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.