’t be more than four, crouches with his little bottom in the air and his face buried in the dust, futile protection from demons that torment him still but worse was to come: ‘And then there are the castaways.’ 

So matter of fact I almost missed it but Sister Elsa fixed me once again with her tired, but soul searing gaze. I had to ask. 

Apparently, if a family endures a period of bad luck, or if the good luck they think is their due does not appear, they get in a Quimbandeiro, a sort of Witchsmeller Pursuivant, a person whose power is evidently absolute, the antics of whom as portrayed in Black Adder were hilarious, but here are deadly serious. He may point out a decorative object, a cheap market bought trinket and suggest its removal would take with it the bad spirit. Just as casually, he may point an accusing finger at a bewildered child and condemn it as Satan’s spawn. 

Fully one fifth of these tiny residents have been ejected from their homes as ‘evil’ but have been lucky enough to find sanctuary in Sister Elsa’s care. God only knows what happens to those that don’t. So here we have it. The world’s most vibrant economy. A population raucous with riotous indignation at the first suggestion they may not quite be as civilised as the new builds and platinum cards suggest and yet, behind the Hollywood film set thin veneer, evil incarnate stalks in human form, dragging apparently sane individuals from reason back to the darkest side of primitive belief, an utter moral bankruptcy that justifies dropping the issue of their own loins down a drain. Or as in the case of poor little Adam from Benin, cutting the boy up and dumping him in the Thames. The perpetrators of that most evil deed, and there were many, seriously believed that sliding Adam’s mutilated remains into the slime of centuries with a gutful of powdered bone, clay and gold dust would bring them good luck. 

We hear about such affronts to humanity, read about them and are horrified. I have not only read about them, I have now seen the results. Not the ritualistic ‘Muti’ killings, thank God, but a lucky few who, probably through the divinely inspired intervention of some still sane relative or sympathetic witness, the woodsman in The Sleeping Beauty, were spirited away to relative safety, their saviours gambling their own traditional spirits for the soul of an infant. 

This is just one tiny orphanage, three or four hundred lost souls in a city of millions. I am told that children do disappear, two in my neighbourhood and almost every week we read about 'ritualistic' murders of children in the provonces. I’m not just horrified, I feel homicidal and, like these condemned children, bewildered and distraught. Why? What purpose is served? What possible belief could still be so deep rooted in a common psyche as to provoke such awful crimes, and how to excoriate it?

 I would advocate rising on mass, dragging these Quimbandeiro’s into the street and setting fire to them. 

While such a solution has considerable merit, it will never happen. Relief from this insidious scourge lies in the hands of the young and educated. Despite what our elders may tell us, it is not for us to blindly carry the torch of unforgiving tradition. Tradition is important, it is what differentiates one society from another, the pomp of the Changing of the Guard, the ceremonial splendour of bedecked warriors proclaiming their chief but why must we obediently and, evidently, blindly preserve laws and customs we know to be at least inappropriate and at worst criminal, contrary to all reason? Much as I respect my father, if he told me to despise a man because of the colour of his skin, I would beg to differ and would not be afraid to leave his house if that difference proved irreconcilable. If some respected elder suggested I abandon my son or worse, I would roast his eyeballs, but perhaps that is just me. 

We are so terrified of ‘not belonging’, of being expelled from our family or community, that we are willing to be party to any manner of collective crime, or at least ignore it. It takes real guts to provoke change and sadly, very few people have what it takes. Until a few more sons return home, brave the inevitable censure and denounce what they know to be archaic and cruel, stand up to their elders, all these terrible atrocities will continue and those who lacked the moral fibre, the wit to call attention to the sham, are just as complicit. 

We can best respect our elders by taking the very cream of their experience and traditions, blending it with our own sense of humanity and ditching what we know to be wrong. The world changes slowly but dinosaurs do die out, making way for young blood, those who will never forget their origins, will hold dear the best but show contempt for the rest. Stay the hands of the Quimbandeiros of the world and have the courage to look them in the eye and say, ‘No more, old man, go home and leave us in peace’, and let others see that our success did not depend on the death of a child. Fail to do this, and with every mutilation and every abandoned child’s futile wail, we bear yet another scar of collective guilt. 

"Don't worry, there's a hug and a present for everyone!"  

Post Script: I started writing this six months ago but have only just found the time to finish it. Sister Elsa told me Antonio passed away a week after my visit. I should have done more than just stroke his wee little head. Obviously, I have not properly recognised in this article those parents who, with genuine love for their children but bereft of the ability to care for them, and blighted by a state of utter desperation, consigned their children to the care of an institution. 

The article, as well as its tone, was spawned by the awful realisation that such a large proportion of children are cruelly abandoned, or subjected to unbelievable torment for the most incomprehensible of reasons. 

Gratifyingly, having slid the draft past Angolan colleagues of mine for their opinions, I have been informed that there are an increasing number of instances where these Quimbandeiros, overstepping the mark, have been dragged into the street and severely, even fatally, beaten. Given the excesses they have been able to get away with in the past, it is hard to define what recently drawn line in the sand they traversed but clearly, for the civilised amongst us, it was a step in the right direction. 

My father’s claim to fame, not his fault, he came from an era bound by archaic prejudice, was his ability to hit a running Arab at three hundred paces. It would be so nice if my son would recall me as the man who could hit a fleeing Quimbandeiro at a similar distance.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Road to Cazenga, a brief update...

Three weeks! Doesn't sound like much in the scheme of things and bugger all in comparison to the rest of the world (I am reading Professor Hawkins' 'A Brief History of Time') but to me it is an awe inspiring achievement the keen significance of which is only slightly dulled because I have found it so ridiculously easy.

Dear old Dr Abel, the man who since I met him had been warning me of my imminent departure if I failed to cut down on the booze and cigarettes has been visiting me frequently (even my office provided no sanctuary) and when he heard I was back from Kenya and Dubai, was here the next day (today) to check on me. Having enjoyed a hefty lunch and one of my last bottles of decent wine, he is now sleeping it off in one of the guest bedrooms. Heal thyself, physician...

He and Kieren, who were evidently worried that such a sudden end to a constant and significant intake of alcohol would leave me dribbling and screaming in a foetal ball in some corner of the closet, respectively advised me to take Diazapam or a collection of vitamin and other drugs resembling an exploded Smarties bag but I am sure neither are disappointed to learn that I require no supplements of any kind.

Exactly why this should be, I have no idea and shall not question my good fortune either. I am happy and the family, as well as those who still care about me appear ecstatic. This is all the support I need. I shall not let them down.

This is, I admit, a very brief post but what more should I say? Count yourself lucky, dear reader, had I been a real case, you would have had to endure page after page of self recrimination and the ravings of a paranoid schizo...

Now, if you will excuse me, I must spray a whole can of Sheltox into the bedroom to kill all the little green men with horrible teeth and long, deformed claws that are waiting for me under the bed.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Road to Cazenga

My Name is Thomas and I’m an alcoholic.

It’s hard for me to say at what point in my life I became one, the deceptively slippery slope from social drinking to alcohol abuse being so insiduously gradual. If the ‘beginning’ was one or two drinks every other evening, maybe a blast on the town once a month, and ‘now’ is the first large scotch at ten in the morning and a dead bottle by midnight, when exactly did I cross the line?

I tried to remember the last time I had not drunk whisky in any 24 hour period. I couldn’t. Not with any accuracy. I had to go back decades to a period when I knew that drink was the last thing on my mind, a period when I always seemed to have something to do aside from work; fishing, ski-ing, cycling, driving down to the Black Forest with some mates just to buy an ice-cream. It must have been a long time ago because my first wife called me a ‘functional alcoholic’, and she left me sixteen years ago.

My second marriage lasted about six years by which time I was nothing other than a very hardened and to be honest, embittered drinker.

Still, the work kept coming in and I got paid, promoted and get my bonus every year. I met Marcia and we have been together ever since. In addition to the adorable Dominic from my second marriage, I now have Alexander, a truly delightful little boy. I have a nice house, a good job and lots of business prospects. With a loving family and no real worries, what demon had possessed me and was now driving me inexorably down the path to self destruction?

I have reached the stage where I can polish off an entire bottle of whisky in a day. I always have at least three bottles on hand scattered in places I might end up and minimum consumption averages two-thirds of a bottle a day. I buy whisky like other people buy beer, by the case. For every-one’s safety, I gave up driving ages ago and for years have employed a driver. Add that to the cost of two cases of scotch a month and it becomes an expensive habit, certainly a lot more than Dominic’s school fees.

And how did all this affect my family? I don’t know, you’d have to ask them because that’s the thing about serious alcoholics, they wander about in that self delusional fuzzy mental state, confident that everything is OK. In the meantime life, both theirs and those of their growing families and ever wearier friends, slips them by. Normal people, looking in from the outside, would say, ‘God, what a selfish bastard’.

I am not saying I have only just recognised my problem. I have been very worried for years. I desperately wanted to give up alcohol, to kick that monster in the teeth, but no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t just lose the battle, I was routed. I couldn’t even manage a day. The worst thing was, having abstained for a body and soul torturing six or seven hours, my feeble will failed every time and I would collapse onto the bottle as a shipwrecked sailor would a flagon of water and over compensate, sucking a bottle dry not gradually over the course of a day, but in the remaining hours left to me before sliding into temporary oblivion. If I was lucky. If not, I would spend the night thrashing in the mire of self-revulsion, haunted by the demons come to mock me.

But, I would be up in the morning and ready for work so I couldn’t be that bad then, could I? I might have the slowly fading evidence of carpet pile pressed into my face and the itchy bumps where mosquitoes fed all night free of the risk of slapping hands but, all in all, I was always in pretty good shape and could do my job. A functional alcoholic. That rare breed of Real Man who works and drinks hard and can take it. I have had a tough life at times; an exciting, sometimes very dangerous life so it is hardly surprising I do some things to excess. Men like me are scarce. In times of war, they come looking for blokes like us.

Thus fooled, and fortified with a quick slug, I would start yet another day. My life cycle had reduced to about the same span as my memory was reliable. A day. People loved borrowing money from me.

We are all intelligent enough to understand the effects of sustained alcohol abuse on an individual, apart from making them generally very unpleasant to sit next to. But try pointing these out to an alcoholic. Unless you hit him at that awful maudlin stage (and if you were still around by then you are either a masochist or a Jehovah’s witness) he is more likely to chew your head off than listen to reason. I know I have a beautiful family and I know they would rather have me around than bury me and I know that one day my employer’s patience will run out and I will get the sack and we will all starve ‘cos I’ll never get another job, my wife will leave me, again, and my kids will grow to despise me so why don’t you just fuck off and let me drink my whisky in peace instead of reminding me, you postulating pustule?

Gits. What do they know? I bet I am doing better than they are. I bet they have a huge mortgage on their house. I don’t. Bet their car is on HP. And besides, my job is crap anyway, I’d do much better concentrating on my other business interests. I’ll be a millionaire by the time I am 40…45….50?

Then there are those, even more crass, who become unwitting allies to the ever increasing hopelessness of the afflicted who, having no apparent relief in sight, gradually accept their fate and give up. These are the self styled ministers of the hospice. They can be found beneath every turd. My miserable end is unavoidable. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. I will beat my children and murder my wife. And the postman, because as my son grows older, to my alcohol sodden brain, he will start to look like him. There follows a gruelling monologue, a detailed list of damned souls and the suffering that preceded their passing, their futile attempts at self salvation, of once sane men strapped to hospital beds being intravenously fed vitamins and Thiamin, their central nervous sytems suppressed to stop them going mad with fright at the little green men clawing at them, the inevitable tragic outcome. They point out that with the amount I consume and the period over which I have done so, I stand no chance and all the aforementioned evils, especially the withdrawal symptoms will, for me, be the severest imaginable.

‘Is that so? So, no point me even trying then. Aah! That hit the spot! Sorry, you were saying?’

OK, I understand that at my post-mortem, the mortician would marvel at how God managed to stuff a liver the size of a bouncy castle in my gut but that’s only fat. I’ll start exercising in the morning. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for the walk he keeps asking me for. I will even try to be good and not take my hip flask with me. Just a short walk then. A breath of fresh air might be all I need to give me the energy to cuddle up to Marcia tonight. God knows I haven’t done that for ages.

We have been very busy at work lately and I have not been home for a while. Instead of a romantic meal for two with Marcia, I was bouncing over Luanda’s roads on my way back from the new site to the Cazenga site. For some reason, I was really sad I wasn’t going to see marcia that day. Somehow, that day seemed important and it being Dia das Namoradas had nothing to do with it.

The boss was in the car with me reeling off a list of things categorised as ‘urgent’, ‘fucking urgent’ and, ‘we’re dead if it doesn’t happen, urgent’. I wasn’t listening. It had just dawned on me that I had not had a drink that day. We had started early and it was now sometime in the afternoon. The thing that really struck me was that this realisation had been sudden, not the gradually increasing ache and anxiety I normally felt when my blood/alcohol ratio fell dangerously close to the legal limit. The fact was, I had not noticed. I had gone hours without a drink and I hadn’t noticed. Gosh.

The boss had stopped talking and was gently snoring as we weaved our way between the rusty Toyota Hiaces and clapped out Corollas that make up ninety per-cent of Luanda’s traffic. I knew I had whisky in my room and with every yard we covered, I was getting closer to my first drink of the day. I looked at my watch, eight waking hours without a drink. And then it hit me. I pulled the sun visor down and took a good look at my reflection, maybe I had finally gone mad. Instead, I saw myself wearing a stupid, lopsided grin. I knew exactly what I had to do. What a Valentine’s present for the family. I sat back in the seat and willed the driver on.

As soon as the car stopped, we piled out. ‘Boss, I need to see you in my room, thirty seconds, that’s all I ask’. On the way I saw Manuel, and then Rodrigues. ‘Hey! You two! Come with us, it’s important’.

Bewildered, and not a little bemused they shuffled uncomfortably in the small bed space a twenty foot container allows. ’So what do we do now?’ the boss says, ‘start dancing?.

I reached under my desk and hauled the bottle of whisky out. ‘Ah, we’re celebrating!’

I cracked the top off, stepped over to the sink, and started pouring. The bottle had one of those plastic things in the neck, the kind of bottles bar owners stock to prevent over serving a client, and it seemed to take forever. The golden liquid splashed this way and that and gurgled down the pughole. The air was pungent with the aroma of scotch. Rodrigues, the man who every day for the last two years had faithfully gone to the bottle store to get me my ‘medicine’ murmured a breathless, ‘Wow!’

I dropped the empty into the waste basket. It hit with a loud thud, something final about the bang. I said, ‘That’s it’.

I had been unable to remember a single day without whisky. Tomorrow will be the start of my sixth day free of the bloody stuff and I feel fine. I am doing what they all say cannot be done, go from a bottle a day to zero in one hit. I was due to go on leave this weekend and was looking forward to spending some time with the family. Instead I must go to Kenya and then on to Dubai. Before I go though, I will nip home. It won’t take long but there is something very important I must do there as well. In front of the family.

The road I travelled didn’t go to Damascus, it went to Cazenga. But on the Road to Cazenga, the light doesn’t blind you, it shreds the veils of self delusion.

Friday 9 January 2009